Glorious Pascha! The Baltimore Sun gets the key parts right

I keep saying this year after year, but it’s true. One of the greatest challenges for religion-beat specialists, season after season, is the long, steady march of feature stories that editors want you to produce linked to the major holy days in the various world religions.

Easter was always one of the biggest challenges for me, in part because it’s always on Sunday morning (or in the ancient churches, at the stroke of midnight and on into the early hours of morning).

That sounds really obvious, but think it through. That means this story has to appear above the fold on A1 in the biggest newspaper of the week, which means editors have to think very highly of this story. It will also need large and spectacular color photography, for the reasons just mentioned. From the point of view of most secular editors, Easter is also a much more explicitly RELIGIOUS season than, let’s say, Christmas. That’s a problem.

But back to the art issue.

Do you see the problem? How do you get large, spectacular Easter art when that art must be produced BEFORE the holy day itself? And what are most churches — liturgical churches, at least — doing in the days before Easter, when you need to shoot these photos? They are observing the rites of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday — beautiful, but solemn observances that, literally, offer visual images that are the exact opposite of what editors are going to want for that happy, happy Sunday A1 art.

In other words, it’s easier to report about Easter before Easter than it is to photograph Easter before Easter. You almost always end up with something that looks very fake and staged.

All of this is to say that I was rather surprised when I awakened from my post-Pascha (the Eastern Orthodox term for Easter) coma this morning (the service began at 11:30 p.m. and ended at 3 a.m., followed by a giant feast) and discovered that The Baltimore Sun had a produced a quite solid Pascha-Easter story for A1, a package that was way better than the norm.

The focus of the story was on the role of eggs in various Easter rites, but with the major emphasis on the beautiful “red eggs” tradition in Eastern Orthodoxy. The A1 art was a lovely picture of some children lighting beeswax candles at an icon stand on Holy Saturday, with lots of egg art inside the paper. This art was shot earlier in the week when the eggs were being dyed.

The story started with a general overview, before hitting the major themes:

Children pet bunnies and gobble jelly beans. Wal-Mart sells more than 500 types of Easter confection, including unicorn- and space alien-themed baskets. Just a few of them allude to Christianity.

How does eating a package of Peeps recall the man Christians believe redeemed the world by rising from the dead nearly 2,000 years ago? Balancing Easter’s secular and religious sides can be a challenge for area churches.

So you have your Catholic Easter egg hunts, symbolism-free Baptist services and mainline churches with hints of the ancient rites. Then:

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Reporters: beware of Greeks bearing gay gifts

The essence of life, its meanings, symbols and motives, can be found in television; reporting on the condition of man is reducible to vignettes from Seinfeld and Yes Minister.

This profundity came to me late last night as I perused The Guardian‘s report on the political and civil debate over same-sex unions in Greece. As my colleagues at Get Religion have shown, balance is not a requirement for many mainstream media outlets when reporting on gay marriage. The article “Bishop threatens to excommunicate Greek MPs who vote for gay unions” is unbalanced with only one side of the debate presented.

That is a commonplace of European-style advocacy reporting and The Guardian is not shy in proclaiming its leftist credentials. However in this instance the reporter’s desire to preach overcame her news gathering skills. Presented with a golden opportunity of promoting the rightness of the cause of gay marriage in the face of intolerance, The Guardian neglected to do its home work. It did not ask basic questions that would have provided essential context.

But first, let us turn to the canon of journalistic scripture. Reading from episode 19, series 3 number 5, of Yes Minister, “The Bed of Nails” recounts Jim Hacker’s acceptance of the gift of “Transport Supremo” from the prime minister. Hacker is delighted to be offered the job of developing an “Integrated Transport”‘ policy for Britain. The episode recounts his discovery the Supremo post is fraught with peril and might end his career. Sir Humphrey and Bernard urge the minister to think through the implications of what he has been offered as danger lies ahead.

Hacker: Furthermore, Sir Mark thinks there may be votes in it, and if so, I don’t intend to look a gift horse in the mouth.

Sir Humphrey: I put it to you, Minister that you are looking a Trojan Horse in the mouth.

Hacker: You mean, if I look closely at this gift horse, I would find it’s full of Trojans?

Bernard: If you had looked the Trojan Horse in the mouth, Minister, you would have found Greeks inside.

Odd look from Hacker… Bernard: Well, the point is it was the Greeks who gave the Trojan Horse to the Trojans, so technically, it wasn’t a Trojan Horse at all, it was a Greek Horse. Hence the tag timeo Danaos et dona ferentes which you will recall, is usually and somewhat inaccurately translated as Beware of Greeks bearing gifts. Or doubtless, you would have recalled, had you not attended the LSE.

Hacker: Yes well I’m sure Greek tags are all right in their way, but can we stick to the point, please?

Bernard: Sorry. Sorry, Greek tags?

Hacker: Beware of Greeks bearing gifts. I suppose the EEC equivalent would be Beware of Greeks bearing an olive oil surplus!

Sir Humphrey: Excellent, Minister!

Bernard: Ah. Oh. Well, the point is minister, that just as the Trojan Horse was in fact Greek, what you describe as a Greek tag is in fact Latin. It’s obvious, really: the Greeks would never suggest bewaring of themselves, if one could use such a participle, ‘bewaring’, that is. And it’s clearly Latin, not because timeo ends in -o, because the Greek first person also ends in -o. Though actually, there is a Greek word ?????, meaning ‘I honour’. But the -os ending is a nominative singular termination of the second declension in Greek, and an accusative plural in Latin, of course. Though actually ‘Danaos’ is not only the Greek for Greek, its also the Latin for Greek, it’s very interesting really.

The moral of the story is that sometimes something that is too good to be true, is too good to be true. This can be seen in The Guardian story about Metropolitan Seraphim of Piraeus.

The Guardian reports:

A leading Greek bishop has warned lawmakers that they risk incurring the wrath of God – and will be excommunicated – if they vote in favour of legalising same-sex partnerships. In a letter lambasting homosexuality as “an insult to God and man”, the Metropolitan of Piraeus, Seraphim, pleaded with the country’s deputy prime minister, Evangelos Venizelos, not to condone gay unions.

The article discusses the content of a public letter released by Seraphim, whom The Guardian describes as a “57-year-old former monk, a prominent personality in Greece’s powerful Orthodox church” and offers a response from liberal critics. True to form, the article is one-sided. We hear from a spokesman for the Socialist Party, who likens the bishop to the Taliban, and from a gay activist. The Church of Greece is offered a chance to say they are against same-sex unions, but no argument is proffered against gay unions — save for Metropolitan Seraphim’s jeremiad.

The article then closes out with references to European court rulings endorsing gay unions and a slam at the country’s backward stance on gay issues. All rather predictable from The Guardian and pretty much as one would expect. But there is more to this story that The Guardian did not report, or did not know.

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A quick, shallow visit to Mount Athos

Few subjects inspire the whole “National Geographic visits the strange natives” school of Godbeat journalism quicker than monasticism.

This is especially true when journalists attempt to write about a place as genuinely strange, in a good sense of the word, and other worldly as Mount Athos, the stunningly beautiful peninsula in northeastern Greece that the Orthodox call “the holy mountain.”

The key to writing about Mount Athos is to get all of the facts right, especially when dealing with issues of worship and history, and then to let the monks and pilgrims speak for themselves. If you report the colorful details with precision, one does not have to try to make the holy mountain sound other worldly and different. It’s going to sound holy and different, with all of the facts presented in a dry and dispassionate manner. Period.

Get the basics right and a story about Mount Athos will pretty much write itself. As you would imagine, I would love to take a shot at that task myself, someday.

This leads me to a recent Reuters piece that is, in many ways, a perfect example of how NOT to write about the holy mountain. In this case, the journalistic goal is to somehow lead the story with the Greek financial crisis and its impact on the number of pilgrims heading to Mount Athos in order to escape, well, reality. Thus, the story opens in this manner:

Mount Athos, a self-governed peninsula in northeastern Greece, has been attracting pilgrims to its Orthodox monasteries for centuries. But the debt crisis has led to a sharp rise in the number of guests seeking calm and solace there. Women still aren’t welcome, though.

Mornings on the sacred mountain begin with loud blows. A monk stands in front of the monastery church of Agiou Andrea and hammers a block of wood. The medieval percussion instrument, called a simantron, is the wakeup call for the first religious service of the day. Several black-clad, bearded men scurry across the courtyard. It is 4 a.m. and pitch-black, and the air is filled with the sound of cicadas.

In a few minutes, the oil lamps will be lit in Agiou Andrea, one of 12 “sketes,” or monastic communities, on Mount Athos. There’s not a single empty space in the choir benches. Sitting behind the singing, rhythmically chanting monks are pilgrims from Greece, Russia and Romania. They have slept a few hours on spartan beds, gone without electricity and warm water, and spent the night swatting at mosquitoes.

The fact that male monastics have, for centuries, banned women from the peninsula is a fact that — whether this commandment is printed in a newsroom’s stylebook or not — must be mentioned in the first paragraph or two. That’s OK. The Orthodox are used to that.

However, it’s clear that the lead reporter on this feature got a bit mixed up when studying the map of the holy mountain. There are plenty of “sketes” on the peninsula (definition here), but the key is that its monastic traditions center on 20, not 12, full-fledged monasteries that represent the whole Eastern Orthodox world, not just Greek Orthodoxy. That’s a pretty basic fact to get wrong and, frankly, Orthodox readers are going to rather skeptical about the article from that point on.

It does feature some nice, candid quotes from “guests.”

“I am here to wash myself clean of my sins,” says Ilie, a young Romanian who lives in Germany. “Here, we are closer to heaven than anywhere else.” Nikos, a Greek businessman, has come to the monastery to find himself. “To simply turn off, meditate and forget the material world,” he says.

Raise your hands if you would be interested in knowing more about why young men from various corners of post-Soviet nations and the largely post-Christian lands of Europe keep on coming to Mount Athos (and why some of them choose to stay there)? That strikes me as an interesting subject and one I have not seen in news print, in recent years.

Meanwhile, this report returns once again to the familiar issue of monks clashing with the European Union over, yes, women.

Legend has it that the Virgin Mary landed here on her way to Cyprus and was overcome by its beauty. God then gave her the mountain on it as a gift. And since the “Garden of the Virgin Mary,” as the place is known, is devoted to only the “purest of all women,” other women are not allowed in. At least that is the reason given by the monks who have ruled Athos as an autonomous monastic republic since the 10th century. Not even female animals are allowed on Athos, except cats.

Whenever European Union officials argue that the ban should be lifted, the monks point to a Byzantine document over 1,000 years old that promises them eternal sovereignty over Mount Athos. The men there take no orders from the outside world — especially not from the EU. The monks live in another era. …

It is this defiant renunciation of the outside world that fascinates many pilgrims. But recently it hasn’t just been the pious who are coming. Many Greeks have discovered Athos as a place where they can forget about the crisis.

And so forth and so on. Business as usual.

So what is this article actually about? I cannot tell, to be honest. It has fragments of travelogue color, mixed with politics, mixed with just a dash of snark. And what is life on the holy mountain all about? Why do the monks pray and pray and pray? That is old news, I guess.

Read the article, if you must. Tell me if you can figure out why it was written.


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