Do Nativity scenes owe more to artists than historians?

I am blessed to be a member of an absolutely wonderful congregation. It’s a healthy mix of people who work together to keep the mission of our congregation going and thriving. Our regular focus on the Divine Service inspires all of our mission work, including a parish school and community programs.

I had to say that before pointing out this one tiny … issue. See, we have this 100-year-old Nativity scene we set up each year. The older folks in the congregation have let us know that this must always happen. Somehow over the years it got mixed with both another Nativity scene and with a Noah’s Ark scene. It’s ridiculous. In with the oxen and cattle and camels are pairs of zebras and rhinos and elephants. There is some theological beauty in combining these two scenes, but it’s kind of a train wreck.

I thought of that when I read this great story by Tim Townsend in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. For all the importance that Nativity scenes have in the lives of Christians in America and throughout the world, it’s interesting how little coverage we get of them in news stories. For many, it might be difficult to write an interesting or newsy story about them.

When the duke of Urbino in Italy needed a gift for the queen of Spain, he turned to his friend, the painter Federico Barocci.

Barocci, a devout Catholic, worked during the Counter-Reformation, and in 1597 he had painted his version of one of the most recognizable images in all Christendom.

And as Christians mark Jesus’ birth today, they will do so with imagery that owes less, perhaps, to historical accuracy than to artists such as Barocci and thousands of others who preceded him for 1,000 years.

The hook is that Barocci’s Nativity is on display at the St. Louis Art Museum. But Townsend uses this as item to write an interesting story exploring the theology and artistry of the scene:

Historians and theologians say it is that sense of family intimacy, coupled with the humbling circumstances of Christ’s birth as told in the Gospel of Luke, that has resonated with Christians for centuries.

Many Christians hang a crucifix or cross — a symbol of the resurrection — in their homes, “but the other pillar of Christianity is the incarnation,” said St. Louis Archbishop Robert Carlson. “When the savior of the world was born, he wasn’t born in a palace, he was not born as a king. He came as a defenseless child.”

And, of course, Luke made Christ’s vulnerability even more stark by placing Mary and Joseph in a stable. When the time came for Mary to deliver the child, she “gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn,” wrote the author of Luke’s Gospel.

There is a ton of history packed into the story as well as interpretations of same, making it a rare, meaty story in the midst of a lot of fluffy stories. You should read the whole thing.

The whole thing reminded me of the stir over Pope Benedict’s writing that the Gospels don’t mention any animals at the manger. Townsend mentions it toward the end of the piece, which concludes:

Eventually manger scenes became a feature in many Christian homes throughout the world. Carlson said that when he was growing up, he loved to play with the creche figures in his parents’ house.

“What got me into trouble was that I also had these little toy soldiers,” he said. Did he ever mingle the two? “Never,” he said, smiling.

Carlson has 14 creches decorating the archbishop’s residence on Lindell Boulevard at this time of year. He keeps two of them up year-round. One, a gift from a family in South Dakota made of wood and dating to the 19th century, sits on a mantle directly across from the desk in his home office. He looks at it every day.

“To me,” he said, “it’s just a simple reminder that God loved us so much that he sent his son to be with us.”

Our house currently has three manger scenes: a toy one for the children, a nice ceramic one my mother sent me this year and the one my Dad picked up when he was studying in Israel. It’s such an obvious point but it’s nice to see something so important to me and my family in the news. What’s more, it’s nice to learn more about the history of their development and their significance throughout the ages.

Nativity image via Shutterstock.

The Pope joins Twitter #HabemusPapam

YouTube Preview ImageEven though the Pope joining Twitter has been news for weeks, I was still surprised at what a big story it was yesterday. I’ve been on Twitter for years (joined the morning after an epic anti-Twitter rant at the local pub) and I don’t even have 4,000 followers. Even before the Pope had issued his first tweet, he had more than 1 million followers. He tweeted his first item yesterday. Or as Rocco Palmo put it, #HabemusPapam.

And yes, everyone got super excited. The cool thing was that there was some really great coverage of the piece. And I’m not talking about The Onion‘s hilarious “Pope To Identify With Catholic Youth By Giving Up On Catholicism” satire. We’ll get to the better stuff in a minute.

One religion reporter sent us something that she thought was not so hot. She was too kind. It read like it was written by a teenager who thinks he’s a lot funnier than than he is. Headlined, “Mockery outweighs piety after pope’s Twitter debut,” the AFP story begins:

VATICAN CITY — Pope Benedict XVI’s debut on Twitter got off to a bumpy start on Wednesday, with mockery outweighing piety in reaction to the first tweets from the leader of the world’s 1.1 billion Catholics.

The pope’s second tweet — “How can we celebrate the Year of Faith better in our daily lives?” — prompted a string of tongue-in-cheek- answers.

“With some nice cold chocolate milk. And the Lord?” wrote one user tweeting in Portuguese with the handle @tensoblog.

Another distinctly sin-minded user, @binnie, joked: “Hookers and blow.”

Hardy har har har har har. Anyway, the claim made by the news outlet is that mockery outweighed piety. The story doesn’t even come close to substantiating this claim. It doesn’t even try. It leaves out information that might have thrown the claim into question. For instance, there’s no mention that the Pope had, say, 50,000+ “retweets” or close to 20,000 “favorites.”

Is a story about the friendly jokes — and the unfriendly mockery — worthwhile? Perhaps. Perhaps that’s what you want to emphasize. But to claim that the Pope’s Twitter debut got off to a rocky start and that mockery outweighed other reactions is more media wishful thinking than reality. Let’s stick to reality in journalism, please. And if you do want to do a story about people who curse, mock, tweet risque pictures at the Pope, could you at the very least move it beyond the “OMG! Naughty words to B16!” level of discourse? What does this say about people who would do such a thing? How does it make Catholics feel? What do the Pope’s people think about this? Etc.

Leading up to the big day of the Pope’s first tweet, I rather enjoyed this whimsical take on “Spiritual wisdom in 140 characters or less,” first published in the Plain Dealer and sent out by Religion News Service. The Washington Post had an interesting take last week headlined “Ask the pope @pontifex: With Twitter account, Benedict XVI just a tweet away.” It’s about how the Twitter account makes him more reachable. Sarah Pulliam Bailey also had a look forward at Odyssey Networks.

The Washington Post had a different take yesterday, noting that the first tweet from Benedict came about because of Twitter outreach:

It may look as if Pope Benedict XVI’s first tweet on the auspicious date of 12/12/12 will be a divine act. But orchestrating the pontiff’s debut on Twitter has been a far more earthbound effort, involving an elaborate behind-the-scenes production…

The effort is part of Twitter’s powerful — not to mention low-cost — strategy to expand its influence and rack up more users by getting the world’s biggest names in sports, Hollywood, government and religion onto the Internet’s leading megaphone for self-promotion.

But man is that a bad opening line, right? Why would it look like a divine act? Why is 12/12/12 “auspicious”?

The Post‘s On Faith section also had a great reaction roundup from a variety of different observers. Sample:

Matt Archbold writes for the National Catholic Register and blogs at the Creative Minority Report.

The pope’s Twitter feed is going live. I’m excited. While this is an excellent opportunity for young Catholics to encounter the church’s teachings, I suspect that this open line of communication will be utilized by some to be able to curse directly at the pope. Do you know how many four-letter words you can fit in a 140 character limit? I don’t have a calculator handy but I’m pretty sure it’s a lot!

But Christians are quite familiar with lion’s dens. Have been for a while. And let’s face it, real lions don’t just curse in ALL CAPS and use clever hashtags.

But the pope getting on Twitter does raise some interesting issues. If you don’t retweet the pope, is that a sin of omission?

If the pope “follows you” doesn’t that really set the Church hierarchy upside down? Do I really want that kind of responsibility? I don’t even have a mitre.

And if you get blocked by the pope is that a 21st century form of excommunication? Are we really about to see the birth of the excommunitweet? Because that would actually be pretty awesome.

Among his other observations are that the Beatitudes are written in 140 characters or less.

Actually, rather than doing this entire roundup, I should have just directed you to Cathy Lynn Grossmann’s comprehensive look in USA Today at the Benedict’s first day on Twitter. She looks at whose questions got asked, the specifics of how questions to the pope got answered, the Vatican’s use of Twitter up to this point, selections from Archbold’s comments, and more.


AP knows what the Pope really thinks

I was at a meeting of a journalism fellowship program I’m part of this weekend. We heard from Sam Feist, CNN’s DC bureau chief.

So, earlier in his career, he’d written some copy for the on-air talent to read for that night’s show. The line was something like “Clinton believes that the tax bill will pass.” The guy who was supposed to read the line — he happened to be an old-school journalist with little time for silliness — excoriated him. He told Feist that a reporter can never know what a politician thinks, believes or feels. The reporter can only know what the politician says. Politicians might be telling you something for any number of reasons. It might be because they believe it. It might be because they want to send a particular message to the opposition or to the ground troops. It might be for any number of reasons. But a reporter can’t know what someone believes. He can only know what the source says. (The old-school journalist said this rule goes double for buildings, such as “The White House believes” or “The Vatican is hoping.”)

Good reporting might be able to put the quote in context, but it’s important that the reporter start by going with what the source says.

I thought of that when I read the first paragraph of this Associated Press story on big news in the Roman Catholic Church this weekend:

VATICAN CITY (AP) – Some 80,000 pilgrims in flowered lei, feathered headdresses and other traditional garb flooded St. Peter’s Square on Sunday as Pope Benedict XVI added seven more saints onto the roster of Catholic role models in a bid to reinvigorate the faith in parts of the world where it’s lagging.

This seems to be a variation of the “believes” edict from above. Unless the Catholic Church has stated that they canonized these seven saints just to “reinvigorate the faith in parts of the world where it’s lagging,” why would the reporter say that?

Later we’re told:

The canonization coincided with a Vatican meeting of the world’s bishops on trying to revive Christianity in places where it’s fallen by the wayside.

At first it was just lagging. Now we’re talking about those places in the world where Christianity has completely fallen by the wayside! Where are those places? Is it in those places where it’s illegal to be Christian or convert to Christianity? Apparently Christianity has “fallen by the wayside” in the places mentioned below (and I have to say, I think that’s hyperbole or a terribly problematic word choice in most of the locations listed):

Several of the new saints were missionaries, making clear the pope hopes their example — even though they lived hundreds of years ago — will be relevant today as the Catholic Church tries to hold on to its faithful. It’s a tough task as the Vatican faces competition from evangelical churches in Africa and Latin America, increasing secularization in the West and disenchantment due to the clerical sex abuse scandal in Europe and beyond.

I’m sorry, but as a Lutheran who almost named my daughter after an early martyr — even though she lived and died more than 1800 years ago — that first sentence is cracking me up.

I mean, I guess I understand the point being made, but it’s a line that is just so very foreign to how the church operates and how Christians learn from the saints who have gone before. But you’ll notice that “tries to hold on to its faithful” sentiment again. It’s just odd considering the entire lack of substantiation for it from anyone, much less anyone affiliated with the Roman Catholic Church. Or as one reader put it:

I don’t mind the quote marks around “miracle”, at least on the first use of the term, since I don’t expect the AP to believe the miracle anymore than I’d expect them to believe a miracle emanating from another faith. However, the constant editorializing — sans any quote or data, not even from Fr. Reese — about how the saints seem to be just to keep up a flagging faith gets tiresome.

Anyway, I’m less willing to give a pass on the “miracle” quotes just because it seems redundant here:

Among the few people chosen to receive Communion from the pope himself was Jake Finkbonner, a 12-year-old boy of Native American descent from the western U.S. state of Washington, whose recovery from an infection of flesh-eating bacteria was deemed “miraculous” by the Vatican.

I think that readers are smart enough to figure out that the line “was deemed miraculous by the Vatican” means that the event was, you know, “deemed miraculous by the Vatican.”

But no, sometimes we need quotes to let us know that this is just the view of the particular group, but since the word “deemed” is in the phrase, I think it’s unnecessary. But I’m one of those logical people who, if I dressed up for Halloween this year, would be dressing up as “scare quotes.”

Pope Benedict XVI picture via vipflash /