Skinny-dipping in the most holy and venerated Sea of Galilee

Skinny-dipping in the most holy and venerated Sea of Galilee August 21, 2012

I believe it was President Obama who once said something about the press corps in Washington getting all “wee-weed up” in August. There have been a few news stories in recent weeks that have drawn more attention than they should have (and a few that have certainly received less). But the story we’re going to look at here might take the cake for summer silliness.

Apparently it’s huge news that a Republican congressman skinny-dipped. Now, I can’t say I come from a culture of skinny-dipping exactly, but I’m pretty sure I know no one who really cares about whether people occasionally take a dip in the altogether. And yet, this story led (!!) various newscasts yesterday morning.

To justify the story, the media took to seriously playing up the location of the skinny-dipping. See, Rep. Kevin Yoder, R-Kansas, took his swim sans clothing in … the most holy of holies — the Sea of Galilee. You can see above that ABC News considers this a “holy sight.” I am pretty sure that’s something similar to a holy site. But either way, is that the takeaway of this news?

Is the Sea of Galilee viewed as exalted or worthy of complete devotion? Is it considered divine or devoted entirely to God or His work? Is it venerated? I certainly took a dip in it when I visited it a couple of years ago. Still, it’s not like I’ve heard of Christians protesting the use of the sea for fishing or other commercial activity. Or swimming. There are many holy sites surrounding the sea, of course, but that can be said about much of Israel.

And yet the media messaging was clear. Here’s the Kansas City Star:

Christians consider the Sea of Galilee a holy site; it is where the Bible says Jesus walked on water.

Well, yes. And the Bible records quite a bit of special activity on the Sea of Galilee. The Washington Post tweeted out a story to its one million followers that included the line:

Not very respectful of the site where the Bible reports Jesus walking on water.

The Associated Press sent the story out with the headline “Nude Dip in Holy Sea Puts Kansas Rep. in Spotlight.”

Now, I fully expect the Daily Mail to run captions for photos of the Sea of Galilee like this: “Sacred: The Sea of Galilee is where the Bible says Jesus Christ walked on water. It remains holy to Christians” right next to pictures of naked or half-naked celebrities. That’s what they do. But I sort of expect other media outlets to be a bit less silly. My other favorite British entry into this hall of shame was The Independent, which claimed:

A US congressman has had to apologise to his Christian constituents after being caught swimming naked in the holy Sea of Galilee while on a fact-finding mission to Israel.

To his Christian constituents? I’m sure American journalists sound just as silly when trying to weigh in on British electoral politics.

A few other notes. The story originated with Politico, which — whatever else you might say about it — emphasized the holy sites around Galilee as well as the general Holy Land tourism. The New York Times definitely wins the award for the most melodramatic retelling of this swim in Galilee. BBC seemed to have the most straightforward story on the matter. And CNN, the New York Times and this local broadcast report did the best job of reporting out religion angles more than just using “holy” buzzwords. It is interesting to see which news outlets reported the public information that one congressman and his wife brought back Galilee water to baptize the baby they were expecting at the time of the trip.

But my favorite religion angle came in a media criticism piece by Conor Friedersdorf over at The Atlantic:

When President John Quincy Adams lived in the White House, between 1825 and 1829, the erstwhile diplomat and U.S. Senator frequently went skinny-dipping in the Potomac River, causing no fuss. President Teddy Roosevelt, an avid outdoorsman, swam naked in the Potomac too. Billy Graham was one of many to go skinny-dipping with President Lyndon Johnson in the White House pool. Yet today in a story emailed out to media professionals as a “POLITICO EXCLUSIVE,” Jake Sherman and John Bresnahan write about mere congressional skinny-dipping like it’s a serious scandal, though no one even tweeted iPhone photos.

Billy Graham went skinny-dipping with LBJ? I never knew. As late as 2007, the media described this not as a scandal so much as “an encounter that included both prayer and skinnydipping in the White House pool.” But that was written in May, not August.

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