What he said (about Norway)

At this point, I think most journalists have reached the point that they know that Anders Behring Breivik (a) has self-identified as a "Christian," (b) yet he also made it clear that he is not a Christian believer, in terms of beliefs and practice and (c) that it is bizarre to call him a "fundamentalist," in any historic sense of the word. The early facts indicate that this was a political radical committing an act of political terrorism for political motives, motives that happen to include some idealized vision of resurrecting some kind of old, glorified, "Christian" European culture.

Yes, I know plenty of activist and advocate journalists are sticking with the "Christianist" template. Also, there are academics who are sharpening their swords and taking the usual swings at orthodox forms of religion ("When Christianity becomes lethal") Nevertheless, most mainstream journalists seem to be staying in the middle of things and, perhaps, waiting for facts about this terrorist and whatever ties he did or did not have to real people and institutions outside of history books and cyberspace.

At this stage, I would like to point readers toward the following Dan Gilgoff essay at the CNN.com religion blog: "Is 'Christian fundamentalist' label correct for Norway terror suspect?" It contains tons of interesting voices and thoughts. I'll complete this plug for it with the following slice:

"It is true that he sees himself as a crusader and some sort of Templar knight," said Marcus Buck, a political science professor at Norway's University of Tromso, referring to an online manifesto that Breivik appears to have authored and which draws inspiration from medieval Christian crusaders.

"But he doesn't seem to have any insight into Christian theology or any ideas of how the Christian faith should play any role in Norwegian or European society," Buck wrote in an email message. "His links to Christianity are much more based on being against Islam and what he perceives of as 'cultural Marxism.'"

From what the 1,500-page manifesto says, Breivik appears to have been motivated more by an extreme loathing of European multiculturalism that has accompanied rapid immigration from the developing world, and of the European Union's growing powers, than by Christianity.

"My impression is that Christianity is used more as a vehicle to unjustly assign some religious moral weight," to his political views, said Anders Romarheim, a fellow at the Norwegian Institute for Defence Studies. "It is a signifier of Western culture and values, which is what they pretend to defend."

Toward the end, a major American scholar enters the debate:

Experts on religion in Europe said those faith-infused views are likely peculiar to the suspected gunman and do not appear reflect wider religious movements, even as they echoes grievances of Europe's right-wing political groups.

"He was a flaky extremist who might as well have claimed to be fighting for the honor of Hogwarts as for the cause of Christ," said Philip Jenkins, a Pennsylvania State University professor who studies global religion and politics, describing the suspected Norway attacker. "He did not represent a religious movement. ... People should not follow that Christian fundamentalist red herring."

By all means, give this one a careful reading.

All of this is good, but I can hear copy-desk pros muttering in the background, saying, "Academics, smackademics! Get real. What are we supposed to CALL this guy in a headline?

Over at the Huffington Post, an evangelical thinker from the Greater European Mission has weighed in with another option on that front.

Frankly, I don't think his language works for journalists -- outside of quoted material in news features, when there is a bit of space in which to breathe. It takes too much interpretation. However, his content is crucial. Here is a slice of what Ben Stevens has to say in his piece, "Is Anders Breivik a European Fundamentalist?"

Let's start with a quote from page page 1,307 of Breivik's manifesto, and then the minister's take:

A majority of so called agnostics and atheists in Europe are cultural conservative Christians without even knowing it. So what is the difference between cultural Christians and religious Christians? If you have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ and God then you are a religious Christian. Myself and many more like me do not necessarily have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ and God. We do however believe in Christianity as a cultural, social, identity and moral platform. This makes us Christian.

Breivik asserts that a majority of the atheists in Europe are cultural conservative Christians. This comes as a surprise to us all, I suppose. The key to understanding his manifesto, his mania and the confusion currently dominating news headlines lies in the reality that by "Christian" he almost always means "European." In the massive introduction to his manifesto, for example, there is not a single quotation from Scripture, mention of the creeds, allusion to the Church or reference to Jesus Christ himself. And we learn, through the video he posted, that his heroes are not religious figures like Paul or Martin Luther but political figures like Charles Martel and Nicholas I.

Anders Breivik is a cultural fundamentalist. He is a European fundamentalist. But he disowns orthodox Christianity, and this makes it all the more ironic, and disgusting, that he saw himself as a kind of representative against threats to "Christendom."

These pieces will, I am sure, continue.

Truth is, I still do not know the language that I would put into a one- or two-column bold headline, in this case. I pity copy editors who have to make that call. I honestly do.

Once again, for those who have forgotten GetReligion's take on all of this, from the start of this story, we remain very interested in knowing the basic facts about how religion influenced this man's life, if there are any. Here is how I put that on day one:

In terms of the religion angle of this story, what are journalists looking for? I would say they are seeking the exact kinds of facts and leads that they would be seeking if this person was alleged to be a radical Muslim. We need to know what he has said, what he has read, what sanctuaries he has chosen and the religious leaders who have guided him.

Also, follow the money, since Breivik certainly seems to have some. To what religious causes has he made donations? Is he a contributing member of a specific congregation in a specific denomination? Were the contributions accepted or rejected?

Well, we now know more about what he has said -- the manifesto plugged that hole, for journalists. We know a bit about what he may or may not have been reading. We know nothing whatsoever about his own religious life and the practice of his faith, if he ever did so. There are no signs of institutional links or real, live clergy of any kind. Again I urge journalists to look for financial ties.

The ultimate question, in terms of religion: Was this man truly a loner, a man living out a brand of faith that he created on his own and, in the end, one in which he serves as the prophet who produces the private scriptures that guide his life and work? In other words, if he calls himself a "Christian," where is his church, his pew, his altar and his pastor-priest?

Journalists must keep looking for the facts.

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