Richard Ostling

Hot-button question: Is the history contained in the New Testament reliable?

Hot-button question: Is the history contained in the New Testament reliable?

NORMAN’S QUESTION:

How can we get people informed about the results of academic biblical scholarship, work that completely undermines the ordinary popular conception of Christianity and faith? Why are Christians not interested in the truth?

THE RELIGION GUY’S ANSWER:

“What is truth?”, Pilate asked Jesus. Or did he? America’s “Jesus Seminar” claimed the Roman tyrant never spoke those famous words and, for that matter, much else in the New Testament never happened either. Norman worries that people aren’t “informed.” Sunday School and CCD may not teach  doubts, but people who don’t know about media promotion of biblical disputes must be living under a rock.

Various degrees of skepticism usually characterize the “higher criticism” conveyed at U.S. colleges. The Jesus Seminar represented the radical wing. Even liberals scoffed at the theatrics when Seminar panelists voted on the authenticity of each verse. The verdict: “82 percent of the words ascribed to Jesus in the Gospels were not actually spoken by him” while there was a “16 percent historical accuracy rate” for the 176 recorded events in Jesus’ life.

At least Jesus was indeed crucified, the Seminar said. However, two panelists doubted he even existed. They had to discount not only the Gospels but Paul’s letters 20 years after the crucifixion, Roman and Jewish writers (Pliny, Suetonius, Tacitus, Josephus), and other documents.

Skepticism is nothing new and originated in Europe’s “Enlightenment” era, especially in Germany.

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Coming soon to the pews near you: Transgender wars and copy-desk perplexities

Coming soon to the pews near you: Transgender wars and copy-desk perplexities

On the sexuality beat, much news involves the aftermath of the Supreme Court’s 2015 gay marriage mandate. In particular, should government should protect, or penalize, artists and merchants who want to avoid cooperating with same-sex wedding rites due to religious conscience?

Journalists need to understand that this is a mere skirmish compared with far more potent church-state fights that inevitably lie ahead.

Meanwhile, transgender conflicts are fast gaining media momentum. At issue: Should public lavatories and shower rooms be open to transgender individuals whose “gender identity” is the opposite of their birth genetics and anatomy? In other words, biological men using women’s rooms and vice versa. 

The national headlines cover federal and state actions, but the same problem will soon be coming to a public school near you -- if it hasn’t already.

What does this have to do with religion-news work? Well, religious groups and individuals are usually at the forefront of those favoring traditional toilet and shower access.

Frank Bruni, whose New York Times columns neatly define the Left’s cultural expectations, sees the wedding merchant and lavatory debates as one and the same. In both cases, he asserts, a ”divisive, “cynical” and “opportunistic” “freakout” by conservatives has “egregiously” violated LGBT equality. Thus the “T” for transgender and “B” for bisexual are fully fused with the victorious lesbian and gay causes.

Christian organizations judged to be “anti-LGBT” are on the list of “hate groups” from liberals’ influential Southern Poverty Law Center.

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Honoring Harriet Tubman, a Methodist, Republican, evangelical woman for the ages

Honoring Harriet Tubman, a Methodist, Republican, evangelical woman for the ages

After considerable backing and forthing, the Obama administration  announced April 20 that it will put Harriet Tubman on the front of the $20 bill. She’ll be the first African-American honored on U.S. currency, and one of very, very few women to be given this honor -- even briefly. Martha Washington and Pocahontas briefly held this distinction, and Susan B. Anthony dollar coins remain in circulation, but are no longer minted.

Tubman, the famed savior of slaves via the “underground railroad” and a Republican, supplants Democratic President Andrew Jackson, who’ll be relegated to the bill’s back along with the continuing White House image. The quip of the week prize goes to conservative economist and columnist John Lott, who tweeted: “On $20 bill, Ds replace Andrew Jackson, a founding father of D Party, w Harriet Tubman, a black, gun-toting, evangelical Xn, R woman.”

Also fast on the draw was Religion News Service, issuing “5 faith facts” about this devout Methodist in a format the wire has used to good effect with various 2016 candidates. The facts:

Tubman was nicknamed “Moses” after the biblical rescuer because she led  hundreds of slaves to freedom and attributed such bravery to faith in God. She experienced many vivid dreams and visions that she believed came from God.

Her favorite song in a personal hymnal she collected was “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.” She believed that God directed her to go on the hunger strike that raised $20 to free her own parents from slavery. Her death-bed words in 1913 quoted Jesus Christ, “I go to prepare a place for you.”

It will be interesting to see how much the mainstream news-media coverage notes the powerful religious faith that drove this activist to glory.

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About Time's infamous 'Is God Dead?' cover -- a paradigmatic 50th anniversary

About Time's infamous 'Is God Dead?' cover -- a paradigmatic 50th anniversary

In olden times the major U.S. news magazines often ran major religion takeouts at Easter time. Fifty years ago Time greeted the holy weekend with the stark “Is God Dead?” cover story (hit the pay wall here), rousing its top newsstand sales since World War Two and a record pile of letters to the editor.

The lede:  “Is God dead? It is a question that tantalizes both believers, who perhaps secretly fear that he is, and atheists, who possibly suspect that the answer is no.” The article pursued that duality, not only doubt but problematic aspects of fashionable skepticism.

Author John T. Elson (1931-2009) was no faith-basher but an intellectually inquisitive Catholic who worshiped regularly at Manhattan’s St. Ignatius Church. This uber-talented religion writer was largely unheralded in that era when Time barred bylines. Later, he was a senior editor or A.M.E. who often supervised the Guy during 19 years as the news magazine’s religion writer.

The God article raised a classic journalistic issue as  pertinent as the latest Trump outburst: Does media sensationalism distort reality and harm the culture? After all, only a handful of “mainline” Protestant theologians were the “Christian atheists” of 1966. But Elson captured a cultural moment other media were pondering. Weeks beforehand, John Lennon had remarked that “Christianity will go” and “we’re more popular than Jesus now.” Another Elson cover story later that year profiled the Episcopal Church’s doubt-drenched Bishop James Pike.  

God didn’t die.

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Hailing the valor of number 42 -- with something crucial missing from the story

 Hailing the valor of number 42 -- with something crucial missing from the story

Star documentary producer Ken Burns’s latest PBS show this week was a two-parter hailing Jackie Robinson (1919-1972), one of history’s great African American heroes -- period.

Years before the civil rights movement, Robinson famously broke the color line not only in baseball but all major league athletics, since professional football, basketball and hockey remained all-white years after his Brooklyn Dodgers debut on April 15, 1947. All MLB teams annually honor him by wearing his number 42 on that date.

Before addressing the main theme here, a Dodgers fan of that era would like to list some facts: Named the first Rookie of the Year in 1947. In 1949 the National League’s Most Valuable Player ranking #1 in both batting average (.342) and stolen bases (37), and  #2 in hits (203) and runs batted in (124). All-Star in six of his 10 seasons. In the top 1 percent of career batting averages at .311. The league’s leading second basemen in turning double plays four years running and in three of those years also the leader in fielding accuracy. 

In other words this was one fabulous athlete, not to mention he was the first man to letter in four varsity sports at U.C.L.A. (adding basketball, football and track to baseball). He had to be superior to survive vicious racism and threats hurled at him in the early phase with the Dodgers, as Burns’ telecast and the fine 2013 movie “42” depict.

Both the TV and film treatments portray the deep Christianity of Branch Rickey, the Dodgers president who took the big chance of hiring Robinson from double motives of racial justice and baseball prosperity. In the movie Harrison Ford, impersonating Rickey, quips to an advisor worried about backlash over a black ballplayer: “I’m a Methodist. Jackie’s a Methodist. God’s a Methodist. We can’t go wrong.”

The movie said little about Robinson’s own religion and Burns provided nothing.

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More than an academic question: Was one of the New Testament apostles a woman?

More than an academic question: Was one of the New Testament apostles a woman?

CLAUDE’S QUESTION:

How did you come to the conclusion that Junia / Junias in Romans 16:7 is an apostle?

THE RELIGION GUY’S ANSWER:

Paul’s weighty New Testament letter to the Romans concludes with chapter 16’s greetings to various friends. Verse 7 applies the exalted label of “apostle” to Andronicus alongside someone named either “Junias” or “Junia.” Was that name, and thus the apostle, male or female?  What did the “apostle” title mean? And what does this tell us about gender roles in Christianity’s founding years?

Paul commends 8 or 9 women in the chapter, which was notably high regard in ancient patriarchal culture. He even listed the wife Prisca before husband Aquila in verse 3. Then verse 7 states this (in the wording of the Revised Standard Version translation):

“Greet Andronicus and Junias, my kinsmen and my fellow prisoners;they are men of note among the apostles, and they were in Christ before me.” (Most agree “kin” means the two prisoners were fellow Jews, not Paul’s blood relatives.)

Translation teams have reworked the RSV into the “ecumenical” New Revised Standard Version and the “evangelical” English Standard Version, and both changed the masculine name “Junias” to the feminine “Junia” while dropping “men.” The evangelicals’ popular New International Version and U.S. Catholicism’s official New American Bible (which never said “men”) originally used “Junias” but likewise switched to “Junia” in later editions.

What’s going on here?

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For reporters’ datebook: A busy nine weeks on LGBT issues for U.S. Protestants

For reporters’ datebook: A busy nine weeks on LGBT issues for U.S. Protestants

With Easter celebrations behind them, four U.S. Protestant denominations are about to plunge into a 9-week swirl of big decision-making on their unceasing and anguishing gay dispute. The actions will come less than a year after the U.S. Supreme Court ordered the nationwide legalization of same-sex marriage.

In the Reformed Church in America, 21 days of continent-wide fasting and prayers for wisdom will culminate in an April 15-18 “Special Council on Human Sexuality” in Chicago. The 74 delegates are assigned to devise “a constitutional pathway forward” that can manage the deep division over sexuality, for proposal to the General Synod June 9-14 in Palos Heights, Illinois. Though relatively small, the RCA is one of the oldest U.S. denominations, dating to 1628 in New Amsterdam (today’s New York City). 

Next up is the May 10-20 General Conference of the large United Methodist Church in Portland, Oregon. The UMC has debated the question without letup since 1972, always upholding the belief that “the practice of homosexuality” is “incompatible with Christian teaching,” while liberals regularly defy the required discipline of clergy living in homosexual relationships or who conduct ceremonies for same-sex couples.

An unusual aspect of the situation is that though the U.S. flock has declined dramatically to 7.2 million, the UMC includes overseas churches, mostly in Africa and mostly conservative, that now boast 5.2 million members. Legislation on the table includes a bid from the “Connectional Table,” an official coordination body, to replace the strict UMC-wide policy with local option.

The split is demonstrated by two pending cases.

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And now for something completely different: The birth of a Transhumanist Party

And now for something completely different: The birth of a Transhumanist Party

Were you perplexed by those 17 Republican candidates for president way back when?

The Religion Guy has no way to check this but attorney Ron Gunzburger’s www.politics1.com names hundreds of 2016 hopefuls who are running in some sense and catalogues 33 “third parties.” The oldest is the 147-year-old Prohibition Party, which captured 519 of the 128,556,837 presidential votes cast in 2012.

This listing includes the newly minted Transhumanist Party of Mill Valley, Calif,, and nominee Zoltan Istvan, businessman and Huffington Post columnist. Reporters may be hearing more about this movement, which has been tiny and on the cultural fringe in the U.S. but is now emerging enough to furrow some Christian brows.

Few religious folks would argue in general against applying modern science, technology and medicine for human betterment. But ethical disputes are frequent on specific issues, for instance genetic manipulation of the human species or of vegetables, or experiments that destroy human embryos or risk harm to chimpanzees.    

Istvan defines transhumanism as “beyond human” and explains that the movement is a union of “life extensionists, techno-optimists, Singularitarians, biohackers, roboticists, A.I. proponents, and futurists who embrace radical science and technology to improve the human condition.”

For many enthusiasts the chief goal  is to totally eliminate human death, hopefully by 2045. The more optimistic Istvan thinks with a trillion dollars spent on life extension research “we will conquer human mortality within 10 years.” But, he complains, “religious extremists” have so far prevented the dream.

Immortality, anyone?

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Another loaded question in the news: What does Islam teach about violence?

Another loaded question in the news: What does Islam teach about violence?

DAVID’S QUESTION:

Why don’t mainstream Muslims acknowledge that the Quran orders them to do just what ISIS does?

MIKE’S QUESTION:

Does the Quran tell Muslims to kill anyone who doesn’t become a Muslim?

THE RELIGION GUY’S ANSWER:

David’s full question -- posted before the latest slaughter aimed at Christians in Pakistan, children included, and the bombings in Belgium -- asks why Quran passages “explicitly order the killing of non-Muslims.” Mike, posting after those atrocities, wonders “why there is so much violence and murder in the Muslim faith.”

The Wall Street Journal‘s Sohrab Ahmari observes that “Islamic terrorism is now a permanent and ubiquitous hazard to life in every city on every continent” and “not a single day now goes by” without an attack somewhere. With much of today’s terror enacted in the name of God, fellow Muslims are the majority among innocent victims. The Global Terrorism Index counts 32,685 killings during 2014, an 80 percent increase over 2013. Not all were Islam-related and, notably, in the West only a fifth of them were.

The Islamic State and similar factions claim to follow precedents from Islam’s founding, in the holy Quran and collected hadith teachings of the Prophet Muhammad. Nabeel Qureshi writes in USA Today that his conversion from Islam to Christianity, described in “Answering Jihad,” resulted from “the reality of violent jihad in the very foundations” of Islam that provides terrorists’ “primary recruiting technique.” Graeme Wood of The Atlantic documented the importance of the early religious texts for current terror ideology.

Yet Muslim scholars say the revelations often applied to specific circumstances and some passages abrogate earlier ones.

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