Academia

The Atlantic locks in on that 'secret Catholic' subplot in the Jamestown reliquary mystery

The Atlantic locks in on that 'secret Catholic' subplot in the Jamestown reliquary mystery

It's rare to write about the same news topic twice in the same day, unless it's one of those hot-button topics that's driving people crazy on social media. That's a sobering thing to say, but there you have it.

However, I am truly fascinated with the depth of the questions being raised in early discussions of the silver box recently unearthed by the Jamestown Rediscovery team. This morning I raised some questions about a massive Washington Post piece on this topic and now, lo and behold, The Atlantic has posted a report on the same topic.

The Post piece pivoted on a question: Is the small silver box, containing human bones, found buried with colonial leader Gabriel Archer a reliquary or not? If it is a reliquary, in the ancient Christian sense of that word, then what saint or martyr were some of the colonialists venerating in this manner? 

Now editors at The Atlantic -- based on interviews with some of the same experts -- have published a lengthy piece that appears to be much more certain about several key facts. Check this out:

After 400 years in the Virginia dirt, the box came out of the ground looking like it had been plucked from the ocean. A tiny silver brick, now encrusted with a green patina and rough as sandpaper. Buried beneath it was a human skeleton. The remains would later be identified as those of Captain Gabriel Archer, one of the most prominent leaders at Jamestown, the first permanent English colony in America. But it was the box, which appeared to be an ancient Catholic reliquary, that had archaeologists bewildered and astonished.

“One of the major surprises was the discovery of this mysterious small silver box,” said James Horn, the president of the Jamestown Rediscovery Foundation. “I have to say, we’re still trying to figure this out. You have the very strange situation of a Catholic reliquary being found with the leader of the first Protestant church in the country.”

If that box is what Horn, in this new interview at least, seems certain that it is, then there are logical conclusions that can be drawn. Big ones.

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Colonial Jamestown reliquary: Secret Catholics or Protestants 'venerating' bones of saints?

Colonial Jamestown reliquary: Secret Catholics or Protestants 'venerating' bones of saints?

I love a good mystery hidden in the mists of history and it goes without saying that is doubly true of a mystery with a strong religion hook. So the Washington Post team had my my full attention when it pushed out an online promotion for a fascinating feature story about some of the latest finds in the Jamestown Rediscovery project.

The key: Researchers found a small silver box containing what appear to be human bones, with what they believe is the letter "M" inscribed on the cover. Hold that thought. Here is how the story opens:

JAMESTOWN, Va. -- When his friends buried Capt. Gabriel Archer here about 1609, they dug his grave inside a church, lowered his coffin into the ground and placed a sealed silver box on the lid. ...
The tiny, hexagonal box, etched with the letter “M,” contained seven bone fragments and a small lead vial, and probably was an object of veneration, cherished as disaster closed in on the colony.
On Tuesday, more than 400 years after the mysterious box was buried, Jamestown Rediscovery and the Smithsonian Institution announced that archaeologists have found it, as well as the graves of Archer and three other VIPs.
“It’s the most remarkable archaeology discovery of recent years,” said James Horn, president of Jamestown Rediscovery, which made the find. “It’s a huge deal.”

OK, but what was this small silver box? The story says it was probably an "object of veneration," but are we talking about some form of link to ancestors? The Post team, interviewing the experts, immediately locks into a crucial religious element of this mystery -- but misses some key questions and historical details.

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Is it the job of the media to advocate for fired gay employees? RNS says yes

Is it the job of the media to advocate for fired gay employees? RNS says yes

 

When should an organization take a stand as to the morals and character of its leaders? 

This question has been the stuff of lawsuits taken all the way to the US Supreme Court and debates in churches as to whether their clergy should be divorced, gay or have been convicted of drunk driving. It’s been the informal chatter  for years that a good percentage of Catholic clergy are gay, but as long as they didn’t broadcast the fact it was a live-and-let-live situation between the priest and his bishop. 

Now things are changing because the legal climate is changing. The U.S. Justice Department is stressing that religious liberties -- think the Health and Human Services mandate wars -- are linked to strong denominational ties linked to clear statements of doctrines. In Christian schools and non-profit groups, that means clear doctrinal covenants and, thus, bishops are starting to let dissenters go. 

In reaction, one RNS news story openly bemoans this fact. A July 20 piece starts thus:

(RNS) In May, the Rev. Warren Hall was abruptly dismissed from his position as the popular campus chaplain at Seton Hall University in New Jersey because the Catholic archbishop of Newark said his advocacy against anti-gay bullying, and his identity as a gay man, undermined church teaching.
Now Hall has written to Pope Francis asking that when the pontiff visits the U.S. in September, he speak out against such actions because they are “alienating” gay Catholics and the many others who support them.

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Quran manuscripts found! Divine message thrills mainstream media!

Quran manuscripts found! Divine message thrills mainstream media!

If you ever needed a reminder to use more than one news source, this week's announcement about two old pages of the Quran furnish ample reason. The news reports vary widely in scope and caution -- or lack of it.

The basics: The University of Birmingham in England announced that two pages from the Muslim scripture have been dated by radiocarbon to somewhere 568 and 645 A.D. Since the Prophet Muhammad -- who said he got the text as message from Allah -- is generally thought to have lived between 570 and 632 A.D., the parchment pages date back to the earliest years of Islam, the university says.

The release adds that the pages, from surahs (chapters) 18-20, read much like modern editions of the Quran. If so, it supports Muslims who insist the version they have is pretty much the one their forebears recited.

Pretty startling claims, and they deserve a good, hard look. But unless we get follow-up reports, we may not get a lot of that. Most mainstream media thus far are simply echoing what the university and its supporters said. No, worse than that. More like cheerleading.

They freely cite the release, including quotes by David Thomas, Susan Worrall and Alba Fedeli of the university -- plus an approving remark from a Persian scholar at the British Library. CNN even uses footage released by the university, including views of the quranic pages.

The reports also repeat and amplify the university's hype. BBC gives free rein to gushing reactions by Muslim scholars. It's "news to rejoice Muslim hearts," one says. "When I saw these pages I was very moved," says another. "There were tears of joy and emotion in my eyes."

And BBC isn't alone.

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Liberty University and all those Pell Grants: Is this a topic for news or opinion?

Liberty University and all those Pell Grants: Is this a topic for news or opinion?

Over the years, your GetReligionistas have developed some logos to signal to readers that there are certain types of stories that we critique over and over and over. No, we haven't created a Kellerism logo yet, but who knows?

The "Got news?" logo us used when we see a really interesting news story in alternative media and, as veteran reporters, we think to ourselves, "Why the heck isn't anyone in the mainstream press covering that interesting (and in some cases major) story?"

Then there is the logo out front on this post, which says, "What is this?" If you read news online, you know that we are in an age in which the lines between hard news and commentary are getting thinner and thinner. Frequently, I see pieces marked "analysis" that contain far more clear attributions and sources than in "hard news" stories elsewhere. We regularly see "news" features that, a decade ago, would have been featured on op-ed pages.

Then there is the whole issue of hard-news reporters writing "objective" stories and then turning around and firing away on Twitter with edgy comments that would make an editorial-page editor blush. The goal, for many reporters, is to build an online "brand" and one way you do that is by telling readers what you really think.

Then there is that other nasty equation looming in the background during these financially troubled times in the journalism. You know the one: Opinion is cheep; information is expensive.

This brings me to a really interesting "Acts of Faith" piece at The Washington Post that ran under this headline: "Liberty University, a hub of conservative politics, owes rapid growth to federal student loans."

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Gee whiz! American media shelve one of the Ten Commandments

Gee whiz!  American media shelve one of the Ten Commandments

The Bible’s celebrated Ten Commandments are back in the news yet again, as Oklahoma’s Supreme Court orders removal of a monument reproducing them from the state capitol. and legislators piously order up a referendum on whether citizens want to restore the words by removing a church-state separation clause from the state constitution.

Recall the 2005 U.S. Supreme Court head-scratcher that upheld a Ten Commandments display in Texas while outlawing another one in Kentucky? Not to mention that the justices’ own courtroom displays a frieze of Moses as the lawgiver holding the sacred tablets. (Muslims have asked the Court to sandblast away the similar frieze honoring Muhammad because their religion forbids visual representations of the Prophet.)

All very confusing.

Separationists protest that the early commandments require reverence toward God, a strictly religious matter, before the Decalogue turns to corrosive temporal deeds like adultery, murder, thievery, deceit, and envy. Perhaps Five Commandments would pass secular scrutiny.

Meanwhile, the American media are playing an interesting role in the commandments contretemps. By both carelessness and calculation, they have consistently undermined one tenet as though there are only Nine Commandments. Is the Religion Guy irredeemably old-fashioned to point out this one?

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Story theme borrowed from another beat: Whatever happened to science in Islam?

Story theme borrowed from another beat: Whatever happened to science in Islam?

Religion reporters should look beyond their ghetto for story themes, and here’s a good one: Why does science lag so notably in the Muslim world, and what can be done about it?

That question was raised by assistant editor Ross Pomeroy at www.realclearscience.com. Some religionistas may recall his 2012 piece for biologos.org titled “Why Strict Atheism is Unscientific.”

The latest Pomeroy headline is equally controversial: “Can Islam Come Back to the Light of Science?” He presents data to highlight the problem, which is far broader than simply Mideast sheiks flying to London or New York for medical treatments:

In 2005, Harvard University alone produced more scientific papers than 17 Arabic-speaking nations combined. The Muslim population of 1.6 billion has produced only two Nobel Prize-winners in chemistry and physics in history, and both moved to the West to work.

Now, Jews are outnumbered 100 to one by Muslims globally yet boast 79 such Nobel laureates. The 57 nations in the Organization of Islamic Cooperation spend less than a percent of their collective gross domestic product on research and development, a third of the global average; Israel spends 4.4 percent.

What went wrong?

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Planned Parenthood video Stage 3: New York Times explores an ethics question!

Planned Parenthood video Stage 3: New York Times explores an ethics question!

I don't avoid the world of advocacy journalism online, but I also strive not to live there. However, I often bump into links that take me into liberal and conservative "news" sites and, every now and then, you hit some interesting info worth exploring (especially when there are URLs to original documents and sources).

If journalists are willing to do that kind of thing, this work could be part of what I called -- in an earlier post -- the Stage 3 coverage of the Planned Parenthood video story.

One such site is The Blaze, which actually has a piece online pointing toward some interesting trails. Click here to go there. Let's start here:

While activists have doubled down, Planned Parenthood responded ... by dismissing the allegation and claiming that its clinics simply help women who wish to donate the tissue of aborted fetuses to scientific research. On the other hand, Snopes.com, a fact-checking website, labeled the claim against Planned Parenthood by the Center for Medical Progress, a pro-life group, as “undetermined” based on the evidence.

Precisely! "Undetermined," as in journalists cannot avoid doubting and exploring the truth claims offered by Planned Parenthood and the same goes for its critics. What we need here is old-school journalism, which requires showing some skepticism after reading the press releases on both sides.

The Blaze team then talked -- wonder of wonders -- to a pro-life activist outside of the New York City-Washington, D.C., corridor who has (gasp) not made his mind up when it comes to judging the final outcome of this case.

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Planned Parenthood video: Stage 3 news offers voices of reason vs. politicians

Planned Parenthood video: Stage 3 news offers voices of reason vs. politicians

I've been in New York City the past day or so taking part in a conference focusing on Plato, Augustine, Machiavelli and Obergefell. Sort of.

I haven't really had time to dig into the whole Planned Parenthood video media storm, but have followed some of the debates (hello @MZHemingway, hello @spulliam). In a way, the entire affair has followed a very familiar pattern.

Stage 1: Activist group on the cultural right releases advocacy journalism piece making strong claims that clash with the views of most mainstream journalists and focus on charges that are almost impossible to verify in a matter of Internet minutes.

State 2: Mainstream press either (a) ignores the story or (b) says that the heart of the story is something like "right-wing group's video goes viral in conservative media, leading to outrage among sane people who support the abused liberal group." How many headlines did you see with that tone?

Stage 3 is where we are now. Many, but not all, elite publications are covering the story, in part because the offended group -- Planned Parenthood in this case -- has put out a press release and started returning calls from journalists. The story is now legit.

This leads to another formula that has been seen many times in the past: Short restatement of right-wing accusations, followed by lengthy coverage of the response from liberal group, followed by -- here is the key -- lots and lots of reactions from Republican lawmakers courting the religious- and values-voter base, which means this whole affair is simply a matter of politics.

Business. As. Usual. #MovingOn.

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