Judaism

#DUH -- That 'atheist' candidate for Congress turns out to be a liberal Jewish guy

#DUH -- That 'atheist' candidate for Congress turns out to be a liberal Jewish guy

Honestly. I thought we had handled the old non-Jewish Jew, humanist, probably agnostic, maybe atheist, cultural Judaism equation several weeks ago with Sen. Bernie Sanders.

You remember that, right? The whole affair reminded me of the infamous media brain freeze years ago when candidate Jimmy Carter started talking about being a "born again" Christian. As I wrote earlier in the primary season (which still isn't over, with everyone keeping an eye on the crucial FBI primary):

I understand that many journalists in New York City needed time to grasp the basics of evangelical Christianity. Hey, 40 years later lots of elite journalists are still wrestling with that.
However, is it really big news at The New York Times that there are million of people of Jewish heritage whose identity centers more on matters of culture than on the practice of the Jewish faith?

The main problem with the Times coverage back then was that it asked a pack of rabbis to explain who and what Sanders is, when it comes to religion, rather than asking other agnostic or atheist Jews to explain that -- statistically speaking -- they are in the heart of the Jewish community (and Democratic Party) mainstream.

Now, the Associated Press has put out a feature about the campaign by Jamie Raskin to win Maryland's 8th Congressional district. And what's the hook for this story? That would be a bad headline in a major online "news" source, building on a bad public-relations piece from the Freethought Equality Fund, a humanist political action committee. As the AP piece put it:

“If successful in the general election, Raskin will be the only open nontheist serving in the U.S. Congress,” the email said. The Huffington Post quickly published an article headlined, “Congress Likely To Get Its Only Openly Atheist Member in November.”
The only problem? Raskin is Jewish.

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Let punny headlines reign: Thumbs up as Dawn Eden completes doctorate in theology

Let punny headlines reign: Thumbs up as Dawn Eden completes doctorate in theology

Over the years, this here weblog has seen one or two skilled journalists hit the exit door in order to go to law school. Now, former GetReligionista Dawn Eden taken this whole post-journalism academic thing to a new level by completing a doctorate in theology.

Yes, what a long, strange trip it's been.

That popular music reference is intentional, since Dawn started out in journalism as a rock-music beat reporter before evolving into an award-winning creator of punchy headlines, at The New York Post and then the Daily News. You may want to surf this file of commentary about the writing of her famous "The Lady is a Trump" headline about one of the weddings of a certain public figure who is still in the news. Dawn offered her own very modest take on that episode in her GetReligion intro piece, called "The inky-fingered Dawn."

Now, Dawn has evolved once again, from her life as a popular Catholic apologist into an academic who has just complete a truly historic degree in theology. Here is a key chunk of a post up at The Dawn Patrol, her personal website.

The Doctoral Board ... gave me an A on both my dissertation and my presentation. Now I am set to graduate with my sacred-theology doctorate from the University of St. Mary of the Lake (Mundelein Seminary) on May 7, magna cum laude. It will be the first time in the university's history that a canonical (i.e. pontifically licensed) doctorate will be awarded to a woman.

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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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Time sounds alarm on young men and porn, while leaving religion out of the picture

Time sounds alarm on young men and porn, while leaving religion out of the picture

Long, long ago, I had a conversation with some religion-beat professionals about media bias, which is a tricky subject, to say the least.

The world is, alas, full of religious conservatives who automatically want to assume that all journalists basically hate believers in all traditional forms of religion. That's way too simplistic, of course, as I have tried to explain for decades when speaking in a wide range of settings -- including religious colleges, think tanks and gatherings of mainstream journalists. This piece from The Quill -- "Religion and the News Media: Have our biases fatally wounded our coverage?" -- covers the basics.

However, this circle of Godbeat pros was talking about the worst cases that we were seeing of slanted journalism. We are talking about cases in which it was clear that editors had crossed the line between advocacy journalism and old-school reporting that stressed accuracy, balance and respect for the beliefs of people on both sides of hot-button subjects.

Was there a kind of journalistic Grand Unified Theory of Everything, when it came to explaining these really ugly cases? What was the thread that ran through them? A colleague from the West Coast eventually ended the silence with this blunt statement: "The Religious Right must lose."

Let me stress that we were talking about the very small number of media-bias cases in which it appeared that outright prejudice was at work. On the religion beat, in recent decades, these almost always have something to do with clashes between the Sexual Revolution and traditional forms of Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

Believe it or not, this brings me -- taking a rather roundabout route -- to that recent Time magazine cover story on pornography (which is locked behind a paywall). Now, one would think think that a newsweekly taking the destructive powers of porn seriously would be a victory for groups preaching a conservative view of sex (and, of course, for consistent feminists who take a similar stance for different reasons).

The team at Time deals with that angle, in one sentence.

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Holy Week question: What do we know about the Jewish leader who buried Jesus?

Holy Week question: What do we know about the Jewish leader who buried Jesus?

JACK’S QUESTION:

What do we know about Joseph of Arimathea? Have scholars learned anything more about him than what is said in the Gospels?

THE RELIGION GUY’S ANSWER:

The man who buried Jesus is a timely topic for Christians’ Holy Week. The quick response is that lots of stuff about Joseph of Arimathea is floating around out there. But much of it was written long centuries after the fact and is best regarded as folklore that tells us about British national pride rather than the actual man and his history.

The four New Testament Gospels are by far the best available sources and, scholars tells us, the earliest ones, produced in their current form some three to six decades after Jesus’ crucifixion. All four Gospels have information about Joseph, a rare distinction for a minor figure, albeit one who participated in a history-changing event. (References: Matthew 27:57-60, Mark 15:43-46, Luke 23:50-53, John 19:38-42.)

The Gospels’ narratives are broadly similar, but with intriguing differences of the sort that keep exegetes up at night. We’re told Joseph was “rich” and “respected,” asked Rome’s colonial ruler Pilate for custody of Jesus’ corpse, provided his own unused tomb hewn out of rock, personally conducted the burial procedures, and rolled the famous stone across the entrance to seal the gravesite. The burial was witnessed by two women, so the Gospels teach they were not mistaken that it was Jesus’ tomb  later found empty.

Mark calls Joseph a member of the “council,” which could refer to Jerusalem’s municipal government. But Luke clarifies that he belonged to the Sanhedrin that asked Pilate to execute Jesus, and says Joseph “had not consented to their purpose and deed.” Thus Mark’s statement that “all” of the Sanhedrin wanted execution can be seen as hyperbole to indicate lopsided rather than 100 percent support. John alone adds that fellow Sanhedrin member Nicodemus, who had defended Jesus during a prior dispute (John 7:50-52), joined Joseph in the burial.

Side comment: This important detail that the Sanhedrin was split helps counter anti-Semitic distortions. And divided opinion did not characterize only the Jewish rulers.

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Religion-beat professionals: Yet another reference work that belongs on your desk

Religion-beat professionals: Yet another reference work that belongs on your desk

Our previous religion-beat Memo puffed “The Study Quran,” a truly path-breaking production.

The Religion Guy now outpoints a  standby that belongs on the desks of journalists who don’t have one of the two earlier editions: “The Catholic Study Bible” (Oxford University Press, available in paperback for US$39.99).

The volume includes the latest (2010) version of the New American Bible, the official English translation used in the U.S. Catholic Church, alongside numerous articles and detailed verse-by-verse commentary from a 20-member team. The new edition adds, for instance, surveys of archaeological finds regarding the Bible, by Ronald Simkins of Creighton University in Omaha (Old Testament) and Dominican Sister Laurie Brink of Chicago’s Catholic Theological Union (New Testament).

In addition to keeping this book handy for future reference, newswriters could use it as a hook to analyze trends in Catholic scholarship on the Bible. The book bears the hierarchy’s  declaration that all material “is free from doctrinal and moral error.” Yet a spot check indicates the latest edition continues and somewhat reinforces the secular and liberal Protestant sort of scholarship that influenced the first two editions.

A fascinating in-depth project could compare the Study Bible’s approach with the Pontifical Biblical Commission’s conservative declarations from 1905 through the 1962 opening of the Second Vatican Council, as indexed right here.   

Among other things, prior commission decrees affirmed Moses as the “substantial” source of the first five Old Testament books; single authorship for Isaiah’s prophecy; the historical veracity of Genesis 1-3, the Book of Acts, and the Gospel of John; and that the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke were written prior to A.D. 70.

Today, those sorts of views are largely confined to conservative Protestant or Orthodox Jewish scholars.

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Trump and Muslims: Politico in-depth piece misses key questions about Muslim-led city

Trump and Muslims: Politico in-depth piece misses key questions about Muslim-led city

Politico's indepth story on Hamtramck, Mich., makes much of the fact that it's the only American city with a Muslim-majority government. So how many Muslims does it quote?

Just five. Out of 13 quoted sources.

"What America’s Only Muslim-Governed City Thinks of Donald Trump," the headline teases us. Politico paints Hamtramck as a model of diversity and acceptance, with Poles, Ukrainians, Albanians, black Americans and other folks besides Middle Easterners. Just the kind of place that Trump -- with his anti-Muslim, anti-immigration message -- says would erode American values.

OK, that's a valid starting thesis -- for an editorial or an opinion column, rather than the newsfeature this was supposed to look like. But the Muslim subjects in question aren’t even quoted until more than halfway down this 2,600-word story.

And the argumentative theme starts in the second paragraph:

After a November 2015 election, four of the City Council’s six seats are now held by Muslims—three of them immigrants—making Hamtramck’s council the first in the United States with a Muslim majority. Predictably—if ridiculously—the city has become a lightning rod among conservatives in fear of Islamic law erupting in America. At a recent talk in Boston, a Somali women’s-rights activist named Ayaan Hirsi Ali warned an audience of academics and real estate developers that Hamtramck’s City Council would soon bring Sharia to their American backyard.
But here in Hamtramck, on the eve of a Michigan primary in which Donald Trump is ahead in the polls by double digits, residents aren’t afraid that their city is about to suddenly establish a foothold for the caliphate. They’re more afraid of the Republican Party’s front-runner. "It’s unbelievable Donald Trump has made it this far," says friend and resident Aaron Foley, who is gay, African-American and the editor of a Detroit lifestyle magazine called Blac. "It really feels like a bad dream that we haven’t woke up from yet. This can’t happen. It upsets me that he’s made so many disparaging remarks, not just about Muslims, but about everyone."

That's right. In this story about Muslim-ruled Hamtramck, the first quote is from a non-Muslim who doesn't even work in town. Would have been interesting to get a quote also from Ayaan Hirsi Ali, instead of lobbing a glancing reference. The writer might have learned that she's an atheist, not a card-carrying conservative. Also that she's been under death threats for years for opposing Muslim extremists. So whether Hirsi Ali is accurate about Shariah, she speaks from experience.

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Did later Christians change what the earliest followers of Jesus believed about him?

Did later Christians change what the earliest followers of Jesus believed about him?

NORMAN’S QUESTION:

Why do an overwhelming number of Christians believe (or say they believe) things about Jesus that were not believed by his earliest followers in Jerusalem, led by his brother James?

THE RELIGION GUY’S ANSWER:

This important question results from the previous Q and A item, which summarized central teaching about Jesus Christ that has united most Christians since it was finalized by 5th Century ecumenical councils. It holds that the one true God exists in a Trinity of three persons, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and that Jesus the Son has two natures, fully human yet fully divine. Myriad worshipers over centuries have professed each week that Jesus Christ is of one “being” or “substance” with God the Father.

However, in modern times the traditional teaching has been challenged in differing ways by secular thinkers, Protestant liberals, Unitarians, Latter-day Saints (“Mormons”), Jehovah’s Witnesses, certain Pentecostalists and, of course, by religions totally outside the Christian orbit like Judaism and Islam.

The Religion Guy confesses he has not read the hefty books that discuss this and relies upon secondary materials from the experts. This answer bypasses numerous technicalities; if interested, you can research why early church councils rejected the teaching of the Apollinarians, Arians, Docetists, Ebionites, Eutychians, Gnostics, Sabellians and the rest. Note that the question raises only the divinity of Jesus the Son, not of the Holy Spirit, and only what the earliest Christians believed, not how Jesus thought of himself.

About James. He was one of Jesus’ four "brothers" (Mark 6:3) and a skeptic turned believer who, yes, led the original church in Jerusalem. The Sanhedrin accused James of violating Jewish law and he was executed in A.D. 62. He’s traditionally seen as the writer of the New Testament’s letter of James, though other options have been proposed.

With that ground cleared, on to Norman’s theme.

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The New York Times probes (sort of) the heart of Bernie Sanders, a 'non-Jewish Jew'

The New York Times probes (sort of) the heart of Bernie Sanders, a 'non-Jewish Jew'

Once again, it's time to talk about the media coverage of Bernie Sanders and his now you see it, now you don't approach to Judaism. The New York Times headline is pretty predictable: "Bernie Sanders Is Jewish, but He Doesn’t Like to Talk About It."

This new piece addresses all kinds of issues and answers a few questions that mainstream journalists missed in the past -- which kibbutz did he live in as a young man (a socialist one), what are his views on hot-button issues linked to Israel (he's with the Israeli left, seeking a two-state solution that backs Israel’s right to exist as well as a Palestinian homeland).

Nevertheless, as I read this piece I kept thinking about Jimmy Carter and the media storm in 1976 when the elite American press was forced to wrestle with the term "born again Christian." That's ordinary language in the Sunbelt and Middle America, but part of an unknown tongue in major chunks of the media-rich urban Northeast.

I understand that many journalists in New York City needed time to grasp the basics of evangelical Christianity. Hey, 40 years later lots of elite journalists are still wrestling with that.

However, is it really big news at The New York Times that there are million of people of Jewish heritage whose identity centers more on matters of culture than on the practice of the Jewish faith? I found it strange that this A1 Times piece basically let rabbis explain Sanders to America. Where are the quotes from articulate Jewish atheists and agnostics? Other than insights from his brother, Larry Sanders, where are the voices of the secular Jews?

Bernie Sanders is pretty normal, statistically speaking. He appears to be a secular, cultural Jew (not that there's anything wrong with that).

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