Science

It's Easter for the Orthodox: Chicago Tribune comes this close to facing a weeping icon

It's Easter for the Orthodox: Chicago Tribune comes this close to facing a weeping icon

Writing a news report about an event that lots of people believe is a miracle is a difficult task. This is especially true with reports of healing when, often for legal reasons, the medical professionals linked to the case are not anxious to be interviewed or to provide relevant documentation from tests.

However, it's much easier to write about a phenomenon -- an object for example -- that can be examined by the senses, including the senses of skeptical journalists. That's what I kept thinking about as I read the Chicago Tribune news feature that ran under the headline, "Thousands flock to 'miracle' icon at south suburban church."

First of all, I am glad that the Tribune ran a story hooked to this year's Eastern Orthodox celebration of Pascha (Easter). This May 1 date on the ancient Julian calendar is very late in the spring, in comparison with this year's March 27 Easter date in the modern West.

Second, I was thankful that voices of believers are given quite a bit of space in this piece. However, well, where are the unbelievers? And if the story is going to focus on claims of a miracle then why not talk to some experts, in terms of theology and science? After all, we are talking about a very familiar phenomenon -- an Orthodox icon exuding a mysterious substance. Information on this phenomenon is only a few mouse clicks away. We aren't dealing with a large flour tortilla in Cleveland that appears to contain an image of LeBron James.

OK, let's look at a few pieces of this report, beginning with the overture:

As millions of Orthodox Christians around the world prepare to celebrate Easter this Sunday and the miracle of Jesus Christ's resurrection, thousands across the Chicago area are flocking to a southwest suburban parish to see what they believe to be a different miracle.

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Rites of mourning in Ukraine, as well as that Chernobyl verse in the Book of Revelation

Rites of mourning in Ukraine, as well as that Chernobyl verse in the Book of Revelation

If you want to spend a sobering day -- but a fascinating one as well -- then you need to pay a visit to the Ukrainian National Chernobyl Museum in Kiev. I have been there twice and, if I returned a third time, I am sure that I would discover more layers of information and symbolism that I missed the first two times around.

Technically speaking, it's a very simple facility, with few of the multi-media bells and whistles that are now the norm in the museum world.

What hits you is the power of the, literally, the parables, icons and relics on display. The contents are simply overwhelming, for those with the eyes to see.

So if you ever enter the museum, look up at the ceiling above the main staircase and search for an explicit reference to the Book of Revelation. Here's what I described in a 2012 column:

KIEV -- The apocalyptic visions begin just inside the doors of the Ukrainian National Chernobyl Museum and many of them lead straight into the Book of Revelation.
The final pages of Christian scripture are full of angels, trumpets, flames, thunder, lighting, earthquakes and catastrophes that shake heaven and earth.
In this museum, the key is in the eighth chapter: "And the third angel sounded, and there fell a great star from heaven, burning as it were a lamp, and it fell upon the third part of the rivers, and upon the fountains of waters. And the name of the star is called Wormwood: and the third part of the waters became wormwood; and many men died of the waters, because they were made bitter."
When Ukrainians translate "wormwood" into their own language it becomes "chernobyl."

Didn't see that one coming, right?

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USA Today asks: Do private schools with doctrines have a right to the NCAA brand?

USA Today asks: Do private schools with doctrines have a right to the NCAA brand?

If you didn't see this big-time sports story coming then you haven't been paying attention.

During a radio talk show a few months ago, I speculated that if Baylor (one of my two alma maters) had qualified for the final four in football, it was highly likely that gay-rights groups would petition the NCAA powers that be to have the Bears (and other private schools with doctrinally based lifestyle covenants) kicked out of the association.

Not yet. But the arguments are beginning, as evidenced in the new USA Today feature that ran under the headline, "When religion and the LGBT collegiate athlete collide."

Now, if you believe in old-school journalism ethics -- think "American Model" of the press -- then the goal of this story is to accurately represent the beliefs of representatives on both sides of this debate. Want to guess how that turns out?

Meanwhile, it's crucial to remember that the NCAA is not a government agency and, as a private body, is not limited by the First Amendment's free exercise of religion clause. To further complicate matters, the NCAA includes both private and state schools. Thus, while there may be legal issues involved (television and conference contracts, for example) in this NCAA debate, this really shouldn't be called a religious-liberty debate. The NCAA rules.

This feature starts, of course, with a gay athlete -- swimmer Conner Griffin -- who attends Fordham University, a Catholic school that is clearly enlightened since it has chosen the spirit of the age over attempts to live out (some would say "enforce") Catholic doctrines on marriage and sex.

So right up top there is this exchange:

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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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Religion journalists: Why are the UN's ten 'happiest' nations all secular-oriented?

Religion journalists: Why are the UN's ten 'happiest' nations all secular-oriented?

So, how are you today? Feel OK about your life? Are you happy?

Chances are you're more likely to answer those questions affirmatively -- while smiling broadly, no doubt -- if you reside in Denmark rather than, let's say, Burundi. Or if you live in Switzerland and not -- get ready for another shocker -- Syria or Afghanistan.

At least, so says the pretentiously named World Happiness Report produced for the United Nations by the Sustainable Development Solutions Network, an international panel of economists, psychologists, public health experts and others.

Most of its conclusions seem beyond obvious. (You don't see many Danes or Swiss risking their lives, and those of their children, to illegally enter Burundi, Syria or Afghanistan, do you?) However, the report does contain a few surprises.

For example, Israelis -- who face knife attacks and other small-scale terrorist actions on a daily basis and who live with the Islamic State, Hizbollah and Hamas on their borders -- say they are happier as a nation than do Germans, Britons, the French and Italians. And even Americans. Israel was listed by the report as the 11th happiest nation on Earth, while the U.S. placed 13th.

Apparently humans prefer facing possible death on the streets than the endless drip-drip torture of presidential primary debates. I can relate.

But I jest. So let me get serious and suggest that the report has much to offer journalists. It's haunted by religion ghosts -- which is to say, there's a host of extractable story ideas in it for journalists inclined to explore the nature of human happiness today from a psychological, spiritual and religious perspective.

Religion writers; I'm looking at you.

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OMg! OMg! Journalists continue to ignore the Associated Press Stylebook!

OMg! OMg! Journalists continue to ignore the Associated Press Stylebook!

Yes, here we go again.

I was interested in this Syracuse, N.Y., dateline story already, because of its obvious religious overtones -- both in terms of the scientist in the lede and the metaphysical, to say the least, nature of the issues involved in this breakthrough.

Then, later on, we had -- OMG! -- that whole revisionist Associated Press Stylebook thing going on again. But let's be patient and look at the actual story for just a second:

SYRACUSE, N.Y. -- Peter Saulson sat in a synagogue for the Jewish new year Sept. 14, cut off from the rest of the world. He had turned off his cell phone and computer to observe the holiday.
Saulson was oblivious that his email inbox had started exploding around 7 a.m. with 75 messages that carried the same subject line: "Very interesting event."
Saulson wouldn't get word until that night, when he finally turned his computer back on, that he was on the verge of culminating his life's work, and the work of a thousand other scientists across the world.
That was the day two massive telescopes, one in Louisiana and the other in the state of Washington, detected for the first time gravitational waves from the collision of two black holes from 1.3 billion years ago.

I like the fact that this story opens in a synagogue, where one must assume that folks would upper-case the "G" in "God," as well as the "E" in Einstein, as in Albert, if for different reasons under Associated Press style.

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Washington Post offers totally haunted look at one family's pain and glimpses of heaven

Washington Post offers totally haunted look at one family's pain and glimpses of heaven

The Zika virus is all over the news, right now, so it isn't surprising that journalists are looking for other news stories they can connect to it.

This past week, I received several notes from readers about the following Washington Post "Inspired Life" feature. One came with the traditional trigger warning: "Have tissues ready."

The reader could have added this warning: "Prepare to read about a powerful human drama that is haunted by a religion ghost." The headline: "What this amazing mom of two girls with microcephaly has to say about Zika scare." Here is the classic feature-story overture:

Gwen Hartley’s 19-week sonogram was normal. Her baby girl, her second child, was going to complete her storybook life. She’d married her high school sweetheart, they already had a healthy son, a house and a dog.
When Claire was born, Hartley looked adoringly into her daughter’s big eyes and remembered thinking that she’d forgotten how tiny a newborn’s head was. Then the doctors whisked her baby away. Something was wrong. Something that couldn’t be fixed.

After a series of misdiagnoses, the Hartleys, of Kansas, were told Claire had microcephaly, a serious birth defect that causes babies to have extremely small heads and brains, and, in her case, made it unlikely she would live beyond a year. Almost five years later, Claire was defying the odds and, although she couldn’t speak or walk or even sit upright, she was a happy and vibrant child. The Hartleys felt ready to get pregnant again.

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Rolling Stone searches for theological cornerstone in X-Files and, alas, drops the ball

Rolling Stone searches for theological cornerstone in X-Files and, alas, drops the ball

I was never addicted to the X-Files back in its classic era, but I was almost always aware of what was going on in the series because of updates from my Milligan College students -- especially in my "Exegete the Culture" senior seminar on faith and mass media.

Religious issues kept showing up in the show's believer-doubter format, with plots built on a never-ending search for the supernatural. One semester, a bright youth-ministry major wrote a brilliant paper -- the curricula for a weekend retreat for high-schoolers -- based on three X-Files episodes that focused on prayer, healing and life after death. The show was asking lots of interesting questions, which had to be coming from somewhere.

So I wasn't surprised that the recent Rolling Stone profile of X-Files creator Chris Carter (linked, of course, to the six-episode Fox reboot) explored some religious themes. I was also -- alas -- not surprised when a key religion fact got mangled. More on that in a minute.

But, for starters, wouldn't you like to know more about the roots of the Amazon project mentioned in this section of the story?

Though Carter doesn't admit this, his return to Hollywood (not counting a second X-Files film he wrote in 2007) must have been disappointing for the man who ruled the medium a decade earlier. A series about the Salem witch trials that he created for Showtime never made it to air. Same with an Area 51 drama he worked on for AMC. And ditto for a conspiracy thriller, Unique,which he developed at Fox.

But the toughest hit was his 2014 Amazon pilot, The After, a Sartre-meets-Dante serial drama set in the intersection of Los Angeles and Hades.

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Another look at an old question: 'Can we be good without God?'

Another look at an old question: 'Can we be good without God?'

MARY’S QUESTION:

Is a belief in God essential to morality?

THE RELIGION GUY’S ANSWER:

Many online articles carry that above headline, so Mary’s question is a classic, one seen in this little incident: A traditional Nativity scene is being moved away from Nebraska’s state capitol for Christmas week 2015 to make way for atheists’ “Reason This Season” display. A sponsor explained the purpose: “It’s meant to communicate that atheists are not bad people; we can be good without God.”

Some might hold a simplistic view that religionists think they and only they are or could be moral, and that all non-believers fall short.

Such assertions are nonsense, of course, and no serious religious figure would claim them. An individual atheist can lead an exemplary life, and a believer can be a scoundrel. British scholar C.S. Lewis observed that the fair comparison isn’t between problematic Christian X and virtuous non-believer Y, but rather what X would be like if he didn’t believe.

The actual question here is not virtues and vices of some individual but whether morality in general prospers if believers predominate, and whether society’s well-being suffers if many spurn faith in God. Does widespread respect for religious teachings, or fear of divine judgment, help people behave? Do supernatural ideals improve society’s over-all moral texture?

And the flip side. What is life like when foes of religion control society?

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