A non-gimmicky religion story

p66 John 1 4In an interesting discussion on how religion reporters should handle self-identification when it's contested, reader Chris Bolinger -- a former stringer -- made this comment:

As I have written before, what passes for acceptable journalism (or is even praised on this board as stellar journalism) for stories on religion would result in people getting fired if the stories were on sports. Stories on religion often treat readers as if they know little on the subject, whereas stories on sports understand that readers know quite a bit on the subject.

As a huge sports fan, I have to admit that I have become disenchanted with the popular notion that the best writing in newspapers happens on the sports page. They're quite fun to read if you follow the sport and team in question, but if you don't, the stories can be confusing or irrelevant. Frank DeFord is still pretty awesome though.

Anyway, I thought of Chris' comment when I read a local religion story in the Birmingham Herald that is fantastic for its informative details, assumption that the reader isn't an idiot, and compelling story line.

Reporter Greg Garrison explains how a local pastor helped the Vatican get valuable ancient manuscripts. Here's how it begins:

It wasn't exactly "The DaVinci Code," but a Birmingham priest recently jetted around the world and helped deliver one of the most important documents in Christian history to the pope.

"It contains the oldest copy of the Lord's Prayer in the world," said St. Paul's Cathedral Pastor Richard Donohoe.

Donohoe assisted in the Vatican Library's acquisition of two rare pieces of papyrus, including the oldest surviving copy of the Gospel of Luke and one of the two oldest copies of the Gospel of John. They were handwritten by a scribe about 200 A.D. and found in Egypt in the 1950s.

Garrison explains how the documents were obtained from the Bodmer Library in Switzerland -- with a bit of high-powered fundraising, armed guards and secret negotiations. He speaks with James Robinson, a scholar of ancient biblical documents currently serving at Auburn University. He says the purchase is the most important New Testament biblical manuscript to have survived. He explains that the Bodmer papyri are remarkably complete, too. Who says local stories aren't exciting?:

They are written in clear, common Greek.

"It's written in the archaic Koine, the Greek of the streets; that's what the gospels were originally written in," Donohoe said. "It's very easily read. It's in beautiful condition."

They are commonly dated to between 175 and 225 A.D. They were able to survive so long because they were preserved in the dry climate of upper Egypt, like the Nag Hammadi artifacts and the Dead Sea Scrolls found in caves in the region.

"Scholars used to think we'd never find anything earlier than 300," Robinson said.

I love how Garrison turned a basic human interest story about a priest on a mission into something educational and enlightening. Here was a particularly interesting tidbit:

Robinson believes that the documents are from the first Christian monastery, started near Dishna, Egypt, about 320 A.D. by St. Pachomia. Robinson went to Dishna in his research of the Nag Hammadi codices. Dishna is on the Nile River upstream from Nag Hammadi.

The Greek manuscripts date more than a century earlier than the monastery, he said. "These monks were Coptic-speaking," he said. "How did all these Greek manuscripts get there?"

Robinson theorizes that St. Athanasius, patriarch of Alexandria, went into hiding at a Pachomian monastery during one of his many exiles from persecution and took books with him from the great library of Alexandria, which later burned.

The reader who passed this story on thought we might not be interested in it because it's a good example of writing about religion. It seems a good idea to remind people that we consider highlighting good stories a fundamental part of this blog's mission. I do note that our positive posts elicit far fewer remarks than our negative ones.

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