Tricky journalism question: How do you describe miracles in a secular newspaper?

As an introduction to this week's "Crossroads" podcast (click here to tune that in), let's take a short true-or-false test about religion and journalism.

(1) True or false: The Jewish Messiah will, at the end of all things, appear in Jerusalem and rebuild the Temple.

(2) True or false: Jews believe that their Messiah will, at the end of all things, appear in Jerusalem and rebuild the Temple.

(3) True or false: Some Jews believe that the Messiah will appear in Jerusalem, etc., etc.

(4) True or false: Some Jews believe their Messiah will appear in Jerusalem, etc., etc., but when they make that statement it serves as a kind of metaphor about the role of hope and faith in the lives of mature, nuanced believers who read The New York Times.

OK, that last little bit was a bit snarky, but you get the idea.

So what was the point of this exercise?

Let's say that you are writing a piece for The New York Times about the city of Jerusalem and you need to describe its importance in Jewish life, culture, art and faith. Which of these statements would be accurate, as a statement of facts that can be trusted by journalists?

Well, statement No. 1 is a statement of theological belief, a doctrinal statement embraced by millions of believers through the ages, as noted in statement No. 2. So. No. 1 is a statement of belief, but No. 2 is a statement (hello social scientists) of fact.

But do all Jews believe this? Well, it's a fact that some do and some do not. Thus, statement No. 3 is accurate, as well as No. 4 -- depending on the beliefs of the Jews a reporter happens to be describing. It helps to listen carefully.

We could produce a similar test about all kinds of doctrines linked to the various world religions. How about this one? Christians believe that only men can serves as pastors/priests. How about this one? Muslims believe that, once a land has been conquered by Muslims, it must always be controlled by Islam.

This is tricky territory for journalists. Should we report beliefs as if they are facts? What about the fact that people hold those beliefs?

All of this is linked to my post earlier this week that ran with this headline: "Believe it or not: The New York Times has quietly returned to its 'Jesus is dead' theme." It focused on a crucial passage in a Times piece arts piece that ran under this title: "Jerusalem as a Place of Desire and Death, at the Metropolitan Museum."

Three major faiths have laid claim to that city. For Jews, it’s the place where, at the End of Days, the Messiah will appear; rebuild the Holy Temple, twice-destroyed; and sort out the righteous from the rest. For Muslims, the city is sacred as the point from which the Prophet Muhammad, after a miraculous night flight from Mecca, began a tour of heaven. To Christians, Jerusalem is a giant walk-through reliquary of Jesus’ life and death, with every street, every stone, soaked in his aura.

So we have a reference to a Jewish miracle, a Muslim miracle and, when it comes to Christianity, a statement that overlooks the central miracle claim at the heart of the faith -- two miracles and one loud thud, as in the door of a tomb slamming shut.

Note that the "for Jews" and "for Muslims" construction implies that these are beliefs. In other words, this material is handled in a manner consistent with our No. 2 example above. It is a statement of fact that Jews and Muslims hold these beliefs.

But what about that reference to Jesus? Is it a statement of fact that Jerusalem is crucial to Christians because the city is a "giant walk-through reliquary of Jesus’ life and death"? Why not make a reference to the Resurrection?

If you end that statement with the word "death," that is simply not accurate, as noted in a First Things essay by Mark Movsesian that ran with this title: "Why Do Christians Revere Jerusalem? The Times Misses a Step." He writes, concerning this essay by critic Holland Cotter:

It’s odd, therefore, that a Pulitzer Prize-winning art critic would miss the point, and that the Times’s culture editors wouldn’t notice the omission. It can’t be because the Times was trying to avoid offending non-Christians by referring to a miracle only Christians accept as true. The Night Journey and the expected return of the Messiah are also sectarian miracles that only believers accept (or expect). ... The Times lists them without hesitation. If one were trying to be objective, one could simply write the factual statement, “Christians believe that Christ’s Resurrection took place in Jerusalem,” and leave it at that. No one could be offended.

Also, there is another problem. Movsesian notes that Jesus didn't spend that much time in Jerusalem, although several crucial events in his life did take place there. So it wouldn't even be accurate -- for journalists who are into that whole accuracy thing -- to state that Jerusalem is a "giant walk-through reliquary of Jesus’ life," with the death reference dropped.

So this brings us to my discussion this week with host Todd Wilken. The question raised by this test case, for many readers, is simply this: What happened? Why did the Times publish this material in this form?

I think many readers would -- depending on their current attitudes about the mainstream press -- would offer one of four explanations for this Resurrection-free passage. Here goes:

* It was a mistake. Period.

* Variation on that theme: It was a mistake, for heaven's sake. Why are Christians always complaining so much about the Times? Get over it.

* It wasn't a mistake and, since the essay referenced miraculous events in other faiths in ways that showed respect, this was a subtle shot at the faith of traditional Christians.

* It wasn't a mistake. This is the journalist's opinion and, since this essay was a review, he can say whatever he wants. Get over it.

What do you think? What explanations did I miss? And enjoy the podcast.

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