Scriptures

How do conservatives respond to archaeologists’ skepticism about Bible history?

How do conservatives respond to archaeologists’ skepticism about Bible history?

THE QUESTION:

Many archaeologists have raised skeptical questions about the Bible’s historical accounts, especially in the Old Testament. How do conservatives respond?

THE RELIGION GUY’S ANSWER:

A September headline in London’s tabloid Daily Express proclaimed a “Bible Bombshell,” with “stunning new evidence that could prove” Joshua’s invasion of the Holy Land following the Exodus from Egypt. However, in the article the archaeologists involved, David Ben-Shlomo of Israel’s Ariel University and Ralph Hawkins of Averett University in Virginia, gave only carefully framed suggestions.

Their site has a stone enclosure for herded animals, and pottery indicating people lived outside the stone compound, presumably nomads living in long-vanished tents. The settlement dates from the early Iron Age, but testing of electrons in soil samples is needed to pinpoint whether it fits the Exodus chronology. And that wouldn’t prove these nomads were Israelites. (See below on Jericho.)

People thrill when a discovery is proclaimed as proof of the Bible, but it takes years if not decades to establish such claims. There can also be sensationalism when skeptics known as “minimalists,” Israelis among them, announce findings said to undermine the Bible. As a journalist, The Guy recommends caution toward assertions from all sides.

The pertinent archaeological maxim is “absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.” That is, a biblical event is not contradicted if archaeologists have not (or not yet) found corroboration from physical remains, non-biblical manuscripts, or inscriptions. There’s vast unexplored terrain in Israel, where only 50 of an estimated 6,000 sites have undergone thorough examination, with limited work at another 300. Surviving evidence from ancient times is necessarily spotty and interpretations can be subjective. Scholars usually end up with circumstantial plausibility, not absolute proof or disproof.

Conservatives energetically answer the minimalists. Their magnum opus is “On the Reliability of the Old Testament” (Eerdmans) by Egyptologist K.A. Kitchen of the University of Liverpool. William Hallo of Yale University said that “after decades of ‘minimalism,’ it is refreshing to have this first systematic refutation” from “a leading authority” on the relevant history.

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Let's play 'Spot the religious test' in some big news stories -- on left and the right

Let's play 'Spot the religious test' in some big news stories -- on left and the right

I realize (trigger warning!) that the U.S. Constitution is a rather controversial subject right now, with all the talk about U.S. Senate “majority votes” and tiny little red flyover states getting to have two senators, just like blue powerhouse states on the coasts.

Still, it’s a good thing for journalists in mainstream newsrooms to know a thing or two about this document, especially when covering the religion beat. I’m not just talking about the free press and freedom of religion stuff, either.

Yet another wild story in the White House has raised an issue that, #ALAS, I think we will be seeing more of in the near future. The key issue: Candidates for public service facing “religious tests” served up by their critics.

First things first: Ladies and gentlemen, here is Article 6 of the U.S. Constitution:

This Constitution, and the Laws of the United States which shall be made in Pursuance thereof; and all Treaties made, or which shall be made, under the Authority of the United States, shall be the supreme Law of the Land; and the Judges in every State shall be bound thereby, any Thing in the Constitution or Laws of any State to the Contrary notwithstanding.

The Senators and Representatives before mentioned, and the Members of the several State Legislatures, and all executive and judicial Officers, both of the United States and of the several States, shall be bound by Oath or Affirmation, to support this Constitution; but no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.

This leads us to several relatively recent news stories that raised questions about “religious tests.”

The key question: Can journalists recognize “religious tests” when they take place on the political left and the right?

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Thinking about Trump, young evangelicals, The New York Times and ... Screwtape

Thinking about Trump, young evangelicals, The New York Times and ... Screwtape

If you have heard of the great Christian apologist C.S. Lewis, then you have probably heard of three things — a land called Narnia, “Mere Christianity” and a demon named Screwtape.

The format of the bestseller “The Screwtape Letters” is unique, to say the least. In this painfully clever book, a senior demon named Screwtape offers guidance to a young tempter — his nephew Wormwood — on the art of steering a human soul into the land of “Our Father Below.”

Now, the purpose of this think piece is not Christian apologetics.

Instead, it is to consider one of Screwtape’s most famous observations and what it has to do with — brace yourself — Donald Trump, modern evangelicals and The New York Times.

Yes, this is linked to that much-discussed Times feature that ran with this headline: “ ‘God Is Going to Have to Forgive Me’: Young Evangelicals Speak Out.” How did this piece come to be?

With just days left before the midterm elections — two years after President Trump won the White House with a record share of white, evangelical support — we asked young evangelicals to tell The Times about the relationship between their faith and their politics.

Nearly 1,500 readers replied, from every state but Alaska and Vermont. Hundreds wrote long essays about their families and communities. They go to prominent megachurches as well as small Southern Baptist, nondenominational and even mainline Protestant congregations. Some said they have left evangelicalism altogether.

Yes, 1,500 young evangelicals is an impressive number. At the same time, as several digital correspondents told me, it’s amazing the degree to which the voices in this unscientific survey that ended up in print — in the world’s most powerful newspaper — sound exactly like you would expect young evangelical Times readers to sound.

Please read the Times piece for yourself.

Then turn to this friendly commentary about this Times feature written by one of America’s most outspoken #NeverTrump evangelical scribes — religious-liberty expert David French, a Harvard Law School graduate who writes for National Review.

But before we get there, please think about this snippet from Letter 25 by master Screwtape, a letter with tremendous relevance for Trumpian evangelicals of all ages as well as the leaders of the growing evangelical left:

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Seattle Times tells winsome story of a year of Jubilee and generous Pentecostal landlords

Seattle Times tells winsome story of a year of Jubilee and generous Pentecostal landlords

It was the kind of story I rarely see in the Seattle Times.

We’re talking about a religion piece that is, well, positive about people with strong religious beliefs.

In recent years, religion headlines were mostly about Mark Driscoll, the former pastor of Mars Hill, once the city’s largest church. The rise and fall of that congregation left a sour taste in the mouths of many who wanted faith to not be so poisonous.

In this story written by the newspaper’s real estate writer –- the Seattle Times does not have a religion reporter –- we hear about how a pair of Pentecostal Christians are employing an Old Testament rule that dates back at least 3,000 years to apply to the 21st century.

Husband and wife Kory Slaatthaug and Mickey Bambrick are landlords. For the past half-century, Slaatthaug’s family has owned a small apartment building in Greenwood named for the Norwegian town where Kory’s father grew up.

They’re also devout Pentecostal Christians. When Slaatthaug, a 74-year-old retired carpenter, does repairs at the building, he drives there in a Jeep with a 4-foot-tall Bible on top.

The Old Testament has a passage about the year of jubilee — every 50 years, debts are to be forgiven.

So Slaatthaug and Bambrick are celebrating the family’s 50 years as property owners by doing something unheard of for a landlord: For the month of November, everyone in the 11-unit building goes rent-free.

Which is about $15,000 out of their bank account. Apparently the reporter spotted the story on Reddit and realized this couple’s complex is in a very nice section of Seattle. The couple apparently can’t afford the city’s stratospheric rents themselves; they live two counties away in Mt. Vernon, Wash.

But the property referred to in the article is worth $1.3 million, which they will hopefully get when it comes time to sell.

The jubilee-year reference that inspired the gift comes from Leviticus 25. It describes a process whereby slaves would be freed and debts would be forgiven every 50 years in ancient Israel.

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You’ll collect story ideas and contacts galore at religious eggheads’ annual extravaganza

You’ll collect story ideas and contacts galore at religious eggheads’ annual extravaganza

Each year, thousands upon thousands of religion scholars assemble during the days preceding Thanksgiving for simultaneous conventions of the American Academy of Religion (AAR) and the professional counterpart for Scripture specialists, the Society of Biblical Literature (SBL). This year, the two organizations gather November 17-20, in Denver. Coverage this month, or planned for a year hence, is a good investment for forward-looking media with the cash and the interest.

The Religion Guy has attended several of these egghead extravaganzas and attests that it’s no simple task. The 300 pages of program listings accessible here (.pdf) and here (.pdf) offer many #MEGO (my eyes glaze over) sessions aimed at specialists. But you’ll discover journalistic wheat amid the hyper-technical chaff, usually concepts for future stories rather than breaking news (though one year The Guy scored a dandy AP spot story).

Equally important, you can prowl the exhibit hall and corridors to greet and collect contact info from a dizzying variety of expert sources. AAR’s communications director Amy Parker can facilitate coverage of both the AAR and SBL (phone 404-727-1401 or email via that website mentioned above).

The two conventions are such a magnet that several organizations schedule meetings in conjunction with the big show, as in the following examples.

Speakers at the Biblical Archaeology Review “fest” November 16-18 will range from star skeptic Bart Ehrman to evangelical exegete Ben Witherington. This magazine is in the business of translating historical disputes for non-specialists and it’s must reading for reporters who want to follow such developments.

Westar Institute, whose much-publicized “Jesus Seminar” strived to debunk New Testament authenticity, will meet November 16 on two follow-up projects, promoting varied movements that fought orthodoxy in Christianity’s early centuries, and pondering “post-theism,” including this: “Why should we talk about God at all?”

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Pittsburgh surprised many: But not those who repeatedly reported rising American anti-Semitism

Pittsburgh surprised many: But not those who repeatedly reported rising American anti-Semitism

Some 15 years ago I wrote a piece on anti-Semitism for an online Jewish publication that began as follows: “It is an irony of Jewish life that it took the Holocaust to give anti-Semitism a bad name. So widespread was international revulsion over the annihilation of six million Jews that following World War II anti-Semitism, even of the polite variety, became the hatred one dared not publicly express. But only for a time.”

Saturday’s synagogue massacre in Pittsburgh underscored how anti-Semitism is no longer the hatred one dares not publicly express — though that’s been obvious for some time to all who cared to recognize it. I've tried to make the point in numerous GetReligion posts.

The details of what happened in Pittsburg, on the Jewish Sabbath, are by now well known, thanks to the wall-to-wall coverage, much of it sympathetic, detailed and excellent — including their understanding of the Jewish religious and communal aspects.

The extensive coverage is entirely appropriate, I’d say. Because more than just a display of vicious anti-Semitism, what happened in Pittsburg was an American tragedy. It underscored how threatened the nation is today by our corrosive political environment.

That’s likely to continue, if not intensify, regardless of the outcome of next week’s midterm elections.

The coverage I’ve found most worthwhile has not been the breaking news stories, though the facts of the story are certainly critical. Instead, it's the "explainers" that have actually repeated what I've read over and over in Jewish, Israeli and even mainstream American and European media for years now. And which I believe is what the vast majority of self-aware diaspora Jews have long known and feared — that Pittsburgh was only a matter of time.

I highlight them here to underscore what I believe is a critical point. That Jews or any other minority can only be safe in a pluralistic society that tolerates — no, embraces — diversity, be it religious, ethnic, racial or opinion (the last within broad reason; no yelling fire in crowded theaters).

One news backgrounder I liked is this comprehensive story from The Washington Post that ran Sunday. Here’s its lede:

This is what they had long been fearing. As the threats increased, as the online abuse grew increasingly vicious, as the defacing of synagogues and community centers with swastikas became more commonplace, the possibility of a violent attack loomed over America’s Jewish communities.

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Beach house sequel: Father Boniface Ramsey details his efforts to report 'Uncle Ted' McCarrick

Beach house sequel: Father Boniface Ramsey details his efforts to report 'Uncle Ted' McCarrick

The complex story of scandals linked to the life and sins of ex-cardinal Theodore McCarrick rolls on — with the most interesting material being reporting in various forms of Catholic media. In mainstream newsrooms, most of the coverage continues to focus on clergy abuse with children and teens.

As always, “seminaries” is the key search term to use, if you want to research news about the “system” looming over the scandal as a whole — which includes the sexual abuse of children (pedophilia), teens (ephebophilia) and adults (usually seminarians). The McCarrick story includes all three, but his sexual harassment and abuse of seminarians lasted for decades.

This past weekend, I used our regular “think piece” slot to point readers toward a Commonweal essay — “Double Lives” — by retired Newsweek religion pro Kenneth Woodward.

I normally don’t post “think piece” essays on weekdays, but this time I want to make an exception. The Commonweal team has followed that earlier Woodward essay with a first-person account by Father Boniface Ramsey of New York City, focusing on his efforts to convince church authorities to look into what McCarrick was doing, all those years.

The headline is pretty ho-hum, as in “The Case of Theodore McCarrick: A Failure of Fraternal Correction.” The contents? They’re stunning. It’s hard to know what to quote, since journalists working on this story really need to read it all.

The bottom line: Vatican authorities tend to use the word “rumors” to describe reports about McCarrick. Ramsey says that’s the wrong word. This passage is near the top of his piece:

What the seminarians would talk about among themselves and with some members of the faculty were experiences that they themselves had undergone, or that they had heard others had undergone. It may have been gossip, but it was gossip about real events.

Most people who have been following the case of Theodore McCarrick know by now that he had a beach house on the Jersey Shore at his disposal and that he would regularly request seminarians to visit it with him. This is how it went: he or his secretary would contact the seminary and ask for five specific seminarians, or would just contact the seminarians directly. Understandably, a request from one’s archbishop could not easily be refused.

When McCarrick and the five seminarians arrived at the beach house, there were six men and only five beds.

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Lots of news stories linked to this one: Does modern science rule out religious faith?

Lots of news stories linked to this one: Does modern science rule out religious faith?

THE QUESTION above, in the headline, and current developments depicted below, involve skeptics’ long-running assertion that modern science makes religion outmoded and it should be discarded as irrational.

Is faith still credible in our scientific age? How do devout scientists view this supposed “war” between science and religion?

THE RELIGION GUY’S ANSWER:

Gary Saul Morson, a Russia expert at Northwestern University, offers an important analysis of why the purportedly “scientific” — and horridly bloodthirsty — Soviet regime worked zealously to exterminate all religion (see the October issue of Commentary Magazine). But here The Guy will bypass political atheism’s track record.

Nor will this item survey the continual scientific and anecdotal evidence that religious involvement fosters physical and emotional well-being and positive life outcomes. Philosophy professor Stephen Asma, for one, hails these benefits even though he’s an agnostic bordering on atheism (see “Religion Q & A” for August 11).

Instead, The Guy focuses first on new research by British scholars Michael Buhrmester at the University of Oxford, Jonathan Lanman at Queen’s University, Lois Lee at the University of Kent, Valerie van Mulukom at Coventry University, and Anna Strhan and Rachael Shillitoe at the University of York.

Lee, who studies why youths become atheists, says non-believers usually think this results strictly from rational inquiry. But “science increasingly shows that atheists are no more rational than theists,” and thinking otherwise is unscientific — indeed “irrational”! She finds that people on both sides of the God divide are shaped similarly by environmental influences like group-think, charismatic individuals, and how their parents raised them.

Atheistic parents pass on their outlook like religious believers do, more through shared culture than rational arguments, she reports. Non-religious parents often say children should choose for themselves but inevitably convey attitudes about religion. Not surprisingly, 95 percent of children from atheistic homes “choose” atheism.

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Walking in the maze of labyrinth wars? This USA Today Network story sits out that debate

Walking in the maze of labyrinth wars? This USA Today Network story sits out that debate

Here is what I have learned about prayer labyrinths, during my decades on the religion beat.

Progressive Episcopalians love them, big time.

Evangelical Episcopalians hate them or, at the very least, worry about how they can be abused.

Progressive Catholics love them, big time.

Conservative Catholics hate them or, at the very least, worry about how they can be abused.

You may have noticed a pattern.

The arguments about labyrinths center on church history, theology, ancient myths and trends in modern “spirituality,” especially the many innovations that came to be labeled “New Age.” When writing about this topic, I have learned that it helps to focus on the doctrinal contents, and the origins, of the prayers that people are taught to recite while walking inside a labyrinth.

It’s hard to do a basic online search on this topic without hitting waves of information by those who embrace the use of labyrinths (examples here and then here) and those who reject them (examples here and then here).

This brings me to a long recent USA Today Network-Tennessee feature that ran with this headline: “Set in stone or brick, East Tennessee labyrinths are meditative walks for prayer.” This article, literally, could be used in a public-relations release about this particular labyrinth, since it contains ZERO information from critics. Here is the overture (this is long, but essential):

It's dusk on a September Tuesday as two dozen people step, silently and deliberately, around a twisting brick courtyard path at St. John's Episcopal Cathedral.

A few walk barefoot. Some carry candles or glow sticks. Most bow their heads in silent meditation or prayer as they follow the turns of St. John's brick and mortar labyrinth.

Candles and spotlights set among the garden surrounding the labyrinth cast shadows.

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