Oh, those Christmas cover stories

newsweek coverWhat is it about Christmas these days that brings the fightin' out in journalists? First there are the way over-hyped Christmas Wars stories. Then there were the recent magazine covers that obstinately forced our Christmas focus back to the culture wars.

I understand that news magazines feel compelled to do Christmas covers because they sell well. Hooking the article to relevant issues gives readers something to talk about at the Christmas party. But one-sided articles that attempt to establish historical and theological theories or movements as fact or trends should not pass for quality journalism belonging on the cover of a national news magazine.

The less offensive culprit is Newsweek, which wrote a half-intelligent article dated Dec. 18 about how "Jewish family values" from the time of Jesus' birth have helped shape the morals that still affect us today. The article starts out as a very compelling narrative but sadly devolves into a thinly researched treatise that somehow passes for news reporting.

But to its credit, Newsweek does not try to draw any grand conclusion and instead concludes with one of those vague cop-out statements that tells the reader nothing:

No matter what one thinks of Jesus of Nazareth -- that he was the Son of God, an interesting prophetic figure or a religious provocateur with particularly prolific followers -- surely we can agree that he was no ordinary man.

Yes, can we please at least agree on that? If you don't, well, then you must be the Grinch.

us news coverU.S. News & World Report seems to also agree that Jesus was something else. In its attempt to interpret the culture wars, the magazine's cover piece from Dec. 18 stretches credulity in asserting that "new research" supposedly suggests what has been talked about for 2,000 years. Exactly how is that news?

"In Search of the Real Jesus: New research questions whether he was more teacher than savior" discusses how Gnosticism is the background battle for today's culture wars over sex, biblical interpretation and the divinity of Jesus Christ.

I give the magazine's editors credit for portraying the issue as a long-running debate within Christianity, but their attempts to hype new documents and research are immediately dampened when they include those theologians who believe that the Gnostic gospels have the theological value of damp rags. Yes, Gnosticism is a story, but don't portray it as the next big thing, at least not yet.

Early on in the article, reporter Jay Tolson does not hide his belief that non-Gnostics are "close-minded" and that early church opponents of the Gnostics were "heresy hunters." I cringed when Tolson quoted Princeton's Elaine Pagels saying that Christianity would have been "a more appealingly rational, tolerant, and expansive creed had the orthodox not suppressed it."

The first third of the article is spent building the case for Gnosticism, followed by a well-presented rebuttal from Anglican bishop and author N.T. Wright. But my hopes for balance in the article were crushed by this paragraph near the end:

If the Gnostic perspective is not really that new, and if its seminal ideas are already planted in the heart of modern western, and particularly American, culture, why are the defenders of orthodoxy so troubled by the arguments of modern Gnostic enthusiasts? Perhaps it is a matter of self-defense on the part of those who see delicate historical and theological truths on the verge of demolition. From the second to the 20th century, Johnson writes in the Roman Catholic journal Commonweal, the "tripod of creed, canon, and apostolic succession not only shaped Christian orthodoxy but provided the strategy for Christian self-definition. ... Today, I would argue, a 'new Gnosticism' not only threatens the shape of Christian faith, but does so by questioning the reliability and authenticity of this traditional frame of self-understanding."

The article has a few other inconsistencies and illogical statements -- such as a claim that Gnostics' understanding of Jesus made priests and churches irrelevant to salvation, as if Jesus were not already the center -- but the article is appropriately in-depth. It just failed to cover both sides fairly.

Also, how do you write about the Gnostic gospels without mentioning that they were written centuries after the books included in the New Testament? And why is that relevant from a historian's perspective? There is a mention of how the official canon was established by Archbishop Athanasius in 367, but that's it. Where have we seen this mistake made before by journalists? Oh yeah, here, with the hype around "The Gospel of Judas."

From a research and writing perspective, neither article is bad. The opinions and views put forth are all legitimate. But this is not journalism. This is advocacy essay-writing with a vague attempt to philosophize about religion and current events.

So what should these magazines be doing instead? Perhaps take the same subjects, tone down the headlines and take a more sober look at the subjects. These are good topics to write about. The Newsweek piece is somewhat random, but I am actually very glad that a national news magazine is writing about Gnosticism. I just wish it would use journalism to do so.

Also, I want to second tmatt's post and call for a more thorough look at the decline of religiously themed holiday cards. That won't make for enough material for a cover article, but enough consumer data exist to develop a decent holiday trend story.

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