The iMacs on my desks at home and work share many things in common, including an overflowing (digitally speaking) email folder called "GetRel guilt." This file is full of really good, really bad or really interesting religion-news stories that I really, really wanted to write about on this weblog. However, something bad happened along the way and things just kind of slid until the topic was simply too old. Most of the time, the topic of the story is so important that I am simply too intimidated to write about it without pouring several hours of careful writing into the post. There are many times when -- with my full-time academic job, starting a new program in which I am the director and lead lecturer -- I just don't have the time. Oh, and I write the "On Religion" column for Scripps Howard as well.
Thus, several times a week, I drag another couple of stories over to the "GetRel guilt" file, because my co-workers -- working journalists, all -- are too busy to write about them either. I imagine that they have their own guilt files.
Meanwhile, the waterfall of news roars on. And, in the midst of this, readers are constantly submitting links to stories from newspapers, magazines, wire services and networks that they want us to cover on the blog. Most of these tips are really good and we appreciate them very much, especially those from newspapers in cities and lands far from the oceans of ink poured out on the east and west coasts. There is no way that we can read even a tenth of the news that we would like to read. Television news is another major gap.
My guess is that we get about 10 to 15 of these news tips during a typical weekday, when traffic on the site is heaviest. Add that to the dozen or so items that the GetReligionistas share with each other day after day, as we try to figure out what we have the time or the smarts to write about on any given day while we do our various jobs.
So a week or so ago, a reader sent in the URL for a New York Times piece by Michael Slackman that ran with the headline "Did the Red Sea Part? No Evidence, Archaeologists Say." It focused on a tour of digs that Dr. Zahi Hawass, Egypt's chief archaeologist, provided for a pack of journalists. This media event
... prompted a reporter to ask about the Exodus, and if the new evidence was linked in any way to the story of Passover. The archaeological discoveries roughly coincided with the timing of the Israelites' biblical flight from Egypt and the 40 years of wandering the desert in search of the Promised Land.
"Really, it's a myth," Dr. Hawass said of the story of the Exodus, as he stood at the foot of a wall built during what is called the New Kingdom.
Thus, our reader commented:
... (P)lease understand that I am not necessarily saying THERE IS compelling physical evidence of the Exodus. I have my own questions about Biblical "history." I am only commenting on the quality of this story and the major play it received in the NY Times, "the paper of record."
I believe this story deserves comment on several levels:
(a) It's a standard "where's the beef?" story that pops up around every major "historically based" religious celebration -- Jewish, Christian or whatever (well, maybe not all of them). This particular story line has been done for years in connection with Passover, which leads one to wonder why the Times bothered to redo it.
(b) The only source quoted touting the no-evidence line is an Egyptian, apparently a government official (no academic connection is mentioned so how else do you get to be Egypt's chief anything?), which makes him suspect in this context, given Israel's conflict with Egypt (despite the peace treaty) and the Arab history of seeking to deny any Jewish historical connection to the Holy Land for religious/political reasons.
(c) The counter voice by another Egyptian is deeply buried at the story's very end.
(d) This piece talks only about one possible route into Sinai. There has been speculation about several possible routes.
(e) The writer fails to note that no proof it happened differs from proof that it did not happen.
Excellent points, all the way around. I remember thinking that I wish I could run this as an item on GetReligion, in large part because this particular reader is a religion-writing pro named Ira Rifkin. If you don't know that byline, Rifkin is best known as the former national correspondent for Religion News Service, founding news producer for Beliefnet.com and Washington correspondent for The Jerusalem Report magazine. His most recent book is Spiritual Perspectives on Globalization: Making Sense of Economic and Cultural Upheaval and you can read his work in lots of other places, as well.
But I didn't get to that article and my co-workers didn't, either.
As you can tell, I didn't throw it away. It was, however, almost certainly headed to the GetRel guilt file.
A few days later, another note showed up from Rifkin. It was blunt and it stung, in large parts because I agreed with much of it. It certainly needed to be taken seriously. Here is a shortened version:
The creators of any publication, online or dead wood, have the right to decide subject matter and perspective. Readers who differ can go elsewhere or start their own publication. So it is with some hesitancy that I write the following.
I'm a veteran religion journalist who reads GetReligion with some regularity because I agree with the blog's basic premise -- which is that one cannot understand human actions and world events without first understanding religious motivations, and that the popular media too often fails in its responsibility when it comes to covering religion. This is particularly so when the religious are traditional in nature. ...
Reading the blog's "Why We're Here" page I am led to believe that critiquing popular journalism's coverage of religion is the blog's raison d'etre. There is no mention of a desire to spur insider wrangling over Christian theology, criticism of liberal Christian thinking or to evangelize from a traditional perspective. Also not mentioned is any desire to in any way limit the blog to Christian issues, even though most American media religion coverage is -- and rightly so from a demographic perspective -- about Christian issues and individuals.
Nonetheless, I find the blog to be Christian-centric in a way that contradicts the "Why We're Here" page. I concede that I could be overly sensitive on this point as a non-Christian. I'm a practicing Jew; my theology is unorthodox but my practice leans toward what might be described as a blend of liberal and traditional. Moreover, I consider my faith tradition, in all its permutations, to be under considerable if not existential threat from external and internal pressures.
What prompts me to write this is GetReligion's apparent decision not to comment on a story I submitted that ran in the New York Times last week under the headline: "Did the Red Sea Part? No Evidence, Archaeologists Say." Perhaps it was inadvertently overlooked, or simply fell through the cracks because of Holy Week pressures, but several other important non-Christian stories I've sent in or have noticed in the major media also have not received comment by the editors. So I discern a pattern.
Why comment on Rachel Zoll's AP piece on debunking Easter stories and not Michael Slackman's Times story debunking Passover? I think anytime the Times gives prominent play to a controversial religion story it is worthy of GetReligion comment. ...
So tell me, am I out to lunch? Am I simply on another wave length? I welcome repudiation, though agreement would be nicer.
Like I said, it's an important letter. We've been dealing with some of these questions from day one or thereabouts (post No. 24), when Jeff "Killing the Buddha" Sharlet of The Revealer quipped that we want people to "get" religion -- our religion. I stressed that we are interested in mainstream news coverage and that, well, we have no plans to add a "Just As I Am, Without One Plea" soundtrack to the site. That remains the case.
We really have no interest in doctrinal fights unless they get woven into the news and, believe me, they often do. That's where the whole "tmatt trio" thing came from. Those edgy doctrinal questions grew out of my own work covering the Anglican wars, and I will argue again and again that they are valid, information-rich questions, if journalists want to dig beneath the political surface of that ongoing train wreck (and lots of other oldline Protestant stories, as well).
Obviously, reporters focusing on fault lines in Judaism, Islam, neopaganism and other newsworthy faiths would need to ask doctrinal questions appropriate to those groups. As an Orthodox rabbi in Denver once told me, when in doubt ask Jewish newsmakers if they believe in God and if they still believe in the state of Israel.
Meanwhile, I would like someone to show where the featured writers for this blog -- as opposed to folks on the comment boards -- have veered into evangelistic work. We are constantly trying to police the comments pages to try to get people to focus on the journalistic questions linked to the writing we do here. We should spike more comments than we do.
However, let me answer Rifkin's main question: Is GetReligion a "Christian" weblog?
The most honest answer is that it is a journalism blog produced by mainstream journalists who are traditional, creedal Christians -- Eastern Orthodox, Episcopalian, Lutheran and Presbyterian -- who have never hidden their religious convictions.
Yes, I am sure we tend to write about the topics that we know the most about, in part because we don't want to mess up. I, for one, am constantly aware that I am -- this is my goal -- writing to an audience of mainstream journalists and that I am also praising or dissecting the work of professionals. I also know that the GetReligion gang has never found a writer with the time to do a decent job covering religion news at the global level. That is another massive area of guilt.
I wish there were more hours in the day. I probably end up writing about one out of 10 news stories or topics that I want to write about. My GetRel guilt file keeps getting bigger.
Nevertheless, keep those news tips coming. And if you send us letters, as opposed to comments, please let us know whether we can publish them. We're looking for all the content we can get. Believe me.