The strange case of tmatt and the twisted pronoun

As a journalism professor, one of the toughest challenges that I face is helping students learn how to avoid what I call "buried pronoun disease." We all use pronouns all the time and, when journalists interviewing people, they must be careful to make sure to keep the pronouns straight. When a bishop says, "If our church keeps doing that, we are going to slide right into a fiery abyss," it's pretty important to know precisely what the word "that" meant, to know to which earlier noun it was linked in the bishop's previous remarks.

I have reasons to bring this up and, in this case, I want to make it clear that I do not think that the reporter is to blame for any of this confusion. I know that the reporter -- veteran Cathy Grossman of USA Today -- had the information down straight because she was interviewing me and I know what we discussed and in what order we discussed it.

So what is the subject? The Rev. Harold Camping and his apocalyptic May 21 line in the dirt, of course. The headline atop the resulting news story: "Doomsday predictions no laughing matter for some."

Here is how I would word the key question in Grossman's interview with me: "Some Christians are upset that comedians and others are making fun of Camping and his attempt at predicting the precise timing of the Second Coming of Jesus. Why are they so upset?"

We talked about several issues, but the key is that I stressed that many traditional Christians were upset because some journalists could not seem to separate Camping's beliefs -- rooted in a very specific camp within the much larger world of conservative evangelical Protestantism -- from ancient Christian beliefs about the mystery of when Christ would return. The Second Coming, as I mentioned the other day in a GetReligion post, is in the Nicene Creed. That's not a fringe belief, in terms of basic Christian doctrines.

Camping's views are linked to whole "Left Behind" world of Premillennial Dispensationalism, a relatively modern -- as opposed to ancient -- method of biblical interpretation that flourished in the 20th century. This is the whole world of "the Book of Revelations tells us how many Israeli jets can land on the head of a pin when Iran gets the bomb" exegesis and so forth and so on.

When you look at the Christian world, belief in the Second Coming is normal. Belief that someone can pin a time and a date on this mystery is not normal. It may be common in a minority slice of believers, but not in the church as a whole.

So with that thought in mind, here is a piece of the Grossman report in which I am quoted, including a quote that surely made many of my friends at church and in the news biz scratch their heads.

The Center for Inquiry -- a voice of atheists and secularists -- took note of a Pew Forum survey finding that "41% say Jesus Christ will return within the next 40 years" and called it "both disturbing and unfortunate that so many still cling to what can only be described as a fairy tale."

Terry Mattingly, founder of the religion media critique site, tracked public reaction post-May 21 with dismay.

"When you laugh at this, you're laughing at Mainline Protestants and creedal Christians -- Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, Anglicans, Lutherans and more. You're laughing at everyone from Billy Graham to the pope, laughing at historic Christianity," Mattingly says.

Mattingly suggests people go with the old bumper sticker advice: "'Jesus is coming. Get busy.' It means, 'Do the work you are supposed to do and just don't sweat it.' "

First of all, note that the Pew Forum survey introduced yet another twist on Second Coming beliefs -- citing the number of believers who say they believe that "Jesus Christ will return within the next 40 years." Note that this answer did not require anyone to say that they knew when this event happen or whether they thought it was possible to predict its timing. People who said "yes" to question could be Premillennial Dispensationalists -- or not. There's no way to know.

Enter moi -- with a pronoun.

So what does the word "this" mean, in the quote that beings "When you laugh at this"?

It appears that "this" refers to the May 21 event in general. It could refer, somehow, to the "40 years then boom" crowd. But in terms of strict grammar, "this" would refer to "public reaction post-May 21" or something like that -- which makes no sense. I suspect some cutting took place in that part of this USA Today article.

So to what noun did "this" refer in the actual interview? What was I talking about? Well, "this" referred to the ancient belief in the Second Coming, as expressed in the Nicene Creed. See how that links to my references to mainliners, Catholics, the Orthodox, Lutherans and others? Note the word "creedal"? Then I mention Billy Graham and the pope, in that context. Graham has always had a strong belief that the Second Coming is near, but has never been interested in predicting a precise time of arrival.

In other words, I was saying that the tsunami of media laughter at the beliefs of Camping & Co. seemed, at times, to be turning into derision of a basic and ancient Christian belief, in part because many journalists and comedians (not necessarily in that order) might not know the difference between, well, "Left Behind" and the Nicene Creed.

That could lead to some horribly inaccurate journalism, as well as some devilish media elitism in which scores of believers are mocked and smeared. That would be bad.

Image: I could not find an image of a more faithful "Get Busy" bumper sticker, cup, t-shirt, etc.

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