Religion Writing 101: Parsing the language of true believers at the Dome of the Rock

Let's talk Religion Writing 101 for a moment. Which of the following statements is most appropriate in a mainstream news publication? 

I. "The crowd gathered at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the ancient sanctuary containing the tomb where Jesus Christ was raised from the dead."

II. "The crowd gathered at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the ancient sanctuary containing the remains of a tomb where Christians believe Jesus was raised from the dead."

III. "The crowd gathered at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the ancient sanctuary containing the remains of a tomb that early Christians said is the place where Jesus was raised from the dead."

What is going on in these three wordings?

The first accepts a statement of Christian faith as historical fact, with no attribution of any kind. This language is often seen -- appropriately so -- in traditional Christian publications.

The second uses the word "believe" as part of this journalistic equation, noting that this fact claim is something Christians believe, while others may disagree.

The third statement adds more content with its factual reference to the early church, which gives the claim some authority, yet also accurately implies that (a) many Christians (especially Protestants) disagree that this sanctuary contains the site of the resurrection and/or (b) that some doctrinal progressives reject belief in the resurrection, yet continue to identify as Christians. Whenever possible, I'm an option III guy.

Why bring this up? This is actually a relevant topic in light of some interesting language in a Washington Post story that ran under the headline, "Meet the Israeli mom who called Muhammad a pig -- at al-Aqsa mosque." The young Jewish mother in question is 20-year-old Aviya Morris, an instant celebrity in a small niche on the Jewish right.

With our Religion Writing 101 lesson in mind, let's dissect a key chunk of this story:

Two weeks ago, Morris, her husband and their baby, named Liberty Zion, left their Jewish settlement in Shiloh in the West Bank to visit the raised esplanade in the heart of Jerusalem’s Old City that Jews call the Temple Mount and Muslims call the Noble Sanctuary.

So far, so good, with the claims of two faith groups noted.

The walled compound is sacred to both religions -- and the flash point these days for frequent desultory clashes -- where Jews believe the world began and Abraham had his hand stayed by an angel of God before he struck a fatal blow against Isaac. Here Jews built their First and Second temples.

Things get more complicated. Note the "Jews believe" language attached to claims about the importance of this site. Ah, but do all people who identify as Jews agree? Perhaps another word or two of information would help explain why this issue is so divisive for Jews today?

The Jewish settlement of Yitzhar has been branded by fellow Israelis as one of the most extreme in the West Bank, but residents say they are being persecuted. It is also the site of Islam’s golden Dome of the Rock and al-Aqsa mosque, which marks the ascension of the prophet Muhammad on his night journey to heaven.

Now, what is going on in the reference to the al-Aqsa mosque? What is missing here and why? 

Simply stated, does everyone in Jerusalem -- or the modern world, for that matter -- agree that the mosque rests on the spot that "marks the ascension of the prophet Muhammad on his night journey to heaven"? Also, do all people who still identify as Muslims agree on that point?

So, why the type I language for this point of Islamic doctrine and history? Where is the "believe" language that mainstream journalists normally use?

I raise this point because this Post article contains many minefields on related topics and, elsewhere, the newspaper's editors are ultra-careful in the language used when attributing fact claims. Note the following near the end:

Members of the various Temple Mount movements, funded by American sponsors, say all they want are equal rights to pray, while others prepare for the day when the Third Temple will be rebuilt and do not advocate for the destruction of the mosque. Instead, they are searching for the perfect red heifer to usher in the new age.
But some activists say they want that day now. Asked if she imagined a future when Jews and Muslims could share the sacred site, Morris said no. “There’s no good solution,” she said. “You can’t share it. There’s no partition. It wouldn’t work. There is no point in trying.”
She said the Torah contains “exact guidelines” for building the Third Temple. “If it were up to us,” Morris said, “we’d rebuild it now. That’s our solution.”

This is what normal journalism sounds like -- with lots of attribution clauses.

Let me stress that journalists simply must be careful with these kinds of fact claims since they come up in story after story after story.

Example: Is it a fact that marriage is between a man and a woman? Well, it's a fact that, for thousands of years, Christians, Jews, Muslims and believers in other world religions have believed and taught that. But it is also a fact that, today, there are religious believers, including doctrinally liberal Christians, who disagree. Precision matters.

Did God create the heavens and the earth? What about reincarnation issues linked to the Dalai Lama? Is the Book of Mormon "Christian" scripture? Are Jews the chosen people and does God want them to live in Israel?

I think you see the point. So, Post editors, are the fact claims of all believers created equal?

IMAGE: Screenshot from Israel news coverage.

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