Ask most Americans to name the most important day on the Christian calendar and I'm afraid (as a guy who took a bunch of church history classes) that the answer you will hear the most is "Christmas."
That is a very, very American answer. As the old saying goes, the two most powerful influences on the U.S. economy are the Pentagon and Christmas. There's no question which holiday puts the most shoppers in malls and ads in newspapers (grabbing the attention of editors).
But, as a matter of liturgical reality, there is no question that the most important holy day for Christians is Easter, called "Pascha" in the churches of the East. I realize that St. Paul is not an authoritative voice, in terms of Associated Press style, but this is how he put it:
... If Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith. More than that, we are then found to be false witnesses about God, for we have testified about God that he raised Christ from the dead. But he did not raise him if in fact the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised either. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost. If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.
Now, I am not here to argue about doctrine. What "Crossroads" host Todd Wilken and I talked about during this week's podcast (click here to check that out) was the fact that what religious believers affirm in terms in doctrine often plays a crucial role in how they live and act. Thus, it is often wise for reporters to ask core doctrinal questions in order to spot fault lines inside Christian communities, especially during times of conflict.
Here at GetReligion, I have repeatedly mentioned (some witty readers once proposed a drinking game linked to this) the "tmatt trio" of doctrinal questions that I have used for several decades now. Here is a version taken from some of my conversations with the late George Gallup, Jr.
* Are biblical accounts of the resurrection of Jesus accurate? Did this happen?
* Is salvation found through Jesus, alone? Was Jesus being literal when he said, "I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life. No one comes to the Father except through me."
* Is sex outside of marriage a sin?
Note which question is No. 1. Also, note that this question -- in addition to focusing on the resurrection -- raises questions about biblical authority and the trustworthiness of 2,000 of years of Christian Tradition (yes, with a large-T).
This brings us to the recent BBC survey about Easter that was the focus of my "On Religion" column this week for the Universal syndicate.
Since when is Easter controversial? In this case, BBC asked a doctrinal question that clearly revealed that the resurrection -- as has been the case for 2,000 years -- remains the controversial cornerstone of Christian faith.
First of all, I mentioned that Pope Francis took the unusual step, during an off-the-cuff Easter sermon this year, of directly defending belief in the resurrection, saying:
“Today the church continues to say: Jesus has risen from the dead. ... This is not a fantasy. It’s not a celebration with many flowers,” he said, surrounded by Easter pageantry.
Flowers are nice, but the resurrection is more, he added. “It is the mystery of the rejected stone that ends up being the cornerstone of our existence. Christ has risen from the dead."
As for the BBC survey itself, it claimed that many self-identified British Christians have rejected, or watered down, biblical claims that Jesus rose from the dead. The headline on the BBC.com report proclaimed: “Resurrection did not happen, say quarter of Christians.”
Among the survey’s claims, as I stated things in my column:
* Only 17 percent of the participants said they believe biblical accounts of the resurrection are “word-for-word” true.
* In all, 31 percent of “Christians” believe the Bible accounts word-for-word, with that total rising to 57 percent among active Christians -- defined as those who attend worship services at least once a month.
* Half of the survey participants said they don’t believe in the resurrection at all.
Ah, but who is a "Christian"? The headline was based on the assumption that anyone who called themselves a Christian was in fact a Christian.
Meanwhile, an Anglican priest who is both a theologian and a mathematician dug deeper into the BBC numbers and noted that the beliefs of people who frequent altars every week (or nearly that) are radically different from those who rarely do so. The Rev. Ian Paul concluded:
... On question after question linked to Easter, “inactive Christians look far more like the non-Christians than the active Christians.”
Another outspoken Anglican priest -- who is attempting to leave the Church of England -- went further, in a Telegraph story reacting to the BBC poll. That blunt headline proclaimed: "You can't be Christian if you don't believe in the resurrection, says former Queen's chaplain." Here's the top of that story:
A former chaplain to the Queen has said that the quarter of Christians who say they do not believe in the Resurrection "cannot be Christians".
The Rev Dr Gavin Ashenden said in a letter to the Times that a survey which found that one in four self-proclaimed Christians do not believe in Jesus's Resurrection "made the mistake of confusing British culture with Christianity". He said: "Those people who neither believe in the Resurrection nor go anywhere near a church cannot be 'Christians'.
"As with so many things, the key is in the definition of terms. Discovering the evidence for the Resurrection having taken place to be wholly compelling is one of the things that makes you a Christian; ergo, if you haven’t, you are not."
So what is the journalism takeaway here?
Think of it this way: How many have you seen news reports about "Catholic voters" when there were massive differences in the views of Catholics who are daily or weekly Mass attenders and those who rarely take part in the sacraments of their faith? Should journalists pay attention?
How about in Judaism: Does participation in temple or synagogue worship services have anything to do with intermarriage rates? Should journalists pay attention?
One more: During the 2016 presidential race, remember the emerging evidence that the early Donald Trump enthusiasts tended to be less active in mainstream evangelical churches than those who backed other conservative candidates? Should journalists have paid attention?
What people believe often influences how they live and act. You know the old saying that culture is "upstream of politics"? Well, when you are talking about matters of faith, morality and culture, doctrine is often upstream of culture, which is upstream of politics.
Politics, of course, matter to journalists. So maybe it's time for more journalists to join BBC in asking a few blunt questions about doctrine?