This whole week, I have been in Prague in the Czech Republic, teaching in a conference for young journalists -- most of whom are from Eastern Europe.
You will not be surprised to learn that I have been lecturing on the importance of accurate, informed news coverage of religion. And that led right into this week's (long distance) Crossroads podcast. Click here to tune that in.
Since I am in serious soccer territory, I talked about my post earlier this week that ran with this headline: "Telegraph hits some sour notes in a simple story about a footballer becoming a priest." I told them that this was not a horrible story, but it contained many awkward, simple, rather stupid mistakes.
What, I asked, if you were a soccer fan and you kept reading stories by reporters who did not know the difference between a striker and a goalie, between a corner kick and a brilliant cross during a breakaway, between the World Cup and the Euro championships? After a while, wouldn't you lose some faith in that newspaper, in its commitment to quality?
This, I said, is how millions of people feel when they read twisted, flawed religion-news coverage.
But what, several of the students said, if you really don't think religion matters? That you believe that religious faith is basically meaningless or worse?
It doesn't matter, I argued. Do you think you need to understand religion to cover the Middle East? How about European arguments about immigration? How about the 2016 USA White House race?
In other words, I made a SOCIOLOGICAL case for religion coverage, not a THEOLOGICAL case. I have known atheists who were fine religion-beat pros, because they grasped the role that religion played in public and private life.
So then a student from the former Soviet bloc asked: So, would you argue that Communism was a religion?
That's a great question. Communism certainly claimed to know the answers to lots of ultimate questions. It certainly had a doctrine of Man. It had an elaborate symbol system.
That's when I thought of this question, which I will leave you with, gentle readers: Why did Soviet leaders want Lenin's dead body to remain shiny and new? See the top of this Moscow Times piece for more info:
He lies in a glass sarcophagus. His eyes are closed, reddish beard and mustache trimmed, and his hands rest calmly on his thighs. Dressed in an austere black suit, Vladimir Lenin, the first Soviet leader, looks, on first impressions, to be sleeping. His image is so lifelike that it often scares children. Many adults assume it is a waxwork, rather than the actual body of someone who died 92 years ago.
And yet, it is Lenin's body, at least in part. If carefully monitored, nurtured and re-embalmed regularly, scientists believe it can last for centuries.
The correct answer, of course, is: "Because this is a powerful symbol IN RUSSIA." It shows that he was more than a merely great man, even if it takes the wonders of science to make the body look good as new (sort of).
Why is this important in Russia? Click here and think about it.