Bethlehem

Middle East images: Week in Israel gives correspondent a different perspective on news (updated)

Middle East images: Week in Israel gives correspondent a different perspective on news (updated)

The New York Times had a front-page story this week on the strong partnership between Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, and U.S. President Donald Trump.

The Times described Trump as Netanyahu’s secret weapon in his “increasingly uphill re-election battle.”

The Associated Press, meanwhile, reported that Trump sees advantages in the current American debate over Israel and anti-Semitism.

I read both stories with a different perspective — and a heightened interest — after spending the past several days in Israel, my first visit ever to the Middle East.

I’m typing this post from my hotel room in Jerusalem. I’m here with a group of about a dozen U.S. religion journalists as part of the American Jewish Committee’s Project Interchange. The project aims to give participants an enhanced understanding of issues in this part of the world and make them think about tough questions. For me, it certainly has done that!

Rather than do a normal post while I am traveling, Terry Mattingly invited me to share a bit about the trip. Honestly, I’m still processing much of what I have seen. But I’ve learned so much as we’ve traveled via helicopter and bus to visit key sites all over Israel and heard from speakers representing a variety of perspectives.

We’re still in the middle of our itinerary — with a trip to Ramallah on today’s agenda — but here, via Twitter, are a few virtual postcards:

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Call the police: Baby Jesus has been stolen — and The New York Times has a compelling story about it

Call the police: Baby Jesus has been stolen — and The New York Times has a compelling story about it

I’m in Texas at my Mom and Dad’s house as I type this — about to enjoy a festive Christmas Eve breakfast with chocolate syrup and pancakes, white gravy and biscuits, sausage, bacon and assorted other fixings.

My wife, two of my children, my brother, sister, my sister-in-law and various nephews and a niece will join me in line as we start our Christmas celebration by eating way too much.

I mention the above mainly because it’s all I can think about at the moment, but also because it may help explain why this post will be pretty quick and to the point.

I’ve got somewhere else to be, don’t you know.

Seriously, I want to highlight two New York Times stories real briefly this morning — both about nativity scenes, but one a much more compelling read than the other.

The first story was featured on Sunday’s front page with the headline “Cameras, Bolts and an Elusive Goal: To Sleep in Heavenly Peace.”

It’s a creative, timely piece about a national trend of baby Jesus being swiped from Nativity scenes nationally, and the dateline — the setting for the story — is pure brilliance:

BETHLEHEM, Pa. — Away in a manger on Bethlehem’s public square, a woman approached a statue of the baby Jesus one dark, December night. Then she stole it.

The theft, from a Nativity scene outside City Hall, raised alarm in this eastern Pennsylvania city that shares a name with the real Jesus Christ’s birthplace.

When the missing baby Jesus was found, it had been damaged, and Bethlehem’s police chief had to glue its leg back on. Then the city took action, positioning a concealed security camera exclusively on baby Jesus and assigning police officers to monitor the footage. In the two years since, the statue has been left at peace, asleep on the hay as the camera, nicknamed the “Jesus cam” by some residents, rolls.

“If anybody looks real close, they’ll see a crack in his leg,” said Lynn Cunningham, a leader of the local chamber of commerce.

Such manger larceny, in glaring violation of the Eighth Commandment, is also part of a sad national trend. This year, thieves have raided Nativity scenes in Tennessee, West Virginia, Minnesota and plenty of other places, and made off with Jesus figurines (and sometimes Mary and a donkey, too).

In terms of clever writing, there are nice touches throughout. As for religion, the reporter doesn’t neglect it, including lines such as this:

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A path-breaking treatment of Luke’s Gospel could provide your Christmas feature

A path-breaking treatment of Luke’s Gospel could provide your Christmas feature

Many television and print reporters will already be well along on preparing those annual Christmas features.

But in case you’ve yet to settle on something, there’s gold to be mined in a path-breaking commentary on the Gospel of Luke, which contains one of the two accounts of Jesus’ birth alongside the Gospel of Matthew. Or if you’re all set for Christmas, keep this book in mind for Holy Week and Easter features.

There’s a strong news hook. This is the first major commentary on a biblical book co-authored by a Christian and a Jew. Ben Witherington III of Kentucky’s Asbury Theological Seminary, and St. Andrews University in Scotland, is an evangelical Methodist. Amy-Jill Levine of Vanderbilt University is an agnostic feminist and well-known Jewish specialist on the New Testament.

The Levine-Witherington work, which includes the full New Revised Standard Version text, won high praise from the Christian Century, a key voice for “mainline” and liberal Protestantism. Its review said the combined viewpoints from the two religions add “enormous value” and are a “landmark” innovation for Bible commentaries.

Levine nicely represents the rather skeptical scholarship that dominates in today’s universities. What’s remarkable is Witherington’s co-authorship, because evangelicals can be wary of interfaith involvements. He naturally thinks Luke is a reliable historical account about his Lord and Savior, which is why the friendly interchanges with Levine are so fascinating. Also, Witherington considers Luke quite respectful toward Judaism and women. Levine dissents.

Here’s contact info to interview the two authors (perhaps alongside other New Testament experts). Levine: 615-343-3967 or amy-jill.levine@vanderbilt.edu. Witherington: benw333@hotmail.com or via this online link. Cambridge University Press U.S. office: 212-337-5000 or USBibles@cambridge.org.

The commentary’s treatment of Jesus’ birth spans 76 pages. Along with the big theme of how Christians and Jews regard the advent of Jesus, note some sample details in the familiar story that a reporter might pursue.

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Friday Five: American-style Islam, Christmas in Bethlehem, $29.95 ordination, Hooters and more

Friday Five: American-style Islam, Christmas in Bethlehem, $29.95 ordination, Hooters and more

Here's something I betcha didn't know: I'm an ordained pastor, and it only cost me $29.95. (Apparently, I paid too much.)

More on that — and my strange clerical connection to Jared Kushner, the president's son-in-law — in a moment.

First, though, let's dive right into this week's Friday Five:

1. Religion story of the week: GetReligion editor Terry Mattingly mentioned Emma Green's important contributions to 2017 religion reporting in a post earlier this week.

Here's another shout-out for Green, who ended the year with an in-depth piece on "How America Is Transforming Islam."

The article didn't please everyone, but like Rod Dreher — who praised Green's story on his American Conservative blog — I thought it made for compelling and thought-provoking reading.

2. Most popular GetReligion post: The No. 1 spot this week belongs to tmatt's post on the timing of Christmas in the ancient city of Bethlehem. The post's title: "Once again in Royal David's City: Journalists still confused about Christmas who, what, when, where ..."

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Once again in Royal David's City: Journalists still confused about Christmas who, what, when, where ...

Once again in Royal David's City: Journalists still confused about Christmas who, what, when, where ...

So journalists: When is Christmas in the ancient city of Bethlehem?

Obviously, for many people, Christmas is on Dec. 25th. That's when you'll see television coverage of people singing carols, in English for the most part, in Bethlehem Square. Often, reports will include a glimpse of the Midnight Mass in the modern Franciscan sanctuary known as the Church of St. Catherine.

Next door to this Catholic church is the ancient Church of the Nativity, an Eastern Orthodox sanctuary built with its altar directly above the grotto in which church traditions says Jesus of Nazareth was born.

So, journalists: When is Christmas celebrated at this very symbolic altar?

The answer, of course, is that Christmas is on Jan. 7, for most (but not all) Eastern Orthodox Christians -- those who follow the older Julian calendar. This includes millions of believers in places like Russia, Egypt, Eastern Europe and, yes, Jerusalem and the Palestinian territories. For more information on this, see my 2015 post: "Washington Post covers first of Bethlehem's two (yes, two) Christmas celebrations."

Year after year, journalists cover the events of Dec. 24-25, while ignoring those on Jan. 6-7. This is most strange if the goal is to (a) cover the current state of Christianity in Bethlehem and the  surrounding region and (b) to use Bethlehem tourism as a way to gauge the impact of economic trends and violence in the Holy Land. Like it or not, Russia (and Eastern Europeans) have strong ties to the ancient churches of the Middle East and many believers in the East like to make pilgrimages to these holy sites, while following the Julian liturgical calendar.

The Los Angeles Times recently published a Christmas in Bethlehem story that was, in many ways, business as usual. The good news: This feature showed evidence that Orthodox churches exist. The bad news: The editors of this story still seem to be in the dark when it comes to knowing the details of Bethlehem's two Christmas celebrations (including which church is which and the precise location of the grotto).

The story focuses on Father Hanna Mass’ad, a Catholic priest, and his short Mass in the grotto. Why is the Mass so short? Why the rush? Read this carefully:

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Struggling to keep olive-wood traditions alive in Bethlehem (But why the big crisis?)

Struggling to keep olive-wood traditions alive in Bethlehem (But why the big crisis?)

At two very different points in my life, I had a chance to talk with Christians in Bethlehem, while looking over some of the wood-carvings and other gifts in their shops.

That first visit was at Christmas in 1972, when I was a Baylor University freshman in a touring choir. The second was in 2000, when I was in Israel and Jordan at a conference on religion-news trends -- linked to Pope John Paul II and his pilgrimage to the Holy Land.

There were major changes between those visits. There have been more changes since then. But the olive trees remain and artists still turn the wood into crosses, Nativity sets, rosaries and other gifts that pilgrims and tourists take home as symbols of their visits. There's an olive-wood cross (simple and Protestant) from 1972 hanging next to my computer as I write this. My other olive-wood Jerusalem cross? It's in my family's Orthodox altar corner. Turn, turn, turn.

All of this is to say that I appreciated the Religion News Service feature focusing on the many current issues and challenges that swirl around the Christians of the West Bank. The headline: "In Christ’s birthplace, olive wood artisans carry on a Holy Land tradition."

Yes, the Christians (and some Muslim artists) carry on. But trends in the Middle East keep making the lives of Christians more difficult and even dangerous. What is causing so much pain and stress? Hold that thought. There is much to praise in this RNS piece, but there is one crucial passage that I found rather stunning.

Let's start with the overture and the family at the heart of the story:

BETHLEHEM, West Bank (RNS) -- Thirty years ago Bassem Giacaman, whose large extended family has lived in this town for generations, immigrated to New Zealand with his parents and siblings in search of a life far away from the turmoil of the Middle East.
They left behind a small shop and olive wood factory, one of a few dozen olive wood enterprises in and around Bethlehem, which Christians around the world revere as the birthplace of Jesus.
Most of these businesses are owned by Christian families that have been carving religious items such as crosses, rosaries and Nativity scenes for nearly two millennia.

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It's Christmas (1.0) in Bethlehem and the Associated Press still can't get its facts straight

It's Christmas (1.0) in Bethlehem and the Associated Press still can't get its facts straight

Dear editors of the Associated Press:

I have a dream.

It's a Christmas dream, actually.

I dream that some Christmas morning, after I get home from church on Dec. 25th, I will pick up my newspaper and, as always, see an Associated Press story with a Bethlehem dateline. This story will, of course, detail what happened on Christmas Eve and in the early hours of Christmas morning there in that ancient biblical town, with its strange mix of joyful pilgrims and tense security people.

But this time the story will be slightly different, in terms of the facts used to describe some of the religious rites on that first of two, yes two, Christmas celebrations in the churches, yes plural, located next to Manger Square.

Alas, this was not the year that my dream came true. Here is some of the key summary material in the 2016 AP report:

Christian clergymen welcomed the top Roman Catholic cleric in the Holy Land inside the Church of Nativity in Bethlehem, the birth place of Jesus Christ, as Christians worldwide begin to prepare to celebrate Christmas this year.
The Rev. Pierbattista Pizzaballa, the apostolic administrator of the Latin Patriarchate, is the temporary chief clergyman to the local Catholic population. He traveled from Jerusalem to Bethlehem on Saturday in a traditional procession. Later, he was to celebrate Midnight Mass at the Church of the Nativity, built at the grotto revered as Jesus' birthplace.
"I wish this joyous atmosphere of Christmas will continue in the year and not just for a few days and I hope the coming year will bring a little more serenity and peaceful relations in our country. We need it," he said.

So what is the problem there?

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Hey Washington Post: Now it's time for Christmas rites in the Church of the Nativity

Hey Washington Post: Now it's time for Christmas rites in the Church of the Nativity

Now it's time to say "Merry Christmas!" to worshipers gathered in Bethlehem's ancient Church of the Nativity.

That really isn't big news. So why mention it? Let's back up a week or so.

The bottom line: I didn't hear about an international incident (or an ecumenical breakthrough, depending on one's point of view) at the Church of the Nativity back on the 25th of December. Did you?

You may recall that this was when The Washington Post said that a Catholic bishop -- the Latin patriarch of Jerusalem -- was going to be celebrating Mass at the Orthodox altar in the ancient Orthodox basilica.

Honest. That's what the story said and I wrote GetReligion posts about this error here and here. That Post story is still online, without a correction. The key error of fact is contained in this passage:

There will be a Christmas Eve Mass at the Church of the Nativity, the 1,700-year-old basilica built above the grotto where tradition says Jesus was born and visited by Bethlehem shepherds.

That Christmas midnight Mass, as I stressed, was actually held in the newer, in a Holy Land frame of reference, Catholic sanctuary -- the Church of St. Catherine -- that is located next to the much older Church of the Nativity. That's the Orthodox sanctuary that contains a high altar built directly over the grotto containing the traditional site of the birth of Jesus.

As I noted in my second post: "Catholic prelates lead Catholic rites at Catholic altars." In practice, that looks like this:

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One more time: Which church is above the traditional site of the birth of Jesus?

One more time: Which church is above the traditional site of the birth of Jesus?

Trust me, I know that I just dealt with this issue in a pre-Christmas post about an error in a Bethlehem dateline story in The Washington Post.

It appears that there is still confusion, out there in major newsrooms, about which church is which on Manger Square in Bethlehem. That earlier Post advance report -- which has not been corrected -- stated:

There will be a Christmas Eve Mass at the Church of the Nativity, the 1,700-year-old basilica built above the grotto where tradition says Jesus was born and visited by Bethlehem shepherds.

Alas, the Associated Press story covering Christmas events in Bethlehem -- the story that will be read in the vast majority of American newspapers -- has repeated the same error that was in the Post report. Read carefully and see if you spot the overlap:

Latin Patriarch Fouad Twal led a procession from his Jerusalem headquarters into Bethlehem, passing through a military checkpoint and past Israel's concrete separation barrier, which surrounds much of the town. ...
Twal led worshippers in a Midnight Mass at the Church of the Nativity, built atop the spot where Christians believe Jesus was born.
In his homily, Twal expressed sympathy for the plight of Palestinians, Syrian refugees and "victims of all forms of terrorism everywhere," according to a transcript issued by his office. He wished "all inhabitants of the Holy Land" a happy and healthy new year.

Yes, the Post reference was more specific -- making the error more obvious.

Now, let's follow the logic here.

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