Christmas

Friday Five: Baby Jesus thefts, 'Charlie Brown Christmas,' Jews help refugees, RNS wins 'Jeopardy'

Friday Five: Baby Jesus thefts, 'Charlie Brown Christmas,' Jews help refugees, RNS wins 'Jeopardy'

Most weeks, Friday Five wraps up the week in religion reporting.

But here’s a secret about this week: I’ve been mostly away from my computer screen, celebrating Christmas with my family.

So there’s an excellent chance I’ve missed important and/or interesting news in the world of the Godbeat. In that case, please don’t hesitate to share links in the comments section or by tweeting us at @GetReligion.

In the meantime, let’s dive into the Friday Five:

1. Religion story of the week: In case you missed it in the midst of your own holiday festivities, I wrote earlier this week about the New York Times’ front-page Sunday feature on a national trend of Baby Jesus being swiped from Nativity scenes.

I particularly loved the story’s dateline, which I thought was brilliant: Bethlehem, Pa.

In related coverage, McClatchy had this intriguing headline on the day after Christmas:

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America magazine flashback: Yes, 'A Charlie Brown Christmas' is really, really strange

America magazine flashback: Yes, 'A Charlie Brown Christmas' is really, really strange

One of the ways that I celebrate the arrival of the real 12 days of Christmas — trigger alert: which start on Dec. 25th — is by calling up the absolutely fabulous Vince Guaraldi soundtrack to “A Charlie Brown Christmas.”

As I type these words we are in the middle of the acoustic bass solo on “Christmastime Is Here,” the instrumental take on that wonderful melody.

I wish I could write a column every year or so about that 1965 Peanuts special. There are so many angles and subplots in the twisted story of how this now legendary show was a long shot to reach America’s TV screens — especially with Linus reciting the Nativity story from the Gospel of Luke. Oh, and the principalities and powers also thought the jazz soundtrack would flop with Middle America.

Anyway, the editors at America magazine have re-upped an amazing 2016 essay by Jim McDermott that I somehow missed the first time around. The headline: “How ‘A Charlie Brown Christmas’ continues to defy common sense.”

Let’s consider this a think piece for today, even though this isn’t a weekend.

It’s Christmas. Sue me. So here is the overture:

When “A Charlie Brown Christmas” debuted on Dec. 9, 1965, CBS executives were so sure it would fail they informed its executive producer, Lee Mendelson, they were showing it only because they had already announced it in TV Guide. “Maybe it’s better suited to the comic page,” they told him after an advance showing.

Despite six months working on the show, the animation director, Bill Melendez, felt much the same. “By golly, we’ve killed it,” he recalls telling Mendelson after a screening.

The American public disagreed. In fact, 45 percent of Americans with a television set watched “A Charlie Brown Christmas” that night, making it the second highest rated show of the week (behind “Bonanza”). The program would go on to win an Emmy and a Peabody, and it has been broadcast every Christmas season since.

Now, here is the special part. I think that this next passage is absolutely magical in summing up just how STRANGE the Peanuts special was when it came out and, of course, it’s just as strange today. That’s the point.

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'Tis the season: GetReligionista work slows a bit, but we will still be paying attention

'Tis the season: GetReligionista work slows a bit, but we will still be paying attention

So it is Thursday afternoon. And next Monday is Christmas Eve, which will be a holiday for gazillions of people.

In front of that Monday, we have an ordinary weekend. #DUH

That means that lots of folks can skip work on Friday, as in tomorrow, and end up with how many days off in a row? Five or six — for the cost of one vacation day — depending how their office managers handle The Holidays?

So that sound you keep hearing outside your window, this afternoon, may be car doors slamming as people toss packages (or their suitcases, if headed to the airport) in the back of cars as they prepare to head hither and thither and yon. Some of us older folks, of course, will be joyfully preparing for cars to pull into our driveways containing loved ones — some wearing tiny shoes, in which to dash around the house.

So, what’s the point of this meditation?

Some of your GetReligionistas are already on the road and others will soon depart. Work here at the website will slow down, but our cyber-doors will not be locked tight. You can expect, as usual, a post a day, or maybe two, during the Christmas-New Year’s Day season.

I will be at home near a keyboard most of the days between now and, oh, Jan. 2 or thereabouts — but will have a chance, as always, to flee to the mountains of North Carolina, where Wifi and strong cellphone signals are often a matter of theory, rather than reality.

Let me stress, that we still want to hear from readers!

This is, after all, a time of year in which even the most cynical editor/producer has been known to gaze at the newsroom and mutter, “Somebody get out there and do a story about Christmas. I hear that has something to do with religion, maybe.”

The results are can be glorious or fallen. We are interested in both. Please keep sending us URLs for news that caught your eye.

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Sign of @NYTimes? So someone sent a mysterious tweet about Strasbourg attack ...

Sign of @NYTimes? So someone sent a mysterious tweet about Strasbourg attack ...

Since Day 1 of this here blog, or soon thereafter, your GetReligionistas have reminded all readers infuriated by headlines that reporters rarely, if ever, get to write these punchy, essential graphic introductions to their stories.

Mad about a headline? Take it to an editor.

But what about Twitter messages that — in an attempt to create heat that inspires online clicks — actually twist or mangle the contents of a news story? Who is to blame, when there is confusion in the cloud of digital media that now surrounds essential, core news stories?

That happened the other day in the wake of the tragic terrorist attack on the famous Christmas marketplace in Strasbourg, France. We will get to the actual story in a second. But first, here is the content of the tweet “from” The New York Times that started a mini-storm on Twitter.

It Remains Unclear What Motivated The Gunman Who Opened Fire At A Christmas Market In Strasbourg, Officials Said, As The Police Continue An Intensive Search For The Attacker

So what is the problem?

Some readers found it strange that there was confusion — at the Times or anywhere else — about the motives of an attacker who shouted “Allahu akbar!” while attempting to commit a massacre in a Christmas market. Many thought that this seemed like a rather strange editorial judgement.

Ah, but what did the actual story say? Did the actual editorial product published by the Gray Lady say what this tweet says that it said?

That brings us to the story under the headline, “France Declares Strasbourg Shooting an Act of Terrorism.” Here is the overture:

STRASBOURG, France — The deadly shooting at a crowded Strasbourg street market was an act of terrorism, officials said …, as hundreds of police officers hunted the fugitive assailant, a man described as a radicalized hometown career criminal.

The gunman killed at least two people and wounded 12 in the … shooting spree at the famous Christmas market in Strasbourg, a city of more than a quarter-million in France’s northeast border with Germany.

Rémy Heitz, the Paris prosecutor, who handles terrorism investigations nationwide, said at a news conference in Strasbourg that witnesses had heard the attacker yell “Allahu akbar,” or “God is great” in Arabic, and that the targets and the suspect’s profile justified the opening of a terrorism investigation.

Any sign of an editorial statement swooping in from left field?

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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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Beyond the War on Christmas: AP serves up an advent story that fails to mention Advent

Beyond the War on Christmas: AP serves up an advent story that fails to mention Advent

It’s time for a major-league GetReligion flashback.

It has been a decade since M.Z. “GetReligionista emerita” Hemingway wrote a post — a low-key nod to the whole “War on Christmas” school of media coverage — in which she talked about the overlooked religious traditions that, once upon a time, millions of Christians followed in the weeks leading up to Christmas.

The name of her post back in 2008: “The War on Advent.” Here is MZ’s overture:

Of all the seasons of the church year, the first — Advent — is definitely the one that leaves me feeling most out of touch with my fellow Americans. While everyone else is frantically shopping, decorating, partying, those Christians who mark Advent are in a period of preparation and prayerful contemplation. The disciplines of Advent include confession and repentance, prayer, immersion in Scripture, fasting and the singing of the Great O Antiphons and other seasonal hymns. …

The season is marked by millions of Catholics, Lutherans, Episcopalians and many other Christians, but not only do you rarely see any media coverage of it, the media actively promotes the secular version. 

Advent ends on Christmas Eve with the beginning of the Christmas season. In America, the end of Advent coincides with the end of the secular Christmas season/shoppingpalooza. Just as my family is putting up Christmas trees and lights and buying gifts for friends and family, much of the rest of America is experiencing the post-Christmas hangover.

This is all true. I thought that back when I was an evangelical Anglican and I feel that way today as an Eastern Orthodox Christian — only we observe Nativity Lent. Yes, I have written about this topic here, here and here (in which I asked Siri for some seasonal info). You get the point.

So what is Advent? Here’s a piece of yet another column I wrote on that. The voice here is the Rev. Timothy Paul Jones, a Baptist who is the author of “Church History Made Easy.

… Jones noted that "Advent ... comes to us from a Latin term that means 'toward the coming.' The purpose of this season was to look toward the coming of Christ to earth; it was a season that focused on waiting. As early as the 4th century A.D., Christians fasted during this season. ... By the late Middle Ages, Advent preceded Christmas by 40 days in the Eastern Orthodox Church and by four weeks in western congregations." Advent was then followed by the 12-day Christmas season.

This brings us to an Associated Press story with this rather non-liturgical headline: “Forget the chocolate: Advent calendars go for booze, cheese.

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What explains the durable popularity of Handel’s 'Messiah' (especially at Christmas)?

What explains the durable popularity of Handel’s 'Messiah' (especially at Christmas)?

THE QUESTION: Handel’s oratorio “Messiah” — the Easter cantata that is so frequently heard at Christmastime — is probably the most-performed and most-beloved piece of great music ever written. What explains this long-running appeal?

THE RELIGION GUY’S ANSWER:

Underlying this theme is the poignant reality that our culture and many of its churches are gradually losing historical moorings that include the excellent fine arts created in former times. So how and why does “Messiah,” which exemplifies the “classical” musical style and faith of 276 years ago, so hold its own today?

By most estimates, George Frideric Handel (1685-1759) does not quite equal a peerless fellow German composer and a contemporary he never met, J.S. Bach (1685-1750). But in terms of popularity and number of performances, not to mention seasonal sing-alongs, this one among Handel’s 30 oratorios overshadows Bach’s monumental Christian works such as the “Christmas Oratorio,” “Mass in B Minor,” “St. John Passion” and “St. Matthew “Passion.”

Handel biographer Jonathan Keates tells the remarkable story of the famed oratorio in his 2017 book “Messiah: The Composition and Afterlife of Handel’s Masterpiece” — a good gift suggestion.

In a fit of inspiration, Handel dashed off all of his oratorio’s 53 sections in just three weeks. (Of course tunesmith Bach was expected to turn out a new choral number almost every week.) The first performance in the Easter season of 1742 — in Dublin, Ireland, instead of England — was a triumph.

The London premiere the following March is remembered because King George II stood during the “Hallelujah Chorus” and was imitated by the audience. Listeners have done the same ever since, a tribute normally limited to patriotic anthems. George never officially explained his deed. But it has always been assumed he believed a Christian king should express obeisance to the eternal “King of Kings and Lord of Lords” per the text sung from the Book of Revelation.

There was some trouble with the London gig.

Bluenoses thought it faintly blasphemous that a Christian oratorio was being performed in the secular Covent Garden theater instead of a church.

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File this away for use in 2018: Adelle Banks at RNS digs into 'Blue Christmas' rites

File this away for use in 2018: Adelle Banks at RNS digs into 'Blue Christmas' rites

A couple of decades ago, one of the best sources for religion-beat stories about church life was a researcher named Lyle Schaller.

Schaller was -- yes, this sounds a bit odd -- a United Methodist expert on evangelism. He was the rare mainline Protestant leader who was actually interested in why some churches gained members, while others were losing them.

Back in the mid-1980s, I interviewed him about the difference between so-called "Easter Christians" -- people who only show up at Easter -- and "Christmas Christians." I bring this up because of an excellent Religion News Service feature by Adelle Banks that ran the other day about churches that hold "Blue Christmas" services in the days leading up to Dec. 25. Journalists need to file this story away for future reference.

Hold that thought. First, let's return to Schaller. This is from the tribute column I wrote when Schaller died in 2015:

The research he was reading said Christmas was when "people are in pain and may walk through your doors after years on the outside," he said. ...  Maybe they don't know, after a divorce, what to do with their kids on Christmas Eve. Maybe Christmas once had great meaning, but that got lost somehow. The big question: Would church regulars welcome these people?
"Most congregations say they want to reach out to new people, but don't act like it," said Schaller. Instead, church people see days like Easter and Christmas as "intimate, family affairs … for the folks who are already" there, he said, sadly. "They don't want to dilute the mood with strangers."

Christmas, he stressed, was a chance for actually evangelism and healing. It has become one of the most painful times of year for many people in an America full of broken and hurting families.

The lengthy Banks feature focuses on that angle, as well as people facing Christmas after the death of a loved one. Here is the overture:

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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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