Holy Week

Igor Stravinsky (yes, you read that right) and how feature ideas emerge, even during the summer

Igor Stravinsky (yes, you read that right) and how feature ideas emerge, even during the summer

Every summer, The Religion Guy luxuriates in a visit to western Massachusetts, known for outstanding theater troupes, art museums, a dance center, lectures and other cultural offerings all surrounding the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s incomparable Tanglewood music festival. (Disclosure: The Guy’s daughter is a BSO player.)

One BSO concert this July offered two George Gershwin piano features (not the over-programmed “Rhapsody in Blue”) and then “Petrushka” by Igor Stravinsky (1882–1971), a tuneful and witty ballet score about the life and loves of a classic Russian puppet. That got The Guy thinking about Stravinsky’s 1913 ballet in which musical art exploded into modernity, “The Rite of Spring: Pictures from Pagan Russia” (originally titled “The Great Sacrifice”).

His theme was the worship of pre-Christian Scythians adoring the earth, evoking their ancestors and then choosing a young maiden who danced herself to death as a sacrifice to the gods for a good harvest. The music is creepy, orgiastic, harmonically dissonant and rhythmically jagged. The premiere in Paris provoked a scandalous near-riot as astonished attendees audibly jeered, argued and tussled while the music proceeded.

That in turn brought to this listener’s mind the radical religious contrast between the “Rite” and another Stravinsky work The Guy heard at the Tanglewood debut of Andris Nelsons, who was later appointed Boston’s music director. Back in 1930 the orchestra marked its 50th anniversary by commissioning new works by the likes of Copland, Hanson, Hindemith, Honegger, Prokofiev and Respighi, and wanted Stravinsky to produce a conventional symphony.

Instead, he came up with a unique piece of sacred music, “Symphony of Psalms” for chorus and an orchestra minus violins and violas. This ranks as the 20th century’s finest composition on a biblical theme (any competitors?) and Time magazine proclaimed it one of the century’s three greatest classical compositions, alongside Copland’s “Appalachian Spring” and Ravel’s string quartet.

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Mark Hemingway takes GetReligion-like stroll through years of New York Times religion gaffes

Mark Hemingway takes GetReligion-like stroll through years of New York Times religion gaffes

There was an interesting op-ed the other day in The New York Post that had a very GetReligion-esque feel to it, to say the least. The headline stated: “New York Times hits new low with mortifying Notre Dame correction.”

Then there was that familiar Hemingway byline.

“Mark Hemingway, that is.”

I realize that I have already written a post about this latest Gray Lady offense against 2,000 years of Christian doctrine, history and language. If you missed that one, click here: “Priest rushes under the flames inside Notre Dame Cathedral to save a ... STATUE of Jesus?” Here is a refresher, care of Hemingway:

… The New York Times later appended this correction to the story: “An earlier version of this article misidentified one of two objects recovered from Notre-Dame by the Rev. Jean-Marc Fournier. It was the Blessed Sacrament, not a statue of Jesus.”

How could the newspaper possibly confuse these two things? The most logical explanation is that Father Fournier referred to the “body of Christ,” and the reporter took his words literally and not seriously. It doesn’t appear to be a translation error; the reporter who wrote the story, Elian Peltier, appears to be fluent in French and tweets in the language regularly.

Why return to this subject?

What Hemingway offers in this short piece is a collection of stunning and, at times, unintentionally hilarious Times errors linked to essential Christian doctrines — including the narrative of Holy Week and Easter. (For Western Christians, this past Sunday was Easter. For Eastern Christians, such as myself, this week is Holy Week and this coming Sunday is Pascha, or Easter.)

Since we are talking about GetReligion basics, let me stress that no one believes that editors at the Times — the world’s most prestigious newspaper — need to BELIEVE these essentials of Christianity. The goal is to understand them well enough to be able to write about them without making embarrassing errors. Try to imagine Times-people making errors like these when dealing with the basics of Judaism, Islam or, for heaven’s sake, the latest Democratic Party platform.

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The Atlantic dares to ask if exorcisms (and thus the supernatural) may be real after all

The Atlantic dares to ask if exorcisms (and thus the supernatural) may be real after all

Five years ago, I had a chance to eat lunch with the late William Peter Blatty, an articulate Catholic apologist who won an Academy Award for turning his novel, "The Exorcist," into a stunning Hollywood screenplay.

Yes, I called Blatty a Catholic apologist.

Why? In part because he viewed his masterwork as a vehicle for criticizing this materialistic age. Here is a chunk of that column, in which Blatty explains his motives. In “The Exorcist”:

The fictional Father Damien Karras experiences paralyzing doubts after his mother's death. Blatty was typing the second page of his earliest take on the story when he received the call that his mother had died.

"I knew what I wanted to do. I wanted to make a statement that the grave is not the end, that there is more to life than death," said Blatty, in a Bethesda, Md., diner near his home, not far from the Georgetown neighborhood described in "The Exorcist."

After studying the explicit details in the journals of exorcists, he decided that a story about "what happens in these cases could really be a boost to the faith. It could show people that the spiritual world is real."

The bottom line: "The Exorcist" scared the hell out of millions of people. 

This brings me to the feature story in The Atlantic that stirred up lots of online conversation over the weekend, the one with this haunting double-decker headline:

American Exorcism

Priests are fielding more requests than ever for help with demonic possession, and a centuries-old practice is finding new footing in the modern world.

A serious piece of journalism on this topic faces a big question: How much space should be dedicated to the views of people who, well, think demon possession is real? As Blatty noted, it is impossible to talk about this topic — exorcisms — without debating evidence that the material world is not all that there is. (Click here for a Rod Dreher discussion of this angle.)

Toward the end of this long feature, reporter Mike Mariani offers this summary of what he was seeing, hearing and feeling:

Pore over these spiritual and psychiatric frameworks long enough, and the lines begin to blur. If someone lapses into an alternate identity that announces itself as a demon bent on wresting away that person’s soul, how can anyone prove otherwise? Psychiatry has only given us models through which to understand these symptoms, new cultural contexts to replace the old ones. No lab test can pinpoint the medical source of these types of mental fractures.

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Hey editorial writers in Pittsburgh: Do be careful when attempting to correct Jesus

Hey editorial writers in Pittsburgh: Do be careful when attempting to correct Jesus

As a rule, GetReligion doesn't post critiques of editorials, columns and analysis pieces in mainstream media or religious publications. Now, we may quote them, from time to time. Also, I frequently point readers to "think pieces" that aren't really news, but are linked to important Godbeat topics.

How do you criticize bias in opinion pieces? They're supposed to be biased. How do you criticize advocacy pieces for a lack of balance? They're supposed to advocate a specific side of an issue that the writer or publication thinks is correct. However, we can ask editorials to to be accurate when it comes to facts and quotes. Right?

Thus, a religion-beat veteran sent me a note this week about a really interesting problem in a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette editorial that ran with this headline: "The noble gendarme: Lt. Col. Arnaud Beltrame gave his life for others."

I've been writing about news-media coverage of the Beltrame case all week, as in this post: "Sacrifice in France: 'Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life ... ' " I also wrote my Universal syndicate column about religious themes in this drama in France.

The editorial in Pittsburgh was interesting, in that it attempted to steer around Beltrame's own Catholic faith, while praising his actions in secular terms. Kind of. Here is the opening of the editorial:

The French, who are under sustained attack by Islamist terrorists, have found a hero in French national police Lt. Col. Arnaud Beltrame.
On Friday, Lt. Col. Beltrame voluntarily traded places with a woman who was being used as a human shield during an armed assault by a self-proclaimed Islamic State “soldier.”

The piece then added more material about why this case was so important, while avoiding religious facts about Beltrame and his work, his marriage and his life.

Then, at the end, there was this leap into theology:

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Looking in a journalism mirror again: Lots of atheists will visit Bible Belt city at Easter

Looking in a journalism mirror again: Lots of atheists will visit Bible Belt city at Easter

It's time for another look at a mirror-image question linked to religion reporting.

However, before we get to the story of the day (ignore the nearby art, please), let's start by creating a news-mirror option that turns today's journalism equation on its head.

Let's say that Pride Day is just around the corner in San Francisco and, of course, everywhere else in modern culture. But, obviously, San Francisco is at the heart of LBGTQ culture, so let's focus there. Pride Day is a holiday that approaches holy day status.

So, what would happen at some point in the future if a large convention of religious conservatives -- people who believe that sex outside of traditional marriage is a sin -- decided to hold a national convention in San Francisco that coincided with Pride Day? What if this group included people who consider themselves (trigger warning) ex-gays?

This mirror-image scenario raises two questions: (1) How would LGBTQ leaders react? And (2) how would this potential conflict be framed in local media?

Now, what about the real news story that we need to look at? Here is the top of a recent Oklahoman story -- "Christian leaders say they aren't fazed by atheists' metro gathering" -- that inspired a note from a veteran GetReligion reader:

Holy Week and Easter Sunday in the Oklahoma City metro area will not be tarnished by a national gathering of atheists, several Christian leaders said recently.
"We ought not to be threatened by people who don't believe," said the Rev. A. Byron Coleman, senior pastor of Fifth Street Missionary Baptist Church, 801 NE 5. "It doesn't reshape the narrative of the Christian Church to have an atheist convention coming to town. We're still going to have Resurrection Sunday and we're still going to eat ham after church."

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Stopping short of Pascha: The New York Times did cover the quiet courage of the Copts

Stopping short of Pascha: The New York Times did cover the quiet courage of the Copts

I guess the big news this Easter is that there isn't any really big news at Easter. Yet.

Obviously, there was big news during Holy Week -- as in the lockdown in Egypt and in other Christian communities across the Middle East in the trembling aftermath of the hellish Palm Sunday bombings. That led to this somber New York Times feature that ran with the headline, "After Church Bombings, Egyptian Christians Are Resigned but Resolute."

It's a fine feature, one that -- as it must -- focuses on the political framework that surrounds the latest wave of persecution of Coptic Christians. After all, this is a tense land in which a near totalitarian Egyptian government that helps lock Christians in their place is also the only force strong enough to weakly protect them from the Islamic State and other truly radicalized forms of Islam.

Orthodox Christians who read this piece may not make it to the end, growing tired of the politics and violence. Where is the ultimate message of Pascha? Where are the voices of those who still believe, who continue to keep the faith despite all the suffering? Aren't they part of the story?

They are. And that theme emerges at the end of the piece -- so wait for it.

The veneration of Christian martyrs is felt most keenly at the monastery of St. Mina, an hour’s drive from Alexandria. There, barren desert has been transformed into a lush compound of gardens and monastic cells around a soaring cathedral. The seven Christians killed in last Sunday’s bombing were taken there for entombment in a martyr’s church under construction for the 2011 bombing’s 23 victims.
“The new martyrs will be buried beside the old ones,” Bishop Kyrillos Ava Mina, leader of the monastery, said as he walked around the site, weaving through a maze of wooden beams. “It is a gift for them to be buried here.” ... 
Many Coptic clerics are careful of engaging in public debate. Asked what was driving the Islamic State attacks, the monastery’s spokesman, Father Elijah Ava Mina, chuckled dryly. “I don’t know,” he said. “Ask them.”

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A question for journalists right now: Why don't Coptic Christians hold funerals during Holy Week?

A question for journalists right now: Why don't Coptic Christians hold funerals during Holy Week?

It may seem somewhat strange for GetReligion to feature a religion-news "think piece" during the middle of the week.

However, this is not an ordinary week. For churches around the world this is Holy Week -- this year on both the liturgical calendars of Eastern and Western Christianity.

Then again, this is certainly not an ordinary Holy Week for believers in the ancient Coptic Orthodox Church of Egypt. And how will that affect the celebration of Pascha (Easter in the West), the most important feast day in Christianity?

The bombings on Palm Sunday (click here for earlier GetReligion coverage) have led to a sad, yet totally understandable, decision by Coptic leaders in part of Egypt. Here is the top of an Associated Press report:

CAIRO (AP) -- Egyptian churches, in the southern city of Minya, said on Tuesday that they will not hold Easter celebrations in mourning for 45 Coptic Christians killed this week in twin bombings of churches in two cities during Palm Sunday ceremonies.
The Minya Coptic Orthodox Diocese said that celebrations will only be limited to the liturgical prayers "without any festive manifestations."
Minya province has the highest Coptic Christian population in the country. Copts traditionally hold Easter church prayers on Saturday evening and then spend Easter Sunday on large meals and family visits.

Yes, the family festivities are important. However, this also means that there will be no dramatic liturgical processions through public streets in the dark night of Good Friday. There will be no processions with candles through those same streets around major churches in the final dramatic moments before midnight, as Holy Saturday turns into Pascha (Easter), with the constant singing of hymns proclaiming, "Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in tombs bestowing life!"

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Oh, all those religious calendar features! But here’s a good bet for Good Friday

Oh, all those religious calendar features! But here’s a good bet for Good Friday

News scribes face the perennial task of devising features pegged to major dates on religious calendars.

Due to the somber and difficult theme, perhaps the most challenging is Good Friday -- Great and Holy Friday for Orthodoxy, whose date of April 14 coincides with other Christians’ in 2017.  One rarely sees a fresh, first-class media article about the day Christ died.   

Relief is on the way this year, thanks to “The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ” by Fleming Rutledge, proclaimed the “2017 Book of the Year” by Christianity Today magazine and newly reissued in paperback by Eerdmans. Sample chapter headings: “The Godlessness of the Cross.” “The Question of Justice.” “Condemned into Redemption.”

The Religion Guy has not, at this point, read this Episcopalian’s 696-pager and relies on those who have. Hosannas come from across the ecclesiastical spectrum. Robert Imbelli of Boston College deems the work “remarkable,” indeed “monumental.” “Wonderful,” exclaims Richard Mouw of Fuller Seminary. Pastor Andrew Wilson of King’s Church, London, calls it “extraordinary,” and “full of imagery and pathos, illustration and contemporary application.”

England’s Bishop Peter Forster says Rutledge’s work is especially important for “American Christianity, which evades the cross” or repackages Good Friday as what Rutledge calls “inspirational uplift -- sunlit, backlit, or candlelit.” Virginia Seminary’s Katherine Sonderegger says “the whole world stands under her gaze -- literary examples, political folly and cruelty, horrendous evils of war and torment and torture, religious timidity and self-deception. ...”

Consider what Rutledge calls “the living significance” of this ancient execution: Why exactly did Christ die? Did the crucifixion display God’s wrath, or God’s love, or human depravity, or some combination thereof? How could a great injustice bring justice?

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The continuing journalism saga of, 'Will someone please explain Christianity to ...'

The continuing journalism saga of, 'Will someone please explain Christianity to ...'

Welcome of episode three (yes, the podcast) of the ongoing saga of mainstream journalists wrestling with the picky details of Christian tradition and doctrine (that whole Bible thing, you know) about the death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus.

To catch up on this drama, you may want to glace at "Here we go again: Will someone please explain Christianity to the Associated Press?" and then "Seeking correction No. 2: Will some please explain Christianity to the AP photo desk?"

Concerning that second item, I must report -- sadly -- that, as of this morning -- the Associated Press website still contains the inaccurate photo tag line that reads:

The renovated Edicule is seen in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, traditionally believed to be the site of the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, in Jerusalem's old city Monday, Mar. 20, 2017. A Greek restoration team has completed a historic renovation of the Edicule, the shrine that tradition says houses the cave where Jesus was buried and rose to heaven. (AP Photo/Sebastian Scheiner)

To repeat the main point here, Christian tradition (that whole Bible thing, again) teaches that -- after his resurrection -- Jesus spent 40 days with his disciples, was seen by crowds, etc., before his ascension into heaven. Journalists do not have to believe these doctrines. They do, however, need to report the beliefs accurate in stories linked to these sites, biblical passages, holy days and rites.

At the moment, reporters are veering into this territory, of course, because Holy Week and Easter are getting closer. Editors and producers know that it's time to put something into print and video about Easter, a holy day that isn't nearly as commercial and fun (in secular terms) as the season previously known as the Nativity of Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

That was the starting point for this week's "Crossroads" podcast. How many times have you seen stories linked to Easter that either mess of the basics of Christianity or actually attack them? We are talking about television specials, covers of major newsweeklies and so forth and so on.

'Tis the season, you know.

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