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Newsmagazines and Christianity: An Unscientific Review

Fr. Stanley S. Harakas

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During the last decade or two, religion has been in the news more than ever. The media somehow have realized that religion cannot be segregated any more to Sunday morning (Christianity) or Friday night anticipating Saturday (Judaism) or, now, Friday (Islam). Religion is a twenty-four hour a day, seven day a week, twelve months in the year phenomenon.

In part, this has come about because of an increasing acceptance by the religions themselves of their public role. Most religious traditions focus on the inner life of their community and believers share the deepest experiences of their faith with others of their own faith-group. America, in particular, has fostered "private religion," discouraging in the past the public display of religion for fear of encouraging conflict and division in the body politic.

But it is hard to keep the genie in the bottle. Controversial public issues upending what seemed to be settled issues of the past century or two have provoked a more public involvement of religion in the life of our nation.

Think of issues such as abortion, prayer in schools, First Amendment conflicts between the non-establishment of religion and the free exercise of religion, the posting of the Ten Commandments, evolution and "creationism," end of life issues (the Terri Schiavo Case), sex-change operations, homosexual marriage, a Mormon running for President, Christmas and Hanukah displays, Mosques in American cities, arrests of Imams who pray aloud in airports, the Courts of the land dealing with complex issues of religious rights vs. secular interests, religious expression by students in public schools, etc.

. . . the media cannot avoid the temptation to "make the news" about religion.

There is no way that religion can be kept out of the public sphere any more. And that means that religion may no longer be segregated to the Saturday "Religion Pages" of your local newspaper. Religion is front page news. But it also means that the media not only "report the news." It also means that the media cannot avoid the temptation to "make the news" about religion. After reading a few articles from one of the three major U.S. newsmagazines about religion that disturbed me, I began to ask myself whether it would be possible to check the "religious news making" aspect of "Time Magazine," "U.S. News and World Report," and "Newsweek."

I spent half a day at my local public library to see just exactly what was going on. What I discovered was enlightening. I learned that you can no longer read what the magazines say uncritically. It is clear that behind every article there is an agenda. What the newsmagazines write is often no longer "religious reporting." What they sometimes write is becoming more and more "propaganda," and especially for some, "anti-Christian propaganda." Let the reader beware! Here is what I found in my unscientific review of Christianity as written about in the three major U.S. "news magazines" over the past few years.

I've been a subscriber of "Time Magazine" most of my adult life. Over the past few years I have sensed changes in the religious "reporting" of this premier periodical. My survey revealed an increase in articles that are negative toward traditional Christianity.

Recently, in one of my editorials in The Hellenic Voice I discussed the November 13, 2006 cover story in "Time Magazine" provocatively titled "God VS. Science," in which two equally credentialed scientists spoke of their views on religion: one totally rejecting religion; and one who not only believes in God, but has written a book in support of his faith. Yet the title did not say "God and Science," which would have been a more adequate title, or even more accurately, "Christianity and Science," or maybe "Religion and Science." Saying "God VS. Science" betrayed an anti-religious view point on the part of the editors of Time Magazine.

It is true that such anti-religious and anti-historic Christianity articles are not the only kind of writing. The truth is that in "Time Magazine" there have been over the past few years articles that are really, real reporting or clearly defined as opinion, such as "Why We Should Teach The Bible in Public School (But Very, Very Carefully)" (April 2, 2007), or the cover story assessment of Pope John Paul II at his death (April 11, 2005), and the cover story of the election of Pope Benedict XVI (May 2, 2005), or the place of the Mother of Christ, the Virgin Mary in Protestant thinking (March 11, 2005). Remarkable in this context is the February 7, 2005 article "The 25 Most Influential Evangelicals in America."

However, the anti-mainline Christian bias emerges sometimes in subtle ways. On the November 27, 2006 cover, only the Pope's back is shown, on the report on Benedict's visit to Turkey where the Islamic symbols dwarf him.

"Does God Want You to be Rich?" the cover of the September 18, 2006 blares out purporting to report on "The debate over the new gospel of wealth," downplaying the fact that this is not new, that it is a distortion of the New Testament teaching. A century ago a book called "Acres of Diamonds" promoted the same false teaching, Yet here, "Time" proclaims it "new." Though lip service is paid to the opposition, clearly "the news" is in the so-called false "gospel of wealth."

Fortunately, it doesn't seem that "Time" has fallen deeply into "The Da Vinci Code" nonsense. The movie review by Richard Corliss in May of 2006 panned it mercilessly and the review of the book "The Jesus Family Tomb" titled "Rewriting the Gospels" by David Van Biema in March of this year was deservingly skeptical. But the cover article "The Opus Dei Code" a clear play on "The Da Vinci Code" theme (April 4, 2006) clearly had an anti-Roman Catholic bias.

If "Time" has a checkered record, "U.S. News and World Report" turns out to be the most anti-traditional Christian news weekly, in my assessment. Take the December 18, 2006 (Christmas issue!) story "In Search of the Real Jesus: New Research Questions. He was more teacher than savior" Some of the assertions: "Dueling Gospels: Some historical discoveries, recent scholarship, and popular fiction like the resilient 'Da Vinci Code' have theologians debating alternate -and controversial- views of the meaning of Jesus Christ. Its an old argument with surprisingly new life" by Jay Tolson. The article speaks paradoxically about "The Gospel Truth," recognizes that these views are "Gnostic tracts" but those that expose them do not proclaim the "Gospel Truth" but are "heresy hunters." At best it is a biased effort to encourage the conflict, at worst it denigrates historic Christianity and its criteria of "creed, canon, and apostolic succession."

U.S. News and World Report gave full-blown publicity to the badly written, scandalous novel, "The Da Vinci Code" with a deceiving article titled "What's Wrong With 'The Da Vinci Code" in a May 22, 2006 (Easter story?) cover article. It "reported" on the Vatican's opposition to the book that fictionalized the idea that Jesus was married. Clearly, it was an effort to attack historical Christianity.

A month earlier, "U.S. News and World Report" in its April 17, 2006 cover story asked "What Did Jesus Do? An Alternative Story of the Birth of Christianity" which was a review of another one of these manufactured accounts, the book "The Jesus Dynasty: The Hidden History of Jesus, His Royal Family and the Birth of Christianity." This book which the author of the article admits "uses evidence creatively" and is "imaginative," claims that Jesus was interested in establishing a worldly kingdom. Again, a case of promoting views diametrically opposed to historical Christianity.

Perhaps the least offensive of the three top U.S. news magazines is "Newsweek." It is interesting how this news weekly treated the movie version of "The DaVinci Code." Some of it was reporting on the filming of some scenes in the Louvre of Paris, telling of the authentic reactions of the people involved in the filming. The reviewer said that he "liked the book," which is a fiction piece claiming that Jesus was married, had a little girl and claiming that the Catholic Church had been covering up the "truth" for 2000 years. The reviewer called it "inflammatory, if well-travelled conspiracy theory," and regarding the author, it said, "Brown is a novelist, not a historian or a theologian." This January 2, 2006 review was balanced and eminently objective - not at all sensationalist nor anti-Christian.

The May 29, 2006 issue of "Newsweek" picks up the "Da Vinci Code" theme with a twist, focusing on Jesus' purported spouse, Mary Magdalene, but with a definitely skeptical perspective in an article titled "The Mystery of Mary Magdelene" which is again characterized as a "conspiracy theory" that "recasts (Leonardo) Da Vinci's (painting) 'The Last Supper'" replacing the Apostle John to the left of Christ with the figure of Mary Magdelene! Refuting such foolishness, "Newsweek" opines that in the end "Magdelene is an enigma" and the one should "not confuse (the novel) with fact," concluding that most of "The Da Vinci Code" book is wrong. Again, "Newsweek" deals with the issue in a fair and objective manner.

The telling reality of this news magagine's religious writing is that it makes an effort to describe what is happening religiously without always chasing after extremes and pumping up marginal issues. Its religious reporting tends to be focused on mainstream American interests. So, we see in its August 14, 2006 religious reporting on the Protestant evangelist Billy Graham tells of "His new thoughts on politics, the Bible and the Prospect of Death." Here, once again, we have good religious reporting, providing an honest and refreshing description of the man.

Another well-written opinion based article addresses the topic "The Politics of Jesus" which addresses the issue of how Christians are trying to sort out how the Faith and personal morality and social justice concerns mesh. Focused on "Evangelicals at the Crossroads" it concludes by opining "Why Religion and Politics Don't Mix." It is a conclusion that is certain to be debated by religiously committed persons, but it is not an attack piece against religion in general or Christianity in particular.

Finally, "Newsweek's" December 18 (Christmas), 2006 cover speaks about "The World of the Nativity." It helps readers see a dimension of the Nativity Story of Christianity not usually discussed: "How First Century Jewish Values Shaped Christianity." The focus is on the Christ's family relationships, what the article calls "Holy Family Values." Lisa Miller's piece takes the Bible seriously. At one point she refers to the Crucifixion of Christ and Jesus' concern for the care of His mother, the Theotokos, whom He entrusted to the "Beloved Disciple" John. Miller points to the often overlooked reality that this act "affirmed familial order" in traditional Jewish social practice. The charming conclusion?

Jesus "took care of his mother, the penultimate act of a nice Jewish boy." Here was an unconventional take on the Crucifixion event, without having to resort to extreme, radical, or anti-historic Christian journalism.

So, a word to the wise - read carefully. Look for the agenda. Don't be taken in by supposed unbiased reporting. Of the three newsmagazines in this unscientific review, the magazine that presents itself as strongly anti-traditional Christianity is "U. S. News and World Report." Increasingly, "Time Magazine" is including "religious opinion" that favors the marginal alternatives to mainline historic Christianity, but manages to include some real "religious reporting," so discernment is required by the Christian reader. Of the three newsmagazines, the most respectful of traditional Christianity is "Newsweek," while it explores some dimensions of the Christian Faith that are, indeed, innovative but respectful.

Let the reader be alert, aware and perceptive!

Fr. Stanley Harakas, a retired Priest of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America, taught Orthodox Christian Ethics at Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology in Brookline, Massachusetts for 30 years. He has written monthly Guest Editorials in The Hellenic Voice for the past three years.

This article first appeared in The Hellenic Voice. Reprinted with permission of The Hellenic Voice.

Posted: 23-Jun-07



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