Books

Solid story out of Israel with a king-sized hole left for journalists to fill

Solid story out of Israel with a king-sized hole left for journalists to fill

The Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) officially announced details Oct. 6 on a major archaeological project in northern Israel south of Haifa near present-day Harish. The inland En Esur site has remains of a town that covered 160 acres, indicating that an estimated 6,000 residents lived there in the Early Bronze Age 5,000 years ago.

This remarkably early date for such a large settlement is an unprecedented find not only within Israel but for the entire region. Without later technological developments, that’s about as big as a municipality could have been. Not only that. The archaeologists found another settlement lying underneath En Esur that dates back 7,000 years. These towns were strategically located along an ancient trade route and with access to fresh-water springs.

The IAA team reports that the Bronze Age settlement demonstrates careful urban planning, with streets, drainage and public spaces that included a notable temple with a sizable basin that contains burned animal bones signaling ritual sacrifices, a town square, storage facilities and a mausoleum. There are many figurines, showing artistic culture and a possible religious purpose. Tools on the site are identified as Egyptian. Huge stone blocks for construction were somehow hauled from a quarry a half-mile away.

The site has long been known, but was only excavated in earnest starting in 2017 by a team led by Itai Elad, Yitzhak Paz and Dina Shalem. Work was funded by Netivei Israel, the transport infrastructure firm that is building a highway interchange at the site. Some 5,000 students volunteered to help with the massive archaeological dig.

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Wink and nod: What was a black girl doing at Karen Pence's 'Christian' school anyway?

Wink and nod: What was a black girl doing at Karen Pence's 'Christian' school anyway?

In many ways, it was the perfect “white evangelical” horror story.

So you had an African-American sixth-grader who reported that she was bullied by three boys who taunted her with racial insults and cut off some of her dreadlocks. This took place at a “Christian” school where Karen Pence, as in the wife of Donald Trump’s loyal vice president, has taught off and on for more than a decade.

It’s a story that, in this week’s “Crossroads” podcast (click here to tune that in), host Todd Wilken and I explored on three levels, as in the three parts of a click-bait equation.

First, there is the story of the accusations of an alleged assault, which turned out not to be true, according to the girl’s family.

That was a tragic local story. What made it a national story?

That’s the second level of this story — the key click-bait link to Trump World. That was especially true in a rather snarky NBC News online report (which even worked in an LGBTQ angle, due to the school’s doctrinal statement on marriage and sex).

But that wasn’t the angle that interested me the most. No, I was interested in the school itself. I imagine that lots of readers much have thought to themselves (I will paraphrase): What in the world is a black girl doing enrolled at the kind of white evangelical Trump-loving alleged Christian school that would Mrs. Mike Pence would be teach at for a dozen years or so?

Thus, I was interested in the following paragraph of factual material that was included in two Washington Post stories about this case:

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While Catholic Twitter rages, Cardinal Sarah takes a sobering look at modern church

While Catholic Twitter rages, Cardinal Sarah takes a sobering look at modern church

The West is in spiritual decline.

The Catholic church is besieged by scandal.

Society has become more secular and less religious, a collapse that can be solved through prayer.

Those are some of the takeaways from Cardinal Robert Sarah’s new book “The Day is Now Far Spent,” in which he pulls no punches about what he thinks currently ails Europe, the place where Christianity once prospered. Sarah’s diagnosis for what ails the world, but primarily the West, is deeply profound — controversial to some even — and his solutions are equally noteworthy.

“Christians are trembling, wavering, doubting,” Sarah says in the 349-page book. “I want this book to be for them. To tell them: do not doubt! Hold fast to doctrine! Hold fast to prayer! I want this book to strengthen Christians and priests.”

This book is a major statement by a cardinal whose work on theology and liturgy was at the heart of the Pope Benedict XVI era. His voice is hard to ignore and, for journalists, represents an orthodox critique of current trends, but one with more clout than angry voices in the latest storm in Catholic Twitter.

The book, translated from French and released by Ignatius Press, does just that. Before he can offer hope, Sarah outlines what he calls “the crisis of faith.” In a series of interviews with French journalist Nicolas Diat, Sarah discusses how seeking salvation is something that has been lost these days.

“Doctrinal and moral confusion is reaching its height,” Sarah writes. “Evil is good, good is evil. Man no longer feels any need to be saved. The loss of the sense of salvation is the consequence of the loss of the transcendence of God.”  

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On not sweating due to evangelicalism's 526th death rattle (as discussed in The Atlantic)

On not sweating due to evangelicalism's 526th death rattle (as discussed in The Atlantic)

G.K. Chesterton wrote in The Everlasting Man  (1925): “At least five times, therefore, with the Arian and the Albigensian, with the Humanist sceptic, after Voltaire and after Darwin, the Faith has to all appearance gone to the dogs. In each of these five cases it was the dog that died.”

No two sentences better capture my response each time there’s a new essay about evangelicalism facing a new life-threatening crisis, or a report about a trendy ex-evangelical counting evangelicalism as unworthy of allegiance or a former official from either Bush administration who has been sent around the bend by a Donald Trump tweet.

For the sake of clarity: I do not consider evangelicalism the sum total of the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church. As Alan Jacobs writes in his new essay for The Atlantic, “Evangelical Has Lost Its Meaning,” tthe nondenominational force identified as “evangelicalism” is a “complex and fluid movement dedicated to the renewal of Christianity, largely among Protestants, though its efforts have occasionally reached into Catholicism.”

Jacobs in in pain, and I sympathize, but not enough to share that pain. Writing in The Atlantic, Jacobs grieves what he discerns as evangelicalism’s deep cultural captivity:

By now, God-and-Country believers are so accustomed to voting Republican — and to being disdained or mocked by Democrats — that few of them can remember doing anything else. And God-and-Country Believers are what most Americans, whether religious or not, now think that evangelicals are.

Those white evangelicals who voted for Trump? They and only they are the true evangelicals, no matter what shelves of church-history books say.

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For newsroom source lists: A female Muslim lawyer to watch on religious-liberty issues

For newsroom source lists: A female Muslim lawyer to watch on religious-liberty issues

A Pegasus Books release has this curious title: “When Islam Is Not a Religion.”

Huh? Say what?

Is the pope not Catholic? Don’t U.S. Democrats constitute a political party? (With Britain’s Conservatives and Labour that’s open to question lately.) The subtitle then explains what the book is about: “Inside America’s Fight for Religious Freedom.”

Author Asma Uddin’s title targets American right-wingers who are claiming Islam is not “really” a religion — but a dangerous political movement.

Islam is, in actuality, a variegated global religion that usually intermingles beliefs with politics in ways that can become problematic, just as with some variants of Christianity -- including some of those making that anti-Islam claim.

Uddin, a Pakistani-American lawyer in Washington, D.C., belongs on your prime source list (if she is not there already). Contact: asma.uddin@altmuslimah.com. For starters, this Muslim studied her civil rights specialization at the elite University of Chicago Law School.

She became the founding editor of a lively, decade-old online magazine that journalists should be monitoring, altmuslimah.com. It emphasizes hot-button gender issues in Islam (e.g. women’s rights, man-woman relationships, polygamy, harem, genital mutilation, honor killing, headscarves and burqas). You won’t want to miss articles on whether Islam, and also Christianity, can consistently be considered religions (!), like this one.

In an interview posted by her law school last year, Uddin says her altmuslimah colleagues felt “there were so many of us who wanted to be authentic to our faith, devoted to our faith, and who were struggling with issues that we didn’t always know how to fit with our lived realities. It turned out that these were conversations that people were desperate to have. The response has been overwhelming.”

Most important, Uddin is a principled defender of religious liberty across the board, naturally quick to defend the rights of fellow American Muslims but also concerned about believers in all other faiths, including those who suffer suppression in Muslim countries.

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Symbolic details too painful for words: Shocking death of Jarrid Wilson stunned us all

Symbolic details too painful for words: Shocking death of Jarrid Wilson stunned us all

Did you need more evidence that we live (and strive to do good journalism) in a broken world?

Did you need a reminder that any journalist who works on the religion-news beat needs to dig into a dictionary and learn the meaning of this theological term — “theodicy.”

The death of the Rev. Jarrid Wilson unfolded on social media, with shock waves ripping through the digital ties that bind (including in newsrooms). He had worked to bring comfort to those suffering with mental-health issues — while being candid about his own life. Wilson reminded those struggling with suicidal thoughts that they were not alone and that God knew their pain.

This gifted preacher — married, with two young children — knew that and believed it. But something snapped, anyway.

Here’s the top of the team-written Religion News Service report about this tragedy which, hopefully, will shape the mainstream coverage of that will follow.

(RNS) — Jarrid Wilson, a California church leader, author and mental health advocate, died by suicide Monday evening (Sept. 9) at age 30.

Wilson, known as a passionate preacher, most recently was an associate pastor at megachurch Harvest Christian Fellowship in Riverside, California. A co-founder of the mental health nonprofit Anthem of Hope, Wilson was open about his own depression, often posting on his social media accounts about his battles with the mental illness.

“At a time like this, there are just no words,” said Harvest Senior Pastor Greg Laurie in a statement.

But there were words with which to wrestle — from Wilson, on the day he took his own life.

What journalist would imagine details more symbolic than these?

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Denhollander’s memoir on vast gymnastics scandal is a landmark for religion as well as athletics

Denhollander’s memoir on vast gymnastics scandal is a landmark for religion as well as athletics

Countless books have landed on The Religion Guy’s desk over decades and rarely has he cited one as a “must read” or “book of the year.”

But such descriptions are appropriate for Rachael Denhollander’s candid memoir “What Is a Girl Worth?” about exposing the vast sexual-abuse scandal at USA Gymnastics and Michigan State University. The evangelical Tyndale House issues her book on Sept. 10 alongside a four-session study guide, and the author’s non-salacious “How Much Is a Little Girl Worth?” for young readers.

Attorney Denhollander, the first person to publicly lodge accusations against MSU athletics osteopath Larry Nassar, has a unique status. She is a heroine named among Time’s 100 Most Influential People, Glamour’s Women of the Year, recipients of ESPN’s Courage Award and Sports Illustrated’s Inspiration of the Year. At the same time, she’s the wife of a doctoral student at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, while raising four young children and she uses her hard-won celebrity to present Christian truth.

An account of the worst sex-abuse case in its history is obviously a landmark for U.S. sports, but this is also a vitally important story for religion writers, and most certainly for Denhollander’s fellow evangelical Protestants, who are now following Catholicism in stumbling through #MeToo crises. (Along the way, journalists will relish the inside account of her byplay with investigative reporters and the media horde.)

Denhollander alone bravely lodged public accusations against predator Nassar, a big shot in gymnastics. Eventually, he faced 332 accusers of all ages including Olympic superstars, the Feds unearthed his stash of 37,000 child pornography files and he was sent to prison for life. MSU was forced to pay $500 million in damages, but any USA Gymnastics payout is problematic because it was forced to file for bankruptcy protection.

What’s vitally important in this sordid narrative is helping readers comprehend the severe psychological damage that sexual abuse creates in the victims. “It follows you. It changes you forever.” And then why, like Denhollander, victims often raise protests long after the incidents, or never raise them at all. They feel nobody will believe them, and for good reason. And they fear the cost that will be paid by the accuser. For Denhollander, that cost was enormous.

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Don’t forget about the role of Catholicism in those ‘Back to School’ stories

Don’t forget about the role of Catholicism in those ‘Back to School’ stories

It’s back to school time. For much of the country, Labor Day officially signaled the end of those lazy summer beach days. Students of all ages across the country are again worried about grades and homework. For many, school began a few weeks ago.

In the Northeast, where most of the major news organizations are located, schools opens this week. That means readers are seeing lots of back-to-school stories.

These features typically range from the mundane (which notebooks are in style this year) to scary (involving enhanced security following a summer of mass shootings). There are also plenty of stories regarding the cost of books and supplies — something that seem to rise in cost each year.

In New York City, where I live, there are roughly 1.1 million students who attend public school when counting kindergarten through high school. Students who attend private schools and Charter ones make up about a quarter of the total number of the 1.24 million children who call one of the city’s five borough’s home.

That’s a significant part of the larger story. Yet Catholic schools — religious schools in general — are usually lost in the back-to-school news frenzy.

The bottom line: The Catholic church has done a lot for education in New York and indeed across the country and around the world. Catholic schools don’t get much coverage — in New York or elsewhere — unless the news involves clergy sex abuse.  

That’s unfortunate because Catholic education continues to be an important resource and major factor in the lives of so many families. As we approach the start of school, here are a few story ideas editors and education beat reporters should ponder:

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The church vs. the Sexual Revolution: What is 'purity culture' and why is it in the news?

The church vs. the Sexual Revolution: What is 'purity culture' and why is it in the news?

THE QUESTION:

What is “purity culture,” and why is it in the news?

THE RELIGION GUY’S ANSWER:

A particular U.S. Protestant campaign born in the 1990s sought to urge teens and young adults to follow the age-old Christian (also Jewish, Muslim, etc.) teaching against sexual relations before marriage. Outsiders and opponents called this the “purity culture” movement, and it’s currently in the news and the subject of intense online debate.

That “purity” label is confusing because critics of the phenomenon are not just secularists or those who scoff at old-fashioned morality. Conservatives who likewise advocate the sexual “purity’ taught in Christian tradition raise some of the most pointed objections to this movement’s specific theology, techniques, and claims.

The cause originated in 1993 with sex education materials under the “True Love Waits’ banner issued by the publishing arm of America’s largest Protestant denomination, the Southern Baptist Convention. Within just one year of existence a Washington, D.C. rally drew 25,000 youths and displayed 210,000 sexual abstinence pledge cards on the National Mall.

The movement appealed to many moms and dads who were wounded by the sexual libertinism that began in the 1960s and wanted more wholesome relationships for their own children, fretting over increases in sexually transmitted disease, unwed pregnancy and divorce. The pledges of abstinence until marriage were reinforced by wearing rings popularized from 1995 onward by The Silver Ring Thing organization, reconfigured last year as Unaltered Ministries. Instead of high school proms, some churches held “purity balls” where dads escorted daughters.

The movement is back in the news due to its primary celebrity guru, Joshua Harris, who at a tender age 21 wrote “I Kissed Dating Goodbye.”

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