National Geographic

National Geographic: It's Catholic beekeepers vs. Mennonites (whoever they are) in Mexico

National Geographic: It's Catholic beekeepers vs. Mennonites (whoever they are) in Mexico

I know Mennonites get around, but I didn’t know there was a large colony of them in Mexico. In the U.S., they’re often known as the Amish lite people — with similar German roots and Anabaptist beliefs that got them pushed out of Europe in the 16th century.

Many of those who ended up in Canada emigrated to Mexico at the beginning of the 20th century where the government needed farmers to work on land previously owned by William Randolph Hearst, as foreign landowners were expelled at the end of the Mexican revolution in 1921. The Mennonites bought the land as long as they were freed from Mexico’s educational laws and military service. (You can read more about that here. )

Most of the Mennonites settled in the states of Durango and Chihauhua where they farmed parts of the country no one else was touching and have brought prosperity to the area.

But the National Geographic found a more isolated group on the Yucatan peninsula and wrote about it, which is where the drama starts. Once again we face a familiar journalism question: Do readers need to know anything about what the Mennonites believe?

CAMPECHE, MEXICO — “How did it start?” asks Everardo Chablé. He’s propped on a stool in his living room as the daylight fades outside. The only noise in this tiny Mexican town in the Yucatán Peninsula—where there’s no cell signal and little electricity—comes from the music his father is blasting in the yard. He speaks up. “For thousands of years the Maya people had bee culture. Then the Mennonites came with large machines and started to deforest large parts of land where the bees feed. We had virgin forest with very delicate ecosystems—deer, toucans—but most importantly bees that keep up life. When deforestation started they destroyed everything from millennia back.”…

What he’s describing is a simmering battle between a growing community of Old Colony Mennonites—the insular religion’s most conservative Low German-speaking members, who eschew modern amenities like electricity and cars—and indigenous Maya beekeepers. It has electrified this sliver of the Yucatán Peninsula. …

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National Geographic: Medieval Peru = child sacrifice + some vague pagan religion thing

National Geographic: Medieval Peru = child sacrifice + some vague pagan religion thing

More than a decade ago, Mel Gibson came out with “Apocalypto,” a movie about the bloody pre-Columbian civilizations on our side of the Atlantic. And two months ago, the February issue of National Geographic had a story about a new archeological site — Huanchaquito-Las Llamas — in Peru that bore out the movie’s thesis that Mesoamerica and South America alike were charnel houses of human sacrifice.

More on Gibson in a moment. The National Geographic piece showed that some time in the past few hundred years, a society had carried out a mass orgy of child sacrifices early in the 15th century. The question, of course, is this: What did these rites have to do with religion and faith? We will get to that.

The text from this piece has only gone online recently, hence my delay in posting commentary about it.

THE YOUNG VICTIM lies in a shallow grave in a vacant lot strewn with trash. It’s the Friday before Easter here in Huanchaquito, a hamlet on the north coast of Peru.

The throb of dance music, drifting up from seaside cafés a few hundred yards to the west, sounds eerily like a pulsing heart. It’s accompanied by the soft chuf, chuf of shovels as workers clear away broken glass, plastic bottles, and spent shotgun shells to reveal the outline of a tiny burial pit cut into an ancient layer of mud.

The first thing to appear is the crest of a child’s skull, topped with a thatch of black hair. Switching from trowels to paintbrushes, the excavators carefully sweep away the loose sand, exposing the rest of the skull and revealing skeletal shoulders poking through a coarse cotton shroud. Eventually the remains of a tiny, golden-furred llama come into view, curled alongside the child.

The grim count from this and a second sacrifice site nearby will ultimately add up to 269 children between the ages of five and 14 and three adults. All of the victims perished more than 500 years ago in carefully orchestrated acts of ritual sacrifice that may be unprecedented in world history. …

The Old Testament chronicled child sacrifice, the article says, although the writers didn’t add that God thoroughly detested the practice. Tiny detail, there.

Other than the sacrifice of virgin girls in Minoan Crete to appease demons, the Eastern hemisphere had comparatively little of it compared to the blood baths in the West.

Until the discovery at Huanchaquito (pronounced wan-cha-KEE-toe), the largest known child sacrifice site in the Americas—and possibly the entire world—was at Templo Mayor in the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlán (modern-day Mexico City), where 42 children were slain in the 15th century.

In Huanchaquito:

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Archaeology as click bait: Is the news 'Santa is dead' or 'Tomb of St. Nicholas has been found'?

Archaeology as click bait: Is the news 'Santa is dead' or 'Tomb of St. Nicholas has been found'?

Let me start with a kind of religion-beat emotional trigger alert.

WARNING: Members of ancient Christian communions (and lovers of church history) should put down any beverages (hot or cold) that are in their hands before reading the following "Acts of Faith" feature in The Washington Post. It may help to take some kind of mild sedative.

Now, let's proceed. First there is the headline, which is both clever and totally outrageous, in light of the actual news hook in this story. Ready? Here we go:

Santa dead, archaeologists say

The New York Post headline? You do NOT want to know.

So can you say, "click bait"? Of course this is click bait and I understand why. However, the question is whether this report contains key information that is useful to readers who are interested in the real story -- which could turn out to have major implications for church history as well as ecumenical relations between the Church of Rome and the Orthodox churches of the East.

The "Santa" in the headline is actually St. Nicholas of Myra, one of the most beloved saints and bishops in ancient Christianity. Before we get to the real story, here is the creative (to say the least) overture of the Post report (which was not written by a religion-desk pro).

First the good news:
Whoever told you that Santa Claus was an impostor with a fake beard collecting a Christmastime check at the mall or a lie cooked up by your parents to trick you into five measly minutes of quiet was, at minimum, misinformed.
The bad news: Santa Claus is definitely dead.
Archaeologists in southern Turkey say they have discovered the tomb of the original Santa Claus, also known as St. Nicholas, beneath his namesake church near the Mediterranean Sea.

Pause: This man is "also known as St. Nicholas"?

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Seeking correction No. 2: Will some please explain Christianity to the AP photo desk?

Seeking correction No. 2: Will some please explain Christianity to the AP photo desk?

Concerning the strange tale of the Associated Press and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre: I have some good news, some bad news, a disturbing update and one very good question from a reader.

First the good news.

If you will recall, my earlier post on this topic -- "Here we go again: Will someone please explain Christianity to the Associated Press? -- asked for a correction in an AP story that mixed up some crucial details in 2,000 years of Christian beliefs about the resurrection and ascension of Jesus. This is the kind of information that isn't hard to get online or, for that matter, in a Bible at the newsroom reference desk.

Well, I am happy to report that this story, at the main AP site, now opens with a clear correction, which is even flagged in the headline. The correction states:

JERUSALEM (AP) -- In a story March 20 about renovations at the tomb of Jesus, The Associated Press reported erroneously that the Edicule is revered by Christians as the site where Jesus rose to heaven. Tradition says the Jerusalem shrine is the site of Jesus' resurrection, not the ascension to heaven.

The crucial issue, of course, is whether the newspapers that carried this report, in America and around the world, will run this same correction. GetReligion readers who saw this report in their local newspapers may want to let us know in the comments section.

What about the bad news?

Well, it does appear that someone still needs to explain basic Christianity to the photo-desk at the main Associated Press office. You see, as if this morning, the tag line for the main photo released with this fine feature still reads as follows:

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And now, this just in from The New York Times: The tomb of Jesus remains empty

And now, this just in from The New York Times: The tomb of Jesus remains empty

Every now and then, it's good to see all kinds of people -- religion-beat professionals included -- using social media to celebrate a major news report.

Let me be clear: I am not saying that other journalists celebrated the contents of the story -- "Crypt Believed to Be Jesus’ Tomb Opened for First Time in Centuries" -- as in celebrating its theological implications.

No, I'm saying that lots of people simply celebrated the fact that the New York Times ran a nice, solid news feature on efforts by priests, monks, scientists and construction workers to study and repair the shrine surrounding the tomb of Jesus. To be honest, however, some would say that they celebrated the fact that the story mentioned that millions of Christians do, in fact, believe in that whole "Up From the Grave He Arose" thing.

In other words, we do not have a new entry in our occasional GetReligion series on the Gray Lady offering the opposite point of view, as in our recent post: "Believe it or not: The New York Times has quietly returned to its 'Jesus is dead' theme."

Still, there is one rather strange thing, in terms of journalism, about this news story (emphasis on the word "news"). Let's see if you can spot it. Here is the overture:

JERUSALEM -- The only mystical power visible was the burning light from seven tapered candles. And yet for ages, the tomb that sits at the center of history has captured the imaginations of millions around the world.
For centuries, no one looked inside -- until last week, when a crew of specialists opened the simple tomb in Jerusalem’s Old City and found the limestone burial bed where tradition says the body of Jesus Christ lay after his crucifixion and before his resurrection.
“We saw where Jesus Christ was laid down,” Father Isidoros Fakitsas, the superior of the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate, told me. “Before, nobody has.” Or at least nobody alive today. “We have the history, the tradition. Now we saw with our own eyes the actual burial place of Jesus Christ.”
For 60 hours, they collected samples, took photographs and reinforced the tomb before resealing it, perhaps for centuries to come.

Need another hint? The next sentence adds:

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To hell with it: No, seriously, there's a movement to eliminate doctrine of eternal torment

To hell with it: No, seriously, there's a movement to eliminate doctrine of eternal torment

What the ... ?

In case you haven't heard, there's a campaign to eliminate hell.

No, it's not a platform of Donald Trump. In fact, I can't outright dismiss the possibility that Trump might be Satan. (I kid. I kid.)

But seriously, National Geographic reports on changing evangelical attitudes toward hell in a recent feature story.

I love the lede.

See is this opening doesn't grab your attention:

Hell isn’t as popular as it used to be.  
Over the last 20 years, the number of Americans who believe in the fiery down under has dropped from 71 percent to 58 percent. Heaven, by contrast, fares much better and, among Christians, remains an almost universally accepted concept.  
Underlying these statistics is a conundrum that continues to tug at the conscience of some Christians, who find it difficult to reconcile the existence of a just, loving God with a doctrine that dooms billions of people to eternal punishment.  
"Everlasting torment is intolerable from a moral point of view because it makes God into a bloodthirsty monster who maintains an everlasting Auschwitz for victims whom he does not even allow to die," wrote the late Clark Pinnock, an influential evangelical theologian.   
While religious philosophers have argued over the true nature of hell since the earliest days of Christianity, the debate has become especially pronounced in recent decades among the millions of Americans who identify themselves as evangelicals. The once taboo topic is being openly discussed as well-regarded scholars publish articles and best-selling books that rely on careful readings of Scripture to challenge traditional views.   

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Holiday fare? National Geographic delivers a meandering mess on the Virgin Mary

Holiday fare? National Geographic delivers a meandering mess on the Virgin Mary

Just in time for Christmas, National Geographic magazine has given us an article “How the Virgin Mary became the world’s most powerful woman” for its December issue. Sounds like a great story, I thought.  Then I saw the splashy graphics mapping Marian sightings around the world and the photos of various Marian devotees. I realized this article wasn’t about Mary, it was about the people who say they’ve seen Mary and those who pray to her. And sure enough, a story that promised so much failed to deliver in a big way.

Here’s how it begins:

It’s apparition time: 5:40 p.m. In a small Roman Catholic chapel in Bosnia and Herzegovina, in the village of Medjugorje, Ivan Dragicevic walks down the aisle, kneels in front of the altar, bows his head for a moment, and then, smiling, lifts his gaze heavenward. He begins to whisper, listens intently, whispers again, and doesn’t blink for ten minutes. His daily conversation with the Virgin Mary has begun.

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African Jews: Al Jazeera offers an absorbing look at Zimbabwe's Lemba tribe

African Jews: Al Jazeera offers an absorbing look at Zimbabwe's Lemba tribe

Al Jazeera continues to embarrass the American press with its story on the Lemba tribe of Zimbabwe building its first synagogue.

The 2,200-word story has both breadth and depth. It has both broad brushstrokes and precise details. It tells of organizations and individuals. It's not casual reading, but it's absorbing and eye-opening.

The Lemba, numbering between 50,000 and 200,000, have long been known for Jewish traditions like kashrut and circumcision. In recent years, they have caught new attention as geneticists have found that their men have a gene typical of the ancient Jewish priesthood. And at least one researcher claims to have found a replica of the Ark of the Covenant -- which the Lemba say their ancestors brought out of the Holy Land.

In what's called a shirt-tail lede, the article starts with a scene setter, surrounding the home of Lemba leader Modreck Maeresera:

In a quiet neighborhood in Zimbabwe’s capital, Harare, barefoot boys wearing yarmulkes run around a small compound. Inside the walled enclosure is a single-story building that serves as both Maeresera’s home and a makeshift worship center. On Saturday mornings the front door remains open as members of the congregation stream in and out during the course of a two-plus hour service.
Maeresera, the closest thing the community has to a rabbi, leads the congregation. He stands tall and composed, reading, speaking and singing in a mixture of English, Hebrew and the local Shona language. Among the boys in attendance are Maeresera’s sons; Aviv, 5, named for the Hebrew word for spring, and Shlomo, 2, or Solomon in Hebrew.

Al Jazeera goes into amazing detail on Jewish practices of the Lemba. It says Maeresera became a shochet, a "traditional Jewish slaughterer," at the Catholic boarding school he attended as a boy. The Lemba circumcise their boys and avoid marrying outside the tribe. Shabbat service includes sharing of challah and ritual grape juice. And the congregation is learning to pray in Hebrew as well as their native Shona tongue.

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