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The Easter "Hit" Parade

Isn't it simply Easter season, when fresh Gnostic gospels or dubious ossuaries show up like spring daffodils?


-- Peter Steinfels, New York Times reporter, in his March 31 article about a supposed secret, homoerotic Gospel by Mark.



Americans are accustomed to cultural elites trying to undermine their religious faith during Lent, Passover and Easter – but it's never been this bad. 


Beginning on February 26, the news media and arts community have fired a stunning barrage of criticism at religious beliefs, religious practice, and religious symbols.  Nothing is too sacred to attack this year, not even the most crucial teachings of Judaism and Christianity.


    A History Channel program scheduled for Easter Sunday will question whether the Bible is God's complete revelation to mankind. The current – Holy Week – issue of Newsweek teases readers with the headline “Is God Real?,” and features a debate between a prominent evangelical pastor and an outspoken atheist. An April 3 New York Times article dismisses the story of Moses parting the Red Sea as a “myth.”  Newsweek's March 19 cover story, “The Evolution Revolution,” showcases the latest evolutionary theories attempting to explain the development of humanity without God.  The news media have promoted not one but two different Gospel of Judas books in the past few weeks, along with a purported secret gospel written by Mark.  The arts world has mocked Jesus with a life-sized, nude, anatomically correct sculpture made of chocolate, and a papier mache sculpture portraying Him as Illinois senator Barack Obama.  On March 4, the Discovery Channel took the prize, by broadcasting a documentary claiming to have disproved the foundational belief of Christianity: that Jesus rose from the dead.

This year's Easter “Hit” Parade began just five days after the beginning of Lent with a February 26 press conference.  Hollywood über-director James Cameron and Emmy Award-winning director Simcha Jacobovici announced to the world that they had discovered the “Jesus family tomb,” and had even subjected Jesus' remains to DNA testing, thereby knocking the central pillar out from under the Christian edifice.  As the apostle Paul wrote, “if Christ is not risen, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins!”   (1 Corinthians 15:17).


Larry King mounted an uncharacteristically feisty defense of Jacobovici's documentary, “The Lost Tomb of Jesus,” while hosting a February 26 CNN interview/debate between Cameron, Jacobovici, evangelical theologian Albert Mohler, and Catholic League president William Donohue.  King asked Mohler, “…aren't you, as an intelligent person, open to the possibility of new things?...why not be open to at least think about it, talk about it, look at it?  Don't you want to inquire or just not accept anything that is introduced?” Nevertheless, Cameron, Jacobovici and the Discovery Channel soon found themselves staggering under a crushing weight of academic pressure.  Jewish, Christian and secular archaeologists and linguists coalesced into a perfect storm of scholarly criticism, laying bare Jacobovici's dubious assumptions and faulty logic.  By the time the documentary aired on Sunday, March 4, the Discovery Channel was scrambling furiously to distance itself from “The Lost Tomb.” 


Undeterred by the Lost Tomb debacle, the media's Easter “Hit” Parade marched on. A March 4 New York Times Magazine piece, “Darwin's God,” described religious belief as “an outgrowth of brain architecture that evolved during early human history.”  ABC's World News Sunday ran a segment on the growing influence of atheists, who “are arguing loudly that religion is not only false but also a threat to civilization.”


The March 7 NBC Today Show promoted a book by Father Andrew Greeley, who said that today Jesus would be a radical feminist.  Though Isaiah 53 describes the Savior as “having “no form or comeliness, and when we see him, there is no beauty that we should desire Him,” Greeley insisted that Jesus was “handsome and attractive,” and that Jesus and Mary Magdalene shared a mutual attraction but never slept with each other.


Time magazine's March 7 edition featured a story titled “Early Christianity's Martyrdom Debate.”  Author David van Biema described radical Princeton Professor Elaine Pagels, champion of the heretical Gnostic Gospels, as “about the nearest thing there is to a superstar in the realm of Christian history scholarship.”  In her new book, Reading Judas: The Gospel of Judas and the Shaping of Christianity, Pagels claims that the author of the second century Gospel of Judas – and presumably other early Christians – opposed the encouragement of martyrdom “with what he thought were false promises – huge rewards in heaven, and guaranteed resurrection.”  This during the season Christians celebrate Jesus' martyrdom and resurrection.


On March 13, Washington Post writer Philip Kennicott applauded former PBS newsman Robert MacNeil for slamming “religious fundamentalism,” particularly the influence of American fundamentalists on politics, education and public morality.  During his Kennedy Center speech to Americans for the Arts, MacNeil suggested that the “initial psychology” of American Christian and Jewish fundamentalists  is “similar to that which inspires Islamic reformers,” and decried “the swing to Puritanism” fostered by political groups “pandering to those who could be persuaded that art is decadent, or immoral, or homosexual, and destructive of finer values.”


Newsweek's March 19 edition featured a cover story promoting evolution and also ran Lisa Miller's column demonizing prominent evangelical leader Dr. James Dobson as “the religious right's standard bearer and junkyard dog.” 


On March 21, a Washington Post column promoted the novel The Gospel According to Judas.  Authors Jeffrey Archer and the Rev. Francis J. Moloney, former theological adviser to Pope Benedict XVI, consider their book a response to “deeply flawed and uninformed works” such as Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code and Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion. However, the novel denies that Jesus worked miracles such as walking on water, and claims Jesus was the natural offspring of Joseph and Mary.


Suddenly, after three weeks of unceasing attacks on faith, a rose appeared amongst the media thorns.  Time magazine's April 2 issue, available several days earlier online, featured a cover story by David van Biema arguing persuasively that the Bible, “the most influential book ever written,” should be taught in public schools.  Another story in the same issue, “Saving New Orleans with Faith?” acknowledged that church-related groups have led the effort to rebuild New Orleans following the Hurricane Katrina disaster.


However, the attacks on religion quickly resumed.  On March 28, the news broke that artist Cosimo Cavallaro planned to display “Sweet Jesus,” a six-foot-tall, anatomically correct, milk chocolate sculpture of the crucified Savior during Holy Week at an art gallery located in a New York City hotel.  Lab Gallery creative director Matt Semler expressed “surprise” that people “took offense,” and claimed that the Holy Week timing was coincidental.   


Under pressure from the Catholic League, the hotel canceled the “Sweet Jesus” display on March 30.  That evening, CNN's Anderson Cooper 360 hosted a hot dispute between Cavallaro and Catholic League President William Donohue.  Cooper asked no challenging questions of Cavallaro, but asked Donohue, “Are you making a bigger deal out of this than it deserves?”  He also asked Donohue whether “people have a right to express themselves?”


No sooner had “Sweet Jesus” been canceled in New York than the School of the Art Institute of Chicago put on display a student's life-sized papier mache sculpture of Barack Obama as Jesus.  The Obama sculpture will be displayed through Holy Week.


National Public Radio's Fresh Air with Terry Gross weighed in on March 28 and 29, broadcasting interviews with atheist Richard Dawkins and Christian Francis Collins, who have famously debated God's existence. 


On March 29, Time magazine posted a story titled “Pastors' Wives Come Together.” The story cites studies finding that 80 percent of pastors' wives say they feel unappreciated or unaccepted by their husbands' congregations and wish their husbands would choose another profession, and that the divorce rate among ministers and their wives is 50 percent, “no better than that of the general public.”


The Washington Post chose to question whether Jesus was really resurrected in a March 31 story, “A Debate for the Millennia: Did Jesus Rise from the Dead?”  The story, by Daniel Burke of Religion News Service, quotes expert witnesses on both sides of the debate, but fairness and balance isn't the issue.  The real question is why did the Post decide to raise this particular subject just before the beginning of Holy Week? 


Also on March 31, The New York Times suggested that a “secret” gospel of Mark may describe “Jesus initiating his disciples” with a “homosexual rite.” In his article, “Was It a Hoax? Debate on a 'Secret Mark' Gospel Resumes,” reporter Peter Steinfels acknowledges that the scholar who supposedly discovered the text in 1958, Columbia historian Morton Smith, wrote his book about it in 1973.  Three other authors wrote books questioning or supporting Smith's work in 2005.  Steinfels never explains why the story suddenly became newsworthy on the eve of Holy Week, 2007.  


The March 31 Times also ran a piece by guest columnist Stanley Fish challenging the Time magazine article promoting the teaching of the Bible in public schools.


Back to The Washington Post: on April 1, the paper published a review by radical biblical scholar John Dominic Crossan of radical professor Elaine Pagels' book, Reading Judas: the Gospel of Judas and the Shaping of Christianity.  Wouldn't the Post's readers be better served by a critical reviewer, rather than an echo chamber?


On April 2, USA Today ran a column by Tom Krattenmaker comparing “fundamentalist” Catholics and evangelical Christians to violent Muslims.


 

TEN YEARS OF CHRISTIANITY IN THE CROSSHAIRS

The following list of books, articles and television shows, compiled by the Catholic League, have challenged the core beliefs of Christianity every year during the Lenten season.  The Catholic League's list goes back to 1990.

2006  NBC's Dateline discussed The Jesus Papers, Michael Baigent's book contending that Jesus wasn't divine, married Mary Magdalene and sired a child.

2005  The ABC special “The Resurrection: Searching for Answers,” asserted: “Nearly every single detail of the Easter story remains a question of debate. Among them: Was the tomb really empty? Was Jesus ever buried in the first place?”

2004  On April 5 (during Holy Week), ABC's Peter Jennings ran a special report, “Jesus and Paul, the Word and the Witness.” The special featured radical Jesus Seminar academics Robert Funk and John Dominic Crossan, who deny the accuracy of the Bible.

2003  On Easter Sunday, the Discovery Channel showed a documentary called “James: Brother of Jesus.” It was based on a book which claimed that James was Jesus' brother and that he was the true leader of the early Church.

2002  On March 19 NPR's Talk of the Nation ran a segment on “Biblical archaeology” asking “what if [the Passover and Easter] stories were not literally true? What if the ancestors of the Jews were never slaves? What if Jesus did not rise from the dead? What would happen to Judaism and Christianity?”

2001  On Easter Sunday, the Discovery Channel aired a three-hour documentary called “Jesus: The Complete Story,” which aimed to “confirm or deny the facts of Jesus' life and death as written in the Gospels.” On Good Friday, ABC's 20/20 had a segment called “Modern Archaeologists, Theologians and Scholars Develop New Theory About Death of Jesus, and Who Was Responsible.”

2000  The April 24 (Easter Monday)  U.S. News and World Report cover story stated: “even today, purveyors of anti-Semitism have sought to justify their prejudices by appealing to the Gospels' depiction of Jews as jealous villains who plotted against Christianity's founder.”

1999  The April 5 (Easter Monday) issue of U.S. News & World Report featured an article suggesting Paul didn't write many of the Biblical epistles attributed to him.

1998  NPR's Talk of the Nation did a segment called “The Historical Jesus” giving John Dominic Crossan an exclusive platform to challenge the Resurrection.

1997  On Good Friday, PBS's News Hour presented a story, “Considering Jesus,” asking “Should New Testament accounts of his life be taken literally or figuratively?”


On April 3, a New York Times story quoted Dr. Zahi Hawass, “Egypt's chief archaeologist,” dismissing the Exodus story as a “myth.”  “Sometimes as archaeologists we have to say that never happened because there is no historical evidence,” said Hawass.  Reporter Michael Slackman should have pointed out that absence of evidence is not the same as evidence of absence.  Critics used to deny that the Hittites ever existed outside the pages of the Bible, until archaeologists found the remains of their civilization.


On April 4, author Susan Jacoby posted a column on the Newsweek/Washington Post Web site, “The Silly Season of the Supernatural.” Jacoby asserts: “You either believe that Jesus rose from the dead or you don't. The proposition is not subject to any kind of natural proof.” What does Jacoby mean by “natural proof?”  No historical event can be reproduced in a laboratory, so we cannot prove anything about Jesus “scientifically.”  However, abundant “forensic” or historical evidence supports the Resurrection, to wit the eyewitness accounts recorded in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.   Belief in the Resurrection is not based on blind faith, as Jacoby suggests.


Finally, Newsweek's April 9 issue – available now, during Holy Week – features a debate about God's existence between evangelist Rick Warren and atheist Sam Harris.


As of this writing (April 4) the Easter “Hit” Parade is still marching on.  According to WorldNetDaily, BBC Radio is scheduled to broadcast on April 4 a lecture by “gay” Church of England priest the Rev. Jeffrey John.  John is expected to assert that “Christianity's traditional teaching on Christ's crucifixion for the sins of mankind is 'repulsive,' 'insane' and makes 'God sound like a psychopath.'”


On April 7, the History Channel is scheduled to broadcast “The Way of the Cross,” an episode of its series, “In the Footsteps of Jesus.” The episode investigates whether science “supports or refutes biblical accounts” of Jesus' last supper, arrest and trial.


On Easter Sunday, April 8, the History Channel has scheduled a special, “Banned from the Bible,” which examines “ancient writings that didn't 'make the cut' in the battle to create a Christian Bible in the new religion's first few centuries.  Biblical archaeologists and scholars examine why they were left out and if others might yet be found.”  This special threatens to undermine the essential Christian belief that the books of the Bible were given to the church by God, who supervised the human efforts to determine which books were truly inspired by God. 


We should pray the History Channel does a more honest job with “Banned from the Bible” than the Discovery Channel did with the “Lost Tomb of Jesus.”  But we should expect the worst.



Brian Fitzpatrick is senior editor at the Culture and Media Institute  (www.cultureandmediainstitute.org), a division of the Media Research Center.