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Newsweek Plays Spiritual Jackass

What does it take to condemn yourself to hell?  The subject came up recently in an exploitative column in Newsweek.  It's a question the editors of the magazine should have spent a little more time pondering.


BeliefWatch, a regular feature in Newsweek, covers tales from the spirituality front. The column deals with a wide variety of faith issues, ranging from the traditional to the far out.


For example, the appointment of the first female bishop in the Episcopal Church prompted a look at the role of female leadership in different faiths.  The fall meeting of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops led to comment on the restructuring of church bureaucracy. 


In the past six months the column has also covered the mainstreaming of Hare Krishnas, the emerging trend of Buddha-inspired restaurants, the link between sexuality and spirituality, and communicating with the dead. The October 30, 2006 issue featured a short profile on in-your-face atheist author Sam Harris. 


In Newsweek's January 8th issue, however, BeliefWatch went all the way to hell.  The column featured a Web site called BlasphemyChallenge.com, which dares people to condemn themselves to hell by committing the unforgivable sin.


According to the Bible, Jesus said the only unforgivable sin is to blaspheme, or speak against, the Holy Spirit.  He made this statement to a group of religious leaders who were claiming that he was doing miracles by the power of Satan rather than by God.  BeliefWatch duly reports that many theologians question whether an unforgivable sin actually exists.


For reasons obscure, BlasphemyChallenge.com interprets blaspheming the Holy Spirit as saying “I deny the Holy Spirit.” Newsweek's column profiles a couple of people who have taken the blasphemy challenge, mouthing the supposedly forbidden words on tape and posting the video to YouTube.


Promoting -- in the guise of reporting on -- such a Web site is like inviting teenagers to watch Jackass the Movie and then turning them loose.  Will they imitate the stupid and dangerous stunts they see portrayed by Johnny Knoxville and his lame-brained lemmings?  Maybe.  Maybe not.  But heck, we're not responsible for the stupid things people do.


What a reckless gamble.  Newsweek doesn't really know whether an unforgivable sin exists.  Opening the door for readers to take the dare is like spiritual Jackass, only the stakes are – potentially – much higher.  Broken bones versus eternal damnation. 


Are these people really condemning themselves to hell by uttering these particular words?  Only God knows, but He can't be pleased with the unbridled hubris behind the “challenge.” Human pride is the source of all sin, and sin leads to death. You can look it up.


If anybody can be relied on to get their theology wrong, it's BlasphemyChallenge.com.   However, by giving the website free publicity, Newsweek is contributing to the real goal of the site's designers:  to ridicule and undermine religious faith.  Any society that rejects faith and turns from obedience to God really does put itself on the path to destruction.


The January 15, 2007 issue of Newsweek indicates that the Blasphemy Challenge column was the seventh most popular column on Newsweek.com as of January 5th.  In the column reporter Jerry Adler noted that “more than 400 mostly young people” had joined the blasphemy campaign.  One wonders how many more have thumbed their noses at God thanks to Newsweek. 


Kristen Fyfe is senior writer at the Culture and Media Institute, a division of the Media Research Center.