Saturday, April 08, 2006

Holy Roman Empire

Silly us. Here's journalism circling the drain of history, and we're still stuck with that 19th-century empiricist mindset: Find data. Crunch data. Then interpret data.

Out there on the bold, reader-friendly cutting edge, meanwhile, some journalists are blowing up the old paradigm and trying a new one: Write the story first, then go out and find some facts for it. Trouble is, if you're not careful, you can end up with a Holy Roman Empire that's neither holy nor Roman nor empire. Let's have a look at the future, straight from the pages of a leading Southeastern daily.

Local buzz mixed over 'Gospel of Judas'
`Much ado about very little,' minister says

Religion Editor

Apparently it'll take more than a revelation that Judas might not have been as treacherous as Christians have long believed to shake the core beliefs of many Carolinas faithful on the verge of Holy Week.

The reaction of the Rev. Mike Macdonald of Broad Street United Methodist in Mooresville to the discovery of a lost manuscript involving history's ultimate traitor seemed to capture the mood that prevails on the verge of Palm Sunday:

"Much ado about very little."

Let's pause for a moment to dissect what's said and implied here (you there in the back, stop trying to think up another 'on the verge' phrase for the third graf). First, there's been a revelation. Even in their mundane sense, revelations are a pretty big deal: "striking" disclosures, sez the OED, of "something previously unknown." Something that needs to be qualified with a "might" is unlikely to count. Second, there's a known and ongoing likelihood that Christians' core beliefs are in danger of being shaken. (2A, that likelihood is affected in some way by the proximity of Holy Week.) Third, it appears from the evidence that this revelation about Judas won't qualify (even, or especially, on the verge of Palm Sunday).

But let's go on:

A discovery unveiled Thursday at a National Geographic news conference in Washington made front-page news across the country, including in the Observer. "The Gospel of Judas," an Egyptian manuscript written around A.D. 300, chronicles a secret interaction between Judas Iscariot and Jesus in which Jesus singles out Judas for special status and asks him for help in escaping his physical body and liberating his spiritual self.

Sigh. Part of this is the penalty for choosing wire stories for their sound, rather than the quality of their reporting. As most accounts of this event pointed out, the manuscript dates to around 300, but it's in all likelihood a copy of one from the second century -- the high tide of gnosticism. In repeating the "written around 3oo" from the previous day's tale, the present article also reinforces the misapprehension that apocryphal gospels generally (including gnostic gospels like this one) are new and different. They aren't. Indeed, the existence of this one appears to have been bruited about for some centuries now.

But Religion Editor doesn't seem interested in discussing canonicity or infancy gospels or anything interesting like that. He has a story to tell, and he's going to tell it:

Bart Ehrman, who teaches religious studies at UNC Chapel Hill, attended Thursday's news conference. He characterized the finding -- the papyrus manuscript was discovered buried along the Nile River -- as "one of the most unusual and contrary gospels written in Christian antiquity."
(Kids? That's a suggestion that the early centuries of Christianity produced lots of gospels, more than one of them unusual and contrary.)

Thursday's news conference, besides sharing the discovery, also served to promote "The Gospel of Judas," scheduled to air at 8 p.m. Sunday on the National Geographic Channel, with a repeat at 10 p.m.

National Geographic spokeswoman Mary Jeanne Jacobsen said the news conference, TV special and exhibit at the National Geographic Museum in Washington weren't rolled out now because Christian eyes are turned toward Holy Week and spiritual interest is high. Also: Two books, now out, and a DVD coming June 6.

Hate to put the prescriptivist hat on too hard, but the last fragment is inexcusably substandard. Meaning not that fragments per se are bad, but that it's impossible to tell what the hell this one refers to. The first sentence isn't much better. The "A didn't B because of X" construction is a common ambiguity of English. Does it mean
A didn't B, and X is the reason
A did B, but not because of X
We don't know. But we can guess where the graf is going: It's that Holy Week thing again. We're going to raise a loaded question (did you guys do this because it's Holy Week?) and make the bastards deny it. About which two complaints: 1) Deciding on your story before you write it is a dumb idea, and 2) Not all "Christian eyes" are on Holy Week because many Christians (they'd be the Orthodox ones) aren't on the verge of Holy Week. Grr.

"It was just the earliest date when the material was complete," Jacobsen said, reporting that 298 people came to see the exhibit in the first four hours Friday despite no advance fanfare.
(Please don't do the "reporting that" thing again, OK?)

Reaction Friday in and around Charlotte seemed to range from "I don't care" to "Hmm, that's interesting," at least among those who even noticed the story in newspapers or on radio or TV.
See a theme starting to surface? Move ahead a few grafs and it really jumps out:

...The Rev. Thomas Currie, dean of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) seminary in Charlotte, went back to read the newspaper article about the Judas find, then shared his reaction in an e-mail:

In other words, there is no local buzz. There's no local reaction at all. One of the ministers we call has to dig the damn thing out of the recycling bin before he can even "share his reaction." We set out to write a story about the new talk of the town: frantic local reaction to stunning revelation about a threat to the bedrock of Christianity on the verge of Holy Week. And it turns out there's no reaction, no revelation, no threat. And not necessarily a verge of Holy Week, but that's rubbing it in.

Anyway, the pastor gives us the chance to bring up the "Da Vinci Code," which always helps dress up the faith page. Then comes the capper:

People-on-the-street reaction was just as heartfelt.

Jane Caldwell of York, S.C., said she's fascinated by the news and doesn't discount that the Gospel of Judas could be true.

"Just as heartfelt" as what? You get the feeling that Religion Editor wrote this graf before anybody went out to get the person-on-the-street reaction? And since the speaker develops educational programs for yet another mainline Protestant church, do you start to get the feeling that there's no person-on-the-street reaction at all? And that there's no basis on God's green earth for any assertions about what "many Carolinas faithful" think about anything?

You'll notice, if you stagger through to the end, that three staffers contributed to the tale, though Religion Editor has the byline. That's less than one source per staffer.

This one's a challenge for copy editors. You can attack some of the surface buffoonery, but when this much good money has gone chasing after bad, the originating desk is likely to close ranks. Still, somebody needed to wave this embarrassing tale in the air and proclaim: No Holy. No Roman. And if there's an Empire in sight, the emperor is as nekkid as it gets.


Blogger Niko Dugan said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

1:40 AM, April 12, 2006  
Blogger Niko Dugan said...

Thank you for pointing out one fact that always seems to get overlooked whenever Easter approaches: There are only a few instances where every sect of Christianity observes the holiday on the same date. Every Orthodox church (Greek, Russian, Romainian, Serbian, etc.) operates on a lunar calendar, and Easter must come after Passover. This means the holiday can be on the same day as the one celebrated by Western religions, or a month apart, depending on the year.

I grew up Greek Othodox and have had to explain constantly why "it's not Easter for me;" I really don't want to have to also explain why the newspaper says it is but it still isn't.

Unfortunately, this seems to have fallen into the same basket as those who pffft when they hear that 2001 was actually the beginning of a new milennium, as there was no year 0.

1:42 AM, April 12, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Not even all Western sects of Christianity celebrate Easter this weekend - Jehovah's Witnesses, for one.

4:18 PM, April 12, 2006  

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