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Jesus of Nazareth (maybe): Get Religion, December 28, 2012 December 28, 2012

Posted by geoconger in Get Religion, Press criticism.
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When does a story grow stale? Does the length of time between first publication of a story and subsequent re-tellings matter? Or, if the news is not common knowledge, is it proper for a reporter to retell the story without acknowledging earlier accounts? My mind turned over this question after reading a piece that reported some archeologists believe Jesus was not born in Bethlehem.

“Come all ye faithful…to the ‘wrong’ Bethlehem?”appeared on 24 Dec 2012 in the Times and was syndicated at the Australian. It began:

TENS of thousands of people are streaming into Bethlehem, on the West Bank just south of Jerusalem, to celebrate Christmas in the cradle of Christianity. Few know that they might be in the wrong Bethlehem.

Archaeologists have long believed that Mary may have given birth to Jesus in Bethlehem of the Galilee, a hillside village far away in northern Israel.

“I think the genuine site of the Nativity is here, rather than the well-known site near Jerusalem,” [said Averim Oshri, a senior archeologist with the Israeli Antiquities Authority] “Bethlehem in the Galilee was inhabited by Jews at the time of Jesus, whereas the other Bethlehem? There is no evidence that it was a living site, an inhabited area in the first century.”

The Telegraph ran a story on its website summarizing the Times article, and on 26 December 2012 the author of the original article re-wrote the story for National Public Radio. The NPR story “Dig Finds Evidence Of Another Bethlehem” began:

Thousands of Christian pilgrims streamed into Bethlehem Monday night to celebrate the birth of Jesus. It’s the major event of the year in that West Bank town. But Israeli archaeologists now say there is strong evidence that Christ was born in a different Bethlehem, a small village in the Galilee.

About 100 miles north of where the pilgrims gathered, shepherds still guide their flocks through green unspoiled hills, and few give notice to the tucked-away village with the odd sounding name: Bethlehem of the Galilee. But archaeologists who have excavated there say there is ample evidence that this Bethlehem is the Bethlehem of Christ’s birth.

“I think the genuine site of the nativity is here rather than in the other Bethlehem near Jerusalem,” says Aviram Oshri, an archaeologist with the Israel Antiquities Authority which has excavated here extensively. He stands on the side of a road that now cuts through the entrance to the village. It was the construction of this road that led to the discovery of the first evidence that Bethlehem of the Galilee may have had a special place in history. “It was inhabited by Jews. I know it was Jews because we found here remnants of an industry of stone vessels, and it was used only by Jews and only in the period of Jesus,” Oshri says.

On its face, this is a nice, timely story. Just the sort of thing to run round Christmas. The author noted in the second paragraph of the Times story that the debate over the birthplace of Jesus has been a subject of debate, but should she have mentioned this debate has been ar0und for over 100 years?

In 1898 Sir William Ramsay wrote Was Christ born in Bethlehem? — the first major modern English-language study of this question — which has yet to be settled by the Biblical scholars fraternity. The issue has been raised by the “Jesus Seminar” group of scholars and was mentioned in a 2001 Washington Post article entitled “The Story of Jesus’s Birth, Revised; Modern Scholars Challenge Details of the New Testament Accounts of Christ’s Infancy”.

In 2007 the Biblical Archaeological Review ran articles by Jerome Murphy-O’Connor defending Bethlehem as the site of Jesus’ birth and Steve Mason who laid out the case for Nazareth. Recent books that have addressed this topic include Bruce Chiltons’ Rabbi Jesus: An Intimate Biography (2000) and Pope Benedict XVI’s Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives (2012). While the Telegraph‘s review of the Benedict’s latest book hyped the shocking news (to the Telegraph) that the Pope believes Jesus was not born on 25 December in the year 0, it also mentioned that Benedict accepts the traditional site of Jesus’ birth as Bethlehem.

I was critical of the Telegraph for hyping the non-story about the date of Jesus’ birth. Should the Times/NPR be taken to task also? The theory propounded by Dr. Oshri to the Times in 2012 was the same one he presented in Archaeology magazine in 2005. Now Archeology is a scholarly publication that also has a general readership, so missing that story is no crime. But Dr. Oshri’s argument also appeared in a 2008 National Geographic post entitled: “Bethlehem of Judea–or of Galilee?”

What then is news worthy about this story? The question of where Jesus was born has been debated for over 100 years, and Dr. Oshri’s claims had their first public airing in 2005. Is it enough that most people are unfamiliar with them to warrant a new story? But if so, should not there be an acknowledgement of what has gone before, or how Dr. Oshri’s discoveries advance the scholarly argument? How was this news?

First printed in GetReligion.

Are There Muslim Evangelists? Get Religion, August 28, 2012 August 28, 2012

Posted by geoconger in Get Religion, Islam, Persecution, Press criticism.
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How far should the press go to acculturate their overseas news stories — to make them palatable to an American audience while also being true to the underlying facts? NPR Morning Edition reporter Lauren Frayer had a great story last week that “gets religion”, but also brought this issue to mind.

Her report broadcast on Pakistan’s Aamir Liaquat was an example of solid reporting. Her story entitled “Pakistani Televangelist Is Back On Air, Raising Fears” meets the Orwell test for journalism as it is free from cant, has a moral compass, is well researched and well crafted. But were the correct nouns used?

Here is the lede:

Pakistan’s most famous, and infamous, TV evangelist has been rehired by a top station. In 2008, Aamir Liaquat made on-air threats against a religious minority, the Ahmadis. Those comments were followed by widespread violence against the group. Liaquat’s return to the airwaves has rekindled the controversy.

As Pakistan’s media has expanded in recent years, there’s been a rise in Islamic preachers with popular TV call-in talk shows. And they’ve had their share of scandal. One famous TV host fled the country after embezzlement allegations. Others are accused of spewing hate speech

That’s the case for Pakistan’s most popular televangelist, Aamir Liaquat, who’s just been rehired by the country’s top TV channel despite accusations that he provoked deadly attacks in 2008.

I have some small knowledge of the political and religious culture of Pakistan and can say she knows what she is talking about. I encourage you to listen to the broadcast. To often Western reporters are parachuted into overseas hotspots and report on issues they know nothing about — either mangling the facts or mouthing a script written by others. My colleague at GetReligion M.Z. Heminway reported on a particularly egregious howler along these lines committed by the New York Times.

I applaud NPR for bringing this story to an American audience. Given the growing U.S. involvement in the Muslim word, it behooves the American press to cover these stories and not confine them to the ghetto of specialist publications.

In writing about the Muslim world, however, I wonder how appropriate it is to use Christian terminology. Terms such as “fundamentalist Muslim” are often dropped into stories to give Western readers some context or equivalence. In the headline of this story, and in the opening paragraphs the term evangelist and televangelist are used to describe Liaquat. Is that right?

Using the Associated Press style book as a guide, using this terminology is not wrong — but it is not quite right either. It states:

evangelist

Capitalize only in reference to the men credited with writing the Gospels. The four Evangelists were Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. In lowercase, it means a preacher who makes a profession of seeking conversions.

Conversions to what? To proselytize is the verb that means to attempt to convert someone to another faith or point of view, while a Muslim evangelist traditionally has been someone who seeks to convert Muslims to the Christian faith. Turning to Wikipedia provides little clarity as it defines an evangelist as one who practices Christian evangelism, while the Merriam-Webster‘s dictionary further refines evangelist as a:

Protestant minister or layman who preaches at special services [or] an enthusiastic advocate <an evangelist for physical fitness>

On one level it may well be appropriate to use terms familiar to readers to illustrate a story. That is after all the purpose of an analogy. But is this appropriate when language is available to describe the same fact set in the terms of the culture being described?

A Muslim preacher who seeks to evangelize is called a sheikh or imam. Da‘wah, meaning the issuing of a summons, call or invitation, is the duty of every Muslim to invite people to their faith or to recall lapsed or nominal Muslims to a deeper faith.  A Muslim who practices da‘wah, either as a preacher, religious worker or someone engaged in a faith-building community activity is called a da‘i, plural du‘at.

To a Muslim audience, Aamir Liaquat is a da‘i — someone who seeks to renew the Muslim faith, proselytize non-Muslims, and combat false teaching. Yes, he is an enthusiastic advocate for Islam, but should Christian terms be used to describe this activity when then are Muslim terms to describe such actions?

At the same time there is a danger in taking this too far.

A Saturday Night Live skit that aired on 10 November 1990 and can be viewed here made fun of the mock Spanish some television reporters used on air. Entitled “NBC News Employees”, the skit starred Latino actor Jimmy Smits and the shows regular cast.  The scene opens with a reporter speaking on air from Nicaragua, who says the word Nicaragua in a hyper-Spanish phonology.  The skit progresses with the Anglo characters pronouncing Spanish place names (Los Angeles, San Diego, Honduras), foods (enchilada, burrito), and even sports teams (Denver Broncos) in a ridiculous Spanish accent.

Jimmy Smits’ character, Antonio Mendoza, is introduced to the Anglo reporters and says his name with an American English accent.  The other actors respond by saying his name with an excessive accent and Smit’s character becomes more and more uncomfortable as the skit progresses. He finally states:

If you don’t mind my saying, sometimes when you take Spanish words and kind of over pronounce them, well its kind of annoying.

So, GetReligion readers, is it kind of annoying to Muslim terms for Muslim religious leaders in news stories? Is it too politically correct, or effete — perhaps pretentious? Unnecessary? Ridiculous? A tele-sheikh? Or is it demeaning to the non-Western world to subsume all things into an American milieu? What say you?

First published in GetReligion.