The Mainstream Media School of Religion Reporting …

… most recently on display in the awful reportage about the Pope Francis interview, is illustrated by an old, old joke:

A man goes to a psychiatrist and says, “Help me, doc! I can’t stop thinking about sex!”

The doctor puts him on the couch and begins to show him ink blots. “What does this one look like?” the doctor asks.

“A penis,” the man says.

“And this one?”

“A vagina,” the man says.

“And this one?”

“That’s two people doing it in bed.”

The shrink puts down the pictures and says, “You’re right: you are clearly obsessed with sex.”

“Me?!” the outraged man replies. “You’re the one showing me all the filthy pictures!”

* * *

That, in brief, is how the sexually obsessed media–more interested in covering Miley’s gross, sad little bump-n-grind than a looming attack on Syria–transfers their sexual obsessions to the Catholic church.

Our job is to preach Christ, and him crucified, for free. Their job is to sell ads and papers to a decadent culture.

See also: The Anchoress.

Bias and Propaganda: Still More Reuters Follies UPDATED

Muzzled! Just like dogs!

There’s been some discussion on this post about whether Reuters is, in fact, biased in its reporting on certain subjects.

I didn’t realize that was still a subject for debate. Their consistent anti-Israel/pro-Palestinian bias isn’t up for question at all. It’s not a matter of “if” they produced biased news, but of how much and on what subjects.

Their anti-Catholicism is not of the same texture as their anti-Israel material, since antisemitism is a unique and perennial kind of hatred that has manifested itself without fail for millennia, often in the most vicious ways imaginable. It now dons the mantle of sympathy for the “Palestinian” cause, but it’s the same-old Jew-hate.

In the comboxes, Deacon Greg takes exception to my claim for institutional anti-Catholic bias in the mainstream media, citing his long personal experience. I would agree with him that we’re not looking at a virulent, overt bias, but rather a tendency of thought.

That tendency of thought often does not apply to the way reporters view individual Catholics, since most Americans assume (with some justification) that Catholics don’t pay much attention to what their Church teaches. The hatred instead is directed at the “institutional Church,” which is differentiated from the mass of Catholics and held up for special vilification for all the obvious reasons (eg, the usual pelvic obsessions).

Bias, then, does not mean insulting someone’s beliefs (although I’ve been on the receiving end of that from some mainstream colleagues), but in maintaining a persistent negative opinion on a subject, with an inclination to view that subject in the worst possible light.

Bias manifests itself in the media under the cover of objectivity. Objectivity is an illusion. A writer cannot be removed from the product of his or her own mind. The most we can hope for is to tame it a bit using various habits and techniques. In the end, however, through word choice, structure, flow, juxtaposition, and all the other tricks writers use–consciously and subconsciously–the bias will emerge, to a greater or lesser degree. The subjective view of the writer will bleed through the text. Major news organizations operate like hive-minds, with the vast majority of employees sharing an urban liberal outlook. Thus, the subjective outlook of the primary writer or writers is shared by editors. They become blind to it, and an institutional bias emerges.

Sometimes, bias is so persistent and so obvious that it shades into propaganda. Propaganda can be a subtle thing. It’s not all Der Sturmer. It can be merely in the words you choose. Here are today’s headlines:

  • AP: “More black smoke: Cardinals don’t agree on pope”
  • USA Today: “World watches as papal conclave begins second day.”
  • Washington Post: “On Day 2 of papal conclave, alliances could emerge.”
  • New York Times: “Black Smoke From Conclave Signals No Pope on First Day.”

Not bad. They’re on point, and without any nudging. The articles don’t always live up to objectivity of those headlines, but I have no problem with the headlines themselves.

Now we come to Reuters:

  • “Cardinals fail to elect pope after three ballots.”

CARDINALS FAIL!!!!!

Words matter. Positioning of words matter. No one–absolutely no one–expected a pope after 3 ballots. Benedict took four and John Paul II took eight.

Clearly, there is no “failure” here.

So, why the loaded word?

It’s not enough to say we’re just looking at people trying to sell papers and gin up interest with catchy headlines and scandal mongering. Sure, that’s a factor, but it’s not like they’re even-handed about it. They don’t run headlines that say, “Gays fail to convince majority of Americans about same-sex marriage.” Only certain subjects, people, and institutions are singled out for the gloves-off treatment. And the Church is one of them.

We need to put aside the idea that this is not the product of institutional bias. These articles and headlines pass through at least a dozen hands. The final shape is the product of many choices, and these choices lead to a negative–not a neutral–depiction of the church. The result is the creation of propaganda under the guise of objective news.

The question remains: is this conscious or merely habitual propaganda? Is there a direct, overt institutional desire on the part of Reuters to depict the Church in a negative light? Or is it merely the product of a habit of mind that views the Church negatively, and leads to a reflexive bias?

I don’t read minds: only words. I try to think well of people. In most cases of media bias, I think we’re probably just seeing a sloppy habit of thinking, and a tendency to get lodged in the echo-chamber of liberal groupthink. I’m not quite as confident that this is the case with Reuters.

UPDATE:

Reader Bain Wellington offers several examples for the Reuters writer in the comboxes who keeps saying, “Bias? I don’t see any bias.” (You’ll have better luck if you open your eyes.) Here’s one lovely tidbit he found:

Check [3] Robin Pomeroy, 19 Feb (editing by Pullella and anor)

Headline:- “Rome’s gays toast the departure of an unloved pope”

Lede:- “Across the road from the Colosseum, the ancient Roman stadium consecrated as a holy Christian site, clients at a busy bar are raising a glass to the pope: toasting the departure of the worst Church leader they can imagine.”
The 750 word article reports the views of 2 of the bar’s co-owners, and of Franco Grillini (contacted by telephone) allegedly founder of Italy’s “biggest gay advocacy group”.

Because trolling a gay bar for opinions on the pope is “good journalism” and not just an opportunity to give someone’s Grindr app a workout.

More Anti-Catholic Bias From Reuters UPDATED

St. Margaret Clitherow, pressed to death for being Catholic

Every once in a while, I fail to take my own advice: I actually read mainstream coverage of church matters. This is never wise, since mainstream reporters are absolutely incapable of writing about religion. What they produce is usually laced with bias and innuendo masquerading as fact.

Even though I do read AP or CNN or the Times, I usually avoid the despicable Reuters: a nakedly biased, anti-American, anti-Israel, and anti-Catholic organization. Today, I made the mistake of reading this combination of flaccid banalities, mendacity, and negativity by Crispian Balmer and Philip Pullella.

The headline gives the game away: “Cardinals head to conclave to elect pope for troubled Church.”

Troubled? How? Quantify it, please, and if the best you can do is a minor Vatileaks story and the aging abuse story, then that’s not enough.

And why is that the lede? A real news service would have simply titled it “Cardinals head to conclave to elect pope.” We don’t need your elbow in our ribs nudging us in the goodthink direction you want.

But let’s get to the real heart of the stupidity from the writers and editors involved in this sham: the part when they call this “one of the most difficult periods in the Church’s history.”

See, I actually teach Church history. I know a little about the subject. 2013 wouldn’t even make the top-ten of “most difficult periods in Church history.”

Honestly? Given the way the church in the third world is thriving, I’d call it one of the best periods in Church  history.

Bl. Miguel Pro

Let’s not go by the subjective standards of anti-Catholic reporters. Let’s stick with the facts.

Here are some periods of Church history which Crispian Balmer and Philip Pullella believe are as bad as–or worse than–our current period of peace, prosperity, and growth in the Church:

*The execution of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ

*The executions of

  • Pope St. Peter
  • Pope St. Anacletus
  • Pope St.  Sixtus
  • Pope St. Telesephorus
  • Pope St.  Hyginus
  • Pope St. Pius I
  • Pope St.  Anicetus
  • Pope St. Soter
  • Pope St. Eleuterus
  • Pope St. Callixtus I
  • Pope St. Urban I
  • Pope St. Pontian
  • Pope St. Fabian
  • Pope St. Cornelius
  • Pope St. Stephen I
  • Pope St. Sixtus II
  • Pope St. Martin I

*The assassinations of

  • Stephen VI
  • Benedict VI
  • John X
  • John XIV
  • Gregory V
  • and perhaps 6 or 7 other popes who died under suspicious circumstances

*The Persecution by Nero

*The Persecution by Diocletian

*Various other persecutions and executions up until the Edict of Milan

*The Arian heresy

*The collapse of the Roman Empire

*The sack of Rome by Alaric

*The sack of Rome by the Saracens

*The massacres by Timur (Tamerlane)

*Various other Islamic persecutions too numerous to mention

*The Cadaver Synod

*The Saeculum Obscurum

*The Great Schism

*The Western Schism

*Various antipopes

*The election of Gregory X (a conclave lasting three years)

*The Albigensian Crusade

*The Spanish Inquisition

*Pope Alexander VI

Alexander, The Borgia Pope

*The Protestant Reformation

*The Act of Succession and the dissolution of the monasteries in England

*The reign of Elizabeth I

*The Ascendancy in Ireland

*The French Revolution

*The invasion of the Papal States and the imprisonment of Pope Pius VII by Napoleon

*The anticlerical movement in Mexico

*The Spanish Civil War

*World War II and the Holocaust (estimates of Polish Catholics killed range from 2-3 million, not to mention clergy and religious killed by the Nazis)

*Persecutions under the Soviets and other communist regimes

*Ongoing persecutions in Islamic countries

The Korean martyrs

Although I checked the list of early pope martyrs, the rest is just off the top of my head, so I’m sure I’m missing some. If you’re going to be covering the oldest institution on the planet, one deeply rooted in history, and make claims about its current status in reference to that history, then you should have a tiny clue about the topic, or else maybe just shut up about it.

This is not only not “one of the most difficult periods in the Church’s history”: it’s not even close. I guess you could say this is “a” period in Church history, and there are some difficulties, as there always are. The abuse scandal continues to loom over us as one of those troubles, but under Benedict we’ve gone a long way toward addressing it. There is no current abuse scandal in the church: just facts emerging from abuse in the past.

In other words, we’ve already moved out of a troubled period, but the press won’t allow that. Whatever the Church does ever after, it will always be done “amidst scandal.” We will never be allowed any distance between us and the abuse scandal. For the media, it will always 2002.

This is not to underplay the tragedy and scandal of the sexual abuse crisis and the failures of certain bishops. But if you look at the list above, filled with literally millions of murdered Catholics and decades of trials and social collapse throughout the ages, how can we reasonably call our current state in 2013 “one of the most troubled”? It takes a particularly short view of history, a remarkably limited understanding of the world, and a narrow-minded modernist perspective to think there’s something unique–or even interesting–about our times.

Actually, it’s pretty simple: you just need to be a biased media institution looking to paint the Church in the worst possible light. Once you decide we’re a villain that needs to be put down, everything else is easy.

UPDATE: Reuters appears to be revising the story as the day goes on, but not backing off their slimy little attacks. Now the focus is on cardinals meeting “at a time of strife and scandal for the Roman Catholic Church.”

Try to parse this idiocy:

There are constant reminders of the scandals and controversies facing the Church.

In the past month, the only British cardinal elector recused himself from the conclave and apologized for sexual misconduct.

Police detained two women who staged a brief topless protest against the Church before the massed ranks of television crews who have come from around the world to follow the conclave.

And that’s where that useless section dribbles away into nothingness. So … “constant reminders” are two naked bozos and O’Brien recusing himself a month ago? Those are “constant” reminders? Do Reuters writers even need a basic familiarity with the English language, or do they just assume we don’t have one?

The rest is just bland nonsense any reporter for a high-school paper could have churned out with a couple of Google searches. What garbage. Quite clearly, it doesn’t take much to write for Reuters.

Actually, I’m wrong: it took five writers (Balmer and Pullella, plus Naomi O’Leary, Catherine Hornby and Tom Heneghan) plus four editors (Barry Moody, Alastair Macdonald, Peter Graff and Giles Elgood) to crank out this crap, reminding us why mainstream news is cratering. Bloated, biased, and incompetent is a poor combination.

4:50pm EST: From Aleteia, full transcription of Pope Francis’ remarks:

“Brothers and sisters, good evening!

“You know that the duty of the Conclave was to give a bishop to Rome. It seems as though my brother cardinals went almost to the end of the world to get him. But here we are. I thank you for your welcome. The diocesan community of Rome has a bishop. Thank you!

“Before all else, I would like to say a prayer for our Bishop Emeritus Benedict XVI. Let us all pray together for him, that the Lord may bless him and that Our Lady may watch over him that Our Lady may watch over him” is a correction to the text I just sent.”

Then the crowd prayed the “Our Father, “ and the “Hail Mary,” and the “Glory Be” for Benedict XVI.

“And now let us begin this journey, [together] as bishop and people. This journey of the Church of Rome, which is to preside over all the Churches in charity. It is a journey of fraternity, of love, of trust between us. Let us always pray for one another. Let us pray for the world, so that a great brotherhood might come about. I hope that this journey of the Church—which we begin today and in which my Cardinal Vicar who is present here will assist me—will be fruitful for the Evangelization of this beautiful city.

“And now I would like to give you my blessing. But before I do, I would like to ask you a favor: before the bishop blesses the people, I ask you to pray to the Lord that He bless me…. the prayer of the people for a blessing upon their bishop. Let us take a moment of silence for you to offer your prayer for me.”

The crowd kept silence while the Pope Francis I bowed and received their prayers.

Then the Pope proceeded.

“Now I will give you my blessing and to the whole world, to all men and women of good will.”

After making the sign of the Cross and uttering a prayer, Pope Francis I said:

“Brothers and Sisters,

“I leave you now. Thank you for your welcome. Pray for me. And we’ll see one another again soon. Tomorrow I want to go and pray to Our Lady, asking her to watch over Rome. Good night and have a good rest.”

Instagram, Vine, and Porn: What Parents Should Know

This post contains mature images that have been obscured, but may still offend some readers.

As Vine, Twitter’s new 6-second-video sharing service is swept up and spun around by the inevitable pornado, it’s worth looking at how Instagram handled a similar issue, and where they’ve failed.

Social networks and porn don’t mix well. For a social network to click with the mainstream, people need to be sure of a few things: safety, privacy, minimal advertising, and freedom from objectionable images and content. Facebook, for example, has a strict no-nudity policy. If they become overzealous with their banhammer at times, people should remember they’re trying to strike a tricky balance between freedom of expression and a smut-free, unobjectionable environment.

Twitter has far fewer limitations than Facebook, and you can find porn there without muchtrouble. Thus, it should have surprised no one when Vine became a hub for 6-second clips featuring nudity and graphic sex. Vine is making some headway against it, but the simple fact is that they will never completely succeed.

Instagram–recently acquired by Facebook for $1 billion–fought similar problems for a long time. It’s hard not to see their recent, relative success reining in porn as an effort to keep Facebook happy.

For those unfamiliar with the service, Instagram allows people to quickly and easily share photos from mobile devices. Users can apply various hipster filters to make the photos look more stylish (usually by wrecking the contrast), add a caption, include a hashtag like #mycutechicken, and send them off into the aether. Other users can like the photos and make comments on them.

I set up a personal Instagram account in the early days of the service, but never really used it much, nor did I go looking for porn, even for research purposes. (More recently, I set up a public account, for those of you fascinated with pictures of chickens and coffee mugs.) I still don’t really like it all that much, since it repeats things done just fine by Twitter and Facebook, but I can see its appeal in a visually-oriented culture. Nude or sexually explicit images are banned by Instagram’s EULA, but for a long time hashtags like #sex, #porn, #nude, and myriad variations on the theme were common. If you searched for one of those tags, you got porn.

The service is very popular: not Facebook-popular, but big enough. Instagram reports 90 million monthly active users, 40 million photos per day, 8500 likes per second, and 1000 comments per second. They suffered a reversal of fortune when a change in policy claimed rights to photos shared on the service; but a public backlash and a sharp dip in user numbers caused them to back down, for now. Nonetheless, daily users of the service plummeted by 50%, from about 16 million per day down to 8 million. Those numbers will rebound, but exactly how much is an open question.

The thing that surprised me is how many parents feel comfortable letting kids use the service. As I said, it’s becoming safer, but it’s still not safe, and it’s not a place where kids should be hanging out. Instagram accounts are only allowed for people age 13 or up, but many, many far younger children are using it in violation of the policy.

There are no parental locks or protections for the flow of pictures on Instragram, which limits parents to an honor policy in which a child using Instagram 1) has a private, not a public, account; 2) only accepts “followers” who are known to the parent, and 3) never, ever searches for hashtags or browses around in the public photo stream. I’ve found no way to lock out searches, which means a kid can punch in a hashtag search and find himself in a photographic wild west without the parent ever knowing.

Instagram searches no longer return hits on obviously sexual words, but explicit images can pop up anywhere and display on a child’s screen before Instagram has a chance to delete them. This post is illustrated by screen caps I took in ten minutes of Instagram searching, and shows the juxtaposition of kids and risque pictures.

One thing parents probably don’t know is that explicit content can be given any tag. You can find a man revealing his wedding tackle in a picture tagged #teddybearpicnic. Instagram will probably find and delete the picture, eventually, but is that really something you want to risk? And for what? So kids can share pictures of each other making duck faces?

One of the high-traffic hashtags is #Kik, which is the name of a messaging service for mobile devices.

First off, if you’re a parent and you have kids using Kik, you’ve done something extremely silly, and need to stop it now. Kik is free of content restrictions, and is a jammed full of pedophiles and pervs. If you want your kid propositioned for naked photos, by all means, let them have a Kik account.

Kik and Instagram have evolved a kind of symbiotic relationship, with people promoting their Kik handles on Instagram and vice versa. If you want to see some of the problems with Instagram, spend 10 minutes refreshing the #Kik search. In the middle of the day it was giving me about 10 new pics a second, and some porn crept past the censors before Instagram finally managed to delete it.

As you can see from the screen caps, there were still pics that didn’t violate the nudity/sex policy but which no parent wants a kid to see. There are clearly personal photos of sexual stalkers and perverts, and they are right next to photos of sweet little girls, all in the same photo stream.

Do you want your child to see pictures of and from any of these millions of strangers every day? Would you let these strangers bring their pictures into your home?

Oh, and one more super huge problem: geotagging and location services. It’s very, very easy to accidentally tag a photo with a precise location, such as the home of the child who took it. Let that sink in for a minute: if your daughter shares a picture of herself without knowing that the geotagging is on, anyone looking at that stream could know where you live. There are apps and sites that can aggregate this info into a kind of stalker map.

So, what’s the verdict on Instagram? It’s gotten safer and more smut-free since the Instaporn flood of last fall, but it’s not out of the woods. It needs stricter controls and better parental locks, but even then, what you have will not be wholly safe, and the benefits for kids are little to none.

If you give in because “all the other kids are doing it,” then you’ve bought a grand old line of BS that’s been responsible for bad parental decisions for generations. Because, you know, everyone uses that line. At one point, no kids were using it, but little by little, this mob psychology takes over and affects a change in parental behavior. I’ve spent an entire career in the media observing the same phenomena, particularly with games, and this is no different.

Kids need to stay away from the search features

If you still intend to let your kid use Instagram, there are some things to minimize the risk:

  • A child’s account must be private.
  • People must be known to you to be approved.
  • Kids cannot add friends without permission.
  • They cannot search for photos or use hashtags.
  • And it is imperative that the location tagging is turned off.

As for Vine, it may never be safe, because smut peddlers can embed a single frame of porn in a six-second clip, making it much easier to slide past the censors. Twitter is a long way from getting a handle on the problem, and if you want evidence, here’s what I found in my first 30 seconds of using the service. Note that the tags includes #pets, #magic, and #howto, meaning the person who posted is looking to snare people who want non-pornographic content.

 

Can We Put the Adults Back in Charge?

When I do reviews of products parents might be considering for their children, I usually point out anything that might be of concern. This helps parents make sound decisions.

But there are places where I never would have thought to look for “family unfriendly” content. One expects the adults in charge of some products and publications to show some rudimentary common sense, but that’s becoming less likely. For example, just recently, the largely family friend show Once Upon a Time has been adding sexual innuendo from the character of Captain Hook. It strikes a jarring note in a show that, although dark, often has a good moral message and manages to avoid mature content. It’s minor and fleeting, but still, it doesn’t belong there.

A more serious example is Songza: a music streaming app somewhat like Pandora, but with set playlists for certain times and moods: waking up, going to sleep, making dinner, dancing, and so on. I was setting up Songza to stream some relaxing music for my son at bedtime when I came across this:

“Getting High” and “Getting Lucky”? To hell with you, Songza. I’m sure they thought they were being cool and hip and edgy. What they were actually being was childish, irresponsible jerks.

Next up we have this story from England about a children’s magazine using images from hyper-violent M-rated games to create puzzles for kids under age 12. Here’s an example:

The pictures, from Cool Kidz Magazine, show the main character of Hitman brandishing guns and challenges the kiddies to spot the difference. Charming, no?

Cool Kidz is published by LCD Publishing and distributed by Hearst and Conde Naste, and had images from not one, but five different M-rated (an “18” in the UK) games: Hitman: Absolution, Call of Duty Black Ops II, Assassins Creed III, Far Cry 3 and Dishonored.

Screenshots appeared as double-page spreads, for use as posters, and were reproduced in spot-the-difference and other puzzles. Earlier issues also had images from 18- and 16-rated games.

LCD Publishing, which is based in Exeter, southwest England, said it took its responsibilities to young readers seriously. “We censor the images we use to ensure that there is no blood or apparent body damage,” owner Allen Trump said in an emailed statement.

He said the images used were suitable for children 12 or older, although he added the magazine was targeted at children up to 12 years.

The pictures printed depicted life-like computer generated images of men carrying weapons including assault rifles, Bowie knives, an axe, an anti-tank weapon and pistols.

Games firms contacted by Reuters said they were unaware Cool Kidz, which has been published for seven years, had been using their images.

Representatives for Japan’s Square Enix, publisher of the Hitman series, privately-owned Bethesda Softworks, publisher of Dishonored, and Ubisoft Entertainment, publisher of Assassins Creed III and Farcry 3, said they opposed the use but declined to say whether they would take any legal action against LCD.

Call of Duty publisher Activision declined to comment.

Read more. 

Isn’t it nice that they eliminated the blood and “body damage” from the images? Yet they still manage to ingrain these iconic images in the minds of the very young, where they take root and create a demand for games kids should not be playing. This continues to be a problem with the game industry in general, which has gotten slightly better about promoting M-rated games to kids, but still has a ways to go.

It used to be that adults had some common sense about what they put out there where children might encounter it. Adults used to watch out for kids. I remember being routinely disciplined by adults other than my parents, and even strangers, when I stepped out of line in public. Can you imagine if an adult today acted like an adult when he saw a kid doing something really wrong in public, and called him out on it? Nine times out of ten, the parents would raise hell at the adult who dared criticize little junior rather than junior for being bad.

Want proof? I heard a story recently about an anti-drinking/drug campaign that was making the rounds of a local high school system. Parents and kids were watching a Powerpoint presentation that started flashing Facebook pictures underage kids partying with alcohol in local homes, including photos of kids in that audience. The parents were indeed outraged, but not at junior for betraying their trust. They were angry at the presenters for embarrassing them in public.

Were the presenters out of line? Perhaps. Certainly there may have been some privacy violations going on, and I’m not sure if faces were blurred out or not. I only heard the story second hand, and with minors, you need to be careful about that kind of thing.

But they also delivered a powerful dose of public shaming, which is something society is sorely missing. We’ve been trained on generations of films and TV shows and novels to belief that all social pressure is bad, but in a civilization social pressure can have a healthy role in repressing our tendency to sin, or to just act stupid. The sexual revolution, the permanent counterculture, and now reality TV have all turned the lack of any shame into a windfall for the media, with the result that too many people really do “have no shame.” It seems like the entire culture is being run by people who never advanced past the stage of toddlers fascinated with their own genitals and excrement.

That’s actually the opposite of progress. It’s immaturity. The world–business, commerce, labor, politics–is an adult space that has to carve out safe places for kids. And that’s the job of an adult. Every adult.

The Gnostic Noise Machine and the “Wife” of Jesus UPDATED

I was going to let the whole “Jesus had a wife” thing pass by in silence, since the discovery of a minor fragmentary unprovenanced 4th century papyrus of a probable Gnostic text is about as relevant to actual Christianity as an episode of Scooby Doo.

If it turns out to be authentic (big if) it may very, very slightly and incompletely expand our knowledge of some of the fringe backwaters that burbled up and rapidly drained away in the early centuries of Christianity. Honestly, though, it doesn’t even really add much to our store of knowledge about Gnosticism (one of the earlier Christian heresies) that we didn’t already know.

I assumed it would just fade away as another academic sham perpetrated by the Gnostic noise machine, first set in motion by the disgraceful work of Elaine Pagels in her popular book The Gnostic Gospels (1979) and rolling on ever since. (Pagels most famously claimed that the spurious Gospel of Thomas predated the Gospel of John and that St. Paul was the source of the Gnostic traditions. Thanks for contributing that to our efforts to misunderstand early Christianity, Dr. Pagels. We have some lovely parting gifts for you on your way out.) The names affixed to the story–the New York Times, Laurie Goodstein, and Karen L. King–assured me that this was a minor bit of attention-seeking that would soon collapse under its own pretensions. Silly me.

First, a little bit on the players in the story. The Times has notoriously horrible religion coverage. Goodstein is the least competent major religion reporter I’ve ever read. She was last seen marveling about how the unrecorded and thus unbroadcast Stephen Colbert and Cardinal Dolan forum at Fordham for 3,000 students “might have been the most successful Roman Catholic youth evangelization event since Pope John Paul II last appeared at World Youth Day.”

Next up in our dramatis personae is Karen L. King, who, Ms. Goodstein breathlessly informs us, is “is the first woman to hold the nation’s oldest endowed chair, the Hollis professor of divinity,” because academic credentials taketh away the sins of the world, particularly “first woman” credentials. (That’s an actual quote from the Gnostic Gospel of Fred. Prove it isn’t.)

Perhaps more important is the fact that she was a member of the Jesus Seminar, an absurd body of self-styled revisionists who “voted” on the authenticity of scripture passages and, most notoriously, decided that the Gospel of John was a sham. Their members produced wonderful theories, like explaining that the empty tomb of Christ is easily explained by wild dogs eating his body, or that Jesus didn’t exist at all. They are to actual near-eastern religious studies what Lady Gaga is to quality music: minimal talent married to stunning self-promotion skills. There is so much superb work done in NT studies that you need to pick and choose, and an easy way to trim down your reading pile is to ignore any writer whose biography includes the words “Jesus Seminar.” You’ll save yourself endless headaches and radically limit your exposure to stupidity.

King’s specialty is women’s roles in the early Church, and her focus has been on Gnostic texts. The Christian Gnostics are indeed a fruitful area of study, since they represent certain currents of thought in Greek philosophy mixed with a radical warping of Christ’s message, misunderstanding or outright hatred of Judaism, misogyny, contempt for the body, and general all-around nuttiness. The Gnostics got the whole neoplatonic thing all wrong, and it wasn’t until St. Augustine that someone got it right. Nonetheless, Gnostic studies are fascinating and the texts–mostly collected in the Nag Hammadi Library–are often striking.

King has an agenda. Let’s be very clear about that. She makes some throat-clearing gestures in the Goodstein article towards downplaying the outrageous claims being made for “Jesus’s wife” fragment, but she’s positively panting to prove it to be true. To get an idea of what she thinks Gnostic texts prove, here’s a little taste from her book, The Gospel of Mary of Magdala: Jesus and the First Woman Apostle (note that even her title is a lie):

Yet these scant pages provide an intriguing glimpse into a kind of Christianity lost for almost fifteen hundred years. This astonishingly brief narrative presents a radical interpretation of Jesus’ teachings as a path to inner spiritual knowledge; it rejects his suffering and death as the path to eternal life; it exposes the erroneous view that Mary of Magdala was a prostitute for what it is-a piece of theological fiction; it presents the most straightforward and convincing argument in any early Christian writing for the legitimacy of women’s leadership; it offers a sharp critique of illegitimate power and a utopian vision of spiritual perfection; it challenges our rather romantic views about the harmony and unanimity of the first Christians; and it asks us to rethink the basis for church authority. All written in the name of a woman.

One trick both King and Pagels use (and the two collaborated on a book on–wait for it–The Gospel of Judas) is to try to date their preferred texts earlier and canonical texts later. This is the case with King’s work on the Gospel of Mary, which she dates to early Christianity, but which certainly dates to no earlier than the late 2nd century. (One of the oldest copies was found at our old friend the Oxyrhynchus dump, and is probably 3rd century.)

We can see some of this dating-game being played out in the New York Times article on the fragment being given the absurd name The Gospel of Jesus’s Wife. (Book, documentary, and speaking tour by Professor King to follow.) The earliest date King is willing to assign to the fragment is 4th century, which of course makes it a very late piece of text of minimal use to understanding anything about early Christianity. This date is not based on testing: too much of the document would need to be destroyed for carbon dating and, for some odd reason, it hasn’t been subject to spectrometry. However, 2 of the 3 experts asked to review it for The Harvard Theological Review doubt its authenticity. So, even the 4th century date might be bunk, but let’s just accept that date as solid.

Later in the article, however, King links the text to the Gospel of Thomas, possibly written in the late 2nd century, and presto-chango! The Gospel of Jesus’s Wife becomes a 2nd century text! How? Beats me. I don’t have an endowed chair at Harvard, so I can’t tell you how a minor textual parallel magically knocks a couple hundred years off the date of a document. It might just mean someone in the 4th century read Thomas.

But I do know that “4th century” text about Jesus’s wife = no headlines, while “early Christian” text about Jesus’s wife = book contracts, and possible collaboration with James Cameron.

So what, exactly, is this document? I’ll let Ms. Goodstein spell it out for you:

A historian of early Christianity at Harvard Divinity School has identified a scrap of papyrus that she says was written in Coptic in the fourth century and contains a phrase never seen in any piece of Scripture: “Jesus said to them, ‘My wife …’ ”

The faded papyrus fragment is smaller than a business card, with eight lines on one side, in black ink legible under a magnifying glass. Just below the line about Jesus having a wife, the papyrus includes a second provocative clause that purportedly says, “she will be able to be my disciple.”

There is nothing even a tiny bit shocking in that sliver of text, for reasons that should be thumpingly obvious to anyone with a passing familiarity with the New Testament, the church, or Christian history. Why is that?

  1. Christ did have a wife. More like a bride. We still talk about her today. Actually, we still are her today: the church. See also John 3:29, Matthew 25:1-13, Mark 2:19, Luke 5:34, Revelation 21:9, & c, & c. Spousal imagery is central to the early church’s understanding of herself. Early homilies on the Song of Songs drove this point home again and again. Bridal imagery is not just incidental to Christianity, it’s integral.
  2. Women disciples. Guess what? Yeah, you already figured it out. We know about them too. The Virgin Mary, the other Marys, Martha, Joanna, Susanna, and others…. What’s that? You mean a feminist revisionist scholar of an early Christian heresy is trying to blur the distinction between disciples and apostles? Say it isn’t so!

Let’s move on to some other claims:

But the discovery is exciting, Dr. King said, because it is the first known statement from antiquity that refers to Jesus speaking of a wife. It provides further evidence that there was an active discussion among early Christians about whether Jesus was celibate or married, and which path his followers should choose.

“This fragment suggests that some early Christians had a tradition that Jesus was married,” Dr. King said. “There was, we already know, a controversy in the second century over whether Jesus was married, caught up with a debate about whether Christians should marry and have sex.”

The claim that there was “active discussion” within the early Church of Jesus being married is simply false. If this is “further evidence” of that discussion, what’s the unambiguous “primary” evidence we already have? The subject wasn’t even up for debate. The man who urged his followers to become “eunuchs for the kingdom” certainly wasn’t going to marry, and no one in the early Church claimed he did.

The article goes on to say that “historically reliable Christian literature [a mysterious phrase, that] is silent on the question.” Again, that’s false. As we’ve seen, it is not silent on the role of Christ as bridegroom. In fact, it talks about it quite a lot. Indeed, a huge swath of early Christian text about Christ-as-bridegroom is turned into gibberish by the idea that he has a flesh and blood wife.

Now, there was plenty of debate about whether Christians should marry, but that’s a whole ‘nother subject, and that’s not what she’s claiming.

We are also told that the fragment contains the line “Mary is worthy of it.” Worthy of what? We’re supposed to think she’s worthy of something modern feminists would want her to be worthy of: apostleship, priesthood, marriage, a thriving career followed by 1.5 children in her late 30s, a Lexus, etc.

Let’s go back to that pesky old Gospel of Thomas (you know: the one that’s more authentic than the Gospel of John) to see what this idea of Mary being “worthy” could possibly mean:

Simon Peter said to Him, “Let Mary leave us, for women are not worthy of Life.”

Jesus said, “I myself shall lead her in order to make her male, so that she too may become a living spirit resembling you males. For every woman who will make herself male will enter the Kingdom of Heaven.”

Hoo-kay: awkward. Nice of “Gnostic Pretend Jesus” to say Mary was worthy of life, but she’d be better if she would just grow herself some wedding tackle. Wait a minute, if Mary was his wife, and he wanted her to be a man, then … oh please, just make the stupid stop.

King “repeatedly cautions” that the fragment does not constitute historical proof, while subtly implying it does just that. Why is this even a little bit important? Goodstein makes it obvious for the NYT readers who were getting a little logy by this point in the article:

Even with many questions unsettled, the discovery could reignite the debate over whether Jesus was married, whether Mary Magdalene was his wife and whether he had a female disciple. These debates date to the early centuries of Christianity, scholars say. But they are relevant today, when global Christianity is roiling over the place of women in ministry and the boundaries of marriage.

The discussion is particularly animated in the Roman Catholic Church, where despite calls for change, the Vatican has reiterated the teaching that the priesthood cannot be opened to women and married men because of the model set by Jesus.

Is everything becoming clear now? A tiny, late fragment of a woefully incomplete text with some parallels to known text (Thomas) is hardly worth an article in Biblical Archaeology Review. But fashion it into a cudgel to beat the church with (a favorite practice of the New York Times) and you have blaring headlines. Look, I almost made early non-canonical texts (primarily OT pseudepigrapha) the focus of my studies, so I would never, ever deny the need to look at every scrap we can get from the years 200BC to 200AD. They fill in vital details about the world in which Christianity took root and flowered. However, they will never–they can never–change the revealed truths of the faith. They are merely footnotes.

But let’s not allow that to get in the way of the latest “really real Jesus” the revisionists keeping trying to sell. Forget all that continuous witness and testimony guff. This tiny scrap of justifiably forgotten junk is the real truth, not all those texts copied again and again for hundreds of years. If it has no relation to historical testimony or textual consistency, then it must be the truth. The exception is the rule.

This is what certain Gnostic scholars do: they manipulate tiny shreds of evidence and milk an ignorant mainstream media in order to whip up imaginary controversies. The latest talk about “Jesus’s wife” is just another discordant note in a loud and grating noise machine that’s been playing the same tune for over 30 years.

UPDATE: Marcel LeJeune and Jimmy Akin also take a whack at this pinata, with far less snark.

UPDATE 2: Here is King’s own FAQ and transcription of the fragment. As she did in the NY Times article, she (correctly) denies that this says anything about the historical Jesus, but goes on to make several spurious points about what it might say and its actual dating. The identification of it as “probably written in Greek in the second half of the second century” is unfounded. I’ll readily grant the 4th century date even in the absence of spectography, since the linguistic and papyrology evidence appears to be strong, and nothing argues against an apocryphal Coptic text.

But King isn’t satisfied to have a late document, and needs to make it Something Important:

This gospel fragment provides a reason to reconsider what we thought we knew by asking what role claims about Jesus’s marital status played historically in early Christian controversies over marriage, celibacy, and family. The Gospel of Jesus’s Wife makes it possible to say with certainty that some early Christians believed that Jesus was married. This conclusion potentially has significant implications for the history of ancient Christian attitudes toward marriage, sexuality, and reproduction.

Nonsense (or, rather, gnonsense), for the reasons already outlined above.

Then there’s this bit of disingenuous balderdash:

The use of the term “gospel” here makes absolutely no claim to canonical status or to the historical accuracy of the content as such. This invented reference in no way means to imply that “Jesus’s wife” is the “author” of this work, is a major character in it, or is even a significant topic of discussion—none of that can be known from such a tiny fragment. Rather, the title refers to the fragment’s most distinctive claim (that Jesus was married), and serves therefore as a kind of short-hand reference to the fragment.

Line she left off: “And my publisher said I’d sell an extra 10,000 copies of my book with that title.”

The entire text:

Others continue to raise serious objections:

Wolf-Peter Funk, a noted Coptic linguist, said there was no way to evaluate the significance of the fragment because it has no context. It’s a partial text and tiny, measuring 4 centimeters by 8 centimeters (1.5 inches by 3 inches), about the size of a small cellphone.

There are thousands of scraps of papyrus where you find crazy things,” said Funk, co-director of a project editing the Nag Hammadi Coptic library at Laval University in Quebec. “It can be anything.”

He, too, doubted the authenticity, saying the form of the fragment was “suspicious.”

Also:

“There’s something about this fragment in its appearance and also in the grammar of the Coptic that strikes me as being not completely convincing somehow,” he said in an interview on the sidelines of the conference.

Another participant at the congress, Alin Suciu, a papyrologist at the University of Hamburg, was more blunt.

I would say it’s a forgery. The script doesn’t look authentic” when compared to other samples of Coptic papyrus script dated to the 4th century, he said.

Heck, I’m not even going that far. Papyrology is way outside of my area of expertise (theology). I’m saying even granting its authenticity it is, at most, a curio.

UPDATE 3: Brian Green directed me towards PaleoJudaica, which has been running some interesting and useful updates with links. There are a hundred angles for approaching this story, and the ability of the internet to allow people to share ideas and expertise means that the claims are subjected to more light than was ever the case in the past. Different disciplines can converge to render judgement from a dazzling variety of perspectives. My area, as stated, is Catholic theology, so obviously I’m working within an extremely well-defined discipline. But I just love seeing so many people bring their own wisdom to bear, particularly when it converges with my own, more casual interests (pseudepigrapha, archaeology, early Christian history). I’m actually glad this story happened, because it’s exposing me to bloggers who are adding to my understanding.

And let’s not forget that King’s track record as a translator is rotten. And the provenance is very dodgy. Was its acquisition a violation of the UNESCO guidelines on antiquities trafficking? Remember: Hany Sadak, director general of the Coptic Museum in Cairo, knew nothing about the fragment until the announcement.

JUST A NOTE: Since I’m a philo-Semite and raving Zionist, the likelihood of my approving anti-Semitic comments is zero, so save your time and mine.

FINAL UPDATE: It’s over. Comments are closed.

RELATED:

Some thoughts on the Gospel of Thomas.

Expert claims “Jesus’s Wife” fragment is probably a modern forgery.

More evidence that “Jesus’s Wife” fragment is a modern forgery.

But Wawa’s Ordering System IS Pretty Amazing

So this story has been making the rounds today. Smirking leftist tool Andrea Mitchell and some chattering jackass guffaw at a highly edited tape of Mitt Romney claiming to be amazed by Wawa’s touchscreen ordering system. Before rolling the tape, DNC operative Mitchell prepares the viewers for a George Bush Sr. “supermarket scanner” moment.

(Brief sidebar for you young’uns: Back when GHW Bush  was running for his second term, he supposedly was at some smile-and-shake in a supermarket and remarked about how amazing the bar-code scanning technology was, as though he had never seen it. I remember clearly the media tilt on this story, and I absorbed the message they wanted me to absorb: Bush was out of touch, and needed to go. Except it was all a lie. Bush was just making small talk. The media deliberately distorted the story.)

In the Mitchell clip, Romney talks about ordering subs at Wawa. There is a bunch of missing footage. It appears as if he is amazed that you can walk into a Wawa, construct a sub on a touch screen, place and pay for the order, and then pick up your sandwich. This amazement is supposed to tell us that Romney is your typical clueless millionaire dweeb out of touch with the way everybody lives. That’s certainly how Mitchell framed it, and her snickering response merely drove home the anti-Romney message.

Except … Continue reading