Every once in a while I come across a piece of “religion reporting” that is so delightfully tone-deaf or so laughably ignorant of basic religious concepts that I can’t help but…well…laugh. Take, for example, two recent stories from the same Rome correspondent for The Telegraph.
No doubt the reporter in question is a fine man and a diligent reporter, but his sense of what is and is not newsworthy suggests a certain unfamiliarity with how religious belief works. The result is embarrassing, not so much for the author’s theological tone-deafness, but for the complete lack of awareness that his ignorance is being spectacularly displayed for all to see.
Our first story actually includes the line: “[T]he fact that doubts over one of the keystones of Christian tradition have been raised by the leader of the world’s one billion Catholics is striking.”
That sounds important, no? What “keystone of Christian tradition” has Pope Ratzinger strikingly done away with?
Well, In his new book, Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives, Pope Benedict XVI mentions that the convention of counting years from the birth of Christ began a half-millennium after Christ, and that the monk who came up with the idea miscounted by a few years. Translation: The Pope has “declared” – that’s The Telegraph’s word – that Jesus probably wasn’t born in the year zero.
Needless to say, that the Pope would acknowledge the (widely known) inaccuracy of a sixth-century monk’s calendar is hardly “striking.” What is striking, to me at least, is that we live in a culture so obviously post-Christian that this bit of trivia is presumed to cast “doubts over one of the keystones of Christian tradition” and therefore deemed newsworthy.
The Telegraph ran a separate news story to report that, in the same book, the Pope reveals that there is no scriptural evidence for tradition’s favorite manger-side ungulates. That’s right, neither Matthew, nor Mark, nor Luke, nor John has anything to say about any donkeys, cows, or camels gathered ‘round yon Virgin. (Presumably this mean that the lyrics of “Little Drummer Boy” are a total fabrication.)
One wonders what might happen should religious neophytes at The Telegraph discover some of the other “secrets” of the Catholic faith. Did you know that Adam and Eve might not have been snacking on apples that fateful day in Paradise? Or that St. Paul, on the day Jesus interrupted his otherwise pleasant journey to Damascus, might not have been riding a horse. And don’t even get me started on Jonah’s “whale,” which the Bible calls a “great fish.” You’d think God of all people would know the difference between a fish and a mammal!
All joking aside, I hear the Pope’s new book is very good. (If the secular press really wanted to impress people, they might try reporting that!) With Advent just around the corner, it might make an excellent early Christmas present. I can think of worse ways to spend Advent than meditating on the Nativity with Pope Benedict as a guide.
Stephen P. White is a fellow in Catholic Studies at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, DC and coordinator of the Tertio Millennio Seminar. The views expressed here are his own.