Every Christmas and Easter, as the pews pack in with dozens of unfamiliar faces, Weblog gets nervous. For while this is the holiest of seasons, it's also the time that the major national newsweeklies start thinking about religion-oriented cover stories. And all too often, that means another piece hyping the Jesus Seminar or some other minimalist hullabaloo that amounts to "scholars say orthodox belief is wrong."

This year, things seem to be different. First, this isn't the slow news time that Holy Week often falls into. The U.S.-China spy plane conflict beat out Newsweek's religion piece for the cover story. Second, the newsweeklies each reported on something less than predictable. Not totally unique, mind you—Christianity Today, Books & Culture, and Christian History magazines have all dealt with the subjects of this week's stories in depth—but better than usual.

U.S. News: Why did Christianity succeed?
U.S. News & World Report gets the closest to the old standard "Who was Jesus?" cover story by scooting forward a few centuries and asking why Christianity succeeded. "As the movement expanded during the second and third centuries, it proved to be anything but simple," writes Jeffery Sheler. "The nascent Christian church was torn by persecution and internal division as Christians struggled to understand and apply the meaning of Jesus's life, death, and Resurrection in the roiling religious caldron of the Roman Empire. Perhaps even more than the seminal events of the first century, those later conflicts and controversies would forge Christianity's future-shaping its creeds and canon and transforming a renegade Jewish sect into a powerful world religion." In a mere 3,000 words, Sheler describes how the fall of Jerusalem, persecution, the fight against heresies, and political maneuvering helped Christianity succeed.

Sheler does best when discussing the role of persecution, though he perhaps gives too much weight to the claim of Tertullian, an early theologian, that "the blood of the Christians is seed!" As Christianity Today managing editor Mark Galli has written, sometimes—even in the early church—persecution works. (Everett Ferguson had a similar article in Christian History, arguing that it took centuries for such "seed" to bear fruit.)

The U.S. News article gets shakier as it moves into internal church conflicts over orthodoxy. For starters, there are way too many "sneer quotes": "church leaders … [defined] the tenets of Christian orthodoxy against the 'false teachings' of the heretics." The word heresies—even in the historical sense—never appears alone in the article, only "so-called heresies." The reason for this is that one of the journalistic hooks in this story is that "heretics" where merely practitioners of a Christianity persecuted internally. "[Scholars] argue that in simply dismissing the teachings of the Gnostics and other early minority voices, modern Christians may be depriving themselves of experiencing the faith in ways that are no less valid than those officially sanctioned by the church," Sheler writes. "Perhaps the most tragic shortcoming of the emergent church in the second and third centuries, says James D. G. Dunn, theology professor at the University of Durham, England, was 'its failure to realize that the biggest heresy of all is the insistence that there is only one ecclesiastical obedience, only one orthodoxy.'" That's the biggest heresy of all, eh? Maybe we're not so far removed from the Jesus Seminar after all.

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Readers who find this U.S. News article interesting will certainly want to check out our sister publication, Christian History, especially its issues on Heresy in the Early Church and Converting the Empire: How the Early Church Evangelized a Hostile Pagan World. There's also Persecution in the Early Church, but it's not available online.

Time: Jesus' Jerusalem
Time also takes a historical approach this week, but largely avoids historical debates. Instead, writer David Van Biema is more intent on transporting the reader to Jerusalem, circa A.D. 33. "It is worth revisiting Jerusalem during this period not so much in celebration as in curiosity—to know the metropolis that shaped Jesus' last ministry and so wove itself into his great story, and to note, cautiously, the ways in which its vexations foreshadow those of Jerusalem today." And Van Biema does a superb job at evoking the sights, sounds, tastes, and smells of first-century Jerusalem. For example:

The pilgrims would have shared the road with ox teams carrying huge slabs of marble and limestone. Jerusalem, like today's Chicago, New York City, or London, was a huge, ongoing building project. The sounds of construction would have mixed with the bleats and bellows of sacrificial animals for sale in streetside shops. The view to Jesus' left would have been taken up by a wall perhaps 150 ft. high—a wall not of the Temple itself but of a gargantuan platform atop which it perched. … Asked to imagine the boy's main impression, Roni Reich, director of Temple Mount excavations for the Israeli Antiquities Authority, says, "Big!"
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That's not to say that the Time piece never delves into some of the historical debates over what Jerusalem was like, but when it does so, it doesn't use the typical "the church says, but scholars say" dichotomy. Instead, it lets description play against description:

The scene [at the temple] must have been spectacular. Whether that spectacle is understood as deeply felt or empty depends on later interpretation. "The place was as vast as a small city. There were literally thousands of priests, attendants, temple soldiers and minions," writes historian Paul Johnson. "Dignity was quite lost amid the smoke of the pyres, the bellows of terrified beasts, the sluices of blood, the abattoir stench, the unconcealed and unconcealable machinery of tribal religion inflated by modern wealth to an industrial scale."

Bruce Chilton, a religion professor at Bard College whose book Rabbi Jesus was published in October, says recent scholarship finds a great deal more meaning and joy in the proceedings. Pilgrimages were festive occasions, with families or friends traveling together and camping overnight in the hills around the city and singing cheerful sacred songs outside the Temple. Although parts of the sacrifice would be immolated for the Lord or consumed by the priests, others would be cooked and shared by the pilgrims, who ate little meat the rest of the year. "Not only would they offer this very scarce protein to the deity," says Chilton, "but actually share a meal of meat with the Lord of Israel. The sense was one of wealth and celebration."

Van Biema's description is a little disjointed at parts—the ending is particularly jumpy—and he never really follows through with his promise "to note, cautiously, the ways in which its vexations foreshadow those of Jerusalem today." But you have to admire his refusal to draw simple parallels between the political/ethnic conflicts in Jesus' Israel and in today's. "The situations now and then are not analogous," he writes. "Israel's current Jewish government, unlike the Roman Empire, is not alien to Jerusalem. The Palestinians are not as defenseless as the ancient Jews. … Still, the intertwined dynamic of military occupation and religious clash is shockingly familiar."

The cover package gets even better treatment online than in print. Not only can you read Van Biema's story and sidebar on the Jewish view of Jerusalem, as well as Karen Armstrong's sidebar on the Islamic view of the city; there are also some very cool interactive timelines and maps that take advantage of the medium. Meanwhile, those who enjoy Van Biema's article will also enjoy Christian History's issue on the life and times of Jesus.

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Newsweek: Christianity goes global
Newsweek forgoes the historical analysis to focus on what's happening to Christianity now. The focus and findings won't surprise anyone who's been reading Christianity Today for any length of time: the heart of the church has shifted location.

In 1900, the beginning of what American Protestants christened as "the Christian Century," 80 percent of Christians were either Europeans or North Americans. Today 60 percent are citizens of the "Two-Thirds World"—Africa, Asia and Latin America. … Europe itself is now a post-Christian society where religion is essentially an identity tag. In Scotland less than 10 percent of Christians regularly go to church, but in the Philippines the figure is nearly 70 percent. In Nigeria alone there are seven times as many Anglicans as there are Episcopalians in the entire United States. The Republic of Korea now has nearly four times as many Presbyterians as America.

You've probably read many of those statistics before (if not, check out CT's past cover stories "Faith Without Borders: How the developing world is changing the face of Christianity" and "Now That We're Global.") Writer Kenneth Woodward seeks to figure out what those numbers mean for the future of the church. For now, he finds, the church is in a state of adjustment. Its numerical strength may be in the South, but the South's eyes are still on the West. So Christianity is becoming more—if you'll pardon the Ted Turnerian expression—a religion for losers. "Christianity is … seen as the religion of the successful West—a spiritual way of life that is compatible with higher education, technology and globalization," Woodward writes. "As a result, for the first time in its history, Christianity has become a religion mainly of the poor, the marginalized, the powerless and … the oppressed." (Hallelujah—though Weblog has major doubts about that "for the first time in history" part.)

But the shifting locus of the church suggests that Christianity won't be seen as the religion of the West much longer. "Now that Christianity is becoming a truly global religion, the problem is how to decide which elements of Western thought and culture are essential to the faith," writes Woodward. Unfortunately, he's muddled as to what those elements of Western thought and culture really are. "In its developed forms (especially the Roman Catholic), Western Christianity has … emphasized the importance of maintaining doctrinal orthodoxy," he says, suggesting that non-Western Christianity has a wonderfully tolerant, live-and-let-live approach to its faith, not emphasizing doctrinal orthodoxy. The Two-Thirds World, perhaps, hasn't adopted that "biggest heresy of all" mentioned in the U.S. News piece. Not so. In fact, recent tensions in the Anglican Church, for example, suggest that it may be the developing world that holds the West accountable for doctrinal orthodoxy.

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From there, unfortunately, Woodward only pulls out much larger brushes with which to paint:

As in the past, today's new Christians tend to take from the Bible whatever fits their needs—and ignore whatever fails to resonate with their own native religious traditions. The Chinese have no tradition of personal sin—much less the concept of an inherited original sin—in their bedrock Confucian background. But they have a lively sense of "living ancestors" and the obligation to do them honor. On the Chinese New Year, says Catholic Bishop Chen Shih-kwang of Taichung, Taiwan, "we do mass, then we venerate the ancestors"—a notion that is totally foreign to Western Christianity. In India, where sin is identified with bad karma in this and previous lives, many converts interpret the cross to mean that Jesus' self-sacrifice removes their own karmic deficiencies, thus liberating their souls from future rebirths.

There's no acknowledgement here that there are plenty of Chinese Christians who do believe in personal and original sin, or that the bulk of India's Christian leaders would find very troubling such continued belief in karma and reincarnation. Concerns about syncretism don't just come from Western imperialists—they come from local leadership. And just as Christian leaders in the developing world can have a fresh perspective with which to critique the syncretistic consumerism in Western churches, Christian leaders in various parts of the world will be justified in questioning the incorporation of ancestor worship and other "traditions" into church life elsewhere.

Meanwhile, there's some overlap between the lessons of the U.S. News article on the success of early Christianity and Newsweek's piece on the success of global Christianity. "If any continent holds the future of Christianity, many mission experts believe, it is Africa," Woodward writes. "There they see history doing a second act: just as Europe's northern tribes turned to the church after the decay of the Roman Empire, so Africans are embracing Christianity in face of the massive political, social and economic chaos." There are other clear similarities: between the martyrdom of the early church and today's persecution; between the diaspora and decentralizing of Christianity in the late first century and today's globalizing and dewesternizing of the church; between Constantine's desire to use Christianity to unite his empire and the desire of today's politicians to do the same. Surely the other distinguishing characteristic of the early church—the attempt to distinguish orthodoxy from heresy—will be a necessary part of this process as well, whether Western relativists like it or not.

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Related Elsewhere

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