Generous Orthodoxy  

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Beware of the newsweekly Easter issues

By now I am sure that most savvy Christians are long since inured to the drivel that Time and Newsweek foist upon us every Easter and Christmas. It was not always thus. David van Biema (formerly of Time) and Kenneth Woodward (formerly of Newsweek) were knowledgeable, conscientious religion editors and took great care with their reporting (not to mention the estimable Peter Steinfels, late of The New York Times).

It's very different today. Case in point: the cover story on heaven in this week's Time. Who's the author? None other than Jon Meacham, Sewanee graduate, author of several highly praised historical works (Franklin and Winston, American Gospel, and American Lion) and former editor of Newsweek. In addition, he has been on the vestry at St. Thomas Fifth Avenue.

Unfortunately, Meacham does not know when to back off gracefully from subjects he does not understand--which includes theology. I won't parse every detail of this disgracefully thin and misinformed piece that he has written. However, in regard to a subject about which I know a thing or two--biblical scholarship--I can certainly declare that this is an article that should never have been written, let alone published.

Christopher Morse, the Dietrich Bonhoeffer Professor of Theology and Ethics at Union Theological Seminary in New York, was my tutor when I was an undergraduate, and remains a friend. He has recently published a splendid book, The Difference Heaven Makes, which put him in Meacham's sights. A research assistant called him on the phone and interviewed him in a cursory and superficial fashion. Her chief interest was finding out what he thought of the blockbuster bestseller about the little boy who says he visited heaven. (I was reminded of the late great Raymond E. Brown's complaint that he was always being called at Christmas by reporters who wanted to know "what really happened." They could not have cared less about what the biblical stories really meant.)

In Time's published story, the title of Christopher's book is not even stated. Instead, he is described as a member of the "[N. T.] Wright school." This is preposterous. Wright's and Morse's positions are in many ways opposed to one another. The cavalier attitude of Meacham to his material is quite a contrast to the way David van Biema (as I personally know) used to call and ask searching, respectful questions.

I do not have Christopher's permission to blog about this! but he sent an indignant email to a few people saying, among other things, that "I do wonder how long we can allow the self-styled 'authorities' on such important matters to carry the day with their trivializations unchallenged in the media." Does anybody out there feel like rising to this challenge?