Most regular church-goers have heard their less scrupulously observant fellows called "Christmas and Easter Christians." Well, they also have their counterparts in the mainstream media: "Christmas and Easter Anti-Christians." How else to explain the spate of skeptical, negative stories that inevitably accompany the two most important Christian holy days?
This Holy Week has been typical. Newsweek proclaimed "The Decline and Fall of Christian America" on its cover. The Washington Post/Newsweek "On Faith" blog featured a post that belittled the significance of Jesus' death and resurrection. The Discovery Channel aired a documentary that painted Jesus as little more than an opportunistic politician who caught a bad break in a trial.
These are just the most notable recent instances of secular media's disdain for traditional Christians and the tenets of their faith. Anti-Christianism is the last acceptable prejudice. The assault on Christian beliefs and morality is ongoing. Take for example the howls of outrage when the Pope reiterated Catholic teaching on abstinence.
But because Easter is so central to understanding Jesus and His purpose, and to Christians' own understanding of the world, the secular attack escalates during Holy Week. It takes on more existential dimensions, questioning Christianity's relevance in the modern world, the meaning of Christ's lessons and ultimately, His divinity.
Depending on your point of view, Jesus was either a charismatic populist crusader, a doctrinaire Marxist or "do your own thing" feel-good guru. Anything but the Son of God. If that's what you think of Him, it's easy to see why you would question His relevance.
End of Christian America?
In Newsweek's April 14 Cover story, "The End of Christian America," editor Jon Meacham argued that the falling numbers of self-identified Christians in America is a "good thing" and "the decline of and falls of the modern religious right's notion of a Christian America creates a calmer political environment and, for many believers, may help open the way for a more theologically serious life."
Meacham keyed his article around the March 2009 American Religious Identification Survey results that showed 76 percent of American identify themselves as Christians, compared to 86 percent in 1990. He also noted the rise in number of Americans who now state they have no religious affiliation, 15 percent compared to 8 percent in 1990. To Meacham, this is a good sign.
While we remain a nation decisively shaped by religious faith, our politics and our culture are, in the main, less influenced by movements and arguments of an explicitly Christian character than they were even five years ago. I think this is a good thing - good for our political culture, which as the American Founders saw, is complex and charged enough with without attempting to compel or coerce religious belief or observance. It is good for Christianity, too, in that many Christians are rediscovering the virtues of a separation of church and state that protects what Roger Williams, who founded Rhode Island as a haven for religious dissenters, called "the garden of the church," from the "wilderness of the world."
Meacham tempered his argument by proclaiming "rumors of the death of Christianity are greatly exaggerated." Other findings, such as a decline in self-identified "moderate-to-liberal Protestants" and that one-third of Americans consider themselves born-again Christians, noted by ARIS authors as a "movement towards more conservative beliefs and particular ‘evangelical' outlook among Christians," caused Meacham to admit, "there is no doubt that the nation remains vibrantly religious - far more so, for instance than Europe."
At least one person gave the article it's proper due. Talk radio host, author and CMI Advisory Board member Michael Medved called Meacham's characterization of the survey results an "outright lie" on the April 6 "Fox and Friends," and pointed out the timing of the story's release:
Isn't it perfectly timed for Holy Week? Here we are coming up in the Jewish community, we're going to be celebrating Passover, Christians are going to be celebrating Good Friday and Easter Sunday so Newsweek tries to get a little bit of attention by insulting that overwhelming majority of Americans that describe themselves as Christians.
Medved also noted that Newsweek's "End of Christian America" claim was particularly ironic, since the magazine had run "a big cover story on the faith of Barack Obama ...because the overwhelming majority of Americans say they won't even vote for an atheist for president in Christian America."
Medved proposed that the rise in the number of people without a religious affiliation is because, thanks to the mainstream media, a lack of faith no longer carries much of a stigma. He told FNC's Gretchen Carlson, "It's more respectable to come out and say that I'm atheist. There have been a lot of books about it by Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins and they've been best-sellers." His statements echo the findings of last year's "The Apostles of Atheism," in which CMI found 80 percent of feature stories about atheism or atheists in 2007 had a positive tone and none negatively portrayed it.
"On Faith" or "No Faith?"
Erik Reece, author of "An American Gospel: On Family, History and the Kingdom of God" used the April 3 Newsweek-Washington Post "On Faith" blog to rant against Easter in which he expressed disbelief in Jesus' resurrection:
American Christianity has historically been focused so obsessively on the Nicene Creed -- which says Jesus was the son of God, who was crucified for our sins and rose from the grave three days later -- that it never made much room for the actual teachings of this radical Jewish street preacher.
That's why I'm against Easter. It celebrates the death of Jesus nearly to the exclusion of his life. If the Easter miracle can save us from this life, then why bother with the harder work of enacting the kingdom of God here? It is, after all, much harder.
This is a negation of the singular cornerstone of Christian faith: Jesus' death and resurrection. Jesus came to this earth, not simply to give us guidance on how to live a good life and play nice with each other, but to give us eternal life with God. He had to overcome temptation to live a perfect, sinless life, die and triumph over death in his Resurrection to fulfill the promise of us living in the kingdom of God.
The Bible teaches that faith and living by Jesus' teachings go hand-in-hand. James 2:17 states, "faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead." Just as Christians cannot be saved by deeds alone, their belief in Jesus spurs them to act as He teaches.
In the long history of Israel, a nation whose understanding of itself came largely from the mouths of prophets, we can surmise that there was no shortage of "radical Jewish street preachers." Only one changed the entire course of human history. He didn't do it with just words.
"Who Was Jesus?"
The Discovery Channel aired an original three-part documentary called "Who Was Jesus" that premiered on Palm Sunday. Focused on Jesus' "Childhood," "The Mission" and "The Last Days," scholars tried to paint a human portrait of Jesus, using archeological evidence to ponder what life must have been like for Jesus. The portrait that emerged might have written for the World Workers Party (or the Obama Campaign.)
More importantly, the producers failed to explore the fundamental Christian principle that Jesus is at once fully man and fully God.
Narrator Hasani Issa's final words of the series summed up the picture it painted, "The young man with a mission, the charismatic leader who sacrificed everything in the hope of a better world."
Viewers could not be faulted for thinking they were watching a biography on any populist politician, rather than a documentary about the Son of God.
Part 1, "Childhood," laid the groundwork for the argument that Jesus' later teachings came as a direct result of his socio-economic status as a child. Issa wondered, "Was the compassion he showed for others in his later teaching rooted in his own experience?" Later Issa noted, "On a Sepphoris market day, the young Jesus must have been all too aware of the increasing gulf between poor people like him and the wealthy few."
An exchange between co-host Byron McCane, a religion professor and archeologist from Wofford College, and University of La Verne professor Jonathan Reed at the site of a grand home from the period further illuminates this idea:
McCane: To what extent to you think Jesus would have been aware of this kind of property
Reed: To me, it's pretty clear that Jesus, even if he doesn't come inside this house, he understands, just by looking at the outside of it, even from a distance, that there are people that have sort of a much higher level of wealth and status than he does.
Rachel Havrelock, touted as a biblical scholar from the University of Illinois at Chicago, wondered how Mary told Jesus He was the Son of God. Later, when speaking about how Jesus must have admired the Jewish priests He learned from during a visit to Jerusalem when He was 12, Havrelock opined, "So if someone like Jesus wanted to speak to a crowd and impress them, it would certainly be done through preaching."
Havrelock and her co-hosts appeared to not understand first, that Jesus is also God, and would not need Mary to tell Him He's the Son of God, and second, that Jesus didn't preach to "impress" people but to bring the word of God to people.
Issa began "The Mission" by saying, "Jesus, a people's crusader on a lethal collision course with the Roman Empire."
Havrelock carried that theme, noting, "We can imagine Jesus as a young man, unhappy with the situation in his time and hungry for change and wanting to leave home and become part of some movement advocating for change."
Baptist minister and theologian Allen Callahan charged that Jesus, in His preaching, miracles and encouraging people to follow Him, has "got an agenda - free food, free medical care, free education. And with that agenda, he's not just transforming individuals - there's something bigger going on here." Havrelock asserted, "He also gains a kind of political power by amassing these followers here."
Again, by painting Jesus as an ACORN activist, they all missed the point that Jesus' actions and words had no purpose but to glorify God. After raising Lazarus from the dead, (a miracle not discussed during "The Mission") Jesus says, "Father, I thank you that you have heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I said this for the benefit of the people standing here, that they may believe that you sent me," as noted in John 11:41-42.
Allen went so far as so say Jesus "was extraordinary, but, no, he was not unique" in performing His miracles. Yes, there were others who miraculously healed people but only one did so in the name of God the Father. That makes Jesus unique.None of the scholars said anything about Biblical accounts that said Jesus lived a perfect, sinless life.
"The Last Days," the final segment, explored what is now considered Holy Week and went through Jesus' triumphal entry, the Lord's Supper, Good Friday and the first Easter morning but still failed to portray Jesus as anything other than a human.
Issa questioned why if all disciples were present when the Romans arrested Jesus in Gethsemane, "how was it that none of them went down with their leader?" And after recounting Peter slicing off the ear of one guard, Issa noted "Jesus stepped in to prevent any more violence" but failed to relate that Jesus also healed the guard's ear. He counts the Biblical account of what happened in Gethsemane as "an early example of spin-doctoring."
Callahan agreed, "The story is being told on behalf of those survivors. Some of those survivors are now leadership, in the leadership of the community. You don't want to say that they all turned tail and ran. What you say is Jesus was looking out for them and had their best interests at heart, and because he didn't want to resist violently, there was no violent resistance.
Callahan apparently does not understand that Jesus did have their best interests at heart. John 17: 6 - 17 details how He prayed for them that night. As recorded in verse 15, "My prayer is not that you take them out of the world but that you protect them from the evil one."
As for Jesus' resurrection, Issa said, "Rational analysis alone cannot resolve the 2,000-year-old debate over what had happened here [in the tomb] since sunset on Friday night."
With that, Issa finally got to the concept of faith. Faith is "belief that is not based on proof." Christians are called upon to accept the Bible as the inerrant Word of God, as fact. They don't need archeologists or biblical scholars to prove these things happened.