It’s perhaps not sporting to mock the New York Times when it tries to address Christianity. Pointing out the mistakes seems like piling on. But every once in a while it’s good to note how little the Paper of Record seems to know about Christianity and Christian history, if only to remind oneself of the unfortunate path to ignorance our culture seems to be taking. Besides, sometimes it’s too much fun to resist.
For example, a couple weeks ago, art critic Holland Cotter reviewed a new exhibition on Jerusalem, “Jerusalem 1000-1400: Every People under Heaven,” at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. Cotter has a Pulitzer Prize for criticism, so you’d think he’d know a thing or two—basic facts about world religions, history, that sort of thing. It’s surprising, therefore, to read this passage in his review:
Three major faiths have laid claim to that city. For Jews, it’s the place where, at the End of Days, the Messiah will appear; rebuild the Holy Temple, twice-destroyed; and sort out the righteous from the rest. For Muslims, the city is sacred as the point from which the Prophet Muhammad, after a miraculous night flight from Mecca, began a tour of heaven. To Christians, Jerusalem is a giant walk-through reliquary of Jesus’ life and death, with every street, every stone, soaked in his aura.
Jesus’s “life and death”? Actually, according to the Gospel accounts, Jesus didn’t spend a lot of time in the city, except for one or two important episodes. Most of his life he spent in Galilee. And “death”? It’s true that Jesus died in the city. But wasn’t there something else important that happened to him in Jerusalem, according to Christian belief? Think about it, I bet you know. Right—the Resurrection, the central event of the Christian faith.
The Resurrection, not Jesus’s “life and death,” explains why Christians revere Jerusalem. It explains why they built the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, the most important Christian pilgrimage site in the world, in Jerusalem, right above the place where they believe Jesus rose from the dead. It’s why Christians down the centuries have sacrificed so much to travel to Jerusalem and why all the major Christian communions have striven, often against long odds, to maintain a foothold there. The Resurrection is not a minor doctrine. To omit it is to miss the basic teaching of Christianity, one that has had a huge impact on Western history, thought, and culture—including, of course, Western art.
It’s odd, therefore, that a Pulitzer Prize-winning art critic would miss the point, and that the Times’s culture editors wouldn’t notice the omission. It can’t be because the Times was trying to avoid offending non-Christians by referring to a miracle only Christians accept as true. The Night Journey and the expected return of the Messiah are also sectarian miracles that only believers accept (or expect). Indeed, Cotter presents them as such, and the Times lists them without hesitation. If one were trying to be objective, one could simply write the factual statement, “Christians believe that Christ’s Resurrection took place in Jerusalem,” and leave it at that. No one could be offended.
No, I don’t think the omission reflects a wish to be neutral among religions, or between religious and non-religious readers. Nor do I think it reflects a conscious hostility toward Christianity, though of course it may. Most likely, the Christian belief about the Resurrection simply didn’t come to mind. Apparently, the Times’s staff is so unfamiliar with basic Christian teachings that the Resurrection slips right by them. In this, they are not alone among our mainstream media. I once heard a BBC news announcer refer to Easter as the holiday on which Christians commemorate the death of Jesus.
Then there is Cotter’s discussion of the Crusades, which is similarly innocent of basic facts. Cotter contrasts the wealth and cosmopolitanism Jerusalem enjoyed before the arrival of the Crusaders to the violence and horror that came after. Before the Crusades, he writes, Jerusalem was a magnificent bazaar, a multicultural emporium of luxury goods where different religions competed peacefully to offer the best merchandise. All this came to an end when Christians—Catholics, specifically—showed up:
By the end of the 11th century, portability and discretion were pluses when it came to religious art. Being Muslim or Jewish had become a liability. In Europe in 1095, Pope Urban II put out the call for Christians to liberate Jerusalem from people “absolutely alien to God.” Accordingly, in 1099, Crusader armies showed up at the gates and began an ethnic and religious cleansing. They slaughtered Muslims, burned Jews alive in synagogues and cut down Christians who happened to cross their path.
This description of events leaves out something rather important. I assume Cotter uses the word “liberate” ironically, but, in fact, whatever they eventually became, the Crusades began as a defensive measure, an attempt to reclaim Jerusalem from Muslim leaders who were oppressing Christians. These included the famous Caliph Al-Hakim, who completely destroyed the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, razing it to the ground, along with other Christian sites, in the year 1009. (Al-Hakim persecuted Jews, and burned synagogues, as well). The church that pilgrims visit in Jerusalem today is, in large part, a Crusader structure.
This isn’t to say the Crusaders didn’t commit atrocities—of course they did. But it’s not like everything was placid before they arrived. The Crusades were a complicated event, with mixed motives on all sides; there was plenty of violence and intolerance to go around. If one presumes to recount the history, one shouldn’t present a cartoon version or leave out essential facts—even if that means forgoing another opportunity to remind everyone how bad the Catholic Church has always been, how much less peaceful and enlightened than its interlocutors.
As I say, poking fun at the Times’s lack of knowledge is amusing. But there’s a serious point as well. Notwithstanding the fragmentation of the media, the Times is still the most important newspaper in America, perhaps the world. More than any other journal, it has the power to set our country’s political agenda. That’s why omissions like Cotter’s are worth noting. They reflect a basic ignorance of Christianity—of its teachings and its history—that one has to assume affects other sections of the paper as well. That the Times presents a distorted picture of Christianity shouldn’t bother only Christians. It should unsettle anyone who looks to the paper for an informed and objective account of the role of religion in the world today.