Cynthia M. Allen

When widespread biblical illiteracy has real world consequences

A group of people watch the sunrise at the Cross at Hillcrest Memorial Park after an Easter sunrise service held by Canyon Hills Assembly of God Church in Bakersfield California Sunday, March 23, 2008. (AP photo/The Bakersfield Californian, Henry A. Barrios) **MANDATORY CREDIT, MAGS OUT, NO SALES, ONLINE OUT, TV OUT** ORG XMIT: CABAK101
A group of people watch the sunrise at the Cross at Hillcrest Memorial Park after an Easter sunrise service held by Canyon Hills Assembly of God Church in Bakersfield California Sunday, March 23, 2008. (AP photo/The Bakersfield Californian, Henry A. Barrios) **MANDATORY CREDIT, MAGS OUT, NO SALES, ONLINE OUT, TV OUT** ORG XMIT: CABAK101 AP

The holiest week of the year on the Christian calendar was as good a time as any for certain media personalities and organizations to display their appalling lack of biblical literacy.

Holy Week was punctuated by several notable incidents — an embarrassing correction by NPR mischaracterizing Easter, an equally laughable error in the Wall Street Journal misquoting Benjamin Netanyahu's retelling the actions of Moses, and an unfortunate tweet by NBC's Chuck Todd about the meaning of Good Friday.

Taken separately, these errors might be perceived as harmless mistakes, even though two of the three likely survived stringent editing processes. But their increasing frequency is telling: cultural elites, particularly those with broad platforms of presumed public trust, are ignorant of the basic teachings of Christianity.

So what? Christianity is but one faith practice in our pluralistic society.

But it is the religion (or religious background) claimed by more Americans than any other. The same is true of people the world over.

And it is the religion that helped shape centuries of philosophy, thinking, art, law and writing, especially in the West. Princeton Professor Robert P. George recently explained that "as a matter of historical fact, the core ideas and institutions of Western civilization were shaped in decisive ways by biblical religion." Failing to understand the Bible and the faith that flows from it, "condemns one to ignorance of things that decently educated people know and understand." That remains true whether one is a skeptic or a believer.

In no area is this more clear than in reporting about issues surrounding human sexuality. And the common misstating of biblical fact should raise the question posed by author and blogger Rod Dreher: "If we can’t count on leading journalists to understand the most basic facts about Christian practice and belief, how on earth can we trust them to report fairly and accurately about something as complicated as Christian sexual teaching?"

When it comes to the Christian sexual ethic, Christians are sometimes cast as parochial Puritans, with arbitrary rules to constrain and punish violators. Sex is something forbidden and dirty.

Other faulty interpretations assume Christian teaching is full of contradiction and therefore malleable; that it should ride the cultural tide — from acceptance of contraception and divorce to affirmation of same-sex marriage — instead of standing against it.

Still other, lazier observers are reductionist. They bypass 2,000 years of theology and arrive at trite platitudes akin to Notre Dame sociologist Christian Smith's Moral Therapeutic Deism: "God just wants us to be good," and "God just wants us to be happy," and "God just wants us to love and accept one another."

When discounted in this way, it's easy to use Christianity as a cudgel against its practitioners, dismissing outright as bigotry any sincerely held belief.

Complex though they be, authentic Christian sexual ethics have been remarkably consistent for the past 2,000 years. And while some teachings are difficult to accept — even for those who believe in their truth, and especially when the culture demands recognition of most every sexual desire as good — Christian sexual teaching, properly understood, is reflective of God's love of his creations and manifests our purpose on this earth.

Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry explains in "The Week" how Christians' "strange sexual ethic" — one that refused all forms of sexual exploitation and insisted on restraint for women and men (regardless of their orientations) — has always set them apart.

"Christians held a bizarrely exalted view of (lifelong, monogamous, fertile, heterosexual) marriage as reflecting the image of God himself," says Gobry, "but, even more bizarrely, held up lifelong celibacy as an even more exalted state of life."

It's this expectation of celibacy — and the dignity of it — that results in much misunderstanding, especially as it relates to homosexuality, and perpetuates the disregard and demonization of bakers, Catholic nuns and Christian colleges for espousing what they earnestly believe to be truth lovingly revealed by God.

This collective ignorance, whether by laziness or something more insidious, has real world consequences for Christians trying to live out their faith.

And it all begins when a biblically illiterate media gets little or no reproach for repeatedly getting basic facts wrong.

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