Online Initiative Enriches Study of Sacred Texts and Deepens News Coverage
by Matthew L. Skinner and Joshua M. Z. Stanton, guest contributors
Photo by Trey Ratcliff/Flickr, cc by-nc-nd 2.0
Picture this: an Iraqi reporter becomes interested in the work of a Jewish student in Israel after reading an article about Jewish-Muslim relations in medieval Spain that the student published online. The reporter contacts the student and interviews him about future prospects for Jewish-Muslim coexistence.
As the student in this story and co-author of this article, Joshua Stanton knows first-hand how technology is reshaping the way people of different religions interact. To start with, he and the Iraqi reporter would never have connected without the Internet, which enabled them to bypass regional politics and borders.
Yet the Internet’s potential can yield various outcomes. Despite our increased connectivity, people of different faith traditions remain all too likely to talk past one another. Just look at the comments section of any online news article.
The Internet also allows people to perpetuate longstanding arguments over the most central of religious identifiers: sacred texts and the figures within them. Which son was Abraham prepared to sacrifice — Isaac, a central figure in the Jewish and Christian traditions, or Ishmael, whose story is central to Muslims? Did Isaiah predict the birth of Jesus in the Hebrew Bible? And of course, who was the religious prophet of ultimate importance? Recycled ignorance and nasty disagreements over disparate prophetic texts often leave online dialoguers depleted and demoralized.
The key, it would seem, is not whitewashing the differences that exist between religions and their sacred texts but clarifying them and using them as a basis for informed discourse online.
People of faith do well to read their own sacred texts with curiosity about how these writings influence their understanding of what a life faithfully lived looks like. Yet we also become more responsible and more informed practitioners when we allow those outside our traditions to read along with us, over our shoulders. Too many people have not looked seriously at other traditions’ texts. And too many interpreters do not interpret in ways that invite “outsiders” into the conversation.
For example, Muslims and Jews may know that the Torah and the Qur’an differ over which son God called Abraham to sacrifice — Isaac or Ishmael. But do they know that some rabbinic commentaries affirm the Qur’anic position that the events must have taken place in a dream? And have Christians considered how such ideas might inform their interpretations of the story that view it as foreshadowing Jesus’ obedience and death? Without opportunities for more public, hospitable investigations of one another’s scriptural traditions, Jews, Christians and Muslims might simply reassert old stereotypes, even as their leaders and scholars model isolationism.
Technology allows people to learn about sacred texts, their origins, their histories of interpretation and their ongoing relevance from informed leaders and scholars they would not otherwise be able to learn from.
ON Scripture, a new initiative launched by Odyssey Networks, a multi-faith media coalition, in collaboration with the major online news site, The Huffington Post, aims to create this sort of online space. It presently offers resources focused on the study of Christian scripture, but is poised to launch ON Torah in the coming months, which will focus exclusively on sacred Jewish texts. Odyssey Networks also hopes to launch ON Quran in order to highlight the rich textual traditions of Islam and thus enable all three Abrahamic traditions to have centres of text study housed on the same website, making it easier for individuals to find out information about all three faiths.
While initially operating independently, the weekly online articles from ON Scripture about the Torah and the Christian Bible offer interpretations that religious leaders put forth about their own tradition’s sacred texts, guided by the traditional cycle of scriptural reading of that particular tradition.
In time, we hope to expand the conversations, perhaps having rabbis, pastors and imams in dialogue with each other in videos that broadcast respectful dialogue about scriptural texts, even in light of real differences. While the forum is currently in English, it may come to span multiple languages, bringing people of faith from across the globe into constructive dialogue aided by cutting-edge translation technology.
As people of faith open their scriptures in full public view, they open themselves to grow in mutual understanding and appreciation of how ancient scriptures continue to shape and motivate people of faith. Even in disagreement, there can be understanding.
Matthew L. Skinner is Associate Professor of the New Testament at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota and Founding Editor of ON Scripture.
Joshua M. Z. Stanton is Founding Co-Editor of the Journal of Inter-Religious Dialogue and of ON Torah, as well as a Schusterman Rabbinical Fellow at Hebrew Union College.
A version of this article was published by the Common Ground News Service on November 8, 2011. Copyright permission is granted for publication.
How Do We Understand the Positions of Egypt’s Coptic Christians in All This Coverage?
by Trent Gilliss, senior editor
"He’s the best of the worst. Whoever comes after him might want to destroy us."
— Sameh Joseph, a Copt who works at the Patriarch of the Orthodox Christians Church in Alexandria, Egypt.
Last Thursday, the Los Angeles Times ran this article on the mixed reactions of Egypt’s Coptic Christian community. According to the report, many Copts say they dislike President Hosni Mubarak but fear the alternative even more, the political leader who might replace him. People like Samya Hammoui, a woman who lost two sisters and two nieces in the January 1st bombing of a church in Alexandria, fears the situation wouldn’t improve with Mubarak’s ouster, “If one of the Islamic extremists took over, things for us would be much worse.”
I sense my lack of understanding of the complexity of the story, especially with all the loud voices shouting freedom and democracy and calling for Mubarak’s ouster. And, since I’m in the religious journalism business, I’m trying to understand what this means for Egypt’s minority religious community, which comprises more than 10 percent of the country’s population.
As I consume a bounty of news reports and tweets from the streets about Egypt and demonstrations in Tahrir Square, I sense that alternative viewpoints like the story above are being drowned out by events occurring “inside the bubble” of Tahrir Square.
Take, for example, the photos like the ones below. These stories inundated my news feeds yesterday: Egypt’s Copts and Muslims standing side by side, crucifixes and sacred texts in hands held high, as they call for Mubarak’s removal. They are striking and hopeful and needed. But these stories may be part of the picture that overwhelms the LA Times piece above.
An Egyptian Coptic Christian and a Muslim woman pause in front of their national flag during a joint communal gathering of anti-government protesters in Cairo’s Tahrir Square on February 06, 2011. Writing on the flag reads in Arabic, “Christian and Muslim = Egypt”. (photo: Mohammed Abed/AFP/Getty Images)
Calling for the end to President Hosni Mubarak’s government, Egypt’s Coptic Christians and Muslims raise a cross and a Qur’an on February 6, 2011 in Tahrir Square in central Cairo. (photo: Mohammed Abed/AFP/Getty Images)
Much like most other conversations on this program, I’m constantly reminded that there is no one truth in matters of identity, the heart, and the future of one’s community. The point is to keep looking and piecing together the many parts to this story, and the many other stories out there.
Transforming Journalism by Moving and Mobilizing Readers
by Krista Tippett, host
I wasn’t always a fan of Nicholas Kristof’s columns in The New York Times. I’d found them at times simplistic — seeming to reduce the dramas of entire nations to individual stories of despair and/or hope. But I’ve discovered that there is an art and science to this approach. It was fascinating — and quite inspiring — to sit down and get inside his head on all of this.
Nicholas Kristof has lived on four, and reported on six, continents, including spending formative years based in China and Japan, before he took his place on the Op-Ed pages of the Times in the cathartic year of 2001. And as he tells us in the audio above, he soon realized that opining, however brilliantly, left him preaching to the choir. People who already shared his perspective would cheer him on; those who didn’t would not take in what he had to say. The true power of his editorial platform, he realized, was its capacity to bring lesser-publicized events and ideas into the light.
He is credited, most famously perhaps, for bringing the unfolding genocide in Darfur to the world’s attention. But even that “success,” which brought him a second Pulitzer Prize, left Nicholas Kristof wondering and wanting. The world’s reaction to Darfur, in his mind, did not match the tragedy at hand or the moral responsibility it should have engendered. He wanted to understand the fact — as I’ve pondered with many guests on Being across the years — that horrific images and facts are as likely to paralyze and overwhelm as to mobilize us.
And so he started reading research on brain science and the biological basis for compassion, to explore what makes the difference between moral paralysis and compassionate mobilization. We are hard-wired as humans, it seems, to respond powerfully to a single individual’s story and face. But add a second face, and that response diminishes. Add facts, and multiply that story by hundreds or millions, and empathy withers altogether.
Nicholas Kristof reframed his journalistic approach accordingly. It is fascinating to hear him talk about this, and about his own enduring worries about its manipulative connotations. He works to balance the riveting story with the big picture. An empathetic response to a single human story, he’s also learned by way of science and his own experience, can become a portal to a larger awareness. Facts and context can then begin to play a meaningful supporting role.
In the early 2000s, I felt that Nicholas Kristof was simplistic about religion too. Granted, most Western journalists were on a new kind of learning curve with regard to religion. Over the years, I have been deeply impressed by his unusual willingness to learn in public — to admit that he did not understand something, to publish his surprise and self-reversals. He’s gained a very complex and contradictory view of religion as a force in the world — capable of nurturing the worst of violence and the best of care.
He also offers a penetrating view of the self-defeating liberal-conservative/secular-religious divide on global issues as in our domestic political life. He is one of the voices waking up the world to the global scourge of sex trafficking. He believes that this will ultimately galvanize the moral consciousness of this century as slavery galvanized the 19th century. But he is watching with dismay as, for now, the two most effective activists on this issue — liberal feminists and conservative Christians — cannot agree on a shared vocabulary for describing the problem, much less join their energies.
We spend a lot of words these days on the way journalism is changing — usually with an eye to the technological and financial pressures that are changing it. Nicholas Kristof embodies deep cultural shifts that are also transforming journalism as we have known it. His journalism is a new paradigm, I think, one I’m now grateful for. I’ll call it journalism as a humanitarian art. And I look forward to seeing how it continues to evolve.
The Plight of the “Distant Stranger”
Trent Gilliss, online editor
Many of us have read Nick Kristof’s columns over the years. And, perhaps, like me, you’ve been moved by his words, shaken by his stories, struck dumb with melancholy and grief. But, inevitably, the “plight of the ‘distant stranger’” assumes its role in feeling the events happening over there.
The HBO documentary, Reporter, will challenge you to come closer, to care, to take action as he pursues uncovering the truths behind human rights violations and personal suffering. With Kristof leading the way, the viewer bears witness alongside his two traveling companions, a med student and a teacher, to the tricky trail the journalist walks when reporting in war-torn Congo.
The film portrays some of the ethical and moral dilemmas of being a reporter in a conflict zone. When Kristof encounters a 41-year-old woman of 60 pounds lying at the edge of a village about to die, he acts. When a warlord responsible for the raping and pillaging of thousands gives thanks to the Lord, he bows his head; when that same man, General Nkunda asks him to eat with him, he dines. Few of these decisions are made without some type of deliberation — a grimace, a pause, a controlled look. But, in the end, he always writes.
He perseveres and tries to understand the underlying aspects of the people involved. And, he asks the difficult questions that have gotten other journalists killed. I’m not trying to saint him, but I now better appreciate his work as he attempts to discover a fuller aspect of all the human beings involved. He continues to tell the difficult stories of a region that gets covered during catastrophic events, and then forgotten within a blink’s time of a celebrity foible or the next breaking news event.
I hope we can interview him for the show some day in the future and hear how he wrestles with these difficult choices — and how he continues on.