Thursday, January 25, 2007

The Virginal Conception and Political Deception

In the "this takes the cake" department, I have two stories for you to refer to. But first a question-- which is more unlikely, the birth of baby animals after a virginal conception, or Fox News deliberately reporting false information about Barack Obama?
However unlikely it may seem to you, both things are true.

First the story about parthenogenesis (reproduction without the aid of a male). Here's the link--- It's a very interesting story about Flora, the female komodo dragon who without ever having or having been with a male partner conceived and gave birth to five little sprogs. I'm thinking if Flora can do, so could the Virgin Mary :)

The other story is less interesting but actually more disturbing. Here's the link--- The story is about the claim that Barack Obama was educated by his Muslim father and possible in a Muslim school of sorts in Jakarta. It has been repeated in several places and in several ways. It was even in Insight Magazine in some form.

What is the truth of the matter: 1) Obama's father was an atheist; 2) Obama's school was not a Muslim school; 3) Obama professes to be, and has publicly shared his testimony as a Christian. He belongs to a church in the Chicago area.

What troubles me about this latter story is the issue of ideology trumping the facts, or leading to 'trumped' up versions of a person's curriculum vitae. I personally do not know what to think of Barack Obama yet, any more than I know what to think about some of the eight other Democrats and nine other Republicans already in the Presidential sweepstakes. Time will tell.

But what I do know is that Christians should not put up with lies about anyone just because they like or dislike somebody's politics. The big problem with ideologically driven news channels and stories (and there is plenty enough bias to go around from both ends of the political spectrum)is that when they don't even do good reporting, don't even check the facts, don't even bother to correct themselves or apologize for smearing another human being needlessly or making errors, then we should simply not listen to such sources of reporting. I want accuracy first, and opinions last in my news. I do not want ideology first and a fast and loose way of handling the facts, however comforting the ideology may be to my predilections.

What has been my experience with the media? Well its not a scientific sample that's for sure but I will share a couple of experiences. I have done a great deal of TV over the last decade, especially since the James ossuary story came out (and by the way Yuval Goren of the IAA now admitted under oath at the trial of Oded Golan that there is genuine patina in two of the letters of the name Jesus on the James box-- in other words, that word is clearly ancient and genuine. The box will be vindicated! More on this later).

In the first place, I have found the old major networks CBS, ABC, NBC, and some of the cable channels particularly Discovery Channel, National Geographic, to be very careful both in the reporting of facts and in allowing a person to share their own point of view fairly. Almost any interview I have done with those folks I was told to be myself and say my piece, and after the fact I never felt misquoted or misrepresented, though there have been plenty of times I wish they used more of the interview of course. There is a difference however between doing an interview for the news side of a network and doing an interview for the entertainment side of a network. The latter asks you to sign a waver, the former does not because of the issue of journalistic ethics. By this I mean the news side of a network is held to a higher standard of accuracy, the entertainment side is allow to be more creative not surprisingly.

My experience with the old non-cable networks, including working with Bob Simon and Miguel Sancho at CBS, Stone Phillips at NBC and Peter Jennings and Liz Vargas at ABC has been at the other end of the spectrum from my experience with working with one particular Fox show---the O Reilly show.

For an hour before an interview I was to do on O'Reilly at Easter time a couple of years ago, I was drilled by the producer on the cell phone about not quoting the Bible, not saying anything theological, and only answering the direct questions of O' Reilly succinctly. After listening to this lecture politely I finally asked the producer wasn't he concerned about offending his conservative Christian audience by stifling me and not really allowing me to share what I was there on the show to share about Jesus' bodily resurrection. His response was chilling-- "we are more worried about offending our secular conservative audience." I guess he assumed that conservative Christians have no other channel or programs to turn to for their information so he was less worried about offending them.

And then the interview happened. O' Reilly asked me if I had seen the Shroud of Turin. I simply said no as did the other guest, John Dominic Crossan. He then went on about having seen it. It seemed to me like the lecture I got was all about not showing up O'Reilly, and about stroking his ego, as apparently he doesn't know much of the Bible or the history of the study of the resurrection, but he had seen the Shroud in Turin.

In the old sense of the word 'liberal' as in open-minded and trying to be fair I would much prefer the 'liberal' networks to this, as they allow you to have your say. Yes, I often disagree with some of the politics and viewpoints I hear from those folks, but frankly I want a 'free' press to be 'free'-- not pre-censored like that Fox show. I want to hear a variety of points of view, and I want to make up my own mind. I frankly don't trust folks who are prepared to report false facts for the sake of their own opinions, regardless of whether I agree with some of their other views or not.

And herein lies one of the big problems in conservative Christianity. Evangelicals are not encouraged to think for themselves, not encouraged to do critical thinking, not encouraged to be open minded in the good sense of that phrase. They have too often been taught to blindly accept what they are told. This of course becomes dangerous when it is applied to watching the news and we are dealing with vital life and death matters and some aspects of politics. Of course it is true as my granny used to say that "we should not be so open minded that our brains fall out". Christians should be leading the search for the truth. Christians should be committed to finding out the truth, however uncomfortable and however much it makes us adjust our political or even religious views. The question is can we handle the truth? Nuff said.


Sandalstraps said...

I'm not sure we can draw any conclusions concerning humans - or any particular human, such as the Virgin Mary - from an instance of parthenogenesis in a Komodo dragon. It seems to me that any conclusion on the historicity of the virgin birth of Jesus rests more on whether or not one is willing to accept a unique divine act than on whether or not such events happen in species which have little in common with humans.

But I'm not leaving this comment to debate the Virgin Birth; I'm leaving it to thank you for writing a piece which I hope challenges my more conservative evangelical friends to consider the moral ramifications of dishonesty in the media. No side, no cause, no ideology is served if its case is advanced through dishonest means.

Liberals like myself should not tolerate the "cooking" of any story when it advances our causes any more than conservative should tolerate it when it advances theirs.

But what disturbs me at least as much about this particular story is that - even if it were true (which it obviously isn't) - it still shouldn't be a story. It is not news to anyone who knows anything about Obama that he went to an elementary school in Indonesia, a predominantly Muslim country. It is also not news to anyone that knows anything about Obama that his father has a Muslim background, even though he is not participant in any religious tradition. These facts are even mentioned in the two best selling books that he has authored.

Though the school he attended in Indonesia was a public school, and though his father is an atheist who views all religions as pre-critical superstition - what if this were not the case? What if he had, when he was seven, gone to a madrasa? What if his father were a devout Muslim? Neither of these would tell us very much about the man himself.

Barack Obama is a self-professing Christian, and an active member of a church. There is even an entire chapter in his newest book devoted to his views on the role of faith in our society - views that I think many conservative evangelicals would find refreshing. While there is no religious test for office, these facts make Obama comfortable around people of faith, and should make evangelicals relatively comfortable with his religious views, even if they do not share all of his moral intuitions.

The false reports concerning his upbringing are not, then, just shocking and offensive because they are unfactual; but also because they are part of a broader project to fan the flames of fear and ignorance with a blatant disregard not just for factual truth but also for a broader and deeper truth concerning character. Even if it were the case that Obama had - at the age of 7 - been a student at a madrasa, that would provide us with no information concerning his person, but only with an irrelevant piece of information designed to prey on our prejudices and fears.

Such "journalism" is irresponsible not just because it is unfactual, but because it plays to our worst instincts. That this story ever had legs sickens me.

Michael Russell said...

A few thoughts that perhaps are worth what you pay for them:

1. It would be interesting to know (the story does not say) if any of the offspring were male. My (now) ancient classes in biology noted parthenogenesis but added that the offspring were always female.

2. It will be truly note- and newsworthy to see if any of these dragons die and then resurrect themselves from the dead.

3. When I was a newspaper reporter we had a very upset group of homosexuals come to the editorial office to complain about a story. Our editor listened politely but when the spokesperson said, "Whatever happened to freedom of the press?!?" my editor said: "That means I've got it and you don't," thereby instructing the group in Rule #1 of freedom of the press.

4. It doesn't matter if it's NBC, BBC, CNN, Fox, cable or not: it's about making money, even in the newsrooms. At the newspaper we all recognized that our wonderful stories so eloquently written were but padding for the advertisements. The advertising department, not the editorial department, has the final say regarding what's acceptable and what is not.

5. Journalism is not a science. It is subjective and the more ignorant a reporter or editor is of her biases and worldview the more insidious the reporting. To my knowledge, journalism schools do not require courses in research methodologies.

Cynically yours, I am . . .


Ben Witherington said...

Finrod and Sandalstraps:

Thanks for this. Finrod, I don't know school of journalism you are talking about but the one at UNC certainly teaches both proper reporting and journalistic ethics and my memory is that this is true in general of college schools of journalism. However, I understand exactly what you are saying about the advertising side of the issue and what drives the news. You can see this on many news broadcasts in the morning where most of the 'news' is along the lines of entertainment news, not hard news.

Sandalstraps of course I was not suggesting there was a real parallel between these virginal conceptions, it was more tongue in cheek than that. I do however think that God does suprising things in nature as well as with human nature, so there is a broad parallel.



Jeremy Pierce said...

I assume you're not suggesting that Mary's virginal conception involved parthenogenesis. If it did, it still would have been miraculous (in the sense of suspension of the laws of nature) if Mary was genotypically female. The Y chromosome would have had to come from somewhere. But I suppose Mary could have been genetically male but without the Y chromosome activated for some reason, and then it would be just a miracle in terms of whatever would have activated parthenogenesis in a species it never happens in. But I suppose I wouldn't want to rule this out as the mechanism by which the Holy Spirit conceived Jesus. For all we know, it could have been something like this.

As for the Obama rumor, I think you've got some of the facts wrong. I can't follow the Kos link you gave, but I've seen lots of other reports about this incident. The rumors had the school being run by Wahhabist extremists, and the school turns out to be more moderate, but that doesn't mean it's not Muslim. I found a Salon article as early as March 2004 calling the school Muslim. Think Progress, in responding to the recent claims, calls Obama's father a non-practicing Muslim and the school a Muslim school. So it may be that he considered himself an atheist, but he retained a Muslim identity in some sense if he was a non-practicing Muslim, and as far as I can tell the school was Muslim.

C.P.O. said...

Wow, thanks for the fascinating insights into the networks and the way they approach interviews. It seems that evangelicals are socialized into accepting, relatively uncritically, what is presented to them, but I'm not sure that is much different than the general public. It is just a little more tragic when seen in fellow evangelicals. A lot of times it takes too much hard work, time, and effort to search out a more accurate perspective.

Ben Witherington said...

Hi Todd:

You are quite right, it is often laborious and tedious to get to the bottom of things when it comes to facts or interpretation, which is one of the reasons I do this blog.

Jeremy thanks for those references. Perhaps the most important point is that in our current American climate of fear where the phrase 'Islamic' is associated with 'terrorist' and makes people see red (understandably), it is irresponsible journalism to even remotely suggest that Obama himself has ever been a practicing Moslem or that his father was either, or that the elementary school Obama went to was like going to a 'Moslem seminary'. This is just audience bating.


Ben W.

Ben Witherington said...

P.S. Nope, I am not suggesting the virginal conception in Mary was an example of parthenogenesis.

Isaac Demme said...

It is certainly concievable (although highly improbable) that God used natural processes in the virginal conception.

As mentioned above, it would first of all require that Mary be genotypically XY while phenotypically female, a condition that does occur with some frequency as rare as it is.

Second it would require a mutation (a deletion most likely) in the genes controlling parental imprinting, because the imprinting process tends to ensure that spontaneous parthenotes die very early in the growth process.

Tomohiro Kono, in his 2004 paper ( demonstrated that a 13-kilobase deletion in the mouse H19 gene was all it took for a mouse to parthenogenetically concieve and bear offspring with no known side effects.

My own opinion is that God did not use this process, but this ultimately is a philosophical question about the nature of "miracles" as well as a theological question about the physical consequences of incarnation.

I don't think it is necessary that a miracle be something that could never occur by unguided natural process to be a miracle, what a miracle is is God acting in a spectacular way (through low-frequency occurences) in order to communicate a truth.

Ben Witherington said...

Thanks Isaac.

That we extremely helpful. I wonder what you make of the blood found on the Shroud of Turin. The last report I read about it was that while the figure on the Shroud is clearly a man, the blood which is shown seeping from wounds in the image is in fact without the male chromosome. Could this be a pointer to the virginal conception, without aid of a male which nonetheless produced a male offspring?

Just wondering.
I like your definition of miracle.
Send my best to my old town--- S. Hamilton Mass.


Dan said...

{And herein lies one of the big problems in conservative Christianity. Evangelicals are not encouraged to think for themselves, not encouraged to do critical thinking, not encouraged to be open minded in the good sense of that phrase. They have too often been taught to blindly accept what they are told. }

Seems to me Mark Noll wrote a book about this once. . .

David A Booth said...


Wouldn't the media be far more interesting if the people running it were humble? A good host doesn't need to know a great deal of technical information about the subjects that expert guests, like yourself, are going to talk about. He simply needs to be genuinely curious and good at asking questions.

A decade ago, I ran for Congress as a third (maybe a 4th!) party candidate. The press coverage I received was fair and generally accurate, but I was astonished at how consistently the incumbant Congressman I was running against was misrepresented. It finally dawned on me that he wasn't being misrepresented out of malice, he was being misrepresented because the reporters lacked the humility to ask for clarification about policies that they didn't understand.

When politicians and reporters both pretend to be experts on everything, this makes for very bad (and divisive) public policy. Hopefully some of the new presidential candidates will be willing to admit that they don't have all of the answers and that their oponents may have some good ideas as well.

Best wishes,


Ben Witherington said...

Hi David:

I will just say a hearty amen to the call for more humility as well as honesty. One of the real problems is that nowadays we have news presenters, who are just talking heads. They don't do the journalism, they don't go out in the field and research stories, they just read the teleprompter. And then they think this gives them the right to judge something they read. Amazing. I cannot speak for other candidates but my fellow Tar Heel John Edwards seems to be the kind of person you are talking about in terms of personal humility and Christian commitment (he attends a fine Methodist Church in Raleigh).


Ben W.

Nance said...

The closing of your post rings loudly of Mark Noll's Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, and it's an issue that has been of concern to myself(as an evangelical) more and more of late. The problem ahead lies I think in the presentation of the issue to the conservative Christian, who will, stereotypically speaking, not consider it. It's nonetheless important and I'm glad that you brought it up here for all to read.

Bob Bliss said...

But even if Fox News were only say 25% right that would put them on par with Al Gore and that would be okay with you. Right?

Exiled in mainstream said...

'nuff said indeed

respect due

Ben Witherington said...

Nope... it wouldn't be, and here's why Bob.

Al Gore is offering his own take in a documentary and entertaining form. If it was the case that he deliberately misreported the facts after checking, that would be a parallel to what we are talking about.

If however the issue is that while he has his facts basically right, his interpretation is askew most of the time, that is a whole different ballgame.

What Gore can be faulted for is almost exclusively the conclusions he draws from the evidence, not the evidence itself.

This is world's apart from deliberately misreporting the facts, even after having been corrected three times over!

And there is another issue. Al Gore's movie was not, and did not pretend to be the nightly news--- a compilation of careful eyewitness reporting from reporters around the world. That is how Fox depicts its news, as do all the other regular news broadcasts. Gore intended to stimulate the mind into active thought about the facts, whatever one conclusions one draws about his critical judgment.


yuckabuck said...

One of the interesting things in the Insight story was their alleged source- the Clinton "war room." It was well known that the Clintons, at the behest of political consultant Dick Morris, would float "trial balloons" through third-party sources in orde to gage the potential public reaction to something before President Clinton actually said it. Insight claimed that the Obama madrasa line came from sources in Hilary Clinton's crowd, presumably in order to see if making such a charge would actually fly. Obviously it wouldn't, because many people were enraged by it, and even conservatives who despise Hilary were saying that Insight's "scoop" was too thinly sourced (only one source!) to be believable.

I can't stand any of the TV news programs. ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN, etc. are too obviously biased to the left, and Fox is too sensationalistic (Obama's madrasa, Natalie Holloway 24/7) or annoyingly bombastic (O'Reilly). Though Fox's opinion shows are heavily tilted right, I have found the straight news to be pretty neutral, and rather annoying to both right and left. Of course, Fox has never tried to peddle forged documents about the President 2 months before an election....yet.

I only get my news from the internet, where I KNOW where Kos is coming from (hard left) and I KNOW where Powerline is coming from (the right).

Elvis Elvisberg said...

I will bet $1000 that the Insight story did not, in fact, come from anyone in the Hillary camp.

First off, Rev. Sun Myung Moon-owned conservative infotainment sources are unlikely to be places with good sources in the Hillary campaign.

Second off, it's not a story that a Democrat would want to spread. It'd be damaging in the Democratic primary to come across as criticizing someone for having a minority religious background at age 5.

Sorry to hear about your negative experience on the O'Reilly program, Dr. Witherington. Unsurprisingly, you're not the only one.

David, your experience as a third party candidate is fascinating. I think that, along with reporters trying to be experts in everything, they also tend to go with the dominant storyline. For example, in the 2000 campaign, the official story was that Al Gore told tall tales, and George Bush spoke mangled English. Thing was, it wasn't too hard to find instances of Bush fibbing and Gore misspeaking. But it didn't fit the prevailing narrative, so it didn't get reported. As Dr. Witherington found, constructing the prevailing narrative is a bruising, bare-knuckled, backroom fight, that the public doesn't get to see.

Terry Hamblin said...

Unfortunately, newspapers and news channels are not really concerned about news, but about whether the news can be manipulated to make a story.

Stories are usually not precisely true. They may contain an element of truth but what is presented is subtly (or not so subtly) altered to give the story more impact or excitement, or to make it fit more closely to the prejudices of the organ reporting it.

A Christian supporter of Obama might tell the story thus: "Despite being sent to a state school in a Muslim country, Barak is now a keen member of his local church. Such is the power of the Holy Spirit to overcome Muslim indoctrination!"

My one experience with newspapers and the electronic media on medical matters is that they very seldom get the story right. I long ago decided that if they can't get what I know about right, then I couldn't trust them on things that I don't know about.

One of the reasons that I prefer the blogosphere for news is that any mistake or misrepresentation is soon hunted down and exposed. Newspapers print retractions at the bottom of column 6 on page 34 and televisoin only retracts when ordered to by a court.

José Solano said...

A great psychologist once said that the two extremes of the devil are rigidity and chaos. These are the extreme ends of the conservatives and the liberals. The conservative media will tend towards the constriction of the news to conform to its perspective while the liberal media allows for all sorts of perspectives and tends to offer equal time to the most absurd views. Either way the truth tends to get distorted.

Added to this tendency to distort the truth by one's attitude, desires and perspective is the fact, as Finrod notes, that "It doesn't matter if it's NBC, BBC, CNN, Fox, cable or not: it's about making money, even in the newsrooms."

Rhology said...

--They have too often been taught to blindly accept what they are told. This of course becomes dangerous when it is applied to watching the news and we are dealing with vital life and death matters and some aspects of politics.

>>I have had to do some self-education thru trial and error in debating and discussing people w/ different views. But in many cases, particularly in the political realm, even though I think that virtually all national politicians are complete finks and virtually completely untrustworthy (and hold pretty much the same opinion of nat'l media figures, esp. if they're on TV), I feel like there is nothing I as a normal citizen can do to penetrate the web of obfuscation. I have a job, I have a new baby, I don't even have any time to read a book right now. How will I be able to be the fully-participating member of informed voting society (as if that category includes more than 1% of the population) I should be? And even if I could, what diff would it make?

Sometimes hopelessly,

Ben Witherington said...

Hi Jonathan:

I think that our previous discussion about progressive revelation would help. Check the chat backs on the immediately preceding blogs on Global Warming and you will find an answer. The short answer is that God gave fallen people some of those rules due to the hardness of their hearts (as Jesus himself tells us when talking about Moses' divorce rules). God's people were primitive and ruthless and largely without the Holy Spirit, and God needed to limit the amount of damage they could do. Some of these rules like 'eye for an eye...' were meant to limit revenge taking, not license it.


Ben W.

Ben Witherington said...

Jonathan: Think about two things: 1) as Jesus said, God permitted divorce due to human hardheartedness. This is the same God who in Malachi says he hates divorce. What's going on here? The issue has to do with God's sovereignty and how he actually exercises it. 2) God has given space or room for humans to make their own choices. God, by and large has chosen to work with humans as they are, where they are. Of course he could impose his will on them, but mostly it doesn't work like that. mostly God urges, woos, exhorts, loves and seeks to persuade his people to do and be better. This is God's M.O. In other words, we have a real relationship, a love relationship with God, and so part of that depends on us and the choices we make.


Ben W.

José Solano said...

"Of course he could impose his will on them, but mostly it doesn't work like that. mostly God urges, woos, exhorts, loves and seeks to persuade his people to do and be better."

This is true but to this list we should add that God Commands and threatens us with great catastrophe.