Reader Thomas called my attention to a 5-minute piece on today’s National Public Radio (NPR): “When Easter and Passover overlap,” which I guess is the situation this year. It’s a discussion between host Linda Wertheimer and Andrew McGowan, Dean and President of Berkeley Divinity School at Yale, using the temporal overlap of the holidays to discuss their theological connection. (You can hear the program or read the transcript at the link above.)
The discussion sounds like a complete waste of time, designed to fill the “Easter/Passover news cycle” but Thomas had another objection, one based on the fact that—in the absence of evidence for the Resurrection and the evidence of absence of any Jewish Exodus from Egypt—NPR is treating these holidays as if they’re based on real events. (Linda Werthheimer is by her own admission a Jew, and says in this piece that she went to a seder, while Andrew McGowan is an Anglican priest.)
Here’s some of Thomas’s email, with Wertheimer’s words italicized:
I know you are as annoyed about NPR’s osculation, as you say, of religion as I am, so I thought you might have a comment on this aspect: NPR (and of course other outlets) frequently uses the language of fact around religious myths. This is from this morning’s Weekend Edition Saturday:
At midnight tonight, many Christian congregations around the country will hold an Easter vigil to commemorate the resurrection of Christ – this as Jewish congregations celebrate Passover, an eight-day commemoration of the Jewish people’s liberation from slavery in Egypt. I’m joined now by Andrew McGowan. He is dean and president of Berkeley Divinity School at Yale. Thank you for being here.
The story of the resurrection is clearly a myth, and the story of the Jews’ enslavement in Egypt is also highly questionable historically. Yet above they are both treated as fact in a format notorious for over-use of words like “alleged” or “rumored” to remove responsibility for stating controversial truths.
The worst aspect of this is that NPR is the same network that, by official policy, won’t use the word “lie” to describe anything Trump says.
Now Thomas is right about these issues, but at first I thought “this isn’t a big deal,” as Wertheimer isn’t really claiming that the events were real. A charitable take is that she’s merely describing what is being celebrated. But then the interview went on:
WERTHEIMER: You know, one of the things that is said every year at the Seder that I go to is that the last supper was a seder.
MCGOWAN: That’s absolutely right. We can’t be sure that it was a seder quite like those that are more familiar from recent times because, in fact, strange as it may seem, the stories of the Last Supper are among the oldest evidence we have for anybody celebrating a seder. And yet they don’t include some of those lovely details that are familiar to so many – the series of cups of wine or all the special foods or the questions that are asked. But it’s absolutely true that the bulk of the earliest Christian material identifies the Last Supper as a meal celebrated at Passover by Jesus with His disciples, even though they’re a bit short on the ritual detail.
Note how “the stories of the Last Supper” are described as “evidence.” The piece goes on:
WERTHEIMER: What about the journey from slavery to freedom which is part of the Passover celebration? The way that Christians celebrate the journey from death to life which is part of the resurrection of Christ – I mean, are those all parallels that we should pay attention to?
MCGOWAN: Well, the Easter Vigil itself is really a kind of mini Passover for Christians, I think. Much of its symbolism is specifically about mapping Jesus’ narrative – the story of Jesus’ connection and his movement from death to life – as a kind of image that parallels that of the Exodus experience so that Jesus becomes Israel itself and his passage from death to life is like the passage through the Red Sea.
And so Christians themselves, especially in the first thousand years of Christian history, saw the whole of the Jesus experience very much as a new kind of Passover, a new kind of deliverance from slavery to freedom and the creation of a people who had a special relationship with God. But, of course, they allegorized the Exodus story and made it part of their own story. And the Easter Vigil still retains that basic language and symbolism of a journey from slavery to freedom, a journey from oppression to liberation.
Again, one could be charitable and just say they’re discussing religious tradition, not the truth of religion (after all, as a Jew Wertheimer surely doesn’t believer in the Resurrection), but neither do they mention that in all likelihood—and in near certainty in the case of the Exodus—what they’re talking about is equivalent to celebrating Santa’s delivery of presents on Christmas or the flight of witches on brooms at Halloween. There is no mention that these are myths without an evidential support.
But of course Werthheimer and McGowan don’t think they’re myths, and NPR is certainly not going to say, “By the way, these holidays are probably not based on historical events.”
I’d normally let this pass, but Thomas’s email got me thinking that in America we are so saturated by this assume-it’s-true religious palaver that we never think to challenge it, or to tell a radio station wedded to “giving the facts” that they cut awfully close to the bone when those “facts” involve religious claims.