Happy Easter, Newsweek Fans: Religion Editor Defines Jesus as 'Typically Cranky'

Newsweek religion editor Lisa Miller has two big articles in this week's issue. "The Bad Shepherd" is another piece trashing Pope Benedict over the sex-abuse charges emerging in Europe. But Miller even trashed Jesus Christ as a "typically cranky" religious figure. This came in an excerpt from Miller's new book on Heaven, as she explained how implausible the religious concept of resurrection is:

Resurrection presented credibility problems from the outset. Who, the Sadducees taunted Jesus, does the man who married seven wives in succession reside with in heaven? The subtext of their teasing is obvious: if the resurrection is true, as Jesus promised, then in heaven you must have your wife, and all the things that go along with wives: sex, arguments, dinner. Jesus responds in a typically cranky way: "You just don't get it," he says (my paraphrase). "You are wrong," he said in Matthew's Gospel, "because you know neither the Scriptures nor the power of God."

It's easier to pitch Jesus as "typically cranky" when one paraphrases the Bible in contemporary lingo. Miller concluded that she doesn't buy this tall Easter tale:

Resurrection may be unbelievable, but belief in a traditional heaven requires it. I think often of Jon D. Levenson, a Jewish scholar at Harvard Divinity School who hopes to bring the idea of resurrection back to mainstream Judaism, where it has been lost in practice for generations. I visited him one cold November afternoon because, as a literal-minded skeptic, I wanted him to explain to me how it works. How does God put bodies—burned in fire or pulverized in war—back together again? Levenson looked at me, eyes twinkling, and said, "It's no use to ask, 'If I had a lab at MIT, how would I try to resurrect a body?' The belief in resurrection is more radical. It's a supernatural event. It's a special act of grace or of kindness on God's part." For my part, I don't buy it. I do, however, leave the door open a crack for radical acts of grace and kindness—and for humbling ourselves before all that we don't understand.

I wouldn't define dismissing Jesus as typically cranky as an act of humbling oneself before the sacred mysteries. But at least she's upfront about her disbelief.

In her article on the pope, Miller's just as clear about how the sex-abuse charges are a moment for bringing the church in line with secular progressives:

It is a reforming moment, an opportunity to sweep away centuries of Vatican culture—to articulate values, engage with the laity, and shine a light into the church's secret corners. Benedict could actually turn it to his advantage by leveraging the qualities for which he is both criticized and admired—his deep familiarity with the Vatican bureaucracy and his passion for theological orthodoxy. But those who've studied the pope, and even many who applaud his other virtues, say he is not the man to rise to this occasion....What's needed, really, is a new vision for a church that is more human. Is Benedict the man to provide that? Alas, probably not.

Why would a man for with a "passion" for orthodoxy "leverage" it to dissolve orthodoxy and create a new, hip Newsweek Catholic Church?

Miller allowed a mild rebuttal from Vatican reporter John Allen, but her vision of the Pope is very dark, indeed, as she explored a meeting in Boston that the Holy Father had with sex-abuse victims:

Benedict read a 10-minute speech offering an apology on behalf of the church. Then each victim had a private five-minute audience with the pontiff, who stood, unmoving, before an altar. [Bernie] McDaid says he told the pope what happened to him in detail and warned the Holy Father that sex abuse was "a cancer" in the church. Benedict just listened and nodded. "He would only speak to me when I pushed him for words," says McDaid.

The image is apt: Benedict, frozen and mute as a ferocious desperation spreads through the Roman Catholic Church.

He's not very human, this bad shepherd:

One reason Ratzinger may not have recognized the human trauma in these cases is that his experience with actual humanity is so narrow. He has spent almost his entire life in the rarefied world of academia in Germany or the antique corridors of power in Rome. "He was a priest in a parish for one year," says the Rev. Thomas Rausch, a Jesuit professor of Catholic theology at Loyola Marymount University. "I'm worried that he doesn't have more direct pastoral experience."

For such a man, the desire to protect fellow clerics can be so deep as to be instinctive: the Vatican's bureaucratic elite, the Curia, is perhaps history's first old boys' club. "It's a culture of secrecy and hierarchy and doing what you're told," says Peter Manseau, author of Vows: The Story of a Priest, a Nun, and Their Son.

Miller doesn't tell readers that Manseau is that son, of a priest who wanted to shred the celibacy requirements of the Catholic priesthood. She also omits another of his books, Killing the Buddha: A Heretic's Bible.

With Miller at the religion desk, Newsweek could also be subtitled A Heretic's Bible.

Tim Graham
Tim Graham
Tim Graham is Executive Editor of NewsBusters and is the Media Research Center’s Director of Media Analysis