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The Times & Pluralism

By and large, I try to resist commenting on this blogs frequent references to the New York Times, burdened as I am by actual knowledge of the place, of many people who work there, and of its culture actually I should say cultures because they vary from one department or section of the paper to another.The Times does many things that are egregious. But of course the Times also does many things, period, things often entailing rare skills, unusual dedication, exhausting work, sacrifice of corporate profits, not infrequently even risk of life. Sportswriters, unlike media critics, do not judge a .400 hitter by the other 6 out of 10 times at bat. And the Timess record is well above that average, although as anyone knows who has either been the subject of a news story or has had to write one in seven hours and eight hundred words, it is unheard of to get everything completely and exactly right.The Times, to repeat, prints many egregious things. Mollie Wilson OReilly recently posted an example from the Vows column in the Sunday Style Section. I was taken aback by Bill Mazellas nave defense of this as a simple case of neutral news coverage, something quickly rebutted by Mollie and others. Could Bill imagine, I wondered, the disdain in which such features are commonly held by many of the papers own reporters and editors? What in our household have long been termed the greed sections of the Times were widely tolerated in the Times newsroom as an ingenious invention by Abe Rosenthal to bring in advertising revenue that has allowed the paper to maintain serious bureaus in Afghanistan and Iraq and send reporters to Central Asia and the horn of Africa and many parts of the globe now abandoned by most of the news media. For many, including many of those who at various times put their lives on the line to get important stories, the entire Styles Section and its like are at best necessary evils. (I hope that this will not provoke further reflections on the pope and condoms.)But the Christmas editorial discussed below is something else. It is not the editorial I might have written had I ever been invited (or accepted) to join the editorial page. There are many Christmas editorials, including some redolent with explicit celebration of Christs birth, that I might not have written. But they dont stir my ire or sense of victimization either. Here we have four paragraphs of admirable, if somewhat bland, Christmas-related sentiments. It could have been written, for all I know, by an editor who was at Midnight Mass. But he or she consciously wrote it from a religiously neutral standpoint, except perhaps for the final endorsement of prayer. And it was written for a readership about whose religious convictions no assumptions could or would be made. This is, it seems to me, not the only possible but nonetheless a very plausible and respectful reflection of our contemporary pluralism. There really are many people who are not out to get us but who sincerely and thoughtfully dont believe in Christ or Christianity. Are we shocked, shocked, by that? I think we should get used to it.

About the Author

Peter Steinfels, co-founder of the Fordham Center on Religion and Culture and a former editor of Commonweal, is the author of A People Adrift: The Crisis of the Roman Catholic Church in America.



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There really are many people who are not out to get us but who sincerely and thoughtfully dont believe in Christ or Christianity. Are we shocked, shocked, by that? I think we should get used to it.I am not shocked by it, and I think everybody should get used to it. I think all debates about the "Christmas wars" are absurd. But the Times editorial about Christmas said: To Christians everywhere, Christmas comprises, above all, a decree from Caesar Augustus and in the same country shepherds abiding. I believe Jesus was born, but that's about the only thing I believe from the Infancy Narratives. It seems like they didn't want to use the word "Jesus." Would it be offensive to anyone of any religion (or no religion) to say that to Christians, Christmas is about the birth of Jesus? It's not a religious position. It's just a fact.

There's a small omission there. I believe Jesus was born, but I don't believe in a decree from Caesar Augustus or in shepherds abiding.

" To Christians everywhere, Christmas comprises, above all, a decree from Caesar Augustus and in the same country shepherds abiding.""Above all?" This, from the editorial, is what I find to be extraordinarily ignorant. One can be an atheist and know that there is much, much more to Christian belief than belief in a sentimental story. Christians might be wrong, but our belief is not trivial. And my criticism of the Cavett story, which he admits is only "probably" true, isn't a matter of religious belief in the least. It's a matter of simple human decency. Cavett showed none, and neither did his editor in letting the story go through complete with the people's names. It's at:

Peter,It is always a pleasure to read your thoughtful prose -- even in your "apologetic" mode.I am certainly not "shocked," Casablanca-style, by the editorial in question; nor am I conscious of being beset by ire or a sense of victimization.Frankly, I found the egregious avoidance of any reference to Jesus' birth just plain silly. This is not a question of being "religiously neutral," but of political correctness carried to absurdity. Do you really think any religious or secular sensibilities would have been offended had the center of the Nativity triptych been mentioned?The image that comes to mind is of a painting with a Roman Emperor on the right and shepherds on the left -- and a huge empty spot in the middle of the canvas.Built into the post one might even glimpse an allusion to John O'Malley: "Did Anything Happen at Bethlehem?"

I found the editorial to be a bit whimsical and a bit lyrical but surely wouldn't alert Bill Donahue to get the dogs out. That said, I do think it is a bit curious that there was not even a passing mention that Christians mark the birth of Jesus on this day. I wouldn't make too much of it. Don't necessarily see any sinister motives. But it does strike me as a bit odd that there wasn't even a small mention. A phrase would have been ok. Not even a whole sentence was necessary. But as Msgr Charles O'Conor Sloane once said: "Keep the big things big and the little things little."

Opinions are usually expressed as absolutes by each bearer when in truth it may be a matter of tastes. De gustibus not est disputandum. But don't we ever. In that vein Thomas Paine makes a lot of sense when he wrote: I believe in one God, and no more; and I hope for happiness beyond this life.Each of those churches show certain books, which they call revelation, or the word of God. The Jews say, that their word of God was given by God to Moses, face to face; the Christians say, that their word of God came by divine inspiration: and the Turks say, that their word of God (the Koran) was brought by an angel from Heaven. Each of those churches accuse the other of unbelief; and for my own part, I disbelieve them all.And it is hard to argue with Paine when he also writes: All national institutions of churches, whether Jewish, Christian or Turkish, appear to me no other than human inventions, set up to terrify and enslave mankind, and monopolize power and profit.So I am taken aback by all those posters here who proffer their own proclivities as gospel truth. To repeat myself I am grievously, perhaps even naively taken aback by such proclivities. Which for sure are living testimony of original sin.

I could be wrong, but I'm not sure the NYT wants its apologists bragging that more than 6 times out of 10 the NYT actually gets the story right.

Fr Imbelli gets the point of the editorial -- it is a picture with the central image missing. What in the first paragraph is any individual's central idea of Christmas? The ornaments? Bedford Falls? Scrooge? Christmas is something different from anything listed, and if Christ were included in that list, it would have been an insult.I recommend everyone go home and reread How the Grinch stole Christmas.: "How could it be so?It came without ribbons! It came without tags!"It came without packages, boxes or bags!"And he puzzled three hours, `till his puzzler was sore.Then the Grinch thought of something he hadn't before!"Maybe Christmas," he thought, "doesn't come from a store."Maybe Christmas...perhaps...means a little bit more!"

I second Ann @ 6:08. "Above all" indeed!

Neither here nor there, perhaps, but a fun fact re the NYT: The grandson of Reinhold Niebuhr, Sam Sifton, is the current restaurant critic of the paper. You wouldnt expect to find any Niebuhrian traces in his current work, but they are not to be found in his earlier contributions either. The gravitas of the paper has suffered as a result of key appointments in the area of cultural news. One of them was the promotion of Sam Sifton from editor of the Dining section to cultural news editor in 2005. His intellectual pedigree was not in doubt: son of Elisabeth Sifton, a major figure in New Yorks publishing community; grandson of Reinhold Niebuhr, the great Protestant theologian. But his obsession with pop-culture trivia came across full force in a 2007 online Talk to the Newsroom Q&A with readers, where he promised more video game reviewsa promise he certainly kept. In the same forum the previous year, he defended his papers coverage of Hollywood celebrities, and when a reader asked Do you party? Do you rock and roll? Sifton answered in a tone of desperate hipness by quoting Young Jeezy: Erybody know I rep these streets faithfully. editorial page is not Siftons reponsibility, obviously, but it would be refreshing to find a trace of Niebuhr in the Christmas editorial rather than what seem to be the banal sentiments of his rival, Norman Thomas.When the contents of the NYT go behind a paywall I will be interested to find how much they will charge for their editorials.

I would read the Times for more than the obits and book page if it had more Jeezy.

I realize that we are lighting up the world so well with our witness that the only shortcoming out there is that theNY Times will not witness the faith for us. Impressive indeed that we militate that Augustus and the other Estates must portray Jesus the way we want them to. Matthew 25 seems to place the burden on us. Augustus would not have tolerated it. Yet it goes along with our acquired tradition of persecuting instead of being persecuted. The Catholic League trumps and Augustine's lesson is complete.

"To Christians everywhere, Christmas comprises, above all, a decree from Caesar Augustus and in the same country shepherds abiding." Could this sentence from the Times editorial, echoing the first eight verses of the second chapter of the Gospel of Luke, be anything but a reference to the birth of Jesus? I believe this is called synecdoche, a classic rhetorical devise in which a part is read for the whole. Or maybe it's just plain old allusion. But the average Times reader, perhaps with no knowledge of synechoche but with even the vaguest mental imprint of Caesar Augustus's decree and a virtually inescapable mental image of those shepherds abiding in the fields, knows exactly what is being referred to here: the birth of Jesus. Actually I think this is at least as elegant a way of making that point as, e.g., "To Christians everywhere, Christmas means the birth of Jesus." Thunk. Be that as is may, the editorialist should be credited with assuming a level of higher religiously literacy in the editorial and among its readers than some commentators seem able to concede. Please note the later reference to the "yearlong liturgical calendar," which frankly signals a little more Christian literacy than I find on most editorial pages. But no, what is really going on here is a complicated maneuver to avoid mentioning "Jesus." Well, I doubt it, but it's not entirely impossible. Perhaps the editorialist did want the serious Christians to be able to read Jesus and the loosely Christian or humanitarian Dickens-ians to read "God Bless Us Every One!" without knocking heads about it. Not the editorial I might have written, but not cause for indigestion or upbraiding either. Complaints about the Times often tell us more about ourselves than about the Times.

Could we substitute the word "Church" for "Times" in this sentence and also learn something valuable about ourselves too?"Complaints about the Times often tell us more about ourselves than about the Times."

My guess is all here read the NYT. I guess knocking it is OK but what else is there? The anti-Times is of course FOX news.. Would I possibly recommend my hometown San Francisco Chronicle? It will most likely and fortunately fold before my post was cold.

Ed --Yes, of course, the NYT is the best going. But it used to be better. No doubt finances are at fault.So what's the solution? I've seen suggestions that newspapers form combines and become non-profits like the universities so they can retain their independence and standards. Different combines would have different specialties,, e.g., engaging in investigative journalism or advocacy journalism, or whatever, or maybe combining functions. It would require a very great deal of funding of course. No doubt the conservatives would have the financial advantage, but that has always been the case.My heavens, we might even have a Catholic combine or two.

I thought the religion-neutral tone of the Christmas editorial was a little odd; I also thought it was out of character for a New Yorker. I'm always impressed and touched by how many of my non-Christian friends send me religious-themed Christmas cards each year. The Times could have been equally gracious in wishing a Merry Christmas to those of us celebrating the birth of Christ.

Ah, Peter,"synecdoche?", "not entirely impossible?", "not the editorial I might have written?" -- it would make Quintilian proud!

"Complaints about the Times often tell us more about ourselves than about the Times."As do complaints about complaints about the NYT. The odd thing is that, although the Mr. Steinfels wants to portray certain Christians as anxious to play the victim, the premise of the original post is that the non-Christians who read the times would be so put off by any mention (even on Christmas day!) that, for Christians, Christmas celebrates the birth of a Saviour, that it cannot be stated plainly. So who's being overly sensitive?

I didn't find the editorial remotely disturbing. The mission of the NYT is not related to evangelization. Many of their readers are not Christian. So this editorial reflects a cultural take on Christmas. Our culture is not Christian. Hasn't been for some time. Maybe the editorial spells out a few of the ways in which we have gotten lost in the celebration of Christmas. And if we're lost, the NYT is certainly going to be lost.

Oh, Robert,Surely you're not suggesting that Peter's latest comment amounts to mere rhetoric. Someone so keen on nuance wouldn't miss that Peter was simply referring to the obvious: all of this is speculation. Some of it well informed. Some of it not.

I thought Mr. Steinfels, as usual, was balanced and reflective.I thought the infancy narratives are not much history about the birth of Jesus.I think much of the pro or anti Times coments here are just ideological rumblings.The most important thing, though, is we are moving (drifting?) into a more secular, i.e. less findamentalist world,Since policy makers want to make almost everything credal, for many nothing has become credal.So we need to get used to it if we do not engage the changing world. Only then IMO will more attention be paid to the meaning of the incarnation for all.Which also reminds me to say that if we continue to stress our distinctive Christmas by downplaying other feasts, we need to get used to ours being downplayed.

Peter, I think you're right on -- and my reaction to the editorial was the same as yours (as I've just commented on Fr. Imbelli's thread, not having read these comments yet). It referenced a Scripture passage, assuming everyone reading would know exactly what it meant; if that amounts to leaving Jesus out, then we have bigger problems than the Times's failure to deliver a full-blown sermon on Christmas Day.

I thought the editorial was an attempt to avoid the mindless platitudes that are trotted out every year and are the source of the holiday depression that is so commonplace. After endless repetition, such verbiage becomes as annoying and meaningless as the carols one hears ceaslessly right after Thanksgiving. Reminds me of the hero's plight in Waugh's "The Man Who Liked Dickens".

I weparticipated in a religious service on the eve of Christmas. What did we celebrate there? "-- above all - a decree from Caesar Augustus ---"Righty-o.

I agree with those who believe that there should have been a direct reference in the editorial to the meaning of Christmas which many Christians subscribe to: the birth of Jesus. As for the rest of it, I think the editorial was an attempt to assess the diverse cultural meanings of Christmas, which Christians and non-Christians alike confront every year. The following op-ed by Howard Jacobson, deconstructing Hanukkah may help to bring the issue into perspective. It was published on November 30th, and I suspect that, even though it is an op-ed, it reflects the NYT editorial practice. One difference between the two pieces is that even though he considers it "spurious" Jacobson at least refers to the historical foundation of the celebration. avoid a firestorm, please note that I am not suggesting here that the Times is giving Judaism a pass while bashing Christianity.

Whatever the opinions on this editorial it doesn't come near the celebration of Charlemagne every year by the Vatican and the objection to Turkey entering Europe by Ratzinger. Those are two secular events which are made religious which is truly sacrilegious.

"Synecdoche" is one of those words I've never had the courage to use. And, read as Peter would have us read it, I think the NYT editorial makes sense. But that reading also makes me wonder what would be an appropriate synecdochetic (??) treatment of, say, Passover. Were I Jewish, I might well be miffed to be told that at the center of the Passover story is the sending of the plagues described in Exodus 7-10.

I am in the minority here, clearly, but let me say I liked the editorial. I thought the author's purpose was to make oblique references to a number of phenomena associated with the Christmas observances of many people, believers and non-believers, and the merely skeptical, all at the same time. I thought it did this very well. The "above all" clause, which seems to have exercised so many commenters here, leads into yet another purposefully oblique reference to the New Testament scriptures which are read at Christmas in Christian churches all over the world.The author does not tell us the main point of "It's a Wonderful Life." Or state the key narrative element in "A Christmas Carol." Neither does he or she tell us what the main event is which occurred in Bethlehem. We are supposed to know. If we don't, we are culturally illiterate. The fact that this was framed as "the most important" thing for Christians tells us that the author has acknowledged something with which we can all agree: that the Christmas story told in scripture surpasses anything else that Hollywood, or Dickens, or the shopping mall "says" at this time of year. That acknowledgement in itself is good, and should not be overlooked.Let me press the point even further. I actually prefer respectful allusions to direct statement about religious truths in secular contexts. Some kind of modesty is in keeping with the sense that what is holy can't be bandied about in the newspapers, and that one really ought not utter the name of God out loud. The Christmas mystery is such that we should genuflect before it, it's not a mere fact like any other. I am grateful that the New York Times published a piece that omitted the "central panel" of the triptych. Had they spoken of it without faith, could it fail to be banal? There's the rub. They have to maintain a secular view. But that view, to leave room for religious awe, must leave some things unsaid.Oh but, one might say, the birth of Christ is a simple fact of history. Well, yes and no. Even though the birth of Christ is a fact (the date of Christmas is something else again) I don't think it's a good idea to separate the fact of Jesus' birth from what it means.

"I weparticipated in a religious service on the eve of Christmas. What did we celebrate there? above all a decree from Caesar Augustus Righty-o."Right, Jimmy Mac. It's the "Above all" that is silly. But one doesn't assume automatically that the NYT writers understand why so many Christians are so committed to their faiths . Very often the NYT writers don't distinguish religious trappings from the essentials. (See the Church of Craft.) To say that "Above all" what is important to Christians is the so-called "Christmas story" (whether recalled literally or in synecdoche form), is to exhibit a gross ignorance of the essentials of Christian belief, beliefs having to do with the deepest existential matters. We don't believe "above all" in a babe in a manger with shepherds abiding and angels singing pretty songs. We believe in something far more important than that. We might be wrong -- but it is a fact that there is more to Christian belief than the attractive Christmas tale. It is unfortunate that that fact isn't better known at the Times.

But that reading also makes me wonder what would be an appropriate synecdochetic (??) treatment of, say, Passover. I think the problem with this analogy/thought experiment is that we don't live in a majority-Jewish culture, where it can be presumed that a mere allusion to the relevant section of Exodus would be a clear reference to the holiday's religious significance for most readers of the NYT. Also, we don't live in a culture where Passover is a federal holiday and part of a "holiday season" that everyone celebrates, religiously or otherwise. So the NYT probably wouldn't feel obliged to mark the day with a "Happy Passover, whatever that may mean to you" editorial.

Was there NO ONE in the Time's editorial department who would not have read what was written and thought/said: "wait a minute - 'above all - a decree from Caesar Augustus 'I don't think that is quite right. Let's think about this."If their fact-checking on other editorials was a sloppy as this was, then their claims to/of excellence in journalism are not supportable.

Alan --It seems to me that Howard Jacobson sees Hanukkah as a story of Jewish history but without the presence and action of God within it, so the piece is not about Judaism, the faith. Does this trivialize Judaism? I say yes, and I was a bit miffed for my Jewish friends who are believers. Being smart-alecky about someone else's religion isn't polite, in my view, not when they're likely to hear you. But, this being a secular society, does that make it civil?

Rita,I respect your hermeneutic of generosity. However, I find no basis in the text for the mystagogic sensitivity that pervades your penultimate paragraph.As for the separation of "fact" and "significance" -- conscious of the secular nature of The New York Times (a point of agreement among all of us), I did not seek from them a mention that Christians celebrate "above all" the birth of "Jesus the Messiah," (I did not even use the word "Christ" in my own post) or "Jesus the Savior of the world," but simply "Jesus."The failure to do so strikes me, as I've suggested before, not as sensitive allusiveness, but as insensitive avoidance.

I think newspapers articles- and editorials- should be written in a way that is clear and understandable to the great unwashed (like me!) If I were looking for subtle allusions that were over my head, I would read the New Yorker.

Robert,The mystagogic sensitivity is mine; I did not attribute it to the author of the text. As you can see in my post, I was referring to my response to the text. What I hoped to show is that the editorial in question could indeed be read generously. I do rather suspect that the author presumed knowledge of the datum that Christians celebrate the birth of Christ at Christmas and wanted to point to this in a fresh way that did not just state the facts. If I am too optimistic, perhaps it is a good failing to have at this time of year!You seem so sure of the insensitivity or even hostility of the author of the editorial; perhaps you know the author? What do you think about my point concerning how the author passes over the "main point" in every other narrative as well? Aren't we "supposed to know" a great many things in order to make sense of this piece of writing?

David Nickol,Why don't you believe there were shepherds abiding in the fields? Just curious.

I didn't see the editorial as a secular piece but one that attempts to suggest, in a limited amount of space, the many meanings of Christmas in our pluralistic culture.

Thanks for the dose of newsroom reality, Peter.We're talking about a newspaper that risked sending a reporter to be with Iraqi Catholics in a church in Baghdad on Christmas Eve to get a good Christmas story. By the way, the lead of that story is clear on what the angels were singing about: BAGHDAD As they gathered to celebrate the birth of Jesus, the congregation here first contemplated death, represented by a spare Christmas tree decked with paper stars, each bearing a photograph of a member of a nearby church killed in a siege by Islamic militants in October.Instead of turning a Times editorial inside out in a strained attempt to find something wrong with it, we should be thanking the paper for taking the risk to get a story like this:

Paul,thanks for the link to a fine story that gets it right from the very first clause. And I share your appreciation of a paper that sends courageous reporters out on difficult missions.Where we will have to disagree (I hope amicably) is who the exemplars of the"strained attempt" are: the editorial's opponents or its proponents.

This discussion made me curious about when the last time the name of Jesus was mentioned in a NYT Christmas editorial. Its not easy to make that kind of search and I dont have the results of an exhaustive scientific search but the following few excerpts suggest an interesting trend. Hypothesis #1: With the advance of secularism/pluralism we see much more literary creativity but at the same the content seems to be based upon Norman Rockwell paintings. Other generalizations are invited.To their credit the NYT bellelettrists almost named Jesus in 1990 when a Saviour was mentioned. However, their more recent rhapsodies cry out for a cruel and merciless parodist.============== 2009 --What should we feel today on this new morning? That is the question Christmas always poses. But our feelings know no should. We feel what we feel, as one after another the Christmases go past. --But, really, Christmas needs no saving. It does not exist apart from what we make of it. And, on its own, it cannot save us, though it contains the gestures of generosity and thankfulness that are halfway to being a better person, a richer community. Christmas is all the better for being a simple place, nothing more, perhaps, than two red cardinals, male and female, against the backdrop of a snowy field. They are there every day. The only difference is that today it feels like Christmas. --The optimism, the generosity, the charitable warmth of Christmas do stem, of course, from the pattern and the meaning of the biblical story. They have their source, too, in the sense of regeneration now that weve turned this darkest corner of the solar year. --And for those of us who are weary with what the world makes of Christmas today, Cooper has words that will keep the frost out of the house. ''If we were to reject everything good and desirable in itself,'' she writes, ''because it has been abused by mankind, we should soon discover that we had deprived ourselves of every blessing, not only temporal, but spiritual also.'' In good sooth, as she would say, Merry Christmas!

Here's the 1990 contribution:1990 --Christmas is a joyous, festive secular celebration, but that is secondary. It is a religious holiday. Thus there's much to be said for observing it quietly, simply and unpretentiously. Indeed, the great moment that it recalls, the birth of the Christian Saviour, was itself a remarkably unadorned event: a carpenter named Joseph, his young wife, a stable, the Child.

Peter, I am a subscriber to the Times and have read many of your fine columns there over the years. Since I don't often read publication editorials, in contrast with columns, I went out to the Times website to read the referenced editorial. Peter, I do not find your petulance very attractive. Could the editorial have been better as it referenced Christmas? That can almost always be the case, but I'm sorry your focus was so negative on such a joyous day.

Jansie, I think you're confused about who found fault with the editorial. This post was a response dissenting to this earlier one.

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