Opinion: The real story behind the Quran-burning story

Opinion: The real story behind the Quran-burning story

September 08, 2010
Written by Gregg Brekke

A number of American lives likely have been saved overseas as a result of the cancellation of the Florida minister's plans to burn copies of the Quran on 9/11.

[EDITOR'S NOTE: At the time of this article's posting (22:55 EST), the Associated Press has reported that the Florida minister in question is now "reconsidering" his promise not to burn copies of the Quran based on his understanding that the proposed Islamic Cultural Center in Manhattan would be relocated.]

But amidst the celebrations that are appropriately occurring among Christians, Muslims, and anyone fed up with religious intolerance, a more somber assessment could be made of the drama the world has just witnessed.

What is saddening - even alarming - about the whole debacle is how it was covered in the media, particularly on television. To judge by the magnitude of coverage this story received for the better part of a month, one would think that intolerance of other faiths was a central feature of Christianity. And frankly, it used to be.

Yet, as many observers of Christianity in North America have observed, this news is so outdated for most Christians that it belongs to an entirely different era. My Muslim friends tell me this news is equally outdated with respect to Islam in North America, but that's not my area of expertise so I'll confine my observations to Christianity.

For many years, the vast majority of Christians have acknowledged that there may be other legitimate paths to God besides Christianity. In 2005, for instance, a Newsweek/Beliefnet poll revealed that 8 in every 10 Christians believe that a person who is not of their faith can go to heaven or attain salvation. Significantly, this number includes 7 in 10 Christian evangelicals and 9 in every 10 Catholics.

This widespread belief is indicative of a shift among North American Christians that has been taking shape for over a century. This shift, which has been noted by scholars ranging from Marcus Borg to Phyllis Tickle, is so enormous and far-reaching that many respected observers are now calling it "The Great Emergence." In the long run, many expect this Emergence to be of greater historical significance than even the Protestant Reformation of the 16th Century.

Yet what do we find making world-wide news with respect to Christian views of other faiths? Quran-burning by a single church of America's 335,000 Christian congregations. Hatred spewed by 50 church members out of the 118 million members of Christian churches in the U.S. How many Americans have even heard of the Great Emergence? Will it come and go with more than a footnote reference in the mainstream press?

My point is not that Christian Quran-burning should be kept out of the news. It is indeed newsworthy even if the story belongs more to a bygone era than today. Just as it would seem strange and inappropriate for the media to devote more than a minute of coverage to a group of contemporary Christians calling for the prosecution and burning of witches, so it is equally inappropriate to devote weeks of coverage to a Florida church's extremist actions against Islam.

Of course, given the friction that exists between the so-called Christian and Muslim worlds - friction that is quite real, current, and dangerous - it is understandable why the exclusivist rants of a Florida pastor might seem on the surface to be newsworthy.

Perhaps he should have received five minutes of coverage, therefore, rather than the minute his story "deserved." Yet it is vitally important to remember that, in this conflicted world environment, many lives depend on what is, and is not, reported about religious views of other religions. It is high time our news media started featuring today's story, not yesterday's.

The Rev. Eric Elnes is Senior Pastor of Countryside Community Church (UCC) in Omaha, Neb.

In 2005, Elnes served as the chief editor of an ecumenical document outlining twelve principles of progressive Christian faith known as the Phoenix Affirmations. Affirmation One states that "Christian love of God includes walking fully in the path of Jesus, without denying the legitimacy of other paths that God may provide for humanity. All twelve Affirmations may be found at <phoenixaffirmations.org>.

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