- The Washington Times - Friday, December 10, 2004

It’s that time of year.Ornament-filled trees are going up. Wreaths are being hung. Greeting cards are being sent and received.

Christmas is upon us.

Venerable weeklies Time and Newsweek, however, focus on the ecclesiastical — rather than the commercial — aspects of the holiday season.

Newsweek’s cover story is “The Birth of Jesus,” with the subhead “Faith and History: How the Story of Christmas Came to Be.”

The cover also billboards two current hot topics. “Steroid Bombshells” looks at the scandal surrounding superstar athletes and performance-enhancing drugs. Then there’s “The ‘Lemony Snicket’ Saga,” a feature on the upcoming film “Lemony Snicket’s a Series of Unfortunate Events.” (The PG-rated fantasy, starring Jim Carrey, arrives in movie theaters next week.)

With its cover feature — illustrated throughout with reproductions of great artworks about the Nativity — Newsweek wants to tell “the hidden story of the Nativity narratives and what they mean to the faithful.”

The story was timed, no doubt, to coincide with the release of a recent Newsweek-conducted poll that found that 84 percent of American adults consider themselves Christians, and 82 percent see Jesus as God or the son of God. Seventy-nine percent say they believe in the virgin birth, and 67 percent say they think the Christmas story — from the angels’ appearance to the star of Bethlehem — is historically accurate.

Other matters are explored as well. The story raises a controversial point on whether Mary was, indeed, a virgin and cites a quote from Shakespeare’s “Hamlet”: “There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”

Finally, after some speculation on Gnosticism, the eight-page feature closes with a citation from Cardinal John Henry Newman, the noted Victorian cleric who converted from the Anglican faith to Catholicism. It then segues into the familiar closing words of Luke 2:14: “and on earth peace, good will toward men.”

By contrast, the 10-page story in Time, “Secrets of the Nativity,” by David Van Biema (who, sadly, died after completing his reporting for the cover story) is somewhat more interested in how feminists respond to Mary. “These days,” the piece reads, “some feminist readers like Vanderbilt University’s Amy-Jill Levine, editor of the forthcoming ‘Feminist Companion to Mariology,’ are more interested in what might be called Mary’s feistiness.”

After examining various theories surrounding the Nativity story and virgin birth, Time decides that most Christmas worshippers nowadays aren’t focusing on the account found in the New Testament’s four Gospels. Instead, the story says, the interpretation is more personal, with many responding to “a simple joyous proclamation of salvation.”

The story closes with a look at the planning and preparation that goes into the long tradition of Christmas pageants.

• • •

The third major news weekly, U.S. News & World Report — which in recent years usually has given one of its December covers over to some Christian (or religious) subject — changes course this time with “Photographic Treasures From the National Archives.” The cover features a charming shot of little Caroline Kennedy turning a somersault in the Oval Office as her father, President Kennedy, applauds.

The rarely reproduced photos capture various moments in the lives of several of the nation’s commanders in chief — from Herbert Hoover through Bill Clinton. Curiously, President Bush is not included.

• • •

The January Esquire, featuring actor George Clooney on the cover, is already on newsstands. However, it’s another billboarded story that catches the eye. The article — written by Sara Solovitch and titled “Wolfowitz Believed Her. Bremer Believed Her. Millions Believed Her. The Iraqi Refugee Who Duped America” — focuses on the horrific treatment that Jumana Michael Hanna, an Iraqi native, said she experienced in prisons run by the country’s former dictator, Saddam Hussein.

Miss Solovitch spends the first half of her article detailing Miss Hanna’s awful plight. The author also cites Bernard Kerik — who was in Iraq as a senior policy adviser at that country’s Interior Ministry — as giving her case “top priority.” (Miss Hanna, her mother and her children were airlifted out of Baghdad by U.S. military transport to California, where they now live.)

According to the story, Mr. Kerik (announced earlier this week as President Bush’s choice to replace Tom Ridge as homeland security secretary) also assigned two military investigators to look into Miss Hanna’s claims, recounted last summer in numerous publications.

Her story started to crumble, however, when Miss Solovitch began checking into her credentials for a book she was writing. Miss Hanna said she had attended Oxford University from 1982 to 1984, graduating with a degree in accounting. Yet her spoken English was limited, and her writing was indecipherable.

Saddam’s suffering victim appears to be no more than a con artist taking advantage of many an American prepared to believe the worst of the Iraqi dictator. Miss Solovitch’s article is quite a story, but you wonder why no one thought to check Miss Hanna’s background earlier. It’s a pretty easy task.

• • •

On a somewhat related note, the New Yorker leads its Dec. 13 issue with a fairly murky mystery of its own. David Grann investigates the strange death of Richard Lancelyn Green, the world’s foremost authority on Sherlock Holmes. Was it murder or suicide? Mr. Grann discusses, among other things, the whereabouts of the archives of Holmes author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle after they were offered for sale by Christie’s (rather than going to the British Library).

• • •

Returning to the subject of holiday reading, take a look at the Outside magazine story on “The 25 Coolest People Now,” which features Tour de France phenom Lance Armstrong, swimmer Michael Phelps and shark-attack survivor Bethany Hamilton, among others. The illustrations are smashing.

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