TIME Foreign Policy

How Pope Francis Helped Broker Cuba Deal

Pope Attends His Weekly Audience In St. Peter's Square
Pope Francis on Dec. 3, 2014 in Vatican City, Vatican. Franco Origlia—Getty Images

President Obama thanked Pope Francis for his role in negotiating a more open policy on Cuba and the release of U.S. citizen Alan Gross from Cuban custody.

In a 15-minute speech announcing that the U.S. would normalize relations with Cuba, Obama said that the pope helped spur the change and personally thanked him. The Vatican then released a statement noting that the Vatican hosted delegations from both countries in October to negotiate the deal after Pope Francis had written to both leaders.

A senior administration official said that the appeal from the Pope was “very rare” and unprecedented.

“Pope Francis personally issued an appeal in a letter that he sent to President Obama and to President Raul Castro calling on them to resolve the case of Alan Gross and the cases of the three Cubans who have been imprisoned here in the United States and also encouraging the United States and Cuba to pursue a closer relationship,” said the official. “The Vatican then hosted the US and Cuban delegations where we were able to review the commitments that we are making today.”

American officials have also noted Francis’ deep familiarity with the Americas, being the first pope from the continent. The letter from Pope Francis “gave us greater impetus and momentum for us to move forward,” a white House official said. “Cuba was a topic of discussion that got as much attention as anything else the two of them discuss.”

The move is perhaps Pope Francis’ boldest foreign policy move yet, but it is not his first.

• He showed letter-writing prowess in September 2013, when he wrote to Russian President Vladimir Putin, host of the G-20 Summit which Obama was attending, urging world leaders and the United States to oppose a military intervention in Syria.

• After visiting Bethlehem and Jerusalem in May, Pope Francis hosted both Israeli president Shimon Peres and Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas at the Vatican for a joint prayer service for Middle East Peace.

• When he visited South Korea in August, he sent a telegram to Chinese President Xi Jinping when the papal plane crossed into Chinese airspace—a historic step toward improved relations since the last time a pope visited East Asia, Chinese officials did not allow the plane to fly over Chinese territory.

When it comes to Cuba, Pope Francis is continuing the work of his predecessors. Just over half the Cuban population is Catholic, according to the Pew Research Center, and the Vatican stepped up its relations with the country over the past two decades. In 1998, Pope John Paul II became the first pope to visit Cuba. Pope Benedict XVI visited Cuba in 2012. At an outdoor mass, he urged Cuba to “build a renewed and open society, a better society, one more worthy of humanity and which better reflects the goodness of God.”

The announcement of the Vatican’s role in the U.S.-Cuba negotiations is particularly noteworthy as Pope Francis plans his first trip to the United States in September 2015. The Vatican has not said whether or not Pope Francis will travel to Cuba or other US cities on that trip.

TIME faith

Exodus: 4 Differences Between Film and Bible

Ridley Scott’s Exodus: Gods and Kings is not exactly a documentary, so a comparison of the film’s adaptation to Scripture is not the point of the movie. But it can be helpful to understand the underlying poetic truth.

Here are four ways the two Exodus stories diverge.

1. The Bible: Exodus is a story of ethical and political redemption.

The Film: Hebrew slaves are freed, but racial controversy surrounding the film clouded the story’s overall message of liberation. Scott selected white characters as Egyptians and Hebrews in the film. The only visible black characters are other slaves in Pharaoh’s palace who do not appear to be liberated with the Hebrew people.

2. The Bible: God is depicted as a king and man of war, who takes on Pharaoh, the God and King of the Egyptians.

The Film: The God-character is depicted as a child, played by eleven-year-old Isaac Andrews. It is unclear whether he represents God or a figment of Moses’ imagination or an angel or something else. Moses is not sent to Pharaoh by God, but goes on his own. The drama in the film is inter-human, between Moses and Pharaoh than between God and Pharaoh.

3. The Bible: Moses flees Egypt after killing an Egyptian who was beating a Hebrew slave.

The Film: Moses is kicked out of Egypt when Pharaoh realizes Moses is a Hebrew. Moses does appear to kill an Egyptian soldier, but that was in retaliation for the soldier calling Moses a slave. It was not Moses defending an oppressed brother or sister.

4. The Bible: The Pharaoh is unnamed.

The Film: The setting is the reign of Ramses. Hundreds of thousands of Hebrew slaves are portrayed in the movie, but the actual population of all slaves and of Hebrew slaves is unknown. Scott appears to try to bring the historical setting of the time to life, but the reality is that the “historical” Exodus story is hard to pin down. “There is a deliberate lack of specification [in the Bible],” explains Ellen Davis, professor of Bible and practical theology at Duke Divinity School. “Pharaoh is the sort of quintessential oppressive ruler in the Bible, and that is how he is remembered in later literature, so he stands for the oppressor of the moment in a sense.”

TIME faith

How Ridley Scott’s Exodus Strays From the Bible

The biblical story was poetic, the history is murky at best

The Biblical story of Exodus hits the big screen on Friday with the release of Ridley Scott’s Exodus: Gods and Kings. The story is one of the most timeless in Western history, like the Odyssey or Shakespeare, only imbued with deeper spiritual significance, as Jews, Christians, and Muslims all claim the hero as their own. This newest adaptation is classic Scott-style, very Gladiator, set in an ancient Egypt where Ramses is Pharaoh and Moses is Christian Bale.

Like any retelling of a classic, Scott’s blockbuster invites questions about the Exodus’ story’s origin and meaning. Most of the basic plot elements of the Biblical story are included in the film’s adaptation—Moses is a Hebrew boy raised in Pharaoh’s house, he leaves Egypt and encounters the divine in a burning bush; he returns to Egypt to free God’s people from slavery under Pharaoh; there are a bunch of horrible plagues; and the Red Sea parts so the Hebrew people can escape Pharaoh’s armies.

From a strictly historical perspective, the Biblical Exodus story is murky at best. While there is some evidence that a people named Israel were emerging in Egypt in the late 13th and early 12th centuries BCE, little information exists about Israel’s presence there during the time. The general picture is clearer—Egyptians were in power in the region most of the time, various people groups migrated to Egypt during times of famine because the Nile made Egypt’s agricultural system more stable, and slavery was a part of the economic system of the ancient world. Most likely multiple people groups would have been enslaved, not just Semitic peoples, as slaves were often debt slaves or prisoners of war.

The origins of the written account of the Exodus story in the Bible are equally hard to pin down. “We don’t know when it was written, by whom, and it appears to come from multiple traditions in Israel which were probably both oral and written traditions and probably developed over centuries,” explains Ellen Davis, professor of Bible and practical theology at Duke Divinity School.

But drilling the Biblical story for proof of its narrative elements—that the Red Sea split, the Nile turned to blood, that flies attacked and frogs covered the land—misses the poetic power of the story itself. The Bible as a whole is not designed as a history textbook. It is a collection of different types of writings. Some are historical records, others are laws, poems, prose, and prophecy—written over hundreds of years and in various cultures and languages. The core of the Exodus narrative is actually a song, recounted in Exodus chapter 15, and it is one of the oldest fragments of all Biblical texts, likely dating to the earliest period of Biblical literature. Songs, as Davis explains, are the kind of thing people pass on orally and remember. “Exodus 15 may well be one of the kernels out of which the book of Exodus as we have it grew over centuries in the process of oral and written traditions gradually getting consolidated,” she says.

The truth of the Exodus story is poetic—it is the quintessential story of oppression and liberation. The Pharaoh of Exodus, Davis points out, is not named. “It is, you might say, the generic Pharaoh,” she says. “There is a deliberate lack of specification. Pharaoh is the sort of quintessential oppressive ruler in the Bible, and that is how he is remembered in later literature, so he stands for the oppressor of the moment in a sense.”

That is one reason the narrative has resonated powerfully generation after generation—there is not just one Exodus story. “Let my people go” is a timeless refrain for redemption. It is at the core of the African-American religious traditions in the United States. In some parts of the world, the Exodus story still is very concrete. Davis worked in South Sudan with the Episcopal Church a few weeks before the new state was declared in July 2011. Women is the region often carry babies in baskets on their heads, and many of the people she works with, she says, have seen baby baskets torn from women’s heads and boy babies thrown in the Nile—the river runs through South Sudan. “They don’t want those boy babies to grow up and be soldiers,” Davis explains. “It is not a story that disappears.”

One of the most striking aspects of Scott’s Exodus is that God is portrayed as young boy. Eleven-year-old Isaac Andrews plays the God character, and the choice is both brilliant and scary. It plays on Scriptural images about becoming like a child to enter the kingdom of heaven and—with the Christmas time release—it makes it impossible to forget that God being born as a child is the New Testament’s own liberation story. But the film’s God-child is also more King Joffrey than let-the-little-children-come-unto-me. He actively inflicts plagues of frogs, gnats and boils upon the Egyptian people, and ultimately kills the first-born of all Egyptian families. It is impossible to escape the irony—a child becomes the killer of children.

That raises questions of what kind of God the God of Exodus really is. The film purposefully papers over whether Moses is imagining the child-God, if he is having a vision, or if he is mentally unwell. The Biblical narrative of Exodus portrays God as a king and a man of war—the main drama, Davis explains, is a battle over sovereignty between Pharaoh and Israel’s God.

“You have to remember that Israel was most of the time in its history in a situation of being oppressed, and if you are an oppressed people, it is good news to know that God is going to render judgment, because you are not worried about God’s judgment nearly so much as you are worried about what is going to happen to you from the oppressor,” Davis says. “People have always understood that ultimately God renders judgment and brings down the powerful and raises up the lowly, and you have that in the New Testament just as much as you have it in the Old, that has always been viewed as good news.”

And spiritual questions like these are the ones that never go away, which means Scott’s version of the Exodus story won’t be the last, no matter what happens at the box office.

Read next: Ridley Scott Explains Why He Cast White Actors In Exodus: Gods and Kings

TIME faith

Obama Misquotes the Bible Defending Immigration Action

Barack Obama
President Barack Obama pauses while speaking at the Summit on College Opportunity Jacquelyn Martin—AP

President Obama jumbled his Biblical metaphors in an immigration speech on Tuesday in Nashville–the center of the Christian music industry, and a city that has of the fastest-growing immigrant populations in the country. “The good book says don’t throw stones at glass houses, or make sure we’re looking at the log in our eye before we are pointing out the mote in other folks’ eyes,” he said.

The first part, “don’t throw stones at glass houses,” is a generic proverb around since the days of Chaucer. There is a Bible verse in the gospel of John about not casting stones against a woman who has committed adultery, but that includes no mention of glass houses.

The log-in-the-eye passage is however in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount in the gospel of Matthew. “Mote,” which the King James translation of the Bible uses, is more commonly translated as “speck,” and has caused some confusion with reports that the president said “moat.” The passage was also a favorite of President George W. Bush, who often quoted it “Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye?”

TIME intelligence

CIA Misled Congress About Use of Religion, Torture Report Says

The lobby of the CIA Headquarters Building in McLean, Virginia
The lobby of the CIA Headquarters Building in McLean, Va. Larry Downing—Reuters

The CIA did not give accurate testimony to Congress about how it used religion during its interrogation of detainees, according to a Senate report released today.

The report lists inaccurate CIA testimony to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence and describes the incongruencies in a lengthy chart in Appendix 3. One of the sections is titled “The Religious Foundation for Cooperation,” and is found on pages 485-86.

CIA director Michael Hayden testified on April 12, 2007, that an interrogation technique was to “burden” detainees in the name of Allah, or to convince them that Allah has given them the freedom to speak during interrogations:

Director Hayden: “Perceiving themselves true believers in a religious war, detainees believe they are morally bound to resist until Allah has sent them a burden too great for them to withstand. At that point —and that point varies by detainee —their cooperation in their own heart and soul becomes blameless and they enter into this cooperative relationship with our debriefers.”

Director Hayden: “Number one, we use the enhanced interrogation techniques at the beginning of this process, and it varies how long it takes, but I gave you a week or two as the normal window in which we actually helped this religious zealot to get over his own personality and put himself in a spirit of cooperation.”

Vice Chairman [Christopher ‘Kit’] Bond: “Once you get past that time period, once you have convinced them that Allah gives them the green light, that’s when you get the 8,000 intelligence reports.”

Director Hayden: “That’s correct, Senator, when we get the subject into this zone of cooperation. I think, as you know, in two-thirds of the instances we don’t need to use any of the techniques to get the individual into the zone of cooperation.”

But CIA records, according to the Senate report, contradict this testimony. “CIA records do not indicate that CIA detainees described a religious basis for cooperating in association with the CIA’s enhanced interrogation technique,” the report says on page 485.

The report also guts the testimony of a CIA officer who testified in 2007 that a Abu Zubaydah thanked him for this religious burdening: “I will continue to be the religious believing person I am, but you had to get me to the point where I could have absolution from my god to cooperate and deal with your questions,” the officer testified, as explained in Footnote 2646. “So he thanked us for bringing him to that point, beyond which he knew his religious beliefs absolved him from cooperating with us.”

In reality, the report says, Abu Zubaydah “prayed his ‘Istikharah’ (seeking God’s guidance) and was now willing to tell what he really knew,” and “that he had received guidance from God” to cooperate to “prevent his captured brothers from having a difficult time,” and so there are no CIA records to support the officer’s testimony.

TIME faith

Why This Evangelical Pastor Wants to Bring Back Advent

Rev. Louie Giglio
Louie Giglio, pastor of Passion City Church in Atlanta lee Steffen—AP

He argues it could help people struggling during the holidays

Christmas—and its ubiquitous cheer—is already everywhere. And when life is not exactly cheery, it can be hard to celebrate “Joy to the World.” That’s why pastor Louie Giglio, the founder of Passion City Church in Atlanta, is using a new book to encourage evangelicals to recover the church holiday that leads up to Christmas: Advent.

For most people, “Advent” means calendars of little chocolate treats behind paper windows, one for each December day until the Christmas morning. But Advent actually is a four-week liturgical period leading up to Christmas. It marks the start of the Christian new year, which this year started on the last Sunday in November, and is as important to church history as Lent is to Easter—it symbolizes a period of prayer and reflection before the coming holy day. Catholic, Orthodox, and mainline Protestant churches tend to follow the liturgical calendar, and so they celebrate the four Sundays of Advent—each one has a different meaning, liturgy and Bible verses that go with it. Evangelical churches tend to have fewer ties to historical church practices, so the idea of them celebrating Advent is relatively new.

This year, Giglio is encouraging both his church and the broader evangelical community to spend time celebrating Advent as a way to build trust in God when times are hard. His message is personal. He wrote his new Advent devotional, Waiting Here For You: An Advent Journey of Hope, with a family going through cancer in mind, and then three months later, his father-in-law was given an incurable cancer diagnosis. “The word ‘advent’ means expectation,” Giglio explains. “It is building into our framework of Christmas the confidence that God is going to come through for us.”

Celebrating Christmas, Giglio says, is about more than just marking Jesus’ birthday; it’s also about remembering God’s presence in hard times. Jesus was born “on tax day to a couple that had the cloud of pregnancy hanging over their heads, a couple that was out of town and didn’t have money and in a cave, and was alone and afraid in the middle of the night,” he explains, recounting the narrative of Jesus’ birth. “We try to dramatize it a lot, but God really did come on the craziest day of all,” he says.

For many evangelical megachurches, where Christmas can quickly become about evangelizing, holiday performances, mission outreach, and extravagant nativity scenes, that spiritual message can fall by the wayside. But Giglio hopes that Advent can offer a new encouragement. “I don’t have a neat and tidy message of faith—it does not always work out the way we want it to work out,” Giglio says. “Christmas is a reminder that God is at work and those plans are still unfolding. … That is a miracle.”

TIME faith

Vatican Strengthens Ties with Evangelicals and Mormons Against Gay Marriage

Pope Francis general audience
Pope Francis during his weekly general audience in St. Peter square, Vatican City, Nov. 19, 2014. Osservatore Romano/EPA

New alliances formed in Rome this week

In a month when papal conversation about marriage has been all the rage, the Vatican is enlisting a new set of allies to support its commitment to marriage between a man and a woman: American evangelicals and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

This week the Vatican hosted a three-day, international, interreligious colloquium called Humanum, “The Complementarity of Man and Woman: An International Colloquium.” Its goal was to “propose anew the beauty of the relationship between the man and the woman.” Speakers came from nearly two dozen countries and a variety of religious traditions, including Muslims, Jews, Sikhs and Taoists.

The presence of American evangelicals and the LDS Church was particularly notable. Rick Warren, pastor of Saddleback Church, and Russell Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, each gave speeches, and representatives from the Heritage Foundation and the Family Research Council in Washington attended. President Henry Eyring of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ first presidency spoke and Elder Tom Perry of the LDS’s Quorum of the Twelve also joined. In the United States, this trio of faiths has worked together to stand against the government’s Affordable Care Act’s contraception mandate, but it was the first time they were coming together at the Vatican to talk about marriage.

The colloquium rallied around the theological concept of complementarianism, the belief that men and women have different roles in a marriage and religious leadership—husbands are spiritual leaders, and wives submit to them in love. To be “complementary” is to complete or fill the lack in the other thing. It opposes egalitarianism, the theological belief that men and women are equal in all respects in marriage and in religious leadership positions. Traditional Catholic, evangelical, and LDS belief interprets the Bible to support a complementarian relational structure. That may explain why mainline Protestant traditions that interpret the Bible to an egalitarian end—Presbyterian, Episcopal, United Church of Christ—were not featured at the event.

Pope Francis did not spearhead the colloquium, as many casual observers might think. It was organized and led by German Cardinal Gerhard Müller, a strong conservative voice at the Pope’s Synod on the Family last month. Müller is the prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Vatican group that sponsored the event. Still, Pope Francis gave an opening address to attendees, in which he affirmed the Church’s teaching that children have a right to a mother and a father.

Skepticism about the other’s faith tends to run deep between Catholics, evangelicals and Mormons. In strict economic terms, the three faiths all compete for followers. They are heavily missionizing, and often they evangelize precisely in ways that distinguish themselves apart from the other faiths. But the Protestant work ethic runs deep in both evangelical and Mormon culture, as does deep commitment to faith convictions that the outside world may not understand. The gathering signals that some Vatican leaders recognize that banding together to support marriage as between one man and one woman may be a smart strategy going forward, especially as they have been standing separately against the western world’s changing sexual mores.

On paper, the colloquium concluded with an affirmation of marriage. “For on earth marriage binds us across the ages in the flesh, across families in the flesh, and across the fearful and wonderful divide of man and woman, in the flesh. This is not ours to alter,” it reads. “It is ours, however, to encourage and celebrate….This we affirm.”

But in practice, it ended with something more significant—a strengthening of alliances. The event forged and deepened relationships across faith lines. “This group differs on many points—theological and political—but we agree that marriage matters,” says Moore, who walked around the Vatican with a copy of Luther’s 95 Theses in his coat pocket, a symbol of Protestantism’s break with Rome 500 years ago. “The colloquium started a conversation of groups on virtually every continent and virtually every religious tradition on how we can work together for the common good of marriage.”

For Eyring, of the LDS Church, the event marks a beginning. “They are talking about how are we going to get the word out and what more can we do. They want to do more,” he told the Deseret News. “It’s been amazing how receptive they have been to us,” Perry added, describing relationship he has been developing with Catholic leaders. “I think that we’ve developed a relationship now that they recognized that we have the strength and our structure in our organization that can reach out in a way that other churches do not have.”

American evangelical leaders say they are also leaving hopeful of the journey ahead. “The content of the colloquium was important, but perhaps more so were the connections made between people who share come concerns but who didn’t know each other before,” Moore says. “I am leaving the colloquium much more optimistic than I was when I arrived.”

Adds Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council: “The atmosphere was almost euphoric as the attendees from six of the world’s seven continents broke from the historic gathering to return to their respective nations renewed in their stand for marriage,” he says. “The courts may declare otherwise, and Hollywood may depict its demise, but the union of a man and a woman as the natural and enduring definition of marriage will endure until the end.”

TIME faith

Meet Blase Cupich: Chicago’s New Archbishop

Bishop Blase Cupich, Pope Francis' first major appointment in the hierarchy of the U.S. Catholic Church, leaves Holy Name Cathedral in Chicago
Bishop Blase Cupich, Pope Francis' first major appointment in the hierarchy of the U.S. Catholic Church, leaves Holy Name Cathedral as part of a ritual a day ahead of his installation as the new archbishop in Chicago, Nov. 17, 2014. Jeff Haynes—Reuters

Pope Francis was said to be personally involved in Cupich’s selection

On Tuesday afternoon, Blase Cupich, former bishop of Spokane, Wash., will be installed as the ninth archbishop of Chicago. Pope Francis named Cupich, 65, to the appointment in September to replace Cardinal Francis George, who is the city’s first retiring archbishop and who is fighting cancer. “This was not on my radar screen at all… I honestly thought that I was going to retire in Spokane,” Cupich says. “The Pope thought otherwise.”

The archbishop of Chicago is a key seat in the power structure of American Catholicism. The archdiocese is the country’s third-largest Catholic community with 2.2 million members — nearly half of whom are Hispanic — and a budget that tops $1 billion. Its two previous archbishops have been named cardinals.

Pope Francis was said to be personally involved in Cupich’s selection. So far the two men have had almost no direct communication — Cupich wrote the Pope a personal letter thanking him for the appointment, as is customary, but that’s it. They will likely meet for the first time in June for the presentation of the pallium, a cloak that the Pope places on the shoulders of new archbishops around the world.

Cupich is ready to hit the ground running. Known for his simple lifestyle, he brought just 20 boxes with him to Chicago, mostly of books and clothes. In a lightly edited Q&A with TIME, Cupich admits he is looking ahead to the pastoral challenges his new archdiocese faces, ranging from immigration reform to youth development to contextualizing the Church’s message about marriage and family. “I think it is a very exciting time in the life of the church,” Cupich says. “It is probably as exciting as what happened in the Second Vatican Council.”

Many people have commented that in picking you for the Chicago seat, Pope Francis was making a point about the kind of future leaders he wants in American churches. Is that overstated?

I think that the Pope has trust in every bishop that is appointed. I consider that to be the case, plus the fact that I don’t feel very comfortable carrying that burden. If I’m supposed to be at the end of the funnel of everything the Pope wants, that’s an onerous task. I think it is a very exciting time in the life of the church. It really comes down to a deeper appreciation, a more wholesome appreciation of what it means to recognize that the risen Christ is working in the life of the church. That is the basis of everything he is doing. It is not just about Jorge Bergoglio, the former archbishop of Buenos Aires who is now Pope Francis. It is about his being able to be attuned to where the risen Christ is active in the life of the church today, and trying in some way to point the church to that.

A lot of parishes are confused about what Pope Francis’ Extraordinary Synod on the Family means. How will you guide parishes on its takeaways?

I think it is important for people to not come to a conclusion too quickly about what the church is going to do … There is a commitment, as the Holy Father said, not about changing doctrine. This is about two things. First, making sure that we are looking at the full breadth of our doctrine, not just cherry-picking things that are familiar to us, but there is a whole tradition of teaching that goes back 2,000 years. Second is how do we apply that doctrine in pastoral practice. We’ve always had different accommodations for people who are on the journey, who are on the way, to bring them along. I think that those are the kinds of things and nuances that have to be worked out and that we have to speak about, but we have to do it in a way that is unifying. We have to make sure that everybody comes together. That is the role of the Holy Father.

What other themes are you thinking about this year?

You think about immigration, you think about jobs, about the economy — those are experienced in families. They impact marriage. That is the context I’m going to use this year to speak about those issues, to have people reflect on them, how do we approach those various areas and what needs to be done to improve those areas as it impacts families, as it impacts marriages, as it helps children. I think that this year, given the synod, I’m going to contextualize all of those questions that way.

Tell me about your preaching style. Do you like preaching?

I like it more than the people who listen to me! I did my doctoral dissertation on the lectionary readings that we use at mass, and how you have Biblical texts that have been taken out of their original Bible context and put together for mass, and now they form a new text. Out of that new text there is an interplay of new meaning … I try to be sensitive to the power of language, to the power of language that God uses to reveal something about what Christ is doing in our time. That is why I’m always excited about preaching, because there is always something new. Christ uses our imagination, uses the power of language and human speech in order to make present what he is doing … I was really grateful to have a chance to have some really in depth study about the power of language, using a philosopher who taught at the University of Chicago, by the name of Paul Ricoeur. I’m really happy to be in Chicago because a lot of what I do is rooted in his approach to language.

What do you make of the flurry of press coverage over your appointment?

It is tough to get used to. I was a big nobody before all of this, and I still consider myself to be that. One of my family members, having seen all the press coverage and watching the internet videos on me, said, ‘I don’t really get it. You are not that interesting.’ So that keeps me humble. You can always count on family to do that for you.

TIME faith

Joseph Smith’s Many Wives: The Faith at Stake in the News

Mormon Temple Salt Lake City
The historic Salt Lake Mormon Temple during the184th Semiannual General Conference of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints on Oct. 4, 2014 in Salt Lake City. George Frey—Getty Images

An admission of historical facts by the Church of Jesus Christ Latter-day Saints will be a test for the Mormon community

Religions at their core do not hinge on historical proofs. They hinge on faith. And that, ultimately, is what is at stake in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ public confirmation that Joseph Smith had dozens of wives.

Peggy Fletcher Stack at the Salt Lake Tribune reported the news three weeks ago when the essay first went live on the Church’s website. The story got national attention this Tuesday when the New York Times put Laurie Goodstein’s story about the development on A1. The shift is provocative: “Mormon leaders have acknowledged for the first time that the church’s founder and prophet, Joseph Smith, portrayed in church materials as a loyal partner to his loving spouse Emma, took as many as 40 wives, some already married and one only 14 years old,” she wrote.

Polygamy, or plural marriage as the Church calls it, has long been one of the hottest topics of conversation surrounding the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The LDS Church officially banned polygamy in 1890, and today only 2% of Mormons believe that polygamy is morally acceptable, according to the Pew Research Center. While scholarship about the LDS history has long discussed Smith’s multiple marriages, particularly his involvement with 15-year-old Fanny Alger, the Church itself has largely kept this part of its founder’s life out of the mainstream conversation.

Marriage and family have been central to the Church’s origin and trajectory from the beginning. Smith’s love for his wife Emma Hale has long been touted in Mormon circles. Mormon faith is often primarily nurtured in family structures. Today, half of Mormons say it is essential for their families to hold regular “family home evenings,” a family prayer and activity time, according to the Pew Research Center.

The Church may be talking about Smith’s marriages more openly, but the conversation will lead to topics far more complex than just polygamy. The disclosures raise deeper questions about how faith works. The essay explains that God sanctioned Smith’s polygamy for only a time. That prompts questions about who God is, how God acts, how humanity should respond to the divine, how divine revelation happens, and why it changes. That’s all on top of the particular revelation about polygamy itself. As the essay itself concludes, “The challenge of introducing a principle as controversial as plural marriage is almost impossible to overstate.”

The whole situation is a good reminder of how religions develop over time. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is one of the world’s youngest religions; it has not even celebrated its bicentennial. Christianity did not begin to decide which books would become the Bible until a century after Jesus Christ’s death when Marcion, a Christian leader, wanted the Bible to include just Luke’s gospel and Paul’s letters. The Council of Nicea, which set out orthodox belief about Christ’s relationship to God and formalized the Easter holiday, was 200 years after that. The Council of Chalcedon was another hundred years later in 451, when it standardized theology that that Christ was fully human and fully God. Now that Christian history and orthodoxy has been largely set for centuries, such big shifts can be easy to forget.

An online acknowledgement of Joseph Smith’s many marriages certainly is no Nicea, but it is another sign that the Church is trying to help its followers sort out their own history and theological place in the 21st century. The polygamy essay is one of 11 essays on controversial topics that the LDS Church has written and published online over the last year. Subjects include race and the priesthood—the LDS church did not ordain black men until 1978—and different accounts of Joseph Smith’s first vision.

All this means that the LDS reaction may end up being more important than the historical announcement. Religious trajectories are often determined by how communities handle tension. How Mormon families, wards, schools, and young people respond to this official word is what will matter.

TIME faith

Sorry, But Media Coverage of Pope Francis is Papal Bull

Pope Francis leaves at the end of his general audience at St Peter's square on Oct. 29, 2014 at the Vatican.
Pope Francis leaves at the end of his general audience at St Peter's square on Oct. 29, 2014 at the Vatican. Gabriel Bouys—AFP/Getty Images

The "Pope Francis supports evolution" story is just the latest example of the press getting the Catholic Church completely wrong

It is official: the media has gone bananas in its coverage of Pope Francis.

The OMG-Pope-Francis-Supports-Evolution story of the past two days is just the latest example. Almost every news outlet, major and minor, has plastered Pope Francis’ name across the interwebs and proclaimed he has finally planted the Catholic Church in the evolution camp of the creation-evolution debate. The only problem? Almost every outlet has got the story wrong, proving once again that the mainstream media has nearly no understanding of the Church. And that madness shows no signs of stopping.

Pope Francis’ real role in this evolution hubbub was small. He spoke, as Popes do, to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences on Monday, which had gathered to discuss “Evolving Topics of Nature,” and he affirmed what Catholic teaching has been for decades. “God is not a divine being or a magician, but the Creator who brought everything to life,” he said. “Evolution in nature is not inconsistent with the notion of creation, because evolution requires the creation of beings that evolve.”

Anyone who knows anything about Catholic history knows that a statement like this is nothing new. Pope Pius XII wrote an encyclical “Humani Generis” in 1950 affirming that there was no conflict between evolution and Catholic faith. Pope John Paul II reaffirmed that, stressing that evolution was more than a hypothesis, in 1996. Pope Benedict XVI hosted a conference on the nuances of creation and evolution in 2006. There’s an official book on the event for anyone who wants to know more. Pope Francis’ comments Monday even came as he was unveiling a new statue of Pope Benedict XVI, honoring him for his leadership.

None of that seems to matter to the media; the internet exploded all the same. Site after site after site ramped up the Pope’s words and took them out of context. Headlines like these added drama: NPR: “Pope Says God Not ‘A Magician, With A Magic Wand.’” Salon: “Pope Francis schools creationists.” U.S. News and World Report: “Pope Francis Backs the Big Bang Theory, Evolution” (with a subhed: “Also, the pontiff says he’s not a communist”). Huffington Post. Sydney Morning Herald. Telegraph. USA Today. New York Post. The list goes on and on. Only Slate did its homework.

Wednesday morning the stories continued with new, analytical twists. The New Republic came out with a story titled, “The Pope Has More Faith Than the GOP in Science.” The Washington Post posted a piece, “Pope Francis may believe in evolution, but 42 percent of Americans do not.” It doesn’t seem to matter that Pope Benedict XVI called the debate between evolution an creation an “absurdity” in 2007. MSNBC opened its piece saying, “Pope Francis made a significant rhetorical break with Catholic tradition Monday by declaring that the theories of evolution and the Big Bang are real.” NBCNews called the Pope’s statement, “a theological break from his predecessor Benedict XVI, a strong exponent of creationism.”

This embarrassing narrative repeats itself over and over in Francis coverage. It happened last week when the Pope, again, voiced the Church’s long-standing opposition to the death penalty (having also done so in June, and after John Paul discussed the topic at length in an entire encyclical on being consistently pro-life in 1995). It happened at the Synod of the Bishops on the family, when the bishops talked about welcoming gays and the media whipped that up into an inaccurate story about an enormous policy shift toward gay marriage.

That’s dangerous, especially because this furor seems to occur most often when hot-button Western political issues can be tied to the Pope’s statements—evolution, death penalty, gay marriage. Wednesday morning, Pope Francis asked for prayers for 43 Mexican students who were burned alive by drug traffickers. It is unlikely that that will get the same pickup.

Moral of this story: Don’t believe most of what you read about the Vatican. Papal coverage has gone wild.

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