Describing the Pope's last public mass, Anthony Faiola of the Washington Post wrote about young seminarians taking notes with tears in their eyes and tour groups straining their necks to catch a glimpse from the rear of the church.
Then he got around to describing Benedict's procession. As Faiola told Post readers, "He walked with a gilded cane in the shape of a cross" as people cheered "Long live the Pope!"
The "gilded cane in the shape of a cross" he's referring to was actually a crosier, the shepherd's staff that symbolizes a bishop's role as the leader of his flock.
The Post isn't alone in its apparent ignorance of this most ancient of Christian regalia. Eight years ago, the New York Times, referring to the same object, called it a "crow's ear," which given the anatomical improbability of the phrase, should have caught an editor's attention.
But it isn't only Catholicism: Scarcely, a month goes by without some major news outlet referring to Evangelicals as "Evangelists." Similarly, these outlets often use the word "evangelical" and "fundamentalist" interchangeably, and their work suggests that most of what they know about us is limited to what they have gleaned from the world of politics.
As Terry Mattingly documents regularly over at "Get Religion," the media doesn't "get religion."
And given the centrality of religion to so many people's lives, this ignorance and tone-deafness is bizarre. Imagine a sportswriter repeatedly referring to the "last two innings of the Super Bowl." You would rightly question his competence and go elsewhere for your sports news.
Yet something very much like this kind of ignorance pervades mainstream coverage of religion. Please note: I'm not talking about bias, of which there's plenty. I mean people writing about a subject they just don't understand.
Yet people who don't know a crosier from a crow's ear pontificate (pun intended) on whom the next pope should be and what the Catholic church "must" do to become relevant.
And people for whom Joshua, Judges and Ruth is, at most, an album by Lyle Lovett, report on people for whom the Bible is the guide to life.
I say this in sorrow much more than anger. It's a painful reminder that we're really living in a post-Christian culture.
Chuck loved to tell the story about the evacuation of British troops from Dunkirk in World War II. As the British people awaited news of their fate, they received a three-word message: "And if not."
As Chuck said, "It was a reference to the words of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego standing before King Nebuchadnezzar's fiery furnace. 'Our God is able to save us … and if not, we will remain faithful to him anyway.'"
The British people understood the message, and organized what is considered a miraculous evacuation.
It's difficult, if not impossible, to imagine something like that happening today. Neither the media nor, to be fair, much of the audience, would get the reference.
To call ours a "post-Christian" culture isn't so much a statement about individual people's beliefs as it is a description of the role Christianity plays in shaping the imagination of our culture. For much of our history, Christianity played a central role in this shaping. Non-believers made and understood biblical allusions.
Now, even the most basic references go right over our heads. Everyone is a fundamentalist and popes carry birds' ears. We just don't get it anymore.
And we should note that sometimes we are guilty as Christians of the same ignorance. It's not uncommon to hear Baptists misrepresent Pentecostals, or Calvinists caricature Arminians and vice versa. Or Protestants and Catholics repeat falsehoods about each other.