"Countless Souls Cry Out to God"

Thai_waveIt took several days for the mainstream media to find a way to focus on the religious element of tsunami tragedy in South and Southeast Asia. This often happens with events that are simply too stunning and too important for the leaders of major print and electronic media to see them as “religion stories.”

How can this be a “religion story”? Many newsrooms do not even have a religion reporters (especially in television). The story is too big for the “religion niche.” It demands major attention, right now and for weeks to come.

Good grief, the “religion beat” doesn’t even have a travel budget, let alone extra funds for high-end graphics, photos from the other side of the world and, on the networks, its own epic/sad musical theme.

How can this be a religion story? It’s too BIG to be a religion story.

Then the religion questions start getting asked and, eventually, they make their way into the news.

Kenneth L. Woodward, the veteran Godbeat specialist at Newsweek, has been through this process many times through the decades. Thus, his religion sidebar looks at the obvious questions — Why us? Why here? Why now? — but with a twist. Simply stated: Different religions will ask different big questions. The headline called this event a “a cataclysm of biblical proportions,” but Woodward stressed that most of those affected — Hindus, Muslims and Buddhists — do not think in biblical terms. Here is a crucial section of his piece:

Caught up in the disaster, they had no time for religious ceremonies of any kind. In Sri Lanka, as in coastal southern India and along the beaches of Indonesia, there was only time to dig huge holes in the ground and shovel in the dead. “In this kind of tragedy, there is no religion,” said Syed Abdullah, a local imam in the ancient south Indian port of Nagapattinam, where Muslims, Hindus and Christians have lived together peacefully for centuries. “Let the dead be buried together. They died together in the sea. Let their souls get peace together.”

Woodward offers sketches of the faith issues that will arise in the region’s various faith traditions. In south India, for example, “Hindus tend to worship local deities, most of them female and far down the Hindu hierarchy of divinities. But like Shiva and other classic gods and goddesses, these local deities are ambivalent: they have the power to destroy as well as to create. The ocean itself is a terrible god who eats people and boats, but also provides fish as food.” Sooner or later, Buddhists will have to ask questions about karma and how their actions — individually or collectively — were connected to the tragedy. For Muslims, “All that happens is Allah’s doing, and nature itself wind, rain, storms constitutes signs of his mercy and compassion. Even the destructive tsunami, therefore, must have some hidden, positive purpose.”

Woodward’s conclusion is sobering: “Little wonder that from Sumatra to Madagascar, innumerable voices cry out to God. The miracle, if there is one, may be that so many still believe.”

For better or for worse, many journalists will try to see this tragedy in a Judeo-Christian context (even if they do not actually know much about Christianity or Judaism). As Doug LeBlanc has already noted, they will be led to the timeless questions of Job and other mysteries about the reality of evil, free will, a fallen creation and a loving Creator.

These are not trivial questions and, in many cases, news sources are not going to provide easy, sound-bite-friendly answers. Thus, as Philip Kennicott notes in the Washington Post, many media professionals are starting to get uneasy. In a brutally honest piece, he accuses many reporters — especially television reporters — of dashing through the bitter realities and tough questions in order to get to the heartwarming, photogenic, emotional happy endings.

We want hope and we want it — right now. We want good news and we want it — right now.

Here is Kennicott’s money quote:

Add this to the debate about whether religion is too absent, or too present, in American public life: The stories we tell about disasters such as the Asian tsunami are through and through religious narratives. The basic lines of the hope story are essentially theological — pain is viewed as a trial, followed by the redemption of hope and healing — and they break down into a neat, two-act structure. There may not be resurrection, but there are at least tales of miraculous survival.

Disaster also forces the skeptical mind to question God’s existence, and yet the media — supposedly so skeptical — do a virtuoso dance around the problem of God and His mercy. There are complicated theological ways around this problem, this dilemma of two Gods, one who wields earthquakes and waves like Zeus throwing thunderbolts, the other filled with compassion and alert to the power of prayer. While the media will occasionally raise the issue of doubt — or how religious leaders deal with doubt — they revert quickly, effortlessly, to an endorsement of orthodoxy. It is easier to report on people praying (the visuals are better) than it is to write about doubt. And doubt makes people angry. It shakes faith at a time when faith is under stress.

There is much more to this essay. But one point is essential. This is one case where orthodox believers are far more likely to be up front and honest about the Big Questions of faith and doubt than are many of the journalists who want to dash through to the glowing visuals and happy endings, if they can find any.

Journalists need to realize that, yes, this is a religion story. There are life-and-death issues at stake. People are asking questions for which there are no, absolutely no, easy answers. This is not sound-bite territory. People are looking way past deadlines and into eternity. The goal is to listen to their voices and tell their stories, even when what they have to say is mysterious and complicated.

P.S. Ted Olsen of Christianity Today Online has called in Rudy Carrasco as a guest blogger on the tsunami while Olsen and his assistant Rob Moll churn out their usual dizzying array of links on other topics. Also, the Religion Newswriters Association has assembled a ReligionLink site dedicated to resources to help reporters. Check it out.

Regarding the photo with this post: Jeff Hock shot it at Phuket, Thailand, on Dec. 26, and it appears with plenty of other images on waveofdestruction.org.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Patrick O’Hannigan

    Nice summary. Related thoughts at this blog posting:

    http://paragraphfarmer.blogspot.com/2004/12/reconsidering-problem-of-evil.html

  • http://www.teledyn.com/mt/ mrG

    One need not invoke eternity to see at least one spiritual aspect at work here: There is a meeting this weekend in a small church in Wiarton Ontario where people will collect up their coins to send to Asia.

    Why would they do this? Where is the ‘ecological validity’ in their action?

    But their hearts compell it, and by amassing these small dollars from hearts everywhere the network will carry the message of need, it won’t be long before yes, we can sit in a beach chair under a parasol in Thailand and inject our holiday savings into their economy.

    What struck me most about the WaveOfDestruction videos is the effortless grace of the wave. It wasn’t the Hollywood blockbuster wall-of-water, it just came, like it belonged, swoosh, and everything was gone. The great power of humanity is not the frail creature that can be swept away like driftwood, the power is in the mysterious way in which all our hearts are connected.

    Go ahead, throw us another tsunami. Caught us by surprise that time, but next time, we’ll be ready for it.


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