Heavenly vision at his bedside

Every now and then, your GetReligionistas whine a bit when mainstream news publications publish stories that are full of religious reference, yet contain almost no facts about religion at all. Yes, I’m still thinking about this one at the moment, care of the Washington Post.

Some GetReligion readers like to suggest that, by leaving the religious elements of the story foggy, the editors believe that they are reaching out to readers who might not be comfortable with the religious specifics. You know, vague religion for an era of vaguely religious people.

Well, I can see the logic in that, sort of. We do live in a vaguely spiritual age.

But this is something like saying that the mainstream press should avoid the details of political stories, since we live in an era when an increasing number of Americans are not interested in the fine details and many have cynically tuned out politics altogether. Why mention the names and doctrines of the political parties anyway? Why get into the details of court decisions and all of those thick bundles of legislation?

I have always suspected that, for many editors, the fine details of religion are especially threatening and suspicious. After all, religion is supposed to be a totally private matter, so that editors can focus on important issues in the real world — like politics and sports. And we also know that religion is all about feelings and emotions, unlike the calm, logical, rational and factual world of political life. Yeah, right.

Why do I bring this up? Please read the following Seattle Times story, which I think is rather amazing. Then again, I have always been interested in the study of near-death experiences and related matters. Here’s the top of the story:

It would take an unusual man to decide, in a split second after witnessing a car crash, to crawl into the Subaru that had erupted into flames 8 feet high to try to save a little girl and her dad.

A week ago … that is what Kenny Johnson did. … Johnson, 40, was pulling out of the driveway, he says, when he saw a Ford Fusion heading north on the arterial at more than 60 mph. Then, there was the crash into cars waiting at a stoplight.

Johnson remembers seeing other witnesses hurry to the scene. But nobody went into the flames. “Everybody was kind of frozen,” he says.

He remembers talking to himself as he went into the Subaru: “Oh, my God, this car is gonna blow up and I’m going to be in it. Well, if does blow up, I guess I’m going straight to heaven because I’m trying to save that little girl.”

The little girl lived. The father — 37-year-old Andy Kotowicz — died three days later.

There are many crucial details that you need to read linked to the wreck and the father’s work with a company called Sub Pop. But eventually we reach the calmly reported details at the end of the story.

Days passed, and Johnson went back to his routine. That is, until Tuesday morning around 6, he says.

“My wife is next to me in bed. She’s sleeping. Everything is where it’s supposed to be,” says Johnson. “Then there is this man standing right by the bed. He says he needs help with a few things. I say, ‘OK.’

“Now, I know it’s him (Kotowicz) even though the only time I had seen him was at the accident, when he didn’t look, you know, normal. He says he wants me to give a message to his wife and to his daughter. That’s private, so I can’t tell you about that message.

“He also tells me to talk to the people at Sub Pop, he wants to let them know not to be mad at the driver that caused the accident. That’s his message.”

Johnson says that later that day, he went to the Sub Pop website, and there it was, a memorial photo of the man who had stood by his bed: Kotowicz.

Read it all, but you won’t learn anything else about that vision. You also will learn zippo about the faith of the man who received the vision or that of the deceased father who offered the message to his grieving family and offered words of forgiveness for the driver who killed him.

Details, details. Who needs them?

Is the story stronger without those few additional words that would have provided some context? What think ye?

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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.

  • Jerry

    I believe that the story is better without those details. To ask for details in some stories is like going to look at a magnificent garden and asking for a count of how many roses of what kind are there. There are stories such as the Pope and condoms where theology matters but this story is not one of them. The essential details in this story are heroism and forgiveness and those details are much in evidence.

  • Anonymous

    Of course that is what Jerry thinks.

    The opening of the post is a tribute to the logic of Jerry.

    Now what do other people think, the people who like detail in their news stories?

    • http://getreligion.org Bobby

      I think that if people want to see a magnificent garden, they should go to the park or the zoo. In a news story, yes, I want details. I want reporters to be both respectful and skeptical when writing about events such as this.

      But of course this is what I think. I write for GetReligion.

      Seriously, though, the story would be so much more compelling to me if I knew more about the faith background of the man experiencing this vision.

  • Passing By

    This story is not about generic spirituality, but about an event that would make a pretty good Twilight Zone episode. “Spiritual but not religious” is about feelings and, perhaps, psychological events. This event is very specific. It could be imagined, but it isn’t about the way the guy feels. I don’t agree that the story is about heroism, although that’s an element, but I’m mixed on whether more specific religious details are needed.

    Take two TV shows that both include non-humans escorting dead people to the afterlife. Touched by an Angel is theistic (generic theism, it’s true) and Dead Like Me is assertively not theological. I would be interested to know if this guy is more in the former camp or the latter, since odd events happen to both kinds of folks, and both kinds of folks imagine odd events. More specific religious details – denomination, beliefs, whatever – would, perhaps get in the way.

  • Randy

    It depends on the angle you are taking. If heroism and forgiveness is what you are interested in then it is fine. If you want to know the truth about life after death then this story is useless. It hints at one huge piece of evidence but then does not examine that evidence in enough detail to tell you anything. There is an assumption in society that matter like life after death are not determined by evidence. People believe what they want to believe. Whether life after death is real changes so much of one’s world and life view that it is very strange to be uninterested in evidence on the question. But such is our society. They like to believe they are rational but they are actually uncomfortable engaging in reason on the big question of life.

  • Bill R.

    Asking the hero about his faith doesn’t even have to be phrased in religious language. You don’t necessarily have to ask the guy “Do you believe in heaven/hell, the bodily resurrection of the dead, etc.”. Just ask him “how do you interpret what you saw? Did it surprise you? Did it change or confirm any of the views you had previously held on the subject?”

    I think the thrust of Jerry’s objection is that it forces an extraordinary and fascinating event into (what some would consider) a boring, doctrinal mold. But questions that get at the heart of the guy’s reaction, including his intellectual reaction, are far from boring.

    • Jerry

      Bill, your followup is great. I would also like reading more about how the experience effected him in that way.

  • Chris

    What do you think the impetus was for the journalist to write this story? Was he just doing a follow-up a week after a heroic act, and then learned of Mr. Johnson’s vision? Or was he tipped off by someone–at Sub Pop, perhaps? I agree with Bill R. that asking for details about Mr. Johnson’s intellectual reaction would have been interesting. On the other hand, Mr. Johnson may not have been very forthcoming about that, as he doesn’t give many details about the vision–which he seems to view as private.
    Such experiences/stories seem to be universal–across culture and time–and are interpreted in the cultural context of those that experience them.

  • Bern

    An amazing story: I don’t know if the story could be more compelling, but I have to agree it would be more complete to know the religious background of the rescuer, God bless him. From his first quote–about going straight to heaven if the Subaru blew up with him in it–there’s an opening for the reporter to hit with a simple followup question. The vision is reported so matter of factly it had me wondering if this reporter is used to people having visions or was too dumbstruck to ask if this was the first time the subject had ever had one . . . possibly all this was edited out but it does leave a hole in the story.

  • mattk

    “Why get into the details of court decisions and all of those thick bundles of legislation?”

    I know you were being rhetorical, but one of my pet peeves is that newspapers very rarely give case numbers and bill numbers when writing about courts and legislatures. And half the time they get the names of cases and bills wrong, if they bother to include them in a story.

  • M. Swaim

    Also interesting to GetReligionistas: Sub Pop records is known for having been the home of a couple of crossover bands with some measure of evangelical appeal, such as Sunny Day Real Estate and Rosie Thomas. Perhaps the most notable example of this was their co-release with evangelical alternative label Tooth and Nail records of Damien Jurado’s debut album. One wonders if the staff at Sub Pop is in some measure representative of its listenership, and if Kotowicz was part of a “hipster Christian” contingent within the company.

  • Truth Unites… and Divides

    I personally would like to know the details.

    Has there been any further journalistic stories that report on these details?

    As an aside, does anyone have a Biblical and Protestant link to the theology of post-death appearances like these?

  • Dalea91505

    Stories of this type have appeared in New Thought, New Age, Spiritualist and NeoPagan journalism for decades. Fate Magazine ran a monthly feature called “My Proof of Survival” for as long as it published. What I am surprised at is that religious journalists show such an unfamiliarity with a broad swath of contemporary US religions. A bit of knowlege would allow the reporter to provide context.

    The missing concept here is ‘numinous’,. The man had a numinous experience, how it is explained within his own tradition might be interesting. But not realy conclusive.


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