It was the detail in the Aurora, Colo., massacre that, logically enough, led more than a few GetReligion readers to drop me a note. Here’s the top of a Los Angeles Times report that puts the denominational label right up front:
A San Diego neighbor of alleged Colorado shooter James Holmes remembers him as a very shy, well-mannered young man who was heavily involved in their local Presbyterian church.
“He seemed to be a normal kid, I don’t know what triggered it. This makes me very sad,” said Tom Mai, a retired electrical engineer.
Mai said Holmes’ entire family was involved in the Presbyterian Church.
“I saw him as a normal guy, an every day guy, doing every day things,” said Mai’s 16-year-old son, Anthony.
Then again, there was this detail, in another Los Angeles Times report — as journalists from coast to coast go into a full-court press seeking the missing detail that might somehow make this latest hellish equation to some kind of sense:
In a statement to The Times, Randy Schwab, chief executive of Jewish Big Brothers Big Sisters of Los Angeles and director of Camp Max Straus, wrote that Holmes was responsible for “the care and guidance of a group of approximately 10 children” at the camp, in the hills above Glendale.
“His role was to ensure that these children had a wonderful camp experience by helping them learn confidence, self-esteem and how to work in small teams to effect positive outcomes,” he said. In a later e-mail, he added: “That summer provided the kids a wonderful camp experience without incident.”
Then again, TMZ has a screen shot (.pdf) of a dating-site page online for a man who certainly resembles Holmes, as described by police in all of his red-haired, Joker-esque glory. This page identifies this man’s faith as “agnostic.” Interestingly enough, the creator of this page does not identify any parts of the Batman trilogy — including the Joker dominated “The Dark Knight.”
I could go on and on, of course. We are in the early stages of this story, still, and the other shoe has not dropped in terms of the alleged gunman’s motives, either religious or otherwise. I would assume that journalists have, today, traced down the “Presbyterian” congregation in which Holmes grew up and we may have some details on that tomorrow.
Now, why did I put the word “Presbyterian” inside quotation marks in that last sentence?
Here’s why. In and of itself, that solitary word tells us next to nothing in the context of early 21st Century America, in Southern California or anywhere else in this land of ours. In the San Diego area, the word “Presbyterian” — like the word “Methodist” or “Lutheran” — could be accurately used to describe congregations ranging from evangelical megachurches to mainline flocks with theological profiles that would be very similar to other bodies in the “Seven Sisters” of liberal mainline Protestantism.
Come to think of it, the fact that a person is identified as an “agnostic” tells you next to nothing, at least I think that is true based on the agnostics I have known in my life (a high percentage of them former Southern Baptists).
So once again, as we deal with violence and religious labels, I would like to point GetReligion readers toward a classic 2003 piece at Poynter.org written by Aly Colon, who for years ran that excellent journalism think tank’s programs on ethics and diversity. The title, fittingly enough, is “Preying Presbyterians?” Here’s how that essay opens:
Watch out for Presbyterians. Keep a special eye out for Presbyterian ministers, especially former ones. And if the topic involves abortion, exercise more caution. In fact, minister rhymes with sinister. Could there be a connection between minister and sinister?
Those thoughts came to mind as I read the recent coverage of the execution of Paul Hill. The state of Florida sentenced Hill to death for murdering an abortion clinic doctor and his guard in Pensacola in 1994.
Almost all the stories I read about Hill usually made the following point: He was a former Presbyterian minister.
This leads us to some journalistic thinking that I would hope all journalists keep in mind when covering this story, whether religion turns out to play a pivotal role or not.
Come to think of it, I think what Colon has to say is important if it turns out that this nightmare is somehow linked to video games, a particular set of movies, mental illness or whatever. The bottom line, as always, is this: words matter.
As journalists, we choose words carefully and conscientiously. We select nouns and adjectives to advance the story. We connect dots. We make points. We clarify. We explain.
So when I see the word “Presbyterian,” I expect an explanation somewhere in the story that tells me why I need to know that. I would expect the same if other terms were used, such as “Catholic,” “Episcopalian,” “Christian,” “Hindu,” “Jew,” “Mormon,” “Hindu,” “Buddhist,” “Muslim,” or “Pagan.” …
When we use religious terms, especially designations of denominations, sects, or groups, we need to offer more clarity about what they are and what they believe. We need to connect faith to facts. We need to define denominations. Context and specificity help news consumers better understand the religious people in the news and how religion affects what they do.
The key there is “connecting faith to facts.” Labels, you see, are not enough and this is especially true when there are allegations that religion is connected to violence. At some point, journalists have to move past labels and attempt to report on-the-record facts about the practical ways in which religion (or a belief system that resembles a religious worldview, in function) is connected to the lives of a person in the news — whether that person is an Islamist, an evangelical, a Mormon, an agnostic or, yes, some kind of generic “Presbyterian.”
Here’s another way to think about this puzzle. More than 20 years ago, while I was teaching at Denver Seminary, I created a kind of practical, journalistic definition of a key term in Christian faith — “discipleship.” Instead of painting in broad strokes, when talking about the faith of their people, I urged my students to define this term — mass-media theory style — by answering three personal questions. The goal was to round up some useful facts.
How do you spend your time?
How do you spend your money?
How do you make your decisions?
I still think these are good questions for clergy who are trying to understand their people in this confusing day and age. As I used to say, if you can ask those questions about the lives of modern Americans and not bump into the power of the entertainment and news media, then you have a promising future in ministry to the Amish.
Now, after reading Colon’s classic essay again, I think these questions would help journalists trying to piece together the puzzle of the young man from San Diego and Aurora. How did Holmes spend his time? How did he spend his money? What influenced him the most as he was making his decisions?
Go look for those facts. Ask these kinds of questions and if religion (or Hollywood) shows up in the facts that result, so be it.
UPDATE: It now appears that, in the recent past, the suspect’s mother may have attended some kind of “Lutheran” congregation. This changes next to nothing in my post, so I will let it stand.