Haunted Palin story

palin7 01In The New York Times, reporter Jan Hoffman found an ingenious angle on an old story — a political candidate’s self-image.

She did this not by dialing up a dozen experts about their assessments of Palin, but rather by traveling to Palin’s old hometown of Wasilla, Ak. and interviewing the beauticians who cut her hair. Who else besides friends and family members could better describe Palin’s worldview?

Not many it turns out; the story revealed more about Palin and her neighbors than Hoffman let on.

In the course of the story, Hoffman describes the origin of the Beehive Beauty Shop, the parlor at which Palin got her hair done. Her account noted the following:

With more-established salons throughout the valley, the Beehive would seem a surprising choice for Wasilla’s then-mayor. Mrs. [Jessica J.] Steele started the salon in 1997 when she, a recently separated mother of two, put a salon chair in her garage and painted the interior Barbie pink.

Mrs. Steele relied on word of mouth through local congregations: “We’re all really strong Christians in this shop.”

Well, that last tidbit is interesting: Steele built her business primarily not by ads or promotion, but rather by using the network of local churches; and identifies herself and her staff as religious people. Hmm. So what does that say about the shop and the town?

A bit further down in the story, Hoffman quotes Steele making another comment related to religion and faith:

During Palin appointments, Mrs. Steele, divorced and financially stressed, confided in her client. “Sarah was always saying that God was in control and to have faith that there is a reason for everything,” Mrs. Steele said. “We would say it together.”

Read Steele’s quote again. She said that Palin was “always” talking about God’s sovereignty and that she and Palin talked about it. Clearly, faith and religion are not taboo subjects; quite the contrary.

Hoffman did not see the ghost in her story. As tmatt pointed out in an email to me, in Palin’s world, religious faith is accepted and considered normal; the subject can be discussed openly.

In other words, the small-town world from which Palin hails is religious. It stands to reason that Palin assumes that most other people are religious, too. That’s a key part of the story.

Failing to explain Palin’s faith

palin6Two weeks ago, I criticized national magazines’ coverage of Sarah Palin’s faith for providing more facts than explanations. Today I criticize Newsweek‘s cover story about Palin for … providing more facts than explanations. As you can see, I am breaking new intellectual ground!

Newsweek‘s story attempts to answer the question of how a small-town, working-class woman became the Republican Party’s vice-presidential nominee. Part of its answer focuses on her religious faith, especially her former membership in the Assemblies of God.

Her sense of personal mission may be rooted in her religious upbringing. She was raised in a tradition that tended to emphasize an intimate connection with God, through the Holy Spirit–a tradition that puts the believer at the center of the spiritual drama, in direct communion with the Lord. Formed in such a milieu, it is not surprising that someone like Palin would have a heightened sense of self, and of the possibilities of self, for she was taught from her earliest days that she could be directly moved by God. Friends say the Ten Commandments imbued her with a strong sense of right and wrong. Even now, when she talks about complex political matters, she sometimes speaks in religious terms …

Like succeeding paragraphs, this paragraph does not tell readers much about Palin’s denomination. It shows only that Palin is a religious monotheist and a politician, not a Pentecostal. We are told that her religious upbringing emphasized “an intimate connection with God” and “put the believer at the center of the spiritual drama.” How this theology differs from that of Judaism, Christianity, or Islam is left unstated. And we are told that she has a “heightened sense of self.” How this self-understanding differs from that of a Western politician is similarly unmentioned.

In the next two paragraphs, Newsweek‘s story attempts to flesh out Palin’s former beliefs as a member of the Assemblies of God:

Palin was raised a devout Christian, attending an Assembly of God church from the age of 4 until she was 38, and baptized in the cold waters of Alaska’s Little Beaver Lake when she was 12. (She now attends different churches, one in Wasilla and one in Juneau.) As a child, she went to services on Sundays and Bible class on Wednesdays. She participated in after-school religious groups, and sang in the church choir. Her entry in the Wasilla High School yearbook of her senior year included one quote: “He is the Light and in the Light there is Life.”

The Assemblies of God puts great importance in the believer’s receiving the Holy Spirit. The faithful sometimes show this by the “gift of tongues” — the babble of holy but unintelligible language that emerges when a believer is said to be caught up in the spirit of God. The practice wasn’t encouraged in Palin’s church when she was young, says her childhood pastor, Paul Riley, who is now retired. He preferred to preach that the Holy Spirit could move believers in other ways, and that tongues, while true, could be a showy “one-time experience.” Palin didn’t speak in tongues, Riley told NEWSWEEK, “but I do recall her being a gifted leader and a gifted speaker.”

These two passage, too, don’t explain much. All readers really learn is that Palin was always a religious Christian. It doesn’t show us that Palin herself spoke in tongues, only that members of her church did. It does tell us that Palin was a “gifted leader and a gifted speaker.” But how does that relate to her religion? Would it not relate just as much to her having entered beauty contests and played in the high-school basketball state championship game?

Put simply, Newsweek‘s explanations are unsatisfactory. Its story does not show us how her views as a former member of an Assemblies of God church affect her politics. It does not even show us that she is out of the mainstream on cultural issues, which given her opposition to abortion in cases of rape and incest, she is.

Granted, the story does show that Palin’s religious rhetoric is not that of a typical politician or a traditionally religious politician:

To a church gathering, she described a $30 billion natural-gas pipeline project, backed by state tax money, as “God’s will.” Similarly, she urged her audience to pray that the war in Iraq was “a task that is from God … That’s what we have to make sure that we’re praying for — that there is a plan and that that plan is God’s plan.”

Yet the story does not link Palin’s former views as a member of an Assemblies of God church to the quotes above. In short, this story left me with a question similar to that of USC student and reporter Tara Graham,

if Pentecostalism is indeed on the rise, what role might it play in the political discourse and election outcomes of the future?

That’s a great question. It’s too bad that Newsweek has not answered that question in not one but two issues of the magazine.

Why do they hate us?

Sept11Give credit to Michael Slackman and Nadim Audi of The New York Times. For their story about Egyptians’ perceptions of the 9/11 attacks, the two reporters were not content to flip through their rolodexes and call a bunch of experts. No, they interviewed ordinary Egyptians on the street. The fruits of their shoe-leather reporting were mostly ripe.

As you might imagine, the reporters discovered that religion shaped Egyptians’ attitudes toward the attacks. One attitude was a pathetic paranoia about Jewish people:

First among these is that Jews did not go to work at the World Trade Center on that day. Asked how Jews might have been notified to stay home, or how they kept it a secret from co-workers, people here wave off the questions because they clash with their bedrock conviction that Jews are behind many of their troubles and that Western Jews will go to any length to protect Israel.

“Why is it that on 9/11, the Jews didn’t go to work in the building,” said Ahmed Saied, 25, who works in Cairo as a driver for a lawyer. “Everybody knows this. I saw it on TV, and a lot of people talk about this.”

Another related attitude was misgivings about the United States’ motives in invading Afghanistan and Iraq:

Hisham Abbas, 22, studies tourism at Cairo University and hopes one day to work with foreigners for a living. But he does not give it a second thought when asked about Sept. 11. He said it made no sense at all that Mr. bin Laden could have carried out such an attack from Afghanistan. And like everyone else interviewed, he saw the events of the last seven years as proof positive that it was all a United States plan to go after Muslims.

“There are Arabs who hate America, a lot of them, but this is too much,” Mr. Abbas said as he fidgeted with his cellphone. “And look at what happened after this — the Americans invaded two Muslim countries. They used 9/11 as an excuse and went to Iraq. They killed Saddam, tortured people. How can you trust them?”

Slackman, the writer of the story, deserves a pat on the back for including these quotes in the story. By letting his subjects speak at length, he presented their point of view with a brusqueness that rarely appears in American news pages.

Yet Slackman and Audi also committed a sin characteristic of U.S. reporters, and European ones too for all I know: they failed to identify the religion of each interview subject. While the speakers’ ethnicity and occupation are noted, their religious background is not. This information might have shed light on why the interviewers detest America and Israel. Are their views based on ethnicity, religion, or a combination of both?

Also, the speakers refer to their side in different terms. Some talk about Muslims, others about Arabs. This is confusing. As tmatt noted, some Arabs are Christians.

And the reasons for the speakers’ disgust of Jews and the United States are unmentioned. Do they hate Jews partly because of Israel? Do they fear the United States partly because it has a large Christian majority?

Asking interview subjects about their religious background and attitudes is not easy. It invites stares and uncomfortable silences and, no doubt in some parts of the world, worse responses. But the questions are key in determining whether a speaker has a Regensburg lecture view of humanity or a Lion and the Unicorn one.

Advance the priest shortage story (please)

prieststoryFor months, I have written about coverage of the Catholic priest shortage in the United States. My standard critique has been about stories’ technique — the reporter’s use of sources, point of view, details, etc. Now my critique is about their content.

My change of heart is partly a response to several insightful replies from GR readers. Take the reply below, for example. After I wrote in May about coverage of a story about the growing number of older incoming priests, reader Fr. John wrote the following:

There are several problems with the story.

1. 1965 is a bad year to compare to. It was a peak year for ordinations.
2. There was a huge surge in vocations between 1945 and 1965.
3. The US has never ordained enough priests for it’s own needs. We’ve always had to import them, historically from Ireland, now from Poland, Africa, and the Philippines.

At the seminary I went to, there are now roughly twice the seminarians than the year I was ordained (1996). Over half my class was so-called “late vocations”. This is old news.

Indeed, Fr. John’s remarks are more informative than the vast majority of reporters’ stories. This is a problem. The press is not advancing the story. It is, at best, reporting variations on the same theme and, at worst, regurgitating old news.

Which brings me to The Roanoke Timesstory about the Catholic priest shortage, in southern Virginia. Within the conventions of the genre, reporter Rob Johnson’s story is quite well done.

Johnson skillfully employed many of the reporter’s bag of tricks. Take his lede, for example.

For a clergyman so in demand, helping fulfill the spiritual needs of more than 1,000 families in three Catholic churches, the Rev. Nixon Negparanon spends a lot of time alone.

His Sundays sometimes begin on Saturday night, driving 30 miles from his home parish at Our Lady of Nazareth Catholic Church in Southwest Roanoke County to the modest wood frame house in Rocky Mount that serves as the rectory for Francis of Assisi Catholic Church.

On such an evening in late August, the 34-year-old Negparanon cooked his Sunday lunch in solitude — reheating it nearly 18 hours later during a brief break before his 26-mile commute to Resurrection Catholic Church in Moneta for a baptism.

“I must be prepared ahead to have time to eat. It is the only way,” said the native of the Philippines. After the baptism, he led Resurrection’s Mass at 4 p.m.

Some Sundays are longer — if there are ill parishioners to be visited in the Smith Mountain Lake area, for instance. Only then does Negparanon settle back into the church-furnished Toyota Camry and complete the final 37-mile leg of his circuit.

With ministerial tasks stretching across three counties, Negparanon and his brisk Sundays underscore the effects of the Roman Catholic Church’s growing shortage of priests in the United States. Parishes must increasingly share pastors, more and more of whom must be imported from overseas on temporary assignment. Soon, some Southwest Virginia parishes may be faced with holding services without a priest.

A presentation of the priest’s point of view, the use of novelistic details (Toyota Camry, his modest wood frame house), a matter-of-fact tone — Johnson’s technique deserves praise. And within the newsroom, I don’t doubt that Johnson’s editors will give him a slap or two on the back.

Also to his credit, Johnson adds a new wrinkle to the conventional narrative: while the number of priests in the region is declining, the number of Catholics is growing. As he writes,

[T]he deficit of priests is deepening at a time when the number of Catholic congregants is on the increase. Among the 152 Virginia churches in the Diocese of Richmond — covering most of the state but excluding populous Northern Virginia — the number of active priests fell by 33 percent between 1975 and 2005, to 158. Meanwhile, in a part of the South where Baptists and other Protestant denominations prevail, the ranks of Catholics in the diocese more than doubled to 223,595. In Western Virginia, Catholic parishes in Blacksburg and Moneta, in particular, are showing vibrant growth.

Yet Johnson’s main story is more of the dog-bites-man variety than its opposite. For example, Johnson explains the decline in the priests’ ranks this way:

Catholic officials say the paucity of pastors has several causes, including the requirement that priests maintain celibacy. But that tradition is centuries old and existed during times when the ranks of Catholic clergy were robust. Other factors cited include decades of growth in the economy that increase secular career options and increasing opportunities for college scholarships and loans that vie for the attention of potential seminary students. Further, highly publicized child sex abuse scandals involving priests, which have prompted apologies from Pope Benedict XVI, have eroded the prestige of the priesthood, church officials acknowledge.

As reader FW Ken notes, such sociological and psychological explanations, while true enough, are old hat. Within Catholic religious circles, people rely more on theological explanations. The most intriguing of those was that before Vatican II the Church taught that the clergy were more likely to go to heaven than the laity.

In summary, I will make a proposal: reporters should scrutinize the theological and religious explanations for the priest shortage, as well as provide more historical and sociological context. Doing one or both would be a good way to advance an old story.

The press goes around

corky2Hundreds of reporters have written about Bristol Palin’s unborn child. Yet few have examined the other unusual child in the Family Palin: Trig, the 4-month-old boy who has Down syndrome.

Yesterday the New York Times and Los Angeles Times wrote about the child and the issues he raises. So how did the papers cover the story in terms of religion?

Well, the two papers did not do much. They avoided one obvious storyline: why exactly the Palins decided not to abort the pregnancy given that so many couples in their situation make the opposite choice. As Andrea Useem points out, this narrative is filled with religious possibility. Certainly New York Times editor Bill Keller and his wife struggled with the issue of religion when they decided to have doctors terminate their unborn son Charlie, who was likely to be a special-needs child.

This post won’t fault the reporters for avoiding the religious angle; I mean only to point out this fact. In any event, Keller’s paper published an otherwise well-done story about Trig. Reporters Jodie Kantor, Katie Zernike, and Catrin Einhorn presented subjective reality well, giving readers the religious point of view of the Palin’s:

Later that day, Ms. Palin sent an e-mail message to her relatives and close friends about her new son, Ms. Bruce said. She signed it, “Trig’s Creator, Your Heavenly Father.”

“Many people will express sympathy, but you don’t want or need that, because Trig will be a joy,” Ms. Palin wrote. She added, “Children are the most precious and promising ingredient in this mixed-up world you live in down there on Earth. Trig is no different, except he has one extra chromosome.”

The only other reference to religion in the stories was incomplete. Dan Morain of The Los Angeles Times wrote about the politics and policy of special-needs children as they relate to the Palin’s. His only reference to religion was in the following paragraph:

Palin was aware her child would be born with Down syndrome but did not abort the pregnancy. That decision has endeared her to evangelicals who oppose abortion,

It is true that
most Americans support legal abortion in cases of fetal abnormality, a crude term which likely covers Down Syndrome children. Yet it is also true that evangelicals are not the only religious folks, or secular folks for that matter, who cheered Palin’s decision. For example, Catholic leaders too embraced Palin’s choice.

I can’t say that the three stories did not get religion; only that they avoided the possibility of doing so or did so in glancing fashion.

Tempting truth about Palin, evangelicals

palin5Amy Sullivan of Time wrote an uncharacteristically unsubstantiated story about Sarah Palin’s possible difficulty in attracting support from moderate and young evangelicals. Usually, Sullivan’s stories are marked by thorough and insightful reporting. This was not one of them.

Early in the story, Sullivan characterized Palin’s relationship with evangelicals in general:

Lost in the stampede of social conservatives to embrace Palin this past week is the fact that she is culturally outside the mainstream of Evangelicalism. Over the past few years, a growing number of Evangelicals have been consciously distancing themselves from the more extreme stands of the Christian right. They live in the suburbs, hold graduate degrees, and while they might not want their children reading certain novels, would be embarrassed by attempts to ban certain books from libraries, as Palin is reported to have briefly considered while mayor of Wasilla, Alaska. They don’t attend churches where speakers charge that violence against Israelis is divine punishment for the failure of Jews to accept Jesus, as happened at one of Palin’s churches two weeks ago (though Palin has now issued a statement saying she does not agree with those views). And they would disagree with Palin’s decision to use her line-item veto as Governor to slash funding for an Alaska shelter that serves teen mothers.

Later, Sullivan characterized Palin’s relationship with young evangelicals:

That goes double for younger Evangelicals. These voters tend to be even more pro-life than their parents, but abortion isn’t always a priority that moves their votes — it wasn’t when McCain was alone on the ticket, and there’s no reason for that to change with the addition of Palin. More important, Palin has problematic stances on many of the issues that do motivate young Evangelicals. Her insistence that global warming is not man-made, for instance, is unlikely to appeal to those Evangelicals who have embraced so-called “creation care” in the past few years. This is particularly relevant to the current race, as young Evangelicals account for much of that demographic’s undecided bloc. No one knows what the size of their impact may be in November because young Evangelicals are consistently underrepresented in polls of white Evangelicals. (Even a TIME poll of likely white Evangelical voters conducted last month used a sample in which just 10% of respondents were between 18 and 35. That age group made up 22% of the total electorate in 2004, and its share of the electorate is expected to increase this year.)

Without any polling on evangelicals’ attitude toward Palin, it is impossible to gauge the accuracy of Sullivan’s assertions. That’s right: Sullivan’s passages above are filled with assertions, not fact. And in one case, her assertion was misleading.

Sullivan writes that Palin is outside the evangelical mainstream. Really? She was a Pentecostal, and Pentecostalism is one of the largest denominations within evangelical Protestantism.

Sullivan writes that mainstream evangelicals don’t want to ban certain books from libraries. Yet like the story that she links to, she failed to specify which books Palin sought to ban. (Did the alleged books include books in the Harry Potter series or David Duke’s My Awakening ?) And she provides no evidence that mainstream evangelicals oppose banning certain books.

Sullivan writes that mainstream evangelicals reject the notion that violence against Israeli’s is divine retribution. This assertion is likely on firmer ground, but why not provide any citations or references, such as survey data from the Barna Group, the religious research firm?

Sullivan writes that mainstream evangelicals would disagree with Palin’s decision to slash funding for a home caring for teen mothers. This is misleading. In fact, Palin agreed to triple the amount of funding for the home in question, Covenant House. All she did was to reduce the amount of funding requested by the state legislature from $5 million to $3.9 million.

Sullivan’s characterization of Palin’s relationship with younger evangelicals is also little more than assertion. She writes that young evangelicals would oppose Palin’s position that global warming was not man made. But her proof for this assertion is sketchy. Her source is a Time story by about one seminary student who engineered a Southern Baptist declaration on “creation care.” Left unmentioned is whether young evangelicals were involved or poll data about young evangelicals’ views on this topic.

The story did have one virtue. Writing about Palin’s move away from Pentecostalism, Sullivan gave readers good theological and religious historical context, providing some evidence for her point that some evangelicals won’t embrace Palin:

That move away from the Pentecostal Church, which took place in 2002 when Palin first ran for lieutenant governor in Alaska, is the only potential sign she has given that her religious beliefs might be a political liability. Her spokeswoman now says that Palin does not identify herself as a Pentecostal. Historically Pentecostals and other Evangelical Protestants haven’t always gotten along, largely because of theological differences. Pentecostal theology elevates the role of the Holy Spirit and includes belief in spiritual gifts, such as healing and speaking in tongues. But the groups have often been able to set aside their doctrinal disagreements for political purposes. Pat Robertson, a Pentecostal, and the late Jerry Falwell, a Fundamentalist, famously had bitter theological disputes but still joined forces as leading figures of the Christian right.

Yet only that paragraph stood out in an otherwise lamentable story.

Define Catholic social teaching (please)

cstGive credit to Eric Gorski of the Associated Press. While some reporters don’t get that Catholic prelates are supposed to be able to influence the lives of those in the pews, including their votes at the ballot box, Gorski understands that they can and do.

Consider this passage from his latest story, about the McCain and Obama campaigns’ outreach to Catholic voters:

One unknown in the race: the voice of U.S. Catholic bishops. Denver Archbishop Charles Chaput has said Democratic vice presidential nominee Joe Biden, a Catholic supporter of abortion rights, should refrain from receiving Communion.

And several U.S. bishops have rebuked Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi for misstating Catholic teaching on when life begins.

Former U.S. Ambassador to the Vatican Jim Nicholson, appearing at the same forum as Brownback this week, said more bishops need to speak out about core Catholic issues.

“And we need to help them,” Nicholson said. “We need to give them cover, give them solidarity, because it can get very lonely for them.”

But it’s still rare for bishops to directly criticize politicians. Instead, Catholic dioceses nationwide have begun to distribute “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship,” an issue-based road map for Catholic voters.

No scholar I know of has quantified, or validated even, the political influence of Catholic leaders speaking out about issues. But I do know that at least some local Democratic Party leaders have complained about it (here and here). And you know what they say about politicians: while they might be dumb, at least they can count (votes).

Yet even a reporter as skillful and knowledgeable as Gorski committed the most elementary sin of journalistic omission: he failed to define the term Catholic social teaching and to give examples of same. Take this passage:

Neither presidential candidate lines up precisely with the breadth of Catholic teaching, but Catholic organizers for McCain and Obama are making the case that their man comes closest.

Or take this passage, about Sen. Sam Brownback‘s defense of McCain:

But Brownback also challenged the notion that Democrats are more in line with Catholic social justice concerns, suggesting that McCain’s opposition to torture and support of comprehensive immigration reform provide an opening.

“I am not conceding the social ground,” said Brownback, a former presidential candidate. “We are a pro-life and whole-life party.”

Or take this passage, about the Obama campaign’s claim for the Catholic vote:

Last week in Denver, the Obama campaign argued that his policies on the economy, environment and poverty fit the Catholic pursuit of the common good.

At some point in the story, Gorski should have defined these terms — Catholic social teaching, Catholic social justice concerns, the common good.

To be sure, the terms are not easily defined, as they are made up of several principles or themes. (Can you say “the right to life,” “option for the poor,” “subsidiarity,” and “the rights of workers”?) And it is hard to know which documents to cite from, such as the Catechism or “Faithful Citizenship,” which Gorski cites. But defining the terms and quoting from a document would have gotten religion, for it would have given readers an objective measure of Catholic social thought.

Imagine a story about McCain and Mitt Romney battling over whether either candidate was a true Republican. In that case, the reporter would have informed readers if he or she had quoted from the party’s latest platform and laid out its general principles. Now I am not advocating that the reporter assert which candidate was closer to the party’s principles; outside experts or academics are more likely to reach those conclusions. But at least readers would be broadly informed about Catholic social thought.

And in the next two months, we can expect to hear a lot from both campaigns as they claim that their candidate’s positions are closer to those of church teaching.

Not fully fleshing out death

grim reaperI have a confession to make.

I dislike criticizing newspapers stories that are well reported, not to mention detailed and interesting.

As a former daily reporter, I know the difficulty of finding a story and sources, getting time from your editor to report the story out, and confirming details while you’re writing. And in this era of massive cutbacks on the print side, criticizing well-reported stories seems unfair, even petty. Yet many stories require the reporter to show readers not only the small picture, but also the big picture, and if the reporter doesn’t show both, the story will disappoint in some way.

The preamble above summarizes my thoughts about Erika Hayasaki’s story in The Los Angeles Times about a professional woman who specializes in acquainting the living with the dead. Before you reflect on the nature of this woman’s work, read and appreciate Hayasaki’s lede:

The dead man lies naked on a metal table, a small cloth covering his groin, mouth open, arms rigid and cocked.

A blue-gloved autopsy technician thrusts a hefty razor into his chest, unzipping his brown skin to reveal a thick layer of yolk-colored fat. He pulls marbled meat from the bone.

The man was 30, an only son, married, a father of three. Around 9:40 p.m. the night before, someone shot him in the head. Now, a technician at the New Jersey Medical Examiner’s Office in Newark is holding his lungs, tar-speckled as if covered with spores of mold.

Rebecca Schmidt, 21, a ponytailed biology major, stands over the body, alongside a dozen of her Kean University classmates midway through the eight-week summer course Death in Perspective.

“They’re looking for the bullet; come see,” says Professor Norma Bowe, 49.

Schmidt leans in, captivated by the disfigured ball of metal lodged above his left ear. She breathes through her mask sprayed with perfume, which does little to block the smell of death: feces and rotten eggs.

This is so cool, she thinks. Schmidt has seen death plenty of times, but never the inside of a corpse.

For the last decade, Bowe has led her classes of 30 students into the refrigerated tombs of bodies stacked bunk-bed-style in the morgue and into hospice bedrooms, glowing from television screens, occupied by the sickly and soon-to-die. She guides them through the barbed-wire fences of Northern New Jersey State Penitentiary, past the outdoor recreation kennels where gang members sweat and swear, to a law library where they sit down with murderers.

Hayasaki’s description was replete with details — yolk-colored fat, marbled meat, the gang members sweating and swearing. As someone who has seen the body of a person who has died from violence, I think it captured the grisliness and funeral elements of death.

Yet detailed, it seems fair to say, does not describe Hayasaki’s treatment of Norma Bowe’s philosophy. Hayasaki gives plenty of hints that Bowe might be religious or that she has thought about religion. For example, at the end of the story Bowe tells a student the following:

Bowe keeps Schmidt in mind on the last day of class when she reads them a commencement speech written by Anna Quindlen: The knowledge of our own mortality is the greatest gift God ever gives us. It’s so easy to waste our lives, our days, our hours, our minutes.

Interesting, but the passage is never elaborated upon. Why did Bowe mention God? Do students talk about God and religion’s consideration and treatment of death? Hayasaki should have asked Bowe a religion-related question, for it might have shed light on the lessons that Bowe seeks to impart to her students. Are students to understand death in purely personal terms or in philosophical or religious ones?

Religion was something of a ghost in this story. It was airy and ethereal, not fleshed out. If only Hayasaki had given readers a few details about Bowe’s examination of the meaning of death, one that she applied skillfully to the topic of the biological processes of death.