‘Deeply religious man’ made a promise to God

Such a moving story.

Such a big ghost.

That was my immediate reaction upon reading an Associated Press feature with this headline:

Family promises a life for son in vegetative state

The top of the story is absolutely gripping:

MURRIETA, Calif. (AP) — Paul Cortez can remember the night 31 years ago as clearly as if it was last week. He had walked into the pediatric intensive care unit of Riverside County Regional Medical Center to find his 7-year-old son, Mikey, barely clinging to life.

Bandages were covering his little body, seemingly from head to toe. Wires and tubes attached to machines were keeping him alive. Doctors told Cortez that Mikey might not make it. A drunken driver had smashed into the car carrying the boy and relatives, sending four of them, including his mother, brother and sister, to other hospitals. Four other relatives, including Mikey’s oldest brother, were dead.

Not knowing what to do, Paul Cortez got down on his knees and, with Mikey’s hand in his, made a promise to God: If his son somehow survived, whatever the condition, he and his family would always be there for him.

It felt strange at first because, although he is a deeply religious man, Cortez had never before asked for any favors from heaven.

“But he was our son,” he recalled.

Mikey would never walk or talk again, but that didn’t matter to his family. For the next 31 years, they would raise him at home, including him in every activity they could. From holidays to family vacations to high school football games, they were by his side until his death last month.

So what we have here is an incredible human drama involving a “deeply religious man” who made a promise to God. Religion angle, anyone?

Unfortunately, the story fails to explore at all the role of faith in this family’s life — outside of those vague mentions about religion and God.

What does “deeply religious” mean in this case? Does the family belong to a church? Do they have a church family? If so, did that church family help support the Cortezes and care for Mikey? These all seem like relevant questions.

I Googled a few key terms from the story and added “faith” to see if any other media had covered that angle. Interestingly enough, I came across a different version of the AP story that did, in fact, hint that the Cortezes are Christians, including this mention:

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God, prayer and the winner of the Super Bowl


THIS WEEK, the question doesn’t come from a “Religion Q and A” reader but a headline in The Record, the daily newspaper in the New Jersey county that’s hosting a certain athletic event:

“Does God care who wins the Super Bowl?”

THE GUY (who lives in that county) ANSWERS:

You gotta be kidding.

Spiritual suffering, physical and mental illness, anxiety and loneliness, natural disasters, oppression, wars, terrorism, kidnapping, senseless murders, broken families, kids without dads, homelessness, addiction, materialism, privation, pestilence, prejudice, impossible decisions that must be made, and all manner of other woes and perplexities are abroad in the world. How could the Deity possibly be concerned about the outcome of a mere football game on Feb. 2, no matter how big the TV audience is?

Still. Though such claims of divine attention seem theologically suspect perhaps there’s more to be said about an underlying question: Is it proper to bother God with prayer about life’s trivialities like this? “Religion Q and A” wrestled with a few of the big issues concerning prayer in a Nov. 30, 2013 item, but what do religious figures think we’re supposed to do about “little” prayers?

Personal gridiron prayers are baked into American pop culture. In a January poll for the Public Religion Research Institute, 26 percent of Americans said they’ve prayed to God to help their favorite team, and 19 percent thought God actually plays a role in who wins.

For some reason, football fans report praying more often than those who follow other sports. Fully 48 percent of adults thought “athletes of faith are rewarded with good health and success.” On that question, agreement jumped to nearly two-thirds among white evangelicals and minority Protestants. If that’s automatically the case, the demonstrably devout Heisman Trophy winner Tim Tebow might be at MetLife Stadium with the Broncos, or might be hoping for future bowl appearances with the Jets or the Patriots, instead of analyzing college games on television.

Atheists smirk at the idea that God cares about who has the most points on the scoreboard. For instance, how might He decide which team to favor? On salon.com, Gary Labyrinthitis commented on prayers for one’s team to win: “There is something basically wrong with God deciding the outcome. It’s illegal to fix sports games … It diminishes the game if the outcome depends on to whom God throws the game. So why do we allow God to get away with it? And doesn’t this call into question God’s sense of fair play and honesty?”

And yet. The God depicted in the Bible is so intent on mundane matters that He numbers “the hairs of your head” (Luke 12:7). The Bible also urges, “In everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.”

Everything? Really? Does this cover (actual examples from preachers) a broken toe, lost car keys, or the need for a parking space?

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Pod People: Prayer’s place in science, sports and submission

Where is Jahi McMath, and what is the latest installment of her story?

I’m glad you asked! Host Todd Wilken and I talked some about this and other subjects during this week’s installment of Crossroads.

(This is my third podcast, and I like to think I’m not embarrassing myself as badly with experience. This being interviewed business is tough when there’s not a delete key between you and your thoughts.)

As you’ll remember from my post last week, McMath is the brain-dead 13-year-old California girl whose parents won the legal battle to take possession of her still-ventilated body from Children’s Hospital Oakland and move it to an undisclosed location. Early reports indicated the family and their attorney had found a facility and physicians to “care for” the child and use restorative measures, presumably to bring her back to life. And prayer, lots of prayer. And they’ve raised tens of thousands of dollars via their gofundme page.

We don’t know where Jahi is, nor do we know whether her heart still beats, which previously had been because of electrical currents and IV medication. Nor do we know whether they are part of an organized group of believers. We do know, courtesy of the NBC Bay Area affiliate, that her classmates have hope, and that school administrators say they’re honoring the child’s family’s wishes in what they tell the children:

Though a death certificate has been issued for Jahi McMath, many of the 13-year-old Oakland girl’s classmates still believe the “quiet leader” who laughed at jokes that weren’t funny will one day return to school — if they just pray hard enough.

“The school told us that she’s not officially dead yet,” said Dymond Allen, one of Jahi’s friends at EC Reems Academy of Technology and Arts in East Oakland, a public charter school that serves mostly disadvantaged kids. “And we should keep her in our prayers. I still hope. And God has the last say-so.”

Wilken and I also talked a bit more in-depth about my Candace Cameron Bure post from last week that dealt with the biblical concept of wives submitting to their husbands. Media outlets continue to get it wrong, both in headline and story form, by confusing the Scriptural meaning that Bure discusses with the social/relational/professional one.

The comments from readers reflect that inaccuracy. Some cite instances of spousal abuse as a reason wives should not submit to their husbands. Others point to hard-won rights and the feminist movement as proof that women have evolved to a point where they can care for themselves and should be treated in equals.

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Did Father Donald Timone ever say, ‘Pray away the gay’?

Not that long ago, our own Mark Kellner took at look at the New York Times coverage of a rather prestigious Catholic school in the Bronx that did something very controversial, at least in the newsroom of the great Gray Lady. The leaders of Cardinal Spellman High School invited a Catholic priest to speak at the school for a specific purpose — to defend Catholic moral teachings on sexuality.

The earth trembled. How could a Catholic school dare do such a thing?

I read the coverage, read Mark’s post and then moved on.

The problem, of course, is that there is more than one newspaper in the New York City area and, in this case, I later learned that it was crucial to pay attention to the coverage in The New York Daily News, as well. There have been several reports there on this controversy, but they are united by one truly horrible error.

You can see it right in this epic headline:

Spellman High School cancels talk by ‘pray away the gay’ preacher Donald Timone — but it’s only temporary

Father Trevor Nicholls suggests anti-gay father will be back. Gay groups and some staff outraged.

First of all, there are quite a few Christian groups that minister to gays and lesbians who voluntarily walk through their doors (as opposed to groups that, theoretically, would go out on the streets and kidnap people). I have been covering issues linked to these groups for several decades and, truth is, there is quite a bit of variety out there in terms of the doctrines that they teach and the strategies that they employ.

There are groups, especially among Pentecostals, who truly believe that, over time, God can heal each and every person who seeks healing from same-sex attraction. However, I have never heard of anyone claiming that all someone needs to do is say a prayer and that’s that. Not a single person. In fact, I don’t think I have ever heard anyone claim that they prayed and prayed and were completely delivered from same-sex temptations. That’s the thing about real temptations. They are real and they hang around.

Here’s the key: In several decades of coverage of these issues, I have never heard anyone say that it is possible to “pray away the gay.” I literally have never heard the phrase used, except by critics of these ministries. So when this phrase is used, if it is ever used by journalists, it is extremely important to attribute this damning quote to someone specific. That’s an important rule in journalism, period, but especially when dealing with topics this controversial.

So if editors are going to start writing headlines such as, “‘Pray Away Gay’ priest at Cardinal Spellman,” it’s important to stop and ask the question: What did Father Donald Timone actually say and when did he say it?

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As on a darkling plain – Prozac and France

The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.

Matthew Arnold, Dover Beach, stanza 3, (1867)

More bad news for France.

The lede in the back cover story (page 22) in the Nov 26, 2013 issue of Le Monde reports: « La France a perdu un record. Mais personne ne s’en plaindra. » (France has lost a record, but no one will be complaining.)

The article entitled « La France n’est plus leader dans la consommation d’antidépresseurs » reports La belle France has lost its coveted status as Europe’s number one country for pill-popping.

Parmi les champions d’Europe de la consommation d’antidépresseurs en tout genre, le pays est maintenant largement distancé dans sa fringale de psychotropes. Selon le rapport 2013 de l’Organisation de coopération et de développement économiques (OCDE) sur la santé (« Health at a Glance 2013 ») publié le 21 novembre, l’Hexagone se situe même sous la moyenne des 23 pays du classement, ex aequo avec l’Allemagne ! Une prouesse au pays de la « sinistrose ».

Once among the European champions in the consumption of antidepressants, the country has lost ground in its consumption of psychotropic munchies. According to the 2013 report “Health at a Glance” from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development published on Nov 21, l’Hexagone (France) is even below average of the 23 countries ranked, and is tied with the land of gloom, Germany. Quite an accomplishment!

The article reports that France is tied with Germany and Slovenia in 15th place in consuming 50 doses per 1000 people per day, while Iceland reigns supreme with 106 doses per day. The French are now less depressed than the Danes (4), Swedes (5), Portuguese (6), British (7), Belgians (9),  Spanish (10), Norwegians (11),  and Luxembourgers (12).

Greece did not turn in any data, the article adds, but notes the number of suicides in that country has risen 45 per cent from 2007 to 2011.

It is in its discussion of the “why” — why the increase in the use of antidepressants that this piece strays into Get Religion land.  Quoting Gaétan Lafortune, the coordinator of the report, Le Monde writes:

La crise? « l’idée que la récession, le chômage ont plongé certains individus dans une profonde détres se », note M. Lafortune.

The crisis? “We can not rule out the idea that the recession and unemployment has plunged individuals into deep depression,” notes Mr. Lafortune.

However, he adds that in Germany where there is “almost full employment” the use of “antidepressants increased by 46 per cent between 2007 and 2011″, while the “lucky country” of Australia is second on the list of antidepressant consumers. Le Monde further muses on the apparent lack of correlation between economic well-being and consumption of antidepressants, finally coming to the conclusion the increase is due to the lack of stigma surrounding mental illness and over prescription of pills by physicians.

Perhaps, but is there not a religion ghost here as well? Could, or should, Le Monde have addressed the question whether the decline of religious faith, the moral ennui and entropy that has taken hold of Europe been considered? Would the discussion of the “why” been improved by a question or comment or two from psychologists or religious leaders addressing the issue of the meaning of life?

France is after all the land of Sartre, Camus and existentialism. Whether it was couched in faith, philosophy or psychology this story would have been stronger with a discussion of the “why” that moved beyond materialism.

“[F]or the world, which seems,” Matthew Arnold wrote in stanza four of Dover Beach,

To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night

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Porn no more: Secular students inviting religious discussion

Gone is the “low-hanging fruit” of years past when the media converged on the University of Texas-San Antonio campus each year to produce titillating stories on students exchanging Bibles and Qurans for porn.

The annual “Smut for Smut” event is no more. In its place are kinder, gentler atheists, in the form of the Secular Student Alliance. The group says it wants conversation, not provocation, and will not revert to its old ways.

Replacing the saucier stories and the reporters behind them is San Antonio Express-News Godbeat pro Abe Levy. He revisited the topic for a Sunday piece on a topic that has gained a lot of headlines — much of them sensational – in recent years.

Kudos to the Express-News for telling a real news story as opposed to the tabloid stuff. Three years ago, that wasn’t exactly the case. From this week’s story:
But times have changed.

This semester, Atheist Agenda renamed itself the Secular Student Alliance, one of 402 groups affiliated with an Ohio-based umbrella organization of the same name. The makeover underscores a national trend in which secular humanist groups have been dropping edgy, insult-minded strategies for more welcoming ones.

The change wasn’t just conscience-based, however. The story quotes one former member who said the old approach would entice people to the group’s meetings only to turn them off.

The strategy is now paying off for the Secular Student Alliance, apparently:

Meetings now attract people of diverse interests, including those affiliated with a religion but seeking a place to question or doubt without conditions, leaders said.

The new group is awaiting approval as a registered UTSA student organization. But weekly recruiting efforts already reflect a kinder bunch of people.

At a small table in the central campus this week, they passed out fliers challenging the ideologies of major world religions. Alliance president Charles Duncan smiled pleasantly and, in an even-handed tone, spoke of how science and reason was a suitable basis for human charity.

“We’re out here just promoting the values of humanism. You can be moral in the absence of religion,” said Duncan, 24, who in 1997 prayed for Christian salvation during a Billy Graham sermon at the Alamodome and officially came out as an atheist two years ago. “Our goal now is to, instead of inciting hostility, we want to engage in civil dialogue.”

Since we’re going there, the story could have been improved with some input from religious folks. This section at the end offered a perfect opportunity:
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WPost examines the demons (and a ghost) in ‘The Exorcist’

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It’s that time of year again, the time when reporters keep trying to reach author William Peter Blatty to talk about pea soup, noises in the night, long flights of stairs and the degree to which human necks can swivel.

Consider this one-liner, drawn from a much better than normal chat with the author just published in the Washington Post:

“As I say, every Halloween I’m dragged out of my burrow like some demonic Punxsutawney Phil,” says Blatty, a hale and hearty 85. “And if I don’t see my shadow, the horror box office is gonna be great. Either that or I’m dead. Nobody has had the guts — or the kindness — to tell me which it is.”

William Peter Blatty is not dead.

Now, this Post interview does have its snarky moments — hang on for its swipe at the legacy of the Blessed John Paul II — but I want to stress that the article at least attempted to take seriously the spiritual, even doctrinal, side of Blatty’s life and work. The sense of fairness breaks down when the Post team moves from a consideration of the themes Blatty wove into “The Exorcist” to his views of his alma mater, Georgetown University.

But first, God and the 40th anniversary of “The Exorcist.”

… Blatty will bear the cross of his mammoth success, which was fused long ago to the kitschy holiday by virtue of its terrifying imagery. Never mind, he says, that the story is more about the mystery and power of faith than the ultimate violation of a 12-year-old girl by evil forces. …

The cuffs on his denim jacket are flipped. Underneath his navy T-shirt is a silver medal etched with the three crosses of Calvary, where Jesus was crucified in the Gospels. The medal belonged to his son Peter, who died seven years ago. One reason “The Exorcist” has endured, Blatty thinks, is because it shows that the grave does not mean oblivion. That there is something after death.

“I’m not sure of what’s there,” he says, “but it isn’t oblivion.”

The story, as it must, quickly covers lots of ground in Hollywood and D.C. On one level this is a common tale, the story of the struggling screenwriter who suddenly finds a source of inspiration that saves his career and changes his life. In this case, we are talking about a comedy pro (best known for his work with director Blake Edwards) who, well, was inspired to spin his career in a totally different direction.

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What do different churches teach about mental illness?

ERIN ASKS: What are the attitudes toward mental illnesses in different Christian congregations?

THE GUY ANSWERS: There may be trivial exceptions but The Guy sees hardly any difference on this among Christianity’s various branches.

The Catholic Church’s approach was well defined in a 1996 speech by Pope John Paul II that encouraged professionals who treat mental illnesses. His major theme was that “whoever suffers from mental illness always bears God’s image and likeness in himself, as does every human being,” with a dignity “unique among all creatures,” and is always “to be treated as such.” He said this belief applies not only to Christian attitudes and to care for the afflicted but to the duty of government to ensure necessary treatment.

The pope also taught that “Christ took all human suffering on himself, even mental illness,” which “perhaps seems the most absurd and incomprehensible” of maladies. Pope Benedict XVI made similar points in a 2005 address and noted that mental disturbance “now afflicts one-fifth of humanity and is a real social-healthcare emergency.”

A very typical Protestant viewpoint is expressed by the United Methodist Church policy as amended in 2012. It states that throughout history till today the field has been “hampered by lack of knowledge, fear, and misunderstanding.” Patients who are so challenged, as well as their families, caregivers, and communities, “are to be embraced by the church in its ministry of compassion and love.”

Healing is “one of the spiritual gifts received from God” and it encompasses “the whole person: physical, spiritual, emotional, and mental,” aspects that were all “of equal concern to Jesus Christ.” The Methodists also advocate “universal global access to health care” through public and private funding and cooperation.

The Methodists add the important caution that “sometimes Christian concepts of sin and forgiveness are inappropriately applied in ways that heighten paranoia or clinical depression,” so that “great care must be exercised in ministering to those whose mental illness results in exaggerated self-negation.” Occasionally a person who is by nature deeply religious and with serious mental problems will express the pathology in a religious fashion, which does not mean the faith itself caused the problems.

Unfortunately, there’s been needless difficulty in treating these puzzling problems, caused not by church wariness toward mental illness or therapists but rather due to some therapists’ hostility toward religious faith.

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