Ashley Smith's vilification begins

AshleySmith2.jpgThe story of Ashley Smith’s heroism was bound to annoy some journalists as being too pat, too unbelievable, too much of a redemptive ending in a story of carnage and mayhem. Lee Siegel, television critic of The New Republic, raises some fair questions about whether Smith’s story should be accepted uncritically, although reporters will have a difficult time gaining access to her captor, Brian Nichols, for some time to come.

Siegel’s tone turns petty, however, when he characterizes CNN’s coverage of Smith as an attempt to gain an audience among the 20 million readers of Rick Warren’s Purpose-Driven Life.

In Siegel’s essay, those 20 million people represent the dark underbelly of American culture. He reaches a cranky conclusion from one remark by Ashley Smith’s aunt:

When asked by The New York Times to comment on Ashley’s ordeal, Smith’s aunt said, repeating a point made by [the] Reverend [Frank] Page and others, that Smith won over Nichols because she was a broken person: “I don’t think that a socialite or a squeaky clean could have done that.” “Squeaky clean” means a Gore, or a Kerry, guys who are also socialites, and married to socialites, and who followed all the rules. Insofar as they agree with Smith’s aunt, the 20 million would be more likely to vote for Brian Nichols than for a Squeaky Clean who might make them feel bad about themselves. Perhaps the longer they live, the more they despise the human being — because there is nary a peep from the pastors and ministers who have emerged from the 20 million about the murder victims, or about the girlfriend allegedly raped by Nichols, or about the place God had for the 4 dead people in his plan. For the 20 million, these abstract 4 seem to be expendable in the vast perspective of God’s purpose.

Here’s the full paragraph from the Timesreport:

“She felt the sadness and she felt the aloneness; she could relate,” said Kimberly Rogers, an aunt who is caring for Ms. Smith’s 5-year-old daughter, Paige. “I don’t think a socialite or a squeaky clean could have done that.”

Can’t you feel the Gore-and-Kerry hatred oozing from every word?

Siegel faults reporters for taking Smith at her word when she said The Purpose-Driven Life touched something in Nichols’ soul. Yet he is supposed to divine what Kimberly Rogers meant by the phrase “squeaky clean”?

On a more encouraging front, Washington Jewish Week has published an adapted sermon in which Rabbi Philip Pohl compares Smith to the heroine from the book of Esther.

Now, the Book of Esther never mentions God. God is nowhere to be seen, or heard, at least not directly. It is as if all the evil planning causes God to hide. The rabbis point out the similarity between the name Esther and the Hebrew term Ah-steer, meaning “I will hide.”

It took a woman, a total stranger from nowhere, to remind Nichols and everyone else, that even when God seems furthest away, there are methods and opportunities to bring God back to us. We just have to search harder, and find help wherever it is offered.

The Jewish people review this lesson every year, from the political insights of Mordechai, from the hatred of the evil Haman, but most of all from the courage and bravery of Queen Esther.

. . . Thank you to Smith for all the lives you saved, for demonstrating trust in all of humanity and faith in God, and, for something you could hardly have intended — teaching me and perhaps others why indeed the Book of Esther found such a prominent place in our holy Bible.

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Common-law polygamy?

Here’s an interesting commentary from a reader: “Does the Schiavo case implicitly, or maybe explicitly, acknowledge the validity of polygamy? . . . I saw a lawyer on the news last night going down a laundry list of Terri’s decisions and rights, and, to my knowledge, all of this flows from her husband speaking on her behalf. If Mrs. Schiavo II could sue him now for wife-like rights should they separate, the state is honoring polygamy.” The state of Florida does not recognize what in some places is still called Common Law Marriage. But a decade or so and two children? What legal status does Michael’s live-in almost-wife have, in the eyes of the state? Meanwhile, Kathleen Parker asks another question: “When is a husband not a husband?”

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I confess: Go dig up that Time piece on Mary

mary_jesus_icon.JPGThere really is no excuse being this late on a post, but let me offer one anyway.

I no longer have a subscription to Time magazine, which, when blogging, puts me in the position of pointing readers toward links that I know are going to be dead ends, with that “subscription required” flag that we all dislike so much.

Thus, I have put off writing about this past week’s cover story by David Van Biema titled “Hail, Mary.” This was another example of a long-standing trend — see Jeremy’s post on Newsweek — of news-magazine editors finding a way to get large religious images on the covers of their products during the seasons of Christmas and Easter. This always results in large sales to non-subscribers, producing statistics that should serve as wake-up calls to newspaper editors, cable TV producers and other news entrepreneurs who are pondering motives to improve their religion coverage.

The cover story on Mary also interested me because it came in an issue absolutely packed with stories that were clearly driven by religion and others that were haunted by religion ghosts.

Where to begin? There was Sen. Arlen Specter in a Q&A on religion and the high courts, several stories on religious themes in terrorist groups, a short look at (the “Christian Napster”), the church ties in the fights over Tom DeLay in the House of Representatives, “Jesus juice” news in the Michael Jackson trial, the wallop of absolute evil in the new Downfall movie about Adolf Hitler and all the moral themes in Lance Morrow’s final essay on the rise of JFK, LBJ and Richard Nixon. I wouldn’t be surprised if I missed a few.

The high point of Van Bierma’s excellent story on the Theotokos was the wealth of material about Protestants who are beginning to get over their Rome phobias and look at the role that Mary played in the life and ministry of her Son. There is the Presbyterian pastor who is trying to help his flock honor Mary, without sounding “Mariolatry” sirens. There is Lutheran Robert Jenson’s still radical, for Protestants, suggestion that the faithful ask for Mary’s intercessions with her Son. And the story correctly notes:

Mary was not always such a lightning rod. Early on, Christianity rallied around her importance. The Council of Ephesus in 431 affirmed her to be the Theotokos, or Mother of God. Admittedly, the move was less about her than him. It repudiated a specific heresy — that Mary’s son and the Messiah were two different beings — and in general made the Incarnation much more immediate.

Nevertheless, this is very controversial material for Protestants and hard for them to avoid — in large part because Mary plays a major role in the biblical materials about her Son and the church, at least in comparision with others. Van Biema traces this fact into the world of academia, where there are signs of renewed interest in Mary among the very Protestants who would find it the hardest to ignore her — scholars.

Consider this viewpoint from Beverly Gaventa of Princeton, who faced major questions when asked to write about Mary for a “Personalities of the New Testament” series:

She knew of the pulpit silence regarding the Virgin but was still somewhat shocked to find that her academic peers had been equally mute. “We were quite happy to yammer on about Mary Magdalene, about whom we know next to nothing,” she remembers, “and you would find a bajillion essays on Doubting Thomas. But there was very little on Mary’s presence at the Cross.”

She was further bemused when callers invited her to speak at their churches. “I would offer to do something on Mary,” she says, “and there would be this embarrassed pause, and they would eventually say, ‘Oh, we’re mostly Protestant around here.’ In fact, she says she approached her Mary work in “a Protestant sort of way. We pride ourselves on reading Scripture, so let’s read Scripture and see what we find.”

This is a fine example of an old and, I fear, endangered feature in newsweeklies — a long, detailed, newsy, diverse piece of writing on a major religion topic. It would not hurt for folks over at Newsweek to take a glance at this.

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They burned like torches in the night

PieroResurrection.jpgI’m a little stunned after reading managing editor Jon Meacham’s cover story in the current issue of Newsweek. And not in a bad way.

Meacham’s previous religious cover stories — on The Passion of the Christ and the Nativity (see here and here) — were not so good. Those articles were criticized by GetReligion regulars for leaning too heavily on scholars who Meacham agrees with, ignoring dissenting views, misrepresenting historic church teaching, and fretting endlessly about the dangers of literalism (and for running with really stupid titles).

The thrust of our criticism was, Jon Meacham, Liberal Modernist Episcopalian, Comes to Predictable Conclusions, and Finds — Miraculously — that Everybody (Who’s Worth Listening to Anyway) Agrees With Him.

This time, there is only a little bit of throat clearing about literalism and the experts are stacked in favor of a conclusion that most never would have expected to see in Newsweek. That is, the Resurrection really did happen. He throws down this challenge early in the piece:

Without the Resurrection, it is virtually impossible to imagine that the Jesus movement of the first decades of the first century would have long endured. A small band of devotees might have kept his name alive for a time, even insisting on his messianic identity by calling him Christ, but the group would have been just one of many sects in first-century Judaism, a world roiled and crushed by the cataclysmic war with Rome from 66 to 73, a conflict that resulted in the destruction of Jerusalem.

Meacham wags his fingers at “the secular” in the United States, reminding them that a) a vast majority of Americans believe in the resurrection of Jesus and consider themselves Christians of one stripe or another; and b) “Christianity is the product of two millennia of creative intellectual thought and innovation, a blend of history and considered theological debate.” This fact, he argues, “should slow the occasional rush to dismiss the faithful as superstitious or simple.”

Going to the Gospel accounts, he recounts the initial reactions of the apostles and others to Jesus’ empty tomb as unbelief and incredulity:

No matter what Jesus may have said about sacrifice and resurrection during his lifetime, the disciples clearly did not expect Jesus to rise again. The women at the tomb were stunned; confronted with the risen Lord, Thomas initially refused to believe his eyes; and at the end of Matthew’s Gospel, some disciples still “doubted.”

Their skepticism is hardly surprising. Prevailing Jewish tradition did not suggest that God would restore Israel and inaugurate the Kingdom through a condemned man who went meekly to his death. Quite the opposite: the Messiah was to fight earthly battles to rescue Israel from its foes . . . There was, in short, no Jewish expectation of a messiah whose death and resurrection would bring about the forgiveness of sins and offer believers eternal life.

Yet a sacrificial, atoning role is precisely the one the first followers of Jesus believed he had played in the world. In the earliest known writing in the New Testament, the apostle Paul writes that Jesus “gave himself for our sins to deliver us from the present evil age, according to the will of God the Father.”

He argues that the only reason that early Jewish Christians would have come to these conclusions is that they believed very strongly that Jesus had come back from the dead:

From the beginning, critics of Christianity have dismissed the Resurrection as a theological invention. As a matter of history, however, scholars agree that the two oldest pieces of New Testament tradition speak to Jesus’ rising from the dead. First, the tomb in which Jesus’ corpse was placed after his execution was empty; if it were not, then Christianity’s opponents could have produced his bones. (Matthew also says the temple priests tried to bribe Roman guards at the tomb, saying, “Tell people, ‘His disciples came by night and stole him away while we were asleep’” — implying the body was in fact gone.)

The second tradition is that the apostles, including Paul, believed the risen Jesus had appeared to them; writing in the first years after the Passion, Paul lists specific, living witnesses, presumably in order to encourage doubters to seek corroborating testimony. Paul seems quite clear about what the skeptical would find if they checked his story.

Meacham uses an interesting rhetorical twist at a few points. First he asks, How could the early Jewish Christians come to believe what they believe? Then he offers the ambiguous formulation that it was either a result of the words of Jesus during his life and ministry or it was the experience of the empty tomb and the risen Christ.

Logically, it could be both/and, but Meacham was using this formulation to nudge readers toward the conclusion that the Resurrection (it rarely goes uncapitalized) did happen, and this fact accounts for a lot of the thoughts and actions of Christians, from the first century to the present day.

Normally, this sort of story would be a back-and-forth between more liberal and conservative scholars, with Jesus Seminar types vocalizing all the appropriate skeptical notes and the representatives of that old time religion insisting that their faith claims are not without historical merit. But Marcus Borg, Bishop Spong or other prominent spokespeople don’t get a word in edgewise. Paula Fredriksen does show up briefly, but only to establish that first-century Jews were rather expecting a militaristic messiah.

But Meacham notes that Jesus shattered those expectations. Many of his followers persisted unto death for their faith in the belief that death no longer had much sting left in it.

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The Monitor has a big, big story — right?

Sunni_triangle.jpgSometimes you see a story and you can’t believe what you are reading. I have been watching Google News pretty carefully on this and, unless my search terms are not up to snuff, I think The Christian Science Monitor is way out in front on a major story in Iraq.

Of the many dark fears about the U.S. presence there, none has been darker than the spectre of outright civil war involving the Shiites, Kurds and the old ruling elite in the Sunni Triangle. Now, reporter Jill Carroll has this Baghdad-datelined story. The lead? Key Sunni leaders have met to work on plans to participate in the government that, as Carroll puts it, was “formed by elections they boycotted.”

The meeting was a reversal for Sunni leaders who have supported insurgents and urged US troops to leave Iraq immediately.

The new effort, observers say, appears to be an admission that their strategy — to stop Iraq’s election and denounce the formation of a new government — has failed. Bringing the former ruling class into Iraq’s emerging power structure, they add, could help quell the insurgency.

“Participation of the Sunnis is both religiously important and politically important,” says John Esposito, a professor at Georgetown University who specializes in Islam and international affairs. “It can establish a precedent for other Sunni leaders to become involved.”

Who took part in this breakthrough meeting? Members of the Muslim Scholars Association were there, representing religious groups close to the insurgency. There were leaders from the so-called Sunni Triangle. Clearly this is just the first hint of a longer process, if the story is solid.

The question for me at this point is simple: Where are the other major media on this? Does the Monitor really have this on its own?

Again, there is no bigger story in Iraq — short of a stash of nuclear weapons showing up in a suburban storage facility — than the possibility that the Sunni led insurgency might be weakening or splintering.

Help me out here, people. Who else has this story?

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There is no St. Nicholas . . .

At least not in Demre, Turkey. This is the depressing bottom line in Karl Vick’s sad, sad story in the Washington Post. The headline captures the relentless march of the shopping mall into parts of the world that, at least historically speaking, ought to know better: “Turkish Town Exchanges St. Nick for Santa.” But there is hope, in the shape of tourism dollars. “The demotion of the real Saint Nicholas did not go unnoticed. offended parties include Russian Orthodox tourists who venerated the saint made the patron of their homeland by Czar Alexander II; the sculptor, also Russian, who donated the bronze statue five years ago; tour operators who pitch Demre as part of a tour of Turkey’s religious history; and an assortment of bystanders who see the town’s elevation of Santa over Nicholas as the ultimate commercialization of, if not Christmas, something dignified and sacred.” Amen.

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Divided GOP tent

What we have here, once again, is another hint at the divide inside the GOP between what White House scribe Michael Gerson described a few months ago as a consistently Catholic approach to public life and the Libertarian approach to social issues. The Holy Week (in the West) drama of the Terri Schiavo case is merely underlining what is already obvious. Here is New York Times reporter Adam Nagourney’s crunch quote, with another use of the soon-to-be omnipresent T-word: “My party is demonstrating that they are for states’ rights unless they don’t like what states are doing,” said Representative Christopher Shays of Connecticut. . . . “This Republican Party of Lincoln has become a party of theocracy,” Mr. Shays said. The article contains only one clear quote making a case for the other side: “There’s a larger issue in play,” and Gov. Mike Huckabee of Arkansas, “and that is the whole issue of the definition of life. The issue of when is it a life is a broader issue than just a state defining that. I don’t think we can have 50 different definitions of life.”

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Meet Ronald Cranford, M.D.

cranford.gifBoth sides in the Terri Schiavo tragedy have found specialists to examine Terri (or her medical records) and testify on their findings. These specialists sometimes have a history of activism for or against euthanasia, and it’s fair enough to note their history.

In a generally evenhanded story today, Jill Barton of The Associated Press highlights one specialist’s history but neglects the history of another:

Gov. Jeb Bush and the state social services agency filed a petition to take custody of Schiavo and, presumably, reconnect her feeding tube. It cites new allegations of neglect and challenges Schiavo’s diagnosis as being in a persistent vegetative state. The request is based on the opinion of a neurologist working for the state who observed Schiavo at her bedside but did not conduct an examination.

The neurologist, William Cheshire of the Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville, is a bioethicist who is also an active member in Christian organizations, including two whose leaders have spoken out against the tube’s removal.

Ronald Cranford of the University of Minnesota, a neurologist who was among those who made a previous diagnosis of Schiavo, said “there isn’t a reputable, credible neurologist in the world who won’t find her in a vegetative state.”

Cranford’s interest in euthanasia surpasses merely belonging to organizations whose leaders have spoken on the issue (though his webpage mentions that he has served on the board of New York City’s Choice in Dying since 1992). Cranford has had plenty to say on the matter himself.

The Rev. Robert Johansen told Cranford’s back story in an essay last week for National Review (and I’ve added some links for readers’ convenience):

In published articles, including a 1997 op-ed in the Minneapolis–St. Paul Star Tribune, he has advocated the starvation of Alzheimer’s patients. . . .

In the cases of Paul Brophy, Nancy Jobes, Nancy Cruzan, and Christine [Busalacchi], Cranford was the doctor behind the efforts to end their lives. Each of these people was brain-damaged but not dying; nonetheless, he advocated death for all, by dehydration and starvation. Nancy Cruzan did not even require a feeding tube: She could be spoon-fed. But Cranford advocated denying even that, saying that even spoon-feeding constituted “medical treatment” that could be licitly withdrawn.

In cases where other doctors don’t see it, Dr. Cranford seems to have a knack for finding PVS. Cranford also diagnosed Robert Wendland as PVS. He did so in spite of the fact that Wendland could pick up specifically colored pegs or blocks and hand them to a therapy assistant on request. He did so in spite of the fact that Wendland could operate and maneuver an ordinary wheelchair with his left hand and foot, and an electric wheelchair with a joystick, of the kind that many disabled persons (most famously Dr. Stephen Hawking) use. Dr. Cranford dismissed these abilities as meaningless. Fortunately for Wendland, the California supreme court was not persuaded by Cranford’s assessment.

UPDATE: Robert K. Vischer, assistant professor at St. John’s University School of Law, has weighed in on a profile of William Cheshire in today’s New York Times. Cranford has never heard of Cheshire, but dismisses him anyway:

Dr. Ronald Cranford, a neurologist and medical ethicist at the University of Minnesota Medical School who has examined Ms. Schiavo on behalf of the Florida courts and declared her to be irredeemably brain-damaged, said, “I have no idea who this Cheshire is,” and added: “He has to be bogus, a pro-life fanatic. You’ll not find any credible neurologist or neurosurgeon to get involved at this point and say she’s not vegetative.”

Which of course leads to the logical conclusion that Terri Schiavo should be deprived of all food and hydration until she has died.

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