Search Results for: theodicy

Listening to ancient voices of grief

This may sound like a rather religious or even doctrinal question, yet it is a question that I want to ask for totally journalistic purposes.

Here it is: What do you think that modern women and men know about grief, suffering and the presence of evil in our world that was not known by, let’s say, the ancient Greeks, Romans, Hebrews, etc.? In other words, when issues of theodicy arise in the news — whether through tornadoes, tsunamis or the twisted minds of local or global terrorists of all kinds — are we not dealing with issues that are, in and of themselves, ancient as well as modern?

Thus, journalists should not be surprised (Thank you, Peter Jennings, for stating this candidly) to find that the people touched by these tragedies almost always discuss them in religious and eternal terms. This is a journalistic reality.

I bring this up, of course, because the mainstream press is back on the theodicy beat again this week because of the numbingly brutal murder of 8-year-old Leiby Kletzky in Brooklyn.

In ancient Jewish traditions, the rites of burial and grief take place very quickly and the big issues are confronted head on in the traditional prayers that link individuals back into the circles of family and community through the generations. Once again, these are ancient issues and they are treated as such. This is a reminder to the grieving that they are not alone — in the present day or in the context of the ages.

The New York Times stepped carefully into this spiritual arena this week with a story on the Jewish traditions related to “sitting shiva” in the days after the loss of a loved one. As you would expect, the story is quite direct in its description of what takes place. In terms of color and details, this story writes itself:

The Jewish custom of shiva, the seven days of intense mourning, often has its spirited aspects.

Despite the prevailing sorrow, visitors might gather around platters of food in a bereaved family’s home and celebrate a long life, or remember foibles with affectionate laughter.

But not after the death of a child, particularly one who died in such chilling fashion as Leiby Kletzky, the 8-year-old Brooklyn boy who was kidnapped and killed this week. Throughout the morning and afternoon on Friday, a stream of visitors entered the Kletzky family’s brick apartment building on 15th Avenue in Borough Park. Almost all were somber, as if on a mission they did not relish.

Shoeless and sitting on a low chair, Leiby’s father, Nachman, received the visitors alone in a narrow dining room while his wife, Itta, and their four daughters clustered in a bedroom off the kitchen. Around the apartment, there were so many gifts of fruit and cakes that the family had been forced to send some back. But these were no consolation, visitors said.

“They’re trying to cope,” said Jonathan Schwartz, 42, a close friend. “They keep on saying that God gave them the privilege to raise this child for nine years.”

The questions looming in the background are huge, especially in the case of the brutal murder of a child. However, these questions are not new. I would assume that Jews and Arabs living in the danger zones of the Middle East through the ages have become tragically familiar with the questions asked after the bloody deaths of children.

There is much to praise in this report. The writing is clear and it does not seem that the Times team invaded the family’s privacy in any unnecessary way. And what about the intersection of these sober rites with other traditions during the week?

With the beginning of Sabbath approaching — a night and day when even shiva is interrupted — Mr. Schwartz and other visitors grasped at the thought that the usually joyous observance would provide a respite. “It’s the day of peace,” Mr. Schwartz said. “It will affect us for the better.”

Still, it was hard to escape reminders of Leiby’s ordeal. Outside the building, neighbors had posted a sign that said: “Please be sensitive to the family. DO NOT share rumors, stories and information you have heard — at all!!” Leiby was suffocated and his body was dismembered, but people close to the Kletzkys say they have tried to spare the family the details.

With so many solid details included, I almost hate to discuss what is missing. However, I must.

After all, what is missing is the content of the Orthodox Jewish traditions themselves — the content of prayers handed down from generation to generation, the very words of the prayers that offer comfort, yet starkly face the realities of life and death.

If reporters are looking for solid, newsworthy quotes that address the big questions, all they have to do is listen to the psalms. There are times when journalists must quote scripture and liturgical prayers, if they actually want to deal with reality of the mysteries that they are covering. It’s scary to quote the Bible and other ancient prayers. But it gets easier, once reporters actually begin listening to the voices around them.

So this story is about sitting shiva. What words go with these rites? The place to start is right here, especially Psalm 49.

Please read carefully, because you will be listening to millions and millions of voices through the ages. These believers faced the same questions being asked in Brooklyn today. They are part of the story. Amen.

Jennings, the Times and tornadoes

The tornadoes ripped through the heart of the Bible belt, so you knew what was coming in the mainstream coverage — Godtalk. There simply isn’t a way for reporters, even elite reporters, to talk to ordinary Americans under tragic circumstances without eternal issues coming up.

You could see a hint of that in the headline that topped the A1 story, with lead color art, at the New York Times. It proclaimed, with just a touch of omnipotence: “Tornado Swarm Deals Death, but Also Miracles.”

The miracles were, of course, performed by the tornadoes themselves.

However, I must admit that the story captures some classic examples of the tragic, bizarre and touching events that take place inside the zones shaped by the physics of tornadoes (it helps to know that I grew up in the tornado alley near the Red River in North Texas). Here’s a sample of material from the top of this very well-written report:

There was Glen White, 24, who found the strength to push up a wall that had fallen on five residents of a group home. There was the married couple who were thrown into their backyard as the storm exploded their home. They landed close enough, battered and bruised, to hold hands. And there was Molly, a graying donkey who for years has starred in the town Christmas pageant. People say they saw her lifted into the funnel cloud when the storm hit Saturday night. They thought she was a goner. …

Yes, 11 people died in those dark and deafening 10 minutes. Dozens were hurt and homes were destroyed.

As people picked through the mess and showed up with water and fried chicken at temporary shelters Monday, everyone seemed to mix their grief and shock with a sense of marvel that a mile-wide tornado that blew through this land of peanut fields and chicken houses with 165-mile-an-hour winds didn’t do worse.

There’s much more where that came from. However, as I read through the story I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop. I mean, I’ve been visiting rural North Carolina for decades and spent six years just on the other side of the mountains from Asheville. You can’t go a mile in that corner of the world (OK, maybe five miles) without hitting a Baptist or Methodist church. I know how these folks talk.

So, I wondered, where was God in all of this?

Sure enough, God made the cut in this story — but barely. This is how the piece ends.

There will be cleaning up to do and funerals to plan. People will wait to see if insurance will help them rebuild. They will count their blessings as they mourn their losses, and talk of God’s plan and God’s work. And they will cheer the resilience of the town’s most famous donkey.

“Molly’s going to make it to one more Christmas play,” said Tiffany Everett, 44, who had driven to the destroyed group home to lend a hand.

So the faith-friendly voices were there, their quotes just weren’t good enough to make it into print.

All this reminds me of that encounter I had long ago with the late Peter Jennings of ABC News. I have quoted this here before at GetReligion, but it precisely describes what I think is going on in this Times report.

Jennings and I were discussing this question: Why do so many mainstream reporters have trouble handling religion news? What is the heart of this problem?

Anyone who has watched television, said Jennings, has seen camera crews descend after disasters. Inevitably, a reporter confronts a survivor and asks: “How did you get through this terrible experience?” As often as not, a survivor replies: “I don’t know. I just prayed. Without God’s help, I don’t think I could have made it.”

What follows, explained Jennings, is an awkward silence. “Then reporters ask another question that, even if they don’t come right out and say it, goes something like this: ‘Now that’s very nice. But what REALLY got you through this?’ “

For most viewers, he said, that tense pause symbolizes the gap between journalists and, statistically speaking, most Americans. This is not a gap that is in the interest of journalists who worry — with good cause — about the future of the news.

What he said.

What hath the LAT wrought

We mentioned last week that people were trying to make sense of the tragedy in Japan. I noted that a few celebrities did a very bad job blaming the Japanese for angering God; the specific ESPN story I discussed broached but did not address the theodicy question.

This story from the Los Angeles Times tries to answer that question. Its structure reminds me of one I wrote for San Bernardino’s The Sun after Hurricane Katrina and the Sumatra tsunami. However, reporter Mitchell Landsberg doesn’t cast his net as wide, talking primarily to theological conservatives, and only from the Christian and Jewish traditions.

Overall, the story is a good read, and includes thought-provoking and insightful quotes like this one from Erik Thoennes, a Biola University theology professor and an EV Free pastor:

“Is God judging Japan?” he asked. “Well, no more than He’s judging me.”

Yet, this story was not without its problems. Unfortunately, they come at the beginning of the article and belie the foundation upon which the story was reported:

If there is a God, and if He (for the sake of convention) is all-powerful, what in God’s name was He thinking?

This is perhaps the oldest of theological questions — the one that may, in fact, explain the nearly universal human yearning for faith, what evolutionary psychologist Jesse Bering calls “the belief instinct.” How can we explain the inexplicable? How can we make sense of suffering?

Atheists say we can explain life’s complexities through science, and that there is no meaning in suffering. It just is, and we should do our best to alleviate it.

Monotheists see it somewhat differently. Faith offers answers, if only the unsatisfying: “It’s a mystery.” But there is little consensus among the faithful.

Let’s take that graph by graph.

In the first paragraph, Landsberg is suggesting that God might not be a He, but that is completely irrelevant to, and distracting from, the topic at hand. More importantly, the early tone is way too cute for what should be a serious, even somber, story. Using God’s name in vain to question what He was thinking is pretty close to a pun, and every journalist knows those are to be avoided.

This second paragraph is a nice set up.

But it is oddly followed with a third paragraph about how atheists see suffering. This is a relevant perspective, but I don’t think it belongs right after a paragraph suggesting that inexplicable suffering gave rise to the idea of God.

In the fourth paragraph, I saw two major problems. One is that monotheists don’t see things “somewhat differently” than atheists. They see questions about God and suffering diametrically differently. And, two, is that monotheists don’t just say, “it’s a mystery so don’t worry about it.” They pine for explanation, which they often find in God’s greater plan. Further, Christians and Jews are far from the only monotheists, though they are the only ones whose views appear in this story.

Cappie’s vengeful God

Speaking of religion and tragedy in Japan, a lot of celebrities should have spoken a little less. In case you missed it, some people have said some stupid things about the tsunami. And some have dragged God into it.

Cappie Pondexter, a WNBA player, was one of those. On Saturday she tweeted: “What if God was tired of the way they treated their own people in there own country! Idk guys he makes no mistakes.”

She followed by using the racist term “jap” and saying: “u just never knw! They did pearl harbor so u can’t expect anything less.”

The ESPN story giving her apology is worth talking about. After providing the background, ESPN quoted Pondexter’s tweets apologizing. Of relevance, she said:

“I wanna apologize to anyone I may hurt or offended during this tragic time,” the tweet said. “I didn’t realize that my words could be interpreted in the manner which they were. People that knw me would tell u 1st hand I’m a very spiritual person and believe that everything, even disasters happen 4 a reason and that God will shouldn’t be questioned but this is a very sensitive subject at a very tragic time and I shouldn’t even have given a reason for the choice of words I used.

So that raised a big question — it’s actually one of the biggest questions about God. It’s the question of theodicy — a topic that comes up quite often in religion-news coverage and, thus, here at GetReligion. It almost deserves its own category in the archives.

As John Hagee learned, this is a tough, tough subject to deal with in the media. But it’s even tougher when the media totally ignores the issue.

ESPN’s response is weak at best. The reporter didn’t try to interpret what Pondexter was saying; he didn’t make any sort of inquiry into whether Christian theology supports Pondexter’s perspective.

He simply quoted a statement from the Anti-Defamation League that references God but mischaracterizes the premise of Pondexter’s statement. The ADL is an anti-discrimination advocacy organization, which is great, but Abe Foxman isn’t a Christian theologian.

So ESPN leaves readers with the impression that Pondexter’s perspective is offensive but presumably not out of touch with what all Christians believe. In fact, many, maybe even most, Christians don’t believe in a retributive God, and the reporter should have taken a moment to find that out and include it in this story.

Folks, that would have taken one or two telephone calls. Tops.

At play in the fields of Less Than Nothing

Back in December, I had some passing words of praise for Matt Labash. I will make the obligatory disclosure that I’m friendly with him, but I don’t think that in any biases me when I say he’s easily one of the best magazine writers in the country. Just go ahead buy the recently released collection of his work and thank me later.

Labash has a talent for sniffing out and profiling really interesting people — or in some cases, publicly shaming them. The profile piece is pretty much his bread and butter, and as someone who’s been around the block a bit as a journalist, let me tell you profiles are just about the hardest thing to write. Labash is phenomenally good at them, and if he wrote for Esquire as opposed to a small circulation magazine otherwise devoted to conservative politics he’d have to rent storage for his National Magazine Awards.

So with that in mind, do not let the fact that I’m about to recommend that you drop whatever it is you’re reading and read 10,000+ word piece intimidate you. In Labash’s capable hands it will breeze by, and by any measure his profile of a priest prone to profane outbursts doing mission work in post-earthquake Haiti is a marvel, and the kind of thing he was born to write.

The piece just oozes humanity. Take this anecdote about Father Frechette and the weekly morgue runs his mission makes, where they bury the heaps of unclaimed dead bodies an area outside Port-Au-Prince known as Titanyen, which translates from Creole as the “fields of less than nothing.” Frechette has never gotten used to the smell so he smokes Marlboro Reds and drinks Barbancourt rum:

He’s been doing the morgue runs for 15 years, but has never gotten used to the smell. It makes him so sick, he brings along rum and cigarettes. “People ask me if I smoke,” he says. “Only on Thursdays.” The Haitians avail themselves of the goods, but for Frechette, they’re not optional. Without the spirit’s fumes and cigarette smoke chasing the smell of the dead out of his nostrils, he vomits, which his Haitian colleagues find amusing.

When he returned to Haiti right after the earthquake, there was an overflow crowd at the morgue, literally thousands of dead laid out in the street in front of it. “They were picking them up with backhoes and bucket-loaders, dumping them into trucks,” says Frechette, adding that the machines crunched the bodies against the walls in order to be able to scoop them. “They were hanging out the sides like crabs in a bucket. Really, really terrible. It was so shocking, so disgusting, I yelled, ‘Give me a cigarette!’”

His Haitian right-hand and all-around fixer, Raphael — whom Frechette regards as something close to a brother — couldn’t find them. Frechette, now desperately gagging, was yelling, “Give me a f–ing cigarette!!!” A journalist, taking in the scene, sidled up to him. “I heard somebody say, ‘I’m an ABC affiliate, and I’m wondering, are you Father Frechette?’ I said, ‘Do I look like a priest?’ I wasn’t going to be caught using foul language.” By the time the cigarettes were found, he says, it was too late. “I was empty of everything.”

Maybe it’s just me but the portrayal of an otherwise immensely courageous priest as a complicated, impious human being is downright refreshing. That anecdote is near the beginning of the piece and it’s one of the first of many that will threaten to tear a hole in your heart.

But of great interest to me were the revelatory moments where Frechette attempts to explain himself, and how he copes with unfathomable suffering on daily basis — in Frechette’s case, a finely honed sense of dark humor is something of a salve:

He knows it, too, and figures that second only to his faith in a God that orders the universe even amidst the apparent chaos, humor is his salvation. He tells me he read somewhere that a normal reaction to a normal thing is normal, and an abnormal reaction to an abnormal thing is normal. But a normal reaction to an abnormal thing is abnormal. Even so, there’s a “hierarchy of maturity,” he says. You can become a “psychological fetus,” upon witnessing horrors like Haiti’s, which makes you a burden to everybody, as the problem becomes comforting you. You can become angry, blaming everyone or everything. But the most productive abnormal reaction, he says, is to find laughter. He does that, he reasons, and it keeps him moving. And he always has to keep moving.

Or again his reaction to this story about how Frechette tries to reconcile an incident where he and some nuns come across a boy who’s burned alive in the street by gang members. The boy’s mother tries to thank them:

Then she saw it come back. And the people in it got out, and “put out my son like I was wishing I could put out the fire on my son’s body.” Then they picked him up until he was clean. Then they prayed for him. “Everything she tried to do was done in front of her, by absolute strangers who didn’t know her or her kid.”

Of all the emotions the woman was entitled to, he wouldn’t guess gratitude would be high on the list. And yet there she was. “It made her able to live with it,” Frechette thinks. “It’s like God sent someone to help her, like it restored her faith in humanity again. … I call it the countersign. The terrible thing that’s in front of you, you hurry, and offset it right away. Before what happens is too taxing and too poisonous. … Sometimes with horrible things, you really feel there is nothing you can do. Nothing. You’re just useless. But over time, you start seeing that to do the right thing no matter what has tremendous power.”

I don’t want to belabor this, because this is one of the best things you’re going to read all year. There’s no point in denying the tremendous power of this piece and there’s no shortage of religion in it.

That said, I do half-wish that there was some slightly more explicit discussion of Frechette’s theological outlook, considering the man wrestles with more theodicy before nine a.m. than some people do in their lifetimes. But if the story lacks that, it could simply be that Labash, mighty fine writer that he is, is simply more invested in showing rather than telling. I got a better grasp in this story of the challenges of mission work from a vocational perspective than just about anything I’ve ever read, so I guess even at 10,000 words you can’t possibly say everything.

Just read the piece already, and say prayer for Haiti if you’re so inclined.

Haitian voices: God and the quake

So far, nothing I have seen coming out of Haiti has changed my mind about how journalists should approach the basic “theodicy” story.

I’ve said it several times already (click here and then here), I am really not that interested in what American religious broadcasters or even articulate American academics have to say about the role that God or the spirits did or didn’t play in causing the hellish earthquake that rocked Port-au-Prince and the surrounding area.

What matters to me are the voices of people in various faith groups — in Haiti.

At the very least, we need to be hearing from (a) the leaders of the Catholic Church, (b) voodoo leaders who fuse their beliefs with Catholicism, (c) voodoo leaders who are not active Catholics and (d) believers in Haiti’s growing Protestant churches, especially in the charismatics and Pentecostal churches. I totally realize that it’s simplistic to settle for this quartet of faith groups when trying to describe a land as complex as Haiti. More on these four groups in a moment.

I’ve been waiting for a story that tried to capture some of the tensions that exist in that land. Finally, there was this blunt headline in the Los Angeles Times: “Voodoo practitioners have an age-old take on the devastation, which their Christian neighbors chalk up to just such beliefs.”

You can see one of the problems that reporter Joe Mozingo faced, right there in the headline. Who are these “Christian neighbors”?

The complex reality arrives in the anecdotes that set the scene:

The night was filled with voices, murmuring then gathering together then rising into hymns and chants that carried far in the balmy air. This was the time for God and for spirits.

On a road next to the central cemetery, residents of a small slum were lying on mattresses and pieces of cardboard set out on the broken pavement. A woman started to hum a Christian song, and soon rallied a chorus, singing and dancing and clapping for rhythm.

“Kem kontan Jesus renmem, aleluya,” they sang — joyously, not mournfully. “I’m so happy Jesus loves me. Hallelujah.”

Farther down the road, two voodoo priestesses sat down on buckets with another group. They made the sign of the cross and started a Catholic hymn, before splashing some rum on the ground to reach out to the gede, the spirits of the dead.

“We are thanking you that we are here,” said Marie Michele Louis, a priestess, called a manbo here. “We are thanking all the spirits of Africa. We are not afraid to serve the spirits of Guinea.”

So the believers singing the joyful hymn are the “Christian neighbors,” while those singing the Catholic hymn are not Christians? This is certainly a case where the headline does not do justice to the material provided by the reporter.

So keep reading:

In Haiti, the spiritual world is omnipresent, a raucous realm where voodoo, folklore, superstition, Protestant and Catholic faiths compete, clash and sometimes converge. When the earth shakes no one talks about fault lines and tectonic plates. Instead, there are many otherworldly explanations of why the earthquake hit and the aftershocks go on here, from the biblical to the superstitious to the conspiratorial.

The devastation Jan. 12 has also widened a rift that has been growing since U.S. missionaries began coming to Haiti in the 1800s: Evangelical Christians blame voodoo for bringing on this ruin, claiming it is satanic. Voodoo priests counter that the Christians are exploiting the catastrophe to convert people and raise money.

So here is the basic split — Haitian Protestants with ties to America vs. the voodoo culture and its deep roots on the island. The basic theological question, stated from a Christian point of view, is this: Is it wrong in the eyes of God to worship “the spirits” or to worship with them?

Mozingo attempts to offer some background:

Voodoo has a pantheon of these spirits, the lwa, which evolved from the beliefs slaves brought from Africa in the 17th and 18th centuries. When they were taught by priests in the French colony, they saw the lwa as similar to the Catholic saints, if not actually the saints themselves, and appropriated certain Catholic rituals and liturgy. Followers believe in God as the almighty power, but find his underlings to be more accessible.

“We are like good neighbors with Catholics,” Louis said. “They just tell us to pray, they don’t tell us we’re evil.”

So this voodoo leader — one person, remember — sees the local Catholics as good neighbors and the Protestants as bad neighbors.

The Times then states the bottom line quite clearly:

The Roman Catholic Church does not endorse voodoo, and many Catholics avoid it, but it has not combated it as the Protestant faiths have.

Even under constant assault from Christians, voodoo and traditional folklore have retained deep roots, particularly in the slums and countryside. A man might casually mention that another man carrying a heavy load on a cart is a zombie, or that vampires are killing children in the night. …

But sorcery, including endless rumors of human sacrifice, is what has given voodoo a sinister reputation around the world, which practitioners, intellectuals and foreign anthropologists have been trying to change for decades. And it’s why the daily American Airlines flights between Miami and Port-au-Prince are filled with Christian missionaries.

Read on, please. This is a complex and, at times, truly nasty story. For example, note the anti-Catholic dances that some missionaries performed with a notorious and bloody dictator.

As I stated at the beginning of this post, I find it hard to believe that there is any one set “voodoo teaching” on anything and, at the very least, there must be differences between those who practice their Catholic faith, blended with voodoo, and the voodoo believers who have been influenced by the surrounding culture, but are not truly practicing Catholics. I have always been impressed with the diverse, complicated views one can find in pagan groups. This is not creedal territory.

Readers also desperately need to hear from some voice of authority who can state the official Catholic teachings on voodoo. Then this needs to be contrasted with the reality, which is the fact that Catholic leaders clearly do not oppose the voodoo culture to the same degree as the Protestants, especially the Pentecostal believers.

By the way, I find it hard to believe that all of these evangelical/Pentecostal believers have precisely the same point of view, when the time comes to proclaim that the earthquake was literally the act of a jealous and angry God. Surely there are variations on that side of the church aisle. It’s time to listen to some Haitians in those pulpits.

To wrap it up, this story breaks some important new ground — primarily by listening to Haitians and taking seriously what they say. There is power in the simple observation of what is happening there.

But now we need some additional facts. I know that the Catholic leadership in Haiti has been decimated. Who can speak with authority on these issues? Has Rome ever addressed the status of voodoo in this heavily Catholic land?

Meanwhile, is anyone there — Protestant or even conservative Catholic — saying that the Catholic Church has been judged for its compromises with voodoo? It would not surprise me if some people were claiming that, in a land so tense and traumatized. For example, what are Catholics saying who are active in the charismatic renewal movement? Just asking.

There is much, much more ground to cover on these issues and, surely, there is more to this story than evil evangelicals vs. loving Catholics and their voodoo neighbors who just want to be left alone.

I hope that the Times stays on the story and that other news organizations join them.

Framing the religious voices

Haiti Struggles With Death And Destruction After Catastrophic Earthquake

I can’t imagine how difficult it must be to report on the relief and recovery efforts in Haiti, much less manage or participate in them. I keep reading the news and feeling sicker and sicker. One of the things that struck me about personal emails or messages out of Haiti is how they all emphasize the religious lives of the survivors. And it’s nice to see that much of the mainstream media coverage is touching on that as well.

And this Washington Post story, headlined “As lives and houses shattered in Haiti quake, so did some religious differences,” is all about how people’s religious lives have changed following the earthquake. Reporter Manuel Roig-Franzia begins by telling readers that Haitians sing spirituals together at night and then:

Haiti is known as a society of devout Christians — Catholics, Protestants, Methodists, evangelicals — and followers of voodoo. Faith has long played a powerful role in this impoverished nation, giving hope to the poor and fulfilling social functions that the government is incapable of handling.

But in the days since the earth pitched and rolled here, pulverizing shanties and mansions alike, the religious differences that sometimes separated Haitians have come crashing down.

Port-au-Prince has become a kind of multidenominational, open-air church. Tens of thousands live in the street together, scraping for food and water, sharing their misery and blending their spirituality.

The women singing together in Jeremy Square might never have worshiped side by side before the disaster, but now their voices harmonize and soar well past 2 in the morning. Lionelle Masse, a stringy woman with a deep, sad voice, lost a child in the quake. She sings next to Rosena Roche, a fiery-eyed Catholic whose husband is buried under tons of rubble.

“I still have faith in God,” Roche says. “I want to give glory to God.”

OK, so you get the picture. The reporter is saying that religious differences used to separate Haitians and now, with disaster everywhere, they don’t.

To make his case, he says that everyone is praying together now and everyone sings hymns together. He speaks with one priest who says that nobody cares about religious differences.

Now, the piece is just full of wonderful color about the role religion plays in disaster and it actually gets into some bonafide doctrinal matters, too. And not simply about theodicy, for once. I really appreciate these things and value them as a reader. Up until a couple of days ago, I noticed a disconnect between the private missives I was seeing out of Haiti — riddled with religious references and details — and many of the dry reports in the newspaper. Now, with many more reporters on the ground, it’s hard to get through a single story without inclusion of the role religion plays.

But what struck me about the piece was how the reporter was reading quite a bit into the vignettes he described. Maybe it’s true that Haitians never in their wildest dreams would have prayed together or sung shared religious hymns prior to the earthquake — but Christians pray together all the time. The fact that the various groups know the same hymns should be evidence of something, no?

If the story was about Vodoun being incorporated into the Sunday morning Mass at Sacre Couer cathedral, I think the reporter would definitely have a story. But the biggest divide he really gets into is between Roman Catholics and Protestants. The fact that Pentecostal women are taking refuge in Catholic churches is interesting. But is it really evidence that doctrinal distinctions are all of a sudden unimportant?

Take this story from Reuters about how Vodoun priests are objecting to mass graves because it violates their conception of how the dead should be handled. It sounds like doctrinal distinctions are still important and still matter.

In fact, it seems like the big “wall” that needs to be broken down is the reporter’s bias that doctrinal differences are unimportant.

This CNN story managed to simply report on the religious scene, painting a much more nuanced portrait:

It seems Tuesday’s quake has only strengthened the religious fervor many Haitians carry in their souls.

“A lot of people who never prayed or believed — now they believe,” said Cristina Bailey, a 24-year-old clerk.

In parks and backyards, anywhere a group gathers, the prayers of the Haitians can be heard. Last week, the call-and-response chanting and clapping that accompany those prayers pierced the darkness of night and the pre-dawn hours — sometimes as early as 4 a.m. The singing and praying was particularly intense in Champs de Mars plaza, where hundreds of people have taken refuge. But the scene was repeated throughout the city, with preachers on megaphones exhorting the faithful, who responded with lyrics like “O Lord, keep me close to you” and “Forgive me, Jesus.”

Many preachers are telling followers not to lose faith, that God remains with them regardless of what’s happened.

Okay, but what about Vodoun? The story doesn’t just tell but shows how the widespread practice is incorporated into the lives of Haitians:

Colonized by France, Haiti is a strongly Catholic country. Christian motifs are everywhere in Port-au-Prince. Many vehicles bear signs like the one painted on the windshield of a truck on Rue Delmar: “Merci Jesus,” it said. A woman passing by on Avenue Christophe chanted softly: “Accept Jesus.”

“In Haiti, you have Protestants and Catholics, and you have your percentage of each,” said J.B. Diederich, a native-born Haitian who now lives in Miami, Florida, but returned to the Caribbean for several days after the earthquake. “But everybody is 100 percent voodoo.”

Voodoo is widely acknowledged but practiced only behind closed doors, with practitioners often placing candles and icons on the floor of a home and dancing to music and drums.

Followers believe the world is under the power of loas — spirits and deities who act as intermediaries between humans and God. In voodoo, disasters like Tuesday’s quake are not the result of natural forces, but displeasure by a loa. See complete coverage of Haiti earthquake

“It’s in every apartment. The voodoo is our culture,” 25-year-old Alex Gassan said. “It’s like the folklore.”

Gassan proudly calls himself a Catholic, pulling out a crucifix necklace from under his shirt to show a reporter.

Haiti has a unique religious culture with unique religious values. It’s okay to just describe the situation and let people speak for themselves.

‘How could He do this to us?’

Journalists in the mainstream press often talk about covering both sides of a story fairly and accurately. I can say “Amen” to that, even while acknowledging that it is rare to cover a major story that only has two sides. Nevertheless, the key is for journalists to keep seeking multiple points of view, especially when covering a subject as complicated as religion.

So far, journalists covering the hellish scenes in Haiti have done a good job of showing the degree to which religion — or religions — color life in that haunted, yet intensely spiritual nation. This must be incredibly hard work, when surrounded by so much chaos.

As I mentioned the other day, we are now moving into the “theodicy” (How could God do this? How could God allow this to happen?) stage of this disaster story. I stand by my earlier statements that the best coverage is focusing on the voices of believers and doubters in Haiti, as opposed to rounding up the usual suspects in America.

Consider, for a moment, this Washington Post headline on a weekend Associated Press report: “Religious Haitians see hand of God in earthquake.”

Do tell. I have been wondering when someone would write about this angle of the story, in the wake of the media storm around the Rev. Pat Robertson. To cut to the chase: Are there Haitians who believe that the earthquake is, in some mysterious way, an “act of God,” even a form of divine judgment?

That depends. For starters, you will be glad to know that reporter Michelle Faul quickly establishes that Haitians are not of one mind when it comes to answering that question.

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti – Deeply religious Haitians see the hand of God in the destruction of Biblical proportions visited on their benighted country. The quake, religious leaders said Sunday, is evidence that He wants change.

Exactly what change He wants depends on the faith: Some Christians say it’s a sign that Haitians must deepen their faith, while some Voodoo followers see God’s judgment on corruption among the country’s mostly light-skinned elite.

Jumping down, there is more content on that second point:

Some followers of Voodoo, practiced alongside Roman Catholicism by the vast majority of Haitians, said the devastation of key symbols of power was punishment for corrupt leaders who have allowed the mostly light-skinned elite to enrich themselves while the black majority suffers.

“If all of a sudden, in 15 seconds, 20 seconds, all the physical representations of corruption are destroyed, it gives you pause for thought,” said Richard Morse, a renowned Haitian-American musician whose mother was a singer and revered Voodoo priestess. “The Justice Ministry: down. The National Palace: down. The United Nations headquarters: down.” …

The destruction of every major Catholic church in the capital, including the 81-year-old cathedral, also was a sign, he said: “When there is all this corruption going on, whose role is it in society to speak out? Isn’t the Church supposed to say something?”

There is an old saying in the region that Haiti is 80 percent Roman Catholic and 100 percent Voodoo. However, that simply isn’t true, these days. The government does recognize two official state religions, which are Catholicism and Voodoo. Media reports have emphasized, accurately, that most Haitians practice both of these faiths and believe they are compatible.

However, the nation also includes a growing number of Protestants, especially Baptists and Pentecostal Christians — who reject Voodoo, as a rule. You have to ask: What are these groups saying? Are these some of the people whose street sermons have — vaguely — been mentioned in some media reports? What is their stance on the “divine judgment” issue? I predict that the answer to that question is more complex than you might imagine.

It would also be good to know if Catholics are united in the belief that Voodoo rites and beliefs can be fused, as they often are in Haiti. Is this topic debated? And what about the Voodoo community itself? It is hard to imagine that there would be only one point of view on the question of who is being judged and by what Deity. How does Voodoo address the “theodicy” question?

What about unbelievers? What about the people who have lost so much, including their faith or faiths?

Clearly, there is much ground still left to cover. But for now, try to forget the final image from this AP report:

“How could He do this to us?,” cried Remi Polevard, who said his five children lie beneath in the rubble of a home near St. Gerard University. “There is no God.”

Sunday night, as downtown residents began burning some of the bodies that have been rotting on the streets for five days, a woman walking by in an orange dress pulled out a copy of the Bible.

She flung it into the fire.


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