Theodicy and forgiveness in Iowa

churchfront1Last week, an Iowa high school football coach was shot dead in the school’s weight room. Police charged a 24-year-old former player. The headline made Drudge but I quickly forgot the story and didn’t see much follow-up. Many people talk about the sports page as if it’s got the best writing in the whole newspaper. And they’re probably thinking of reporters like Josh Peter, an enterprise reporter with, of all outlets, Yahoo! Sports. He looked at the shooting and came up with a story about theodicy, forgiveness and the strength of tight-knit communities. Here’s how he began:

PARKERSBURG, Iowa – Not far from the cornfields, in the cool of the morning, Gary Hinders stood waist-deep in a grave. He held a shovel, just like the other four men who took turns digging, first through a foot-and-a-half layer of black dirt, then a mix of sand and clay and finally the stubborn hardpan.

Hinders paused.

“Never thought I’d be digging this one,” he said.

“Not in a million years,” one of the other men said.

“At least not for this reason,” added a third.

Not a bad way to set a scene. The story has plenty of civil religion — of the sports variety. For instance, the football field where Aplington-Parkersburg High School football players competed is called The Sacred Acre. That might have something to do with the storm from last year. In May 2008, a tornado destroyed 288 homes — including Coach Thomas’, killed 9 people and ripped through the school, including the football field. After the storm, people congregated on the field.

But it also has actual religion. Let me highlight a few of those parts. Peter explains that the coach’s murder will test the community even more than it was tested by the tornado that ripped through town:

Hinders, a God-fearing man in a God-fearing town, is among residents who believe it’s no accident the tornado spared all eight churches in Parkersburg. Nor does he believe it’s a coincidence that Thomas – a man known as much for his deep faith in Christianity as for his two state championships and record of 292-84 over 37 seasons – was gunned down.

“You couldn’t pick anybody bigger in this town to shoot,” said Hinders, 60, who has been the town clerk here for 27 years. “That’s evil. . . .

“It’s spiritual warfare. Satan and God are fighting, and in the end I believe God will win.”

The man who is charged with shooting Thomas, Mark Becker, is a crystal meth addict. His family and the coach’s family attend the same church. They’re all friends, in fact. The coach had been trying to help the young man with his troubles in recent months.

Peter visits First Congregational Church where Thomas served as an elder:

Sunday morning, police chief Chris Luhring stood watch outside of First Congressional [sic] Church – where the Thomas and Becker families attended. Usually, there were two services. But now there was one – at 9 a.m.

Five rows from the back, there they were, the Beckers.

The back pew was open until moments before the service started. That is when the Thomas family arrived.

Brad Zinnecker, the head pastor, called on God’s mercy for a congregation that had its “guts ripped out.” He spoke of Thomas, recalling a man who could be so fiery on the sideline and yet so measured in church. And some of the worshipers quietly wept.

He prayed for the Thomas family. He prayed for the Becker family. He prayed for forgiveness during the hour-long service, and it already had come. The Thomases and Beckers had spoken earlier in the week, people close to the families said. And the coach’s younger son and wife urged people to pray for the Beckers, who would gain no closure when Ed Thomas’ casket was lowered into the ground.

Elsewhere in the story people are quoted talking about how Thomas emphasized forgiveness.

The piece is long. It covers a lot of ground. But Peter naturally (and seemingly effortlessly) weaves the faith of this town’s inhabitants throughout the story. He not only gets the meaty religious quotes but he puts them in context so that readers unfamiliar with the religious views can still understand. Excellent work.

Image of First Congregational Church, Parkersburg.

May her memory be eternal

Angels in a cubeThe theological term is “theodicy,” and, as I have said before, this concept is woven into many religion-news stories for at least two good reasons.

The basic question is this: Where was God? The most common variation is: Why did God allow this to happen? Or, for those who know their publishing history: Why do bad things happen to good people?

This ancient theological puzzle constantly affects news because (1) disaster and tragedy are part of this sinful, fallen world and (2) the word “why” remains part of the whole “who, what, when, where, why and how” equation at the heart of hard-news reporting.

Of course, it is also possible to wrestle with these big eternal questions in first-person, confessional journalism. Click here to see one A1 example from the Los Angeles Times not that long ago and then here to see some of the reaction to it.

I thought of this while reading the latest “Stairway to Heaven” column by Julia Duin at the Washington Times. It takes quite a bit to make me tear up on my commuter train, but “Requiem for Susan” did just that. This is wrenching, highly personal journalism, but it is journalism.

You need to read the whole thing, but know that it focuses on the shocking death of one of Duin’s friends — Susan Shaughnessy, executive assistant to the provost for the John Paul II Institute at Catholic University. What took the life of this young woman?

She’d gone to a doctor, complaining of the flu and headaches, and was sent home to rest. After she went to bed the evening of Oct. 25, she never woke up. Her frantic housemates rushed her to the hospital, where doctors discovered Susan’s autoimmune response to a freak virus had wiped clean her brain. The technical name is acute disseminated encephalomyelitis. A neurologist from the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., told the family her case was the worst he had seen. None of the doctors held out any hope.

When word went out last Saturday that the family was disconnecting her respirator, I rushed to Fairfax Hospital’s neurological intensive care unit. She lay, silent, one hand clasped about a rosary. Her hands were warm as I held them. Her parents, brother and Eduardo sat there, numb.

“God had a reason for this,” a friend told me later over the phone.

“No, He didn’t,” I responded. “This was the devil.”

Who was responsible for the fact that Susan, who wore a long, sweepy red dress as maid of honor at a friend’s recent nuptials, will never attend her own wedding? Was it her doctor, who could have noticed something was gravely wrong? Was it God or Satan who structured — or interfered with — Susan’s body so it would attack itself thus?

Read to the last line. Please.

I hope the Times finds a way to get this piece noticed out front on the website, with its spinning cube that displays the top four stories of the day. This is not conventional journalism, but it raises issues that will hit readers right where they live and die.

Theodicy hook in Hagee finale

237HageeFlagSince I have been following the whole Sen. John McCain media drama with the Rev. John Hagee, I thought I’d try to comment on the latest act.

However, the coverage has — for the most part — been politics and politics and more politics. But then I saw veteran Washington Times religion writer Julia Duin’s report on how Hagee’s comments about Adolf Hitler, the Holocaust and Israel went down in different corners of the Jewish community. Too make a long story short, Hagee has Jewish friends, which does not amuse his many, many Jewish critics.

Here is Duin’s crisp summary of the quotes that sparked the latest hires.

At issue was Mr. Hagee’s reference — in a late 1990s sermon and in his 2006 book “Jerusalem Countdown” to Adolf Hitler being a “hunter” used by God to force Jews to emigrate to Israel.

In a reference to the Book of Jeremiah, whose author predicts a scattering of the Jewish people but saying God would bring them back to the promised land, Mr. Hagee says in the sermon: “How did [the Holocaust] happen? Because God allowed it to happen. Why did it happen? Because God said my top priority for the Jewish people is to get them to come back to the land of Israel.”

Duin had the key response quotes, of course. To radically understate the matter, there is a “theodicy” issue here.

However, most American news consumers will run into this off-beat story via Eric Gorski of the Associated Press, since he has the big quote too. Here’s the key section of his wire report on the Hagee press conference about his split with McCain.

Hagee on Friday said he in no way condones the Holocaust or “that monster Adolf Hitler.” …

Hagee left it to Rabbi Aryeh Scheinberg of Congregation Rodfei Shalom, a modern Orthodox synagogue in San Antonio, to provide an explanation of his offending comments. Standing with Hagee at the news conference, Scheinberg called it “ironic and absurd” that Hagee’s words were twisted and labeled anti-Semitic when Hagee was lecturing on one Jewish perspective of the Holocaust.

“Pastor interpreted a Biblical verse in a way not very different from several legitimate Jewish authorities,” Scheinberg said. “Viewing Hitler as acting completely outside of God’s plan is to suggest that God was powerless to stop the Holocaust, a position quite unacceptable to any religious Jew or Christian.”

In other words, we are back to questions that have driven many, many debates in post-Holocaust Jewish ethics and theology. Did God allow the Holocaust to happen? Why did God allow the Holocaust to happen? Is the birth of Israel a sign of God’s mercy following a Holocaust rooted in human freedom? Etc., etc.

Here’s my question: Did you see these religion-angle quotes in your local media? For a fuller treatment of the controversy behind this debate, check out the Crunchy Con discussion of an early flare up, courtesy of Rod “friend of this blog” Dreher.

Listening for questions in the weeping

china mapIt’s a saying that I have heard repeated time and time again by people who study China or work there on issues of human rights: Anything that you want to say about religion in China is true, somewhere in China.

You want persecution of minority religions? Check. You want look-the-other-way toleration of minority religious groups? Check. You want gigantic underground Pentecostal house-church networks and loyal-to-Rome Catholic parishes? Check. You want strict enforcement of laws that push believers toward the state-recognized religious bodies? Check.

So where did this gigantic earthquake hit, on the religion-in-China map?

So far — in my rush through the New York Times reports — I have not seen the kinds of, yes, theodicy questions that you would expect to see in stories about a similar tragedy in predominately Christian or Islamic settings. So if there are people there crying out to God, what are they crying out and to whom?

It is a real struggle to work through this story, in particular, that ran with the headline, “‘No Hope’ for Children Buried in Earthquake.” This focuses on the collapsed school in Dujiangyan where hundreds of children are dead:

Little remained of the original structure of the school. No standing beams, no fragments of walls. The rubble lay low against the wet earth. Dozens of people gathered around in the schoolyard, clawing at the debris, kicking it, screaming at it. Soldiers kept others from entering.

A man and woman walked away from the rubble together. He sheltered her under an umbrella as she wailed, “My child is dead! Dead!”

As dawn crept across this shattered town … it illuminated rows and rows of apartment blocks collapsed into piles, bodies wedged among the debris, homeless families and their neighbors clustered on the roadside, shielding themselves from the downpour with plastic tarps. The earthquake originated here in the lush farm fields and river valleys of Sichuan Province, killing almost 10,000 people and trapping thousands more.

Click here for the longer Times report containing even more basic facts about the tragedy. But the story, again, lacks a second layer. It’s that “Why?” question that would be asked in some cultural contexts, but not in others.

Is that a statement about China? This part of China? Mainstream media assumptions about China? Are the people simply weeping, with no cries to the heavens for answers? Is that kind of silent acceptance — that that is the reality on the ground in China right now — a piece of some larger religious or secular view of life and death?

I have questions. I’ll keep looking for some answers. Right now, if you search Google News for “China, earthquake, God” this is what you get. Notice the reactions from Iran and from Catholic leaders. Notice that Los Angeles Times report on earthquakes as expressions of the “wrath of God.”

The silence is unnerving, to me. Then again, I am a traditional Christian in a culture where the “Why?” question would be automatic.

A haunted story, handled just right

11516One of our goals here at GetReligion is to find stories in mainstream journalism that are “haunted” by religion ghosts, which we define as a clear religious element or theme that the reporters and editors either didn’t notice or simply ignored.

We have also been known, from time to time, to take a shot or two at the masters of snark — the team that produces the Washington Post‘s Style section.

So it brings me great pleasure to point GetReligion readers toward a story in that Style section that is, indeed, haunted by faith issues and reporter Tamara Jones saw them, reported them and wove them into the story just right. Bravo.

The entire Virginia Tech massacre story was haunted. I suspected that right away and other religious details quickly emerged. Now, it is a year later and Jones took a familiar route to an anniversary feature story, profiling one of the victims who survived the carnage — the often interviewed witness Derek O’Dell.

There is a strong faith element in this story. It does not dominate the story, but the big theological question is not hidden. The theological question, of course, is linked to theodicy — as are many other stories (click here for a sample) linked to horrible events in our world.

What struck me, as I read this story, was that Jones allowed religion to play a normal role in this young man’s life. She did not spotlight it and it would have been strange if she had. A sample:

Derek discovered two more holes in his fleece jacket, most likely from the bullets fired through the classroom door as he held it shut. He tried the jacket on; one of the holes was over his chest. He fingers the silver cross he always wears, a gift from his girlfriend; it was the only shield, he thinks, between a bullet and his heart. A Catholic, he remembers asking his priest why his life was spared that day, what this all meant. It’s a mystery of faith, he was told.

Here’s another image, where the faith element fits in at the end of another symbolic story, one that begins with yet another emotional issue facing Derek O’Dell’s family:

Roger O’Dell had undergone successful surgery for ocular cancer the year before, and Derek had been anticipating the university’s annual Relay for Life fundraiser for months. The overnight marathon fell on the Friday after the Monday massacre. His parents tried in vain to talk Derek out of going. Beneath his jacket, a small photograph of each of the five people killed in Room 207 was pinned to his sling, and mentally, he checked off another name each time he circled the track. This is Lauren’s lap, that was Nicole’s lap, Mike’s lap, Maxine’s, Herr Bishop’s. Luminarias lit the field, arranged to spell the word CURE. As the night wore on, the candles were rearranged, and Derek saw the new message they spelled: HOPE.

Weak and fatigued by the time the event ended just after dawn, O’Dell was amazed to hear that another student had run an entire mile for each victim of April 16. He caught up to offer congratulations to the stranger. “Man, that was incredible, how did you do it?” O’Dell exclaimed. His voice catches even now, repeating the answer a year later.

“It was easy. I had 32 angels running with me.”

I was impressed with another image in this story, a non-religious theme that still provided a wonderful emotional structure for parts of the feature. This young man is a chess player and, now, his life is like a match in which he is having to move the pieces of his life very carefully, just to get by, then to try to heal.

Faith is one of the pieces in that match. This Post story played that piece very well.

A tale of the undead

RoadtoCanaABC’s Good Morning America had a bit about author Anne Rice the other day that caught my attention. Rice is the best-selling American author of vampire tales who has recently written a couple of religious-themed books:

After becoming a born-again Christian, Rice stopped writing about vampires and dedicated herself to religious themes.

Rice, a former atheist, returned to her Catholic roots, and her newest book, “Christ the Lord: The Road to Cana,” is her second book devoted to Christianity. The book follows Christ’s life beginning with his last winter before his baptism in the Jordan River and ending with the miracle at Cana.

Oh dear. Apparently nobody in the story production at ABC knows that born-again Christian is not really a phrase to use for a Catholic.

The phrase “born again” comes from Jesus. “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God,” he says in the Gospel of John.

But the phrase is used differently by traditional Christians and evangelical Protestants. Let’s see how the Religious Newswriters Association defines the term:

born-again: Theologically, all Christians claim to be born-again through the saving work of Jesus Christ; they just disagree over how it occurs. Catholics and Orthodox, for instance, say it occurs in the sacrament of baptism, which frequently takes place when the baptized person is too young to recall it. Evangelical Protestants emphasize being born-again as a personal, transformational experience that involves a deliberate commitment to follow Christ. Because the term tends to associate someone with a particular religious tradition, do not label someone a born-again Christian. Rather let the person label themselves, as in, who calls herself a born-again Christian.

Of course Lutherans and other sacramental Christians believe that spiritual rebirth occurs via baptism. Still, the style recommendations of the Religion Newswriters Association are sound. And I don’t think Rice calls herself a born-again Christian. An article in World magazine a few years ago explained that she was raised in the Catholic Church and attended parochial schools in New Orleans:

At age 18, while attending San Francisco State University, Anne broke with her childhood faith. Her apostasy, she says, resulted from exposure to a wider world: “I stopped believing that [the Catholic Church] was ‘the one true church established by Christ to give grace.’” She also stopped believing in God. . . .

But in 1998, she gradually began to feel again the press of God: “I began to be more and more concerned with my relationship with God in my books. I wanted to be in the company of God, in the company of the drama . . . what we can know, what we don’t know, what we believe.”

She began attending Mass again and participating in sacraments. In 2000, her husband agreed to remarry her in the church: Despite his own atheism, “he was very supportive about my writing [Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt], and he was fine with me going back to the church. It surprised him, but not that much. I don’t think I had ever stopped talking about God.”

That doesn’t sound like someone who identifies as a born-again Christian. For a better treatment of her religious views, you might read a November 2005 profile in January magazine, where she discussed her views on theodicy:

I felt I had to ask Rice about God. I know people who, having endured great tragedy, feel abandoned by God. Over the years, Rice has lost a daughter and a husband, and has had her own brush with death at the hand of diabetes. I wanted to know if she had ever felt abandoned.

“I’ve never felt abandoned by God, really,” she said. “I felt that I abandoned him when I lost my faith as a young woman. Though I’ve suffered the loss of a daughter, a husband, and of course both parents, I have not ever seen these things personally. They are ‘what happened.’ I think it’s entirely possible that God might have been very sad when my daughter died. I believe Divine Providence is the fabric of the universe. God is with the person who dies in a car accident, just as he is with the person who survives. We can’t guess what his plan is. I see that throughout the Old Testament.”

Rice is a fascinating woman with an interesting story to tell. Too bad some in the mainstream media are so bad at telling it.

Shameless plug for student

tornado oklahoma 1999The “theodicy” issue seems to come up pretty often at GetReligion, which isn’t surprising since (a) disaster and tragedy are part of this sinful, fallen world and (b) the word “why” remains part of the “who, what, when, where, why and how” journalistic equation.

As I mentioned the other day, the “Where was God?” question was sure to come up after a tornado leveled large sections of a Southern Baptist campus in the heart of the Bible Belt. And your GetReligionistas admire mainstream journalists who struggle to write about these kinds of eternal issues in the rushed and constricting realities of daily journalism.

So I would have nice things to say about the new Religion News Service follow-up feature — “Surviving Disaster: Is It Divine Intervention?” — about the post-tornado discussions at Union University and elsewhere. However, I really shouldn’t say too many nice things because one of the co-authors of the piece is one of my students at the Washington Journalism Center this semester. As a professor, please let me say that I really appreciate it when internship editors let students dive and do some real reporting and writing. Bravo.

So I’ll just say, “Read it yourself” in the Washington Post. Here’s the opening, which ends with the hardest part of the theodicy equation:

As Kristen Fabrizio felt the vibrations preceding the tornado that ripped across the campus of Union University in Jackson, Tenn., on Feb. 5, she clung to her friends, who in turn clung to their faith.

“You can definitely see God’s hands if you look at our campus,” said Fabrizio, a history major at the Southern Baptist-affiliated school. “No one’s supposed to be alive.”

And yet many are. Those who made it through the storm thank God for protection. But what about the dozens of people across the South who died in the storms, who weren’t so lucky, or blessed? Did God not protect them?

It’s the kind of question often raised after a disaster, man-made or otherwise. Was God looking the other way when 32 were killed in a shooting massacre last April at Virginia Tech, or when the seas swallowed more than 200,000 souls in the 2004 tsunami? Put another way: Does God protect some, but not all?

Heavens, I just saw a photo and promo for this story on page one of

The God of Union University

20080208 7 p020808cg 0330 515hRemember that little discussion of “theodicy” that we had last weekend? This is actual a topic that journalists, as a rule, do not mind digging into from time to time. They enjoy putting God in the dock whenever there is a great tragedy, especially natural disasters.

Truth is, it’s a valid story. I once wrote a mini-meditation on some of these questions early in the history of GetReligion, while living in South Florida, minutes before the power went out in a hurricane.

But to the point: I missed the following Los Angeles Times story the other day, after the wave of tornadoes in the Bible Belt. The headline is blunt and perfectly logical, seen through the eyes of people at Union University: “Seeing God in tornadoes’ wake — As students and faculty at a Southern Baptist university in Tennessee clean up, they also ponder what the event means, theologically speaking.”

That’s long, but gets to the point. This is a case where reporter Richard Fausset simply walks up to the victims and asks the Big Question.

So what does it say about the nature of God that the campus was shredded … by a barrage of tornadoes? What does it say that no lives were lost, despite $40 million in damage?

Gregory A. Thornbury is relishing the opportunity to explore those questions when students return to the Southern Baptist campus, perhaps in the next few weeks. Thornbury, dean of Union’s school of Christian studies, says he plans to make the disaster — and the response to it — a catalyst for student discussions about responding through faith, and the opaque and sometimes baffling motives of God.

“If we didn’t, we’d have blown it,” Thornbury said Thursday, standing on the squishy carpet of the religious studies library. “We’re preparing people to become teachers of God’s word, to be missionaries, to be the leaders of relief organizations.”

You get to hear some answers, some at the level of faithful freshmen. Some at the level of a veteran teacher. As you would expect, the name Job came up in the discussions.

… Thornbury, a clean-cut, smiling presence in glasses and a wind-breaker, warned that guessing the mind of God was a tricky proposition for humans. To make his point, he quoted from Deuteronomy: “The secret things belong to the Lord our God.”

God’s motive for destroying the school, he said, “is probably in the realm of the things that belong to the Lord. … But what we can say is: ‘Look at the solidarity here. Why do we have people from the whole country rallying around this cause?’ I think that says something about what God has revealed to us.”

Though he expects the tornadoes will spark vigorous theological discussions in class, Thornbury said that the true lesson — that people should respond to suffering with love and compassion — was already manifesting itself.

There is not much to fault, but I would like to make one point: This is a question that people wrestle with again and again, because suffering is personal and unique. But Christianity begins with the story of martyrs and redemptive suffering. It never hurts to include at least one paragraph that lets the readers know that his is an old, old story. It literally IS the old, old story.

It is old news. Ancient news, even.

WHITE HOUSE PHOTO: President Bush flies over the wreckage in West Tennessee.