Lessons from Waco: Some folks just don’t get religion

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Even after a small stack of best-selling books, Malcolm Gladwell remains what he has long been — a master of magazine-form journalism.

After scores of recent interviews in which he has talked about his return to Christian faith, there is evidence that he plans to focus his talents on topics linked to religion news, perhaps building toward a new book. Count me among those who hope this comes to pass.

On one level, Gladwell’s lengthy New Yorker piece entitled “Sacred and Profane: How not to negotiate with believers,” is simply an extended essay digging into “A Journey to Waco,” by Clive Doyle, a survivor of that infamous day when a small army of U.S. troops and law officials crashed into the Branch Davidian complex outside of Waco, resulting in the deaths of about 80 members of this Adventist sect, including two dozen children.

In the end, however, this is much more than a review. It’s more like a meditation of why it is so difficult for profoundly secular people to understand what is happening inside the minds and hearts of radically religious people. The bottom line is clear: Some people, including lots of FBI leaders, just don’t get religion. I think religion-beat professionals will find this article fascinating.

This is also a meditation on how hard it is to be tolerant of people whose beliefs are radically different than our own (study the treatment of Mormons on the American frontier), especially when these outsiders simply refuse to compromise. Yes, David Koresh was a genuinely strange man, both to outsiders and to many of his followers who didn’t agree with all of his actions (especially the taking of multiple wives). But his followers had a history and it appears that law-enforcement officials never took their beliefs seriously.

Thus, Gladwell writes:

The Waco standoff was one of the most public conversations in the history of American law enforcement, and the question Doyle poses in his memoir, with genuine puzzlement, is how a religious community could go to such lengths to explain itself to such little effect. …

The Branch Davidians belonged to the religious tradition that sees Christ’s return to earth and the establishment of a divine Kingdom as imminent. They were millennialists. Millennial movements believe that
within the pages of the Bible are specific clues about when and how the Second Coming will arrive. They also rely on what the Biblical scholar James Tabor calls “inspired interpreters,” prophets equipped with the divine insight to interpret those clues and prepare their followers to be among God’s chosen. Mormonism began, in the nineteenth century, as a millennial movement; its “inspired interpreter” was Joseph Smith. Jehovah’s Witnesses began as a millennial movement, as did the Pentecostal Church.

Of all mainstream contemporary American churches, though, the Seventh-Day Adventists have the strongest millennial tradition.

Now this article may not appeal to people who are not interested in history, and especially the history of religion in America.

As for me, I have always been fascinated by the Davidians — especially after meeting several, including members of the Roden family when they visited one of my Baylor graduate-school classes on contemporary religious movements in America. We discussed their commitment to pacifism.

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Advent of a GetReligion scribe: Mark Kellner climbs aboard

Greetings, I am Mark Kellner, and right now you can call me the “new kid” on the GetReligion block.

First things first: Alongside my faith, there’s something else in which I deeply believe: journalism. That may seem heretical — or even just dumb — but hear me out.

More on that in a minute. Here are the basic journalism facts about my work.

By day, I’m privileged to serve as news editor for two magazines: Adventist Review and Adventist World, general papers of the Seventh-day Adventist Church. By night, I write about several topics, mostly for The Washington Times, one of which is religion. I’ve had an interest in religion news for many years, having written on the subject for a bunch of publications including Christianity Today, Charisma and even (once upon a time, during the Reagan administration), Religion News Service. Long ago (in 1996, to be precise), my book, “ “God on the Internet” was published, and the wonderful and learned Phyllis Tickle called it a sine qua non in her book, “God-Talk in America.”

My other longtime journalistic interest, albeit on hiatus now, is in personal computing technology. For nearly 22 years, I wrote a weekly column, “On Computers,” for The Washington Times as well as working for (and, in one case, editing) computer magazines for business and personal users. I’m a confirmed Apple “fanboy,” but with a non-religious reason: the stuff works better than most other alternatives out there. (Discuss amongst yourselves, please, and of course, your mileage may vary.)

One of my favorite t-shirts, from the Religion Newswriters Association, says, “Religion Writers Are Sects Experts,” and given my interest in American-born religions (among other topics), I certainly agree with that statement. There are few areas in journalism as interesting or constantly changing as the religion news scene, so following developments there is of great interest. Watching how other people write about religion news is equally interesting.

Which leads me to my interest in serving the GetReligion community: having had exposure to a wide range of religion news topics, while on both sides of the notebook, I hope to bring some of that knowledge to bear in looking at how this news is being covered.

Like others here, I believe religion news is best covered by professionals who know a thing or two about the subject. Just as a police beat reporter could, conceivably, write a serviceable account of the U.S. Open tennis championship, you’re more likely to get a better report from someone who knows more about the game and the players. In religion, those who understand some of the basics and even some of the background/subtext behind a story are more likely to convey things clearly and, one hopes, fairly. It’s journalism, in other words.

That’s what I mean when I say that one of the things in which I “truly believe” is journalism. It is through journalism — content that is professionally created and, to use an au courant word, “curated” by an editor (or via several editors) before appearing online or in print — that we can learn reliable information about what’s going on in the world, and that includes the world of faith. From that basis, we can then make informed decisions about various issues of the day. Thus, I believe good journalism can improve a society, and perhaps even change lives. When journalism is poorly done, covering religion or anything else, no one is well served.

The other thing in which I truly believe is God, whom I’ve found as a believer; that includes what might be deemed a traditional view of Christian faith. That won’t keep me from writing, and I hope fairly, about other faiths, but as the prophet Isaiah wrote, “The grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of our God endures forever.” (Isa. 40:8) I respect other points of view, of course, and hope you’ll respect mine.

Thanks for sharing this journey with me, and I hope you’ll find my contributions useful.


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