The Casey Anthony Trial

News of the Casey Anthony trial has been hard to avoid.  Every major news outlet has devoted space to it.

The BBC World News Service ran an article just moments following the verdict in an effort to account for the reasons this trial had received so much attention.  In summary, here are the reasons offered by Washington correspondent Tom Geoghegan:

One, given the elements of the story it was too big to ignore.

Two, the story had “’cultural equity.’”  Once the media decided to cover it there was “no going back.”

Three, “viewers get sucked into the soap opera.”

Four, we share so little in common that something like this brings us together.

Five, the story was riveting because a mother was accused of killing her child.  The story would not have been as interesting had it been a story about a little girl killed by her father.

Six, morbid interest in the child’s death and her mother’s conduct.  As one interviewee put it, “It was better TV than a reality show.”

There is nothing definitive about Geoghegan’s list, I suppose, but it is difficult to know (barring far more extensive research) exactly what other factors may account for the non-stop attention the trial received.  But in looking back over the list, I can’t help but wonder what his take on the trial’s noteriety says about our souls and about what the coverage of a story like this does to our souls.

Here is some of what occurs to me…

One: There is not a single altruistic reason for the story’s interest here.  No concern for the child herself.  No concern about provisions for the safety of children in general.  No conversations about the responsibilities of parenting.

That’s troubling, to say the least.  If the trial had generated a conversation about those issues, then the attention it received might have justified the time devoted to it.  But if there is nothing more here (as Geoghegan hints), than yet another “trial-of-the-century” dynamic, then that is a sad commentary on our spiritual seriousness — and bad news for our nation’s children.  Misery and misfortune, injury and death, justice and the miscarriage of justice should take us right back into conversations about the most basic values of our society, their preservation, and their practice.

Two:  When the suffering and misery of others becomes the stuff of entertainment, we are — by definition — in spiritual peril.   In that regard, reality as entertainment is a volatile formula.

Entertainment (and, particular, comedy) has always traded to some degree on the pratfall and embarrassment.  But in fictional portrayals, the occasions for laughter are typically larger than life and depend upon exaggeration.  Buster Keaton and Lucille Ball traded on persona’s that were larger than life and, for that reason, were unlikely to draw comparisons with our neighbors and friends.

But reality television erases those lines and with them our capacity for compassion and respect.  The actors are our neighbors.  They are our friends.  And their lives are the focus of our curiosity and laughter.

It’s no small wonder then, that the formula is easily reversed.  If entertainment can embrace reality, then reality does not need translation to become entertainment.  And like the characters of a fictional account, the real life actors are equally disposable and irrelevant to us, apart from their entertainment value.

It is no surprise that Geoghegan’s article looks back on the Anthony trial’s predecessors (Simpson, Jackson, Menendez) and anticipates the next spectacle.  Why wouldn’t it?  After all, it’s simply the entertainment of the moment.

Altruism and the respect for human life may not figure in conversations about the spiritual life — and I have no doubt that they sound terribly old-fashioned.  But they are both values that require us to think beyond the narrow confines of our own lives.  And they demand that we pay serious attention to the losses and misfortunes of others.

I have no way of knowing whether Caylee Anthony received the justice she deserved from our judicial system.  I am sure that she received considerably less justice than she deserved from our culture.  And that should prompt some soul-searching.

About Frederick Schmidt

The Reverend Dr. Frederick W. Schmidt, Jr. holds the Rueben P. Job Chair in Spiritual Formation at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in Evanston, IL, and directs the Job Institute for Spiritual formation. He is an Episcopal Priest, spiritual director, retreat facilitator, conference leader, writer, and Consulting Editor at Church Publishing in New York. He is the author of numerous published articles and reviews, including forty-four entries in Doubleday’s Anchor Bible Dictionary, as well as articles in Feminist Theology and The Scottish Journal of Theology. He is author of A Still Small Voice: Women, Ordination and the Church (Syracuse University Press, 1998), The Changing Face of God (Morehouse, 2000), When Suffering Persists (Morehouse, 2001), in Italian translation: Sofferenza, All ricerca di una riposta (Torino: Claudiana, 2004), What God Wants for Your Life (Harper, 2005), Conversations with Scripture: Revelation (Morehouse, 2005) and Conversations with Scripture: Luke (Morehouse, 2009). His latest work, The Dave Test (Abingdon Press) will appear in the autumn of 2013. He is also the series editor for the new Anglican Association of Biblical Scholars Study Series.

From 2000-2012, he worked as Director of Spiritual Life and Formation and Associate Professor of Christian Spirituality at Southern Methodist University, Perkins School of Theology in Dallas, Texas. As one of Perkins’ senior administrators, Dr. Schmidt was responsible for programs in formation, serving over 500 students. He developed the School's program in Spiritual Direction which has thus far served over 150 students from across the country; the program in Anglican and Episcopal studies; and the spiritual formation track in the Doctor of Ministry program. Prior to his arrival at SMU, he served as Canon Educator, Director of Programs in Spirituality and Religious Education, and Acting Program Area Manager at Washington National Cathedral. In this capacity Dr. Schmidt was responsible for the development of a program of religious education and spirituality that annually provided resources for broad-based audiences of over 5000 adults. He also designed and produced workshops and seminars for ecumenical and interfaith constituencies; hosted foreign dignitaries from the Middle East and the former Soviet Union on behalf of the Meridian Institute; and developed the programmatic work and daily operations of the Cathedral Center for Prayer and Pilgrimage. Before going to the Cathedral, Dr. Schmidt served as special assistant to the President and Provost of La Salle University in Philadelphia and as a Fellow of the American Council on Education. From 1994 to 1995, he resided in Jerusalem, where he was Dean of St. George’s College and Residentiary Canon of the Cathedral Church of St. George the Martyr. He has also served in numerous parishes, including St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, All Saints Episcopal Church in Hershey, Pennsylvania and St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Dallas, Texas.

His work in higher education includes service as associate professor of New Testament Studies, as a lecturer in New Testament studies at Oxford University, and as a tutor at Keble College, Oxford. He has been a guest lecturer at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, DC, at the National Cancer Institute in Bethesda, Maryland and the Southwestern Medical Center at the University of Texas, Dallas.

Dr. Schmidt holds a bachelor’s degree from Asbury College, the Masters of Divinity from Asbury Theological Seminary and the Doctor of Philosophy from Oxford University. His honors include a Fellowship in administrative leadership with the American Council on Education; a Senior Fellowship with the W.F. Albright Institute of Archaeological Research; the Young Scholars Fellowship presented by the Catholic Biblical Association; nomination to Class XI of the Clergy Leadership Project, sponsored by Trinity Church, Wall Street; the Angus Dun Fellowship (Episcopal Diocese of Washington); and an Ecumenical Service Award given by Christian Churches United (an ecumenical organization covering a tri-county area and based in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania). He is a recipient of the F. W. Dillstone Scholarship awarded by Oriel College, Oxford; the Hall Houghton Studentship awarded by the Theology Faculty of Oxford University; and an Overseas Research Student Award, presented by the Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals of the Universities of the United Kingdom. Dr. Schmidt is a member of the American Academy of Religion, the Society of Biblical Literature, the Catholic Biblical Association, the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion, and the Society for the Study of Christian Spirituality. From 1998 to 2000 he served as a member of the Institutional Review Board for Heart, Lung and Blood Research at the National Institutes of Health and he currently serves on two Data Safety Monitoring Boards for NIH. He is Secretary-Treasurer of the Anglican Association of Biblical Scholars and a member of the Board of Examining Chaplains for the Episcopal Church, USA.

In addition to his work in the academy and the church Dr. Schmidt currently serves as a patient safety and ethics consultant on Data Safety Monitoring Boards for the National Institutes of Health and Allergan, Inc.

He lives with his wife, Natalie (who is also an academic and an Episcopal priest), and Hilda of Whitby, their Gordon Setter.