Pearls before Net commenters (or a Godbeat gem)

Pearls before Net commenters (or a Godbeat gem) November 4, 2012

A reader sent along this story in the Washington Post headlined “Parents accept daughter’s rare illness as’‘God’s will’” with a note:

Strange that the Post doesn’t ridicule this family for believing that their plight is God’s will.

The piece ran in the Post but it was wisely picked up by Religion News Service and was written originally for The Tennessean. I have been meaning to highlight it for weeks and am thankful to have the opportunity to revisit it. In a way, the reader comment shows everything about what made the piece so amazing. The subtext the reader alludes to, of course, is the ridiculous way in which the media handled a Senate candidate’s theological reflection on why bad things happen if God is God. The media coverage was an embarrassment, it was clearly partisan, and it lacked any nuance or depth.

I had already mentioned Amy Sullivan’s work as a rare exception to this mess but I would also like to point out Jeffrey Weiss’ piece in Real Clear Politics headlined “Richard Mourdock’s Mystery of Faith.” Rather than aim for political point-scoring, Weiss used the Mourdock statement as a hook to explore the various ways that religious adherents address questions of theodicy. Even if just kept to Christianity, there are a variety of ways of looking at this issue.

Now, the Tennessean story has absolutely nothing to do with Mourdock. But it does show how a capable religion reporter can introduce questions of theodicy in a respectful and even-handed manner. The piece, written by Bob Smietana, is breathtakingly beautiful. The subjects are ideal candidates for a deep dig into the questions and the reporter doesn’t avoid dealing with the difficult implications of their beliefs. I don’t even want to excerpt it because I want everyone to read the whole thing, but it begins:

Eric and Ruth Brown of East Nashville believe nothing about their infant daughter Pearl Joy’s life is a mistake.

They say God gave Pearl her bright red hair and wide blue eyes, as well as the genetic disorder that cleft her upper lip and caused her brain’s development to stall in the first weeks in the womb.

“Things didn’t go wrong,” Eric Brown said. “God has designed Pearl the way he wanted, for his glory and our good.”

That belief has sustained the Browns over the past six months, ever since a routine ultrasound halfway through Ruth’s pregnancy revealed that Pearl, their third child, has alobar holoprosencephaly, a rare genetic condition that’s almost always fatal. A specialist told the Browns she would probably die in the womb and advised them to end the pregnancy early.

It’s one thing to talk about God’s will when life is good. It’s another when a doctor is saying your baby won’t live. The Browns were forced to consider religious, medical and ethical issues most parents never will.

And nobody could make their decision for them.

The Browns never even considered not going forward with the pregnancy. They believe that Pearl is “fearfully and wonderfully made,” as Psalm 139 puts it, and God alone should decide when she lives and when she dies.

Perhaps it’s not until you read the comments at the various newspapers that either picked up or copied The Tennessean‘s story that you realize how counter-cultural and shocking the Browns are to many people in the world. The comments on some of these stories were just unbelievably hurtful and negative. I wished I hadn’t read them. After I read Smietana’s story, I was so curious about the Browns that I began following Eric’s Twitter feed. At first he was also hurt by the negative comments. But he also noticed that their story was provoking many beautiful comments from people who had made similar decisions to them and from people who were thinking things through about how to handle the challenges of life.

Reading all of these comments further demonstrated to me that Smietana handled all of these questions very well. I should warn you that the article is a tear-jerker. Reading it, I was reminded of the brother of one of my best friends. He and his wife were surprised to find out that their second child had severe health problems at birth. The way they loved and cared for her during the few months she lived was beyond inspirational to me. I have grumbled, at times, about how stories like theirs never make “news,” even though they’re dramatic and fascinating. Well, I was wrong. It just takes a good reporter who is observant and knows the community and how to write a story about how faith is lived.

There is much more to this story, but I think it’s best to just read it for yourself. And hopefully it gives some much needed encouragement about professionalism on the Godbeat.

Pearl photo via Shutterstock.

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  • John M.

    Wow. Just wow.

    And I agree 100% on the comments. I only read one and I’m glad that I have a shower nearby.


  • sari

    A beautifully written story. Kudos to Bob Smietana for handling a loaded issue with such delicacy.

    Like John, I read through some of the comments. Most were nasty, but one interesting point that came up pertained to the degree of care. From a religious viewpoint, if one accepts G-d’s will, does a conflict arise when one insists on intensive medical intervention for what is always a fatal illness? IOW, there’s been a shift to palliative care for terminally ill patients, who (or whose family members) accept that death is imminent and delayed only slightly (and painfully) by medical means. That’s a conflict that might be explored (delicately) in subsequent articles about parents coping with their children’s always fatal disorders.

    Another possible question pertains to miracles, G-d’s hand in the world. Do the Browns believe that keeping their daughter alive by medical means leaves open the possibility of a miraculous cure?

  • Thanks for posting this. I agree that Bob did a wonderful telling the story in careful way. He understands that we are actually people going through a difficult season, rather than mere fodder for a story.

    As for the comment above, belief in God’s sovereign will doesn’t equate passivity. We are all born with a terminal diagnosis, but that doesn’t mean that we just check out and let the dice fall where they may. God often uses ordinary and extraordinary means to accomplish his purposes. He wants me to eat, so instead of miraculously filling my belly, he miraculously gave me hands to pick up a fork and put food in my mouth. Again, believing in his sovereignty doesn’t equate passivity.

    We try, all the while asking God to direct our decisions and ultimately we trust that he is the giver and taker of life, on a schedule that he deems wonderfully fitting.

  • Another possible question pertains to miracles, G-d’s hand in the world. Do the Browns believe that keeping their daughter alive by medical means leaves open the possibility of a miraculous cure?