After the Waffle House shootings: It's hard to separate tragedy and faith in Bible Belt life

It's been a crazy week, in terms of religion-beat life. Thus, I have not had the time to address the media coverage of the Waffle House shooting in the Nashville area.

Yes, Tennesseans are still talking about that second tragedy in the Antioch area.

I have found it interesting that folks in this neck of the woods are talking more about James Shaw -- the 29-year-old hero in this drama -- than they are the young and very troubled man who did the shooting. Can we officially say that this is progress? Sad progress, but progress of some kind.

If you read through some of the coverage -- national and regional -- there is one quick religion angle to be covered in this story. However, I think there is another religion theme in this story that deserved coverage. Hold that thought.

First, care of Nashville Public Radio, the #DUH religion angle, from the Bible Belt point of view. The headline: "Waffle House Shooting Hero Goes From The Hospital To Church." Let's pick this up after the time-sensitive, newsy lede:

James Shaw was discharged from the hospital Sunday morning, freshly bandaged up from a bullet grazing his elbow and a burned hand from grabbing the smoking hot barrel of an AR-15. And where did he go?
"He didn't skip church to be laid up," Rev. Aaron Marble said, as he prayed over Shaw's family at Jefferson Street Missionary Baptist Church. "But instead [he] went through this experience and got to come to church to give God praise."
Still dressed in a slim-fitting khaki suit, turtle neck and tasseled loafers, the young father, who works for AT&T, spoke at a police press conference.
"If you would ask me, I'm actually not a greatly religious person," Shaw said. "But I know that in a tenth of a second, something was with me to run through that door and get the gun from him."

When talking about this with locals here in Oak Ridge, I have heard several people simply say: "Of course he went to church." The Nashville Tennessean included that detail -- less prominently -- in its coverage, as well.

The church-angle made it into at least one national headline, but with an inaccurate twist. This is from Fox News.

Waffle House Hero Went to Sunday Mass With Family Hours After Stopping Rampage

Uh, I think that it's safe to say that the faithful do not gather for Mass at the Jefferson Street Missionary Baptist Church. Just saying.

Shaw has been so candid and transparent in his interviews. Hey, lots of people go to nightclubs, the Waffle House and church during one very long post-midnight journey. That religion angle is easy to see and include in a few sentences.

However, look at the end of this interesting New York Times feature about Shaw and his contacts with other survivors and the families of victims. This is long, but I want to show the context.

... [Shaw] has insisted he did not act for the common good. The shooting played out too quickly to contemplate acts of heroism, he said. “I know I saved other people. I have a 4-year-old daughter: I didn’t even think about her. In the midst of it, I was just trying to save myself.”
Nashville is having none of it. Mayor David Briley accompanied him to the Vanderbilt hospital, and even lent him his office for an interview. Throughout the day, people approached in search of handshakes and hugs. There were words of gratitude and occasional tears.
In quiet moments, Mr. Shaw is left to consider what transpired at Waffle House: A man his own age tried to kill him. He fought back. By God’s grace, it worked.
“I almost didn’t make it to 30, if you really think about it,” he said. “And no matter how it would have went, it seemed like he didn’t care that he wasn’t going to make it to 30.”

Now, if you read the whole piece there are many references to people hugging Shaw, praising him, pulling him aside for quiet words of thanksgiving, etc. 

The reference to "God's grace" being part of this picture just shows up in the Times story, with no attribution. That's interesting, from a journalism point of view. It's appropriate, but interesting.

Where did that insight come from? The reporter? An editor? Or did journalists at the scene here -- over and over -- ordinary people embracing Shaw while offering thanksgiving to God, as well as the hero at the scene?

Yes, this is how lots of folks in Tennessee -- black and white -- see life in this complex and painful world we live in.

Who said that Shaw acted, in part, through the grace of God? 

Lots of people, I would imagine. Was this part of the story? 

You can kind of sense the Washington Post struggling with the same issue in its main report. Check this out:

Antioch is a 30-minute drive from downtown Nashville, home to auto plant workers and a growing immigrant population, which has led to a smattering of notable Ethio­pian and Mexican restaurants locating here. The Waffle House on Murfreesboro Pike -- one of several in Antioch -- is a popular late-night hangout for local college students and a regular breakfast and coffee destination for their early-riser parents.
There are a lot of churches here -- almost two dozen -- and like many other American towns, they fill up on Sunday mornings.
Now both of these local mainstays have been targets. 

Welcome to the American heartland. There are lots of churches and lots of Waffle Houses. And lots of wings-and-beer joints and nightclubs, too. Down here, God comes up in conversations in all of these locations. It's all part of the story.

FIRST IMAGE: Screen shot from WZTV, Fox 17, news coverage in Nashville.

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