theodicy

Finding comfort in faith after 9/11, as well as hard questions that never fade away

Finding comfort in faith after 9/11, as well as hard questions that never fade away

Looking back at the events on Sept. 11 and its aftermath requires looking back into time and also looking within, deep into the mind, the heart and the soul.

If it’s true that time heals all wounds, 9/11 could be the exception to that adage. As a reporter for the New York Post that day, I was a witness to the deadliest terror attack on American soil.

How did I feel? What did 9/11 do to me? How did it affect the way I did my job? These are all questions I get from students each time I do a talk about the attacks.

Looking back on 18 years ago, I remember feeling angry at God. Had He allowed for this to happen? I yearned for the answer to that question. I looked to my church (I am a Roman Catholic) for adequate ways to quell my inner frustrations. I recall saying a prayer the morning after the attacks on my way to work. It was my way of trying to find some inner peace.

So I am looking back on that stunning day as a journalist and as a Christian.

The entire time, I had a job to do. I had to divide the personal from the professional. Never in my life has that been so hard to do. It wasn’t until three days later, after hearing Billy Graham speak, did I feel more at ease with what had happened. It helped me make sense of the brokenness.

Indeed, one of my first reactions had been, “God, how could you let this happen?” Of course, God didn’t let this happen. What happened that day was pure evil, the work of Islamic militants who had perverted their religion to justify death. It was the good that would later come out of the tragedy, the stories of heroism and sacrifice, that reflected God’s love.

In the weeks that followed, I covered dozens of funerals, primarily those of firefighters. I found those funeral masses both extremely sad and comforting. I participated in them. When I wasn’t taking down notes and interviewing grieving family members, I remember praying along within everyone else at each one of those services. I was grieving along with everyone else.

There was, you see, no way around the faith elements in this event and this story. That was part of the pain, as well as the basic facts.

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Symbolic details too painful for words: Shocking death of Jarrid Wilson stunned us all

Symbolic details too painful for words: Shocking death of Jarrid Wilson stunned us all

Did you need more evidence that we live (and strive to do good journalism) in a broken world?

Did you need a reminder that any journalist who works on the religion-news beat needs to dig into a dictionary and learn the meaning of this theological term — “theodicy.”

The death of the Rev. Jarrid Wilson unfolded on social media, with shock waves ripping through the digital ties that bind (including in newsrooms). He had worked to bring comfort to those suffering with mental-health issues — while being candid about his own life. Wilson reminded those struggling with suicidal thoughts that they were not alone and that God knew their pain.

This gifted preacher — married, with two young children — knew that and believed it. But something snapped, anyway.

Here’s the top of the team-written Religion News Service report about this tragedy which, hopefully, will shape the mainstream coverage of that will follow.

(RNS) — Jarrid Wilson, a California church leader, author and mental health advocate, died by suicide Monday evening (Sept. 9) at age 30.

Wilson, known as a passionate preacher, most recently was an associate pastor at megachurch Harvest Christian Fellowship in Riverside, California. A co-founder of the mental health nonprofit Anthem of Hope, Wilson was open about his own depression, often posting on his social media accounts about his battles with the mental illness.

“At a time like this, there are just no words,” said Harvest Senior Pastor Greg Laurie in a statement.

But there were words with which to wrestle — from Wilson, on the day he took his own life.

What journalist would imagine details more symbolic than these?

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Denhollander’s memoir on vast gymnastics scandal is a landmark for religion as well as athletics

Denhollander’s memoir on vast gymnastics scandal is a landmark for religion as well as athletics

Countless books have landed on The Religion Guy’s desk over decades and rarely has he cited one as a “must read” or “book of the year.”

But such descriptions are appropriate for Rachael Denhollander’s candid memoir “What Is a Girl Worth?” about exposing the vast sexual-abuse scandal at USA Gymnastics and Michigan State University. The evangelical Tyndale House issues her book on Sept. 10 alongside a four-session study guide, and the author’s non-salacious “How Much Is a Little Girl Worth?” for young readers.

Attorney Denhollander, the first person to publicly lodge accusations against MSU athletics osteopath Larry Nassar, has a unique status. She is a heroine named among Time’s 100 Most Influential People, Glamour’s Women of the Year, recipients of ESPN’s Courage Award and Sports Illustrated’s Inspiration of the Year. At the same time, she’s the wife of a doctoral student at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, while raising four young children and she uses her hard-won celebrity to present Christian truth.

An account of the worst sex-abuse case in its history is obviously a landmark for U.S. sports, but this is also a vitally important story for religion writers, and most certainly for Denhollander’s fellow evangelical Protestants, who are now following Catholicism in stumbling through #MeToo crises. (Along the way, journalists will relish the inside account of her byplay with investigative reporters and the media horde.)

Denhollander alone bravely lodged public accusations against predator Nassar, a big shot in gymnastics. Eventually, he faced 332 accusers of all ages including Olympic superstars, the Feds unearthed his stash of 37,000 child pornography files and he was sent to prison for life. MSU was forced to pay $500 million in damages, but any USA Gymnastics payout is problematic because it was forced to file for bankruptcy protection.

What’s vitally important in this sordid narrative is helping readers comprehend the severe psychological damage that sexual abuse creates in the victims. “It follows you. It changes you forever.” And then why, like Denhollander, victims often raise protests long after the incidents, or never raise them at all. They feel nobody will believe them, and for good reason. And they fear the cost that will be paid by the accuser. For Denhollander, that cost was enormous.

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New Yorker reduces a couple's faith to being 'active members of the local Jewish community'

New Yorker reduces a couple's faith to being 'active members of the local Jewish community'

The Perverse Logic of GoFundMe Health Care,” Nathan Heller’s report for the July 1 edition of The New Yorker, is a powerful mix of pathos, business reporting and ethical analysis.

What it is not is a report that shows clear interest in this story’s obvious religion angles that cry out for attention.

Heller tells the agonizing story of Zohar and Gabi Ilinetsky, a couple who met in Israel, are married and living near San Francisco, and whose year-old twins, Yoel and Yael, have Canavan disease, which likely will kill them during their childhood. The Ilinetskys turned their hope to raising $2 million through GoFundMe to pay for their children to receive, in Heller’s words, “a gene-replacement treatment being developed by Paola Leone, a neuroscientist at Rowan University, in New Jersey.”

Heller provides sobering facts about what the twins have experienced, what they are likely to experience in the future, and what hope the Ilinetskys sees in Leone’s treatment and a physical therapy program called NeuroMovement. (“There’s a girl in the therapy institute that we’re going to who was born with a third of her brain missing,” Zohar said. “In ten years, they got her to walk.”)

We learn that Zohar had resisted turning to GoFundMe:

“When we started the fund-raising campaign, it was something that I personally didn’t feel comfortable with,” Zohar Ilinetsky told me when I visited him and Gabi at home one morning. He worried that people would mistake him for a taker of handouts. “I’m a capitalist to the bone,” he said. “But, when it comes to medicine, this is wrong—it’s inhumane. It’s like telling someone, ‘When you die, you’ll lie on the street, because you don’t have money for a funeral.’”

In Israel, he said, everyone has free coverage for all expected medical needs, from preventive care to transplants and mental health. “I remember, even as a kid, hearing people talking about how horrible the medical system in America was,” he told me. Bearded and stocky, Zohar has a lilting baritone and an open, histrionic personality that comes across as charming. Gabi—auburn hair, leggings—smiled as he expounded his case with flailing arms. She was the one who had convinced him that GoFundMe was worth trying. “I just didn’t have any other choice,” Zohar explained.

We learn that the Ilinetskys believe in using guns in self-defense:

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'Bullets Rarely Miss': Rolling Stone offers faith-free vision of suicides in the American West

 'Bullets Rarely Miss': Rolling Stone offers faith-free vision of suicides in the American West

To the extent that it’s possible to write beautifully about suicide, with sympathetic portraits of people who have killed themselves and of the survivors who must live with the wreckage and agonizing questions of what they could have done differently, Stephen Rodrick has achieved it in “All-American Despair,” a 9,000-word report for Rolling Stone.

This is the type of longform reporting — comparable to the magazine’s field reports from the counterculture’s dance of death at the Altamont Free Concert in 1969 and the trampling of Who fans at a general admission concert in Cincinnati in 1979 — that for many decades made Rolling Stone more than a source for record reviews and lots of first-person-voice (“ … as I drove down the highway with Julia Roberts, I noticed that …”) visits with celebrities.

Yet in these 9,000 words, any concept of God or of a meaningful spiritual side of life is nebulous. The first sentence mentions Toby Lingle’s funeral at Highland Park Community Church after he shot himself.

That’s poignant. Yet there’s no indication of why Highland Park was the host of this somber gathering. Was Lingle an occasional visitor? Was his sister a member? Was it simply a matter of seating capacity?

We learn deeper into the story that whatever faith Lingle had was extinguished by the death of his mother, who protected him from verbal lashings by his father:

Toby and his older brother, Tim, and his sister, Tawny, grew up in the one-gas-station town of Midwest, Wyoming, about 40 miles outside Casper. His graduating class was just 16 kids. His mom was an EMT who answered the doctorless town’s medical questions at all hours. His father was a mean alcoholic who worked in the nearby oil fields before retiring on disability. Often cruel, according to Tawny, their dad took particular pleasure in tormenting his youngest son. When a teenage Toby quit a hard, unforgiving job in the oil fields, his father sneered, “We’re not going to have Christmas this year because of you.”

Toby’s brother joined the Navy, and his sister had a baby and moved away. It was just Mom, Dad and Toby in the small house. Toby’s mom tried to protect him the best she could. But she had her own problems: long, unexplained crying jags that scared her kids. Then, at just 46, a lifetime of smoking caught up with her, and she was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. Toby took her to Casper for doctor appointments and begged her to stop smoking, but she couldn’t. She died six months later; Toby was 19. Talking to his friends and family, it’s clear that Toby’s emotional growth ended the day his mom and protector died. (His father died two years later.)

“He said, ‘God couldn’t exist if he took our mom,’” Tawny told me at her tidy Casper apartment where Lingle would crash when he was having one of the crying spells that tormented his adult life. “He could never see any good in the world after that.”

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Yes, there are strange religion stories out there: Here's a brief reminder of what GetReligion does

Yes, there are strange religion stories out there: Here's a brief reminder of what GetReligion does

Rare is the day that I do not receive an email or two from readers who want me to write a GetReligion post making fun of something strange that happened in the news.

Some of these letters come from the cultural right. More of them come from the cultural left, asking this blog to blow holes in this or that statement by a Religious Right type.

The key is that they want me to comment on the craziness of the story itself, not whether this news story was handled in an accurate and professional manner. The letters usually include a statement to this effect: If GetReligion was really interested in religion news, you’d be writing what I want you to write about x, y or z.

The problem is that, most of the time, the URLs included in these messages point to perfectly normal news stories about a statement that may or may not be crazy, depending on your point of view. There’s nothing there for your GetReligionistas to note, in terms of really good or really bad religion-news writing.

The key, as always, is this: GetReligion is not a religion-news site. This is a blog about mainstream media efforts — good and bad — to cover religion news. There’s no need for lots of posts that say, in effect: Hey! Look at this absolutely normal news story about something that somebody said the other day.

With that in mind, let’s turn to this question: Did God want Donald Trump to be president?

Let’s start here:

MT. OLYMPUS (The Borowitz Report) — Partially confirming Sarah Huckabee Sanders’s theory of divine intervention in the 2016 election, Eris, the Greek goddess of chaos, discord, and strife, revealed on Friday that she had wanted Donald J. Trump to be President.

Speaking from her temple on Mt. Olympus, the usually reclusive deity said that Trump was “far and away” her first choice to be President in 2016.

“I’d been following his career for years,” the goddess of disorder and ruin said. “The bankruptcies, the business failures. There was a lot for me to love.”

Actually, that isn’t a news report. That’s a piece of satire from The New Yorker. However, that sort of demonstrates the tone of lots of the emails that I’ve been getting.

Here, of course, is what that blue-zip-code bible is mocking (care of a Holly Meyer report from The Tennessean in Nashville). The headline proclaimed: “Sarah Huckabee Sanders says God wanted Trump to be president. She's not the only one who believes that.” And here’s the overture:

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'The Sin of Silence' in The Washington Post: It's easy to hide sin in an independent-church maze

'The Sin of Silence' in The Washington Post: It's easy to hide sin in an independent-church maze

Trust me on this: If you read the Joshua Pease essay, "The sin of silence: The epidemic of denial about sexual abuse in the evangelical church," you will be angry and you'll have questions.

The Washington Post labels this as a "Perspective" piece -- think "analysis," not pure opinion -- but it includes lots of on-the-record sources and information, as well as personal observations by Pease. The writer is identified as "a freelance writer, was an evangelical pastor for 11 years." I would have added some kind of reference to his book, "The God Who Wasn't There: looking for a Savior in the middle of pain." 

Yes, once again we are in "theodicy" territory, a common topic here at GetReligion.

The overture for this piece -- detailing abuse Rachael Denhollander suffered when she was seven years old -- is unforgettable, especially for parents who grew up in church. I wish I would quote it all, but this passage will have to do.

The man’s behavior caught the attention of a fellow congregant, who informed Sandy Burdick, a licensed counselor who led the church’s sexual-abuse support group. Burdick says she warned Denhollander’s parents that the man was showing classic signs of grooming behavior. They were worried, but they also feared misreading the situation and falsely accusing an innocent student, according to Camille Moxon, Denhollander’s mom. So they turned to their closest friends, their Bible-study group, for support.

The overwhelming response was: You’re overreacting. One family even told them that their kids could no longer play together, because they didn’t want to be accused next, Moxon says. Hearing this, Denhollander’s parents decided that, unless the college student committed an aggressive, sexual act, there was nothing they could do.

No one knew that, months earlier, he already had.

A few lines later there is a quick, passing reference to what I think is one of the crucial facts in this complicated story. The church in which this abuse took place has, in the years since that moral train wreck, shut down.

It's gone. Did the leaders learn their lessons? Who cares? It's gone. It's hard to hold anyone accountable when churches simply vanish.


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A key Paige Patterson critic is hit by bus: Tennessean takes gentle look at 'Why?' angle

A key Paige Patterson critic is hit by bus: Tennessean takes gentle look at 'Why?' angle

One of the most dramatic sidebars to the controversies surrounding #SBCToo and the Rev. Paige Patterson was the freakish timing of a serious accident in the life of one of his most articulate female critics within evangelicalism.

Karen Swallow Prior is one of those individuals whose existence perfectly illustrates why your GetReligionistas are not fond of sticking shallow labels on complex religious believers.

First of all, she is professor of English at Liberty University. Then again, she used to identify herself as a conservative feminist, which is a conversation starter, to say the least.

I first ran into her back in 2003 when I was writing about a Southern Baptist congregation that created a service blending Celtic liturgy and symbols with evangelical content ("Postmodern Celtic Baptists). Prior's research into liturgy and poetry was at the heart of that effort.

Now this, care of a recent story in The Tennessean:

Karen Swallow Prior helped raise the voices of thousands of women who called out a revered Southern Baptist leader for his counsel on women, abuse and divorce. 

The same day a Texas seminary removed him as its president, Prior got hit by a bus. 

The timing of the freak accident in Nashville felt uncanny to her. Prior and others advocating alongside her for better treatment of women in the evangelical denomination say they saw a parallel between the bus wrecking her body and the misogynistic forces of the church causing brokenness among women. 

The symbolism they found in the May 23 crash that played out at the intersection of Church Street and 20th Avenue North resonated with Prior on a visceral level. 

"There's no winners, and just talking about it and speaking on behalf of others was just difficult. It's an ugly situation," Prior said ... from her room at Vanderbilt University Medical Center. "Then, just to be slammed by a bus literally, physically in the midst of that moment, this was just eerie."

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Waffle House hero vs. Waffle House gunman: Lots of religion here, but no answered questions

Waffle House hero vs. Waffle House gunman: Lots of religion here, but no answered questions

As you would imagine, folks here in Tennessee are still talking about the Waffle House shootings, even though the national media -- this is the age in which we live -- have moved on to other gun-related stories.

Nevertheless, The Tennessean in Nashville produced a massive story the other day about the lives of the two almost-30 men at the heart of the story -- the hero, James Shaw, Jr., and the troubled gunman, Travis Reinking.

There is all kinds of religious material in this story, and that material was used in a way that raised all kinds of questions -- that the story didn't answer.

Believe it or not, in this case that's a compliment. Once again, we are headed into news territory defined by the theological word "theodicy."

Why does evil exist? Why do some people choose to do good, while others choose to do evil? Why does mental illness exist? Why do some people raised in Christian homes cling to that faith, when push comes to shove, while others fling the faith and lash out at others?

You'll ask all of those questions, and more, when you read this story: "One came to Waffle House to eat. One came to kill, police say. How two worlds collided."

Don't expect answers, especially not about Reinking and his family's years of struggles to understand and manage his mental illness -- which followed him like a cloud, even as his behavior in other parts of life seemed perfectly normal.

Let's start with Shaw, and church:

Nashville is Shaw's home.

He has attended Jefferson Street Missionary Baptist Church since he was an infant, the same iconic North Nashville church his mother attended as a girl.

The youngest of three Shaw children, and the only boy, he was fun-loving, quiet and respectful to adults. He became humbler as he got older.

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