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. ...
As a teenager, Shaw cruised Nashville’s streets in his white 1994 GMC Jimmy with his best friend Brennan "BJ" McMurry. When it came time for college, he stayed in the city, choosing his parents' alma mater, Tennessee State University. There, he pledged Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity and found his people.

Then there is Reinking and, once again, the story starts with home, church and faith:

Reinking was raised in rural Tazewell County, Illinois, where churches attract devout concentrations of born-again Christians and hunting is a favorite pastime.
Reinking's family is established and respected in his hometown of Morton, Illinois. His grandfather and parents operate crane companies. The Reinkings haven't spoken publicly, requesting privacy in the media firestorm that erupted since their son was named as a suspect in the nation's latest deadly mass shooting. 
"They’re born-again Christian people," says Tammy Lake, whose home sits on 42 acres of land on the same road as the Reinkings'. "Super nice people. They’re very soft-spoken, quiet people."
Growing up, Reinking shifted back and forth between home schooling and short stints in public and private Christian school classrooms.

Look at that last paragraph. You see, it's a kind of a cultural ink-blot test.

Some people will look at that information and say, "See, his parents were strange, probably fundamentalist home-school people. That's where things went wrong with this guy."

But when I see that paragraph, I think of other recent stories about violent young men in which parents moved them from school to school, and then tried home-schooling, trying to find the right setting for a child who just didn't seem to fit in. You can read that paragraph and see evidence of parents struggling to understand that their son is, yes, sick.

Note that in other ways, Reinking was successful and did good work. Check out the mixed signals in this passage about the time he spent working in Salida, Colorado:

His boss called Reinking a "good worker," an "excellent crane operator" who was nice, quiet, polite and very intelligent. He didn't appear to drink or use drugs. His main hobby was playing video games. He was tall and thin and did not appear to be physically strong. He told everyone he was gay. 
He was a "loner" who seemingly did not have any friends. ...
But people at the company grew concerned about Reinking's mental health and said he appeared paranoid and delusional at times.
Reinking told them he was going to marry pop star Taylor Swift. At the same time, he complained that the Nashville artist was hacking into his bank accounts, stalking and harassing him.

Quiet, professional, nice, very intelligent, isolated. He said that he was gay, but also was obsessed with marrying Taylor Swift. And why was Reinking nude, essentially, when he attacked that Waffle House?

Let's wrap this up. Here's one more block of material from this story. This is simple, but powerful:

In the aftermath of the shooting, Shaw cried. The young dad was taken to the hospital, where he was treated for his injuries.
When he got home, he FaceTimed with his daughter, who was out of town with family in Chicago. Then he showered, put on a khaki suit, a maroon turtleneck and red-hued loafers and went to church.
With Shaw's hand wrapped, but still bleeding, and eyes red from sleep deprivation and tears, his inner circle crowded around him at Jefferson Street Missionary Baptist Church. ...
Shaw learned of Reinking's capture from McMurry, his best friend.
“It was a big sigh of relief,” Shaw said. “If you have ever done squats and taken the weight off your back and put it back on the stand? That’s how it was.
"It was ‘Thank you, God.’ ”

Yes, "Thank you, God."

But also, "Why, God?"

Both questions are in the same story, because that's the painful mystery of life sometimes.

There are lots of questions in this story, but no answers. Yet. This story isn't over.

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