Thursday, June 19, 2008

Do you need it in words of one syllable?

Sigh. Here's the 1A coverage, and below it is the reefer from the Web site: "Can God heal through tattooed preacher?"
We can't quite dismiss the reefer as Just Another Stupid Question until we know what it means. Is it asking whether God can heal through any tattooed preacher (in other words, if tattoos are a barrier to the practice of faith healing), or whether God can heal through this tattooed preacher? But every time we try to wrestle with that one, we're overlooking a bigger question, for which let's go to the text:
Bentley, 32, brings his controversial ministry to Concord tonight. Some say he's a vessel for God. Others accuse him of heresy – or worse.
Well, there's your problem. This is America 2008, and "heresy" isn't an issue anymore! (Even the Britons have finally gotten rid of their law on blasphemous libel.) Heresy is about a fundamental incompatibility between two interpretations of the supernatural, one of which usually has the power to have the other one barbecued in public. And journalism solves that by being a creature of the empirical world. We don't worry about accusations of heresy, because claims about the supernatural all go into a category of stuff we can't and don't adjudicate. End of story.
Fraud, now -- that's a different matter. If you take people's money in return for your promise of some good or service you have no intent (or ability) to deliver, both the cops and the world of journalism have every reason to take an interest in you. And that should suggest the basic problem with (a) this story and (b) its presence on the front page:* It's presented as a story about the divine, which is something we don't have the tools to cover. But it's actually a story about somebody making a series of testable fact claims, which we proceed to -- well, in effect, to accept without any testing at all.
Reports of healings by faith have existed for centuries, but modern communications distinguish this revival. Bentley's staff says millions worldwide watch the nightly services on God TV and online.
That seems a bit of a credulous gloss for a paper that claims to take its religion reporting seriously. Reports of faith healing** have been around for quite some millennia now (may we suggest the healing of Naaman in 2 Kings 5?). And "modern communications" don't distinguish this revival from any others. If masscomm history has any lessons for this story, it's something like this: Whenever a new technology emerges, two forms of content will stake immediate claims on it: (1) porn and (2) somebody who claims to be able to put you in touch with dear departed Uncle Baldrick for a couple of florins Amen.
And there's our problem. The article doesn't acknowledge a conflict between the empirical world and the supernatural one. It presents the whole thing as, essentially, a heresy case. One group of believers says this:
“This is not ‘no harm, no foul,'” said Hank Hanegraaff, whose nationally syndicated “Bible Answer Man” radio broadcast is based in Charlotte. “This is very, very tragic … “These people are in emotional chaos. The counterfeit revivalists play on that.”
And the other says this:
“I believe what God is doing isn't for Lakeland and Todd Bentley,” he said. “I believe it's for the world."
Do you see a basic failure of "objectivity" here? There's a good lively debate about whether Todd Bentley's particular flavor of magic is appropriate, but we're missing the bigger picture: Whether magic is a form of medicine at all. The writer is presenting "two sides of the story," but "two sides" isn't the same as "both sides." What we're missing here is the side that says faith healers should be presumed frauds until they produce the evidence.
To set one other topic to rest: Yes, the economic picture for newspapers in general, and McClatchy newspapers in particular, is painful and disquieting. Why assume you can help that picture by pandering to an element of the readership that's almost guaranteed to distrust you anyway? Why not be a little bolder? If you're going to venture into the supernatural, why not call a fraud out for what it is?
When the faith healer sets up his tent (and cash register) on the edge of town, after all, the monotheist editor and the atheist editor stand side by side: One stirs the tar, the other holds the feathers. And they should enjoy a well-deserved beer together afterward.

* Over and above the question of whether a newspaper that's just taken an 11% staff cut can do better things with its journalism resources than go to Florida and cover some clown who claims to raise the dead (about two dozen of them at last count, according to our intrepid reporter)
** PS-and-by-the-way? Don't write reefers like "Testimonials of the healed." That's the same fallacy as "Have you stopped smoking weed before you write about religious frauds?"


Blogger The Ridger, FCD said...

Since some Christian doctors won't take tattooed patients, there might a good little story here. For, you know, a Church newspaper.

McClatchy? I'd expect a little less credulity from them and a little more "can we see some medical records, please?"

8:08 PM, June 20, 2008  
Anonymous John Lunt said...

What do you base your position that he's a fraud on? I've seen some of what has happened first hand with friends... I don't think it's fraud at all... some will believe ...some won't

5:29 PM, June 26, 2008  

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