What's worse? The exploitation of tragedy in the Terri Schiavo case, or the exploitation of triumph in the previous big media human interest story, Ashley Smith? (In case you somehow missed it, Smith was the young woman who managed to pacify and then escape serial murderer Brian Nichols in Atlanta, ultimately leading to his peaceful surrender).
The former is far worse, no doubt, since the exploiters have explicitly political goals and some very specific plans for each and every one of us.
But now The New Republic's Lee Siegel has broken the general taboo against publicly uttering what I heard many people privately saying at the height of the Smith furor: the media, and especially CNN, bought into the religious interpretation of Smith's courageous acts with an almost evangelical avidity. As you probably know, the part of the story that's led it to be described as some sort of theodicy (an illustration of the divine purpose in apparent evil) is the fact that Smith read Nichols a passage from The Purpose Driven Life, Rick Warren's evangelical self-help bestseller. She also discussed her own difficult life with Nichols, and cooked him pancakes with "real butter," but it's the Warren book that's getting the credit, almost as much as Smith's own level-headedness.
Now it's not terribly surprising Smith had a copy of Warren's book on hand; it is, after all, the largest selling hardcover book in publishing history, with 20 million copies sold so far (a figure that's sure to climb still higher on the wings of the Smith story). And I have little doubt that being in the presence of an accused rapist and multiple murderer--indeed, sitting with him as the television showed nonstop coverage of the manhunt for him--led Smith, like anyone else, to a preoccupation with Ultimate Things.
But the idea that Smith was simply the Handmaiden of the Lord--the instrument for Nichols' redemption, and for the ever-more-efficient disseminatinon of the Therapeutic Gospel according to Rick Warren--is a story line that's gaining a surprising amount of currency, even in mainstream media sources (I can only imagine what conservative Christian media are doing with it).
Siegel accuses CNN of using the Smith saga to improve its reputation and viewership among Christian evangelicals. I suspect its saturation coverage of the whole event had more to do with proximity than strategy; CNN invariably over-reports any story originating near its Atlanta studios.
As a Christian, I have a holy fear of this kind of story, because it is almost invariably exploited by those who want to sell a very particular type of Christianity in implied hostility to every other form of faith. Remember that previous alleged divine intervention in Georgia, the claims by one Nancy Fowler that she was receiving private messages from the Virgin Mary in a location near the suburban town of Conyers? Those messages invariably endorsed a particularly conservative Catholicism--so conservative, in fact, that the Church hierarchy largely disavowed them.
Those Christians who are rushing to take sectarian credit for Ashley Smith's courage are committing a whole host of spiritually dangerous and ethically questionable acts, among them the breezy dismissal of Brian Nichols' victims as collateral damage in the divine plan to get more readers for Reverend Rick. They need to get away from the cameras, and the cameras need to get away from this story, for good.