There are puff pieces and then there are puff pieces. But this Saturday Beliefs article from the Los Angeles Times borders on well-disguised press release. I hate to pick on the same religion reporter, but LA is my hometown, and this article was clearly written without any independent reporting or even thought.
The subject for the story was interesting: Photographer Rick Nahmias has published a new book of photos about what he sees as marginalized folks of faith. From the Website for "Golden States of Grace":
"Golden States of Grace: Prayers for the Disinherited" aims to give image and voice to some of these groups, people who, because of the world, society, or themselves, have been all but silenced.
These people include Jewish drug addicts at Beit T'Shuvah, who actually have a voice; Mexican sex workers; deaf Mormons. To which LAT religion reporter Mitchell Landsberg wrote in "Finding the faith that links disparate Californians":
Nahmias found that all of these disparate Californians shared a sense of spirituality that infused and helped define their lives. As he spent time with them, he said he found "stories of dignity and stories of people going against the grain." ...
Throughout, Nahmias has interwoven commentary and prayers from the subjects of the photographs. He intentionally placed prayers from one group next to photographs of another; a way, he said, of emphasizing the universal nature of religion.
Maybe "faith" was the wrong word. I think the word the headline writer was looking for was "spirituality" or simply "worldview." In other words: Religion is religion -- just variations of the same unifying concept.
Of course, Landsberg isn't saying he believes that. Nor would I have a problem with a religion reporter who did -- assuming they still curiously and sincerely approached their subjects.
The problem is that this story relies almost entirely on Nahmias' perspective. There is no effort to talk with, say, a religious studies professor about just how intertwined different -- even marginal -- religious communities are.
Only one comment comes from someone other than Nahmias. It was from a Catholic nun who showed slides of the book to inmates she works with at the California Institution for Women:
"As they looked at all these groups, their reflection was, 'Oh my, we're all one, it's the spirituality that unites us,'" she said. "You know, people fight over their religions, but spirituality is [uniting]. So if you dig deep enough, you're going to find the common wellspring where we're all one, all in need of the sacred. Whatever it is for you, it may be different than it is for me, but we're all in need of it. So it was pretty powerful."
In other words: generic spirituality unites, religion divides. We're all universalists now.
That may be Nahmias' perspective. And I'm not saying a reporter needs to criticize it. But they shouldn't just parrot it.