Stephen Glass confesses in The New Republic: Sin, penance and a search for redemption?

During a graduate-school readings class on trends in 20th Century Judaism, I was asked to read Simon Wiesenthal's classic book, "The Sunflower: On the Possibilities and Limits of Forgiveness." Here is the Amazon description of this amazing and unforgettable book:

While imprisoned in a Nazi concentration camp, Simon Wiesenthal was taken one day from his work detail to the bedside of a dying member of the SS. Haunted by the crimes in which he had participated, the soldier wanted to confess to -- and obtain absolution from -- a Jew. Faced with the choice between compassion and justice, silence and truth, Wiesenthal said nothing.  But even years after the way had ended, he wondered: Had he done the right thing? 

After the actually telling of this real-life parable, the book offers a large collection of short essays in which Jewish and Christian ethicists and theologians discuss that haunting question. With a few exceptions, the Christians say that -- after the soldier's repentance -- Wiesenthal should have offered words of comfort, if not forgiveness. Most Jewish thinkers -- citing the tradition that forgiveness should be granted by victims, alone -- support Wiesenthal's silence.

This brings me to Hanna Rosin's 6,000-word piece in The New Republic about her encounter with Stephen Glass, the former journalist whose faked stories (see the movie "Shattered Glass") sparked a crisis that threatened the magazine's future.

This story, as you would imagine, has been the subject of a tsunami of water-cooler chatter here in Beltway land. For a collection of great materials linked to the discussion, see this American Journalism Review piece by my former Washington Journalism Center colleague Rose Creasman Welcome. The central question, she notes, is: "So is Glass forgivable, yet?"

Yes, "yet?" When is enough, enough? What does he need to do to find peace?

The Rosin piece is not, on its face, about "religion," per se. However, when one closely parses the text, it is clearly a piece about sin, confession, judgment, morality, rationalization, forgiveness and, in some public sense of the word, even "salvation." The key is that Glass is trying to prove himself moral enough to be a lawyer in California and he needs character witnesses. Would his former New Republic colleague and friend Rosin help?

This cafe conversation is the heart of the story. Here is a quick glimpse from Rosin:

I would ask Steve about something he’d done. He’d pause, conjure the moment, parse every iteration of the crime, add whatever I’d forgotten to mention, and then apologize. If the first step of reforming yourself is acknowledging your sins, then Steve was determined to get an A-plus, along with extra credit. 

But here is the truly amazing passage in this must-read piece that I wanted to show to GetReligion readers. Is this story haunted by a religion ghost? I don't think Rosin is hiding anything here:

It is said that we are a nation of second acts, that at this cultural moment especially, we fetishize failure, that we love nothing more than a sinner reformed. But perhaps what we love is a story about second acts. A Christian testimonial or an Alcoholics Anonymous confessional is designed to be thrilling, but not too closely scrutinized. There is a long night of darkness and then, suddenly, a morning of light. But if we peer too much at the details, we get wary, or maybe bored. We might get some satisfaction hearing Eliot Spitzer say, “You go through that pain, you change,” but we don’t believe it enough to trust him to represent us. Perhaps what we lack is patience, because reform is not all that theatrical, or even a great story. It is slow, tedious work. You see a priest, or a psychiatrist. You acknowledge the sins. You go through a long period -- years, decades even -- of living with that acknowledgment, stewing in it, denying it, owning it again. If you work hard enough and are sincere in your efforts, then maybe each day you are a little more reformed than you were the day before. And maybe one day, the change can be detected on the outside.

Yes, of course: Read it all. When it comes down to ultimate issues, it's hard not to focus on issues of the soul as well as the mind. Can a secular world grant forgiveness?

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