Randall Sullivan's battle with bias

You might think more journalists would like to interview Randall Sullivan about his latest book, The Miracle Detective, or to review it. The irony in his life is rich: a writer for Rolling Stone and Men's Journal, author of a book investigating the deaths of Tupac Shakur and Notorious B.I.G., and the son of atheists looks into possible apparitions of the Virgin Mary at Medjugorje and winds up a believer. But apart from a starred review and interview in Publishers Weekly (subscription required), a 1,200-word interview with the Eugene Register-Guard and a review in The Washington Post Book World, Sullivan and his book haven't yet found much attention.

The Register-Guard's third question oddly suggests that Sullivan's conversion somehow compromises his ability to function as a reporter:

Question: You report that you now consider yourself a Christian, with Catholic leanings. You've had your children baptized as Catholics. Do these developments tarnish your credibility as an unbiased reporter?

Answer: The idea of objectivity in general I question, and you certainly can't engage a spiritual or religious experience from an objective view. There's only one objective view, and that's God's.

William James, America's greatest intellectual, wrote a long time ago that objectivity was a great farce, and that what's most real and true and verifiable is our subjective experiences.

In assigning a reviewer for Sullivan's book, the Post chose Tim Cavanaugh of Reason Online. (If the Post revels in contrarian assignments, perhaps it should ask Sullivan to review Michael Shermer's The Science of Good and Evil. But as I've previously acknowledged on this weblog, Cavanaugh brings a wry humor to his writing about religion.)

Cavanaugh gives The Miracle Detective a grudging admiration, writing of its "quirky charm" and calling it the best book he has read on Medjugorje. My favorite touch in Cavanaugh's review is when he calls Father Benedict Groeschel "a star of the EWTN channel, an author of a celebrated study of mysticism and a dead ringer for R. Crumb's Mr. Natural."

Cavanaugh takes Sullivan to task for a few errors, but he at least grasped the effect that researching the book had on Sullivan.

The same cannot be said of Judith Neuman Beck, who reviewed The Miracle Detective for The Mercury News:

So the book evolved into Sullivan's own memoirs of his trips to Medjugorje and other vision sites, his meetings with the people involved, and those who believed and disbelieved them. This is interesting, in the way memoirs often are, but answers no questions, especially because Sullivan waffles between being moved by what he's seen and heard and deciding it's got really nothing much to do with his own life.

Let's hope the next reviewer who blasts Sullivan's work as too parochial will do a better job of grasping its narrative.

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