To mark the 10th anniversary of the Columbine High School massacre, Newsweek has published a poignant but sloppy story about two pastors scarred by the experience. The contrasts are strong:
• The Rev. Don Marxhausen preached the funeral of Dylan Klebold, one of the two killers. The Rev. George Kirsten comforted the family of Cassie Bernall, one of the best-known victims because of her mother's book, She Said Yes: The Unlikely Martyrdom of Cassie Bernall.
• Kirsten is an evangelical. Marxhausen was outraged by evangelicals' responses to the killings.
• Marxhausen resigned his pastorate amid numerous difficulties, including a hostile response to his laudable pastoral care of Klebolds' parents. Kirsten remains a pastor but struggles with post-traumatic stress disorder.
Such contrasts normally should be enough for a great story, but Newsweek reporters Matthew Philips and Lisa Miller litter their text with awkward labels (such as "persistent evangelicalism," which sounds like a disease) and clichés ("Littleton was ground zero for the kind of white, evangelical Christianity that was sweeping the country at the time").
Newsweek is sympathetic to both pastors, but its sympathies are more clearly with Marxhausen:
Marxhausen, now nearly 70, is a burly, plain-spoken man who arrived in Littleton in 1990, and built St. Philip Lutheran Church into a thriving, mainline congregation with more than 1,000 members. Marxhausen believes firmly in a loving, forgiving God and a nuanced approach to questions of salvation.
Newsweek never elaborates on its suggestion that Marxhausen affirms a God who is more loving or forgiving than the God preached by Kirsten. Newsweek never explains what "a nuanced approach to questions of salvation" involves. Indeed, Newsweek compounds the damage by invoking the bête noir of fundamentalism:
Kirsten, 65, arrived in Littleton as a Denver Seminary student in 1974. He was asked to start a nondenominational evangelical church in the 1980s, just as the megachurch movement was beginning to take off. Today, West Bowles is a soaring modern building facing the Rocky Mountains where ministers preach a fundamentalist Christianity. "We rely heavily on scripture," says Kirsten, "and on the premise that Christ is the ultimate forgiver, the ultimate lover, and that only through him can we know the Lord."
With a few judicious edits, Newsweek could have published an excellent report that suggested no need to choose sides. Instead, it chose the path of ideological preening.