At GetReligion we must often acknowledge how difficult it is for reporters to tell complex stories in shrinking news spaces -- which makes it so important to praise reporters who do an exceptional job.
In just under 1,200 words, Michael A. Phillips of The Wall Street Journal tells the disarming story of how "U.S. Army Capt. James Hill, a baby-faced 27-year-old from Lawton, Okla., drew the job of mentoring Lt. Col. Abdul Haq, a 51-year-old army mullah who has never shaved."
Phillips also photographed a beautiful 14-image slideshow that depicts the heroes of his story, and the people with whom they interact.
The skeleton of the story is simple: Because Islam is so ingrained in Afghanistan, the U.S. Army's efforts include working with anti-Taliban Muslims such as Lt. Col. Haq.
Phillips does not go deep into either man's beliefs, but he shows that Hill is at least a nominal Baptist:
Growing up in Oklahoma, Capt. Hill was an irregular churchgoer. He prays before meals and asks God for strength when he has a quiet moment at day's end.
... He says he believes in a literal interpretation of the New Testament, but he's undecided about evolution. "That kind of tears me between the science and the facts, and my religious upbringing," he says.
An aside: It's an odd measure of a person's faith to write of someone believing "in a literal interpretation of the New Testament." Even casual readers of the Bible should recognize the different types of writing (daily narrative, parable, apocalyptic revelation) represented within the New Testament. While it possible to take a parable literally, far less is at stake in that storytelling than in the descriptions of Easter morning.
Nevertheless, Phillips has told a great Global Village story here, and he's done so with humorous details:
Along the way, Capt. Hill picked up some Dari, the language spoken by most Afghan soldiers. But for a while, his Oklahoma drawl turned "How are you?" into "Are you a camel?"
Even in a war zone, religion stories come alive when talented reporters find them and ask open-ended questions.
Photo: A mullah prays at a tomb in Tabriz, Iran. Used under a Wikimedia Commons license.