Occasionally (well, more than occasionally) we find, or are sent, stories that fall into what I call our "say what?" category. Sometimes these articles contain grossly incorrect or poorly used words or terms. More often, the writer seems to be assuming that his or her readers understand the assumptions behind the story without having to spell them out. And sometimes, I've come to believe, regional assumptions also plays a role.
Take this story from the NewsVirginian.com website about a candidate for a local state house race. Turns out that Erik Curren is, gasp, a "practicing Buddhist."
A victory in the suddenly wide-open 20th District state House race could make Erik Curren a minority of one.
None of the General Assembly's current 140 members list Buddhism as their religion. Curren, the Democratic nominee in the 20th, is a practicing Buddhist who also attends a Methodist church.
A prominent local Democrat, Augusta County Supervisor Tracy Pyles has raised Curren's faith as a potential problem in November, even as Republicans scramble to field a candidate in the wake of Chris Saxman's withdrawal from the race.
Hmmm....where to start? Saying that someone is a Buddhist is just slightly less generic than saying someone is a Christian. What school of Buddhist thought and practice does Curren follow? Is he a Buddhist committed to a daily devotional practice? Does he see the Buddhist tradition as a standard for ethical and moral behavior? Is he politically active on behalf of persecuted Buddhist minorities?
Buddhist generally don't believe in a unique soul, as far as I know. Rebirth rather than resurrection is part of the Buddhist faith. While some believe in a God, that's certainly not a central part of the tradition -- and it's not a God who looks like the Judeo-Christian God. So how does Curren reconcile the two faiths?
How come the reporter didn't ask him? My guess would be that Stuart is treating the story more a political than a religious one. But if one the purposes is to inform readers so that they can make a choice, this type of story fans the flames of ignorance.
Clearly, Curren doesn't see his practice as merely a lifestyle option.
The whole thing really surprises me," Curren said. "My religious faith is really important to me ... it's been an impetus and an inspiration to support the community and show empathy for others."
Curren began practicing Buddhism after inquiring into the religion more than a decade ago. He later authored a book, "Buddh's Not Smiling," exploring corruption among Tibetan Buddhist leaders.
It's not clear how the information about Curren's practice surfaced to begin with, giving the article kind of a "gotcha" quality. Stuart does include some interesting information about cultural and ethnic diversity in the state, and includes some good quotes from the usual suspects -- politicians and academics.
Imagine a reporter writing this story in San Francisco or New York City -- not. I could be wrong -- a Buddhist practitioner or, say, a Mormon running for local office among the Hasidim in Brooklyn could make a fascinating tale. What draws our attention is the notion of introducing diversity, religious and/or political, into an area which may not have had much experience with it. But even THAT issue isn't discussed by local residents -- who would know.
So a few quotes from voters, and some analysis of the culture of the 20th district would have helped readers understand why a candidate who practices Buddhism might be controversial in what one person quoted describes as a "more homogenous, Christian district."
There's are a lot of interesting facets that really could be examined -- from local culture to individual faith to separation of church and state. But what have readers learned at the article's end? Another politician, caught with a potential hot potato that may or may not affect his electability? Let's hope the public finds other ways to get the information that they really need to make an informed decision on Erik Curren. Or maybe Stuart will do a follow-up that addresses the religious issues.
I know we have some readers much more familiar with Buddhism than I am. What would YOU like to ask Erik Curren?
Picture of monestary in Carmel, N.Y, from Wikimedia Commons.