Trust me when I say this: Your GetReligionistas know that there is no way that we can see even a quarter of the mainstream news coverage that we need to see. That's why it is so, so important that readers help us and, through emails or comments, point us toward additional information, URLS and stories that we need to know about. We had a perfect example just the other day, when I wrote a post about the rather hollow coverage of the James Arthur Ray conviction in the "New Age" sweat lodge tragedy near Sedona, Ariz. In the comments, reader Robert Frischman wrote a simple comment that said: "A few insights about the content of Ray’s course here: http://www.cnn.com/2011/US/04/13/kirby.brown.sweat.lodge/index.html."
That link took readers to a crucial CNN report linked to the case that ran a few months ago and that was even featured at the network's Belief Blog. However, I did not remember the story, which meant that I could not include it in my GetReligion post. Frishman's helpful hand on a mouse did the trick.
This is the agonizing story of one of the victims, complete with all kinds of details about her own search for something that was -- Oh, what is that phrase? -- spiritual, but not religious. Here is the opening of the story which, in simple language, paints the path of thousands of seekers in this age:
Sedona, Arizona (CNN) -- She was a free-spirited adventurer who lived in Mexico in an octagonal art-filled house on "Gringo Hill," overlooking the Sea of Cortez. Her high-end interior painting business was taking off. And on many mornings, she shared the waves at Old Man's break with the legends of long board surfing.
As summer faded into fall in 2009, Kirby Brown stood at a crossroads. Although her bohemian lifestyle in San Jose del Cabo was the envy of her friends, she felt something was missing. At 38, she was still searching for her one true love. She craved financial stability. She wanted children. And so, her family and friends say, she dedicated herself to introspection and self-improvement.
"Trying to find that bigger meaning was important to her," said her brother, Bobby Brown.
To that end, she lived "a self-styled life," added her sister Jean Brown, who admired Kirby's ability to set priorities and create "a wonderfully abnormal life." She constantly tried new things, and when she found something she liked, it became a part of her. So, it was no surprise to the people who knew Brown that when she turned her light inward, she gave it her usual "135%."
She was "not overly 'New Agey,'" said her longtime friend and confidante, Emily Forbes, "just looking outside the box."
She was raised Catholic, but was also taught to find her own path. She was engaged several times, but kept drifting away.
A family member told her that surfing was her true church. Yet Kirby also wanted some form of higher achievement on her own terms, in ways that she respected. She dug into the edgy side of self-improvement and Ray was a superstar, or close to it. He was climbing toward the top of what the CNN report notes is a booming and unregulated industry -- books, tapes, DVDs and seminars -- that "rakes in an estimated $11 billion a year."
This pop-media road led her to Ray, "an Oklahoma preacher's son and former telemarketer." He sold a somewhat conventional mix of "meditation, deep breathing exercises, sleep deprivation, role playing, team building exercises and physical hardship -- promised to bring participants into an altered state of consciousness that would transform them."
Then it came time for Kirby and others to shave off their hair. That was a hard choice. There was more, the kind of detail that one finds in long, multi-voiced feature stories that also include on-the-record court testimony. This is what multiplatform journalism can look like.
On the third day, Ray put the participants through a Samurai role-playing game in which he dressed in white and literally played God. Brown broke the strict code of silence to ask for a bathroom break and was tapped by one of the dark angels of death.
She fell to the stone floor, where she lay for several hours, forbidden to move or speak. She had to go to the bathroom so urgently, she threw up. She did not get dinner that night and the game left her teary-eyed and shaky, according to witnesses.
But she forged ahead in the next exercise, the 36-hour vision quest. She built a Native-American style medicine wheel in the desert and meditated for 36 hours without food and water. She described the experience at an open microphone session recorded by Ray and played in court by prosecutors:
"So as I lay there, dying, underneath the blanket, and everyone was working and battling, I just kept sending my energy to them," she said. "And also working on not moving so I didn't kill one of my fellow people."
Read it all, by all means. The story keeps going and going.
Now, do I think that journalists could include all of this in daily reports about the trial? Of course not. However, after 24 years of writing a 700-word weekly column, I know that it's possible to list some key religious influences and to site symbolic details that let readers know some of the religious content in these broader stories. This is what journalists do all the time. You find facts. You find quotes and you build a frame for the human story. What did Ray believe? What did he do to show that?
Journalists can even do it when covering stories that -- as the CNN feature shows -- are rooted in one of the major religion-news trends of our era. Yes, look for the ghosts in the sweat lodge.