The naked truth of Tribune story

GetReligion reader and former Dallas Morning News religion writer Jeffrey Weiss coined this maxim:

"Every religion seems sane to insiders and crazy to outsiders."

Speaking of crazy (to this outsider, at least), the Chicago Tribune had a doozy of an, um, religion story last week.

The top of the 2,000-plus-word report:

In a small house overlooking a lake in Wauconda, a minister directed his female followers to go into a back room and take off their clothes.

In one-on-one sessions, he got naked, touched their bodies and told them to touch his.

He called them prayer sessions.

What allegedly happened in that room over a series of months would spur a criminal investigation in one county, spark civil litigation in two others and reopen the age-old debate on what's a cult.

Calling it "light therapy," the minister, Philip Livingston, testified in a Kane County case that he repeatedly performed the naked ritual — claiming it helped cure everything from drug addictions to yeast infections. He said it was done only with consenting adults who were members of his donor-funded Light of the World Ministries. But one participant testified that a teenage girl was involved too.

Is this a story about a criminal? A cult? A church with a constitutionally protected freedom to practice its religious beliefs — whatever those might be — as its members see fit?

Given the subject matter of this piece, it would be easy for a reporter to roll his eyes and focus on those first two C's (crime and cult). But to its credit, the Tribune provides a well-rounded account (well, as much as possible), seeming content to let readers determine what is sane and what is crazy. That, folks, is what we traditionally refer to as journalism.

That said, the theological content of the story impressed me as vague, at best. For example, there's this section related to the pastor's past ties to the famous Willow Creek Community Church network of churches:

As his concrete career crumbled, he prepared for a new vocation in ministry. He took an internship at an upstart church in Chicago's Avondale neighborhood called the Prayer Furnace, then returned to his home church, Willow Creek, to lead fellow members in a small prayer/counseling group.

He told his group that God implanted messages to them in their dreams and he could decode them, according to church records.

That upset Willow Creek leaders, who said he never had permission to lead the group, let alone do dream interpretation — a controversial practice against Willow Creek's beliefs.

"It's just so far out, so inconsistent and unconventional with what (the church) understands prayer to be," said Willow Creek spokeswoman Susan DeLay, "and unconventional is probably a kind word."

But what does Willow Creek believe concerning prayer? What makes this pastor's "belief" unconventional? Some more specific theological detail would have been helpful.

Meanwhile, the story provides specific details (maybe too specific ... but you can read the piece and decide for yourself) of the "light therapy" offered by the pastor. But when it comes to the theological basis of the congregation's beliefs, there's not much to go on. And maybe that's because, well, there's not much to go on. 

This is as close as the piece comes to tackling the theological claims of the church:

Among those volunteers was Linda Ericksen, whose husband became Livingston's assistant pastor.

She told the Tribune she ardently believed Livingston's teachings that he spoke directly with God. She said she believed in the church's latest mission: to prepare for the second coming of Jesus Christ by, according to its website, "getting to know Jesus inside of us and being in perfect harmony with Him as His body."

Then Livingston introduced a new way to achieve that harmony — a technique that would become the focus of a criminal investigation.

I did appreciate the Tribune's effort to put this situation in context:

DePaul University professor Roberta Garner, who has studied cults, said such groups typically have a leader who demands ultimate authority, citing a direct line to God. They're typically small — large groups are hard to control — and often believe conspiracy theories that reinforce the leader's legitimacy. It's also not unusual for cult leaders to incorporate sexual practices.

It's hard to tell how many such groups exist around Chicago, with researchers hesitant to even guess. It can also be difficult to gauge whether they are dangerous.

With the constitutional guarantee of religious freedom, authorities are left to determine whether groups' leaders commit actual crimes, not just have unusual beliefs, she said.

Livingston and his supporters insist they're not a cult.

By all means, read the story and weigh in on the Tribune's coverage.

Image: Screenshot of church website.

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