Anyone who has spent some time on the religion beat knows that religious organizations like to hold conferences about big, complex, interesting topics.
Covering one of these things is a great way to spend a day. Most of the time when you are sent to one, you end up hearing all kinds of articulate people talking about all kinds of interesting angles on what is usually a very interesting subject (at least it's interesting to members of the flock that staged the conference).
But there are challenges. For starters, what do you do if there are two really interesting presentations going on at the same time? Also, you can end up with dozens of interesting points of view competing for the lede of your story. How do you pick a winner? How does one decide which voice is the most newsworthy?
In the end, reading competing news accounts of the same conference tells you just as much about the reporters involved in the coverage as it does the content of the actual event.
If you want to see a perfect example of this syndrome, check out this recent story from The Deseret News about a conference focusing on a subject that is certainly interesting and potentially even newsworthy. But the topic is so massive, and the event drew so many interesting experts, that the result is kind of -- well, I'll let you be the judge of that.
How big is the subject? Let's start with the lede:
PROVO -- What lies beyond the grave?
Mormons love a good near-death-experience story because of the echoes to the teachings of their faith. Seventh-Day Adventists believe when we die we sleep until the Resurrection. The hope of Anglicans is to join Christ in a bodily renewal of the entire cosmos.
Differing theologies abounded this week when representatives of 10 different faiths shared their views of the afterlife at Brigham Young University, but that was the point at a conference titled "Beyond the Grave: Christian Interfaith Perspectives."
Actually, that would be Seventh-day Adventists, with a small "d" on the word day.
However, you can already see the problem in this story, right? About that Mormon point of view: There is only one? Does everyone in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints agree on what happens to believers when they die? Since when? What about the debates about faithful Mormons getting to create their own planets in the afterlife?
All of the Adventists agree? How about the Anglicans, a flock that ranges from neo-Unitarians in nice vestments all the way over to ultra-conservative Calvinists? Seriously?
It's clear that there was discussion of so-called "near-death experiences" during this event. That's a potentially newsworthy topic, if you follow trends in movies and books. But which point of view gets the lede?
I raise this issue to make a point, not necessarily as a direct criticism of this news story. Your GetReligionistas talk all the time about the need for reporters to accurately cover voices on competing sides of hot-button issues. But what do you do when there are 10, 20 or 30 such voices at this kind of conference and your editor gives you, oh, 600 words to cover it all?
Reporters can end up jumping from one topic to another with little time to pause and cover the details. And on a topic like this, trust me, there are fine details to cover.
For example, try to follow the content of this passage:
"Death is in fact the enemy to the Christian," said Richard Mouw, professor of faith and public life at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California. Calvanist and evangelical faiths put a premium on the body and spirit together, while death separates them.
The good news, or what they would consider the "Good News" of the gospel, was that all the presenters shared the belief that Christ overcame death.
For Seventh-Day Adventist general vice president Ella Simmons, we sleep in our graves after we die, a belief shared by Martin Luther. That is a consoling teaching for her.
"If I were in heaven and conscious of all that is happening on earth," she said, "that would be hell for me, because all is not well with my family."
Mouw said the evangelical view of the afterlife is strongly rooted in theocentrism, the idea we will rejoice in Christ's presence.
Mouw said other faiths often find the LDS view of the afterlife dominated by an anthropocentric view -- that much will be as it is on earth -- such as the belief in eternal families. But he said a central part of the Mormon view is also theocentric. Still, asked directly what evangelicals could offer Mormons, he said Latter-day Saints could express more awe about the idea of being in the presence of God.
"It's there in your hymns," he said.
Harvard University Episcopal pastor and chaplain Luther Zeigler said the Anglican view of the Christian hope in the afterlife is for a new age when heaven and earth merge in a newly created and embodied life.
"God will reframe the cosmos," Zeigler said. "We're not just mere bystanders in this re-creation but collaborators to make the kingdom real. Our job is to now become kingdom-bearers."
See what I mean? What a challenge! And, oh, by the way, did anyone mention hell?
Read the whole report. If you were the reporter at this conference, how would you have tried to frame the lede?