The Wall Street Journal gets religion and aliens — in Los Angeles

This spring, the Wall Street Journal advertised for a Los Angeles-based religion reporter who'd not only cover the beat but pinch-hit on other stories. This pleased those of us who have wondered for years how one of America’s largest newspapers could neglect so huge a beat.

Since the early 1990s, the Journal’s religion coverage has been all over the map. At one point, the paper was running columns by one-time Journal religion reporter Gus Niebuhr down the left side of the front page. At other times, all you could find in its pages was a weekly freelance column called Houses of Worship. I wrote some religion pieces for the Journal from 2012-2014, most of which ended up in the entertainment blog.  

So I was glad to see this ad. I’m guessing the Journal’s religion+breaking news beat out of the L.A. bureau was actually started a year or two ago by Tamara Audi, whose talents were spotlighted last year by my colleague Bobby Ross Jr. When Audi was promoted earlier this year, the Journal wanted to retain the same beat composition. This summer, the paper hired Ian Lovett, a 2006 Amherst College graduate. After a short stint at the Beverly (Hills) Press, he got hired on the Los Angeles bureau of the New York Times as a junior reporter in 2010. Then the Journal hired him this summer. 

His latest story focuses on religion and space aliens, so here goes:

 For astronomers, Proxima b is a dream planet. Discovered last month orbiting the star nearest to our own solar system, it is thought to reside squarely in what scientists call the “Goldilocks zone”—where the temperature for life is just right.
The news prompted excited questions among scientists: Is there really water on Proxima b? Could a rocket make it there one day? Could there be life on the planet? But it started a very different discussion among Christians: Would alien souls need saving? And if so, do missionaries have a responsibility to rocket into space with a trunk full of Bibles?
“At a minimum, a Christian would have an obligation to at least tell the Gospel story to other life-forms found outside of Earth,” said Bill Nettles, the chair of the physics department at Union University, an evangelical college in Jackson, Tenn.

Having taught at Union a few years ago, I am curious where Lovett came up with Nettles’ name, as the university is not known for research in this field. Was there some kind of formal academic or online discussion about this that the reporter is drawing on? Moving on:

But to other Christians, the idea that an extraterrestrial, no matter how intelligent, could have a spiritual relationship with God is unthinkable.
“It’s just planet Earth that has spiritual beings in need of redemption,” said Hugh Ross, an astrophysicist who founded Reasons to Believe, a ministry that seeks to show that science supports Christian scripture. “That doesn’t rule out dolphins or grass or bacteria on another planet,” he said, but he doesn’t expect to find life anywhere else in the universe. He added, “It’s not Jesus Christ dying on 1,000 planets.”

Other media have tackled this exact question, and noted in 2011 that only Christianity would have a problem with other beings who've not heard the Gospel. 

At this point, I’m wondering why the reporter has not cited the most famous books out there about whether the Gospel should extend beyond the Earth’s atmosphere. I’m referring to C.S. Lewis’ space trilogy, which philosophizes on this exact topic and concludes that the rest of the universe did not suffer the effects of the Fall. Earth, which is dominated by Satan and thus under a divine quarantine, is known to the rest of creation as the “silent planet.”

The reporter does, however, refer to the Latter-day Saints, who came up with the planet Kolob:

As for Mormons, they may have an edge: They are already in space—proudly counting several astronauts in their fold—and are used to evangelizing in far-flung places. Utah has stood in for Mars in at least one movie and is home toa research station for the Mars Society. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints declined to comment, but a church official pointed to the “Encyclopedia of Mormonism,”which accepts “the existence of other worlds created by God for a divine purpose that is the same as the purpose of earth life.”

LDS cosmology is indeed vast and tough to explain in a short story. The article continues with Galileo, Thomas Paine and then a puzzling interlude outside of a Catholic church in Los Angeles. Why, after phoning theologians and astronomy professors, is the reporter polling folks heading out of Mass? Odd.

The ending is kind of cute but I’m thinking that Lovett should have turned to fiction for his story. More recently than C.S. Lewis is a series of two books by Mary Doria Russell called "The Sparrow" (which turns 20 years old this year) and "Children of God," which are brilliant novels about a Jesuit mission to convert the inhabitants of a planet in the Alpha Centauri star system. That’s the same star system the Journal is writing about.

Russell’s writing, which contains the best thinking on the problem of evil that I’ve ever read, shows how the Jesuits caused more problems than they solved. She just blogged about the Proxima B planet and how that could easily be the same planet she wrote about.  She would have been the perfect interview for this article.

Well, there is only so much one can include in a 725-word story ,and a lot could have happened in the editing. (The first story I freelanced for the Journal was assigned at 1,200 words. Then one-third of it got lopped off).

The moral of this story for journalists is to look for insights among the science fiction and fantasy writers. Often, they’re way ahead of us.

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