I've never been sure why, but the subject of prayer causes problems for many mainstream news reporters. I think part of the problem is that some reporters think they have to believe that prayer "works" in order to take prayer seriously.
Thus, I have heard mainstream journalists say that it's a "fact" that prayer does not work and that real journalists must strive to present solid facts and nothing more. After all, academic studies of the effectiveness of prayer -- linked to medical issues -- have been mixed.
Yes, from the viewpoint of a skeptical editor it's hard to prove -- as a fact -- that prayer "works" (although some academic studies of miracles are fascinating). Nevertheless, journalists need to remember that it is a fact that millions of people in many faiths around the world believe in the power of prayer and that their actions in real life, based on those beliefs, frequently affect real events and trends in the news.
I bring this up because of a revealing error in a story, and headline, that ran in The Independent about a British woman named Kristy Adams who is running for Parliament. The problem is clearly seen in the double-decker headline:
Tory MP candidate 'claims she healed deaf man through prayer '
'I don't know if he was more surprised than me,' says Kristy Adams
That's right. The journalists behind this story seem to think that Adams thinks that SHE healed someone. Here is the overture in this report:
A Conservative party candidate has reportedly claimed she healed a deaf man with her bare hands by channelling the power of prayer.
Kristy Adams, who is standing to be MP for Hove and Portslade, said she healed the man by placing her hands over his ears and saying: “Be healed in Jesus' name.”
When she removed her hands from his ears, he could miraculously hear without hearing aids, the former councillor reportedly told the King’s Arms Church in Bedford in 2010.
The precise words of what Adams said are not in doubt, since The Mirror obtained an audio copy of her testimony about this event, which was then quoted by The Independent.
Clearly, there is a basic theological issue at the heart of this confusion and that led to this story, including a headline that traditional Christian believers would find bizarre, if not offensive. It appears that key journalists in the editorial process at The Independent do not know the meaning of the phrase "in Jesus' name."
Thus, they believe that Adams is taking some kind of credit for healing this man. Adams, on the other hand, believes that she prayed for the man, who was then healed by God, in response to a prayer offered in the name of Jesus.
So is Adams a bizarre egotist or merely a conservative Christian simpleton?
It would appear that the editors who handled this story think the answer is "both," and that conservative Christians believe that they -- personally -- have the power to heal by speaking the right prayers. In short, this woman's mental elevator doesn't stop on all the right floors. Perhaps she has not spent enough time in London.
The story makes it pretty clear what this MP candidate thinks:
Ms Adams told The Mirror: “Like millions of Christians in the UK, I believe in praying to help people.
"Millions of Christians around the world pray for people's health -- that's a good thing isn't it? It's about tolerance and we are a city of tremendous tolerance."
Now, there is one other possibility that could explain the twisted assumption in this story. It's possible that the journalists could be thinking that Adams is claiming the kind of power that journalists often associate with saints.
You know: People pray to the saint and the saint heals someone.
Except that isn't what Christians have believed for 2,000 years, when it comes to the intercession of the saints. Click here for some background, in a 2011 "On Religion" column called "Praying with (or to?) John Paul II." Here is the crucial passage that addresses the key question, as soon through the eyes of a veteran priest who has spent years facing reporters in Washington, D.C.
In this case, the question is: Is it accurate to say that Pope John Paul II (now a saint, of course) healed someone?
While scientists debate what did or did not happen, journalists have struggled to clearly describe an event that is rooted in an ancient and modern mystery. Simply stated, what does it mean to say believers can ask saints to pray on their behalf during the trials of daily life or in times of crisis?
Father Arne Panula has faced this kind of question many times, especially as director of the Catholic Information Center a few blocks from the White House.
In press reports, this mystery is reduced to an equation that looks like this -- needy people pray to their chosen saints and then miracles happen. It's that simple. The problem, stressed Panula, is that this is an inadequate description of what Catholics, Eastern Orthodox Christians and some other Christians believe.
"What must be stressed is that we pray for a saint to intercede for us with God. Actually, it's more accurate to say that we ask the saint to pray 'with' us, rather than to say that we pray 'to' a saint," he said.
"You see, all grace comes from the Trinity, from the Godhead. These kinds of supernatural interventions always come from God. ..."
So, does Tory Kristy Adams think that she healed a deaf man?
Of course not. She prayed, but she believes that God healed the man -- with the man's faith playing a crucial role in that equation, as well.
So is it accurate to write a headline suggesting that Adams thinks that she "healed" a deaf man with her prayers? To jump to the point: Is it accurate to report what happened in this event without a reference to the belief that God healed this individual?
Yes, I know that it's hard for some journalists to type sentences that contain references to people believing in the actual existence and power of God. However, that is what many people believe and, to report this scene accurately, that belief must be taken into account.
Hey journalists: Turn that notebook around. Would you want someone writing about your most cherished beliefs and twisting them to make it appear that you believe something that you don't really believe?
I predict that the answer is "no."
Thus, as I tell my students, I suggest that journalists follow this advice: Report unto others as you would want them to report unto you.
MAIN IMAGE: Kristy Adams with the Rt. Rev. Richard John Carew Chartres, who recently retired as the Anglican bishop of London. The photo is from her campaign website.