Covering exotic faiths, in Uganda and Tibet, a special challenge for Western religion scribes

One of the toughest disciplines for journalists to follow — if not the toughest — is setting aside personal judgements about others’ opinions. It’s a struggle for all practitioners of the craft, but it's particularly difficult for religion specialists.

That’s because of the deep and often unconscious psychological ties between personal identity and beliefs about life’s ultimate questions.

It's even harder to handle when covering faith systems outside the mainstream majority religions, with which we’re generally more familiar and, therefore, more comfortable.

I was reminded of this by two recent Religion News Service stories. RNS published them the same day, but what I want to focus on is how they took opposite approaches to covering some exotic territory.

One piece was about a subset of Pentecostal Christian leaders in Uganda warning their followers not to rely upon traditional Western medicine rather than their faith to see them through ill-health. The second concerned the Tibetan Buddhist leader, the Dalai Lama, the fourteenth in his lineage, and speculated about his reincarnation, or even if he should — which is monumental for Tibetan Buddhists.

Both pieces, I’d say, likely strained the belief systems of the preponderance of Westerners, including religion journalists.

Before we jump into those two stories, let me offer some caveats.

When I talk about putting aside our personal judgements I’m not including niche religion publications written for particular faith groups. Nor am I talking about opinion journalism, which includes the posts here at GetReligion.

Rather, I’m talking about mainstream news reporting, the sort historically defined by professional standards that attempt to provide “objective” journalism.

Frankly, I don't believe objectivity was ever really attainable for subjective humans (meaning all of us). So I prefer the label “fair and fact-based.” And yes, I’m fully aware that highly opinionated journalism is the increasingly preferred format in today’s 24/7, atomized, web and cable TV-dominated news environment.

One more thing. In no way should anything I write here be misinterpreted as an unqualified endorsement of any of the beliefs noted.

Now back to the RNS stories. Here’s the top of the Uganda piece:

KATAKWI, Uganda (RNS) — In this remote town in a deeply traditional corner of eastern Uganda, a 27-year-old Pentecostal pastor has been arrested after interceding to stop the medical care of a severely ill 9-year-old girl, telling her parents they should rely on prayer.

The pastor, Richard Asutu of Save Soul International Ministries, has since been released on bond, but the girl remains on the verge of death in a hospital where she was taken three weeks ago after her mother stopped giving her medication and took her to the church for prayers. The child’s father, together with local residents and security officials, intervened to take the girl to the hospital.

“I was shocked when I found my daughter lying unconscious on the floor of the church,” said the father, Charles Atoro. “He accused us for failing to believe in God when we demanded that he release my daughter.”

Asutu appeared steadfast when he was released earlier this month. “It’s time that we should believe in the power of God,” he said. “How can you take medicines when you are born again? That’s a lack of faith and you can even end up dying. Jesus healed people only through prayers.”

As you might expect, the piece is heavily weighted in favor of government authorities and more mainstream religious leaders who inveigh against Asutu’s brand of faith healing. One complaint is that those Pentecostal preachers pushing the anti-Western medicine line are would-be cult leaders who are likely to be responsible for multiple deaths.

Asutu’s is the only voice quoted defending this form of faith healing. Given that Pentecostalism — in a variety of forms — is Christianity's fasted growing subculture, surely other voices could have been asked to weigh in to provide more context. They might have explained that for some Pentecostals, faith healing is a required component of their faith. (The vast majority of Pentecostals believe in faith healing, but also accept modern medicine as a gift from God.)

Might part of the problem here be that Western medicine has come to be the rationalist-minded, contemporary world’s quick-fix standard? And that its pushed aside a host of older systems — including the holistic, traditional forms practiced in China and India, and by indigenous groups in Africa and elsewhere, for thousands of years?

The Tibetan story is, perhaps, even more of a challenge to Western journalists. For starters, it’s about spiritual and bodily reincarnation. That’s a concept few Westerners, journalists or otherwise, take seriously or know much about.

The story takes no position whatsoever on whether spiritual reincarnation is real, whether it can be influenced by others beside the individual in question, and whether earthly political considerations can assert an influence.

Speaking to media in Japan earlier [last] month, the Dalai Lama said that succession through nomination, instead of reincarnation, could be a way to continue his office. “I think sooner or later, we should start that kind of practice,” he was quoted as saying.

China will likely try to name its own Dalai Lama regardless, as Beijing asserts that the seat of Tibetan Buddhism should be inside Tibet. In the 1990s, the Dalai Lama recognized a 6-year-old boy as the [reincarnated] Panchen Lama, the second-most-revered position in Tibetan Buddhism. Shortly thereafter, the boy and his family disappeared in Chinese custody and their whereabouts remain unknown. Then China declared a new Panchen Lama.

The continuation of the centuries-old tradition of reincarnation is crucial because the Dalai Lama is the only unifying figure for the Tibetans and their struggle for autonomy within the Chinese rule. Tibetans would prefer to end the office of the Dalai Lama rather than have a China-appointed spiritual leader.

Unlike the Uganda piece, this story so strains to remain journalistically neutral — Tibetan reincarnation beliefs are taken at face value without a hint of questioning or even context  — that it comes across as dry as a bleached bone in the sand.

Perhaps that’s better than any display of rationalist bias. However, the inclusion of background explaining Tibet’s pre-Buddhist, shamanic past (click here for a quick lesson in the ancient and mystically inclined Bon tradition) would have both given the story some contextual pizzazz.

It would have helped readers understand how concepts such as reincarnation became so important in Tibetan Buddhism — as opposed to its deemphasis in the stripped-down, currently popular, Westernized Buddhist form we know as Mindfulness.

I'd also quibble with the story’s popularly accepted but incorrect line that Tibet’s struggle against Chinese military domination has always been non-violent. Actually, there was a years-long but unsuccessful, CIA-fueled Tibetan military uprising that began in the early 1950s.

So which is the better approach?

The Ugandan story that’s stacked against non-allopathic medicine? Or the Tibetan piece that is so neutral that it comes across as blandly ho-hum, despite the colorful esoteric beliefs at its core?

You tell me. Why not respond in the comments section below?

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