It’s one of the biggest puzzles on the religion beat, one that readers ask me about all the time. Here’s the question: Why don’t news organizations cover more “spiritual” stories, as in stories about the impact religious faith has in the daily lives of real people?
The short answer is one that readers don’t want to hear: Most editors don’t think that positive stories about changed lives is “news.”
Now, if the person whose life is changed by faith is a politician, a celebrity or the starting quarterback for the local football team, then that might make this a “news” story. Maybe. Well, it also helps if this “spiritual” hook is combined with some issue that’s controversial.
This is what the cynic in me thought the other day when I saw this headline in The Knoxville News Sentinel, my local newspaper: “Gary Christian: From rage to restoration, a murder victim's father finds the faith he left.”
If you live in East Tennessee, this headline calls back years of headlines about a horrific crime story that seized this region like few others — the torture, rape and murder of Channon Christian and Christopher Newsom. In aftermath, the face of Channon’s father — Gary Christian — became an iconic image of loss, grief, agony and, yes, wrath.
This massive News Sentinel feature dug deep into what has happened since the trials. It’s a story about rough, realistic healing and the spiritual changes that allowed a man to return to faith. To be blunt: You don’t see many stories of this kind in news print.
First, here is the long, but essential, overture.
Gary Christian stood in an East Tennessee church pulpit on a sunny August Sunday, speaking about pain and death and faith and God. It’s not a place — or a point — where the father of murder victim Channon Christian would have been 18 months ago.
For 10 years Christian never talked to the Lord he had loved all his life. He left God behind after his beautiful, compassionate, smart 21-year-old daughter was carjacked, tortured, raped, beaten and murdered in January 2007.
Then, last April, kneeling at his child’s grave and surrounded by friends, Christian asked for God’s help.
God had been waiting. He'd never left.
“He restored me,” Christian says.
Now Christian, 62, gives his testimony to churches and other groups. He’s spoken to some 30,000 people at more than 64 locations. His website, garychristianseminars.com, lists his schedule and how to contact him to speak. There's no charge. His message is a straight-line story of a man who abandoned his faith after overwhelming tragedy, who found God again after a decade of anguish and who now witnesses for Christ.
His seminars often last more than an hour. He remembers his love for a daughter who loved dogs, shoes and clothes. He recounts the brutality of her torture and murder. His testimony incorporates the apostle Peter, Jesus’ crucifixion, the work of missionaries and God’s unwavering love. Photos of a happy, radiant Channon Christian, often with her dad, are shown in an accompanying visual presentation.
Yes, there is an altar call in this story.
“I’m telling you there’s not a dark enough, black enough, cold enough hole for you to crawl in that our Lord cannot restore you. I am living, breathing, real-life proof that God will never forsake you for anything.”
This story had to address what happened after that carjacking back in 2007, but it really isn’t necessary to tell readers in this region the details. Here is one for outsiders: Channon was tied up, wrapped in garbage bags and left to die in a garbage can.
The emphasis here is on Gary Christian’s journey, beginning with the moment he was told about the crimes:
Officers were still talking that January Tuesday when he walked out of their parking lot command center. He got to the lot’s far edge, away from anyone, and looked toward heaven. He screamed at God. Then he turned from him.
“I told him I am done with you. I don’t want you in my life. I don’t need you in my life, and I don’t trust you with anything.”
It was a dramatic turn, a first step into his hell on earth. Saved at age 8 at a Baptist church in Henderson, Texas, Christian had grown up in church. If the doors were open, he was there. He went on mission trips, played drums in a Christian band and witnessed for Christ. “I loved the Lord," he says emphatically.
Then, as a parent, every morning, he prayed. In every prayer, he asked God to watch over Channon and her older brother Chase.
Then God failed him.
“All I asked him to do for my kids was to protect them. And he didn’t.”
It’s crucial, of course, that Gary Christian has been telling this restoration story over and over in recent months. He has worked the details out in his mind and is now used to sharing them, no matter how painful that is.
The pivotal moment in his recovery links two symbols in Bible Belt life — motorcycles and Easter — combined in an unusual way.
The grieving father formed a riding club in his daughter’s honor and a circle of friends formed around him as he took to the road to cope. That’s the support group that, eventually, pleaded with him to return to church.
Easter is about crucifixion, and the apostle Peter’s betrayal of Jesus, before it gets to hope and new life. Christian didn’t want to go there — but he went anyway. We will end with this:
It’s about 24 miles up Pellissippi Parkway from the church to the cemetery. The whole ride that last April Sunday, Christian says, “the Lord was tearing me up.”
When he got off his bike at Channon's grave, "I was just so tired. I just couldn't do it anymore.
"I went down on my knee, and I asked him, ‘Just like you did with Peter, restore me.’ And he did.”
All in all, it’s not your normal newspaper feature story.
Cynics have every right to ask if this long, long story would have been on the Sunday front page if if wasn’t linked to the Christian-Newsom murders. What if this had been a story about a father grieving after losing a daughter to cancer?
Yes, the murders were part of the “news” equation. What matters, in this case, is that the story dug deep into the facts and details behind this remarkable case of spiritual transformation. The result was must reading — period.