Accused Christchurch shooter: Young man defined by life on the computer and Medieval 'myths'

It’s the kind of news story that has turned into a cliche, in the age of mass shootings. Yes, we are talking about Brenton Harrison Tarrant and the massacres in New Zealand.

In the days after the hellish images on the Internet and then television, people close to the accused shooter — it’s almost always a young man — are interviewed and express shock. They usually talk about a boy who grew up to be a somewhat quiet, loner figure in their lives. Yes, the family had its challenges, but everything seemed kind of normal.

The question, of course, is what “normal” means, these days. In particular, is it safe to say that a key part of the new-male “normal” is best defined in terms of private activities online — hour after hour, day after day — behind a closed door? If that is the case, then no one really knows anything about these gunners until authorities piece together the contents of their secret digital lives.

This would be a good time to remind GetReligion readers of that set of lifestyle questions I asked future ministers to ponder back in the early 1990s, when I was teaching at Denver Seminary. Seeking a kind of sociological definition of “discipleship,” I urged them to ask three questions about the lives of the people in their pews and the people they hoped to reach in the community. The questions: How do they spend their time? How do they spend their money? How do they make their decisions?

As it turns out, these are good questions for reporters to ask when seeking the contents of the hearts, minds and souls of newsmakers. (That second question could be stated like this: Follow the money.)

With that in mind, consider two passages in a short — but very interesting — Washington Post sidebar that ran with this headline: “In Brenton Harrison Tarrant’s Australian hometown, his relatives remember violent video games, trouble with women.” Like I said, we’re talking about the new “normal.” Here is the overture:

GRAFTON, Australia — On the road into this small city, a sign is evidence of a community in shock: “He does not represent us,” it says, referring to the alleged killer few here will even name.

But nowhere was the shock more evident than among the relatives of 28-year-old Brenton Harrison Tarrant, who has been accused of a hate-fueled massacre that left 50 people dead in two mosques in the New Zealand city of Christchurch on Friday.

“We’re all gobsmacked. We don’t know what to think,” Marie Fitzgerald, Tarrant’s 81-year-old grandmother, told Australia’s 9News in an interview. “The media is saying he’s planned it for a long time, so he’s obviously not of sound mind, I don’t think.”

In Australian media, a picture began to emerge of a young man who grew up with computers as his best friends, lost in a world of violent video games, uncomfortable around girls.

Note that this story was built on reporting at the scene, instead of at-a-distance work gathering information with (ironically) computer searches.

Talking to people face-to-face appears to have led to some interesting connections in the community — in addition to the usual, painful quotes from relatives. The bottom line is that this community within shouting range of Sidney may not have been an easy place to grow up as a young male. I was struck by the following material from an interesting source:

Timothy McManus, 23, a religious teacher at South Grafton High School, said the town is struggling with high rates of teen suicide, prompting the government to open a mental health facility.

“The kids are struggling with a range of mental issues surrounding the family,” said McManus, who also works as a youth pastor at the Hub Baptist Church in Grafton.

“Then there is a lack of employment opportunities for those aged 18 to 25.”

Yes, I would have appreciated a follow-up question about those “issues surrounding the family.” I assume, for starters, that this would mean that broken homes were shaping many young lives. In the case of Tarrant, readers are told that his father died at age 49 of lung cancer.

So what did Tarrant do in all of those hours online, other than wreck havoc with what were almost certainly first-person-shooter video games? The answer, of course, is that he drifted into websites linked to the alt-right, soaking up a unique worldview that contains hints of religious content, yet rarely have anything to do with the realities of a life of faith. Read my three “discipleship” questions, again.

Reading about this part of the story led me to another Washington Post piece with another interesting source of information — Paul B. Sturtevant, author of “The Middle Ages in Popular Imagination” and editor in chief of a website called the Public Medievalist.

Here’s the headline on that story: “The accused New Zealand shooter and an all-white Europe that never existed.”

The story notes that Sturtevant found 18 references to the Middle Ages in the “markings and writing on the arsenal” that belonged to Tarrant. I would expect similar hooks in Tarrant’s online manifesto and other writings. Here is a long passage that features the kind of historical background that is, sadly, rarely found in news reporting on topics of this kind. I am sure that interviews with other experts on religion and culture in the Middle Ages would yield lively debates about these topics.

… When it comes to white supremacists’ understanding of the Middle Ages, “myth” is the right word, he said.

“White supremacists imagine the Middle Ages as a time when Europe was all white, separated from its neighbors and in constant conflict with those that it deemed to be outsiders,” Sturtevant said. “Nothing could be further from the truth.”

In medieval Sicily, Christians, Muslims and Jews were “living and working together side by side,” Sturtevant said. In 7th-century England, the well-respected archbishop of Canterbury was from Turkey, and his favorite abbot was from North Africa. There were Ethiopian embassies across southern Europe, including Rome. Pilgrimage books listed travelers as hailing from “India” — though this was probably just a fill-in for anywhere in the Middle East.

Medieval European artists also accurately depicted black people … , indicating it wasn’t uncommon to see them. … Which is not to say it was all sunshine and multiculti roses, Sturtevant stresses. There was religious strife as well as religious pluralism.

I have been waiting for other religion-issue shoes to drop in this case, even if the point to a truly secular twisting of religious history — a something that frequently happens on the the radical right. Has there been any kind of suggestion that Tarrant was linked to a religious group? Ever?

Readers: If you have seen other solid (or not so solid) stories on this side of the New Zealand massacres, please let us know in the comments pages or clicking here to send a message.

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