Media Circus: Desperately seeking God

Why are the newsweeklies, Slate, and that noted theological journal, TV Guide, all putting the Supreme Deity on their covers? It must be Easter!


Jenn Shreve
March 28, 1997 1:00AM (UTC)

easter is upon us. The first omen is the pile of department store Spring Fashion Sale announcements now festering in my living room. The second is the pamphlets shoved under the door urging us to wash in the blood of the lamb. The third is the annual "Does God Exist?" story overload.

Every year, without fail, the purveyors of newsweekly enlightenment use Easter as a convenient hook to move those spiritual quest stories that have been moldering in the slush pile. Is there a God? Are miracles real? Did your neighbor really get road-side assistance from an Angel of the Lord? What happens after you've shuffled off your mortal coil?

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This year, though, the March Deity Madness seems a bit excessive. Time wonders "Does Heaven Exist?" Not to be outdone, Newsweek's cover addresses "The Mystery of Prayer." U.S. News and World Report muses on the possibility of life after death. TV Guide examines "Prime Time's Search for God." Even Slate gets in on the act, delving into the possibility that the Torah really was written by none other than God himself. A heavenly host singing hallelujahs from the Empire State Building couldn't garner better press coverage for the Lord God Almighty.

What's interesting about this year's coverage is the attempt to provide scientific underpinnings for the Search for God. Newsweek's article, "Is God Listening?" tries to reconcile a widespread faith in prayer with a scientific vision of the world. "Given what science tells us about the laws of nature, what does it mean to say that God intervenes to answer individual prayers?" Kenneth L. Woodward wonders. After all, "Modern science presents an increasingly compelling model of how the world works to which religion, if it is to remain intellectually honest, must adjust its ideas about God."

But this is precisely the opposite of what actually happens in the article, which attempts to use science to "prove" established religious beliefs. Woodward cites the work of two researchers who are studying the power of prayer -- Gary Habermas, the chairman of the philosophy department at Jerry Falwell's Liberty University, and Dale Matthews, a Presbyterian professor at Georgetown who believes in revival-style, hands-on healing. Shockingly, both of these devout Christians conclude that yes, prayer does work.

Slate's tribute to God and Easter and all that's religious is a tad less tabloid-y -- but it's also based on the research of academics with religious agendas at stake. In "Cracking God's Code," Benjamin Wittes concludes that, yes, the Lord God Almighty himself (the Hebrew one, that is) wrote the Torah (the first five books of the Bible -- Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy).

Wittes bases his conclusion on the intense research of three Israeli scientists who, several years back, used a computer to discover what they say are secret codes in the Torah containing "hidden messages about future events." According to Wittes, statisticians were able to determine that the "hidden messages" were bona fide, and that "their existence 'is not due to chance.'" Wittes ends his article with a deliberately provocative question: "What if God did write the Torah? Then what?"

Well, like, convert, obviously. But before everyone rushes into church, they might consider the inconvenient fact that most of the people who want to prove that God exists are those who already believe in the guy. And they can't be all that objective.

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As a veteran of a Christian prep-school education, I know all too well how religious belief is used to trump science. I'll never forget my "science" courses at fundamentalist schools, in which evolution was lightly dismissed as a fraud and any questioning of our teacher's theories led to a lecture on the fire and brimstone awaiting all who failed to have faith.

Time and U.S. News and World Report step back slightly from the lab-coat approach to El Supremo, choosing to report the evolution of theories on heaven and near-death experiences rather than offering "proofs." U.S. News, for the most part, offers a skeptical take on life after death, suggesting that dramatic accounts of the "light at the end of the tunnel" may reflect chemical fluctuations or post-traumatic invention rather than the dramatic reality of a soul meeting its maker and a motley assortment of dead relatives en route to the great beyond. But in a companion article, "Heaven in the age of reason," Jeffery L. Sheler tries to claim the mantle of science for religious beliefs. "Despite the apparent contradiction," he writes, "during the past half century science has moved from a dogmatic denial of realities beyond its reach toward an appreciation of possibility."

The tone of these articles reflects the enormous number of Americans who still believe in God, in heaven, in something after death. And when comforting beliefs come into conflict with science, it's science that's measured against religion -- not vice-versa.

If there were a contest for "Best Easter Religious Topic Edition," however, TV Guide would win easily. Instead of pondering the unanswerable questions of heaven, hell, Jesus and Allah, the magazine confronts a dilemma that makes sense and can be argued reasonably: Where does all this religious hoopla fit in with prime-time scheduling? Who needs science -- or God, for that matter -- when you've got Nielsen on your side?

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Jenn Shreve

Jenn Shreve writes about media, technology and culture for Salon, Wired, the Industry Standard, the San Francisco Examiner and elsewhere. She lives in Oakland, Calif.

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