Going in religion-news circles

Journalists may not know the precise meaning of the word "theodicy," but, year after year, they know a good "theodicy" story when they see one. The American Heritage Dictionary defines this term as a "vindication of God's goodness and justice in the face of the existence of evil." Wikipedia calls it a "branch of theology ... that attempts to reconcile

the existence of evil in the world with the assumption of a benevolent God."

There were three "theodicy" events in 2005, so the Religion Newswriters Association combined them into one item in its top-10 story list. What linked Hurricane Katrina, the Southeast Asia tsunami and another earthquake in Pakistan? Each time, journalists asked the timeless question: What role did God play in these disasters?

Last year, it was the schoolhouse massacre of five Amish girls in Bart Township, Pa. The stunning words of forgiveness offered by the families of the victims added yet another layer of drama to the story.

"Every year there is going to be some great tragedy or disaster and that causes people to ask, 'Where was God?' These events may not seem like religion stories, but they almost always turn into religion stories because of the way people respond to them," said Richard N. Ostling, who retired last year after three decades on the religion beat, first with Time and then with the Associated Press.

"This tells us something important -- that it's hard to draw clean lines between what is religion news and what is not. ... Religious faith is part of how people think and how they live. This affects all kinds of things."

This is true in Iran and in Israel. It's true on Sunday mornings in American suburbs and during riots in the suburbs of France. It's true on the border between India and Pakistan and numerous other fault lines around the world.

Religion is a factor when people go to worship or when they decline to do so. For many, faith plays a role when they vote and when they volunteer to help others. Sadly, religion often plays a pivotal role when people go to war.

Thus, noted Ostling, events on this beat often seem to go in circles, with certain themes and conflicts appearing year after year, world without end -- amen.

This is frustrating for editors, who struggle to understand why religious believers "keep getting so upset about what seem to be the same old stories," he said.

For example, mainline Protestants have been fighting for decades over hot-button issues linked to ancient doctrines about marriage, gender and sex. More often than not, this leads to headlines about another round of changes in the U.S. Episcopal Church. One of the major stories of 2006 was the election of the Rt. Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori -- an articulate feminist from the tiny Diocese of Nevada -- as the denomination's first female presiding bishop.

"This was an important story," noted Ostling. "But was there anything all that surprising about it? Not really." Meanwhile, the bigger story -- a chain reaction among parishes leaving the denomination -- is "probably harder to cover because it is spread all over the country," he said.

The fall of the Rev. Ted Haggard as president of the National Association of Evangelicals was a big story in 2006, but the typical news year always includes at least one sexy scandal of this kind.

The list goes on. Every election year will include a wave of reports about the degree to which religious issues did or did not drive Republicans, and increasingly Democrats, to the polls.

There are annual stories that pit science against religion and Hollywood against people in pews. Can journalists separate politics and faith in the Middle East? Are clashes between Sunni and Shiite Muslims in Iraq about religious faith, political power or some combination of the two? What will the pope say that upsets people this year? Which church-state case split the U.S. Supreme Court this time around?

"The problem is that it's hard to know if any one event in this stream of events is the definitive one, the truly landmark event," said Ostling. "At some point, things change and they stay changed."

But journalists have to be patient, he said, because "people are looking for answers to the big questions and they don't change what they believe overnight."