Yet another preying Presbyterian?

Once again, shocked onlookers painted from familiar palettes as they described the latest young man to march into the public square with his guns blazing. The alleged killer was a moody, quiet loner who excelled at school. He was a normal guy who loved movies and super-hero tales, only he cheered for the villains. When seen in bars, he was usually sitting alone.

Journalists also quoted people who knew the family and said that James Holmes was once, as The Los Angeles Times noted, "heavily involved in their local Presbyterian church" in San Diego.

You see, even a kid from a normal church can evolve into someone who dyes his hair red, buys 6,000 rounds of ammo, girds himself in a full body-armor suit and, when surrendering to Aurora, Colo., police, identifies himself as The Joker, the incarnation of postmodern evil.

"What does 'Presbyterian' mean in this context? ... It's like no one really stopped to ask if there was there something about this particular label -- the actual content of this word -- that connected in any way to this event," said Aly Colon, a nationally known journalism ethics consultant.

"Does this kind of label give readers anything to stand on? ... It's like these words are hovering up in the sky, with no connection to the facts on the ground."

Truth is, in Southern California "Presbyterian" can describe everything from evangelical megachurches to oldline Protestant congregations on the religious left.

So was the Holmes family active in the liberal Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) or the conservative Presbyterian Church in America? How about the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, the Evangelical Presbyterian Church, the Bible Presbyterian Synod, the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church, the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America or the American Presbyterian Church?

Then again, journalists were soon reporting that this family has been active -- for nearly a decade -- in some brand of Lutheran congregation.

The problem, explained Colon, is that journalists assigned to cover these media storms in the digital age are trying to report as much information as they can, as fast as they can, as easily as they can, while competing against legions of websites, Twitter feeds, 24-hour cable news and, often, smartphone videos uploaded to YouTube by eyewitnesses. Reporters are tempted to use as many easy labels and stereotypes as possible, simply to save time and space.

Almost a decade ago, Colon wrote a essay entitled "Preying Presbyterians?" about a similar media blitz in which a gunman who killed an abortion-clinic doctor was constantly identified as a "former Presbyterian minister." As it turned out, Paul Hill had become so radical that he had already been ejected from a small Presbyterian flock that was very conservative, but also opposed to any use of violence during protests.

None of the mainstream news reports he read, wrote Colon, explained why it mattered that this man had once been some kind of Presbyterian. It was just a religious label with no real content.

"As journalists, we choose words carefully and conscientiously. We select nouns and adjectives to advance the story. We connect dots. We make points. We clarify. We explain," wrote Colon. "So when I see the word 'Presbyterian,' I expect an explanation somewhere in the story that tells me why I need to know that. I would expect the same if other terms were used, such as 'Catholic,' 'Episcopalian,' 'Christian,' 'Hindu,' 'Jew,' 'Mormon,' 'Hindu,' 'Buddhist,' 'Muslim' or 'Pagan.' "

What he wrote then remains true today, as journalists try to find and assemble the pieces of the bloody Aurora puzzle. If religion is going to be included in the coverage, stressed Colon, reporters must work to "connect faith to facts."

In other words, it will be crucial to learn the details of Holmes' real life, in the here and now. Journalists must learn how he spent his time, spent his money and made the decisions that appear to have ended and altered so many lives. If faith -- or some other worldview -- is part of that equation, then so be it.

"It's our duty to drill down and to find facts that add clarity," said Colon. "Maybe this young man once had a membership in a particular Presbyterian church with a particular theology. So what? How is that faith connected to the facts of what happened in Aurora? There must be a connection or what's the point?"

Bullets, Bibles and Big Questions

By age 14, Cassie Griffin had collected a bedroom full of toy frogs, each a playful symbol of her F.R.O.G. motto -- Fully Relying On God. She was tall for her age, which probably made it easier for gunman Larry Gene Ashbrook to target her on that horrific night a decade ago at Wedgwood Baptist Church in Fort Worth, Texas. Cursing God and Baptists, he stormed into a youth prayer service, firing 100 rounds and exploding a pipe bomb -- leaving seven dead and seven wounded.

At a recent meeting of the Wedgwood deacons, Cassie's father gave his pastor a message for the faithful at the First Baptist in Maryville, Ill., where another disturbed gunman killed the senior pastor while he preached on Sunday, March 8.

"Let those people know that my son is still struggling," the deacon told the Rev. Al Meredith, who preached to the stricken Maryville flock exactly one week after their pastor's death.

This kind of tragedy, said Meredith, is not "something you get over with three points and a poem," a dose of scripture, a verse of "Victory in Jesus" and a proclamation that, "Everything's fine. Let's move on."

There's a "Greek word" for that kind of theology and it's "baloney," he said, preaching where the Rev. Fred Winters bled and died, his Bible blasted apart by one of 27-year-old Terry Joe Sedlacek's first shots. Police have not announced a motive.

"Every day with Jesus is not sweeter than the day before," said Meredith, in a sermon that swung from tears to gospel singing to laughter. "Some days are evil. In fact, the Bible says, 'Stand that you might be able to stand in the evil day.' Last Sunday was an evil day, and our hearts are breaking. ...

"People are going to ask, 'When are you going to get over this?' You're never going to get over this, but by God's grace you're going to get through it. And God will give you joy and peace in the midst of it, in the midst of the tears and the heartache. Have you learned that? You are learning it. It's the praise you give with a broken heart that is the greatest sacrifice you can offer God."

There are few pastors who have faced the challenge of preaching in a sanctuary that has blood on the carpet and bullet holes in the walls. There are few who have had to face the press after this kind of bloodshed, with most of the reporters asking an ancient question that is at the heart of mature faith: "Can you tell us where God is in all of this?"

Meredith, of course, addressed that question when he faced his own shell-shocked flock. That's why the Maryville church asked him to come preach.

Back in 1999, he said: "If God really loves us, if God is all powerful, why in the world did he let this happen? Why does God allow evil to seemingly abound in this world? Why Columbine? ... Why do a million and a half unborn babies have their lives snuffed out before they have a chance to breathe a breath? Why do children die of hunger daily around the world? Why is there pain? Why is there suffering? Why is there mental illness? ... The question is, 'Where is God when we hurt?' "

The reality is that there is no way to avoid suffering. Thus, the crucial test is whether believers can face trials and tribulations without sliding in despair.

Meanwhile, said Meredith, far too many churches are fighting about the "color of the carpet or the music they sing," while suffering people keep looking for some sense of hope -- in this world and the next. It doesn't help that anyone with a television remote can find scores of "health and wealth boys" who claim that true believers will avoid pain and strife altogether.

"Tell that to every saint that's died. Tell that to the saints that are struggling with unmitigated pain," he told the Maryville congregation. "God never promised us a life without trials. As Americans, we want a carefree and happy life. We think that's God's will for our lives. Get a clue. God's will for your life is to make you into the image of His Son, and that only happens through the heartaches and trials of life."