Trends and ethics stories

Many religion reporters also write about spiritual movements and ethical concerns. What sorts of stories like that should a religion writer do?

Richard Scheinin has covered religion and ethics for the San Jose Mercury News since 1992. A baseball lover, he is the author of Field of Screams: The Dark Underside of America’s National Pastime, published in 1994.

By Richard Scheinin
San Jose Mercury News

To write stories about spiritual movements, look for the telltale “signs” of religion-the quest for transcendence we hear so much about these days, the attempt to find and understand “something more.” Only, you’re looking for these signs before they become codified within religious systems and institutions.

Look for people who fall between the cracks of organized religion, who want something different, yet something that speaks to the essence of religion. That’s a large chunk of the population these days. Some people look far into the past for an answer. They may go out and join a Gnostic church; believe it or not, there are Gnostic churches and publications around the country. Or they may join a “new religion” like the Canadian-based Raellian movement, whose “prophet” says he was abducted and enlightened by extra-terrestrials in 1973.

Look to ethnic communities. Falun Gong, the Chinese spiritual movement, is a great story. There are growing, often multi-ethnic, “spiritual” communities exploring Yoruban religion and its offshoots in the New World. On a farm near where I live, families gather every weekend to practice the rituals of Umbanda, a syncretic religion from Brazil that fuses Yoruban religion, Catholicism and the spiritism of the French philosopher Allan Kardec. There are business groups that use the Bible or the Vedas as a platform for reducing work stress and improving performance. The poet Emerson is a guru for many do-it-yourself types.

Of course, the line dividing spiritual and religious movements is blurry. Within every major faith tradition, there are “spiritual movements”: charismatic Catholics, “renewalist” Jews who meditate and study the Kabbalistic tradition, Christians who draw inspiration from the Buddha and see him as a Christ-like figure.

Think broadly: For a lot of Americans, music is the door to the spirit. I would argue that the nomadic Deadhead (or Phish-head) community constitutes a spiritual movement. There’s a church in San Francisco that has canonized the late jazz saxophonist John Coltrane, who is viewed as a spiritual icon by listeners around the world. For a lot of people, Beethoven is it; in fact, Beethoven’s spiritual beliefs make a great story. Think about it the next time there’s a Beethoven festival near where you work.

Think about ritual: I once used a museum exhibit of ancient Thracian chalices to write a story about the sacramental uses of wine throughout history and across traditions. Think about the connections between incense in the church and tobacco smoke in Native American rituals. Think about trance-there’s even a Christian rave movement these days.

As for writing about ethical concerns, the trick is to zero in on breaking news events or social trends and “frame” them within an ethical discussion. Every year or two, it seems, there is another opportunity to consider the “just war” tradition: When can a war be legitimately fought and how can the conduct of such a war be limited according to ethical considerations?

We live in a time of unprecedented public discussion of ethical issues in the worlds of biomedicine and genetics, business, law, criminal justice, and politics, to name a few. Everywhere, there are issues to write about: same-sex marriage legislation; state executions of retarded prisoners; corporate greed and influence-peddling; cloning; fetal stem cell re-search; online privacy issues, including corporate monitoring of employees’ e-mail use and Web surfing.

Tell the reader what’s going on, synopsize the latest developments, look at the background issues and history, and, in the course of all this, present a sort of “Town Hall” discussion for your readers, with ethicists and thoughtful people chiming in on the various sides of the argument. What’s right about what’s going on? What’s wrong? It’s a public service, really, and interesting.

And it’s not hard to find sources. A cottage industry (a story in itself) has grown up around the study and discussion of ethics. Go to local universities, business and law schools, hospitals and independent ethics institutes. Get to know the “ethics experts” on staff and sound them out for story ideas.

It doesn’t all have to be “newsy.” People love reading about issues pertaining to “everyday ethics.” If you find a wallet in the street, without a driver’s license or other identifying documents inside, should you hand it over to the police? Is it okay for your child to punch a playground bully in the nose? Should you tell your children that you used drugs 20 or 30 years ago? Again, what’s right? What’s wrong? Go for it.