Articles of Faith

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Growing up as a Southern Baptist preacher’s kid, I didn’t think about visions and patron saints very much.

So it felt strange when I converted to Eastern Orthodoxy and my morning prayers began including an appeal for my patron — St. Brendan of Ireland — to pray with me. I asked my spiritual father about this. He laughed and said, “Just say your prayers. But if your patron saint ever talks back, that’s when you need to go ask a priest for help!”

Yes, I have a journalistic reason for bringing this up.

As journalists, what are we supposed to do when we write about people who claim to have visions and other miraculous spiritual experiences?

Take, for example, a USA Today story about Kathleen McGowan. She’s the author of “The Expected One,” a novel from Simon & Schuster in which she makes a claim that you just knew someone was going to make sooner or later. She says she is a blood heir to the family line of Jesus of Nazareth and his bride, Mary Magdalene.

As I read that feature — which included a one-click link to 4,500 words of Chapter One — I kept thinking, “OK, any paragraph now, this woman is going to be asked to explain, in basic English, why she believes what she believes.”

But that never really happened, and I wonder why.

McGowan’s book is packed with all the fictional elements one would expect from a writer trying to photocopy Dan and Blythe Brown and “The Da Vinci Code.” There are conspiracies, hidden documents and dark Vatican forces that stalk brave individuals as they search for ancient secrets. The heroine in “The Expected One” has visions in which she discovers she is a descendant of Mary and Jesus. This inspires a dramatic search in France for a gospel written by Mary and the true story of her marriage to Jesus and the birth of their children. Or is that “Their” children?

Thus, USA Today reported:

McGowan calls this a novel but says it mirrors her own life. Maureen’s visions, she says, are “verbatim” accounts of her own visions of Mary Magdalene. “Maureen is a fictional character,” she says, “but there is a lot of me in Maureen. I know it will be hard for people to accept this, but it’s true.”

You might say that. So why didn’t the newspaper ask McGowan to make a case for her beliefs? Actually, it appears as though reporter Carol Memmott might have tried to do that, but didn’t get much in the way of answers. Of course, we have to dig way, way down in this public-relations gold mine to find that out.

In other words, this is a story about a book. Period. We are left with one or two statements that sound like this:

McGowan, a journalist and a third-generation Hollywood native who has worked for various film studios including The Walt Disney Co., says her first vision of Mary Magdalene took place during a visit to Jerusalem in 1997. She experienced vertigo and saw a blinding flash. She then saw Mary Magdalene, surrounded by an angry mob, walking toward the mount where Jesus would be crucified.

It was that vision, McGowan says, that changed her life forever.

“It was so real and so powerful. It was the moment when I knew I would never be able to turn back, when I knew what I was seeing was real and it was true and I was being shown it for a reason and that I had to keep going.”

McGowan says she cannot quote anyone by name to back up her claims. Her anonymous family members want to maintain their privacy. Agent Larry Kirshbaum says, “[S]he’s entirely credible. … You have to give her any benefit of the doubt because she’s totally rational.”

Like I said, you knew this story was coming. What I didn’t expect was for a national newspaper to let the subject of the story get away without telling us more details about this experience that McGowan claims to have had. When did she begin sharing details with others — before or after “The Da Vinci Code”?

Here’s my point. I have, through the years, heard many journalists say that one of the main reasons they struggle with religion news is that journalists are supposed to write about facts, while many religious issues are rooted in personal beliefs. In other words, it’s hard to do journalism about all that mushy spiritual stuff.

Nevertheless, it’s a fact that millions of people have religious beliefs that, in some way, shape their lives in the real world. That’s a fact. We can ask these believers lots of detailed questions. We can ask them to describe their spiritual experiences and to explain how these experiences affect their lives. Then we quote the answers.

I thought it was strange that the USA Today story never really did that, and that bothered me. When it comes to people making claims about visions and revelations, I think it’s OK for a journalist to be at least as skeptical as a good priest.

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