By now you have probably heard or seen something--on the news, a tweet, on Facebook--about the horrific traffic accident in eastern Missouri that nearly claimed the life of a young woman and the extraordinary circumstances of her rescue. On Sunday morning, nineteen year-old Katie Lentz was driving from her parents' home in Quincy, Illinois, to Jefferson City, Missouri, where she held a summer internship. On a stretch of rural highway outside of New London, Missouri, tragedy struck. Lentz's vehicle collided with another car and the accident left her trapped inside her crumpled car. When first responders arrived, they began the task of removing Lentz from her vehicle while carefully monitoring her vital signs, which were steadily deteriorating. To this point, the story is tragically familiar, a reflection of countless others that play out on American highways each year. What happened next, though, has made the accident a national story rather than a local tragedy. According to New London's fire chief Raymond Reed, Katie Lentz received a miracle. And her miracle had a body.
In the days since USA TODAY's Melanie Eversley first reported the story, dozens of media outlets and blogsters across the country have picked it up. The basic plot line is that when Lentz's situation seemed dire and the rescuers were becoming less optimistic about her survival, she asked if someone would pray for her and, according to Eversley, "a voice said, 'I will.'" To whom did this voice belong? Not to Reed or the other rescuers on the scene but to a "mystery priest" who appeared out of nowhere on the cordoned-off highway. This "silver haired priest" came equipped not only with a prayer but also with "a bottle of anointing oil" that he "sprinkled" on Lentz and, according to another responder, Reed. Almost immediately the rescue efforts improved and Lentz was transported to a medical helicopter and then off to a regional hospital for emergency treatment. When Reed and other responders then turned to thank the priest, he was gone.
As the story of this highway miracle and the mystery priest spreads throughout American media and goes viral on social networks a seemingly endless torrent of commentary has squared the episode into a gridlocked either/or, true/false scenario: either the miracle is true or it is false. Tweets range from "Oh please. Really?" to "if you have any doubts God exists, read this and i promise it'll change your mind." Either Katie Lentz's faith healed her broken body or this is just another scrap of holy hucksterism from the Midwest. Either we should believe events transpired as they have been recalled and reported or we should not. Either or. Should shouldn't. True. False.
Of course, the question of the veracity of the claims bundled up in the story is not really the question to be asking at all. The incident raises a number of questions relevant to the study of religion in America but among the most intriguing, in this instance, is to what extent should scholars of American religion own this story? To what extent, in other words, do we have a civic responsibility to address how media reports religion? Do our professional responsibilities include not only classrooms, conferences, and publishing but also how our communities define and encounter "religion" in public spaces? If the answer to any of these is yes, we do, then how do we, first, define our objectives to a popular audience weaned on dichotomous definitions of religion/not-religion, and then proceed to meet those objectives without slipping into perceived advocacy of a particular position? And, related, how do we meet these stories in contexts that are relevant to those who are telling them? What measures must we take to engage stories in which we claim expertise without falling into quagmires of pedantry or, worse, paternalism? Lots of questions. What is perhaps most troubling about this story is not that the conversation has been boxed into a house of mirrors--although that is indeed troubling--but that those of us who have been trained to perceive the cultural nuances of the story, and are thus equipped for productive public engagement, are more often than not paralyzed on the sideline because even to raise the question will likely be perceived by some as a posture of doubt.
A rich, if contested, vein of scholarship in recent years has pivoted on the question of presence. To what extent do we run with experiences of divine presence as part of our toolkit of historical and cultural analysis? If miracles, among other forms of presence, are expected and experienced as meaningful and active by the people and events we study, then isn't bracketing those experiences a form of passive analysis? The rejoinder to these questions is just as important as it is dismissive: the question of presence is best left to theology. In other words, we raise our hard-earned flag of independence from theology, under which we concomitantly shield ourselves from the question. To be sure, a lot of what we do--myself boisterously included--is a far, far cry from theology. The questions that animate and motivate our inquiries are anthropological, sociological, documentary, archival. And yet, the question of presence is only a breath away. If these events and personages are real to the people who I am studying--as real as my subjects, long dead, are to me--then shouldn't I have a way of accounting for them in my own analysis?
There are so many presences in this story, bubbling just beneath the surface, that it is difficult to choose where to begin. There is fire chief Reed, whose title positions him prominently in the town of less than 1000 residents. That Reed, speaking in his official capacity when asked to comment on the accident, freely described the event as "a miracle" says something about the religious framework in which public life is often cast. Reed was not simply using the language of the miraculous to describe something he was at a loss of words to explain. He meant it: "I would say whether it was an angel that was sent to us in the form of a priest or a priest that became an angel, I don't know. Either way, I'm good with it." Either way, for Reed, it was a miracle. Either way, when the tools provided through civic mechanisms failed, this failure became preamble to the pageantry of divine intervention.
There is Katie's mother, Carla, who responded to a question about the mystery priest by saying that "I do believe he certainly could have been an angel dressed in priest's attire because the Bible tells us there are angels among us."
And then there are the photographs. "I have 69 photographs that were taken from minutes after that accident happened," Reed explains, of "bystanders, the extrication, our final cleanup--and he's [the priest] not in them." When the priest could not be found after Lentz had been removed to the hospital, Reed and the other responders turned to the incident photographs for some kind of identification--"all we want to do is thank him." But in the medium that so often provides evidence of presence, these photographs documented only absence, which shifted the calibration to a different order of presence.
Behind all of this commentary, mine included, is a teenage girl, a college student, who hangs on to her life. As a mother, as a teacher, as a driver, I grieve with her family and celebrate her survival and yearn for her recovery. And yet the story now in the media is not about her. For many, it is about the priest or miracles or God or angels. For others it is about guile or deception or virtue or citizenship. For me it is a story about presences and absences and how a profession poised to act finds its voice.