I was in the airport, waiting for an early morning flight back home, when the CNN reporters on the monitors at my gate announced that Jennifer Wilbanks, who was to have been married later that day but had gone missing, had finally been found – alive. Now, I’d been travelling on business for the prior week, so I had never heard of the case before. But, as I watched the reporters breathlessly commenting on what they seemed to think was a story of deep national importance, I heard all the details – that Wilbanks had been presumed dead by most people, and most Americans had decided that her fiance had murdered her. It was going to have been the Scott and Laci Peterson story all over again, and I could see that the people at CNN were struggling with a sense of loss – they were looking for a new angle.
Abduction by a mixed-race couple could only take the story so far, so the CNN reporters went live to get some religion into the story. Although it was not yet even 8:00 in the morning, members of Jennifer Wilbanks’s church had gathered together to praise God after hearing of her release from captivity.
CNN devoted something like ten minutes of air time to declarations by the church’s top preacher, a deacon, and lay theologians that the rescue of Jennifer Wilbanks had all been orchestrated by God, through their prayers. CNN’s reporters were told that the whole church had prayed for God to keep his hand on Wilbanks throughout her whole ordeal, to keep her safe. And look! Wilbanks had turned out safe! Wasn’t that proof enough of the power of prayer?
CNNs reporters nodded approvingly at the church’s sermon on the need for everyone to pray in times of need, and then gave the church members more time to offer their religious perspective on the news. It turns out, said the church members, that God was watching over Jennifer Wilbanks the whole time. A deacon pushed his way in front of the microphone to declare that the whole wedding was really about God anyway – not about the couple that was going to get married.
Throughout this prolonged sermon on the theology of the abduction of Jennifer Wilbanks, several nagging questions came into my mind. I wondered, for example, If God really put his hand on Jennifer Wilbanks to protect her, then how come it took so many days for her to escape from her captors? But, the CNN reporters asked no such questions. Apparently, they regarded it as their job to ask no challenging questions of these devotees, but merely to allow the religious an opportunity to lecture the nation about the nature of God.
It was just a few minutes later that a police officer from New Mexico announced that Jennifer Wilkins had never been abducted at all. She had, she admitted, just gotten cold feet and run away to Las Vegas. She had made the whole thing up.
What I really wanted was for the CNN crew to go back to Wilbank’s church and ask some questions about how the revelation affected their understanding of God’s will.
- If God was protecting Jennifer Wilkbanks the whole time, and the wedding was really about God, then how come God had taken Jennifer Wilbanks to the desert Southwest instead of to her wedding?
- If the power of prayer could deliver Jennifer Wilbanks from the hands of two dastardly kidnappers, then how come the power of prayer couldn’t convince Wilbanks just to come to her own wedding instead of taking a holiday on The Strip?
- Does God have a particular fondness for Las Vegas as a holiday destination, and if he does, does he receive any financial compensation for his endorsement? How does God do on the slots when he’s in town?
Oddly enough, CNN’s reporters did not return to the church to ask these questions. The same reporters who had given the church a blank check to offer theological babble as “news” now shrank away and refused to ask the obvious questions. CNN followed the unbalanced code of the mainstream news media’s relationship with religion: Fawn all over religious leaders and allow them to jabber on incoherently about God’s mysterious ways, but never ever ask for explanation when event suggest that those same theological jabberings have come out of the backside of a horse.
I was brought into these thoughts this morning by the revelation of a new little twist on the Jennifer Wilbanks story. Her church, which is still in the business of getting as much media attention for itself as it possibly can, has released a statement explaining that Jennifer Wilbanks has checked herself into an inpatient medical treatment center to deal with some “physical and mental issues”.
This leads me to wonder: Why did the church send Jennifer Wilbanks to a medical treatment center? Why didn’t they just cure her through their abductor-stopping power of prayer? After all, if a church can use the power of prayer to deliver a person from make-believe kidnappers, but cannot even use the power of prayer to help one of its members to deal with some “physical and mental issues”, what the hell is the power of prayer good for anyway?
Mysterious ways my foot. God works through shameless hucksters.