The storyline has made-for-TV-movie written all over it. A menacing accused rapist overpowers a lone female deputy, stealing her gun. He then fatally shoots the judge presiding over his case and three other people during his escape.
While authorities launch a massive manhunt, the fugitive, Brian Nichols, forces a single mother into her apartment, holding her hostage for seven hours. The woman, strengthened by her beliefs, keeps her wits about her and eventually convinces the killer to turn himself in. She walks away from the ordeal unharmed and an instant national celebrity.
Three cheers for this courageous hero, right?
Well, not exactly. Several commentators have offered only two. After the initial media euphoria, they noticed a problem with this hero. She is, um, you see, an . . . evangelical Christian. Not only that, the woman, Ashley Smith, credits God with resolving the incident peacefully, in part by using a best-selling book by a Baptist pastor, The Purpose-Driven Life.
So, in the minds of these supposedly liberal critics, what could have been an uplifting story of a woman’s courage has crumbled into just another pushy ad for religion—kind of like a supermodel striding down the runway in a polyester pantsuit.
“Suddenly, the near miracle that occurred in Smith’s apartment because of her calm and compassion is infused with the rhetoric of Christian evangelism,” sniffs Philadelphia Daily News columnist Jill Porter. “And suddenly, those of us who are wary of the increasing influence born-again Christians have on our political and cultural life feel a regrettable discomfort with this wonderful story.”
I’d like to say I feel her pain, but I don’t.
Let’s retrace the incident, using excerpts from Ashley Smith’s subsequent testimony. Early on, Smith tried to steer Nichols toward a conversation about God and faith.
We went to my room. And I asked him if I could read.
He said, “What do you want to read?”
Well, I have a book in my room.” So I went and got it. I got my Bible. And I got a book called The Purpose-Driven Life. I turned it to the chapter that I was on that day. It was Chapter 33.
And I started to read the first paragraph of it. After I read it, he said, “Stop, will you read it again?”
I said, “Yeah. I’ll read it again.” So I read it again to him.
It mentioned something about what you thought your purpose in life was. What were you—what talents were you given? What gifts were you given to use?
And I asked him what he thought. And he said, “I think it was to talk to people and tell them about you.”
Despite her fears, Ashley Smith looked beyond the man’s crimes and saw his soul.
I really didn’t keep track of time too much because I was really worried about just living. I didn’t want to die. I didn’t want him to hurt anybody else. And I really didn’t want him to hurt himself or anyone else to hurt him. He’s done enough—he had done enough. And he really, honestly when I looked at him, he looked like he didn’t want to do it anymore.
He asked me what I thought he should do.
And I said, “I think you should turn yourself in. If you don’t turn yourself in,” this is what I said, “If you don’t turn yourself in, lots more people are going to get hurt. And you’re probably going to die.”
And he said, “I don’t want that to happen.”
He said, “Can I stay here for a few days? I just want to eat some real food and watch some TV and sleep and just do normal things that normal people do.”
So, of course, I said, “Sure. You can stay here.” I didn’t want—I wanted to gain his trust.
Most of my time was spent talking to this man about my life and experiences in my life, things that had happened to me.
He needed hope for his life. He told me that he was already dead. He said, “Look at me, look at my eyes. I am already dead.”
And I said, “You are not dead. You are standing right in front of me. If you want to die, you can. It’s your choice.”
But after I started to read to him, he saw—I guess he saw my faith and what I really believed in. And I told him I was a child of God and that I wanted to do God’s will. I guess he began to want to. That’s what I think.
But some skeptics, such as Porter, find Smith’s faith incidental. To them, any number of other approaches might have yielded the same result.
“I know many profoundly religious people who could never have responded the way Smith did when Brian Nichols put a gun in her side and tied her up,” Porter says. Oh, really? Care to share any names?
“I also know a few completely irreligious people who might have disarmed Nichols through bravery, poise and calm,” Porter continues. Or maybe just a winning smile?
“Ashley Smith,” Porter writes, “ought to remain a hero to us all—and not be reduced to a shill for a book or a symbol of the righteousness of evangelical Christianity.”
Porter, who admits she is “in awe of [Smith’s] spiritual and emotional resources,” eventually reveals her true target—the Almighty Himself. “And if, as some disciples of the book have said, God used Smith to reach Nichols, exactly where was God earlier in the day when he slaughtered four innocent people?”
Jill Porter’s question is an old one: Why does God allow bad things to happen? The evangelical Christianity she apparently despises has satisfying (though not exhaustive) answers—seen most clearly in the Good Friday death and Easter resurrection the One who sustained Ashley Smith in her hour of extremity.
Sounds like a superb script to me.