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This blog site will feature essays, columns and musings that deal with the intersection of Christianity and journalism and the American Songbook.

“Why the World Journalism Institute?” (speech: Band of Brothers Prayer Breakfast)

Joel Belz and Bob (1999)

(Note: This was a speech given to a mens’ prayer breakfast in Tacoma, WA attended by about 200 men.)

In 1990, publisher Joel Belz invited me to join the board of World magazine, the national news magazine written from a Christian perspective.

I had known Joel for 20 years by that time and had worked with him in various journalistic ventures. During the preceding decade I had been involved in Washington state politics, and as a result I had been appointed by Gov. John Spellman to be on the board of regents for Central Washington University and by Pres. Ronald Reagan to be on his National Council on Vocational Education. Because of these appointments I had written on various educational matters and Joel and I had kept in touch during this period.

Governor’s castle in Ellensburg

Late in the 1990s, a group of us at World magazine were talking about the need for a boot-camp training for aspiring Christian journalists who want to work in the mainstream newsrooms. We decided to have a program to give these young journalists a boost in their journalistic career. In 1990, I had been asked to teach at Central Washington University first in the business department and then in the philosophy department, and since I had my summers free, I volunteered to organize this first journalism boot camp. We established the journalism course on the East Coast, and after working on it part-time for a year in Ellensburg, in the summer of l999 my wife Kathy and I moved to North Carolina for six weeks to run this unique, experimental program. That effort was successful, so we quite our teaching jobs in Ellensburg and in the summer of 2000 she and I moved to Asheville, N.C., to operate what we called the World Journalism Institute. And that’s what I’ve been doing since then. Our offices have subsequently moved to the campus of The King’s College in New York City. In late 2006, Kathy and I returned to Washington State to be near our daughters and my parents, and I commute to Manhattan each month for a week.So, what did we see back in l998 that motivated us to begin the World Journalism Institute?

Carl F. H. Henry

While there has always been the cosmic struggle between truth and falsehood, between good and evil, between the best laid plans of man (e.g., tower of Babel) and the plans of God this conflict has been intensified into an outright cultural war in our post-modern, post Christian age by our major cultural institutions.  It has been argued (Carl Henry) that “never in the past have the role of words and the nature of truth been as misty and undefined as now.” In previous ages, concepts of truth communicated through words was the accepted medium of human exchange.  Today, however, the nature of truth and the role of words are in dispute. We are witnessing a massive breakdown of confidence in verbal communication.  Words have become obsolescent (Marshall McLuhan).  In our post-Christian society, language is used not to reveal and enlighten, but to conceal, deceive, and confuse. Symbols and images are more important than words (we live in a UTube world). We are going back to the Middle Ages when stain glass told the story of Christianity to an illiterate populace. For the Christian journalist this shift has extraordinary consequences. When the notion flourishes that words are not to be trusted as carriers of the truth and reality, definitions, by their very nature, are allowed to run wild and unchecked. Christianity, because it is a religion of verbal revelation and expression, suffers more than do other worldviews. And journalism, because it is the craft of journaling using language, suffers more than other callings. So the Christian journalist gets a double whammy in today’s society.

Christianity centers purely in the living God, self disclosed in his infallible Word, communicated intelligibly in meaningful sentences to aptly equipped human minds. The claims of Jesus to be, to know, and to proclaim the truth is nonsense if words are inherently distortive and deceptive (John 14:10; 8:47; 10:35). The task of the journalist who is a Christian must be on the front line of words as carriers of truth. The Scriptures require Christians to shoulder the responsibility for verbal expression which is verifiably true (Matt. 28:18-19; Rom. 10: 14-15; Acts 17; 18:4, 12, 18, 28; 19:8-9; etc.).

Marshall Mcluhan

If it is right that absolute truth has been lost in the market place of ideas (“the medium is the message” – Marshall McLuhan), then the importance of every word vanishes as well. We will be left with only a multiplicity of latest words (Acts 17:21) which tickle our ears (2 Tim. 4:3), none of them fixed, none of them final. So an elite cadre of cultural gatekeepers and intellectuals able to manipulate words and symbols who are devoted to novelty and sensationalism will breed an entire generation “ever learning and never able to come to knowledge of the truth” (2 Tim. 3:7). When truth is lost, falsehood is lost. Everything is true. Everything is false. Everything becomes relative . Only pragmatism, which says “this is true because it gets me what I want,” remains.

Francis Schaeffer

It has been pointed out (Francis Schaeffer) that the task of comprehending truth and reality has been profoundly complicated by the fact that words have been emptied of traditional and commonly understood meaning, and words are now marketed toward subjective and self-serving ends.  In our post-Christian age, words are used as weapons to advance social, economic, political and cultural agendas, not to advance truth and a verifiable understanding of the real state of affairs. We live in a world in which we now debate the meaning of simple words like “is.”The fundamental issue in journalism – any journalism – is the issue of truth — the truth of the theological presuppositions implicit in the journalistic approach and content (epistemology). Let me explain. It has been argued (Langdon Gilkey) that the prevalent mood of today’s Western culture is “skepticism about all formulation of ultimate coherence or ultimate meaning.” This new Dark Age nihilism (Alistair MacIntyre) surrounds us and we Christians can resist it only with self-conscience effort.

Robert Russell Drake

If it is true that journalists write the first, rough draft of history then it is critical for Christian journalists to be intellectually self-conscious. Why is that? As Robert Russell Drake has pointed out, historians have an advantage over journalists because historians select an event or person to investigate, after the fact. The historian looks back from a known goal to see how the goal was reached through world events. So the historical investigation always has guidelines and an intellectual gyroscope directing the content and interpretation of the historian’s writing.That historical intellectual guideline is missing for the journalist because the journalist is writing contemporary, instant narrative. So the journalist is excluded from using a historical event or personage to guide his/her story. The journalist cannot wait, cannot use hindsight because fact selections are made daily, under the pressure of deadlines and competition.

Since the journalist cannot see the final consequences of a reported event, story selection, framing, sources, content, and much more must all be guided by the journalist’s personal interpretive framework (i.e., worldview). It is the journalist’s worldview which guides him/her. This is why a journalist’s presuppositions (or worldview or interpretive framework or set patterns of thought) are critical to the reporting of a story. Worldview governs the journalistic process.

One way for the journalist of faith to resist the dominant cultural spiritual mindlessness is to give attention to the inflexible nature of the created moral order (metaphysics). That is, Christian journalists need to remember the insistent Biblical demand that every person tell the truth and keep his word (James 5:12; Matt. 5:37). Christianity makes the binding connection between all falsehood with the Evil One (John 8:44).  What has happened in our post-Christian society is that our culture has largely programmed or scrubbed out of our public discourse eternal concepts like final truth and moral absolutes.  The tragedy is that it was not always this way. There was a time (in the lifetime of many of you in this room) when the major news organizations of this country reflected the truth of God’s existence, without being explicitly Christian.  But because we Christians abandoned the mainstream newsrooms these great cultural institutions (i.e., media organizations) forgot about God.  And that is because every journalist, Christian or not, is an evangelist because every journalist reports and writes from his/her moral perspective (worldview) – and seeks to convert to that perspective.

If we Christians continue to absent ourselves from the pursuit of news in the mainstream media, then it is unlikely that any remedy can hope to succeed in stemming the wayward winds of general relativism or skepticism, or secularism in the newsrooms.  Now I am not calling for an evangelical jihad against non-evangelical journalists in the American newsrooms. Rather, in this proposed newsroom reawakening, it is important that the question whether enduring (abiding) Christian concerns are granted visibility, or whether the worldview of historic Christianity is suppressed. I refer to the universal Christian concerns as:

1) Justice and love is shown towards racial and religious minorities, the poor, and the socially forgotten (James 1:27).

2) A peaceful and law abiding society is encouraged (1 Tim. 2:12; Rom. 13)

3) Cultural activities such as education, commerce and subduing nature be in accordance with Christian teaching (Gen. 1:28)

4) Personal moral standards are adhered to (Matt. 5:48; 1 John 3)

5) Family and state are examined in light of Christian teaching (Eph. 5-6)6) Judeo-Christian definition of human essence (anthropology) is recognized (Gen. 9)

Richard John Neuhaus

I would argue that the future of American culture and Western civilization (which is exceptional) depend on whether print and broadcast are reserved only for human speculation and transitory happenings, or whether these Christian concerns are given equal time and space in the “public square” (Richard John Neuhaus). Take note: I have not mentioned a word about Bible studies in the workplace or evangelism or proselytizing. I am emphasizing the universal concerns of human life, which non-evangelical journalists such as Nicholas Kristof (New York Times) have championed, as well.

As Carl Henry has noted, the fact that our self-revealing God is an abstract, non-sensory reality is not what gives Him a poor press — many ephemeral concepts such as “justice,” “love,” “human rights,” “evil,” “hate,” beauty,” “courage,” etc. are also non-sensory concepts.  Rather, by reporting only the perverse, wicked, violent, criminal, depressing, chaotic, greedy, random, dangerous, if it bleeds it leads, etc. as the decisively real world, the mainstream media help foster an almost purely biased misunderstanding of reality (Prov. 13:2-3).

That is, it is easy to report on the theological aspect of the Fall of humankind (sin), and not the equally real aspect of the offer of redemption. And by so reporting, the mainstream press can obscure hope. Over the last 30 years, two dozen surveys have shown that the American popular press has an uncoordinated but still real ideological bias that makes it hard for it to appreciate the orthodox Christian perspective on contemporary events. A mood of perpetual crises (in the temporal socio-politico-economic sphere) is nurtured rather than the reality of the eternal cosmic control of a kind and purposeful God.

This constant repetition of emotion-laden experiences, which appeals to our sentimental and romantic sinful nature, drives us to harden ourselves against personal sacrificial involvement in society.  Let someone else do it and not me. From my perspective, when the mass media denies spiritual reality, embraces moral relativism, and accommodates the materialist, sensate, and purposeless view of life, it is wrong headed and thus destructive to the amelioration of the woes of humankind.

Samuel Eli Cornish

In this age of mass secularized media, the mission of all journalists of faith is to overcome the eclipse of God, and to provide an option to the dominant secular mindset in the mainstream newsroom (as well as the tepid and non-discerning Christian newsroom). To this end, the Christian journalist must be present at the frontiers of gathering news in order to accurately, fairly, compellingly report and write the news that is verifiable. Today’s journalist of faith echoes Samuel Cornish, the early 19th century African-American New York newspaperman (Freedoms’ Journal) and evangelical Presbyterian pastor, who wrote in the first edition of his newspaper in March, 1827 that the reason for a African-American perspective on the news was that he was tired of the truncated coverage of African-American affairs and that“We wish to plead our own cause. Too long have others spoken for us. Too long has the public been deceived by misrepresentations, in things which concern us dearly.”

The journalist who is a Christian can add to the current journalism culture in its appreciation of the existence of another worldview – the historic Christian worldview. To accomplish this remarkable task, the Christian journalist must be intellectually self-conscious about his/her faith. The journalist of faith may be called to “stand in the gap” (Ezekiel 22:30) and to be “watchman” for our society.God’s providential fingerprints and footprints are on everything that exists. Therefore, everything is theological. God looks and sees and says, “It’s all mine.” The crisis in our culture is more theological than political or economic. As I have said, every journalist is, by the act of reporting and writing, a theologian in that some worldview is being expressed in the story. So Christian journalists should, at the very least, be aware of why they think the way they think.If the population of America is 25% Christian (as some surveys report), then the mainstream newsrooms of America’s national news organizations ought to be 25% Christian if they are going to fairly, accurately and conscientiously report about the things which “concern us Christians dearly.”

The mission statement of the World Journalism Institute is to recruit, equip, place and encourage Christian journalists in the mainstream newsrooms of America. To that end, we hold college level, multi-week journalism courses, week-long journalism workshops, and weekend conferences during the year. We also attend journalism conventions with our display, and we publish a series of monographs dealing with the intersection of journalism and Christianity.

Having listened to all this about words and journalism and Christianity, what are you supposed to do?

Let me give you several suggestions:

1) Prayer for the journalists in your area and the journalists who report and write your news.

2) Encourage those journalists in your church and other journalists who are Christian to stay the course and be examples in the newsroom.

3) Encourage young people in your church who can write to become journalists.

4) Engage the media organizations in your area by writing letters criticizing and commending their coverage of the news.

5) Financially support those institutions which are equipping aspiring journalists of faith to enter the mainstream newsrooms. I refer to Christian colleges and independent institutions such as the World Journalism Institute. It can be discouraging to us evangelicals in the news gathering business when our own evangelical community turns its back on us.

I will close with one final personal episode: in June 2001, it was discovered that I had prostate cancer. So I had my prostate removed and had radiation treatments. Such an ordeal changes your life. It was during this period, when Kathy was asleep, that I was alone with my thoughts of death and the process of dying. It was just me, and whoever. My whoever was Jesus. Cancer is not good news, but I had an unexplainable peace that came from knowing that a sovereign, kind and beckoning God held the gift of my life and my health in His hands. I have been cancer free for over five years and that is good news. But I don’t kid myself into thinking that cancer can’t or won’t return.Let me commend to you my Lord, Jesus the Christ. My life has not been one of unbridled success and victories. Indeed, Jesus has been my life’s crutch. And when I think about the tough times and the tough relationships, I can’t image what my life would be like without the comfort and consolation of Jesus.

Carl Henry has said, “We need Christian journalists who speak critically not only of the secular press but self-critically of our evangelical ambiguities, hesitancies, and compromises.” In 1984, Dr. Henry asked a gathering of the Evangelical Press Association, “Who trembles when God goes to press?”  He replied, “Nobody trembles, including us.”  Today, decades later there is not only no trembling, there is no noticing when the Christian journalist goes to work. That’s our fault because we haven’t paid the dues to be at the table in the newsrooms of America.

That’s changing but we need help.

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