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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.

Christian journalist: Sticks and stones may break your bones but words will hurt you forever (Proverbs 16:27)

Proverbs 16:27. “A scoundrel plots evil, and his speech is like a scorching fire.”

Exegesis and Application

The three key Hebrew words in this vivid proverb are translated “scoundrel,” “plots evil,” and “fire.” The Hebrew word for “scoundrel” is “beleyahal eesh” which literally means “man of Belial,” “worthless,” “without profit,” “destructive,” thus “ungodly” or “wicked.” In Proverbs 6:12 such a man is said to have a “crooked mouth.” For “plots evil,” the Hebrew is “koreh” which has been taken to mean “dig” (as in a pit or grave or well) or “prepare” (as in a field for harvest). The imagery here is digging or raking up the past in order to harm, or burn as the proverb continues. Finally, the Hebrew word for “scorching fire” is “sarabet,” which means “burning to point of scaring.”  Solomon is saying this scoundrel is a flame-throwing villain who scours the past with the intent to permanently damage those in the present with his language. Since journalism is about reporting what has already happened, this has powerful application to our calling.

I am drawn to this topic because of an incident involving me 40 years ago. I was in graduate school studying theology and I was involved in the student journal that came out several times a year. In a year-end issue, the editor and I collaborated on a retrospective of some length. The editor was very bright and a very good friend. While he signed the op-ed piece, my fingerprints were all over it. In the article, which was well-written and largely positive about the happenings in the school, the student government leader was taken to task for not being what we thought was a “true leader and a thoughtful organizer.” I well remember discussing the article and agreeing with it. I knew exactly what I was doing. No personal names were mentioned in a negative way but anyone in the school community reading the column knew who was being referred to.

The negative paragraph (about 120 words) was one of 15 equally sized paragraphs in a long article so it didn’t dominate the piece. Still, a couple of my teachers came to me with sorrow that the student journal had included that paragraph. Objectively true or not, the offending paragraph didn’t have to be written and published. The putting of the opinion in print served no purpose.

I didn’t take into account the personality differences in individuals or the fact that the student leader was a husband and father and held a full-time job to support his family and his education. I was childless and had an employed wife who supported me in my studies. But I was a bold teller of the truth and full of myself.

Now that article was a lifetime ago and the three of us have remained good friends, colleagues and co-workers in projects together. The author of the retrospective is now an internationally known scholar in theology and the former student leader is an internationally known pastor and missionary statesman. Clearly no professional harm was done.

But I harmed myself because I haven’t forgotten the paragraph. I wish I could take the words back. I wish someone wiser than me had told me to advise deletion. The other men may have gone on their way without thinking about the 120 words, but I continued to be troubled by my involvement. Let me emphasize that in the intervening years there have been countless meals together, vacations together, projects undertaken together and sweet fellowship between the three of us. But the words are never far from my consciousness.

Christian journalist: Be careful what you write. A mentor of mine, Russ Pulliam of the Indianapolis Star, has insisted for years that with the advent of the internet, young Christian journalists (particularly college-age journalists) need to be exceedingly cautious about what they put in writing because it never goes away.  In the rush and emotion of college newspaper reporting, this principle is easy to forget. It is easy for a young Christian journalist to think that the truth always needs to be told, malfeasance always needs to be exposed and dragons always need to be slain, whatever the cost. And who better to do all this Christian muckraking than “we few, we happy few, we band of brothers,” we bold and reckless truth-tellers who write for the college newspaper. There may be a momentary sense of satisfaction of mocking another, but the mocking stays with the mocker as a prod and snare to bear.

Proverbs has many instructions for a skillful life as a Christian journalist.

Young Christians journalists, be careful what you write for your words will never leave you or forsake you.

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