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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.

The Calling of the Christian Journalist (speech)

(This was a speech/seminar given twice at Urbana12 in St. Louis in late December 2012. WJI was responsible for the journalism track at the mega-conference for the third straight gathering. Approximately 15,000 participants came to St. Louis for the triennial mission conference.)

At a national convention (Las Vegas, 2004) of college newspaper editors and advisers, former New York Times journalist and current TruthDig columnist and provocateur, Chris Hedges (American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America, 2006) spoke on war and the journalist. The point of his speech was to argue, to a largely receptive audience of 700, that the calling of the journalist was to combat and challenge the politically powerful in society.  I sat in the audience thinking that there had to be a distinctly Christian, that is to say, biblical, calling of journalism which would encompass a more responsible role for the thoughtful journalist, than just being a cynical contrarian (cf, King David’s lament in Ps. 22 & 35).

Pew survey after Pew survey (initially funded by evangelical Howard Pew of Sun Oil) has evidenced the observable political and religious bias in the metropolitan and national mainstream press. I will argue that truth is the answer to media bias.

As an evangelical journalist I sometimes feel like an Indian among the Swedes. Peter Berger, the Boston University sociologist, famously wrote in an article some time ago that if Sweden is the most secular culture in the world and India is the most religious, then America is best described as a nation of Indians ruled by Swedes. The Berger insight applies to the American newsroom where the Swedes report and edit the news consumed by us Indians.

Let me briefly touch on what I see as the prevailing, but overlapping, self-justifying roles of journalism – excluding blogs and tweets which are even more indulgent and less reflective. Many of these roles are a variation of the Hedges’ view, the role which I call “The Equalizer” (after the wonderful Eddy Woodward 1980s TV series).  Let me add a note here about journalism and cynicism: Dick Keyes of L’Abri has powerfully argued (Seeing Through Cynicism: A Reconsideration of the Power of Suspicion) that cynicism is sub-Christian and non-biblical. Jesus, who knew the hearts of those around Him, was never cynical; skeptical, but never cynical (Mark 3:5; Luke 5:22; 6:8; 9:47; 11;17, “Jesus knowing their thoughts”).

As I said, there are several variations of this “Equalizer” calling that I see at play in today’s newsrooms:

1) Gatekeeper

This variation argues that we journalists set the cultural agenda by organizing the issues for discussion. Journalists don’t tell people what to think, but we set the table for discussion.

2) Sentinel

As sentinel, the calling of the journalist is to be the watchdog over government. In America, we are the “Fourth Estate,” after executive, legislative and judicial, making sure the interests of the people are safeguarded from the government.

3) Consent-generator

This calling of the journalist is to maintain established political ideology. These are court journalists or royal lackeys or retainers, and those in power use these willing journalists to manufacture and sustain the consent of the governed.

4) Deweyites

This variation of the “Equalizer” calling argues that the journalist is to enhance and encourage public conversation about issues so that nimble truth can emerge from these conversations.  This role is born out of the pragmatism of John Dewey who argued that truth must be kept pliant and supple if it is to be useful in serving the needs of current humankind. We journalists are not obligated to report and write news that fit the verifiable facts (truth), but rather news that is useful for public consensus building, since all civic virtues, such as “truth,” “democracy,” “goodness” are concepts which are formed out of public consensus.

There are elements of all these roles (and other roles) in a Christian calling of journalism, which I term:

Truth-tellers

How pre-modern! I argue that the dominant role for the journalist who is a Christian is an unrelenting striver for verifiable truth. That is, the Christian journalist is to discover and report the truth in a given situation so as to inform the public in order that the public can make salutary decisions based on verifiable information. Tim Keller notes 6 instances of the searing honesty of the biblical reporters in the crucifixion account in his book The Reason for God. Reinhold Niebuhr wrote “Despite the storm without and the smell within, the Church points to a truth beyond its own stating of it” (The Theology of Reinhold Niebuhr, Finsteun). Christian journalists are the “staters” of that received truth.

This role of truth-telling is so unremarkable and self-evident to the Urbana community, which holds to revealed truth, that it hardly bears mentioning in our circles. Except, that it is revolutionary in our current post-Christian, post-Michael Foucaultian (Power/Knowledge) cultural environment, and widely misunderstood as it concerns Christian journalists in the newsroom.

There are at least three obligations that truth-telling imposes on the Christian journalist. I want to expand only on the 3rd obligation since I think the first 2 obligations are relatively clear to us Christians.

1) The obligation to Jesus Christ our Lord to be strivers for truth.

“I came into the world to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me” (John 18:37).

2) The obligation to ourselves to be strivers for truth.

“Then you shall know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:32).

3) We have an obligation to our neighbors to be strivers for truth.

Zechariah 8:16-17, “These are the things you are to do: Speak the truth to each other and render true and sound judgment in your courts; … and do not love to swear falsely. I hate all these things.”

In the New Testament, the Apostle Paul picks up on this passage when he writes to the Ephesian Christians,
“Therefore, each of you must put off falsehood and speak truthfully to his neighbor” (Ephesians 4:25).

Why is reporting the truth to “each other,” to “our neighbor” so important? Why can’t we improve on or soften reality with a little nuanced equivocation to advance a righteous cause? The reason we can’t nuance reality in our reporting is because the sovereign God of truth does not need our improvements, our nuance to eventually bless our neighbor. It is part of the way God created human society – truth always leads to blessing.

A side note here: The great Old Testament prophets tell us that if you want to report and write for a Christian audience, here is your mission: Be a Watchman, warn the Church to stay faithful to her Lord and Redeemer by reporting the truth – Isaiah 21:6 tells the Old Testament Church, “Go, post a lookout and have him report what he sees” (Jeremiah 51:12, “station the watchman”; Ez. 3:17, “I have made you a watchman of Israel”; 33:2, “choose one of their men and make him their watchman”; John 8:32, truth leads to liberty).
But to a broader audience, we Christian journalists must never be afraid of reporting the truth of any given situation, even when the truth is ugly and unpleasant, which it often is, because ultimately, God will use the truth to work His good and perfect will for our neighbor. To be truthful with our neighbor is to love our neighbor as ourselves (Matt. 5:13-16, “salt of the earth,” “light of the world”; 1 Peter 5:8, our “enemy,” the great liar Satan, is looking for people “to devour,” Judges 2:10-14; Is. 44:9-11; Rom. 1:20; 2:1, ignorance of truth is no defense).

If falsehood is permitted to stand by our failure to report, or deliberately twist the truth, human society will break down and the blessings of human culture will be lost (Prov. 24:11-12, “we knew nothing about this”; Matthew 7:12, Golden Rule). To diligently report the truth in every situation is to take part in the cosmic struggle to redeem human culture (1 Peter 3:15, give a reason for the hope; Col 4:5-6, conversation full of grace and salt; 2 Tim. 2:23-26, escape the trap of the devil; Titus. 3:2, slander no one) and stand against the Evil One (John 8:44, father of lies).

A short sidebar on truth: This truth-telling is our vocational requirement. The Bible teaches that because honest communication between humans is the created norm and thus a requirement for human flourishing and blessing, when a person seeks our destruction or harm that person destroys the gift of communication and we are not required to use that gift to tell him the truth (cf, Exodus 1:17; Joshua 2:4. Rahab; Luke 23:9, “Jesus gave him no answer”; Hugo Grotius, 17th c.). Truth has intrinsic value and is essential to human community. Lying is a coercive assault that robs us of freedom and dignity because mutual understanding in human relationships is part of the created order (David Clyde Jones, Biblical Christian Ethics). So, the harm-seeking person forfeits his right to know the whole truth from us (cf, Ex. 1:16-19, Moses; 2 Sam. 17:18-20, Johathan/Ahimaaz in the well).

But that is a tangent about the ethics of truth-telling and seldom impacts our vocational requirement to tell the truth as Christian reporters and writers.

This truth-telling calling of the Christian journalist is a four-legged stool with the following 4 key biblical doctrines as legs:

1) The Doctrine of Worldview
2) The Doctrine of Word
3) The Doctrine of Windows
4) The Doctrine of Work
1) The Doctrine of Worldview

I said earlier that I thought a Christian approach to journalism was the antidote to the Chris Hedges’ secular approach to journalism. The term “worldview” is thrown around so much anymore that it has almost lost its meaning.

How do I quickly define a “Christian” worldview? Paul does it for us in 2 Corinthians 10:5, “we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ” (cf, 2 Cor. 2:11; 3:14; 4:4: 11:3). Bill Gothard said decades ago that a Christian worldview was simply seeing life from God’s point of view which can be found in God’s word.
Journalists cannot write Christianly if they don’t first think Christianly. I mention it first here because it is the most important concept for the Christian journalist.

If it is true that journalists write the first, rough draft of history (Mark Twain, Phil/Don Graham?) then it is critical for us Christians to be epistemologically self-conscious. Why is that? I learn from Robert Russell Drake at this point (World and Life). Historians have an advantage over journalists because historians select an event or person to investigate, after the fact. This historical selection is possible because writing history starts with a known goal, and then looks back from that goal to see how the goal was reached through people and events. So the historical investigation always has guidelines and an intellectual gyroscope directing the content and interpretation of the story-telling. That historical intellectual gyroscope, cognitive guideline, is missing for the journalist because the journalist is writing contemporary, instant narrative, on-the-fly narrative.

Both the historian and the journalist deal with facts. But the historian can wait for hindsight before fact selections and interpretations are made. The journalist cannot wait because fact selections and interpretations are made daily, under the pressure of deadlines and competition. Therefore, the journalist’s pre-existing interpretive framework (i.e., worldview) must guide the story-telling. Choices in who to interview, ledes, nut-graphs, voice, framing, and much more – all are at the mercy of the journalist’s worldview.

Worldview governs the journalistic process, regardless of who the journalist is. Even Walter Lippmann, the famous 20th century journalist and non-Christian, recognized this fundamental hermeneutical principle when he wrote, “For the most part, we [journalists] do not first see and then define; we define first and then see” (Public Opinion, 1922).

Truth-telling is a consequence of a worldview that holds that there is a self-revealing God who communicates true propositions. Pietism is not the sum total of Christianity. Living a pious life is necessary for the Christian. But so is bringing all our thoughts under the dominion of God’s revealed word (2 Cor. 10:5), and thus thinking God’s thoughts after Him if we are to be faithful Christian journalists.

2) The Doctrine of Word (Say it Ain’t So, Marshall McLuhan) (Ex. 17:14; 2 Peter 3:15-16)

Do you realize that in the journalism business “copywriters” are becoming extinct creatures? That is unfortunate. The late Steve Jobs, founder of Apple Computers, once told his ad agency, “Pictures are easy. Words are hard.” Later Jobs said to his ad chief that innovators are good but writers are better (Michael Wolff, USA Today, 10/1/12). Photo-journalism and video-journalism are helpful to tell the story, as long as they accompany words for analysis and reflection. Convergence journalism is fine as a vocational tactic but the Christian journalist must theologically be committed to writing narrative. I am indebted to Carl F. H. Henry for making the following point (God, Revelation and Authority, Vol. 1).

We are witnessing a massive breakdown of cultural confidence in verbal communication. Francis Schaeffer (Escape from Reason, The God Who is There) points out that the task of comprehending and conveying truth and reality has been profoundly complicated by the ominous fact that words have been emptied of traditional and commonly understood meaning.  Symbols and images have become more important than words. We are regressing to the Middle Ages when, metaphorically, stained glass suffices as truth-tellers.
In our post-Christian age, or is it pre-modern age, non-verbal communication fuels an anti-intellectual and existential worldview which concentrates on sound and imagery to secure an emotive rather than cognitive response to reality. We are a Skype and YouTube culture which revels in sentimentality and sensationalism and emotionalism. When the notion flourishes that words are not to be trusted as truth-tellers of reality, suspicious definitions and interpretations are allowed to run wild.  Christianity, because it is a religion of verbal revelation from a self-disclosing, living God, suffers more than any other worldview. We are in a worldwide spiritual war with the forces of darkness (Eph. 6:12), and words are the weapons of choice. Without words we are slaves to the purveyors of news. The claims of Jesus to be, to know, and to proclaim the Word of God the Father are nonsense if words cannot be trusted (John 14:10; 8:45-47; 10:35).

Therefore, the fight of the Christian journalist must be on the front lines of words as the prime conveyor of truth (Matt. 28:18-19; Rom. 10:14-15; Acts 17; 18:4, 12, 18, 28; 19:8-9; etc.). We Christians are, after all, a people of the Word (James 1:22-25).

Seminars like this one at gatherings like this, Urbana, are more revolutionary and counter-culture than you may have suspected.

3) The Doctrine of Windows (or transparency)

Many young journalists come to the courses and workshops of the World Journalism Institute and want to do feel-good stories of compassion, redemption and devotion. They want to use Philippians 4 as a guide to their story selection. I say “Baloney.” We Christian journalists are the last true realists in the newsroom. We take the Fall of humankind seriously and believe in malfeasance, misfeasance and nonfeasance, and any other feasance there is.

A critical aspect of truth-telling for the Christian journalist is that we are to throw open the windows and shine light where there is darkness. If there is one practical aspect for the Christian journalist it is to investigate or “expose”: “Have nothing to do with the fruitless deeds of darkness, but rather expose them” (Eph. 5:11). As “children of light” (Eph. 5:8) we should be purveyors of the light of truth in dark places, exposing corruption, evil, injustice and, dare I say it, sin to the natural fresh air of truth. Christian journalists are called to be the window washers of society.

Our Lord tells us that everything – thought, word and deed – will eventually be made transparent by Him. But for many it will be too late. Now is the time, while there is time, for full disclosure and the bathing of everything in the light and fresh air of factual reporting (Deut. 6:1-3; 2 Cor. 6:2).

Matthew 5:14-15 teaches us that it is critical for our neighbors that we do what we are called to do, that is, shine as light-givers in the world. The world depends on the Christian journalist to shed light on a given situation. To withhold the natural light of truth may doom our neighbors to darkness. As “people of the light” (or “sons of light”) we live in the midst of darkness and opacity. We are to counter the dominant dark culture in which we find ourselves, even when we find ourselves alone and groping in the darkness, by throwing open the windows by factual reporting (John 3:19, “men love darkness instead of light because their deeds are evil”; Phil. 2:15, “shine as stars” in a “crooked and depraved” culture).

As image bearers of Yahweh, we have an obligation to preserve the society in which He has placed us (Jer. 29:4-9; cf. Gen. 18:23f; Ezra 6:10; Is. 65:8; Ezek. 3:17f; 22:30; 1 Tim. 2:1-2). And our special preservative weapon of love as Christian journalists is through the promulgation of the verifiable truth which lights up the world around us.

4) Doctrine of Work (vocation)(Gen. 1:21; Matt. 22:21)

Most young Christian journalists come to the calling wanting to change the world. You want to be God’s change-agents because there is so much wrong with the world around you. And so the natural (supernatural?) tendency is to be opinion or advocacy journalists. You want to be thumb-sucking pontificators to a world who doesn’t care what you think at your stage in life. I am arguing that editorializing is not at the core of Christian journalism. Factual reporting, truth-telling is the core because we are not prophets, but scribes.

When the Christian journalist reports the truth of a given situation, the reaction to that reporting is for another calling to make. Critical to this understanding of the work of journalism is the biblical sense of what we Protestants call “sphere sovereignty” and Roman Catholics sometimes call “subsidiarity.” That is, each sphere of life has its own distinct responsibilities and competencies, and each sphere stands equal to other spheres of life (Matt. 22:21, “give to Caesar what is Caesars”(cf, Abraham Kuyper, Lectures on Calvinism and Herman Dooyeweerd, Roots of Western Culture).

We Christians believe in an all-encompassing created order – designed, sustained and governed by a moral and sovereign God. However, this created order includes many societal communities and their abiding norms which differ from each other, such as communities for education (school), worship (church), civil justice (courts), agriculture (farm), economy (business), labor (union), marriage (husband/wife), family (parents/children), artistic expression, journalism, etc.

We Christians need to affirm and respect these creational boundaries and cultural differentiations that our Lord has created and blessed through human history, if we are to do our job correctly. Each sphere has its own created integrity. After all, if God created everything “according its own kind” (Gen. 1:24) and warned against “mixing” throughout the Bible (Lev. 19:19; Deut. 22:9-11; Gen. 1:27; Rom. 1:26-27; 2 Cor. 6:14-18), human diversity must be acknowledged and appreciated. What God has distinguished and created distinct, we ought not to conflate or confuse. These spheres of society arise out of the post-Fall complex life of humankind, each having its own task to perform, its own mandate entrusted to it by God.

For instance, the different God-given biblical norms for family life, on one hand, and business life, on the other hand, must be recognized and appreciated because a family does not properly function like a business or labor union. Similarly, neither should a journalistic vocational calling with its creational and cultural God-blessed norms function like a pastoral or missionary vocational calling with their norms? We journalists have unique responsibilities and governing professional pieties.

Here is the point of this doctrine: The kingdom of God advances by the Christian journalist being a careful, accurate and verifying journalist, and not by being a proselytizer with a missionary mouth. This Urbana seminar is cross-listed under “Proclamation” and Christian journalists do their “proclaiming” through their stewardship of their work.

Christianity teaches that if we journalists take care of our sphere or vocational calling of journalism, that is, factual and compelling story-telling, our Christian testimony will take care of itself.  We don’t need to share the “4 Spiritual Laws” in the newsroom to please Jesus. Work for the Christian journalist is a sacred stewardship, and in fulfilling our job as a reporter we will accredit our Christian witness.

The labors of the Christian journalist should be the priestly good works that radiate from a serious spiritual and intellectual life. What distinguishes the Christian journalist is the sense of missionary zeal for the verifiable truth, however personally unpleasant that truth may be.

Concluding Thought

In this age of mass secular media, Christian journalists are to engage the journalism establishment at the frontier of gathering and disseminating news in order to uncover the culturally obscured truth of God and Man. And the Christian journalist does this engaging by reporting and writing the verifiable truth of a given situation in a compelling manner.

To return to the Berger quote: We probably will work for the Swedes and write for the Indians. But if we’re good, both the Swedes and the Indians will be blessed by our work (1 Tim 3:7).

The Christian journalist can help lift our spiritually impoverished neighbors to the renewing grace of God, and at the same time, help the secular newsroom culture appreciate the existence of another worldview which is the revealed Christian worldview of grace and mercy and truth. The Christian journalist does this by being excellent in craft and pious in life.

“Who trembles when God goes to press?” So asked Carl Henry of the Evangelical Press Association 30 years ago (1984). In l984, Dr. Henry replied, “Nobody trembles.” Today, there is not only no “trembling,” there is often no noticing when the Christian journalist goes to press, largely because we Christian journalists are not epistemologically self-conscious and professionally excellent. However, by God’s grace and power and our excellence and piety, the Christian truth-telling journalist can provide hope and enlightenment to a needy world.

We will fail time and time again to get it right, but the honest attempt to be truth-tellers is at the core of a Christian calling of journalism.

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