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A Christian Journalism Revival?

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Technology provides the opportunity for a Christian comeback. Use of biblical sensationalism and crusading personalization will allow Christians to gain and keep an audience. But none of this will make much difference unless Christian communities view journalism as a vital calling and Christian journalists as ministers worthy of spiritual and economic support. Christian editors and reporters, after all, are like fish in a lake. Some Christian newspapers made mistakes in the nineteenth century, as indicated in Chapter One, but the lake itself was drying up fast.

The water level of Christian lakes appears to be rising. The environment for successful Christian publications earlier in American history was a Christian population willing to fight on social and political issues. Jolted by the atheism of many French revolutionaries and their American supporters, Christians resolved to publish rather than perish. Jolted in recent decades by similar revolutionary doctrines in modern wineskins, Christians are relearning what the New York Times proclaimed during its abortion campaign of the 1870s: "The evil that is tolerated is aggressive," and the good "must be aggressive too."

A recent statement of the Coalition on Revival (COR) typifies the trend. (COR’s leadership group includes individuals such as Edith Schaeffer, former Christianity Today editor Harold Lindsell, evangelists James Kennedy, Jack Van Impe and Tim LaHaye, and Southern Baptist Convention president Adrian Rogers.) The statement included admissions of sin such as, "We have neglected our God-ordained duties to be the world’s salt, light, teacher, and example. . . . We, and our fathers, have settled for a sub-standard, false version of Christianity in our local churches and denominations. . . . We have allowed our churches to become irrelevant, powerless ghettos."[1]

The statement then asked for forgiveness by God, fellow Christians, and, significantly, non-Christians: "Forgive us for our failure to demonstrate to you biblical answers for your difficulties and problems in life. Forgive us for failing to occupy our proper position as servants in the affairs of law government, economics, business, education, media, the arts, medicine, and science as the Creator’s salt and light to the world, so that those spheres of life might offer you more help, justice, hope, peace, and joy."

COR’s Call to Action proclaimed several truths essential to the revival of Christian journalism: "We affirm that living under the total Lordship of Jesus Christ in every area of life is not optional for those who would call themselves Christians." Furthermore, we cannot be smiling all the time: COR stressed the "need for loving confrontation over matters of falsehood and unrighteousness in the Church and in the world." Regular confrontation, exhortation and rebuke are vital to the leading of biblically obedient lives and the transforming of culture.

The statement concluded with an affirmation "that all Bible-believing Christians must take a non-neutral stance in opposing, praying against, and speaking against social moral evils." Among those evils listed were abortion, infanticide and euthanasia; adultery and homosexuality; unjust treatment of the poor and disadvantaged; state usurpation of parental rights and God-given liberties; and atheism, moral relativism, and evolutionism taught as a monopoly viewpoint in public schools.

Other Christian organizations also are speaking out forcefully. Some within the church are offended by such efforts. Jesus, though, said to His followers, "Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. l did not come to bring peace, but a sword" (Matthew 10:34). Christians may be sure of peace in Heaven and peace in our consciences, but peace in our worldly dealings is rare.

The sword brought by Christ is twofold, as commentator Matthew Henry pointed out: The sword of the Word eventually conquers (Revelation 19:21), but God’s truth often provokes such a hostile reaction among non-Christians that they apply the sword to believers. This effect of the preaching of the gospel is not the fault of the gospel, but of those who do not receive it. Because of this backlash effect, it is a mistake to think Christianity preserves its followers from trouble in this world. Becoming a Christian is not the end of the battle, but the real beginning.

The battle record of some established Christian publications is not good. Some now are public relations vehicles for their organizations, denominations, or peculiar beliefs. Some seem devoted largely to keeping up appearances and smiles. Editors who try to wield the sword on controversial issues sometimes have found that readers and contributors have exceptionally thin skins. One editor who tried to renovate a dull and declining magazine complained, following his pressured resignation, that "readers sometimes expect a magazine to be something for the whole family, with everything positive. Readers don’t seem willing to tolerate a few articles they don’t like."

Some Christian publications are willing to wield a sword. World magazine (Box 2330, Asheville, NC 28802) covers hard news. Twin Cities Christian (TCC), a biweekly newspaper published in Minneapolis with a circulation of eight thousand and considerable advertising, has had front-page coverage of issues that "soil the breakfast cloth," in the words of the nineteenth-century New York Times. For example, when the Supreme Court struck down claims by homosexuals that the Constitution protects sodomy, TCC did not shy away from front-page sentences about oral and anal sex. When members of a pro-life action group were arrested for distributing literature in front of a hospital where abortions are performed, TCC published a photograph and a sympathetic article. [2]

TCC’s coverage of local controversies includes three elements. First, the newspaper throws a spotlight on anti-biblical activities. TCC gave front-page coverage to the sponsorship by a liberal church social services program of a program for sex offenders designed to help them "in the most important area of their lives, that of intimacy." To show what those nice words really meant, TCC had to quote charges from a responsible source that the program included use of explicit films portraying men and women masturbating to climax, having intercourse with animals, and engaging in a variety of homosexual and lesbian acts–the goal of the program apparently being not a consideration of right and wrong, but how-to training. The program concluded with a worship service featuring a pastor and his wife who were dressed as clowns. One clown wore huge glasses with obscene words written on the lenses. [3]

Second, TCC goes to bat for Christians facing discrimination. One headline stretching across the top of TCC’s front page read, "Christian Students Suspended." According to the story’s lead, "They weren’t selling drugs, skipping class, or damaging school property They didn’t brawl in the halls or smoke in the bathroom. But last Thursday two Hopkins School seniors were suspended from classes." The students were "handing out religious literature. Their action violated a school board policy." The story explained that the students had deliberately handed out free copies of a Christian magazine before classes began in order to test the school board policy: "We need to fight for our rights," one student said. [4]

TCC has used biblically sensational headlines in coverage of stories involving such abridgment of First Amendment rights. "Bible-reading Grandma Kicked out of Mall" was the headline on a story of a grandmother talking with a young man about the Bible as they sat in a shopping mall rest area. "We were speaking quietly," she said. "When you’re out in the world you’re representing Jesus Christ, not only in your actions, but in how you’re dressed and in how you talk. We were being careful not to offend anybody or to draw attention to ourselves. We were just talking one-on-one about the Lord." Then a security guard falsely accused the woman of selling religious literature, and escorted her off the mall property with orders not to return again. [5]

When the Bible-reading grandma protested and TCC investigated the incident, the mall management backed down, explaining that it was all a misunderstanding. "We had been picking up religious booklets that had been distributed in the mall, and when you were sitting discussing religious things with another person, we made an assumption that proved incorrect," the mall manager told the grandmother. "We apologize." She replied, "I’m not resentful, but people need to be warned about how our rights as Christians to worship God in public–even just reading a Bible–are being taken away from us." A loss of such rights can be more readily opposed when Christian journalists are present to blow the whistle. [6]

A third element of TCC coverage is also crucial: It will defend Christians who are suffering for Christ’s sake, but it will also print critical evidence about Christians or Christian organizations engaged in unethical activity. The lead story in one issue concerned an evangelist accused of faking miracles at healing crusades for his own purposes. An editorial criticized a local Christian television organization for soliciting funds but not providing information on how the money was being spent. Other stories decried the fundraising tactics of some Christian organizations. [7]

Editor Doug Trouten defended his policy in a spirited editorial, "Why Write Bad Things About Good People?" He raised in print the questions that he had been asked: "When a ministry folds and its leaders leave town with its assets, why report it? When the leader of a ministry dependent on donations seems to live in unnecessary opulence, why tell the world? When an elected official strays from the Christian principles that were a part of campaign rhetoric, does somebody need to blow the whistle?" [8]

Trouten noted that "the Christian press often becomes a willing partner in efforts to cover up wrong-doing by religious leaders," but he argued that "this mentality runs contrary to Scriptural teaching. . . . Too often we are content to ignore unpleasant truths. Yet as Christians we worship a God of truth. We’re not asked to follow our leaders blindly. The Bible says, ‘I would not have you ignorant . . . ’ and ‘My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge.’ We need to know about those who lead us." [9]

TCC’s willingness to cover sensation and take tough stands is essential to the establishing of real Christian journalism (rather than public relations) and the resultant strengthening of the Body of Christ. More Christian publications should take lessons from TCC–or from a Kentucky editor of the 1840s, the original Cassius Clay. (Muhammed Ali was named after him, but showed his theology by making a change.)

The original Clay, born in 1810, was a Christian who published in Kentucky an anti-slavery newspaper. When pro-slavery partisans threatened to destroy Clay’s printing press, he made a fort out of his three-story, red-brick newspaper office: Clay purchased two small brass cannon, loaded them to the muzzle with bullets, slugs, and nails, and stationed them at the entrance, while his friends stockpiled muskets and Mexican lances.

Those measures forestalled the attack. Then Clay took the fight to the opposition, going before hostile crowds to speak his piece. Once, facing his enemies, Clay held up a Bible and said, "To those who respect God’s word, I appeal to this book." Then he held up a copy of the Constitution and said, "To those who respect our fundamental law I appeal to this document." Then he took out two pistols and his Bowie knife. He said, "To those who recognize only force . . ." [10]

Clay survived many fights and assassination attempts. Finally, he was seized by pro-slavery men and knifed. Gushing blood from a lung wound, Clay cried out, "I died in the defense of the liberties of the people," and then lost consciousness. He recovered, though, and helped to form the Republican Party during the 1850s. He had many political successes and personal adventures until he died in 1903, at age ninety-three.

The secret of Clay’s strength may have been his belief in the power of God’s law and personal faith. Clay saw even-handedness in the Bible: The rich should help the poor, and the poor should not envy or steal from the rich. Clay wrote, "Let true Christianity prevail, and earth will become the foreshadowing of Heaven." Clay also knew there is no such thing as neutrality in journalism. Knowing that all people, whether Christian or non-Christian, interpret the world through religious first principles, Clay openly acknowledged his beliefs and showed the willingness to fight for them.

The situation is a bit different now: In our daily business activities we can leave the Bowie knives home. Yet, the sword brought by Christ still flashes, and we need to be prepared to fight with our brains, pens, and computers. What keeps us from readiness to fight, often, is fear both obvious and subtle: Fear of ridicule and fear of audience are obvious problems; fear of distraction and, most crucially, fear of the Bible itself are the covert cripplers among Christians.

The Four Fears and Their Effect Upon Journalism
First, Christian journalists must not be afraid of boldly stating the Christian view of reality, which includes both material and spiritual dimensions. We must subdue our fear of what materialistic colleagues will think of us, not only because of the realization that Christ has come with a sword, but because the biblical emphasis on truth-telling is fundamental to Christian journalism.

Some materialists will be tolerant of religious belief as long as it is privatized and equated with subjectivity: If it makes you feel good, believe it. Some also argue that Heaven, if there is such a place, must be an equal opportunity employer. Christians, though, know that subjective feelings are ephemeral: Our friends need to gain an accurate picture of the cosmos and then act accordingly, or else they are lost.

The Bible always emphasizes reporting of what actually happened. Luke began his Gospel by writing, "Since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, it seemed good also to me to write an orderly account . . . so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught." Paul told the Corinthians that they should not believe in the doctrine of Christ’s resurrection because it might be comforting for some: The important question was, did it happen? Paul insisted that either Christ rose from the dead, or Christian hope is in vain.

In short, when a Christian reports spiritual happenings as fact, not subjective impression, he will be ridiculed by some. That is the price to pay for worshiping the God who really is there, not just a psychologically soothing idol.

Second, Christian journalists must not be afraid of audience. We should not turn inwards, nor be willing to accept a journalistic strategy that churches might find pleasant but the world will ignore. We should not be afraid of picking from the best of the methods of journalism, while always evaluating all means and ends in the light of God’s Word (2 Corinthians 10:5).

After all, the authors of the Gospels knew how to produce the same message but with different emphases for those with different backgrounds. Paul, in speaking to the Athenians, was willing to make contact with them by pointing out their worship of an unknown God (Acts 17). A successful Christian journalist must similarly attract attention in order to affect intentions.

Third, Christians must not fear that a new emphasis on journalism will distract from either concern for evangelism or the godly education of those already within the church. That concern is short-sighted, since both evangelism and education become more difficult when both non-Christians and Christians are constantly being bombarded by messages on "non-religious" matters that assume materialism is true. Journalism is vital pre-evangelistic work, needed to prepare individuals to accept the reality of God’s grace. Journalism also is post-justification work, helping those graced to construct godly lives.

Fourth, and most subtle of all, is the reluctance even among some Christians to acknowledge that all created things, including our own minds, are twisted by sin (Genesis 3:17—19; Romans 8:20—22). Our minds are not capable of creating a sound set of guidelines from either observation or pure reason. Our only hope lies in learning biblical principles of thought and conduct, and trusting the Holy Spirit to help us make the right practical applications.

The Bible teaches that thought independent of God’s special revelation is untrustworthy at best and eventually suicidal. Only the Word of God can give us principles for establishing a life pleasing to God. This vital concept is hard to swallow in a society with strong belief in existentialist creativity: Individuals supposedly develop new ideas and ways of conduct ex nihilo, as if they were gods unto themselves. The Bible, though, stresses God as Creator and man as image-bearer. We cannot create virtue or virtuous ideas apart from God’s thoughts.

Sometimes, in short, Christians confronted by tough problems are afraid of biblical truth. Why not abortion when there has been rape? Why not divorce when husband and wife fight? Why write a story that could lose the journalist his job? There are biblical answers to such questions, but they require hard analytical and practical work. Sometimes even Christians fear the Bible because it does not give comfortable answers.

A Two-Pronged Strategy
If the four fears are overcome, Christian journalists will be strong enough, and will be receiving sufficient community support, to ask another question: Where can I best serve God?

Some may now have a tendency to choose working at publications or media outlets owned and operated by Christians because those positions seem "safer," removed from contact with the world. A Christian journalistic revival, though, would mean that no place would be safe: Christian journalistic organizations would be aggressively reporting on the contrast between man’s depravity and God’s holiness, and non-Christian organizations would be prime mission fields.

Christian journalists sometimes seem tempted into arguments about whether explicitly Christian or secular media represent better alternatives for service. Such debates can be equivalent to Jesus’ disciples squabbling about primacy on earth and seating arrangements in Heaven. As bad as many public schools are today, a toughminded, tenacious Christian teacher in the classroom can still be a Godsend to children. Similar considerations apply in journalism, where the influence of one person may be even more widespread.

Strong Christian publications and stations are vital, but salty Christians also are needed within today’s influential, non-Christian media systems. As stories with overt theological dimensions continue to arise, and as the more subtle stories influenced by presuppositions cross newsroom desks, it is vital that there be Christian reporters and editors willing to speak up.

Christians in non-Christian media organizations can also serve as counselors and evangelists. Not only do the major media institutions have great power, but the individuals within them often have great problems. If we were to bring forward in time the series of mini-biographies in Chapter Three, we would see that many apparently secure contemporary journalists desperately need help. Smiling anchormen and women often are off-camera wrecks.

Christians who have thought through the nature of objectivity and sensationalism, and the ethical and legal problems of the field, can glorify God within such media outposts. Nor do well-prepared Christians necessarily have to choose between mealy-mouthedness and unemployment. As the discussions of objectivity and sensationalism in Chapters Four and Ten indicated, Christians do not have to preach in stories. Instead, Christians can work toward honest selection of details, fair and ample quotation of biblical Christian spokesmen, and examination of the spiritual/material interface.

Still, a Christian reporter should realize that even a small movement toward true objectivity might anger an atheistic editor. In such circumstances, firmness is essential. As soon as a worldview conflict becomes apparent, Christian journalists working for non-Christians have to decide which of two roads to potential success to follow: the way of the tough and talented Christian, or the path of the presuppositional sycophant. These two roads tend to divide early. A reporter who writes of fundamentalists with appropriate sarcasm will be praised; a reporter who quotes not only Darwinian scientists but creation scientists will be questioned. And yet, a skilled reporter will have some value to his editors even if he refuses to play the game. He may not receive fast promotions, but he will not necessarily be fired, for real talent is in short supply

The danger of slow career progress is clear. Yet, the prayer that Christ gives us as a model includes the sentence, "Give us today our daily bread" (Matthew 6:11). The sentence is not, "Give us today our daily steak." Nor is it, "Give us today our daily starvation." We need bread: Good, healthy sustenance, both material and spiritual. If a Christian’s career is not as visibly spectacular–at least in the short run–as that of a person who is crafty and corrupt, that is a relatively small cross to bear.

Christians working for unsympathetic employers can make some practical intellectual and financial preparations while they are on the job. A Christian journalist must know that a news organization is not a home. We are wayfarers and sojourners here on this earth generally, and in newspapers or broadcast stations specifically. If God’s providence has put the Christian in a high-paying job, he must immediately calculate what he needs to live on, not what he is temporarily able to live on. Any extra money is a special gift from God and should not be squandered: Some of that money might support the journalist if he is forced to resign. Furthermore, the goal should always be to develop skills that will allow the Christian to become his own boss, if the possibility arises. For, in the long run, Christian journalists will need Christian publications.

In that long run, it is clear that only news organizations owned and staffed by Christians will be able to practice journalism consistent with strong biblical faith. Only through independence can Christians make sure that the Bible is taken seriously in journalism. Therefore, Christian entrepreneurs who start new publications now and have the talent and dedication to make a go of them are worthy of double honor. Support for such individuals is as important as support for those who preach within a church.

Conclusion
Joshua in his old age told the Israelites, "Choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve." The Israelites then promised that they would obey God, for they had learned that "It was the Lord our God himself who brought us and our forefathers up out of Egypt, from that land of slavery, and performed those great signs before our eyes. He protected us on our entire journey and among all the nations through which we traveled." The education of the Israelites, through God’s grace, had enabled them to see events as they really occurred, with both material and spiritual dimensions.

Throughout the Bible, God’s spokesmen and reporters constantly tried to explain to their listeners and readers the reality of His involvement in human history. Moses told the Israelites (Deuteronomy 29): "Your eyes have seen all that the Lord did in Egypt to Pharaoh, to all his officials and to all his land. With your own eyes you saw those great trials, those miraculous signs and great wonders. But to this day the Lord has not given you a mind that understands or eyes that see or ears that hear." Seeing was not believing; reporters had to provide context, and then pray for God’s grace on eyes and ears. Psalm 78 reported "the praiseworthy deeds of the Lord," and Stephen testified before the Sanhedrin to God’s continued working in human history (Acts 7).

Christian journalism, as history’s first draft, should follow the Bible in depicting God’s grace and man’s sinfulness. Non-Christian journalism has led to attempts to make people happy, either by suggesting that things are right (the position of some non-Christian conservatives) or that man by his egotistical efforts can make all things right (the position of some liberals). Christians, though, know that things are not right, due to original sin, and will be made right only through Christ: "He is before all things, and in him all things hold together" (Colossians 1:17).

"Be strong and courageous," God commands Joshua repeatedly. Avoidance of the four fears, through the strength and courage that only God can give, is vital for Christian journalists.

If Christians are willing to cover all aspects of life, to soil the breakfast table, to deal honestly with evil, to avoid intellectual trendiness, to meet communication demands of a fast-paced marketplace, to hit hard in a compassionate way that does not libel individuals–then we have done as much as we can, and we can pray with clear consciences for God to grant us success.

If Christians are willing to report faithfully that God is sovereign, that Satan is active but under control, that man pursues evil by nature but can be transformed, and that God does answer prayers in the way that is best for our growth in grace–then, with God’s grace, Christians will have the most insightful and exciting news publications and programs in the United States.

Gloria in Excelsis Deo.


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Notes
  1. A Manifesto for the Christian Church: Declaration and Covenant, July 4, 1986 (Mountain View, CA: Coalition on Revival, 1986).

   2. Twin Cities Christian, July 3, 1986, p. 1. [Note from 1995: This biweekly, still edited by Doug Trouten, is now called the Minnesota Christian Chronicle, and it is still a fine newspaper.] World, edited by Joel Belz, has this mailing address: Box 2330, Asheville, NC 28002.

   3. Ibid., February 15, 1983, p. 1.

   4. Ibid., April 12, 1984, p. 1.

   5. Ibid., April 24, 1986, p. 3.

   6. Twin Cities Christian also has reported the more severe intrusions on religious liberty that prevail in other countries. One front-page story, "Christian Woman Interrogated by KGB at Moscow Airport," told of a woman who "will never forget Mother’s Day 1985. On that day she was arrested at Moscow airport, interrogated for more than six hours, strip-searched and later expelled from the Soviet Union. Her crime? Wanting to give gifts to Russian Christians–Bibles, copies of the Sermon on the Mount, Christian music tapes and clothing" (July 4, 1985, p. 1).

   7. Ibid., May 8, 1986, p. 1; August 29, 1985, p. 18.

   8. Ibid., May 9, 1985, p. 18.

   9. Ibid.

10. See Clay’s autobiography, The Life of Cassius Marcellus Clay (Cincinnati: J. Fletcher Brennan and Co. 1886), and an essay he wrote in 1845: Appeal of Cassius M. Clay to Kentucky and the World (Boston: Macomber and Pratt, 1845). My thanks to the University of Kentucky library for allowing me access to several rare biographies.