Exploring Communication and Journalism from a Biblical Perspective
by Kerry L. Morgan
The following essays (with the exception of #13) were written over a period of two and a half years at CBN University (now Regent University). They are designed to stir thinking among professionals and students over the relationship between God, Communication and Journalism.
It is my desire to see these essays developed by faithful men and women who shall be able to teach others also (II Timothy 2:2). Consequently, I trust that Journalism and Communication professionals will assist people in seeing all of life from God’s perspective to the degree it is humanly possible.
If you are reading these for the first time, it may be helpful to consider Essay Twelve and Thirteen first. This will permit the reader to obtain a perspective on the subject as well as gain an appreciation of the struggle over truth ever present in the University and the profession.
The reader is also advised that a Faculty Forum on “Truth in Journalism” was held at Regent University on January 15, 1988. A video cassette of this Forum was produced and is available for viewing through the University Library.
Finally, I extend my gratitude to my wife, Elizabeth Morgan, as well as Dr. Cliff Kelly and Herbert Titus, Esq. for their encouragement during the development of these essays.
Jesus: The Word
(Jn 14:6 – Jesus: The Way, the Truth and the Life)
The Bible says, “In the beginning was the Word . . .” and the Word became flesh in Jesus Christ (John 1:1 & 14). Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth and the life” (John 14:6). Translated into communication language, Jesus declares that ‘I am the Word and the Word can be broken down into process, content and purpose.’
No matter which discipline within communication we are dealing with, the Bible must be examined with respect to these three aspects of communication. For instance, Mass Communication from a Christian perspective must look to the Bible for its definition of process, content, and purpose. Not just any process of mass communication or any content or purpose will do. The same is true for the other communication disciplines.
This essay attempts to sketch some of the ramifications of Jesus’ statement that he is the way, the truth and the life with respect to communication, journalism and news. The first principle focuses on Jesus as the Truth. The second principle focuses on Jesus as the Way and Life.
Truth requires the journalist to render a factual account as well as to give the sense or significance of the account. This duty is based in part on Luke 7:18-35. In that passage Jesus describes the nature of His ministry and gives the import or meaning of his work. In response to the inquiry of John’s disciples who were doing some investigative reporting for their chief, Jesus says in verse 22, “Go back and report to John what you have seen and heard;” then Jesus tells them the report, “The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor.”
These are the facts, but he also gives the import or meaning, the sense or significance: “Blessed is the man who does not fall away on account of me.” He elaborates on this in verses 24-35 for the people after the “reporters-disciples” leave. Nehemiah 8:8 also notes the importance of giving the sense of the report and not merely the report itself. “They read from the Book of the Law of God, making it clear and giving the meaning so that the people could understand what was being read.”
The requirements are strikingly different from the prevailing journalistic perspectives in which:
1) The reporter renders a factual account of reality but ignores the sense or significance of the event, in order to be ‘objective’ or ‘fair;’ or
2) The reporter renders competing factual accounts of reality but fails to resolve the accounts in order to be ‘objective’ or ‘unbiased.’
Jesus condemns an example of the first deficient perspective in Matthew 16:2-3. The Pharisees and Sadducees came to Jesus and tested him by asking him to show them a sign from heaven. He replied, “When evening comes, you say, ‘It will be fair weather, for the sky is red,’ and in the morning, ‘Today it will be stormy, for the sky is red and overcast.’ You know how to interpret the appearance of the sky, but you cannot interpret the signs of the times. A wicked and adulterous generation looks for a miraculous sign, but none will be given it except the sign of Jonah.”
The Pharisees and Sadducees failed to render or report a proper interpretation of the times, even though they had the facts. They did not perceive the true nature of the event they were seeing, specifically that Jesus was the Messiah; thus they could not render a true account of reality. It is crucial to note that Jesus put a premium on interpretation as an essential ingredient in rendering a factual account.
An example of the second deficient perspective is given in Matthew 16:13-17. Jesus does a little questioning of his own. When Jesus came to the region of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his Disciples, “Who do the people say the Son of Man is?” They replied, “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets.”
Jesus, however, was not satisfied with a report of competing factual accounts. He wants resolution and so he asks, “But what about you, who do you say I am?” Jesus commends Peter for reconciling competing reports of who Jesus is by his answer, “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.” Both Peter (v. 16) and Jesus (v. 19) give the sense of the account.
Way and Life
The way requires the journalist to refrain from bearing false witness as well as to refrain from bearing witness in a false way. The life prohibits the journalist from holding his neighbor in contempt. Jesus said He came to bring life and life more abundantly. When the reporter considers the purpose of the report, it must conform to the object of bringing life and life more abundantly. This does not mean “good news” in the popular sense. Jesus is good news, but to some He is the cornerstone upon which many stumble. Life and life more abundantly has to do with the object or purpose of the report, not necessarily its content.
These two aspects of Jesus as the Word are reflected in Exodus 20:16: “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.” God prohibits false declarations of fact as well as declarations or misrepresentations of fact in a false way. He also charges the journalist to maintain a proper disposition toward his reader or listener, that is, toward his neighbor.
This requirement is contrasted with two false perspectives in which:
1) The reporter represents the truth in a false way accompanied with contempt for his or her neighbor (his readers, viewers, etc.), or
2) The reporter may represent the truth in a proper way but with a contemptuous view of one’s neighbor.
Rejection of the first is noted in an example found in Mark 7:6-13. Quoting Isaiah, Jesus said, “These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. They worship me in vain; their teachings are but rules taught by men.” The Pharisees honored and worshiped God, but they did it in a false way–in vain, not in spirit and in truth. The reporter must not only declare true content, but must do it in a true way, not in a vain way or one which does not assist the reader in understanding life and life more abundantly.
Jesus notes that it was not enough to honor God with a good report where the reporter’s heart was not properly turned to God. Jesus warned against laying aside the commands of God, in the compilation of the doctrines or reports of men. Paul also reflects a correct understanding of persuasion and how it fits into the “process, content and purpose” scheme.
In II Corinthians 5:11 he says, “Since, then, we know what it is to fear the Lord, we try to persuade men. What we are is plain to God, and I hope it is also plain to your conscience.” Paul is indicating that the purpose of communicating is not to persuade, but that persuasion is a method used to guide men toward God and His creation. The purpose is not to draw all men unto Paul. He goes on to reject the manipulation approach to persuasion, by stating that he hopes what he is, is clear. Manipulation, on the other hand, lacks clarity and is generally associated with some subterfuge. He reiterates this in verse 12.
The reporter must constantly be reporting with the ‘purpose’ of directing the recipient toward God, God’s creation and God’s principles. Whether the context is ‘religious’ (which it is generally not) or ‘secular,’ it is still God’s creation. The reporter should not seek to draw all men unto him or herself, but impart life and life more abundantly to his readers or listeners. They must avoid “that kind of persuasion (which) does not come from the one who calls you,” noted in Galatians 5:8. A little bit of this persuasion “works through the whole batch of dough.” Its ingredients include rejection of the rightful purpose of communication–to impart life and life more abundantly, to do so in a manner consistent with loving one’s neighbor in the right way which involves true content. Persuasion is a by-product of the communication, not its purpose. Its purpose is to bring about life, and life more abundantly.
Criticism of the second false perspective is given in Luke 10:25-37. This is the parable of the Good Samaritan. In that parable the expert in the Law gives a correct account of the law concerning the obligations owed to one’s neighbor. His heart, however, is not turned to God with respect to exactly who his neighbor is in practice. Jesus specifically wanted to know how the lawyer interpreted the law. “How do you read it?” he asked. For Jesus and the lawyer, it was not enough to simply know what the law required and discuss it in a ‘neutral’ fashion.
This parable illustrates among other things, that the individual has a responsibility for his or her knowledge. It requires something of them. The push for a ‘flashy headline’ or a ‘ratings buster’ must always be critiqued in light of the requirement that it be consistent with loving one’s neighbor and that one’s heart is correctly positioned even if all other prerequisites are satisfied. Paul also expressed the correct view on this subject without accommodating the truth in I Corinthians 9:19-23. “I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some.” Paul does not mean “by every conceivable means irrespective of its propriety.” He means by every appropriate means.
In concluding, it is crucial that Jesus–as the process, content and purpose of communication–be acknowledged. Such a perspective generates fixed results. In communication it results in the overall duty of the reporter to render a true account of reality as defined from God’s perspective. The way such a report is to be rendered must not reflect a false means. The reporter’s heart must also be correctly positioned before God. The object of such a report should be to lead to life, not reflecting confusion or competing false perspectives.
1. Is Jesus as the way, truth and life a correct insight into understanding journalism and communication the way it was designed by God?
2. Can you articulate another insight which gives guidance about how to ‘do’ journalism or communication?
The Spirit and False Perspectives
(Jn 16:12-15 – Making known Jesus, who is the Word)
“I have much more to say to you, more than you can now bear. But when He, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all truth. He will not speak on his own; he will speak only what he hears, and he will tell you what is yet to come. He will bring glory to me by taking what is mine and making it known to you. All that belongs to the father is mine. That is why I said, the Spirit will take from what is mine and make it known to you.” (John 16:12-15).
The objective of Essay Number 2 is to consider the work of the Holy Spirit in taking that which Jesus said and is now saying, and making it known (John 16:12-15). Several false perspectives of communication inconsistent with His work will also be considered.
We have already established that Jesus (the Word, in communication language) is the process, content, and purpose of communication. Derived from this proposition are at least two Biblical principles:
1. Christian communication is a function of rendering a true account of reality from God’s perspective. The Christian communicator has a duty to sufficiently ascertain and render such an account. Rendering includes giving the sense or meaning of reality.
2. The work of the Holy Spirit is to make the truth about God and his entire creation known in a truthful way. He is the One who is going to say to us today, what we could not bear yesterday. The purpose of His work is to restore the culture to a correct perception of life and all of life equally. The Christian communicator has a duty to seek the Holy Spirit’s way and purpose for all of life, in ascertaining and rendering such knowledge.
Presently there are four perspectives of communication which differ from a Biblical perspective in one degree or another. I have tried to refine the essence of these four perspectives, and subsequently to discuss their inherent conflict with a Biblical perspective:
1) Christian communication is a Christian reading a news release verbatim. (PRIVATIZATION).
2) Christian communication describes themes which are discussed principally within Judeo-Christian circles. (TRADITIONAL CHRISTIAN).
3) Christian communication focuses on the process of communication and communication technique. (TECHNOLOGICAL).
4) Christian communication reports significant events and opinions from a variety of perspectives, occasionally with resolution. (INFORMATION).
Each of these perspectives is inconsistent in some degree with one or more of the Biblical principles previously outlined.
The PRIVATIZED perspective suggests that whatever Jesus may have said about being the truth (content), and whatever the Holy Spirit may have to say about the way (process) in which God would like His perspective about a given account represented, it is irrelevant to the public sector or inconsequential to national events. The privatized view holds that God, if he exists, has nothing to say about public life and events. If Jesus is the Word, he has nothing to say. If the Spirit guides us into truth, he may not do it publicly.
The primary objection is not that religious words are avoided. The primary objection is that God’s perspective of the account is avoided. The problem is not that the report comes from a secular source per se. The problem is that such a report is written from the perspective that everything can be explained without an Infinite Personal Creator. It sees reality through a pair of glasses (perspective) which have been designed specifically to perceive a given event as though God’s existence, or his authority over Creation, plays no account.
The primary result (purpose) of this perspective is to prompt the hearer into melding his perspective on national events and affairs (which may or may not be Biblical) with a humanistic viewpoint. The privatized perspective of communication does not lead its hearers to life and life more abundantly, but cajoles its listeners into a false perception that life and living are adequately described by the status quo.
The issue is one of perspective. The problem is not the form (process). The problem is the perspective, which distorts the content and produces a harmful effect (diminishes life more abundantly).
The TRADITIONAL CHRISTIAN perspective is the twin brother of the privatized perspective. While the privatized view holds that–if God exists–He is publicly and nationally irrelevant, the traditional Christian view says that God does in fact exist, but is relevant only to private and religious life or events. This view has the effect of denying the Lordship of Christ over all of life and all of life equally. It reduces Christian communication solely to communication about traditional religious discussions (content).
As far as it goes, this perspective does render a true account about reality from God’s perspective, but it is a reality and perspective confined to traditional religious concerns. It is defective because this perspective represents God’s breadth of interest as extending only to the personal and private religious life of its viewers. If it seeks to impart life and life more abundantly, it does so only in respect to religious or personal life. It may impart a limited restoration to the viewer’s religious life, but the balance of life, or reality, is left unclaimed.
This deficiency is an unintentional result. Nevertheless, the logical consequences of the traditional Christian perspective is to fabricate a restriction of the Lordship of Christ. Thus, Christian communication is limited to a treatment of those themes which are discussed principally within religious circles.
The problem is not that religious themes are presented. The problem is that these things are presented from a perspective which boxes Jesus (the word) into an airtight container marked ‘Spiritual,’ while the rest of creation (which God created and called good) goes unclaimed. If ‘the Word’ which is ‘the life’ is reduced to religious issues only, then content (truth) is limited to religious content alone. This leaves Christians irrelevant and their God inapplicable to any other aspect of life.
Within this framework the Spirit cannot make known all truth unless He first comports with an arbitrary standard of what is religious or spiritual. The issue is one of perspective. The traditional Christian perspective of what constitutes Christian communication is not Christian. The truly Christian perspective is founded on Jesus as the Word (always pointing upstream to God as the Creator) and the implications which flow from the Word’s declaration that He defines communication process, content, and purpose.
The TECHNOLOGICAL mentality is the younger brother of privatization and traditional Christian communication. Privatization reflects the involvement of content, but it is not content as defined from God’s perspective (truth). The traditional Christian approach also deals with content, but it is circumscribed by a false view of spirituality. The technological perspective has no content component. It takes on all comers, drawing no inherent distinctions as to content.
In this framework, the ‘ethical’ use of technology is what makes it Christian. The result of this perspective is to elevate process. It accepts either privatized or traditional Christian content and measures ‘Christian-ness’ in terms of the ethical use of the medium. The ethical use of the medium, in turn, is always a function of secular definition.
The technological perspective is deficient principally in regard to the first element of communication (way). The indicia of process are derived from contemporary sources under the titles of ethics and neutral media. They are not based on the Biblical norms of process as outlined in Essay 1. With respect to content (truth) and purpose (life), the technological perspective is inadequate for the reasons outlined under ‘privatization’ and ‘traditional Christian’ communication.
The problem is not that the technology is used ethically. The problem is that the ethical use of the technology is a function of fluctuating culture circumstances. Such a shifting scale is not consistent with Biblical norms of truth and falsehood in rendering a true account of reality.
The INFORMATION perspective is the modern day parent of all the false perspectives. It combines each of the perspectives, in varying degrees. The information perspective, however, goes beyond the other false perspectives. It presents a wide variety of perspectives which may or may not include a Biblical one. Occasionally there is a resolution of the account (life).
The problem with the information perspective is not that it presents a wide variety of perspectives including a Biblical one. The problem is that it includes the Biblical perspective as simply one among many. The correctness (truth) of the Biblical perspective may be acknowledged, but its correctness is not based upon an objective standard (the Word became flesh). The correctness of that perspective is only based upon a subjective standard (what has been said). Or to say it differently, the fact that God exists and created the world is considered equally valid as the idea that He does not exist and did not create the world. The reporter is conditioned to act as though they are indeed both valid.
The manner of presenting the account (way) is generally a function of the technological perspective and is defective on that score as previously indicated. Similarly, the purpose (life) of processing information leads to a perception of reality which is not consistent with God’s perspective. Those who receive the report operate in their day-to-day life with the wrong perception of what is happening. As a consequence, they go about life and living indoctrinated with a wrong set of assumptions about how the world works.
If the ‘privatized’ perspective is employed within the information perspective, the result is to do nothing from a Christian point of view because logically Christianity has nothing to do with the information. If the ‘traditional Christian’ perspective is employed in the same manner, the result is a confirmation that Christianity is limited to a narrow sphere of life falsely called ‘spiritual.’ It also produces an apathetic response to world events because such events presumably fall outside any legitimate sphere of Christian concern.
In the Biblical perspective, however, resolution (life) must be on the basis of an account that is objectively true, not merely worthy of notice. Resolution must also be based on the view that Jesus is Lord of all of life, and all of life equally. The information perspective fails because it is simply information. The debate is not a choice between advocacy and being descriptive. Advocating a subjective viewpoint is no better than describing an event if neither is conditioned upon a true perspective of what constitutes fixed norms of process, content and purpose. Jesus as the Word, cannot be conformed to contemporary social ideas of objectivity.
Essay 1 is fully applicable to critique this perspective. We are not called upon to render significant reports or opinions from a variety of perspectives. We are called upon to render, in a true way, a true account of reality from God’s perspective. When God’s perspective gives diversity in rendering a true account of reality, then rendering should not be limited. When God’s perspective is uniform with respect to a given account, then the report must not give conflicting accounts for the sake of “objectivity.”
In concluding, it is essential to remember that the Spirit does not say just whatever He believes to be correct. He does not speak of his own volition but renders an accurate account of what God tells Him. God tells the Spirit “speak Jesus.” Jesus is the Word. The Word is the way, the truth and the life. Jesus is our personal salvation, but he is also Lord over all of life, and all of life equally. As God, He defines all of reality, not just religious reality. He gives it its objective meaning. The duty of the reporter is to ascertain this meaning by consulting the Author and His perspective. Once His perspective on content (truth) is ascertained, the reporter is under a duty to render it by a proper process (way) with a proper purpose (life). What is proper is always a function of fixed Biblical perspectives and not of the apparent exigencies of the moment or of popular demand.
If the Journalist or communicator seeks to make Jesus known through the Spirit as outlined in these working essays, it is essential that he or she have a unified perspective on what constitutes communication, news or journalism, and that they be directed by the Spirit with respect to rendering that unified perspective. It is imperative that he or she ascertain and practice a true perspective as well as reject the false perspectives identified in this essay.
1. To what degree, if any, does local Christian radio reflect the privatized perspective?
2. What is the responsibility of the Holy Spirit in communication? Is His work confined to the communicator’s personal life or does it encompassing all of life, not merely all of religious life?
3. “Words are symbolic, they change with culture.” What perspective does this quote reflect? Would the word “God” mean the same thing as, say, the word “lawnmower” if the culture agreed? How about the word Satan? Why?
4. Charles Kraft has written a book entitled “Toward a Christian Theory of Communication.” After reading that book, consider what theory, if any, expressed therein Kraft actually articulates.
5. To what degree, if any, does The 700 Club or CBN News reflect the information perspective?