Thirteen Essays: Exploring Communication and Journalism from a Biblical Perspective
by Kerry L. Morgan
The Journalism Graduate
(2 Tim 2:2 – Shaping Journalism)
There is a Scripture mounted over the entrance way of the Administration Building at Regent University. It states: “And the things that thou hast heard of me, among many witnesses, the same commit thou to faithful men, who shall be able to teach others also.” (I Timothy 2:2). I’m sure the students have seen it on the back of their I.D. cards.
What is it that has been committed to us? What will we teach others also? I believe that those questions can be answered in one of two ways. We have either been taught and will pass on information, or we have been taught and will pass on truth.
Information or Truth
These two options are completely at odds with each other–no man can serve them both. They represent the conflict between two completely contrary worldviews. To have been taught information only about one’s discipline reflects the cultural drift of the 1980’s, which pays no heed to the truth or falsity of information. Graduates who simply pass on information perpetuate a cultural disregard for the objective existence of God and the equally objective existence of truth which flows from Him. They have exchanged some bit of current information for something which is sharper than any two-edged sword. Merely to pass on information about one’s discipline or to reduce one’s discipline to transmittal of information is neither Biblical nor practical.
To have been taught truth, however, leads one to affirm that the beginning of all things, including knowledge, is God. He is objectively there, and He created an objective reality. A graduate begins to pass on truth about that discipline by saying, “I know what a Biblical view of my discipline looks like and here are the steps I am going to take in order to implement that true perspective at my job.” That is something that every graduate should be able to say when he leaves this campus. As a student, a responsibility existed to seek truth in the classroom. As a student there was a responsibility to challenge the professor to think Biblically by asking, “I want to know a Biblical view of my discipline–I want to know how the Bible shapes my discipline.”
A graduate who has not learned to ask these questions can expect to be conformed to a discipline which lacks the salt and light he or she could have brought to it. Lost will be the opportunity to speak prophetically to a discipline–and by extension, to a profession–desperately in need of renewal.
Now when I say ‘speak prophetically,’ I don’t mean using religious words per se. I mean speaking the implications of God’s existence and who He is with respect to one’s discipline or profession, in order properly to shape and define it from God’s perspective.
Each Graduate is faced with a choice. He or she can either be a Christian who graduates or a Christian graduate. A Christian who graduates does not know, and therefore cannot pass on, God’s truth about the discipline, though he or she may be personally Christian. A Christian graduate, however, can pass on truth. He can shape the culture significantly because he has been taught that the Bible not merely has something to say about his discipline; but indeed it defines the entire discipline. That graduate is not bound to the professional articulation of popular information or ideas which do not prove to be worth their weight in salt.
As Christian graduates we must not trade Truth for mere Information–information which reflects the decline of a discipline as it falls away from God’s fixed perspective. We must be committed to the truth first and then be willing to shape our discipline from that perspective, without accommodation to popular theories. Let us be Christian graduates, not graduates who are personally Christian, but who have no idea how Christianity impacts their profession.
January 20, 1986
(Thoughts on Isaiah 6:3-5)
And they were calling to one another: ‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty; the whole earth is full of His glory.’ At the sound of their voices the doorposts and thresholds shook and the temple was filled with smoke. ‘Woe to me,’ I cried, ‘I am ruined, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the Lord Almighty.’ Isaiah 6:3-5.
The first thing I want to point out about this passage is that the six-winged creatures were calling to one another. They were speaking among themselves. They were declaring truth to one another. Their declaration was: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty.” This is not mere religious gobbledygook. This is a declaration of truth. And it was not merely a religious declaration, but it was a declaration about all of reality: “The whole earth is full of His glory.”
My first thought is, how much of our journalism today reflects that the Lord is holy? And more significantly for the issues which face us today, how much of our journalism reflects the fact–that is, the objective, true, verifiable, known fact–that the whole earth is full of His glory?
The result of this declaration of truth among these six winged journalist is noted in verse 4: “At the sound of their voices, the doorposts and thresholds shook, and the temple was filled with smoke.” When truth went out and the glory of the Lord over all of the earth was acknowledged, things began to happen. The doorposts and thresholds shook.
Sometimes we think that God just did this, that He made the doorposts jump up and down and he had a smoke machine with which he filled the temple. When they declared the truth, particularly the truth about the Lordship of Christ–the objective, factual, true reality about the whole earth being full of God’s glory–that the thresholds and doorposts shook. The culture was shaken. The whole area, the building itself, shook. What a marvelous declaration of the consequences of truth.
Moreover, Isaiah’s comments in verse 5 show conclusively to me that when truth is declared, not only is the culture shaken in awe, but the people are convicted. He cries, “Woe to me . . . I am ruined, for I am a man of unclean lips.” Isaiah recognized that the Lord is holy, that His glory is in all of the earth. And that true declaration, that communication between these six-winged creatures, shook the place. It had that effect. Then immediately he became convicted that he was unclean, that his ways were not God’s ways. He also recognized that the culture around him was, like himself, in need of reform.
This is very important. What I am suggesting here is that when truth is spoken, individuals–and the culture as a whole–are convicted and brought to their knees. This is the real salt of journalism. The declaration of truth need not be offensive. In the passage from Isaiah, for instance, there is a simple proclamation of the abiding reality of God’s glory in His creation. On the other hand, the truth may cut sharply. Jesus did not shy away from direct confrontation (though still speaking the truth in love) when he called the Pharisees a generation of vipers.
In conclusion, I think we need to very clearly recognize that the whole earth is full of His glory and not to discount that when we present facts. In other words, when we represent something as factual and it does not reflect the over-arching reality of God, perhaps what we are representing is ideology rather than facts. Of course, based on my previous essays, I am not saying that we have to use religious terminology or that we have to cite Scripture, although that is our liberty if it is appropriate to do so. But our reports of factual reality need to represent, and be downstream of, this truth: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty. The whole earth is full of his glory.”
March 17, 1986
How to Write the Story
Rules of Christian Journalism
1. Write the news story as if God did not exist or is irrelevant. (This is the other world view.)
2. Write the news story based on the fact that God exists as described in the Bible. (This is the real world view.)
3. After 1 and 2, determine as best you can what is true. (Remember John 16:13.)
4. Write your final story.
If we were assigned to cover Pat Robertson and his possible presidential candidacy, and we were to follow the rules expressed above, we would first write according to world view number 1. God’s attributes, of course, would not be mentioned. Instead they would be ascribed to an impersonal universe, energy forces, the lapse of time, or chance occurrences.
The first report might look something like this:
MINISTER TO TAKE CHANCES IN POLITICAL ARENA
Television evangelist Pat Robertson is on the verge of deciding whether or not to seek the 1988 Republican presidential nomination. Though Robertson cited “the Lord’s leading” in this area, political experts speculate that “a combination of social forces” could step up his announcement to as early as January of 1987.
A spokesman for Robertson’s political action committee (PAC) said, “It is only a question of time before this country sees what it’s missing.”
Indeed, that seems to be the case. Robertson’s burgeoning cable T.V. company, which now reaches over 25 million consumers, has pursued an aggressive marketing posture, placing Robertson’s face in every household in the country.
Noting their financial success, an executive from CNN told reporters, “They were fortunate enough to be in the right place at the right time. I guess it’s the way you play your cards in this business that counts.”
Asked if he thought he had a chance to win, Robertson replied, “If I run, it will be to win . . .” And win he may, considering the topsy-turvy character of the American electorate these days. A recent gallup poll showed that Americans are more conservative, undoubtedly in reaction against liberal sentiments of the 60’s and 70’s. Pollsters confided, “These things are cyclical; in the 1990’s the liberals will be back in power. It’s part of the evolution of politics.”
Given the evolution of politics, the institutional and political forces working within our society and at least five more years of political stagnation within the Democratic party, Robertson may really have a chance.
Others inside the camp, however, have their doubts. “Imagine that,” mused one of his T.V. supporters, “it would be a real miracle is he was elected.”
If we were to write the above story according to world view number 2, here is what it might look like.
MINISTER CONSIDERS PRESIDENTIAL OFFICE
In a recent T.V. interview, Rev. Pat Robertson told reporters that he was serious about the presidency. Citing the internal struggle which accompanies every significant human decision, Robertson told newsmen, “this is a very serious matter for myself and for CBN. We are all asking for the Lord’s leading on this. It’s common sense to consult the best authority.”
Not everyone, however, is convinced that God has anything to do with it. Robertson’s potential bid is dependent upon “a combination of social forces,” political experts suggest. But Robertson says different: “Sure we are looking at the culture, why shouldn’t we? Our founding fathers looked at the culture and then looked to God for guidance. I don’t think we were let down with the advice He gave them.”
A spokesman for Robertson’s political action committee (PAC) noted, “It’s only a question of time before this country sees what it is missing.” If CBN’s cable T.V. operation continues in favor with the American public, Robertson’s message will be heard in more than 25 million households. Noting the widespread acknowledgment that CBN’s message has hit home, a CNN executive said, “They were fortunate to be in the right place at the right time. I guess it’s the way you play your cards in this business that counts.”
Robertson thinks it has nothing to do with chance. “My goodness, if that’s what guides the American people when they pull the lever, then I’m going to fire my entire political action committee,” says Robertson, grinning a bit. “If I run, I run to win, because I’m willing to faithfully execute the office of the President, and preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution, just as the Constitution requires. That’s the only reason anybody should ever run for political office.”
Pollsters claim their data show the trend toward conservatism will peak in the next five years, and that’s got Robertson worried. “These things are cyclical, you know. That’s part of the evolution of politics.” Professor Jones of the School for Public Policy, a conservative think tank, disagrees: “Neither politics nor history is cyclical. Political change is a direct result of a change in ideas; what the people have in their minds and hearts and what they want out of life beyond the material realm, such as ‘life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.’ That’s what people wanted two hundred years ago. I think that it’s their desire again today. That’s not cyclical, it’s choice.”
Given the constant desire of the people, their ability to govern themselves and the emerging presence of constitutional leadership in this country, Robertson might be the man the country is looking for.
Some people do not have any doubts: “Imagine that,” mused one of his T.V. supporters, “It would be a real miracle if he was elected.”
At this point, we would have to look at both the first and the second article and decide what is true. If we believe that there is no fixed truth or that truth cannot be known, then the result is obvious. Either one of these articles could do. For all intents and purposes, being a Christian journalist means nothing in terms of the ultimate conclusion or the final story. If there is no standard to gauge a good or bad article, or a right or wrong article, then the determining factor is merely the editorial policy of the paper.
In my opinion, of course, the idea of the unknowableness of truth is completely indefensible from a Biblical perspective. But if the writer believes that, then consistent with that belief, either article could do. It is important, however, if one believes this, not to deceive himself into believing that being a Christian makes any real difference in this respect. It doesn’t. Moreover, a magazine, newspaper, television network, radio station and/or university that holds this position has no right to be called “Christian” (unless it is clearly understood that the use of the word Christian merely identifies the personal relationship to God of the people who work at the facility). If we cannot know what truth is or if it’s merely a subjective impression, then we are indeed to be pitied because we have declared somehow to the world that we are different and have not been able to deliver the goods.
Not surprisingly, I would submit article number 2, since it reflects a Biblical perspective. You may have a different view of the subject based on your reading of Scripture or on something you perceive to be true that I have neglected or otherwise asserted improperly. Fine. At least at this point we have a common basis from which to discuss whether or not a given paragraph or phrase is true. That is, we both can turn to some objective standard called creation and the Bible and then discuss it accordingly.
A few things need to be explained here. I hope it is evident that in the first article everything that was of significance could be attributed either to an impersonal energy force or to a lapse of time or simply to euphemisms for chance. In the second article, I tried to reject all of those ideas as they are inconsistent with a Biblical framework and tried to identify God and the way He set reality up as the factor behind what happens in culture. I may not have done this well, but this is what needs to be done. Any lack of skill on my part should not cause the rejection of the principle.
Second, where a quote was used that was obviously untrue, then the burden fell to the reporter or writer to find someone who had an accurate and therefore Biblical perspective on the subject. Thus, where Pat Robertson declares that politics is cyclical and evolving, I considered a quote from Jones which would show that to be nonsense. My attempt was not to leave the reader in two minds, but to show him that Biblically there is only one way of looking at history and it is not cyclical. Now we can argue over whether you believe that or not, or whether it is true; but I am using this to illustrate the duty of the reporter with regard to quotes that are erroneous.
Thus, the reporter need not engage in editing all false quotes, but he needs to be circumspect in their use as well as to secure additional sources which understand the situation correctly.
Third, some quotes that are used inappropriately–such as “If I run, I run to win” and “If he wins, it will be a miracle”–are self-explanatory. With respect to the first quote, it is clear that the most significant part, the reference to the Constitution–was edited out. And with respect to the second, it is clear that the reporter reversed the meaning by changing the phrase leading up to the quote. These things are dishonest and wrong, although if one holds to the position that there is no fixed truth, then article number one cannot be criticized on this basis.
The Christian who does believe that truth exists and can be known sufficiently has an adequate basis to call the use of these quotes into question. They are either out and out lies, misrepresentations, or an attempt to bias the reader toward the reporter’s own perspective. Please note that the problem is not that the reader is influenced by the reporter’s perspective; the problem is that the reporter’s perspective or bias bears no relationship to the reality that is, to what Robertson said, or to what the intent of the financial supporter was when the declaration about miracles was made. Again, it is not the subjective bias which makes it right or wrong; it is whether or not that bias conforms to the reality God created. The second article, of course, tries to place these matters in an appropriate light.
I realize that some of this is largely hypothetical and I have had leeway to devise ideas and simulate quotes to suit my purpose. I have done this to illustrate the several points which I wanted to make. I would recommend that this kind of test be implemented in a situation involving an actual media story. The fact that my example is somewhat hypothetical, however, does not alter the fixed guidelines, principles, or ‘rules of Christian journalism’ that I am trying to express.
May 7, 1986
How Not to do Journalism
“Be merciful to those who doubt.” (Jude 22).
“If you were blind, you would not be guilty of sin; but now that you claim you can see, your guilt remains.” (John 9:14)
For my viewing pleasure I had an opportunity to watch “West 57th” on Wednesday, May 7, 1986. “West 57th” is a production of CBS news. After extended reflection I concluded that “West 57th” was supposed to be a news show. The credits gave it away. The content did not.
Let me describe the ‘news story’ I tuned in to. The first segment by Pauline Canny focused on a tragedy turned to joy. Or more precisely, a tragedy turned gay. A little baby girl had apparently been infected with AIDS through a blood transfusion. The blood had been sold to the hospital by a somewhat thoughtless individual who professed and practiced ‘liberty’ in his sexual practice. That is the tragedy. Though Ms. Canny noted this liberty in a round about sort of way, she failed to comment about God’s objective standard in this respect.
The joy in this story, as it turns out, is revealed in the child’s mother overcoming her hatred of the homosexual community. This, of course, is commendable since hatred destroys people. To overcome the ostracism she feels because none of her friends will visit her and her deteriorating child, she turns to the homosexual community, who now regularly visit her and her afflicted child. They provide the ‘love and attention’ which society will not provide. A more helping community cannot be found. We are not told whether the Christian church or community is doing anything for this woman and child.
Had this story been presented objectively according to the Biblical view of reality, the viewer would observe that people who destroy innocent children are guilty of sin and crime. The journalist should point this objective fact out and call for appropriate remedies.
Instead, the viewer is led to believe that the slow death of an innocent child due to the attack of the virus on her central nervous system is really no one’s fault. The real culprits are those who fail to reach out to the mother and the child.
Admittedly, the maxim “love thy neighbor” is advanced. “West 57th” properly establishes a standard of compassion for the downtrodden. Unfortunately, the family’s friends fall short of it. But if compassion is an established virtue, it has also generally been acknowledged that deceit, sodomy and unmitigated hedonism–not to mention murder–are not virtues. In fact, they fall into the arena of moral and criminal vice, whereas a failure of compassion does not. This fact “West 57th” fails to note.
Certainly, murder and sodomy are criminal. Murder and sodomy violate the universal law of nature observed in the creation as well as the law of nature’s God revealed in scripture. More plainly, they wrongly destroy people made in God’s image.
With all the talk about morality and standards, God’s standards should be considered. “West 57th” made an appeal to a standard of right and wrong by pointing out the shortcomings of people who fear infection. How much more is the Christian journalist to apply the standard to those who practice the destruction of themselves, their victims and the culture in which they live.
Who is the neighbor in “West 57th”? Do they show contempt for some and not for others? Do they pick and choose a standard of conduct and select the application to fit their ideology even though it does not reflect the reality God set up? Have they established the truth on this issue in part only? Does the report encourage the viewer to take in life and life more abundantly?
These are a few of the questions which must be raised. The Christian journalist should be able to identify and articulate the precise portion of the report which corresponds to a Judeo-Christian perspective–“I got over my hatred of homosexuals”–and that portion which operates from an anti-Christian perspective–“It really doesn’t matter how people act in private just as long as we love one another.”
We must be merciful to those who doubt God’s perspective. Those who reject its standards, however, must carry their own guilt, the burden which the story thrusts upon them personally. Not only does a story from a non-Christian perspective not produce life more abundantly in the viewer, but it weighs down the journalist with guilt and eventually despair.
This essay is written to provide an example of how to critique non-biblical journalism, to establish its bias and lack of objectivity, and to articulate a true perspective.