The Eternal Lens: Christians and the Press

September 2, 2013

Thinking Christianly about journalism — both the craft and the institution — involves skiing on the impulses of a deep humanism and exultant transcendence.

Feature from the Fall 2013 Issue of Comment Magazine, “We Believe In Institutions

Look at any morning’s newspaper and the stuff of human drama leaps from the headlines: “For Mandela’s Kin, Laws Offer Scant Guidance on End of Life.” “City’s Schools Offer Students Access to Morning-After Pill.” “Obama Says Trayvon Martin ‘Could Have Been Me’ Once.”

Newspapers are bound to the human. They are devoted to this world and its inhabitants. But does that focus mean they are necessarily humanizing?

I want to argue that Christians are equipped to leaven the news with a distinctively human touch, if only because their belief in human dignity demands it, and the discerning Spirit vested in them grants capacity for insight into depths mere materialists can’t see. Secular journalists can sense these depths and articulate their boundaries, although that is a rarer gift, and the reasons for so doing not often identifiable beyond a respect for human glory. The Christian, by contrast, identifies first as a child of God, and sees others as children of God. She begins with an eternal lens crystallized by the confidence in a divine plan that God Himself has revealed and is yet revealing. This lens changes everything.

The Distinctive

There is a great drama unfolding. Every day and night turns another two pages on the story of a fallen world being redeemed, of human beings ascending to God and falling away, of disasters unplanned and marvels unexpected. Newspapers, insofar as they keep a running draft of history’s unfolding, reveal layers of this drama. Not all the layers, but chronological, plot-filled chapters of God’s creation churning about, chapters that reveal His image being displayed and glorified, tarnished and dismissed.

The Christian thus humanizes inherently, because she believes that man’s eternal destiny is bound up in God’s desire to choose and redeem His children, all human beings created in His image. And as God chose to redeem through incarnating himself in Christ Jesus, so our perspective on the human scene is forever altered. As the divine became man, so our nature is exalted to sacred status. This is our grounding, our joy and our privilege, and for Christians in the newspaper business, it re-anchors how we see our role in covering current events and how we treat those we are covering. Every human subject is first and foremost a soul, with an eternal destiny containing both direction and force. This perspective is our first and last, although it brings as much tension to the earthly game as it does unique assets to the journalistic enterprise.

The Challenge

On the one hand, we’re seeing these days the desire for so-called “humanization” flower in the proliferation of bloggers and personalized brands. On the other hand, the news market has arguably never been more pixelated, time-enslaved and commercially driven. Investigative reports get skimmed in a latte line. Public figures are raked over the coals of their caricatures and the tyranny of the anecdote displaces original analysis. If Christian journalists are called to higher things, deeper things, how exactly do they fulfill their duties in the currents of these norms, let alone enhance the purposes of the newspaper at large?

I’ve worked in a news bureau for three years and swum around media lights for six. Over that time I’ve seen many reporters put their craft to new and good use: to shine light where there has been none before; to seek out unknown heroes; to draw from multiple disciplines in tackling a given story; to harness technological advances to create a more interactive reader experience (see The New York Times’ “Snow Fall” phenomenon if you haven’t already).

These are discoverers of general revelation and messengers of the same, even though most would never identify with that Project. But as Christian journalists, who put this life within the framework of a bigger one, who believe in the facts of Heaven and Hell, who see human life and human history held in the hands of God, sustained by his power and love, who see the natural order as dependent upon the supernatural order, we consciously take part in the unveiling as we witness and report it. This fuels as much unceasing curiosity as it demands discernment and respect for the limits of what we can know.

What’s interesting more recently is that the media finds itself in a position of cultural authority at the same time that the business is struggling to survive. As other civic institutions have weakened and splintered before pluralism’s surge, the news remains standing as one of the last shared maps to provide touch points for exchanges around dinner tables, classrooms, trading desks and water coolers. We may never rally around the news in a devotional posture, let alone a covenantal one, but the inextinguishable fact of our basic need to know—what some have called the Awareness Instinct—has kept market demand alive, and likely promises to sustain it. This leaves newsmakers with a higher responsibility than they previously had. Christians, humbly, are needed to meet it.

I see a lot of newspapers these days taking it upon themselves to don clergy robes, to see themselves as securers of justice (as they define it). Editors lay out and organize their coverage from philosophical assumptions they seem not to recognize, and the cultural narrative builds out from there. This example is too fraught to be clean, but for the sake of illustration, when gay marriage is proclaimed the leading civil rights cause of our time, no opposing viewpoint, however well reasoned, gets ink. Debate is stifled, and behind closed doors the paper self-congratulates over its role in enlightening the road to progress. Those pulling these strings feel active, I think, in what they deem a noble enterprise, unsatisfied with serving democracy’s more basic need to know the full picture. A picture that includes all arguments, all facts.

So although newspapers are facing heavy strategic and commercial uncertainty, institutionally speaking they hold a resurgent monopoly on cultural influence. And as the web has fueled a more active conversation between newsman and consumer, newspapers have to become sense makers, not just gatekeepers. You see this in some of the more conceptual, explanatory pieces above the fold. You see this in the analytical tone undergirding most breaking news now. The media has to order the flow of what consumers digest or else we’d drown in the cacophony. This increased agency introduces as much opportunity as it does risk, so how the enterprise fulfills its purposes becomes all the more critical. And how readers treat and consume the news also matters.

Christian Humanism and the Press: A Two-Way Street

Insofar as journalism is a conversation between writer and reader, the eternal lens and a reverence before the revelatory ways of God should pave the road between the coordinates, one which impacts the degree to which the news slides up or down the humanizing scale. Both the acts of communicating and consuming news demand a discernment rooted in the mind of Christ and an empathy defined by His compassion, even as each activity faces moral challenges that beg for His followers’ recognition, confrontation and overcoming.

Secularism generally assumes that the opinionated self is the only judge of truth, while the Christian proclaims divine revelation as the final arbiter. This fissure has continued to frustrate as I’ve tiptoed into the field. One of the strangest attitudes I see in a lot of journalists is this idea that they sit on islands of all-seeing objectivity, with a touch of self-preservation thrown in. Early in my newspaper experience I had a seasoned political reporter tell me that “journalistic ethics is not about right and wrong; it’s about protecting your career and not offending your reader.” He went on to say that he took the “truth-telling” role so seriously that he could not pledge his allegiance to anyone outside “the truth.” So he encouraged me and a few other rookies to forgo friends’ weddings if their professional affiliations at all touched our reporting, to not vote in elections, and to disavow faith in God. “We must not be colored by anything,” were his parting words. “Society depends on us to be clear glass.”

He was serious and I didn’t doubt his intentions toward nobility, but there was something humorous about his self-conception, and arrogant and naïve. I am all for “fair and unbiased” reporting, but to deny one’s baser allegiances in the name of objectivity is a fool’s errand. We are not constructors of truth; we are receivers and discoverers. Journalists are no less human than anyone else, with the same impulses to worship, to befriend, to honor a cause and to stake a claim in some moral soil, wherever located and however deep. The profession tends to attract the emotionally avoidant, and that’s fine and sometimes necessary. But I wonder if the newspaper wouldn’t achieve its fairness aims more effectively if its people acknowledged their worldviews from the get-go. Would the newspaper humanize more convincingly if its reporters began by recognizing their own pains and uncertainties in “those other people” they’re covering?

This island ethos experiences an even taller moat today as journalism has shifted from a profession attracting blue collar kids to one that recruits from the Ivy League. Lately I’ve wondered if the surviving newspapers shouldn’t take a risk with their scrambling resources and pay staff to augment their writing and reporting time with the acquiring of an unknown, unrelated trade, something that would get them out among people unlike themselves. Something that would encourage the dirtying of hands alongside whatever toil is occupying their subjects. If only so that their core product could reflect a richer “taste and see” beyond advertisers’ preferences. Today’s subscribers are confessing hunger for this sort of texture—I think they might pay up if they saw the results.

Human relationships pervade journalistic means, a fact that opens as many warm avenues for the Christian as it presents quandaries around boundaries and professionalism. Journalists count on establishing useful semi-friendships. We act nice to get information. We develop long-term relationships with people and reward them with the promise of future knowledge. There are rules of this game that are unavoidable, but the access does give Christian journalists a peephole to subvert an ungodly utilitarianism. Instead of shaking before the doorbell of a mother who’s just lost her son to gang violence, bracing herself, as reporters naturally do, for the unpleasant task of gathering a quote from the bereaved, the Christian reporter has real freedom to set down her notebook and cry with the mother, because that is her identity first. To reach out in compassion, unworried about the call to collect right words because in the moment of genuine pain she will wind up acquiring what is most important for the obituary. Christians don’t have to buy into today’s cult of exposure because they unapologetically include themselves in the cosmic drama. Great journalism springs out of great honesty.

There is also a Christian opportunity widened by the more recent dynamism in the relationship between the newspaper and its audience. The road between them has never been louder or more crowded—just check out any online comments section, or blog or Twitter feed. The reader is expected to be an active participant. Trends around “citizen journalism” have heightened my concern that Christians read the news well. Responding to the news involves as much humanizing and dehumanizing potential as producing it does. It is our contextualizing map, after all. Just as the Christian journalist ideally goes about his day with an appreciation for eternal souls and an eye for God’s ongoing unveiling, so the Christian reader should open the page prepared to greet the fallen world we ourselves proclaim in confession and creed. Discerned news should help inform our prayers, sometimes our action.

I vividly remember the day Gabby Giffords was shot in Arizona by Jared Loughner. January 8, 2011. I happened to be experiencing my own painful season of loss and confusion, and while the reasons for that couldn’t have been further removed from Tucson’s horror, general suffering led me mid-workday to a Catholic chapel in downtown D.C. I walked in, kneeled, and looked up at the Cross with my Lord hanging there. Desperate to pray but finding no words, desperate to sense His comfort and guidance, I found myself taking a closer look at those nails, which were digging into His hands and seemed to provoke an unnatural distension of the neck supporting His head. As I sat there, shocked anew by the unnaturalness of Christ’s suffering as I keenly felt my own, Jared Loughner’s name came from my lips. I didn’t know why in the moment, but I tried saying it again, and this time heard what can only be described as a supernatural compassion. It was bizarre. I was moved beyond myself, even as I wept. I felt no dismissal of justice’s demands, merely awe before a God who died knowing this day, too. I returned to the office and went about the normal duties, but couldn’t get the murderer off my spirit. The next morning I opened the door to The New York Times lying there, and jumped. Jared Loughner’s deranged expression was gazing up at me, and while I saw a terrible criminal, laughing as if a dancing demon, I also saw the tears of His Creator.

I still don’t know what my prayers meant, what they afforded in the criminal’s regard or anyone’s regard. But I somehow gained a greater understanding of the heart of God. Through a news event, and then a news portrayal. It taught me that there is nothing in this world that God is not aware of, that He cannot touch or change. There is no piece of information, however poorly wrought, that cannot be responded to Christianly. Profound or prosaic, worldly or even evil. We believers can survey the news with confidence, prepared for the spread of darkness upon our scene as we judge it in the acknowledgement that we ourselves are co-conspirators in the shadows. We, after all, worship One who has already defeated it, and is redeeming still.

Pointing to a Way Beyond

There are loads of excellent journalists out there, and most of them aren’t Christians. I’ve felt a bit presumptuous claiming that Christians somehow have a distinctive reservoir from which to wield humanizing influence on the newspaper business. I, for one, have a lot to learn from writers who care deeply about the integrity of their work, even if the wellsprings of our motivations rest in different places.

What I will say unequivocally is that I’ve discovered a joyful invitation in the journalistic enterprise to express my love of God through mind and heart. The latter piece is less obvious, certainly tricky, but I do think godly affections can be an asset and a teacher. Journalism has given me access to people I never would have met, to souls that point upward to a most intricate, delighting Lord. It has deepened my despair that I really don’t know much, that the world is insane and yet somehow God holds all of it. It has helped chisel my prayers even as I find those prayers shading my own contributions as I try to honor those I’ve interviewed and bridge the gap between the unknown and those needing to know.

En route I’ve had to accept that I will never get the story right. That I will always leave things out, that I will shortchange whoever or whatever is featured. Years ago Philip Yancey quoted James Agee in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, and it resonated so deeply with my current journalistic fears that I had to refresh it here:

In a novel, a house or person has his meaning, his existence, entirely through the writer. Here, a house or a person has only the most limited of his meaning through me: his true meaning is much huger. It is that he exists, in actual being, as you do and as I do, and as no character of the imagination can possibly exist. His great weight, mystery, and dignity are in this fact. As for me, I can tell you of him only what I saw, only so accurately as in my terms I know how: and this in turn has its chief stature not in any ability of mine but in the fact that I too exist, not as a work of fiction, but as a human being.

What is true for novels is true for news portraits. Writers and subjects really aren’t so separated. We’re all grasping for the truth of things, for the full picture, for how to master life within it. As one experiencing this in her own life at the same time I’m trying to articulate it for others, I’m revved for a life of silver medals. The gold, the ability to capture the essence of something, lies in the hands of Someone Else. The Creator. The Savior who restores broken essences and makes incomplete complete. Thankfully He’s not left me alone to go about finding it. If I can just point to this hope in my life and in my writing, I will rest content.

Originally published in Comment Magazine

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