Beyond Happy-Talk Journalism

The Oxford English Dictionary defines “sensation” as “a condition of excited feeling produced in a community by some occurrence.” One of the hard questions for a Christian magazine is how to report bad news that, when reported, will cause a sensation. Observers for two centuries have condemned sensational stories that emphasize death and destruction – and yet, if the goal if any avoidance of sensation-causing news, we should indict the Bible itself.

Let’s start in Moses’s history book, Genesis. He quoted the first news report, Lamech’s announcement in chapter 4 of killing a man who had wounded him. Later in Genesis come the original tales of sodomy, leading to the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, followed immediately by the incest of Lot and his daughters (Genesis 19).

Many more sensational events follow in the Bible. Look at the Book of Judges: When Ehud plunged his sword into the belly of the king of Moab, “Even the handle sank in after the blade, which came out his back. Ehud did not pull the sword out, and the fat closed in over it” (Judges 3:21, 22). When Jael assassinated Sisera a reporter described the deed in five graphic ways, almost like a repeated slow-motion replay (Judges 4:22; 5:26). Abimelech murdered his 70 brothers. Residents of one town gang-raped and killed a woman, whose husband then cut her into twelve pieces and sent the body parts throughout Israel (Judges 9:5; 19:25-30).

WORLD has to cover misery like that, and some of the specific detail might even be too hard for us to handle. One woman told King Ahab of her neighborly arrangement (2 Kings 6:28, 29): “This woman said to me, ‘Give your son, that we may eat him today, and we will eat my son tomorrow.’ So we boiled my son and ate him. And on the next day I said to her, ‘Give your son, that we may eat him,’ but she has hidden her son.” (II Kings 6:28-29)

Should it be said that those passages are inappropriate for us, we need to be reminded of God’s promise: “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for rebuke, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy3:16–17). We cannot do better than the inspired authors of the Bible: They show us that even the grotesque, in Bible-based context, is useful for our education and sanctification.

Applying this, we can see that Biblical journalism is the opposite of amoral journalism, the kind that emphasizes all the sound and fury in the world and presents people’s lives as tales told by idiots, signifying nothing. But I’d also distinguish biblical journalism from journalistic moralism, which emphasizes the good and uplifting parts of life so people can feel better about themselves, without pointing them to Christ. Sugary journalistic moralism presents happy, smiling church people, removed from the sinful world and moving from one triumph to the next – but in a world filled with destruction, divorce, disease, and death, such reporting is not credible.

Sadly, Christian reporters need to cover sorrow, tragedy, and even evil. The Bible teaches that when man turns away from God, he acts like a beast, and that beastliness will show itself sometimes in awful crimes. We do not want to dwell on them, but if we ignore them, we’re ignoring evidence for the understanding of man’s sinfulness that is essential to Christianity—for if man without God is not a beast, then Christ’s sacrifice for us was unnecessary.

Our goal is to honor Paul’s injunction: “Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things” (Philippians 4:8). We want to think of lovely things whenever we can. We also recognize that Paul could not possibly have meant that we are never to think of what is dishonorable, unjust, and worthy of condemnation, or else he could not have carried out his evangelical work amid a pagan and corrupt society.

To summarize: Most religions are predictable in their philosophy of exchange: You do something nice for a god. The god in return does something for his human devotees. The gospel, though, is sensational: While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. Biblical journalism is Christ-oriented, covering both crucifixion and resurrection. Our articles should suggest CFR – creation, fall, redemption – by showing how terrible man is, yet how wonderful, created in God’s image and worth dying for.

Christianity is not a nice religion. Just as priests used hyssop to spray the blood of sacrifices on the people in Moses’ time, so Christ had to shed his blood, not just preach, to free us from sin. And some Bible authors were not nice people, at least until God changed them. Moses was a murderer, but later the Bible describes him as the meekest of men — meek before God. David conspired to murder— and wrote Psalm 51. Paul wrote half of the New Testament books, and he confessed to complicity in murder. They all had to realize that in their natural reasoning they were stupid, and even evil. They had to be born again.