Steps of Faith
Before you can close a distance, you first have to take an accurate measure of the space between the two points. When we gage the span between American evangelicals and American journalists we don’t find a distance measured in miles. It’s much nearer than that. The measuring tape reveals a homestead closeby and ready to claim—if only both parties could make out the plot through clouds of their own creation.
Christians and journalists long to tell and participate in stories greater than their own; to shine a floodlight and scatter darkness; to catalyze and celebrate justice; to furnish their communities with the truth flourishing requires. Both groups also bear the stain of inherent biases; they tend to keep to themselves, revealing precious few details about their daily offices to outsiders; they fail to ask profitable, provocative questions of groups they don’t understand—often because they don’t try.
Making these virtues and vices work for, not against, the causes of understanding and cooperation calls for steps toward one another, steps taken in faith. As I always do, I lay the burden of bridge-building at the feet of the church. Imitating a savior who laid himself down for the sake of people who were both closer and farther from him than they realized, we must leave our stained-glass silos.
Christians determined to pick up and carry the truth must lay something down first. In this case, they will lay down the right to be right all the time, they’ll have to stop clinging to real and perceived hurts, and they’ll discard narratives written in the language of half-truths.
Journalists must come out from behind the cool stone walls of objectivity and distance—not to sacrifice their principles, but to fulfill them. Journalists, like all people, experience flourishing and freedom through relationships, not transactions. Our traditional reserve as journalists doesn’t protect us as much as it prevents us from fuller, more rewarding experiences that transcend news cycles. Seeing that is to recognize that cooperating with Christians when possible is not taking sides, but elevating the spirit of the craft over the letter.
A series of modest but crucial steps by both parties offers an opportunity to gain ground and make up for a tragic loss of time. The Christian’s part starts with recapturing a vision for loving our neighbors as ourselves.
Often church people fall into ancient traps, failing to honestly engage with the question “Who is my neighbor?” Journalists are left out of the equation, treated as other instead of neighbor. In local communities, journalists literally qualify as the Christian’s neighbor. They traverse the same sidewalks, root for the same teams, and share like hopes for their kids.
Journalists also neighbor Christians in their pursuit of truth and justice. Fighting to see journalists as neighbors sets the faithful Christian in motion, toward real individuals and newsrooms. Ask for tours of your local newspaper, magazine or TV station. Ask a local reporter out for coffee (they won’t let you pay—ask them why). And then ask good questions. What do they do all day? What gives them joy in their jobs? How have they felt the sting of slashed budgets and layoffs? What would they do differently if they only had the time?
Christians will reap better journalism when they advocate on behalf of their neighbors before invoking their own rights. Imagine how our conversations might change if God’s people declared a moratorium on phrases like “liberal bias” and stopped their complaints about strains of godlessness. Not to be silent, but to spend time and outrage for the sake of groups often excluded or misunderstood by reporting. Demanding, for example, to see greater consistency in how whites and people of color are labeled in crime reporting proves an others-focus—a desire to be for the community, not for ourselves.
Asking better questions of our journalism also means, to bend a phrase of Tim Keller’s, doubting our doubts about the media outlets we most often decry and bringing a healthy dose of skepticism to outlets we tend to champion. Thinking through issues of sourcing, verification, and framing—and applying our scrutiny every which way—lends credence to calls for a more robust, thoughtful, humane sort of journalism. It also puts so-called Christian outlets on the hook, warning them that affinity never outweighs accuracy.
Christian, recognize the quality of religion reporting which does exist. Many newsrooms, especially in smaller towns and cities, can no longer afford to devote a staff member exclusively to the God-beat. But, if you know where to look, you will find rich, challenging journalism revolving around spiritual matters. Read Jack Jenkins and Emily Miller at Religion News Service, Ruth Graham at Slate, the terrific team at The Washington Post, writers like Laura Turner and Amy Sullivan wherever they might be found. Internalize the rhythms of good religion reporting, then bring that thoughtfulness to every interaction you have with journalism.
Christians recoil when journalists prop up tired talking heads or extreme examples as true representatives of their faith. If these sources don’t speak for you, tell a journalist why—with gentleness and specificity. Review church history and cultural context, point to chapter and verse if you have to, help them see the degrees of difference. Be the voice of reason stuck in their heads the next time they leave the office to report on a matter of faith.
Journalists must also ask better questions of the church. Adding “Where is the faith connection?” to a list of potential questions, no matter the beat, opens doors to crucial and complex webs of relationship—and to future stories. When a pastor or politician purports to speak for Christians, or brings up the Bible to defend their position, ask Christians in their community if they believe the same. Do their Bibles actually say that?
The wider their circle, the better a journalist will be able to serve his or her community and tell its stories with depth and dimension. Seek out people in the pews, not just the pulpits. Doubt the sincerity and substance of someone’s faith—not to make them look bad, but to represent that faith with nuance and integrity. See Christians when they enter the political and cultural fray. See them when they march for morality. But see them in other times and places too.
Both groups must step out of sacred shadows and into the community. When Christians and journalists work on behalf of their neighbors, the benefit of the doubt blooms. When they encounter each other at PTO meetings, Little League games, libraries and coffeehouses, the distance closes by a few more feet and the ground becomes easier to share.
Above all, whether a writer or reader, reporter or media consumer, champion what’s good and true around you. When we make a habit of looking beyond ourselves to truly reckon with the lives of our neighbors, we share in something greater. Common ground comes through common grace. Our cooperation and dependence on each other resembles God’s relational design. And the world will read all of this, actually attempted, like good news.