Reviews > Books

Books: Flunking the truth

Books | Journalist-authors get their "facts" straight, but show they don't have a clue about theology

Issue: "New attacks on taxes," April 18, 1998

One of novelist Walker Percy's most memorable characters is described as someone who "made straight A's in school but flunked life." Apparently, he had a good deal of knowledge but very little understanding. Alas, this word picture provocatively captures one of the great dilemmas of modern American journalism. Many reporters are adept at gathering facts but are unable to interpret properly what they gather. It is not merely an issue of bias; it is a question of wisdom. With that in mind, it is fair to say that Wrath of Angels is a quintessential example of modern reporting. In attempting to narrate the story of the complex pro-life movement, reporters James Risen and Judy Thomas amassed an impressive amount of material. They conducted vast numbers of interviews, witnessed firsthand most of the significant events described, and surveyed the full spectrum of personalities, organizations, alliances, and movements in the activist world. They showed themselves to be perceptive observers of actions: strategic agendas, mechanical operations, and systemic priorities. A lot of years and a lot of miles are evident in their work. They gathered a truckload of facts. Regrettably, like the man who finally caught a tiger by the tail-but then didn't know what to do with it-they seem to have little or no conception of how to make sense of their great store of accumulated facts. Mr. Risen and Ms. Thomas seem altogether incognizant of the historical, biblical, and philosophical distinctives that inform the divergent aspects of the activist community. They are completely unable to distinguish, for instance, between the ideas of Francis Schaeffer and the ideas of Jerry Falwell, or the motivations of Randall Terry and the motivations of Paul Hill. It seems that in their mind's eye, all fundamentalists look alike. This grave defect in their writing is not due to a lack of journalistic objectivity. Indeed, the authors bravely attempt to keep their own prejudices out of their reporting as much as is humanly possible. It is instead due to the fact that they simply do not understand. They have knowledge but lack discernment. Hot off the press, Wrath of Angels has already attracted a wide and appreciative audience-even among many conservative and Christian commentators. I certainly can see why. It is about the best we could ever hope for from modern American journalism. But then, given the present state of affairs, that is not saying a great deal. This is a book that gets straight A's in reporting but flunks the truth.

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