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Triangular truth

Why good journalists are hard to find

Issue: "Osama's witnesses," May 18, 2002

I would sumbit to you that knowledge has a shape and that it is triangular (See John Frame, The Doctrine of the Knowledge of God). This would be of interest to all, I should think, but I have in mind in particular those who aspire to be writers, those Bezalels of word-crafting for the kingdom of God. Therefore, as I am helped by the humble triangle in visualizing what I'm up against in putting pen to paper, I have just enough effrontery to think it may benefit another.

Call the three angles God's law, the world, and one's self (or, to make it fancier, the "normative," "situational," and "existential" perspectives, respectively). What is important to note here is that we are pretending, for pedagogical reasons, that knowledge can really be separated out like that. In fact, you will never encounter, in the wild, a "situational" running around without a "normative" or an "existential"-by which I mean nothing more than John Calvin did in his opening words of the Institutes, where he declared that to know God you must know yourself, and to know yourself you must know God. There will be overlapping, and a broadening of each angle to include the other two.

Think of a flashlight. You appreciate its light only as it illumines the stray sock or wayward homework assignment under your bed. Likewise, God's law in Scripture edifies as you see it give definition to your world-you read that a "gentle tongue can break a bone" (Proverbs 25:15), then one fine day you observe a wise woman defuse a potential catastrophe with a soft answer to an incendiary remark. You observe the downward spiral of a neighbor ensnared in adultery, and then belatedly remember the prophecy, "many are the victims she has brought down, ... her house is a highway to the grave" (Proverbs 7:26-27). And so we find reciprocity: The more you know about the world, the better you understand Scripture. Life illumines Scripture as Scripture illumines life. Behold King Solomon, knower of God's mind, botanist, and wildlife expert (1 Kings 4:33).

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The Christian writer has it all over the non-Christian writer on the "normative" angle-in so far as he is consistent to his profession of faith, that is. As Moses exclaimed, "What other nation is so great as to have such righteous decrees and laws ... Observe them carefully, for this will show your wisdom to the nations" (Deuteronomy 4:6-8). We have a secret weapon-the truth-and are heady as the man in Matthew 13 who found hidden treasure in a field. Meanwhile, your counterparts in the big news rooms scramble frantically to find facts ("situational")-and then have no framework of truth ("normative") to plug them into, something they then try to conceal by their talent ("existential") for stringing words together. Like the Blind Men and the Elephant of the John Godfrey Saxe poem, one mistakes the trunk for a snake, the other an ear for a fan, the other its tail for a rope, and so on, all of them missing the pachyderm!

The Christian journalist is not naïve and is not caught by surprise. "Follow the money" is a tip right out of our playbook on the depravity of man, and should not be credited to Woodward and Bernstein's secret Watergate source "Deep Throat" as if it were original to him. The assiduous acquisition of Scripture knowledge ("normative") hones our intuition ("existential") about what's really going on. Trust your Bible-honed instincts, then check them out with the facts ("situational"); it's a reciprocal dance. And remember too that "facts" ("situational") may not always be as firm as they at first appear (remember the "Piltdown Man"?), nor "instinct" as flimsy-especially "instinct" that is the distillation of a thousand "quiet times."

Finally, if our triangular analysis is right, one corollary would be that knowing the Bible is not enough to be a journalist (no more than it was for Bezalel to be the architect of the Tabernacle). Who will write a helpful column on the Arab-Israeli conflict? Neither the one who knows only Scripture nor the one who knows only Middle Eastern history but the one who is versed in both. The richest writing (the writing I envy) draws from a wealth of knowledge from various spheres. I once heard Frank DeFord, senior writer for Sports Illustrated, do a radio essay on baseball's shrinking strike zone, and the crazy guy made allusions to metaphysics and Shakespeare's Hamlet!

Every writer on the planet has strengths and weaknesses that fall differently on the normative, situational, existential triangulation; and if anyone possessed all three to perfection, there'd be no living with him. Nevertheless, wise is the wordsmith who recognizes the importance of the triangle and does his best to sharpen each angle. He will be a "workman approved by God" indeed.

Andrée Seu
Andrée Seu

Andrée is the author of three books: Won't Let You Go Unless You Bless Me, Normal Kingdom Business, and We Shall Have Spring Again.


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