Columnists > Voices

Logs in the stream

A few reasons to temper the Olasky optimism

Issue: "Will Kurds stand alone?," June 1, 2002

Editor-in-Chief Marvin Olasky told you in his column two weeks ago some of the reasons WORLD magazine looks to the future with optimism. In "Rowing with the flow" (May 18 issue, p. 44), he explained some "favorable currents" in our time in history that tend to be wonderfully helpful.

That Olasky optimism is soundly based-and as WORLD's founder, I share it. At the same time, as we celebrate WORLD's 16th birthday this spring, you might also like to hear about those logs in the stream that remind us now and then how easy it would be to capsize. Here are a few issues we reported last week to our Board of Directors:

People keep reading less. Because of substandard education that leads to a growing rate of illiteracy, or competition for attention from other media forms, or some other reason, Americans depend less on the printed page. A generation ago, when asked whether they had looked at a newspaper in the previous couple of days, something over 80 percent of all Americans said yes. Today, that figure has fallen to less than 60 percent.

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Maybe the people who have quit reading the paper are those who earlier read it only for the comics and the horoscope. If that is the case, some optimists argue, then the readers who are left tend to be more serious-minded, issues-oriented folks who make things happen in public life.

That makes sense-but not much sense to newspaper advertisers, who don't like to see 25 percent of their audience disappear even if they are comics and horoscope fans. Serious or not, they buy tires for their cars and sofas for their living rooms. So the advertisers soon shift their ad dollars to other media to find those buyers. Magazines, like newspapers, are fighting the same battles.

Are evangelical Christians also reading less? The evidence is mixed. But I don't hear anybody arguing that they're reading more.

Postal service-more cost, less service. Few enterprises in American society depend on the U.S. Postal Service more than weekly newsmagazines. Sending you the magazine itself costs approximately 30¢ per issue or $15 a year for each subscriber. That's after we do all the sorting and packaging! For that, the USPS tells us we should normally get two-day service within 300 miles of our point of origin (Cincinnati, Ohio), three-day service within 500 miles, and a maximum of five-day service anywhere in the United States. Instead, even though we mail the magazine every Saturday, we receive regular reports from you readers that delivery has taken up to a week or 10 days. And we receive frequent reports of two issues arriving in the same day's mail! All that after paying over $1.5 million annually to have the magazine delivered.

Absolutes in a day of relativism. Optimist Olasky told you two weeks ago (and truthfully so) about the ideological currents flowing in our direction. It is also the case that holding to biblical absolutes in life, as WORLD magazine is intent on doing, is no guaranteed path to success.

Nor are we referring here to what separates evangelical Christians from the rest of the world. Pollster George Barna finds that high proportions of evangelical Christians are skeptical about claiming anything to be an absolute. He says the situation is worsening as evangelical young people bring their increasingly relativist worldview into play.

If you aren't more tolerant about a dozen different issues than your parents were, you're the exception not just among the population at large, but among today's Christians as well. But what about your children? How much farther will they move in the same direction? Will WORLD's feisty hold on some crusty truths still appeal to them?

Choosing the wrong absolutes. And then there's this note of self-doubt: Will we at WORLD always have the wisdom to distinguish between those issues where God wants us to hold on, till death do us part, and those issues where God expects us to tolerate disagreement with friends?

So far, through God's grace, we have made the right choices, but my most terrifying nightmare since launching WORLD in 1986 has been that we might latch onto a story or a cause that, after hanging on for a period of time, we discovered not to be true or defensible. Better magazines than ours have made that mistake-and sadly so, for with such an error, hard-won credibility goes spinning down the drain.

So yes, I worry a bit. About readership, about postage, about future subscribers. I stew even more about our own ability to be faithful-and ask you to pray especially for that. In the end, though, I'm very much in Marvin Olasky's camp. I'm enough of an optimist that even my pastor calls me "blue-sky Belz."

Joel Belz
Joel Belz

Joel, WORLD's founder, writes a regular column for the magazine and contributes commentaries for The World and Everything in It. He is also the author of Consider These Things.


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