He was the most gifted reporter of his generation at The New York Times.
John McCandlish Phillips was remembered in his death last week for that rare ability to find a story everywhere and anywhere—in a sewage drain in New Jersey or a crime-ridden street in the Bronx.
For younger reporters like me, he offered practical wisdom as well as a sweeping vision of the Bible applied to news.
I had a lonely assignment to cover crime in New York for the Associated Press in the early 1970s, and I had a hard time seeing the Lordship of Jesus Christ on the police beat: dead bodies and broken families and robberies. When I asked Phillips about it, he started in Genesis and walked me through what I later realized was what came to be called a Christian worldview, applied to the crime beat.
Yet in contrast to mentors such as Francis Schaeffer or R.C. Sproul, Phillips was never self-consciously intellectual about these matters. I don’t think he read big books on systematic theology.
He also never had formal journalistic training. So every assignment was a step of faith. Phillips had to pray for the Lord’s guidance on each story because he had no deep background in news to fall back on.
A primary lesson I learned from him was the importance of trusting the Lord. It was such a simple idea. I had heard it preached from pulpits, but it took on a new weight when such wisdom was coming from the best of the best at The New York Times.
Another lesson: Journalism is a mission field. He put it this way once in a letter:
“Words are tremendously powerful things. They can, and very often do, so form conceptions in people’s minds that they are affected in their thinking as well as their behavior. Let godless words go out and prevail, and the people will become godless in their behavior. Let godly words go out in sufficient volume and prevail, and the people will reflect a standard in their behavior. This is one great reason why I am so filled with the desire to see mature and truly committed Christians obtain much great degrees of influence and of editorial decision-power in the mass media, particularly in daily newspapers. We have let the wrong side run that potent machinery of public persuasion far too long! We are paying a price throughout our society for it.”
Toward the end of his life he might have amended those thoughts to include news websites, Facebook, Twitter, and all the rest.
One of his key verses was Habakkuk 2:2-3, to which he offered this commentary:
“The prophet was told to write something important, and to write it so plainly and so well, that reading it would be enough to spur or motivate others to run—to carry out the vision.”
He’s with the Lord now, but we will miss his gifted and splendid example.