What is the sound of one hand clapping? It’s the sound of journalists in a sports press box.
Quick explanation: According to custom, baseball writers in the press box at ballparks don’t applaud or cheer. I’ve noted the sounds of silence as over the past two decades I’ve covered baseball games from time to time. But once, in the Atlanta Braves press box, I saw one watcher pressing his right hand against the table when the Braves team did well. When I confronted him he fingered a couple of Atlanta reporters who surreptitiously do the same.
I asked those sportswriters about cheer-less press boxes. Some said they were trying to maintain a professional atmosphere in their workplace. Others offered a rationale of “objectivity”: They did not want to be “homers,” rooters for the hometown team. But I found myself wanting to break the rules by cheering or applauding great plays by either team. Art lovers can see new paintings and rejoice: Why should press objectivity require the silent denial of excellence?
One real reason for silence, I suspect, is tiredness: Reporters who spend every day at the ballpark sometimes lose their sense of wonder about athletic achievement and instead become know-it-alls. They become bored with baseball.
Many media organizations, sadly, include journalists bored with life, which they see as purposeless. Not all secular journalists are that way: David Halberstam, who wrote about wars and politics but also baseball, said shortly before he died, “The legwork of reporting is critical and most of the fun. Think of it as part of a continuing education; we’re paid to learn. It isn’t just getting a byline that drives you; it isn’t just where the story lands in the paper. Fifty-two years later, I still like what I do.”
Christian journalists especially should have that attitude. We know human interest is important because every human is created in God’s image. Over 3,000 years ago the Egyptian Ptahotep gave career advice: “Be a scribe! You sit grandly in your house, beer is poured copiously. All who see you rejoice in good cheer. … Happy is the heart of him who writes; he is young each day.” How much more so should Christians relish the joy of journalism, making it part of a life’s goal: As the Westminster Catechism states, our chief end is “to glorify God and enjoy Him forever”—and forever begins right now.
To enjoy fully our craft, Christian journalists often need two crucial understandings. One is that the children’s song “It’s a Small World (After All)” is dumb. It’s not a small world: It’s a large one, with millions of nooks and crannies and opportunities for adventure. In Robert Boynton’s book, The New New Journalism, writer Susan Orlean recalls with excitement an article she wrote about a gospel singing group: “It was astonishing for me to glimpse a world that was so fully developed—with its own stars, sagas, myths, history, millions of devotees—that I, in my narrow life, I had no idea existed.”
The second necessary understanding comes from pastor Tim Keller’s analysis of the parable of the prodigal son. Keller argues (The Prodigal God, 2008) that the parable should have a plural in its name: sons. We remember that the younger brother, of course, takes his inheritance, runs, and eventually finds that that his existence is truly oppressive. But the elder brother also has a problem: He is self-righteous and lacks joy. He works by the sweat of his brow and is angry with the younger brother for not doing his share, and then angry with the father for celebrating the prodigal’s return
When Christian journalists become solemn like some full-of-themselves pundits, we are not truly following Jesus, who regularly in the gospels flashes His sense of humor. Instead, we’re acting like disciples of the 18th century German philosopher Immanuel Kant, who saw the moral value of any action as inversely proportional to the benefit we derive from it. Kant argued that we should do what’s good simply because it’s good, and any benefits we derive lessen the goodness of our action. Good actions are “disinterested.” Duty is meritorious. Enjoyment is selfish. The logic of this leads to a hard conclusion: The best actions are those that make us miserable. The elder brother in the prodigal’s parable is a Kantian hero.
At a popular level, the secular left’s attack on Christianity a century ago was that it led people to suffer in this life for the promise of a future that (according to atheists) would never come: “You’ll have pie in the sky when you die.” Christians, instead of refuting this concept, have sometimes run with it. That also has contributed to the sense that Christians are killjoys. But at WORLD, putting out a news magazine is a lot of fun, and we want our readers to enjoy it. We don’t need to yell at readers with headlines such as “Christians, stand up to save America from Comrade Obama.”
I remember one letter that came to WORLDafter we criticized Barack Obama’s positions but still asked our readers to keep calm and carry on, as the Brits said in World War II. The letter screamed: “Why are you gutless wimps not shouting through your columns that this nation does not want this filthy garbage as our country’s leader? Where is your anger? Where is your HATRED??? Obama voted for infanticide, his corps of friends are some of the most unsavory, hateful, [expletive deleted] in the world!!!”
Hmm. WORLD crusades on abortion and other issues, but we try to keep calm by reporting sensational facts with—in most circumstances—understated prose.
We try to have an accurate self-image. An excellent secular reporter, Richard Ben Cramer, said of himself, “I’m a smith. I occupy the position in our society that a good wheelwright would have occupied in his. Making wheels is a highly specialized skill. I don’t consider myself to be an artist. I consider myself to be a skilled workman.” That’s how we as Christian journalists should see ourselves. We are not saviors. We are little hobbits in a great big world.
But we’re also hobbits with a great opportunity to glorify God and enjoy Him immediately. As John Piper notes, “Every joy that does not have God as its central gladness is a hollow joy and in the end will burst like a bubble.” Christian journalists can have great joy by discovering and communicating the reasons that exist for honoring Christ in all things and above all things.
Piper points out that we should aspire “to study reality as a manifestation of God’s glory, to speak and write about it with accuracy, and to savor the beauty of God in it.” The Bible teaches us that God created this world to be His theater, so the more we report accurately what happens in it, the more we will praise Him. A Christian journalist who highlights good news is praising God: Our natural selfishness means that what is good comes from Him. A Christian journalist who reports bad news, showing the results of sin, is praising God because the bad shows how desperately we need Him.
Zeal for God’s glory should characterize all of a Christian journalist’s editorial decisions. We should praise marriage and hate abortion in the realization that our natural tendencies are toward selfishness—so when a mom sacrifices her freedom to care for a child, and when a dad sacrifices his freedom to provide for his family, that glorifies God. We should cover compassionate ministries because God most showed his glory when Christ lowered himself to live among us and then suffer and die for us. Since Christ so amply displayed compassion, our trying to follow in some of His steps is another way of glorifying God.
All journalists can have the joy of writing provocative and evocative news stories that come out of pavement-pounding rather than thumb-sucking. Christian journalists can have greater joy by standing not only for factual accuracy but also for biblical objectivity, which means trying to see the world as best we can the way the Bible depicts it. Christian journalists can be humble by presenting not our own opinions but God’s perspective from the Bible, distinguishing between issues on which the Bible is clear and those on which it isn’t.
Christian journalists, in short, can have the joy of offering salt, not sugar, and not acid. We can publish what we believe to be true, not what we or someone else would like to be true. Christian journalists can have the joy of speaking up for those it’s convenient to forget: the unborn, the uneducated victimized by poor schools, and the politically unfashionable. We can know that we are fallen sinners, but sinners who look upward and create a no-scream zone within a high-decibel society.
In the world, this theater created by God, we can enjoy our front-row seats. We can applaud with both hands, praising God by telling the truth.