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The joy of Christian journalism

Media | It’s easy for journalists to become jaded, but Christian scribes can find great joy in reporting the reasons for honoring Christ in all things and above all things

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?

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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.”

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