My wife Susan listened to the ideas of this book during long walks; her intellect and insight improved every chapter. Our sons Peter, David, and Daniel love books and love God; the dedication to them is propelled both by fatherly pride and by the hope that they will help to revive journalism or other areas of American life during the twenty-first century. Prodigal Press owes its existence to the vision of Christian worldview publishing shared by Howard and Roberta Ahmanson at Fieldstead, and by Lane and Jan Dennis at Crossway Books. The book was helped in various ways by Rob Martin and Tom Thompson at Fieldstead, Rev. Gerald Taylor and Christine Morgan at my church in Austin, colleagues and students at the University of Texas and CBN University, and Ted Griffin at Crossway. Special thanks go to Herbert Schlossberg.
One of Jesus' best-known parables is of the prodigal son who squandered his inheritance. Ridiculed and abused, the son saw the misery of his life and decided to return to his father, who greeted him warmly. The prodigal's brother, however, was angry, because a great banquet was served in honor of the returnee, but the brother who had led an upright life all along was not receiving attention.
The father told the jealous son: "You've done well, but he was lost and now is found, so let us rejoice." We do not know how the on responded to that good advice. For a long time the jealous son probably had been angry at his prodigal brother for abandoning the homestead, leaving him without company and assistance. It was probably hard for him to break out of an established pattern of thought.
Imagine, though, what the jealous son's feelings would have been had the prodigal not only taken the money and run, but boasted of the offense daily? What if the jealous son had received daily sneering letters from the prodigal? What if the prodigal son had constantly lied about his industrious brother, libeling and ridiculing him? How much greater the anger! And how much greater the need to pray for the prodigal's return, and to remind him constantly that he, despite sins, is still a member of the family.
American journalism is one of Christianity's prodigal sons. Until the mid-nineteenth century American journalism was Christian. But as the first part of this book will show, journalists influenced by anti-Christian humanism and pantheism abandoned their Christian heritage and ended up wallowing among the pigs. The situation is not completely analogous because the Biblical prodigal son soon was starving, while prodigal reporters of the present are well-fed. But in spirit, the living death is parallel.
The flight of the prodigal press has been hard on American Christians precisely because journalism has departed in spirit but not in physical presence: The prodigal frequently files reports full of hatred for Christianity. Many Christians have responded angrily. Just as church-bashing is a favorite sport among some reporters, so media-bashing is the pastime of many Christians. This book, however, shows that there are ways for Christians to reclaim American journalism. We need to examine not just the abuses but the uses of sensationalism and crusading. We need to contribute our time and money. Most important, we need to pray for journalism and journalists.
Christians in the late 1980s and the 1990s should work hard on the reclamation project, because every year shows more clearly how journalism can have a positive as well as a negative impact on American society. Consider, for a moment, two sensational stories of 1987, those involving Gary Hart and the Bakkers.
Some Christians criticized the Miami Herald and other newspapers for breaking and then pushing the story of the Presidential candidate who could not keep his pants on. The story was more than titillation, though: It provided essential voting information for Christians, and for some non-Christians. Biblically, we should not vote for adulterers (unless the incident happened long ago and has been repented). Adultery is a grievous sin against God as well as spouse.' It shows not only a lack of judgment but a lack of trustworthiness.2 The adulterer cannot meet the qualifications for office set forth in the Apostle Paul's writings to both Titus and Timothy.3
Many Christians know all of this. But the key question is: How do we apply these general principles to choosing leaders unless we learn about leaders' behavior? And how will we learn without journalism? Many Christians are queasy about looking at the underside of life. Biblically, however, truth must come out, even when it hurts. If Christians are to reclaim American journalism, we need to be hard-hitting, within Biblical principles. This book will discuss exactly how to do that.
The Bakker scandal also showed the importance of journalism, in a different way. Just as Presidential candidates used to be chosen by those who knew their personal habits and character traits, so congregant members could see their ministers up close and personal each Sunday. They would know if he was spending money unwisely or getting too close to an attractive member of the flock.
The political equation changed with the advent of mass primaries. Voters, making choices directly, became dependent on information provided by reporters covering campaigns. Religious relationships also changed as televangelism emerged. Contributors who wanted to know how their money was spent had to depend on public relations reports rather than firsthand observation. Christians capable of doing investigative reporting backed off, not wanting to help atheistic antagonists of the ministries. The result was that contributors did not receive information needed to make informed choices.
Many Christians learned from coverage of the Bakker scandal the importance of looking before we pledge. Many saw the difference between invading privacy and puncturing hypocrisy. Those are positives. But the Bakker coverage had many negatives also.
First, it's important to remember what was happening when the scandal broke. Federal District Court Judge Brevard Hand had just ruled that some Alabama school textbooks were promoting a religion by advocating secular humanism, the belief that universal moral standards have no relevance to our lives. His was a serious decision on a serious subject. It was becoming harder for anti-Christian journalists to ridicule all Christian thought. Many tried. For example, the editor of my hometown newspaper, the Austin American-Statesman, yelped about "book burning" and sneered at the judge who made up a religion." But his sneers were not very convincing.
Coverage of the Bakker scandal allowed journalists to return to familiar ground-Elmer Gantry revisited-at just the time when it looked as if they finally might have to deal with basic presuppositions.
Second, we might also look at what was not being covered. While Jim and Tammy were on the front page of USA Today every day, Christians in the Soviet Union continued their grim twilight struggle. As one Soviet Christian, Alexandr Ogordinokov, wrote after eight years in the Gulag, "Concentration camps are scattered aver the vast expanse of Russia, behind tall fences of barbed wire and high-voltage cables . . . you are buried in the tomb-like twilight of solitary punishment cells; the oppressive silence of faceless days turns time itself into an instrument of torture. Your tongue cleaves to the roof of your mouth in a senseless babble of misery. Hunger gnaws your belly, the cold numbs your flesh and desperation courses through your blood."
That reality of Christians suffering was not presented in major American media. Furs and air-conditioned doghouses were. The Bakker scandal showed Christians that activities of the church needed close coverage, but the front-paging of the story for months and months also showed bias. Which events receive coverage? Which do not, and why? Christians have been asking these questions more insistently over the past year.
In this book I examine the influence of worldviews on reporting. I analyze the meanings of objectivity, sensationalism, crusading, and the impact of legal, ethical and technological changes. I explain how to read a newspaper with discernment and how to look at the lives of journalists with sorrow and sometimes pity.
What I refrain from is indiscriminate media-bashing, because the prodigal son deserves compassion, not condemnation. I used to be a reporter. I still love newspapers. I like many reporters, most of the time. The object of this book is not to wail, but to suggest how we can be God's servants in helping to bring that prodigal press home.