By Craig Bartholomew
As I see it, journalism and media are wonderful and challenging areas of God’s good creation in which to work at the turn of the millennium. And I take it as a great blessing from God that we have this sort of opportunity to stop and to ask ourselves in the midst of the hurly-burly of journalistic work, “How do we work in this part of God’s good but fallen creation at the turn of the millennium, coram Deo?”
Do you know this phrase? It was one that Luther used regularly and I love it. It means, “Before the face of God.” And that’s what I want to ask. How do we work with integrity in the world of journalism, coram Deo, before the face of the living God who has bent and stooped and manifested Himself to us in His Son, the Lord, Jesus Christ?
“A Disintegrating World.”
“What time is it, in the culture in which we live and work in the journalistic part of God’s world?” I wonder how you would answer that out of your own experience of God’s world.
I was fascinated some time ago to be present when Melanie Philips, a prominent Jewish woman in journalism in Britain, was interviewed. And she was saying that in her column in the Observer, when she started to write things like, “It’s better for a child to grow up in a family context with a mother and a father, than some other alternative model, not that those others may be horrendous or bad, but that generally, it is better for a child to have a mother and a father,” she got death threats for suggesting this kind of position in the English media.
What is going on in our culture, she asked herself, if a journalist who is in such a position receives death threats? It’s an interesting question and I am also very aware that we all come from very different contexts so we might have to nuance or disagree on our answers to that question. Of course, one is aware that increasingly we live in a global culture in which in particular, I imagine, American influence, for better and for worse, is pervasive. So although we may have our own situations, it’s also worth asking, in the global scenario, “What time is it in our culture?”
And do you know that I regard that as a crucial question, because we always serve God in the manner that He’s made the world in a particular time and a particular place. And part of being integrated Christians involves, not only being at home in the Christian story and the tradition, but knowing what time it is in our culture in relation to that Christian story.
Very briefly, the catchword for our time and place — and it’s not one that I like too much — but a way to get into doing this kind of thing, is the catchword for our time and place, namely postmodernism.
And you will be aware to some extent of the postmodern debate, and I think that is what Melanie felt. You know, she was experiencing through those death threats that something had changed in our culture, That there were shifts going on, which at that point were impacting her work as a journalist.
Now, there’s a complex debate going on about what postmodernism is. We live in a world that has been shaped quintessentially by modernity. It is a world that we have grown up in and which has been shaped from beginning to end by the Enlightenment, and the post-Enlightenment era. And Thomas Odin suggests that we think of the era of modernity as lasting from 1789 to 1989.
Why he would suggest those two years, you may ask? Well, 1789 is the year of the French Revolution and the storming of the Bastille that embody modern Enlightenment-type thinking. And 1989 is the year of the coming down of the Berlin Wall, an event which many of you may have reported.
Now modernity - or modernism, to contrast it with postmodernism - is characterized by various characteristics. Most prominent is an overwhelming belief in human autonomy. Religion, says modernity, is all right in this kind of perspective, as long as it’s marginalized and privatized and kept out of the great public spheres of life, such as politics and education and media and journalism, you see. So there is the privatization of religion, which means you at least can have religion in some form. But modern Western liberalism declares that it’s in favor of freedom of religion only as long as religion is kept private and separated from the public spheres of life.
The thing that will lead us to truth, says modernity, is not religion or God, but our own selves. So at the center of the modern worldview is the doctrine of human autonomy, that we need to reject and grow out of our dependence upon God and trust in ourselves and in the capacity of neutral objective, rational analysis, to lead us to what is true about the world in which we live. And if we only keep going in this way, according to modern secular liberalism, we will progress toward Utopia.
Human autonomy is at the very heart of modernity. Of course, there are also the scientific and the industrial revolutions and so when most of us think of the modern world, we think of that aspect of it, rather than the philosophical underpinnings. But they go together. So those are the sorts of characteristics of what is called modernity.
And of course, from this angle, postmodernity or postmodernism is the era that follows on from modernity and challenges a whole lot of these central characteristics of modernity. Some of you may have experienced the phenomenon of the absence of an intuitive confidence in science and reason in academic and university circles, and increasingly, I think, in all circles.
Increasingly at universities it’s not the truth that you are after, it’s what works for you that you pursue. So there’s a subjectivization, and a relativization. As as long as something works for you, that’s tremendous, postmodernists say. You’re not supposed to come along to someone and say, “I have the truth, and you are living in falsehood and you need to come to the truth.”
That kind of thing is out. And so the suggestion is, that modernity has given way to postmodernity. One scholar has said that this is characterized by fragmentation, wild pluralism, multiculturalism, consumerism and so forth.
Now this is the kind of way that is very common for analyzing the world in which we live. Now personally, and very briefly, I am a little wary of saying we were in modernity and that now we’ve moved to postmodernity, because in my opinion, some of the religious roots of postmodernism remain quintessentially modern. Let me give you an example that I don’t think we have really grasped yet of the human autonomy that characterizes modernity. I think what has happened is that we have realized in many circles that reason and human autonomy will never get us to final truth. Then along come the postmodernists saying, very courageously, “We’ll just have to live with our limitations.” What they don’t do is move beyond this is to saying: is it not possible that we need to hear again the call of the Lord Christ upon our lives?
So, I am very reluctant to call what is being termed postmodernism really a postmodern thing. The issues of religion are central to modernity and many of them remain central to the challenge of postmodernism. But you know, what postmodernism does get at is the massive challenges that post-Enlightenment notions of reason and truth and the grand narratives that accompany these stories are experiencing.
One of the myths of modernity is the myth of progress. I suspect that in many of the circles in which we live and work, that myth is still very alive. You know, I imagine, that for many of you, you work at the vortex of the communications revolution that the world is experiencing because it must impact media and journalism almost immediately and continually. It may be that in America, there’s a lot more of this. But in England, I have not heard a lot of discussion about where the communications revolution is taking us, and whether the destination is good or bad.
What prevails is a sort of pragmatic view that this is just what is going to happen, and we have to go with it. There’s not a lot of discussion of this and you know, what is happening is that in circles where postmodernism is having an impact, you can no longer assume that progress is linear and going forward. Sometimes among philosophers or scientists there are tremendous struggles over the question whether all the academic work we do actually gets us anywhere towards what is true about the world in which we live. And so that’s what postmodernism is doing, shaking up notions like reason and truth and this sort of thing.
Now I suggest that to some of you, you think, “Well what has this got to do with being a journalist?” My answer is this: if you are going to call your conference, “The Call to Truth,” you must be aware that that this idea is a very, very tough thing, in our time. There are loads and loads of academics out there who would look at something like this — thinkers and cultural movers and shapers — who say, “These Christians still live under an illusion.”
And I am very interested to know in what way you as a journalist would say that your goal is to report the truth. I would love to hear elaborations of that. You know, it would be very interesting to hear some penetrating defenses of just how it is as a journalist, especially if you’re working in Western media, which is gripped to a large extent by modernity and postmodernity, that you nevertheless believe that mediating the truth in your area of journalism is fairly straightforward. These are difficult, tough questions in our day and age and we have to ask them, I think, especially at times like this.
In our generation I think many people are more aware than in previous generations that everyone in every community has his or her own perspectives. It’s no longer easy to believe that there is a neutral, scientific perspective which gets at true truth and leaves all the baggage of competing worldviews behind. People are more and more aware that we all have our glasses on, that whenever we read and interpret the world we are wearing our glasses and that this shapes what we see as the truth in the world. And one of the results of this is that what we experience in the West increasingly, I think, is the disintegration of our culture as it’s affected by postmodernism.
It’s what scholars describe as “wild pluralism” and what in America is often seen as a sort of celebrated multiculturalism. In a context like Canada, of course, it threatens the cohesion of the country as a whole. Fragmentation, pluralism, the undermining of a lot of modernity characterizes our age. But pluralism is not the whole story of postmodernism. Attacks on the foundations of post-Enlightenment thinking take place paradoxically against a background of the triumph of the marketplace.
It’s interesting at the end of the 20th Century we have seen to a very significant extent the demise of the left and of communism. We should not necessarily quickly think that what takes its place is Christian. Now what has taken its place and I think the sort of dominant ethos almost worldwide is a kind of marketplace consumerism. It’s a a major challenge because it has become the sort of reigning worldview or narrative within which people live in our day.
So, although modernity has been challenged in its philosophical foundation, the other side of the postmodern era is this triumph of the marketplace, of consumerism and a triumph of technology, the information highways. Malls, computers and Internet technology appear to triumph with few questions asked.
One implication of this is that having moved during the time of the Renaissance and the Reformation from an oral to a written culture, it appears that we may now be moving into a culture dominated by the image. If that shift hadn’t taken place, I imagine, none of us would be sitting here today, because writing and the printing press has been foundational to your career. It used to be an oral culture, then it became a written culture, and now it is a culture dominated by image. And I think the implications for the media, in this kind of context, are obvious.
Now what I have just said is a sort whirlwind, very brief attempt to ask the question, “What time is it in which we practice journalism?” I say in response to that question, “What a time to practice journalism!” You know, I’m on the receiving end of your enterprise, so much of our world and our world, and my knowledge of the world, is mediated to me through journalism of one sort or another. Now, I don’t know if many of you would be familiar with a cultural analysist who has denied — and it has made him famous — that the Gulf War ever happened. This analyst asserted that it was a media event, it never happened. Now, of course, other theorists have talked about how serious it is to make such a silly claim.
But just start to think of the Gulf War, and the extent to which a modern war is mediated to us from the time the troops left via the media. To a very significant extent, the war becomes a media construct. Now that puts the media in a terrifically powerful, and I say, enormously responsible position. But it should certainly make us think.
I sometimes have lunch with friends in Cheltenham, where I live, at a marvelous little Italian restaurant. Recently were were there and were talking about what we thought of Kosovo, of the way NATO was fighting this kind of armchair war, where we were all supposed to be at home, and even the British Parliament was not full of M.P.’s. It was as though we were not really at war. And yet our troops were involved and we were dropping bombs on Kosovo. In all my discussions with Christian friends on these issues, inevitably, it comes down to what we have heard and seen on the television and read in the newspaper and journals and perhaps learned from the Internet.
A disintegrating world. If that is the time in our culture, how do we approach the task, the vocation of Christian journalist? Well, I take it, and I hope you agree with me, — if not, you’ll find me very provocative at this point deliberately — I take it that the task of a Christian journalist is one possible route in our world of full-time Christian service in our day. I do think, that we want to begin, as David Aikman has suggested, to turn the world of journalism upside down, or to let God turn it upside down. We should pray and work for this, in my opinion, but we need to talk about what a re-directed world of journalism, from a Christian perspective, might look like.
You know, if we want to move in this direction, we must wake up to the fact that we are God’s full-time servants. There is a heresy that has come into the modern church, that it is the minister and the pastor and the priest who are the full-time Christian servants, and you poor people are only rarely involved in Christian service when you help us with our tasks in the church. I think that is a heresy of which we should repent and we should ship it back to wherever it came from.
From a Christian, Biblical perspective, if we are a follower of the Lord Christ, we are already His full-time servants. And the only question is, “where has he called us to exercise that full time service?” There are thousands and thousands and thousands of His people upon whose lives He places the call to serve Him in the exquisite area of His creation called journalism and media. I also happen to be an ordained Anglian priest, and it’s wonderful in that capacity to stand up here today and to look out upon this group and to say, “My fellow full-time servants in Christ, let us talk together about how we exercise our vocation as God’s servants, in God’s world, to promote His glory in His creation.” Now, I hope you agree with that. You are allowed to say, “Amen” if you want to.
You know, if I had the time, I would take you through the Biblical background in this area, because if I’m saying things that are not Biblical, you must forget them, but if they have the authority of Scripture behind them, woe betide you if you forget them. But I will take you to Romans 12:1-3, where having plumbed the depths of the Gospel in chapters 1-11, the Apostle Paul says, “I beseech you, I beg you, in view of what God has done, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, because that is your reasonable worship.”
If we had time we could unpack this, fellow Christians. The only adequate response to what God has done in Christ is to offer our bodies as living sacrifices. Why our bodies? Why didn’t Paul say at that point say, “Offer your souls”? Because he was thinking of us as embodied creatures in the three dimensional world in which God has placed us, in which there is an opportunity for art and theology and academia and education and politics and journalism. And Paul’s whole point is that the response we make to the Gospel is to give the totality of our lives, with all our talents and unique individuality, in the service of Christ.
If you’re a journalist you have to hear that as a journalist. I beg you, in view of what Christ has done for you, offer the totality of your lives in the service of Christ. You know, there’s a very funny image here that you are to be a living sacrifice. When I lived in Canada for a year, I came across the extraordinary band called, “The Grateful Dead,” — not a Christian band I might add. You know, we — Christians — are to be the living dead.
Paul’s hearers would have understood this. They knew what it was to take and sacrifice an animal. They also knew that normally an animal could only be a sacrifice if you killed it. We are to be the living killed. We are to spend our lives in the service of Christ. Every iota of our being is to be brought into the service of Christ. Now of course what that means is the crucial question. Don’t jump ahead to what that means, but I hope the principle is clearly established.
If we are followers of the Lord Christ, we are His full-time servants. The only question is, “Where has God called us to serve Him?” Some of us are called to be preachers and teachers in the church, others are called to be mothers and homemakers, others scientist and shopkeepers, and some of us are called to the media and journalism. If that is so, then I suggest that the vocation of Christian journalist must be approached via an understanding of how God calls His people to serve Him in His world, or what nowadays is called “mission.”
Now let me tell you what I think mission is, before you read a meaning into it that I haven’t got. Mission is all about why and how God sends His people into His world. It comes, if you like, from texts such as John 17, that great high priestly prayer of Christ, where Christ says, “As you sent me into the world, I have sent them into the world.” I suggest that the vocation of Christian journalist or Christian media person must be approached in this context of Christian mission in the modern or postmodern world. The Manila Declaration that followed on from the Lausanne Conference in 1974 spoke of the church’s mission in this way, and I like it.
“Mission,” it said, “is the whole church taking the whole Gospel to the whole world.” I am suggesting that it would be helpful to understand the vocation of Christian journalists in the context of that understanding of mission. Please note, I’m not suggesting for a moment that the first task of a Christian journalist is that of evangelism in the narrow sense of Gospel proclamation.
Francis Schaeffer and others have rightly taught us that a utilitarian concept of art for example, which only sees art as a tool for evangelism quickly distorts the true nature of art and ends up doing lousy evangelism anyway. In an area like art, in my opinion, the best evangelism is often a spin-off of decidedly not overtly evangelistic art, but art which exudes the sense of redemption and shalom amidst the pain and the brokenness of life. And I suggest exactly the same is true for journalism. The best journalism, is what I would call Philippians 4:8-9 type of journalism. There is that wonderful text from Philippians 4:8-9: “Finally brothers, whatever is true, noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable, if anything is excellent or praiseworthy, think about such things.”
Journalism which is in that type of spirit and impregnated with those types of virtues will not be overtly evangelistic. That’s not the task of most journalism. But when journalism is true to itself, and embodies those virtues, I suggest the spinoff will often be very powerful evangelism. So I am not wanting to suggest that journalism should be evangelism at all. Mission is a much broader concept than narrowly defined evangelism. As David Bosh the South African who tragically died in 1992 points out in his final and posthumously published work, BELIEVING IN THE FUTURE, points out: “Mission is more than and different from recruitment to our brand of religion, it is alerting people to the universal reign of God.”
Now I think religion is about recruitment, and I am profoundly, deeply committed to evangelism. We need to tell the story of Christ to our generation. If they don’t hear, how will they believe? But at the heart of the message, the thing that must govern our lives is not evangelism, as Bosh rightly suggests, but the main theme of Jesus’ teaching, the kingdom of God. We need to recover that theme from the Gospels.
Bosh goes on to say: “What we do not need then is to introduce more religion.” This, of course, is controversial and needs some discussion. But the the main point which comes further down is this, according to Bosh: “The issue is not to talk about God in a culture that has become irreligious, but how to express ethically the coming of God’s reign, how to help people respond to the real questions of their context, how to break with the paradigm according to which religion has to do only with the private sphere.”
Now please underline that if you have a pen. “How to break with the paradigm, according to which religion has to do only with the private.” This question for Christendom, and I say for us, hangs over the whole of the modern and the postmodern world, how to break with that paradigm of modernity which privatized religion and has left the public area neutral.
Bosh rightly picks up on the Kingdom of God as the central theme of Jesus’ ministry. Indeed a strong case can be made for the kingdom or the reign of God as the main theme of the whole Bible. If, as Bosh says, the church’s role in mission is to point to and to embody the reign or the Kingdom of God, what are the particular challenges of this for us, at our time and our place?
You see what Bosh is asking is what I want to ask: “How do we indwell the Christian tradition in a way that is relevant to the time that it is in our culture?” And then I want you to tell me as it were, how do we practice journalism indwelling the Christian tradition at this time in our culture? What, Bosh asks, is it that we have to communicate to the Western post-Christian public? He puts it this way: “It seems to me that we must demonstrate the role that plausibility structures or worldviews play in people’s lives.” What Bosh is saying here is that if we want to be God’s people, serving God at this point, we need to key into an understanding of worldview. And I think he’s right.
Similarly, Andrew Walker in the concluding chapter of his TELLING THE STORY, focuses on three missionary imperatives for the church in our days. The first is building new plausibility structures, or helping Christians to recover the world view-based dimensions of their faith.
Now, starting with ourselves, what does an integrated worldview involve? And what are the contours of a Christian worldview, what does this animal look like? The last chapter of Bosh’s BELIEVING IN THE FUTURE is called, “The Impossibility of Not Believing.” I like that. “The Impossibility of Not Believing.” What he means by this is that everyone, by virtue of being human, has a worldview, whether he is conscious of it or not. Now people may give you a few helpful definitions of a world view. You may know James Sire’s very helpful little book called, THE UNIVERSE NEXT DOOR. Sire says this: “A worldview is a set of presuppositions which we hold consciously or unconsciously about the world in which we live.”
The idea is, everyone has a view of the world which shapes the way he thinks about and lives in the world. Not everyone is conscious of his worldview but everyone has a world view from this perspective. Tom Wright, the British New Testament scholar, likens a world view to a pair of glasses: “We all wear them, worldviews that is, but because we look through glasses at the world, we are generally not conscious of them.”
And so, one of the ministries of Christians today, I think, is to help people to become conscious of their worldviews. We have a chap who goes around to schools and does missions in schools in England whose ministry is along these lines. And he tells the wonderful — well scary — story as well, of a young English chap going home to his parents and saying, “Ma, I’ve discovered what I am, I’m an Epicurean Hedonist.” But you see, he was starting to learn that the way he was living and practicing life, reflected a certain perspective, a certain worldview. What he needed to discover was that it wasn’t such a healthy one. But at least he was excited to know what he was.
The challenge — and it’s urgent nowadays — is for Christians to develop an integrally Biblical world view and to live creatively from out of this perspective. We need to become conscious of the glasses we wear. And can I just say to you again, I am a South African, I know what it is to grow up in a culture dominated by whites? I know what it is to go to a whites-only school, I know what it is to go to a church passionately committed to evangelism, which had nothing to say about the sins of our culture. You know, it doesn’t automatically happen that you realize something’s wrong. You can be committed to Christ, you can be doing evangelism, you can be a Christian journalist without beginning to be very Christian in your journalism.
Here I wanted, initially, to call this paper, “How to be a Christian journalist without being a Christian.” But David and I talked and he thought it was a bit too provocative. But that is what I wanted to say to you. And you must say it to me. I am a Biblical scholar. Boy, is it possible to be a Biblical scholar without being very Christian! The world of Biblical scholarship in which I move is riddled with Enlightenment- dominated scholarship which has very little to do with Christ or God. But it’s not very different from the world of journalism, which lives at the vortex of the spirits of our age, and if it’s not careful, easily takes on those spirits and articulates them uncritically. It’s very important to grasp these issues.
So, if we start with ourselves, where do we go? First of all, we must realize just how powerfully Biblical Christianity is worldview-based. You know, one of the things that I’ve learned as well is that when you read the Bible, you don’t take your worldview glasses off, you read the Bible with your normal worldview glasses. And if you’re a white South African, you only read Romans 13 and you don’t read all those other texts in Revelation which describe the state as demonic and as the Babylon of this world. And then the only thing you see is that good Christians obey and support the government. You read the Bible with your worldview-based glasses on.
Can I ask you this question? I once asked it to a third year ethics class at a Bible college. “What is the main theme of Jesus teaching in the Gospels?” Please don’t answer it out loud, but think about it in your head. You know, I was appalled to discover that a third-year ethics class at an evangelical Bible college could not tell me that the main theme of Jesus teaching, particularly clearly in Matthew, Mark and Luke is the Kingdom of Heaven or of God. Now I don’t know what your answer to that was, but I do want to suggest most provocatively, is that if you couldn’t answer that question, then we have got a lot of work to do if we are talking about Christian journalism. Because the main theme of the Gospels is the kingdom of God.