The holy responsibility of journalism
Restoring public truth in a media-dominated world.
29 MARCH 2021 · 12:22 CET
Why should journalism matter to missionaries? Are we not wiser to avoid journalists who love to mock us, or worse, ruin the work of decades if we let them anywhere near our projects?
Are they not universally ignorant of the truth and wrecking agents doing the devil’s work? Does your heart not sink when you see yet another article exhorting you to understand the media, or use the media in your ministry?
I have experienced, or been the recipient of, all these reactions myself! The British media, which is what I know, can be a massive force for social and political harm; irresponsible, obsessed with the one political headline of the day, lacking in knowledge, respect, or truthfulness.
There, let’s get it out and feel better for shedding that load.
And yet, I was called by God to be a journalist. Whenever I do a deep meditation at some crisis point in my walk with God, I find myself called back powerfully to his original word to me: ‘Write the vision; make it plain, that they may run who read it’ (Hab 2:2).
In Luke 8: 26-39, where Jesus tells the demoniac to go back to his people and share what God has done for him, resonates powerfully with a born journalist. The demoniac wants to stay in the boat with Jesus. But no, Jesus knows what he is good at: ‘Go and tell’!
Journalists tell stories about what is happening, and whether we know it or not, that means stories that touch on God’s purposes. Because God acted—and acts still—in time, all stories are ultimately contingent on God’s story. And that makes the journalist’s calling a holy responsibility.
Journalism embodies the values of Christian civilization
I began to think harder about my calling, unrecognized by any ‘church orders’ as it was, when I found myself setting up and running a media charity, Lapido Media. It aimed to help mainstream journalists with religious literacy after the 2005 bombings of the London Underground by Islamist terrorists born and bred in the UK.
I worked at the very top level with investigative reporters; with BBC correspondents willing to accept trusteeship of the charity; with tabloid hacks and major-league foreign correspondents who used my stories, and accepted invitations to speak from Lapido’s platforms, with no hostility or slip-ups.
Why was this? Because really good journalists, trading in stories of the perennial struggle for freedom, justice, and truth, are doing the work of God, whether or not they have a Christian label.
It is the amazing grace of the gospel, and the secret of journalism’s origins: journalism embodies the virtues and values that are the fruit of two millennia of civilization.
Those virtues and values have been recently enumerated in 25 chapters of an important book called Inventing the Individual: The Origins of Western Liberalism by Larry Siedentop,
Faculty Lecturer in Political Thought at Oxford University, he does the incredibly unfashionable thing of linking up beliefs and the social institutions they gave rise to. He goes all the way back to pre-Christian times to provide a stark contrast with the revolutions set in train by the Christ event and those who interpreted it.
In pre-Christian Greece and Rome, the family was the foundation of society, not the individual. A person had no independent existence except as conferred by the ancestral gods, guaranteed by appeasement.
Their inheritance was kept alive literally by the father keeping the home fire burning. While the fire lived, so did the ancestors, meaning the paterfamilias was a god in waiting with absolute jurisdiction.
Women ‘died’ in any meaningful sense when transferred from their father’s house to their husband’s: being carried over the threshold signified literally her corpse-like status until united to the gods of her new home by the men who worshipped there. Slaves and migrants had even less viability. Your home and land were sacred to your family alone and you must never leave it.
The bond was absolute, and it only broke down gradually through war, and then colonization by a distant power, Rome, when citizenship deriving from the imperial cult gradually replaced the family’s authority.
Journalism arose through long struggle for public truth
Into this social rictus burst Christ, and Jewish ideas of a God of love, conscience, and personal will. The idea of the individual self, guarded and guided by conscience in a direct relationship with the Creator God led eventually to wholesale mind-blowing changes in thinking that still reverberate today.
How is it that a journalist gets to start investigating a story? Only because she has a sense of herself as an individual, bearing no greater or lesser rights than any other person in the society, but a right nonetheless of self-expression protected in the American Constitution itself, and in conventions all over the Western world.
She has the freedom to pursue a universally-applied sense of equality that was unknown before Paul wrote his masterpiece to the churches in Galatia: ‘There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.’ (Gal 3:28). All are equally subject to God’s grace, all are equal before his law of love, all can be motivated to will what he wills for the good of all.
The Lausanne Movement certainly does recognize the value of media ministries. 1 Cape Town committed us ‘to a renewed critical and creative engagement with media and technology, as part of making the case for the truth of Christ in our media cultures’ (CTC II-A-4).
Our online media ministry statement asserts, ‘The media dominates our world. It is part of virtually every society on every continent. It is the primary way in which news and stories travel. It is by far the most important channel for ideas to spread. It shapes every aspect of human experience, from our sense of identity to our views on the biggest challenges facing humanity.’2
It goes on to note rightly that ‘there is a long history of the global church using media technologies—from papyrus through printed books to radio, television, and the Internet.’
What it could reinforce however is that journalism does not merely piggy-back on the available technology. It emerged through centuries of moral struggle to make visible the truth itself. We can rightly name and claim this child of the gospel—or as Marvin Olasky says of it now, this ‘Prodigal Son’. 3
Journalism arose first in Christendom
Journalism arose first in Christendom during the Renaissance and was vastly developed during the Reformation in continental Europe, and that is no accident. The countries in the world that have the freest press are without exception Protestant-based countries.
Salvation mattered to people. It mattered enough to make them want to read. By 1490, fifty years after the invention of the printing press, Florentines were buying printed copies of sermons in large enough numbers to threaten the ruling elite in that city.
The reforming Friar Girolamo Savonarola was put to death by the Pope in 15th-century Florence, but his sermons could be disseminated far beyond the Pope’s jurisdiction. Pamphlets arguing the pros and cons of Luther’s incandescent ideas twenty years later created a huge vernacular market for other printed materials, including news sheets.
In Britain, the surprisingly free press of the seventeenth century—won through the willingness of writers and thinkers to suffer torture and execution against the oppression of kings and bishops—was instrumental in the emergence of the public sphere.
Forces endeavouring to influence the decisions of state authority appealed to the critical public by means of the press. These forces needed to legitimate their demands and the public sphere gave them a new forum, the first in the world. Out of it emerged parliamentary systems adopted around the world.
Jurgen Habermas, the great Marxist political scholar and only non-Jewish member of the Frankfurt School in Germany, celebrated in his 90th year by ‘coming out’ as sympathetic to the Christian heritage. It rocked the academic world. He said in an interview:
Egalitarian universalism, from which sprang the ideas of freedom and social solidarity, of an autonomous conduct of life and emancipation, of the individual morality of conscience, human rights, and democracy, is the direct heir to the Judaic ethic of justice and the Christian ethic of love. . . . To this day, there is no alternative to it. And in light of the current challenges of a post-national constellation, we continue to draw on the substance of this heritage. Everything else is just idle postmodern talk. 4
A mission to restore ‘public interest journalism’
I am just at the beginning of my research into this at the Kirby Laing Centre for Public Theology in Cambridge. My discoveries have two main implications for our mission and ministries. Firstly, cultural retrieval. Western civilization has become a menace to the world, the traditional restraints and disciplines of classical liberalism having been eroded by liberalism itself.
Our cultures are ‘cannibalizing’ themselves; we are ‘eating our children’. Individual rights cannot exist at the expense of society. Freedom means nothing without responsibility. Liberty becomes licence without strong institutions that constrain it and so on. And journalism loses its point when it becomes an enemy of judiciousness.
‘Public interest journalism’ is dying in the UK. We have lost up to half of our newspapers.That means a worrying democratic deficit: reporters are no longer there to report local courts and council meetings.
In America it is as bad. The big digital media firms are eating up advertising revenues. Even the New York Times has to solicit donations from subscribers or die. Government and Facebook are funding new initiatives that inherently destroy the Fourth Estate.
Journalists need to ‘social distance’ from big money enterprises that may compromise their liberty. Coronavirus has made things even worse. What is needed is a re-awakening, a new Renaissance, that will see gifted, motivated, and selfless young people finding new ways to weed out corruption, speak up for the oppressed, and exalt excellence.
The second implication is for mission outside the ‘West’. Journalists in countries with an incipient press are suffering egregiously imprisonment, torture, even death in systems like China and Turkey that do not have the deep moral infrastructure that delivered up a free—and thus a transformational—press.
Unless we re-learn our own story, we cannot communicate it, or support those that need it. We have a mission to explain to rulers how the development of a free press, in the teeth of bloodthirsty opponents of freedom, was nonetheless in Europe the goose that laid the golden egg of democracy and prosperity, by creating a ‘public’ that could participate in nation-building.
As Habermas explains it: ‘The elimination of the institution of censorship marked a new stage in the development of the public sphere. It made the influx of national-critical arguments into the press possible and allowed the latter to evolve into an instrument with whose aid political decisions could be brought before the new forum of the public’. 5
We must re-educate ourselves about journalism as a sacrament of all that we value, if we are to seize this opportunity to redeem it, and for world-making.
Indeed, one Christian organization is already doing this: The Media Project based at The King’s College in New York, supports an incipient media in tough locations with training, mentoring, and bursaries to encourage religiously literate journalism. Sierra Leone, former Iron Curtain countries, even China where London Missionary Society missionaries founded the first Mandarin-language press in 1815 to serve all Chinese people, all benefit from this inspirational work.6
This is our heritage as Christians, and we should praise God for it.
Jenny Taylor is a writer, journalist, and consultant who has worked across the media, including the Independent, the Times, the Spectator, and the BBC. She is the Journalism, Media and Communication Fellow at the Kirby Laing Centre for Public Theology in Cambridge.
She worked and travelled with missions for ten years before setting up Lapido Media, Centre for Religious Literacy in Journalism. She was awarded her doctorate on Islam and Secularization in Britain from the School of Oriental and African Studies in London in 2001.
This article originally appeared in the March 2021 issue of the Lausanne Global Analysis and is published here with permission. To receive this free bimonthly publication from the Lausanne Movement, subscribe online at www.lausanne.org/analysis.
1. Editor’s note: See article by Lars Dahle, entitled ‘Media Engagement: a global missiological task’, in January 2014 issue of Lausanne Global Analysis, https://www.lausanne.org/content/lga/2014-01/media-engagement-a-global-missiological-task.
3. Marvyn Olasky and Warren Cole, Prodigal Press: Confronting the Anti-Christian Bias of the American News Media, rev. ed., (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2013).
4. Jurgen Habermas, ‘A Conversation about God and the World’ from Part VII ‘Jerusalem, Athens, and Rome’, in Time of Transitions (London: Polity, 1999), 151.
5. Jurgen Habermas, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1989), 58.
6. China Monthly Magazine, printed with traditional Chinese woodblock to serve the Chinese population is widely accepted as the beginning of modern Chinese journalism. See my chapter ‘From Prophetic Press to Fake News’, in V Mangalwadi, This Book Changed Everything (Landour: Nivedit Good Books, 2019), 256f.