Biblical Objectivity

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My colleague Marvin Olasky tells the story of meeting J.I. Packer prior to a conference at which both were slated to speak on different topics in different rooms at the same time. Dr. Olasky lamented the scheduling and observed that he personally would prefer the theologian’s explication of eternal verities to his own observations on the state of Christian journalism.

Nonsense,” replied Dr. Packer. “Think of what revitalizing journalism would do for the cause of Christ in America! It is the most needed sort of pre-evangelism, it is training in Christian worldview, it is an aid to sanctification, and you need to teach people how to do it.”

That was more than two decades ago, when modern “mainstream” journalism was by some measures near its peak in power and cultural influence in the United States — and Christian alternatives were on the outside looking in. Since then, Dr. Olasky and others have been laying a foundation for revitalized Christian worldview journalism in American culture, and at the same time the economic model that once prospered the news industry as a whole began to collapse.

What an influential annual media study called in 2007 a transformational moment for the news industry, possibly on par with the invention of the printing press, had by 2008 become a full-blown “crisis in journalism.” That crisis would give way to the “bleakest … annual report” in 2009, followed by more of the same this year. “[T]he metaphor that comes to mind is sand in an hourglass,” says the 2010 State of the News Media Report released this spring. “The shrinking money … is the amount of time left to invent new revenue models… . The industry must find a new model before that money runs out.”

The pace of decline (about 30 percent) has accelerated. At the time of the Packer-Olasky dialogue, the size of the workforce serving America’s newspaper newsrooms had just about reached its high and had remained relatively stable for twenty years: the difference in the number of working journalists at newspapers across the country in 1987 versus 2006 was just a half a percentage point. But in 2007 and 2008 combined, the rolls declined 15 percent — with further decline predicted.

What does this mean for God’s people? I would urge that we not rejoice at what might be called a longoverdue comeuppance for a profession so characterized by arrogance, elitism, and cynicism. I want to suggest instead that this represents an opportunity for Christian worldview journalism to grow and be heard, to make a substantial impact on the culture. For just as news media economic models are up for grabs, so too are the journalistic models.

The prevailing ethic has been “journalistic objectivity,” but that has proven to be a slippery concept. The idea was the journalist would quote the observations of Person A, balanced by the observations of Person B, scrupulously providing equal time to these views in the hope that the truth would emerge from the middle.

So journalistic objectivity degenerated into little more than a cynical balancing of relative subjectivities. The only remaining “objective truth” was that objective truth is in the eye of the beholder. But if everything is true, then nothing is true. Ask yourself: If nothing is ultimately true or false, right or wrong, good or evil, then what is the point of any journalistic enterprise?

America’s modern journalistic elite resembled Isaiah’s grim vision of a people who so thoroughly reject a fixed standard of justice and righteousness that “truth has stumbled in the public squares” (Isa. 59:14). But unlike modern journalists, Isaiah emphasized the eternal covenant and pointed to a future redemption. Our Redeemer, in His Farewell Discourse and final prayer, prayed that His redeemed would think and live according to the truth — and added, “your word is truth” (John 17:17). Not that God’s Word is merely true, an adjective, but that God’s Word is truth, the English translation of a Greek noun, the standard of truth against which everything else is evaluated. That is the foundation for a journalism style Dr. Olasky calls “biblical objectivity.”

[I]f we value the sola scriptura principle with its emphasis on scriptural clarity concerning essential matters, biblical objectivity makes sense and other approaches have logical flaws,” Dr. Olasky wrote in Journalism and Humility. “After all, if the Bible is God’s Word, can any other words trump His? Since only God knows the true, objective nature of things, doesn’t His book, the Bible, present the only completely objective and accurate view of the world? Shouldn’t our goal be to see the world as much in biblical terms as our fallen and sinful natures allow?”

What a great calling on the life of a Christian: to seek to chronicle what God is doing in the world — in culture and education, in communities and families, in church and state — and report that in a vivid and engaging way. As “creative destruction” reshapes the field of journalism, I pray that God would stir His people to answer the call to Christian worldview journalism — and provide the reading public to support it.

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