By Nathan Bierma
Content & Context
My summer internship at the Chicago Tribune was about two hours old when an editor in a nearby cubicle made a crack to another about how small-minded evangelical Christians were. I kept my mouth shut; on your first day you barely dare to ask where the bathroom is, let alone profess your faith. But I wonder how I would have reacted had this happened when I felt more settled in.
As seriously as I take my faith, and as earnestly as I believe any vocation is not just a job, but kingdom service, I had little appetite for drawing attention to myself and my faith with "God-talk" in the newsroom. If I was going to stick out, I wanted it to be for two things: creative story ideas and good writing. Not only because this would be the most useful witness—editors want good articles more than a sermon—but because the purpose of writing, I believe, is to explore God's creation with contagious curiosity. If Christian journalists get that part right, they'll have more impact when it comes time to talk about whose creation they're exploring.
That's why it's encouraging to see Steve Rhodes' comments introducing his interview with Chicago Sun-Times religion reporter Cathleen Falsani at the Web site of Chicago magazine. Rhodes says Falsani writes "one of the city's most engaging columns, despite her focus on a subject that often is handled with a deadly dullness." He calls her approach "fresh and heartfelt," and her writing "humorous, thoughtful, intelligent, and spiritual." High praise for someone who works at a newspaper, where the daily grind and stiff style guidelines tend to drain originality and empathy out of the broadsheets and the reporters who fill them.
It also struck me as the exact kind of praise Christian journalists should be trying to earn. With the awareness that evangelicals are mostly absent from the mainstream media (or at least its East Coast epicenters)—an awareness shared in a noteworthy confession by New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof (discussed in B&C by Mark Noll and, later, Stan Guthrie in an article called "A Journalist in Babylon") —comes the temptation to say, Let's get more evangelicals in newsrooms, and we'll have news coverage that is more fair to evangelical viewpoints. That's a good start. But rather than saying, Let's go balance it out, it's even better to say, Let's go do it more thoughtfully, thoroughly, and impressively. We should be less preoccupied with the failings of "liberal media" than with bringing some passion to bland, corporate, uninspiring media. Imagine the witness Christians (evangelical and otherwise) would bear if we came to pile up journalism awards not just in religion news but in categories such as feature writing, investigative reporting, film reviewing, and sports columns.
As Mark Noll noted, there may be significant numbers of at least nominal Christians already in newsrooms who don't see themselves as missionaries. Falsani is one of them. A Wheaton alum, she wrote last year in the Sun-Times that she "never felt comfortable in a community where my religious identity was presumed to define my politics, gender identity and taste in pop culture in a narrow way." These comments, which she says drew criticism from evangelical readers, preceded a stirring account of Wheaton students' response to U2's Bono, whose nationwide AIDS awareness tour Falsani was covering at the time. She concluded that she would never "apologize" for her alma mater again. "Wheaton was, at least in those moments, the best of what Christianity can be." This column, she tells Rhodes, "outed" her as a Christian after years of refusing to reveal to sources what her religion was, in the interest of objectivity.
It's ironic that Christians in the media feel muzzled (or muzzle themselves): such treatment hardly lives up to the ubiquitous ritual celebration of "diversity" in the newsroom. And it's unfortunate that Christians are pressured to avoid "theology or dogma" and accept popular culture's amorphous interest in "spirituality [rather] than religion," as Rhodes says he prefers. Still, we can only hope that the work of people such as Falsani—and the notice of media critics such as Rhodes—will be what defines a Christian presence in the mass media.