The Christian Blogosphere and “All the News That’s Fit to Print,” Part 2

Part 2: A Case for a “No-Spin Zone” of News That Interests Fundamentalists

Perhaps some consideration should be given to these thoughts (Part 1), and certainly these thoughts can also be used for additional debate and discussion.

First, the Internet has obviously become a place where even Christians can find news of interest to them in a “no-spin zone.” Let’s be honest. Fundamentalists have done a lousy job dealing with sins and failures in the movement over the years. From Billy Sunday’s kids, to J. Frank Norris’s tyrannical leadership, to Jack Hyles’s egomaniacal self-promotion, to David Hyles’s gross and repeated immorality, to Rod Bell’s personal dichotomy of separatism while struggling with alcoholism, to Bill Pennell’s dual life that led him to strip joints, and worse to Bob Gray’s arrest for child molestation, throughout the last century, we’ve covered and uncovered enough failures and outright wickedness in the ranks of self-proclaimed Fundamentalism to make the hierarchy of the Catholic church feel morally superior. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Many lesser “stars” in the fundamentalist galaxy have destroyed their lives and damaged the reputation of Christ’s Church with sins that did not earn for them the scandal du jour at a fellowship meeting.

At the same time, Fundamentalism has systematically called out, ridiculed, stigmatized, and at times slandered Christian brothers in leadership who may not be on the same particular branch of the evangelical tree as where we live but who are fellow believers nonetheless. The ferocity of our “exposure” of them has been stunning at times. Some examples might include John MacArthur and the “blood,” Jerry Falwell and “politics,” Tim Lee and the “SBC,” Billy Graham and “ecumenicism,” and a litany of folks who enjoy praise and worship music or even CCM. (For the record, this author is not necessarily in agreement with the positions taken by some he has used as examples.)

In the broader world, beyond the ivory palaces of our pastoral office suites, many in the pews are just not buying this dichotomy of logic. While there are, without a doubt, issues that require public rebuke and practical separation, it can honestly be said that there is a double standard about what constitutes “news” that is “fit to print” within Fundamentalism.

Continuing, it might be suggested that some who have a problem with the free distribution of information that otherwise might have been swept under the proverbial rug are frustrated with the growing inability to cover, protect, or “spin” scandalous information or even regular news. This problem creates a loss of control on their parts, and–let’s be honest–many in spiritual leadership in Fundamentalism are all about control. Today’s upstart, younger generation is less respectful of things like heritage, tradition, and protocol that gives deference to the preceding generation(s). They are used to having instant access to information, getting all the facts so they can reach their own decisions, asking tough questions, and probing when they get half-baked answers. They like to think for themselves, and part of the process of reaching valid conclusions requires them to debate, pry, and probe out loud. To those of us who were reared in a different generation, we’ve been far more willing to “wink” at those who have “idiosyncrasies” (spelled s-i-n problems) out of respect for their position or accomplishments.

This author could type the name of an extremely well-known, nationally influential (retired) pastor who is legendary for swearing in private and in the pulpit. (We’re not talking about saying “gosh” or “darn” but words that used to get people’s mouths washed out with soap.) BUT … he’s been a major fundamentalist leader for nearly 80 years. So we just roll our eyes and mutter excuses. But if Franklin Graham or John Hagee or Bill Gaither were to use such language, the same eye-rollers would roundly and soundly condemn him as a foul-mouthed reprobate.

Well, let’s just say that the “young fundamentalists” aren’t as likely to respect the intellectual dualism that older fundies have tolerated for years. These guys grew up watching Jimmy Swaggart quiver his lip and declare, “I have sinned”; and remember all too well the scene of Jim Bakker being dragged out of the court house, whimpering like a little girl. These scenes have, without a doubt, brought huge disrepute in the “secular” world, but they have also created a disgust toward and no small amount of cynicism in the world of conservative Christians as well. Richard Nixon forever removed the protective bubble of U.S. presidents. Jim Bakker did it for Christianity.

Another consideration is the growing sophistication of Fundamentalism. Apart from the commitment to the arts and academic excellence that the Bob Jones dynasty brought to Fundamentalism, much of this branch of Christianity through the last 120 years or so was largely a rural, southern, and less-educated constituency marked with a rowdy adherence to the rhetoric that many fundamentalist preachers turned into an art form. But in the last 30 to 40 years, Fundamentalism has become more “mainstream,” and many fundamentalist churches are filled with college-educated, affluent, and successful businessmen and businesswomen who are less inspired by the historical style of Fundamentalism and more interested in the doctrinal substance of genuine fundamentalist theology. These folks expect access to information, they demand that they are part of a decision-making process, and they are astute enough to notice when something is amiss. The pastor is no longer an “icon” but a leader. He may be a shepherd, but they don’t qualify as “dumb sheep.” They are demanding and articulate. “Just because the preacher says so” doesn’t cut it anymore.

Thus, they expect to be informed when there is a problem within the Church or within broader Christianity. They want to be assured that people notice and that steps to deal with failures are in place. They know their Bibles well enough that terms like “church discipline” and “plurality of church elders” are part of their lexicon. They want integrity and authenticity and accountability from their leadership. They can smell a phony, a crook, or someone who is “over their head” from a mile away. Simply put, they expect–even demand–the clear, accurate communication of information.

Perhaps it is wise to consider the motivation that some might have in wanting to keep “bad” news or “scandals” quiet. Some earnestly believe that the release of such news can be cause for discouragement to the church, that the reputation of Christ will be damaged in the world. They honestly want to protect what they view as the public perception of Christianity, fearing that public sins will lead to damnation or discouragement on the part of those who “hear” about it. These are not arguments without merit.

Certainly, one of the reasons we should deal with many issues that involve civil offenses internally (contract disputes, personal offenses, etc.) is because we don’t want to give the world opportunity to scorn the Church of Christ. But this reasoning begs the question–what about issues that are not merely civil but criminal? What about the tendency among “independent” fundamentalist churches to watch other churches welcome, embrace, even elevate those who have left previous churches as members or leaders because of a sin issue or scandal? With no denominational oversight, many who are really not qualified to serve in spiritual leadership can just disappear from the context of their failure only to “reappear” somewhere else and take off right where they left off. Indeed, the man who commits adultery or embezzles without being confronted–repenting and restored–will not find it a far journey to lie to another board or church. And the news of the past may never reach the new location–particularly in small churches in rural areas across the country.

Let’s refer to the Bob Gray scandal as a case in point. One wonders how many churches who had been faithfully sending him money so that he could live and allegedly minister in Germany for the last 15 years knew that he had been privately censored or disciplined by the church he had pastored. Indeed, he was a national speaker who, at the time of his arrest, was scheduled to speak at multiple missions conference and national meetings across the United States. His former church did not issue a warning. The media had not yet picked up on the accusations that had been made. There was not denominational oversight available since he was an independent Baptist.

Imagine, if you will, that a simple report that “Bob Gray was disciplined by his church for sins that disqualified him from future ministry” were posted on a website some 15 years ago. Perhaps an opportunity to the church and to Bob Gray could have been offered, allowing them to make a statement. How many churches would have enabled him to leave the country and to resume ministry on the dime of tithing believers all across the nation? Which scenario–the simple report or the enabling of a suspected pedophile–would have ultimately caused greater harm to the reputation of Christ and the Church?

The “independence” of most within Fundamentalism is a source of pride and identity for many. Even among Southern Baptists (the recognized largest non-Catholic denomination in the United States), their commitment to “local church autonomy” leaves them vulnerable to a lack of forthrightness and accountability in similar situations. Yet this “independence” may also be a great liability. Certainly, it allows those who possess the character to exploit it as they run from sin that should end their public ministries.

With those thoughts in mind, it is the opinion of this blogger and commentator that the responsible posting of news, transitions, failures, and faults is a good thing. It increases accountability. It reassures those who are cynical that the truth will come out. It has the potential to stop gossip and petty speculation. It warns the reader that there is a cost to the moral failure of public leadership beyond the small and often insulated circle in which they live. It invites serious discussions of the vulnerabilities of man, the danger of pride, the course of sin, the path for restoration, the need for grace, the consequences of tragic failures, the dependency we have on Christ, and the importance of keeping our eyes fixed on Christ.

Finally, it is a good time to discuss the need for personal responsibility in posting information. To be accurate, no one can stop people from publishing information on the Internet. The best we can hope for is the development of reliable and responsible site authors who will do their homework and present the information in a careful and biblical manner. Perhaps the following would provide a framework for additional conversation on what would help a spirit of self-government in this arena:

  1. Let the facts speak for themselves. There is a difference between “news” and “commentary.” Both are valuable in their own way; but “news” isn’t “commentary,” and “commentary” isn’t “news.” There should be a clear line of demarcation between the two. That doesn’t mean a “news report” can’t have an “opinion” response in a blog. It doesn’t mean that forums for discussion shouldn’t be provided. The commentary and discussions permit those impacted by the news report to process it and to reach a right and biblical conclusion. A news report simply reports what is known. That should be the starting point.
  2. We should remember that what is “news” to conservative Christians is not necessarily news to the rest of the world. The resignation of Dave Jaspers at Maranatha is of little interest outside of Watertown, Wisconsin; the Maranatha family; and a particular branch of Fundamentalism. But for those within those worlds, the natural response is going to be “why?”, and an “official statement” (that said very little) by the college is not going to suffice. Thus, while some may be scandalized that there might be “more to the story,” the news really can’t be extrapolated as having the potential to drag the name of Christ through the mud. So some sort of conflict arose between the president and the board. The president decided to move on. He cited concern over his workload and his family. That’s really not huge news outside of a small piece of the world. People have conflicts, change jobs, resign, move on to other interests, and make decisions for the good of their family all of the time. It’s the “secrecy” that sometimes invites more interest than it is due. Putting the facts out may shorten the gossip cycle considerably.
  3. Separate the discussion from the dissemination. Let’s admit this–discussion will occur when someone resigns, is arrested, or gets forced out of office. It is just going to happen. But again, keeping the “commentary” away from the “news” doesn’t mean we should eliminate the commentary or the discussion. Instead, we should give consideration to making an “editorial” page or a “comments section” in a forum or apart from the news article itself. Depending on the policy and involvement of the site administration, information may be monitored for propriety. Let’s face it, the anonymity of the Internet can turn otherwise nice people into ugly meanies. Some of it is because one can’t communicate vocal inflections or wit or hyperbole easily in print (in spite of the extremely cliché and overused “emoticons”). A lot of the time, we simply get real “brave” when we can be anonymous. Perhaps that alone is reason enough to require serious participants to register with a real identity or at least a valid e-mail address.
  4. We should practice self-regulation. Not everything that “can” be said “should” be said. When someone gets out of line, he should be called on it. If someone is a serial offender, we should “ban” him from the discussion. People should be able to ask painful and genuine questions without getting flamed as a critic or trouble-maker. At the same time, people shouldn’t be allowed to set off a verbal “bomb” in the room through some wild accusation or flaming rhetorical flourish and then slip back into the shadows of anonymity without consequence.
  5. We should realize that journalism and debate are inexact sciences. Corrections will have to be made. There is a learning curve. The Internet is evolving as it matures. The culture is changing, but truth doesn’t change. There will always exist a tension between truth and expectations, trends and culture. Let’s recognize that tension and allow it to keep us honest. Let’s not misuse that tension and require that it render us silent.

This has been a lengthy essay. There will be much over which some may wish to take umbrage or to extend the debate. But let the debate continue. It’s healthy, it’s valuable, and it’s important. But let the truth always be spoken in love. And let our news only be that which is fit to print.

Dan Burrell is senior pastor at Northside Baptist Church (Charlotte, NC). He’s also a commentator for the Evangelical Press News and blogs at Whirled Views with Dan Burrell.

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