Christians leaning their ear against a glass placed on the wall of an average American newsroom might be surprised to hear something that sounds strangely like scripture.
“Sunlight is the best disinfectant.”
Journalists recite the slogan—spoken into the record by the late Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis—as they file open records requests, nip at powerful heels, and turn over their suspicions like rocks. If members of the mainstream media and American churches want to find something in common, they only need to stare into the sun.
A preoccupation with the power of light drives both groups—at least in principle. The best journalists gather near the light switch, hovering, hoping to expose the secret acts and abuses of power which keeps society’s scales tipped in one direction.
The Bible contains scores of references to light as a purifying force. The Psalmist refers to God’s word as the lantern which allows him to travel dark and wild paths without fear of stumbling. We live as a people of the dawn, our very salvation described as a flight from sin’s enveloping darkness headlong into the “marvelous light” of God. Jesus calls himself the light of the world, then promises to station his people as a beacon in his physical absence, spreading that light to earth’s every corner.
Journalists and Christians—when true to their purposes—fulfill similar roles in the world, existing as fraternal twins, if not wholly identical. Paul encourages Christians to “walk as children of light” and not only swear off dark deeds, “but instead expose them.” Journalists might as well borrow biblical language as they pledge to bring what is done in the dark into the light. Two years ago, the Washington Post left little doubt regarding its mission, adopting the tagline “Democracy dies in darkness.”
The reality remains: we will not shine a light, let alone bend that light toward justice, when cozied up to power.
Christians should celebrate journalism at its most illuminating. A seedier sort of journalism, more related to darkness than light, scavenges celebrities’ garbage cans and traffics in the sorts of secrets that keep our eyes covered. Reporting of this kind should be anathema both to serious journalists and faithful Christians, something to call out rather than consume.
A brighter journalism—painful and glaring at times—represents a coup of common grace and reflects God’s designs on restoring the world. Examples of this work abounds: reporting by the likes of Ronan Farrow, Jodi Kantor, and Megan Twohey leveled the field for sexual-abuse survivors, empowering them to stand up and stare down the Harvey Weinsteins of the world. A superlative team at the Houston Chronicle brought that conversation to the threshold of Southern Baptist churches. Abby Perry continues to deliver harrowing yet soulful stories of survivors at Fathom and elsewhere.
Sin shrivels in the light cast by these reports. This journalism, keeping company with gospel truth, acutely understands confession precedes repentance, reckoning leads to reconciliation.
Cheerleading, and even participating in, such projects requires that we rethink our relationship to power. Our commitment can’t stand with preserving the status quo or harbor a fear of standing up in the boat, lest it capsize. Pointing fingers and punctuating sentences with question marks—the currency of journalists—contradicts a mindset to leave the established alone, especially if the established are on “our” side. The reality remains: we will not shine a light, let alone bend that light toward justice, when cozied up to power.
The media, while possessing a very distinct power of its own, must keep its distance from those with a vested interest in prolonging darkness. Taking first steps toward the light means walking away from a reliance on institutional sources. Encroaching deadlines, content quotas, and other occupational burdens often place journalists in a bind. They might want to tell more creative and multi-faceted stories, but are left drawing yet again from the same well of public information officers, government officials and established stakeholders.
To be a city on a hill, the church also must extract itself from power’s grip.
These sources might have little to hide but, in the best-case scenario, leave sides of a story untold. Separating themselves from the powerful, journalists will see traces of light in the witness of those most affected by policies, rather than policy-makers themselves.
To be a city on a hill, the church also must extract itself from power’s grip. Early #ChurchToo dispatches taught a hard lesson: Christian leaders can spin their way through a situation as well as any politician or Wall Street executive. As Carl Trueman suggests in the title of a 2004 book, the wages of spin is death. Spin is darkness, and darkness kills our witness and suffocates our souls.
As these examples—and countless more—exhibit, reactions to the light will vary. Some welcome the light, basking in it, dressing their wounds beneath its warm rays. Others huff and puff and hope to outrun its brilliance. Still others make excuses, calling the light anything but light, stepping in and trying to overshadow its bearers.
Making our way toward all manner of good news, Christians and journalists move toward each other as co-laborers. Our paths eventually diverge, back into houses of worship and newsrooms, yet we run parallel still. Calling sin, personal or social, into the light is a task fraught with heartache and responsibility. The Christian remains patient and gentle, committed to sharing the healing properties of light with the sinner over the long haul. Stories stick to the dedicated journalist; they see its shape elsewhere, learning to make out what matters in the pitch black.
The world we know lives in darkness; the world we want cries out for something radiant. We can’t get there on a flashlight’s flicker. Whether in the news, or within the spaces of our own hearts, we need a Damascus Road light to burn the scales off our eyes and help us see ourselves, as if for the first time.