Biblical faith and journalism - A talk by Canon Ian Ellis at St Mary's church, Macosquin, Diocese of Derry, on Wednesday 15th March 2017.
In the Church, the Bible is of course very much to the fore, and in the world around us there is journalism everywhere – newspapers, radio and television, the Internet. We are very fortunate indeed to live in the free world where, providing one does not defame another person or publish obscenities, there is freedom of expression. It is a vital freedom if human beings are to flourish.
I often think, when I see rows of newspapers lining a newsagent's shelf or in a stand outside a shop on a sunny day, how great it is to live in a society in which people are allowed to write their views freely and to have them published so openly.
I remember many years ago, when I was a student, visiting the former East Germany, then under communist rule as a satellite state of the then Soviet Union. It was at the time when the Warsaw Pact nations invaded the then Czechoslovakia because its government was becoming too freedom-loving. That was August 1969, and the previous Spring came to be known as the Prague Spring, a time of liberalisation in Czechoslovakia under the new leader Alexander Dubcek. The freedoms which Dubcek wanted to introduce included travel, speech in general and the media.
On my visit to East Berlin that August, just as the invasion was taking place, the page 1 headline in the communist controlled East German newspaper, Neues Deutschland, was 'Prague citizens welcome Russian troops'. It was pure spin, as it is called - propaganda. But our society is not like that and much though we may at times find things in the media unwelcome, or irritating, it's good to be free.
This is perhaps the first point of interconnection between the Bible and journalism. Freedom is an essential part of the Biblical witness. God has made us as free individuals and the purpose of that freedom is surely so that we can grow fully as people before him.
If we were not free, we would grow as people in a kind of straitjacket. No, we need to be free if we are to be fully human beings, even though that freedom will mean that we will make mistakes. Yet, even our mistakes in life can be important learning and growing points. Indeed, the motto of the Anglican Communion is 'The truth shall set you free'.
I'm sure you have heard, in recent months, what has become a familiar but actually new term: 'fake news'. As a new term it has been catapulted into our common vocabulary by the new President of the United States, Donald Trump.
According to Mr Trump, the media fabricate news stories and therefore aren't to be trusted. Instead, we are asked to embrace what an adviser to Mr Trump press has referred to as "alternative facts". It is a kind of upside down world, in which those who try to convey the truth, often after lengthy journalistic investigations, are frequently vilified, while the people at large are expected to buy into an 'alternative reality' that is presented precisely by those being investigated by journalists.
But who is conveying the fake news in America? The newspapers or the White House? How are we to know?
At any rate, the concept of 'fake news' is eroding trust all round. Is the media to be trusted? Is government to be trusted? Such questions are a catastrophic consequence of the whole concept of 'fake news' – loss of trust. But freedom demands responsibility if trust is to be guarded.
Perhaps here is another connection between Biblical faith and journalism – recognising the truth, recognising the authentic. In the Bible we come across references to “false prophets”. In Isaiah (44: 25), we are told that the Lord “foils the signs of false prophets”, and in St Matthew's Gospel (7: 15-20), Jesus says: “Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves.” (7: 15) The false prophets, the people who peddle lies, are extremely dangerous people - “ferocious wolves”. You can't get much more dangerous than that!
Yet, Jesus indicates that there is a way of knowing who is who: He says: “By their fruit you will recognise them. Do people pick grapes from thorn-bushes, or figs from thistles? Likewise, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus, by their fruit you will recognise them.” (7: 16-20)
By their fruits you will recognise them. There has to be a discerning of that which is right and true, and in order to discern properly we need to have grown in spirit and in wisdom. Another interconnection between Biblical faith and journalism is precisely the emphasis that both place on reflection and discerning.
It is one of the drawbacks of the modern communication of news via the Internet that people are more and more inclined to read headlines only, or headlines and a few paragraphs. The traditional newspaper allows for much more reflection and gives greater opportunity for that all-important process of discernment of the truth.
Of course, we do know that some branches of the media have behaved very badly indeed, as was illustrated in the whole phone hacking scandal a while ago. The media is not all innocent, and nor is the political class. There are faults all round, but what is important in the media, in political life, or in our own everyday life, is what we take as our guiding light. And for us as Christian people that guiding light is Christ himself.
Biblical faith, from a Christian perspective, is faith in God the Father who created us, God the Son who redeemed us, and God the Holy Spirit who brings us life. For us, that sums up the essence of biblical faith.
However, the Bible requires much study and reflection. Delving deeper into the message of the Bible is not an entirely straightforward matter. There's a lot to think about. For example, just what do we mean when we say scripture is inspired by God? Do we mean that there was some kind of supernatural dictation going on, or do we mean that scripture is inspired rather like we might say after reading a really good book that seemed to speak right into our situation with a remarkable aptness, "Well, that was certainly inspired!" We often speak of an “inspired choice” as someone makes a really good judgement call. Is the inspiration of scripture somehow along those lines, although of course recognising that the Bible is so much more than just any other book, in a category of its own as Holy Scripture?
There's a lot to think about when it cones to the Bible. Another issue is that of context – something that is also vital in good journalism. What did the words of the Bible mean to those who wrote them all those centuries ago, and to those who read them all those centuries ago? When scripture refers in the Commandment at Exodus 20: 4 to the heaven above, the earth beneath and the waters under the earth, we see an understanding of the geography of the universe as a three-tiered affair, as oppose to the kind of universe we have come to know with planets orbiting in space.
Biblical faith can be seen as actually a very diverse kind of faith, with different people understanding it in different ways. There is a whole process of interpretation that has to go on when we read holy scripture. But at heart, and from a Christian perspective, the Bible is about the actions of the Trinity, although it took the church a while to develop its understanding of the Trinity. And actually, at the heart of the Trinity is truth itself. Jesus is the way, the truth and the life; the Spirit leads us into all truth; the Father is true to the Son, wonderfully raising him on the third day.
There are many ways in which biblical faith and journalism come together, but it is perhaps most clearly in terms of freedom and truth – both immensely important themes in both theology and philosophy.