WARREN SMITH, HOST: I’m Warren Smith, and today you’re listening in on my conversation with WORLD News Group’s Editor in Chief, and the author of the new book Reforming Journalism: Marvin Olasky.
To regular readers of WORLD Magazine, or even regular listeners to this and other of WORLD’s audio offerings, Marvin Olasky likely needs very little introduction.
In addition to his work at WORLD, he has been a college professor, a college provost, and advisor to the President of the United States and members of Congress. He’s the author of more than 20 books, books which include a novel, and even a series of graphic novels.
I’m having this conversation with him today to talk about his latest book, “Reforming Journalism.”
Marvin Olasky spoke to me from his home in Austin, Texas.
Marvin Olasky, first of all, welcome to the program.
And I’ve got to say it’s a little bit intimidating interviewing you because you taught me most of what I know about interviewing. And while it’s not quite fair to say you wrote the book on interviewing, you certainly put a chapter on interviewing in your latest book Reforming Journalism, which is of course the book that I want to spend most of our time talking about today.
MARVIN OLASKY, GUEST: Well thanks. I’m a little intimidated, also because I normally listen to Listening In while walking around with my wife Susan and our dog Greeley. And Greeley might be very depressed to hear my voice in such a way, but we’ll just have to see how he reacts.
SMITH: Your new book is Reforming Journalism. And tell me why you wrote this book and who did you have as the intended audience for this book?
OLASKY: Well, I wrote a couple of books on journalism a long time ago—one back in 1988 or so. And then the other little more than 20 years ago. And I hope I have learned a few things from editing WORLD during this period. So, before I completely lost my mind, I wanted to get some of that down on paper.
SMITH: Well, you know, one of the things that you do near the beginning of the book that I found to be encouraging as somebody who of course at least attempts to practice the kind of journalism that you’re talking about in this book is, if you will, your defense of journalism. You offer a raison d’etre, shall we say, for Christian journalism in the beginning of the book. And one of the ways that you do that is to recount an encounter you had in a bathroom with J.I. Packer. Can you tell that story?
OLASKY: Yes. That was intimidating. This is just goes back to the late 1980s where both he and I were speaking at a conference at Wheaton. We were both in the dorms. I had never met him. At Wheaton, at least that particular dorm, had a setup where there was a bedroom on one side, a bedroom on another side, a bathroom in the middle. And early one morning we met in the bathroom brushing teeth. And I was not so much intimidated by the toothbrushing, but intimidated by the fact that later that day he and I would be both speaking in rooms next to each other at the same time. And I thought this was a huge scheduling error by the Wheaton people because number one, I wanted to hear J.I. Packer and I wouldn’t be able to hear him. But number two, I really could not imagine that anyone with logical thinking would want to go and listen to me about journalism when they could listen to J.I. Packer on theology.
So, I mentioned that to him in kind of an apologetic, stumbling way and he said, what I then quote in this book, “Nonsense, the work of journalism is so important.” And he explained exactly why. I don’t remember the exact quotation off hand, but he talked about how it’s both pre-evangelism and then an aid to sanctification.
So pre-evangelism in the sense that people who think Christianity is just a nutty thing might be impressed that Christians actually have brains and therefore what we as Christians believe may be something worth thinking about, maybe talking about.
And then an aid to sanctification in that when we have readers who are Christians reading a magazine or reading any journalism product by Christians, it helps us to think about the world God has made. It helps us to think about how we should be active, following God’s directions in the Bible, to try to do as best we can in our sinful and fallen way what God would have us do.
So pre-evangelism and then post-justification, an aid to sanctification. So he had it theologically well-described. And that stuck with me as basically our mission. We talk at WORLD about how our mission is biblically objective journalism that informs, educates, and inspires and it informs, educates, and inspires both non-Christians in the pre-evangelistic way. And then Christians in the aid to sanctification way that Packer spoke about.
SMITH: Hmm. Well, I want you to unpack that expression, Marvin, biblical objectivity in just a minute, but I want to linger with J.I. Packer here for just a minute. Because in that same section of the book where you described that encounter with him in the bathroom, you also wrote this, “I’ve also remembered Packer’s succinct definition of biblical faith. God saves sinners.” Just those three words. And when I read that, and you didn’t say this explicitly, but in some ways I thought, you know what? That’s kind of what you do at WORLD. That is kind of what all of the journalism that WORLD does could almost be summarized by those three words. Number one, God. Number two, saves. In other words, God really is at work in the world. And that a journalist that is really seeking to understand the truth needs to understand and look for that agency in the world. And thirdly, sinners. In other words, we really are sinners in need of a savior, that the world is broken, that the world is fallen. And telling the truth about that reality is really important, too, for the Christian journalists. Am I reading too much into this or am I getting it about right?
OLASKY: No, that’s about right. God saves us. And again, this is the God who rules the entire world, the entire universe, who created us. He knows what we’re made of. He’s not just a little God. He’s a great, wonderful God. And saves, that’s absolutely crucial. The old hymn, Lowry’s hymn about Nothing But the Blood of Jesus, that really has it right. So that’s saving.
At WORLD, we don’t save anyone. We can provide information. Maybe we can inspire sometimes, but this is really God. He’s in charge, his doing. And then the hardest thing really of those three is to admit that we are sinners. I mean, this is certainly something hard for lots of people in media, but people everywhere. And maybe the reason the Bible talks so much about the poor, the unimportant in societal terms in some ways getting closer to God is because when you are famous, when you’re rich, when people kiss up to you, it’s often harder to understand that you’re a sinner.
So yeah, all three of those things. Packer has it so succinctly, so beautifully in three words, if he were not a great theologian, he would be a great journalist.
SMITH: What do you mean whenever you use that expression biblical objectivity?
OLASKY: Well, today we often think of an objective perspective as one not voicing a strong opinion—neutral. I try to go back to an older understanding which equated objectivity and reality. So reporters who accurately describe reality are objective despite being opinionated, if the reporters are exceptionally well-grounded, if they’re well-informed. So, the key questions to ask of a reporter, are we going to trust the reporter or not? Well, how do you become well-grounded? Have you seen close up what you describe or are you just peering from a distance? So, you look at Psalm 24:1, “The earth is the Lord’s. And the fullness they’re of. The world and those who dwell there in.” So that verse, like every verse—every verse in the Bible is true. God made everything and everyone. And so he knows every Adam in the universe and in us. I’m speaking here from the new, very bare bones studio that my friend and colleague Nick Eicher has set up in my house. So, this is in my hill house in Austin, Texas. And the builder of this house left me the blueprints. The builder of our world, God, left us the Bible. So when we want to know the objective nature of our world, we study his blueprint. And again, biblical objectivity goes against the conventional understanding of objectivity these days, which tends to be a balancing of subjectivities. You quote from person one, you quote from person two, and somewhere the reporter is neutral. And readers are then expected to be able to discern between one and two. But neither of them may actually be describing reality objectively, as God knows it. And we, as fallen sinners, don’t know it. But when we read the Bible, when we apply the Bible on some things, we can come closer, far closer than we would if we were just going working off our own brains. That’s our goal, not to consider ourselves wise and not even to be wise by ourselves, but to reflect God’s wisdom as best in our limited and fallen and often sinful way we can.
SMITH: Well, Marvin on page 17 of your new book Reforming Journalism, you write this, “A Christian journalist is one who not only goes to church on Sunday, but believes that Christ rules 24/7. A Christian journalist trusts the biblical message that God created the world and is active in the life of his creation.” So what you’re describing there, it sounds to me, is that objective reality. And that the Christian journalist any journalist who is really seeking the truth, whether he knows it’s coming from a Christian worldview or not, is one that is looking for that reality whenever he looks out into the world. Fair or not fair?
OLASKY: Fair. It has been so much of a blessing for me for 27 years now and editing WORLD to be able to all through the day try to be thinking, what does the Bible say about this? What can we learn from the Bible? How can we apply the Bible? And that’s very different from even some Christian journalists who report things, not all that different from the way a secular person would report things, but then tack on a Bible verse at the end. My wife and I have had some experience talking with Chinese Christian journalists and they have a very, very hard job right now. But a lot of them were trained essentially in Marxist journalism or some other form of secular journalism. And then they became Christians. And the hard thing in teaching is to be saying it’s not just looking at things in this particular way and dropping in a Bible verse here or there, but your whole product becomes changed in the process as you’re thinking biblically.
In a way it’s like the difference between a salad and a cake mix. Amy Sherman has used this analogy in terms of programs that are thoroughly Christian, there are these anti-poverty programs, Christian ministers that are thoroughly Christian are more, they’re a mix. It’s all the Christian part is all the way through as opposed to a salad where you can pick out maybe a couple of croutons or something like that.
I suspect the same thing works in journalism. What we try to do at WORLD is provide the mix all the way through the article, not necessarily by quoting a Bible verse, but all the way through the article we’re trying to approach this in biblical objectivity. And that’s very different from a salad story where you have all these elements which are pretty conventional and then you just drop in here or there a particular biblical reference.
SMITH: Marvin, since you introduced the idea of Marxist journalism, I want to pivot just a bit in our conversation and ask you to describe O and O journalism. Can you say more about that?
OLASKY: Well. Sure, because I do mention that in chapter one. And then the last third of the book, the last 10 chapters go into the history. And I’ll have to just try to real quickly give you an overview of American journalism history.
It starts out with the official store. This is back in colonial days. The job of a journalist was to make the King or the royal governor look good. So he was basically doing public relations for the top officials. And that was the official story. There was a very brave man named John Peter Zenger in 1735 who fought back against the official story because he had a biblical understanding of what journalism should be in terms of telling the truth.
And there was a very sensational court trial. He eventually was able to go free. But in the process, he started developing and then others followed, in not doing the official story, but emphasizing what is really phase two in American journalism, the corruption story. Namely, as we learn in the Bible, that all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. We are all corrupt. And that includes officials. So the job is not to do public relations, make the official look good. The job is to tell the truth and in telling the truth, expose the sin that’s in officials, that’s in all of us. And then try to propose ways, report things so that people can do better. That was the dominant understanding in journalism from—beginning in 1735 with Zenger all the way for another hundred maybe 125 years or so.
That changes starting in the second half of the 19th century into what I call the oppression story. Namely that we by nature are good. In fact, we’re not just good we’re pretty wonderful. The problem though is a societal institution. It might be capitalism, it might be church. It might be different types of food. It might be eating meat, it might be all kinds of things. But nevertheless, it’s not the sin within us that caused the problem, but it’s something external to us. And that oppresses us in some ways and the goal is to get rid of the oppressive force. Again, whether it’s business or this or this or this or other types of things, that’s the goal. We are good. Society is evil. Institutions are evil. Get rid of the institutions and we will then be free to be the wonderful people we really are. So that’s phase three. We have moved from the official story to the corruption story to the oppression story.
What’s come about in the past few decades is the O and O. It’s a combination of official story and oppression story. Namely, there is widespread oppression in society, but government officials or the right government officials will deal with that by taking away the power of corporations or making sure that the churches are put in their place. So, maybe you can worship for an hour on Sunday, but you can’t have it working the other 167 hours of the week, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. The government people are our friends, the president, if he’s the right president, is our friend. So it’s a combination of the official story and the oppression story. And that’s a very convenient thing for journalists in lots of ways. Because as opposed to being a rebel, you can actually enjoy all the perks of power and access, but at the same time feel very righteous in helping people, helping society emerge from oppression. So O and O is the predominant type of mainstream journalism right now. And one of the things we do at WORLD is try to say that the emperor is naked and we need to have biblical clothes.
SMITH: You’re listening in on my conversation with Marvin Olasky. Marvin’s latest book is “Reforming Journalism.” He’s written other books on journalism, including the 1988 classic “Prodigal Press: Confronting the Anti-Christian Bias of the American News Media,” a book I helped him revised for a 25th anniversary edition in 2013.
I’m Warren Smith. More with Marvin Olasky after this short break.
SMITH: Well, you know, Marvin, I don’t want to wander too far field in our conversation, but your little history of American journalism really in many ways explains what’s going on in our politics today, what’s going on in our culture today, what’s going on in philosophy and in the academy today. It really explains political correctness. It explains the kind of a virtue signaling that we often see from our politicians where they will jump on a particular bandwagon that might be popular with the electorate. Explains a great deal, doesn’t it?
OLASKY: I think so. And you’re right, it’s not just journalism. There’s the expression in academia about tenured radicals. That’s a great position to be in for the individual, but it’s not really good for the society. What we’re really seeing now, and this is a sad and potentially very dangerous development, is the polarization of the press. Not that the journalism of several decades ago, which was kind of a moderate liberalism, there wasn’t much diversity of viewpoints. There were three networks and you watch those and you got pretty much the same thing. That wasn’t a great situation because it really wasn’t truth telling. But in some ways our situation now is more perilous because you have the New York Times and The Washington Post have really figured out the way to make money by being advocates of particular positions on the left and even more so being attack dogs against the folks they don’t like on the right.
I find Fox News a little better than those. And I’m glad that Fox News is there to provide some alternative, but Fox in many ways does the same thing with public relations for people in the right and being an attack dog against people on the left. Now, discussion like that is good. Debate is good, but when you start turning opponents into enemies, that’s when societies get into big trouble.
My favorite novel is by a Spanish author, Jose Gironella called The Cypresses Believe in God, which is about the five years before the Spanish civil war from 1931 to 1936 and then the war was three years in length and left half a million or a million dead. I am not at all suggesting we’re at that point in America right now. It’s still a matter of words, not sticks and stones. But the troubling thing is that over a period of decades, words can become sticks and stones. And we are in a very dangerous course right now as you have a polarization of journalism, not just debating, not just thinking about opponents and let’s discuss this and figure out better ways, but where other people turn into enemies, permanent enemies. And you’re basically out not just to win a debate but destroy your opponents who you now see as enemies.
SMITH: Well, Marvin, it seems to me that that pathology that you’ve just described, this pathology of treating our opponents as enemies, is wrong at least in part because it fails to take into account the biblical idea that we’re all made in the image of God. We’re made in the imago dei. And that we should treat each other with dignity and respect even when we disagree with each other. And, once again, that’s a pathology that I see not just in journalism, but in the culture at large.
OLASKY: Well, that’s right. And yeah, we are all created after God’s image. There are individuals who turn away and disgrace that image, but still God saves sinners. And God may indeed be saving people who we think of as utterly obnoxious. So, we want to be open to that. When we report on issues with the Bible is clear, we don’t try to balance. For example, on abortion, we do not try to balance the views of pro-life people with pro-abort people. It is an evil thing that those people are doing. But, number one, we always want to in a feature, let’s say on abortion, we want to quote accurately, let’s say someone on the pro-abortion side, perhaps from planned Parenthood. We want our readers to understand how some of these folks were thinking and why they’re saying what they say and taking the positions they take.
So that’s part of biblical objectivity. Being fair to even people who do just about the worst things in society, such as killing babies. Doesn’t mean we balance, but it does mean that we try to be accurate in what we describe, including describing what this creature in the womb is like. And we try to be accurate in telling why these folks are doing this terrible thing. And at the same time we want to be indicating that much like Bernie Nathanson from a generation ago, much like some other recent emigres from Planned Parenthood who have come over and are now leading pro-life organizations, we want to say, don’t assume that God’s arm is too short because he may be changing a life right in front of us. God saves sinners. So that’s what biblical objectivity is. We’re trying to describe things as best we can from what the Bible says. And we are also thinking. And not just thinking, but writing that, yes, everyone is made in God’s image and no one in our knowledge is someone who is unsaveable because God is a mighty and wonderful and gracious God.
SMITH: Well, Marvin, if biblical objectivity is the goal of Christian journalism, and if biblical objectivity and those who practice that kind of journalism are standing against O and O journalism, if that’s sort of the fundamental conflict or dichotomy here, I’d like to drill down a little bit below sort of that headline there and move into the story itself and ask specifically how WORLD does that. What are some of the tools and techniques that WORLD uses to do that? And one of the tools and techniques that you describe at some length in your book is this idea of biblical sensationalism. Or, sensational facts, but understated prose. Those two ideas kind of go together. Can you say more about both of them?
OLASKY: Well, sure. A lot of the facts of the world are sensational. And when you read the Bible, there are a lot of sensational elements. Now, that can be either a tale of sound and fury told by idiots, or it can be in the way the Bible uses sensations to show us this is really important, pay attention, here’s what happens when you act in one way. Here’s what happens when you act in another way. So the biblical stories are often very sensational. They get our hearts racing perhaps, if we’re really paying attention. They get our minds certainly moving. They’re not something that puts us to sleep. But at the same time, we’re always emphasizing the way God works and the way God acts in the world.
Now, yeah, to get down to street level—and we often talk about we try to do street level, not suite level journalism. Let me take a controversial issue on something where a particular Bible position isn’t utterly clear. And that’s why there’s such a debate about it and a debate among our readers. Immigration. We’ve tried to sympathize both with refugees who are desperate to enter the U.S. and also sympathize with readers who insist on the rule of law. So we try to look at street level. We want to see this crisis at the border up close. So we send reporters to spend many days on the U.S.-Mexico border. We try to understand what the Bible says about both law and about generosity. And we try to see what the people at the border are fleeing from.
So, you know, last year we had an article on bloody Honduras. I mean, that’s the central American country from which many of the recent immigrants are fleeing. Refugees. And we’re going to send our terrific frequent cover story writer, Jamie Dean, back to Honduras because we really want to find out among those fleeing, is the level of crime and violence so high there that the U.S. will be enabling murder if we just say no. I mean, my wife and I were driving through central America five years ago. I saw guards with automatic weapons stationed in front of convenience stores in Honduras. So that’s an indication of how violent society is. But I really don’t know how hard life there has become. So we don’t just at suite level talk about this in generalities. We’re actually, Jamie’s going to go to Honduras. I hope all our listeners will pray for safety for her. But you know, she is warm-hearted but tough-minded and it’s a look at reality. So, that’s biblical objectivity. Trying to see what it’s actually like at street level informed by a biblical understanding that we should be welcoming those in great danger.
I mean, I feel this personally. I mean, as you know, Warren, I’m from a Jewish background. I became a Christian purely through God’s grace when I was 26 and so the history that I’ve studied in the 1930s and 1940s before World War II began, the U.S. turned away lots of people, particularly Jews, trying to escape from Hitler and many of them later died in concentration camps. And many Christians since then have certainly regretted that denial. So, as Christians, we don’t want to be in a position where we’re going to be regretting folks who are legitimate refugees just stuck there in a process where they are likely to be killed. But it’s a tough, tough question. We’re not going to say that someone who disagrees with us on this, and again, we tend to WORLD to be pro-refugee. Rule of law, yes, but the U.S. as a haven for people who are running to us to save their lives and the lives of their families. That’s been the tradition. So, we’re part of that tradition. But we’re not saying that Christian to disagree with us are evil people or nasty people. It’s a tough call. And the way you deal with tough calls is by actually going at street-level and finding out what’s going on and then trying to make an informed biblical judgment on it.
SMITH: You’re listening in on an interview I did recently with Marvin Olasky. His books include “The American Leadership Tradition,” and “Compassionate Conservatism.” Today, though, we’re discussing his latest book, “Reforming Journalism.” We continue with Marvin’s explanation of how white-water rapids helped him understand how to cover complicated news stories.
OLASKY: We have a metaphor that we use because our business headquarters are in Asheville, North Carolina. There’s a lot of whitewater, really good whitewater rafting about 50 miles west of that. And we’ve taken students from when we had our World Journalism Institute classes in Asheville. We took them on to the rapids to understand this metaphor that some issues are like going gently down the stream. They’re class one rapids. They’re easy to navigate. It doesn’t mean they’re easy issues, but we know what the Bible says. We know what the Bible says about abortion. We know what the Bible says about LGBTQ issues. Doesn’t necessarily mean we’re going to know exactly how to act in every political situation, but we know what the Bible says. And then you go all the other way, you go the other way far to deep, very dangerous whitewater rapids were basically you’re going over a waterfall and you’re probably going to be dead. We call those class six rapids. And on those we are not going to be insisting, well, here’s a biblical view. It’s very, very difficult. It’s a class six because there’s no clear biblical understanding. Where are you going to locate a particular highway? What are you going to decide on some of these trade issues involving tariffs and so forth? We’re not going to say here’s a biblical position. Anyone who’s not with us is wrong on that because the Bible isn’t clear. So there’s a whole gradation. When the Bible is clear, we want to be very clear. We want to report street-level, but we want to clearly indicate by the people we interview, the way we report things, who becomes the face of the story, we went indicate, yeah, here’s a biblical position. But it becomes increasingly difficult, and I won’t go here for interest of time, I won’t go rapids by rapids, but we have bi-weekly phone conferences where all our reporters are talking. And sometimes we will actually be saying, okay, where does this issue fall? How are we going to come at it? What are we gonna do? Where are we going to go to make sure we’re operating street level? So, it’s a very practical mechanism we have for trying to report with biblical objectivity.
SMITH: Well of course Marvin as you know, I’ve been in those editorial meetings and you are precisely right. I mean, we will actually sometimes ask you well Marvin, what is this? Class two or a class three or class four rapids? And sometimes we don’t know. Sometimes you don’t know. Sometimes it’s not obvious. But I agree with you that it is an enormously helpful metaphor. And it’s one of a number of tools that you use at WORLD. We’ve already talked about this notion of sensational facts and understated prose. You talked about street level versus suite level reporting. You’ve introduced the idea of the rapids. And let me just stipulate for the record and for our listeners that we can’t talk about all of the tools and techniques and metaphors that you describe in the book. So go get the book, go read the book. But Marvin, I do want, before we pass on, to ask you about one or two more. And one of them is this idea of the uns. You say that part of the goal one or let me say it another way, part of the responsibility of WORLD Magazine and Christian journalists generally is to speak for the uns. Can you say more about that?
OLASKY: Well, sure. It starts with the unborn. They are tiny, powerless human beings. We are on their side. We’re not going to say, well, there’s that and there’s this and so forth. We are on their side. And one of the things, as my wife and I have been involved in the pro-life movement for 30 years, we have seen more and more the way being on their side is also the way being on their mother’s side. Even if sometimes the mother’s don’t at first realize that.
So, the unborn, the uneducated, you know, people on the left like to talk about structural injustices in American society. And I don’t see the free market system as a structural injustice. In fact, it’s a powerful tool to help all kinds of people move forward.
But there is a structural injustice in our society of schooling. There are lots of kids who are trapped in really bad inner city urban schools. And maybe there are sometimes options, but they tend to be expensive options. So, one of the things we have been consistently for over the past 30 years is educational choice. Opportunity for people who are poor to have kids go to better schools. But for a whole lot of reasons, that’s still not the way our society, for the most part, works. So the uneducated, yes, there are individual reasons for that at times, but there are also societal reasons—and that would be a situation in so far as we, I think we know what works with education and forcing kids into one poor performing public school is certainly not just. So we are for those kids who are stuck there.
We are for the unemployed when they have been laid off, factories closed. And that’s why this whole issue of tariffs is so important and critical. So these are people who are being treated in some ways through no fault of their own—whether it’s unborn kids or uneducated kids in inner city schools or people who are unemployed because the plant closed and the stuff’s now being made in Vietnam or China. These are people. We are on their side. At the same time, we try to understand economics. We try to understand the difficulties. We try not to simplify things. So it’s complex. A lot of these questions are complicated, but our fundamental perspective is biblical objectivity. And we start from there and then we delve into the complexities and try not to just think we’re so smart, but talk to people who are legitimately, truly experts. We have learned that lots of experts don’t live in Washington D.C. or New York. And, in fact, sometimes that may actually lead them into the temptation to kiss up to the powerful and avoid the truth. So we’ve learned a lot of things over the years in journalism and yeah, this book is just an attempt to convey to folks what we’ve learned. So we use it in our World Journalism Institute classes for college students, for mid-career people, citizen journalists. My wife and I train 10 people at a time in our living room downstairs. And if you look at the WORLD masthead, our list of folks who write for WORLD, just about everyone under age 40 at least has gone through WJI and a lot of people older, too. So, you know, we try to do a lot of things to educate not only our readers but educate ourselves in what biblical objectivity is all about.
SMITH: Well, Marvin, I’d like to take the remaining time that we have in our conversation to do what you often told me to do whenever I wrote for you and I know you tell others. And that is to climb down the ladder of abstraction a bit. That, you know, we’ve been talking about these ideas, but I’m sitting here with a copy of WORLD—the latest issue, at least the latest issue as you and I are having this conversation, which has Troubled Ministries on the cover, the cover story written by Michael Reneau, who went through the World Journalism Institute mid-career course. And I just want to talk to you a bit about some of the stories in here and just ask you how these stories exemplify these ideas that we’ve been talking about. So let’s start right here, the Troubled Ministries. “How does the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability hold them accountable?” is the deck head or the subhead on that story. Is this an example of what you were talking about earlier of not telling the official story, even the official evangelical story, but digging a little deeper and trying to speak truth to power?
OLASKY: When we see a problem in secular society, we like to be able to educate our readers about that. But if we were to ignore the stuff on our own side—evangelical society—then we would be going against the biblical understanding that all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. So, my hope is that for every investigative story about a Christian organization will have at least one about non-Christian organizations or governmental programs, sometimes because a lot of Christian journalists don’t do this, people come to us, we hear about situations. These are sometimes people who have worked in organizations or people who have just seen that those organizations are not doing what they should be doing. And in this particular story, it’s called the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability. So it’s something that should hold organizations financially accountable. And as we researched this the street level, we found out that often it doesn’t. And we want our readers to know about this. And we hope that our readers will clamor for the folks who talk about financial accountability to hold organizations accountable and we hope the people within the organization will do a better job.
The folks at ECFA are not at all our enemies. They’re not even our opponents. They are people we hope to challenge. And that’s what we often want to do with Christian organizations. Our goal is not to hurt them. Our goal is to help them by pointing out, here are the pressures you’ve faced and here’s sometimes how you fallen into bad practices and we want to help you do better. That’s a hard thing at times because people think we are picking too much on organizations that are already being picked at by government. But our goal is to, I suppose, as Packer would say, in an aid to sanctification, to help all of us and ourselves to act consistently in the way we learn in the book of Daniel and many other places to act. And that’s looking at God first and not accepting any substitutes, and realizing that it’s only by the blood of Jesus that we can be saved.
SMITH: Well, it strikes me, too, Marvin, that this kind of a story is an example of looking after, advocating for the uns of the world—the folks that may not have the kind of access that reporters at WORLD Magazine would have. Donors, the people who are served by these Christian ministries that maybe possibly wouldn’t be served as well as they might otherwise be if these ministries were stronger in doing a better job. So, indirectly you are helping the uns and very directly you are helping our brothers in Christ, I guess, be stronger in the work that God has called them to do.
OLASKY: Yeah, that’s very well phrased. There are lots of small donors who want to know that when they send $20 or $50 to a ministry, they are often sacrificially cutting into their own budgets. They want to know it’s being used well and that’s what the ECFA should do. It really should be a seal of approval and a confidence builder and we hope it will be that.
SMITH: Well, you know, Marvin, as I looked through this issue that I have in front of me. I don’t know if this is the best example of a lot of the ideas that we’ve been talking about, but it’s certainly a really, really good example. And it also gives me an opportunity to say good things about Mindy Belz. The article “Help is still [maybe] on the way,” and then the subhead or the deck head for that article reads “An entrenched aid machine in Washington is endangering a post ISIS comeback for Iraq’s Christians and Yazidis and a big success story for the Trump administration.” This story has everything. I mean it has—you’re advocating for the uns, you’re speaking truth to power. You’re pushing against the official story. It’s street level reporting and not suite level reporting because, of course, Mindy’s been to the Middle East many times and knows of what she is writing here. I mean, it’s got a little bit of everything that we’ve talked about here.
OLASKY: Well yes, Mindy is wonderful. She knows that terrain so well and she doggedly keeps asking questions and pointing out things. She knows the people who live there. She cares about the people. They are certainly uns in that situation. So, yeah, as editing this whole thing, I really like that we can go back-to-back with an organization that points out problems with an issue that points out problems in a Christian organization, and then right away points out problems of governmental programs. That’s our goal to look at both. We don’t want to—even though we get all these leads about problems in Christian organizations, we have to be somewhat selective in what we investigate and we never want to just become the inspector of Christian groups and ignore what goes on in these big governmental programs. So, our goal is really to do both.
SMITH: Well, Marvin, you and I have had many conversations on these issues over the years and they’ve all been very nourishing to me and I could sit here and talk about these ideas all day long with you, but unfortunately our time is very quickly drawing to an end. And I just wanted to try to—if you’ll allow me to use this metaphor—land the airplane by asking this question: it’s highly likely that of all the things that you have done in life—an advisor to presidents, the author of dozens of important books on American culture and journalism—that at least one of the lines in your obituary is going to be a long-time editor-in-chief of WORLD Magazine. Given that, how do you want to be remembered as the longtime editor-in-chief, especially someone who has written a lot about journalism history and you’ve had an opportunity to assess the editorship of others over the years. And secondly, how do you want WORLD to be remembered? What kind of a role do you want WORLD to play in the culture?
OLASKY: Well, good questions. First of all, God is the editor in chief and I certainly know that I am not God. So I think I want to be remembered as a sinner saved by grace.
SMITH: Well, Marvin, thank you so much for this time, for being on the program and also just for your career and for all of the time and energy and work that you’ve poured into me over the years. It’s been so nourishing and helpful and I’m grateful. Thank you.
OLASKY: Well, I’m grateful to you, Warren, and grateful to God for both of us. So thank you.