A Muckraking Magazine Creates a Stir Among Evangelical Christians
A Muckraking Magazine Creates a Stir Among Evangelical ChristiansBy MARK OPPENHEIMER, New York Times, 11/7/2014, OriginalIn October, Mark Driscoll, the evangelical pastor and best-selling author, resigned from Mars Hill, his Seattle megachurch. This month, Mars Hill announced that it was dissolving its network of 13 satellite churches.
In the aftermath of his fall, Mr. Driscoll, who was known for his autocratic management style, his quashing of dissent and his unusually frank talk about how Christian wives can please their husbands in bed, had himself to blame. In resigning, Mr. Driscoll admitted his failings, citing his “past pride, anger and a domineering spirit.”
But Mr. Driscoll cannot take all the credit for his own downfall. For one thing, any faithful Christian would give Satan his due, for leading Mr. Driscoll astray. Then there is the role played by World, an evangelical Christian newsmagazine that broke one of the most damaging stories about Mr. Driscoll. In March, World reported that $210,000 in Mars Hill church funds had gone to a marketing firm that promised to get Real Marriage, a book written by Mr. Driscoll and his wife, on best-seller lists.
World was not the only outlet to take on Mr. Driscoll. The blogger Warren Throckmorton, in particular, persistently chronicled concerns about Mars Hill for the website Patheos. But the story about best-seller lists was also not the first scoop for World, and Mr. Driscoll was not the first conservative Christian leader that the magazine had taken on.
In October 2012, a World reporter, Warren Cole Smith, revealed that Dinesh D’Souza, the conservative author, filmmaker and activist, had attended a Christian conference with a woman not his wife — a woman he was introducing as his fiancée. Soon after, Mr. D’Souza resigned as president of King’s College in New York City.
Founded in 1986 and based in Asheville, N.C., the biweekly World is edited by Marvin Olasky, the Bush adviser who helped popularize the term “compassionate conservatism.” Under Mr. Olasky, who became editor in 1994, the religious magazine has become one of the few that do investigative reporting.
The Jewish newspaper The Forward gleefully reports on the foibles of communal leaders, and Commonweal, run by lay Catholics, publishes work critical of the Roman Catholic hierarchy. But evangelical Protestant journalism is generally more public relations than reporting; World stands out as an exception.
“We’re a Christian publication but not a movement organ,” Mr. Olasky said. “So we can publicly criticize Christian leaders from other organizations. Other publications tend to be more within the camp” — published by a particular denomination, for example — “and they don’t want to engage in criticism.”
Mr. Olasky said the founder of World, Joel Belz, regretted that it had been the secular press — led by The Charlotte Observer — that helped bring down the evangelists Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker, who were accused of misusing ministry funds in the late 1980s.
“Joel said, ‘Gee, I wish we had done that,’ ” Mr. Olasky recalled. “We don’t want to leave it to the secular press to expose wrongdoing within the church.”
Mr. Olasky said that there is no contradiction between Christian faith and reporting on the dark side of Christianity. “We don’t have to cover up, because we do have faith that God forgives and saves the sinner.”
Mr. Belz is no longer editor, but he still writes a column for World. He said that he got the idea for a Christian newsmagazine from readers of a children’s publication that he had founded. After moving to Asheville to edit a small, failing magazine called Presbyterian Journal, he conceived the idea for a new venture, a Christian version of the old Weekly Reader that he had loved as a child in Iowa.
“I thought if we could do something like Weekly Reader for the growing Christian private-school market, there might be a real market for that,” Mr. Belz said. The children’s magazine he founded in 1981, then called It’s God’s World, was a hit, and is still published in several editions. “Then the parents got back to us and said, ‘We like this, we read it with our kids, and when will you do something like this for adults?’ So it was the child of the children’s magazine.”
When asked whether other evangelicals have criticized World for its investigative reporting, Mindy Belz, Mr. Belz’s sister-in-law and a top editor, recalled the response to a series about sexual abuse at a missionary school in Senegal run by New Tribes Mission.
“We were accused of hurting New Tribes, the teachers, and the people who had already dealt with the past,” Ms. Belz said — in other words, it was over and done with, or so some believed, so why make news of it? “People will say it’s not right for Christians to talk this way about other Christians,” she said. “We just think there’s a real truth-telling component to any journalistic enterprise.”
The members of the small staff at World are mostly evangelical Protestants, of varying denominations. But there is no statement of faith to sign, and at least one Roman Catholic writes for the magazine (he’s a music critic). Lynn Vincent, the evangelical ghostwriter behind the monster hit Heaven Is for Real and Sarah Palin’s autobiography, Going Rogue, wrote for World for over a decade, until 2009. One of her favorite World pieces was an article she wrote about sexual abuse of women by Protestant pastors — a story, she said, “directed by truths found in Scripture.”
“This is no different than other major publications today, whose reporters are guided by generally settled orthodoxies,” Ms. Vincent said in an email. For example, she said, most journalists treat abortion as “a morally neutral medical procedure that ends an unwanted pregnancy.” By contrast, she said, her reporting on abortion “is based on the scriptural admonition to defend the weak, and the teaching that ‘children are a heritage from the Lord.’ ” (That is Psalm 127.)
“Marvin believes that sometimes you have to tear the scab off for healing to happen,” Terry Mattingly, the founder of the blog GetReligion.org, which tracks representations of religion in the secular media, said of Mr. Olasky. “He is running Rolling Stone for cultural conservative evangelicals. It’s just that Rolling Stone isn’t going to tell you what their Bible is — maybe it’s the Kinsey Report?” he said. “Marvin will hand you one of his.