Friday, March 18, 2011

“Calvin as Journalist” by Warren Smith (Ch. 12)

This review, written by Glenda Mathes, completes our series of reviews of chapters of David W. Hall & Marvin Padgett, Calvin and Culture: Exploring a Worldview (P&R, 2010). We welcome your engagement and responses.

Calvin and Culture’s editors Hall and Padgett may have placed “Calvin as Journalist” in its penultimate position because the connection initially seems almost surreal. Author Warren Cole Smith acknowledges the obscurity of the correlation, particularly compared to Calvin’s influence on church polity:

“There is a straight and heavy line that connects Calvin to, for example, the forms of church governance and discipline used by many denominations today. But the line between Calvin and modern journalism is not quite so firmly etched. It requires the connecting of dots, both historically and intellectually” (p. 277).

Few people are more qualified than Smith to connect the dots between Calvin and journalism; he is the associate publisher of WORLD Magazine with over 20 years of professional experience, including a stint as the publisher and editor of the Evangelical Press News Service, and the author of the intriguingly titled A Lover’s Quarrel with the Evangelical Church (Authentic, 2009).

Before Smith pinpoints ideas of John Calvin and links them to aspects of modern journalism, he relates a brief history of journalism that frequently cites Marvin Olasky, Rodney Stark, and others. Although the advent of the printing press is widely recognized as the technological impetus that accelerated journalism’s growth as well as the Reformation’s momentum, Smith emphasizes the courage of printers in addition to the convenience of the printing press. While famous Reformers could (and often did) flee for their lives, Reformed printers frequently risked their lives and livelihood, especially when Protestant areas came under Roman Catholic control.

I’ve often thought that anyone who characterizes Calvin as heartless or obtuse has never read his Institutes of the Christian Religion. As Smith details how Calvin became a man of letters, he points out that the Institutes especially “show us a writer who was journalistic in style and argumentation” and “drew praise, even in Calvin’s day, for a lively and readable style” (p. 282). These comments established Smith as a reliable narrator in my mind.

Calvin “built the foundation for modern journalism,” according to Smith, by devoting his life not only to “speaking truth to power but also to giving language and opportunity to millions of others who could and did speak truth to power” (pp. 283 & 284). Smith notes that this “notion of the reporter as prophet, as one who speaks truth to power” is “deeply rooted in the ethos of modern journalism” (p. 283) and remains true today.

Smith shows how the Reformation concept of God’s sovereignty unleashed the natural inquisitiveness of humankind and what he calls the “peculiar curiosity” of the journalist (p. 285). That natural and legitimate curiosity about all aspects of creation has degenerated in modern times to an often prurient interest that creates tension “between man’s God-given curiosity about the world and man’s tendency to overreach — to ‘become as God’ ” (pp. 286 & 287). Smith contrasts modern journalistic excess with the early “propriety” of The New York Times, established in 1851 by a “Bible-believing Presbyterian” (p. 288).

In his section on “The Rise of the Fourth Estate” (journalism), Smith draws parallels between Calvin’s influence on governing institutions (the Consistory, in particular) and the establishment of an American government with its provision for a free press. As Calvin became more powerful, his Consistory became “increasingly intrusive” (p. 290). Recognizing the “will to power” in himself, Calvin developed the Presbyterian system of church governance, which “distributes power rather than centralizes it” (pp. 290 & 291). This system came to secular expression in the federal system of checks and balances with three branches of government.

Admitting that Calvin “certainly did not invent or practice journalism,” Smith quickly adds “while Calvin may not have been the first modern journalist, his ideas and the institutions that came into being as a result of his ideas made modern journalism possible” (p. 291). Smith concludes that Calvin expressed the biblical promise about the truth setting us free in the famous opening line of his Institutes: “Nearly the whole of sacred doctrine consists in these two parts: knowledge of God and of ourselves” (p. 292). Smith’s last dot pricks the parchment as well as journalism’s collective conscience: “The truly great journalism of the past five hundred years has passionately pursued knowledge of both God and man. The extent that journalism can recover these twin pursuits clearly put before us by Calvin is the extent to which journalism can be great again” (p. 292).

Some of the lines Smith draws between these dots are heavier than others (the line in “The Peculiar Curiosity of the Journalist” seems heaviest, while the line in “The Rise of the Fourth Estate” seems most faint); however, Smith smoothly transitions from each topic to the next and clearly delineates each connection.

Smith enables Reformed readers, who easily visualize the lines between Calvin and modern theology or church polity, to open their eyes wider and discern previously unconsidered connections. His conclusion reminds Reformed writers and all curious Christians of journalism’s noble past and calls us to work toward a righteous future.

As an older, non-traditional student, Glenda Mathes graduated from the University of Iowa in 2006 with a Bachelor of Liberal Studies degree. She has reported news for Christian Renewal since 2001 and has been the Managing or Contributing Editor for Mid-America Reformed Seminary’s newsletter, the Messenger, since 2003. She freelance writes and edits from her home near Pella, Iowa, where she and her husband, David, are members of Covenant Reformed Church (URCNA). She regularly blogs at Ascribelog.

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