As a student in an ancient Scottish university town I spent some weeks one winter carrying on a heated correspondence with myself in the local newspaper. Using an imaginative range of pseudonyms, I was indignant, offensive, patronizing, curt (“the dastardly attack made on me last week by Remember Lot’s Wife is not worthy of my reply”). Then others joined in, some seriously, before a fellow student who is now a missionary in India wrote to claim he had seen the Great Auk a few miles up the coast, and signed the letter “Joseph Butler,” resident at the local seminary. The editor was neither ornithologist nor theologian, dutifully published the letter, and was promptly set upon by an irate seminary principal who pointed out that both bird and Butler had long been extinct.

Ever since I have felt sorry for that editor, and never more so when I myself did a stint of editing and had to cope with the caprice of readers and correspondents. The burden was made doubly hard because my lot was cast with the religious press. This issue of CHRISTIANITY TODAY is dated the first of the year, a time of seasonal vulnerability to zany resolutions, so how about a civilized proclamation of 1971 as Be Kind to Editors Year? I make this proposal in no sycophantic spirit. The editor of this journal has had no warning of it, and I write entirely as a private citizen.

C. H. Spurgeon used to advise young men not to enter the ministry if they could help it. Similar counsel might be directed to those contemplating religious journalism. They should ponder instead more placid professions such as exploring outer space, sailing solo round the Horn, or walking a beat in Chicago. The fact is that where their publications are concerned, evangelicals are chronic protesters. Some of them may have nothing helpful to say to an age of international tension, racial violence, and rebellious youth, but they are swift to wrath and think nothing of sending vitriolic words to war if printed material in a Christian journal runs counter to their view of the faith. The religious press is beset by a minority of bullies and bores who know better than the editor what his job is, and are appalled at his apostasy. They claim to be speaking the truth in love, but neither can easily be discerned in their epistles. A few will make no distinction between news and feature, editorial and book review. Even opinions expressed in the letters columns may be attributed to the editor, and faithfully dealt with in the name of truth uncompromised.

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Dr. Billy Graham has told of a man who wrote to him to say that God had given him (the writer) a “ministry of rebuking.” His kin are with us to this day, and are as the sand by the seashore innumerable. Under cover of what they imagine is righteous indignation they will use unrighteous language, and sometimes descend to personal abuse. The volume of pious sewage that infects the editorial postbag suggests that not all the world’s malaise originates in the market place. I have seen young editorial staffers, faced by this censorious constituency, become disillusioned. “Dear Brother,” I might write, “no man has earned the right to criticize the editorial who has not first prayed for the editor. Have you?” In my own early days in the field I used to go home of an evening, in F. W. H. Myers’s words, “bruised of my brethren, wounded from within.” I would be so sick of evangelicals that I longed for fellowship with some decent godless folk. In my unworthier moments I wondered what would happen if these same folk got converted—would they become as insufferable as some Christians I knew?

There were writers who could not write, and were deaf to tactful suggestions that piety, like patriotism, was not enough. The fact that one is a Christian does not in itself give to one’s writing that magical plus. Some evidently think that soundness and dullness are inseparable buddies; some try to slip across man’s speculation as God’s truth; some have not realized that words are for communicating, not for conveying a vague impression or for filling a space. Others take up esoteric subjects with bizarre language to match.

Where writing is concerned, God has given people different gifts. Some can write; some can’t. But just as with preaching, God can often use a clumsy offering that comes from the heart of a sinner saved by grace and concerned to testify to others what great things the Lord has done for him. Blest is the editor who can spot and accept such, for the spiritual benefit to his readers—and to himself—may be immeasurable.

Viewing the contributions that come to his desk, an editor soon comes to see how fully the scaly hand of evangelical jargon has us in thrall. It sets us off as a people apart, but for quite the wrong reason. There are catchwords that badly need to be withdrawn from evangelical vocabularies for a time so that, by discouraging linguistic sloth, we might acquire the incentive to go into this whole problem of communication. How else shall a dying world hear? It is not enough to know the Lord’s song in a strange land—we must learn how best to sing it, and that same dying world has something to teach us about technical proficiency.

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A friend of mine who is not conspicuous for being conservative in theology once read aloud parts of an evangelical article, mercilessly accentuating all the hanging participles, grammatical gaucheries, and darling platitudes. Finally he flung the paper down and exclaimed with genuine indignation: “We’ve more to offer God than that.” I know what he meant.

Another problem encountered by evangelical journalists concerns expediency: should he be selective in his objectivity? Should he report certain things in the name of journalistic integrity, or suppress them for partisan motives? Because our capacity for self-criticism is limited, any attempt at a thoroughly objective coverage of an evangelical gathering is almost suicidal. (Go on, try it some time!) We could adduce reasons for that, but why then should we expect ecumenical gatherings to be reported with a candor that we would resent if it were applied to us? Here let me digress for a moment into dangerous charitableness. As one who regularly covers World Council of Churches meetings, and is known there for approaching the proceedings not uncritically, I am grateful for and humbled by the courteous and impartial assistance given me by the WCC communications department.

Finally, a religious editor must not flinch from controversy. “All life is conflict,” wrote a secular reporter, “therefore strife and struggle are basic to news.” Or as I once heard Matthew Spinka say in an engaging aside: “Christians are the salt of the earth, and where else would we expect to find salt but in the soup?” That means concern with poverty, drug addiction, and school integration, as well as camps, conventions, and crusades.

An editor needs wisdom to keep the balance, resilience to withstand the barrage of criticism, and courage in the face of more subtle pressures brought to bear on one who has proper reservations about being all things to all men. Better make that Pray for Editors Year!

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