As part of our Scholar’s Call collection, Jeff Neely describes how being a believer and a journalist intersect in his experience, and points to some windows journalism gives us into practicing Christian faith, whatever our vocations.
When I was about 5 years old, the small church I grew up in rolled out its at-the-time new ministry to reach youngsters quickly going through all the offering envelopes with their doodling during the worship service.
Instead of crawling under pews while the pastor preached and getting Dad’s sharp elbow in the ribs when we snored during the benediction, now we would go to Children’s Church.
It was a magical world of Hydrox cookies, apple juice, crayons and coloring sheets. There were no hymnals, and we swung our arms and marched our feet, praising the Lord for Father Abraham’s many sons like it was nobody’s business. Truthfully, I thought if grown-ups were so smart, why hadn’t they been doing all this fun stuff in “Big Church” all along.
Eventually, we would sit down on the floor or in our miniature chairs and turn our attention to the tri-fold felt board. There, with the help our teacher-narrator, Jesus and his two-dimensional disciples would come alive to recreate the wonderful stories of the Gospel.
I was transported. I was caught up into this time when God himself came to Earth, healed the sick and gave sight to the blind. Five thousand people were fed with a few fish and couple loaves of bread. And Jesus died so that all who believe in him would be forgiven of their sins.
It was these stories that so enraptured me – the telling of the thing. It was life and truth recounted to me in words and images that resonated with me on the most innate spiritual level.
I believe that God is the source of all narrative. I believe he has been telling a grand story since the beginning of time through his Word and through the life of every person ever born. I believe he reveals himself across the narrative arc of history and our personal experiences.
I also believe that he has called every one of us to be a journalist. Is this not what the first disciples did? Were they not eyewitnesses to the demonstration of God’s glory through Christ? Did they not report on the things they had seen and the words Jesus spoke? The Lord commanded them to “go into all the world and preach the good news”? Does he not command us to do the same thing in our own individual spheres of influence?
This is my field. I teach journalism. Yes, a lot of what I do involves helping students understand why it’s important for someone to cover city council meetings and why a free press is essential for a self-governing democratic society.
They learn about yellow journalism, libel law, and conflicts of interest. I hammer the importance of tight writing, nitpick their grammar and help them learn how to write a solid lead.
I hold forth on how journalists are to be watchdogs, holding the powerful accountable and defending the cause of justice. There is a lot to unpack here, too, as it applies in the life of a Christian, but I’ll save that for another time.
I also try to connect to students with the stories of my life and share in the stories of theirs. I try to help them see how our experiences, our relationships are carried along paths of intertwining narratives that illuminate great beauty and purpose.
They have a story to tell, no matter where they are at in their lives. The people around them have stories to tell that may resonate with readers in ways more profound than they could possibly imagine. And it is a great privilege to be a storyteller, a witness to these shared experiences.
Narrative theology has come in and out of vogue over the years. Critics have argued that some have replaced sound doctrine with self-consumed meaning-making and suspect interpretations of personal experiences.
In an article for Christianity Today (see the Further Exploration list below), Leslie Leyland Fields argues that personal testimonies too often become divorced from the true, universal master narrative of the Bible and instead bend the boundaries of Christian theology to accommodate today’s counter-Biblical cultural mores of consumerism, idolatry and self-fulfillment.
These are legitimate cautions. And sifting through the subjectivity of personal testimony to find God’s truth is never an easy thing to do. But then again, neither is right interpretation of Scripture.
What I see in the Bible is that Jesus spoke a lot in parables – that is, stories. Revelation tells us that the saints of the last days will overcome Satan “by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony.”
Before he was martyred in the book of Acts, Stephen sat before the Sanhedrin and retold the story of the Jewish people and the patriarchs as a point of conviction for the religious elite who rejected Christ.
You see good journalism has to be accurate. We’re not talking about fiction here. We’re talking about the truth. And if our personal stories do not align with God’s word, then we missed the mark somewhere.
But that doesn’t mean we shy away from telling our story. It means we watch, listen and read carefully – like any good journalist – to understand what God is truly doing in our lives. And then we report on it, boldly.
Even the most introverted Christian is called to be a journalist. You don’t have to write for a newspaper or shoot video from a helicopter in the Congo. You just have to tell your story. In the coffee shop, at your office, in Sunday School or in your home. Tell of the great things the Lord has done in your life. Share the good news.
To Be Told by Dan Allender: A casual, insightful read on how God uses our past experiences to reveal his plans for our life.
Epic: The Story God Is Telling by John Eldredge: A classic work exploring how our personal experiences, both joyful and tragic, develop the dramatic tension and nuanced themes of God’s great story.
The Gospel Is More Than a Story: Rethinking Narrative and Testimony in Christianity Today by Leslie Leyland Fields: A well-researched, careful consideration of the benefits offered by a renewed interest in narrative theology, but also the dangers of personal testimony understood apart from sound Biblical teaching.
The Promise of Narrative Theology: Recovering the Gospel in the Church by George W. Stoup: An oft-cited academic work, which was described by Cornel West as “an exemplary text” with “smooth hypnotic prose.”
Why Narrative? Readings in Narrative Theology Edited by Stanley Hauerwas and L. Gregory Jones: A collection of 17 articles exploring the role of narrative in theology and philosophy, both as it “raises many important issues and is central to theological and ethical reflection,” but also as it has “too often been put to uncritical “faddish” uses and/or has been the focus of confusion caused by a lack of conceptual clarity” (p.1).
Image courtesy of Unsplash at Pixabay.com
About the author:
Jeff Neely is an assistant professor of journalism at The University of Tampa, where he teaches courses in newswriting, feature writing, multimedia journalism and literary journalism. His research has examined the role narrative and literary journalism can play in broadening our understanding of various issues and experiences life brings our way, from identity formation to environmental ethics. He has also studied how youth journalism programs, where young people tell their own stories and those of their peers, can help strengthen local communities. He is currently working with local non-profit outreach organizations to build a youth journalism program called Tampa Youth Voice. Prior to entering academe, Jeff worked as a writer and editor for various publications in and around the Tampa Bay area, as well as a case manager and resource development specialist for the Florida foster care system.