Christian Journalists must Learn to Tame the Tongue

In his report to the 2006 business meeting, former EPA Executive Director Doug Trouten noted that Christian journalists must learn to tame their tongues, and that with great power comes great responsibility (shades of Spiderman!).

Delivered by EPA Executive Director Doug Trouten at the May 10, 2006 annual members meeting.

Sometimes the best ideas come in the middle of the night. You may have developed the habit of having a notebook and pen handy so you can jot down the brainstorms that come your way. After a couple of decades as a journalist, I pretty much always have a notebook and a pen – and a spare pen, just in case.

Of course, sometimes in the light of day those midnight inspirations don't seem quite as inspired. You find yourself wondering just what you mean by "snowfall chickens" or why "think about new cover idea" seemed like such a crucial breakthrough at 2 a.m.

A recent example for me is a cryptic message that said, "Executive Director's Speech – Use James 3." It made sense when I wrote it, but later it was a bit of a blank.

I'm sure that by "executive director's speech" I meant this annual ritual, when I stand before you and for just a few minutes try to offer support for the proposition that EPA's board has not made a terrible mistake by continuing to employ me. And "use James 3" seems self-explanatory as a Scripture reference, since I don't think I know any third-generation Jameses.

So it must have been something in the third chapter of the Book of James, or possibly the whole chapter, that I wanted to relate to you. It could have been the sixth verse, which says, "The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole person, sets the whole course of his life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell." But that hardly seems like the sort of thing to encourage you in your work as Christian communicators.

So I was puzzled. Could I have meant a different chapter? Or a different book? Should I just abandon this cryptic message? But I began to dig into the third chapter of James, and found plenty there to guide us in our work as journalists – warnings and guidance for situations I've faced, and that I'm sure you face.

The chapter begins with the familiar warning "Not many of you should presume to be teachers, my brothers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly." I'm literally a teacher these days, teaching journalism at a Christian college, so this verse hits home for me on more than one level. It's in that role that I'm reminded regularly of just how special our work is – because I'm surrounded by young people for whom our routine labors are still the stuff of dreams. I'm also reminded of just how rare our skills are. In our line of work, when you spend a lot of time with other word people, you can forget that literary skills at the level possessed by the people in this room are not all that common. When I'm grading the papers of beginning college students – students who hope to pursue writing-intensive careers – I wind up having to say things like, "Try writing in complete sentences," and "You need some sources," and "Your story should be about something." The gifts God has given you, and the skills He's helped you develop are a rare and wonderful thing. Don't forget it.

I think we sometimes take for granted the skills God has given us and the work we've been called to. James reminds us that this is a high calling that comes at a price. We're teachers. If you use the printed word to communicate God's truth, you are a teacher. And when you compare your audience with a typical pastor's audience – even a megachurch pastor – and when you compare your teaching's shelf life with a typical sermon, you'll see that you are a teacher among teachers, given privilege and responsibility beyond that of many others. James' warning about being judged more strictly certainly applies. It's an exciting and fearsome opportunity.

James goes on to talk about the dangers of the tongue – dangers that for us are amplified by high-speed presses and instantaneous Internet delivery. In verse 8 James states flatly, "No man can tame the tongue." We can't. Not going to happen. Taming the tongue on our own is off the table. And in the same verse he goes on to note, "It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison."

We've probably all experienced that. In fact, at some level that we wind up having to repent of later, breaking out the poison pen is actually kind of fun. I don't imagine I'm the only one to have ever felt a secret glee at the prospect of reviewing a film or book so truly horrible that it justifies the worst sort of rhetorical overkill. Like the reviewer of "A Sound of Thunder" who wrote, "Edward Burns is the kind of actor you cast as the hero when a piece of wood is unavailable." Or the reviewer of "Elektra," who said, "The resulting action leads to levels of excitement typically attained by proofreading science textbooks." Or the reviewer of "The Dukes of Hazzard" movie who said, "The film's ambitions are so low that it's hard to imagine how it fell short of them." It's fun, in an I'll-confess-later sort of way. And yet James warns us that there's a danger lurking here.

He goes on to note, "With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in God's likeness. Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers, this should not be."

Now it's starting to snap into focus a bit for me. I know I've been responsible for those parallel streams of blessing and cursing at times in my journalism career. We are called to stand against evil, to be a light in the darkness. But in doing this, let's remember that Jesus loves these horrible evildoers so much that He gave His life for -- us. When speaking truth in an effort to dispel the darkness, let's also remember that those who love darkness rather than light because their deeds are evil are the very people God's heart is breaking over. On any number of issues we try to walk a difficult path in which we hate the sin, but love the sinner. Too often we expend most of our energy on the former, leaving none for the latter.

James admonishes us to look into our own hearts. In verse 14 and 15 he says, "But if you harbor bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast about it or deny the truth. Such 'wisdom' does not come down from heaven but is earthly, unspiritual, of the devil. For where you have envy and selfish ambition, there you find disorder and every evil practice." What's in our hearts, comes out in our communication. If we're going to tame the tongue, if we're going to control the poison pen, we need a heart free of envy and selfish ambition. That's not natural – it's supernatural.

Finally, James contrasts the wisdom we get from God with the so-called wisdom we come up with on our own. In verses 17 and 18 he writes, "But the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere. Peacemakers who sow in peace raise a harvest of righteousness."

That's not a bad checklist for your next column or feature story. Is it pure? Peace-loving? Considerate? Submissive? Is it full of mercy and good fruit? Impartial and sincere? Are we being peacemakers who will raise a harvest of righteousness?

We've been given an awesome responsibility, and asked to walk a path filled with danger and temptation. We can do a great deal of good, but we can also do much harm. Whether we sought it or not, we've been given power and influence, and all of the responsibility that goes with it. Thankfully, we're not in it alone. In our work we can draw on the wisdom that comes from heaven. With God's strength, our communication can be "pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere." My prayer for you in this year ahead is that in your own way, in our own circle of influence, you will be used by God as "peacemakers who sow in peace raise a harvest of righteousness."