Part of my weekly routine as a new seminarian in the fall of 1978 was visiting the library’s periodical section and reading newspapers on a stick. A variety of news sources were readily available there — for free.
The Georgia Baptist newspaper, The Christian Index, was a familiar sight. Edited by Jack Harwell, it had been a mainstay in my home all my life. My weekly reading somehow connected me to my roots.
Being new to North Carolina, I also read the daily Raleigh News & Observer along with the weekly N.C. Baptist paper, the Biblical Recorder. Marse Grant (whose earthly life ended this week, as noted in Tony Cartledge’s blog) was the editor at that time.
Other Baptist papers and various news magazines caught my attention on occasion. But the Index and the Recorder were my regular Baptist reading stops.
Not the foggiest notion entered my head back then that someday my own career path would lead to print and ink. I just liked being “in the know” and tended to read news (of all kinds) critically.
Marse Grant caught my attention during that time with an editorial so good that I remember it to this day. It was titled “Thou shall not bear false witness.”
Editor Grant called out Baptist ministers for the dishonest and widespread misrepresentation of their academic credentials. He told of attending a Bible conference in which leader-after-leader was called “doctor.”
With just a little inquiry, he discovered that the degrees held by these Baptist ministers were thin papers — either honorary degrees or from mail-order and/or unaccredited schools.
No profession, Grant noted, was more guilty of educational false witnessing than the one that is supposedly rooted in ultimate truth.
Sadly, the problem doesn’t seem to have been corrected. In fact, getting “doctored” is easier, if not cheaper, than ever before.
But what impressed me was Editor Grant’s willingness to address the issue even though he was challenging some of the very persons whose support he and his publication needed.
Since backing into this business some 14 years ago, I have discovered that Baptist editors choose (sometimes weekly) between three different approaches to editorial writing: devotional, promotional or issue-oriented.
Devotional writing seems to be the favorite of those coming to the editor’s desk from the pulpit. Editorials sound a lot like shortened sermons.
Promotional editorials simply advance the denominational calendar. If Senior Adult Sunday is ahead, the editorial speaks of the virtue of aging. If it’s Children’s Home Sunday, then the importance of nurturing children gets the attention.
Devotional and promotional editorials are safe. No one has ever lost subscriptions or a job for saying Christians should love God more or be nice to kids and old people.
Engaging pertinent and controversial issues, however, requires editorial moxie like Marse Grant showed in addressing ministerial education misrepresentation or Jack Harwell showed in affirming the equality message of Martin Luther King Jr. at a time when racial discrimination was high among Georgia Baptists.
For an editor whose primary goal is job security, there is little effort to engage issues — unless it is simply giving voice to a position already widely held by the vast majority of readers.
But, then, what good does it do to affirm what the readers already believe? There is no room for change. No chance of course correction.
Walker Knight, founding editor of Baptists Today, once said that an editor cannot be effective until he or she comes to the internal conclusion that there are worse things than being fired.
Blessed with a Board of Directors that affirms my editorial freedom, I am not in a position to tell other editors how to write editorials. But not venturing beyond devotional and promotional writings seems to short change readers who might need a fresh look at one of the many pressing issues facing the church today.