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The Church and its Dirty Laundry

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Blogs have provided a unique platform for a great many people. As blogs have gained some degree of credibility beyond the blogosphere, members of the mainstream media often turn to bloggers for opinions. A lot of bloggers, despite losing confidence in the mainstream media, still consider a mention in a major magazine or newspaper to be the holy grail of blogging. In recent months, I have often been approached by media outlets, ranging from CNN to the Wall Street Journal, asking me to comment on various stories they are developing. Because I once wrote a good number of articles about Rick Warren and The Purpose Driven Life, I am still routinely asked to comment on Warren and his ministry.

Being asked to provide information for stories in the mainstream media has forced me to think a little bit about what my attitude should be in this situation. In general, the requests come in two forms. The first is from news outlets that are writing stories about Warren and are looking for success stories. This happened last year after that bizarre situation where Brian Nichols, who had recently committed a murder, took hostage a women named Ashley Smith. Smith read Nichols sections from the book and he eventually released her. Just as I was finishing up work for the day, I got an email from a very friendly producer at CNN wondering if I would be interested in contributing to a story they are working on. Intrigued, I said that I might just be. She called me a few minutes later and it turns out that CNN was working on a one-hour special on life’s purpose. I could not tell if it was a special only on The Purpose Driven Life or on purpose in general. Either way, they were interested in knowing my views on the book, and in particular, if it had changed my life. I felt like I was letting the producer down when I told her that it did not. She asked how many people I knew who had read the book and how many had had their lives changed by it. I answered that I knew hundreds who had read the book but none had seen radical transformations in their lives, letting her down even further. She asked whether I agreed with the book and I told her that while the book had some valuable things to say, I had some pretty clear disagreements with many of the book’s main points. And that was that. They kept searching and eventually found what they felt were some good stories. There was one short section in the broadcast where they mentioned that not everyone believes in this book. The only person they spoke to in this regard was John MacArthur. MacArthur questioned the validity of the book’s message that God wants me to be who I am and that He will use me on my terms. Interspersed with his comments, CNN cut to other people comparing MacArthur’s ministry with Warren’s, stating that Warren’s is twice as large and stating in no uncertain terms that other pastors are merely jealous of the Purpose Driven phenomena. They even insinuated that MacArthur is one of “those fundamentalists” who believes in a stern God and played a clip of him saying “We’re going to see about devastation, wars, judgments to come.” John MacArthur was presented as a jealous, petty man and CNN made no serious attempt to show that there are serious and biblical concerns with this book.

The second form requests take is from reporters who are trying to show that the church is divided on whether Rick Warren is helping or hurting Christianity. I have had a couple of reporters ask to interview me about this. I have accepted the invitation to speak to them, but have been very careful with my words and have spoken largely “off the record.” The last time I spoke to a reporter I told her that I was really unwilling to give her a lot of fodder to work with, explaining that, despite what I feel are the errors of a man like Rick Warren, I love the church and am generally unwilling to air out its dirty laundry before the world. I likened her questions to a reporter calling me and asking for dirt on my wife so they could write a negative article about her. I was sympathetic to this reporter who, writing for one of America’s most important periodicals, was attempting to figure out why the press is tripping over themselves to praise Rick Warren and to devote precious space to him. Her conclusions on this could be very important. I gave her a couple of trails to follow, but refused to say anything too negative about Warren. I just didn’t want to see myself quoted in her eventual article as an anti-Warrenite. My memories of what CNN did to John MacArthur are still fresh.

So I guess my opinion towards commenting to the mainstream media is that I am exceedingly cautious. There are several reasons for this. First, I see little reason to provide examples of Christian infighting to the world. There have always been and will always be struggles within the church and, in general, I think it is best that these remain within the church lest they damage the church’s testimony. Second, I see little reason to hope that the press will somehow help or resolve the issues that we wrestle with as Christians. Without the Spirit they cannot properly understand the issues and without the Spirit they have no hope of commenting on them in a way that is truly helpful. Third, I have little confidence that the press will be honest and unbiased in their presentation of information. If I did not believe this before MacArthur made his appearance on CNN, I certainly believe it now. In short, while the press may give wide exposure to a particular problem, and while it may somehow seem to validate a particular blog or blogger, I don’t know that it is at all helpful.

But having said all of this, I am eager to hear other opinions. I’d especially love to know how others who have been placed in this situation have dealt with it (perhaps John MacArthur or Al Mohler have written something about this, since they are often called upon by CNN and other outlets, though if they have written something, I have been unable to find it).

And while we are on this topic, Newsweek’sBeliefwatch” is asking why Rick Warren is no longer bulletproof. For the past couple of years he has been praised within the church and without. But “in recent weeks he hasn’t seemed so bulletproof, and one has to wonder why. The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal have put him on their front pages in not wholly flattering lights: the former for helping push a tax break for clergy through Congress, the latter for selling a church-revitalization strategy that some pastors say doesn’t work.” Newsweek then mentions Ingrid Schlueter and her blog, “Slice of Laodicea.” “In her blog, syndicated Christian-radio talk-show host and producer Ingrid Schlueter has devoted herself to critiquing megachurches in general and Warren in particular; she is irate about lots of things, including his ‘hula ministry.’” Just a few days ago (link) I commented that it is easy to summarize an entire blog on the basis of only a few articles. While Ingrid has definitely critiqued megachurches and Warren, I don’t know that she’d agree that this is what she has devoted herself to (and, by extension, what she has devoted her blog to). But the fact that the Newsweek reporter sees things this way, reminds me of how important it is to think deeply and carefully about each article that finds its way onto my site. It would grieve me if, when people thought about myself or my site, they thought first that I am against Rick Warren or The Passion of the Christ. It would grieve me if they thought first about controversy, about the graceless things I may have said, or about the sometimes graceless things said by commenters.

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