The crucial epistemic lesson I learned from writing about U.S. soldiers killed in Iraq
And a few highlights of the many tributes to Tim Keller
A year ago I wrote about the phrase "I could be wrong."
That idea, as a quasi-mantra, has helped my faith grow stronger as I've moved away from certainty about matters of religions belief.
But I've realized that I acquired this epistemic approach through journalism.
I learned it early in my career. In fact, it was one of the first lessons I took from the profession.
Rewind to 2003. The U.S. military invades Iraq in the spring. I wanted to cover the war, but couldn't get my editors to send me. I had only been at The Washington Times for a year and a half.
So I ended up going to a lot of funerals for U.S. soldiers killed in Iraq. I went to graveside services at Arlington National Cemetery just outside D.C. I went to a memorial service at a church in Richmond. I called the family members of the deceased to ask if they wanted to pay any tribute in our newspaper to their departed loved one.
I was in my mid-20's. I had little concept of the suffering these families were going through. But it was an early lesson in how important it was to check every last detail of what went into print. (And it gave me new appreciation for the sacrifices of those in the military that we will remember this Memorial Day and every year this weekend).
The soldier's name: was it spelled Darrell or Darryl? How old was he? Did he have children? How many? These were the most basic details. But imagine if you misspelled Darryl's name Darrell? What an insult to his family and his memory.
"I could be wrong."
That was the mantra required to make sure I double-checked every last detail. They all mattered. They still do.
This scrupulousness still sticks with me, even in e-mails and texts to friends. I hate putting anything out into the world that is inaccurate, whether it's for publication or just passing something along to an acquaintance or casually chatting with friends.
This is the legacy of journalism's impact on me. It is a code that has been diluted by the more casual standards of the Internet. But it still pervades major media organizations.
"Recognizing that journalists inevitably carried personal biases and blind spots, [Walter] Lippmann called for controlling them by professionalizing journalistic processes and, in particular, embracing lessons from the scientific method. He entreated journalists to focus as much as possible on facts and to actively pursue evidence that could challenge, rather than simply confirm, their own hypotheses. In this conception, words like objective and impartial are not a characterization of an individual journalist’s underlying temperament, as they are so often misunderstood to mean, but serve as guiding ideals to strive for in their work.
“The idea was that journalists needed to employ objective, observable, repeatable methods of verification in their reporting—precisely because they could never be personally objective,” Tom Rosenstiel, coauthor of The Elements of Journalism and one of the leading defenders of the model, explained in 2020. “Their methods of reporting had to be objective because they never could be.”
That's from a long but well done essay by New York Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger defending the value and importance of independent and objective news coverage, in the Columbia Journalism Review (thanks to Sue Woodrow for flagging the piece).
Tim Keller tributes
Here’s the first sentence of the New York Times obituary:
The Rev. Timothy J. Keller, a best-selling author and theorist of Christianity who performed a modern miracle of his own — establishing a theologically orthodox church in Manhattan that attracted thousands of young professional followers — died on Friday at his home in Manhattan. He was 72.
I lost count of how many columns were written in memory of Keller. I liked what my friend Michael Wear had to say: “Tim Keller stands apart because he was driven by purpose, not grievance or resentment.”
Peter Wehner's column was poignant. He quoted Yuval Levin, who shared these thoughts:
“What always stood out most to me in talking to Tim was the pleasure he took in sharing his deep knowledge of scripture and theology,” Yuval told me. “It was like he was sharing a gift, something he had that he knew his friend would love. We unavoidably spoke across the line that separates Christians from Jews, and yet Tim approached that line like a low fence between friendly neighbors, the kind of fence you’d stand at for hours to chat about what matters most in life, not a high wall that divides.”
I think my favorite tribute came from Jonathan Rauch.
I don’t think he encountered openly gay, outspokenly atheistic Jews every day. Parsecs separated our worldviews. Yet somehow, across the Zoom screen, we came to love each other, and in a way, he rescued my faith.
Rauch writes about how in early adulthood, he "befriended other Christians whose faith seemed transcendent, not temporal."
"Even those who debated me about gay marriage seemed like good people. I took to defending them, telling my gay friends that conservative Christians based their views on a sincere reading of the Bible, not on bigotry. I insisted that Christianity, whatever its flaws, was on the level."
Then came Donald Trump, the most un-Christlike American political figure in my lifetime, if not ever. When his cruelty and turpitude won the overwhelming support of white evangelicals, I felt, in a word, suckered. When he bragged of grabbing women by the pussy (as a jury later found he had actually done), I was astonished that evangelicals redoubled their enthusiasm. When he held up a Bible in a square cleared by tear gas, I couldn’t believe they were taken in.
In my disappointment and anger, I couldn’t help thinking: ‘I guess I had it right the first time.’ I stopped defending Christians to my friends. I could feel the old cynicism washing over me.
Unexpectedly, hope showed up on Zoom. When the pandemic began, some religious friends and I started a weekly gathering, and Tim often came, flickering in from his book-lined study.
In his wisdom and compassion, in his rigor and grace, in his rejection of faith that is smug and self-regarding and in his love for a benighted soul like me, Pastor Keller lived the gospel he preached. He did not give me faith, but he revived my faith in the power of faith, and he gave me hope for a better, braver Christianity, someday.
And then at the Dispatch, Chris Stirewalt has a reflection on faith, journalism, Keller, and my book Testimony:
I do not think of myself as a Christian journalist. I want to be a journalist who is a Christian.
Those are very different things to me, and I jealously guard the distinction. But the death of America’s foremost theologian of Reformed Christianity, Timothy Keller, and a new book about the hard collisions between faith, politics, and journalism by one of my industry counterparts, Jon Ward, are pushing me off my perch.
I feel so strongly about the vocational order of things that I wince at mentioning my beliefs here—not because I am ashamed of my faith, but rather because I do not wish to dishonor it. If I trade on my spiritual life, I turn something sacred, eternal, and intimate into a career strategy. And, worse, my all-too-human failings in public life could become a hindrance to the faith of others.
What Was Twitter, Anyway? by Willy Staley for The New York Times
Munger is highly pessimistic about our ability to use Twitter to debate or deliberate anything of importance. Instead, he suggests, we use the site as a “vibes-detection machine” — a means of discovering subtle shifts in sentiment within our local orbits; a way to suss out, in an almost postrational way, which ideas, symbols and beliefs pair with one another.
But it’s hard to detect vibes unless you put a signal out there first; there’s no way to grasp the thing from outside looking in. “In order to understand how it works,” Munger says, “you have to act on it and allow it to act on you.” You have to post.
Social media is doomed to die by Ellis Hamburger for The Verge
When I covered the launch of Snapchat Stories for The Verge many years ago, I read it as an evolution of Snap’s core mechanic: ephemeral messaging. But over the years, I came to think of it as a somewhat radical evolution from an app built and designed for messaging to an app for broadcasting, like the rest of social media.
Today, the product evolution of social media apps has led to a point where I’m not sure you can even call them social anymore — at least not in the way we always knew it.
They each seem to have spontaneously discovered that shortform videos from strangers are simply more compelling than the posts and messages from friends that made up traditional social media.
“People want to be a product!” technology writer Rob Horning wrote to me via email. “Being a product is coded as success in our society… What people don’t want is to be exploited or misled — and that is hard to avoid in the context of ad-supported media.”
After more than a decade of studying the intricacies of social media from the inside and out, I just felt tired of the structures and habits they program into us. Are relationships made of likes from family members, birthday wishes from strangers, and retweets from long-lost colleagues? Or is this stuff just something that was invented all those years ago? The shame is that these tools are so convenient and addictive that, at times, they can start to replace the real thing.
Spotlight Interview with Jon Ward about Testimony, by Carmen Laberge
I was taught a pretty simple Christian faith. Love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength. Love your neighbor as yourself. Mean it, do it, live it. Lift up the poor and the vulnerable. That’s what I’m still seeking to do. I think one of the challenges of the book is just seeing all of the ways that that simplicity of Christ gets distorted and manipulated. So if that’s deconstruction, so be it. But a young man who wrote a really nice review the other day called it a, “Classic construction story.” So people have all kinds of different words for it. One of my pet peeves, I guess, is the way that people try to use words to control and box in. So anytime I see language being used like that, I start looking for new language because language is supposed to be a tool to help us understand.
When Worship Goes Wrong, by Brian Kaylor and Beau Underwood for Public Witness
Christian musician and political activist Sean Feucht wants people to join him on Sept. 11 for a time of worship at the U.S. Capitol Reflecting Pool. It’s not unusual for people to gather for prayer, reflection, and even music on that date as we recall the terrorist attacks two decades ago. But Feucht’s event has a little different branding.
“Pray for America. Pray for President Trump.”
That’s how Feucht’s group Hold the Line titled the Sept. 11 event set for next month. After invoking 2 Chronicles 7:14, they issued an invitation: “Join us on September 11th in front of the Capitol in DC to pray for Trump, pray for our country, and pray for God’s divine intervention.”
So, for the anniversary of a major attack on the U.S., a musician who peddled false claims about the 2020 election will hold an event urging divine intervention and prayer to support not the current president but one who has a disgraceful history of dishonoring 9/11 and who encouraged a deadly insurrection right there at the Capitol complex that was also a target of terrorists 21 years ago. Grotesque doesn’t even begin to cover it.
That’s it for this week. Have a great holiday weekend! Thanks to all who’ve served in the military and to the families of those who have paid the ultimate price to defend the U.S. Happy Memorial Day!
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I really like this one on Tim Keller too. https://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2023/may-web-only/tim-keller-redeemer-russell-moore-miss-wise-voice.html