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the journalist and the preacher – viv coleman

Recently I’ve been reading Janet Malcolm’s little book The Journalist and the Murderer and it has sparked some reflection on ethics and my preaching. The book is about a grievance between a (now-convicted) murderer and a journalist he invited to write a book about his case. The author was admitted into the circle of trusted friends and lawyers, and when the published book concluded the man was guilty, the subject sued him. Malcolm says the journalist’s “indefensible” act was to pretend to a belief in the man’s innocence, long after he’d decided the conviction was sound. But she also cites many journalists who make it a rule never to disclose their views to an interview subject, because “that may close off communication.” She takes the opposite view, that such “wooing” inevitably leads to betrayal, and is unethical because they “craft the facts to fit their opinion”. The book sparked outrage in 1993, and is still controversial in journalism schools.

Self-disclosure is a challenge for preachers too. Does our rhetoric risk drifting into a “crafting of the facts” when we use personal stories to illustrate truth? Or is it that we craft our self-disclosure to fit the message we want to communicate? Perhaps we do both. I have certainly seen examples where a preacher woos and perhaps deceives their listeners, in order to have more impact. I suspect we will find the boundary pegs are laid down in different places according to the situation, and that is the way it should be, for awareness of context is a key competency for preachers. Here are a few thoughts on the matter:

Telling an outright lie is always unethical, whether its “I read my Bible every day” if you don’t or “I studied at Harvard” if you didn’t. Putting a spin on the truth is more murky. Presenting yourself as a caring spouse for example, even though you had a fight on the way to church. I felt deeply discomfited by a presenter at a leadership event saying “You must never show your youth group your human side. They need to see you as inspiring and worthy.” Authenticity and even vulnerability have a place when building relationships, especially with people who will see you at unguarded moments.

There is a fine line though between being yourself and giving too much away. One minister used to stand up in the pulpit and say he’d had a hard week, so he didn’t feel like writing a sermon, and another spent the first five minutes of many sermons updating us on a drawn-out family crisis which was not of great interest to tired listeners with their own challenges. Another NoNo is having a theological hobby horse like tithing, same-sex marriage or party politics; there should be no predictable theme that emerges in your preaching every week (unless it’s Jesus!)

There are times though when an appropriately-edited personal story can be an effective hook to start a message, or a dramatic way to land the homiletical plane at the end. You may need to change some details such as geography or chronology, for the sake of keeping the story at arms-length from recognisable subjects. And if you are using your kids as examples – get their permission or you will rue the day!

At times this may be “wooing” our listeners but hopefully not by “crafting the facts to fit” the story; more a matter of crafting your story to fit your big idea, without self-adulation or misrepresentation. Because to engage in self-adulation or misrepresentation would be a form of betrayal of your task to present truth through personality.

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