uno itinere non potest perveniri ad tam grande secretum -- Q. Aurelius Symmachus, 384 C.E.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Major Journalism FAIL: Media "Balance" and the Disservice to Scholarship

A major journalism failure out of The Journal Gazette of Fort Wayne, Ind., illustrating just how badly served the public is when most media outlets contend with scholarship.

The story is supposed to be just an announcement of sorts about an upcoming lecture by The Jesus Seminar that will explore the Gospel of Thomas, a Gnostic text found in Nag Hammadi, Egypt (or if you are the reporter, Nag Hamaradi). But something seems awry immediately in the second paragraph when she calls the seminar "a contentious group." Contentious? Within itself? Not any more so than any other scholarly group. What does this mean?

After some niceties in describing the upcoming lecture by Milton C. Moreland, a Rhodes College Biblical scholar and archaeologist -- namely, that early Christianity was diverse and that this gospel is a witness to that diversity -- the reporter decides to "balance" the story (one can only assume) by turning to a chairman of exegetical theology at a Lutheran Missouri-Synod seminary. This person attacks the Jesus Seminar as presenting a "fairly narrow, liberal, historically skeptical scholarship coming out the 1970s and 1980s."

“The tendency is to argue that some of what Christians deem heretical was not so heretical back then,” he continues.

“They tend to create the impression that if you believe in the things represented in the (canonical) Gospels, then you are not intellectual, and you are simple-minded and uninformed. So that can shake people’s faith sometimes.”

This has got to be the most absurd thing I've heard (today). The notion that early Christianity is diverse is hardly controversial. We have the extracanonical works to prove it, nevermind those words within the canon, like the particularly aggressive invective in Jude and 2 Peter, that attack those who don't agree with the wrtiers' accepted doctrines. Not to mention, nowhere in the preceding paragraphs is there anything that remotely calls for the conspiratorial hang-wringing over "shaking people's faith."

In addition, "historically skeptical scholarship" with reference to the Bible is not from the 70s and 80s in America, unless you mean the 1870s and 80s, when what is now known as the historical-critical method finally started making its way here from Germany.

A better approach would have been to call one, two, maybe even three scholars in the field of Biblical studies and ask them what the state or consensus of scholarship is concerning these materials. You would have come away with a much different story. But by turning to the Missouri Synod (the denomination that almost excommunicated a clergyman for participating in an interfaith service after 9/11), one is essentially turning this into an ideological battle, which among most scholars it's not (that's not to say there aren't any such battles -- but the issue of early Christian diversity is a pretty innocuous one among historians).

Here again, the media's adherence to "balance" has gotten in the way of the truth.


  1. If i had a dollar for every time media "balance" had done a similar disservice to science... Sometimes there really isn't "another side" to the story. If the author was really that concerned about giving appropriate time to alternate views, then the Über-conservative response should have gotten one line in the whole story, at most.

  2. Exactly. Those with an ideological investment in casting doubt on a given strand of scholarship, whether in the arts or sciences, gin up opposition and create a false sense of controversy, then demand their views be aired alongside those of scholarly consensus, creating an impression opposite of what is truly the case among scholars.