by W. Jackson Watts
Controversy has recently erupted on the American sports scene as off-the-field incidents involving professional athletes have come to the attention of the general public. Given the nature of contemporary media, it really was unavoidable that major news outlets would pick up these stories and make them front-and-center in many evening news programs.
These controversies have developed on several fronts, but all center upon off-the-field player conduct in the National Football League (NFL). Several players have been indicted or convicted in cases of domestic abuse, while another high-profile player has been indicted on charges connected to his excessive use of corporal punishment on his 4-year old son. Coupled with the usual pattern of drug and alcohol-related criminal activity, the world’s most profitable sports league has lately come under as much scrutiny as any time in the past.
As an avid sports fan, it has been especially difficult for me to avoid—intentionally or unintentionally—this extensive coverage. Like most aspects of contemporary society, much of the intrigue lies underneath the surface. It’s much like the fisherman surveying the algae settled on the top of the pond. It may be thick and green, but he still wonders what’s swimming around underneath.
If I may play the role of fisherman-cultural commentator, there is a caution which conscientious Christians should heed in this ongoing coverage. This caution concerns the link between authority and the closely-related issue of morality.
Who’s to Say?
I believe it was F. Leroy Forlines who first introduced me to the “Who’s to Say?” question. By this question, Forlines was calling attention to the nature of authority, especially as it concerns right and wrong. Anytime we start dealing with strong moral claims, we’re also dealing with the moral agents making such claims. And by thinking about agents, there is a presumption to authority which allows these persons to make such claims.
We’ve been conditioned in postmodernity to question the idea of authority. Many of the figures and institutions which in earlier periods were thought to possess moral authority included the church, the clergy, parents, and even elected officials. Yet in countless instances most of these have lost their cultural authority to assert anything about right and wrong, good and bad. “Who’s to say”? Moral judgments are simple statements of value. Nothing more. At best, morality is socially-constructed and constantly evolving.
However, in the midst of the recent coverage of the football players, journalists and media personalities of all sorts have declared their outrage at the conduct of the athletes. Moreover, they have hurled their invectives against league officials, including team-owners, who haven’t dealt with these situations in a way they thought was appropriate.
There’s no doubt that most spectators (myself included) deplore the actions of these players. Even many teammates have expressed their disgust and disdain. However, the role the media has come to play as judge, jury, and executioner is worth special attention.
Mainstream, irreligious thought today sees morality as nothing more than a cultural construct, the consensus of human opinion and preference. As troubling as this is, we should perhaps be equally concerned about having the “all-seeing eye” of the media serve as our conscience when it comes to morality.
In past decades, journalists like Malcolm Muggeridge and cultural critics like Daniel Boorstin have cautioned about the perils of modern media. We should keep in mind that this was before the 24-hour news, and largely before the surge of for-profit news organizations and programs. Boorstin warned of the “pseudo-event,” in which the media is able to manufacture and make news as opposed to merely reporting it . Muggeridge, himself a journalist, spoke of how the media had created and belonged to a world of fantasy, purporting its presentation of things to be reality .
These observations clue us into the realization that an organ of society such as news media is not at all best positioned to instruct us in the morality of human conduct. As any powerful entity, it is far too easy for persons in this industry to not only describe events of interest and ask insightful questions, but to stand over and above society as if removed from it to render verdicts. Yet who stands over and above the media?
Because the news networks rely on advertising just as any other television programming does, they are still in some respects at the mercy of the viewers who choose to tune in. But this actually doesn’t help the problem of media authority because as consumers people may choose to find a network that narrates reality the way they choose to hear it. The news media is still in a position of moral authority.
Christians and Authority
It is difficult for Christians to wade into this arena because we recognize that the church has had far too many black eyes in the past to be taken seriously by so many. As NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell assembles a staff to study issues in domestic violence and player conduct, no clergy, theologians, or Christian counselors will be summoned to participate.
Even aside from the moral failings of pastors and massive church organizations, people often reject the moral claims of Christianity simply because “in unrighteousness they suppress the truth.” This is a problem which we may bemoan, but it will not go away. The added difficulty is that perceptions of the church’s moral credibility come to so many by way of the news media! What can be done in the midst of such a challenging climate? I would offer two suggestions:
- Maintain Integrity in Order to Gain Credibility
While it is no guarantee of mainstream cultural success, it is certainly a basic truism that integrity precedes credibility. People tend to listen to those who have demonstrated consistency, and fairness with others. Though we may bear some corporate responsibility for the failures of the church in the past, we are God’s people today. We can only fully answer for our own lives and those with whom we covenant together in the church. Seeing things this way may the scope of our influence more to the local level than the national one, but faithfulness begins in the area where God has placed us.
- Along with Integrity, Offer a Narrative
The idea of a controlling narrative or story is a convention utilized by persons in the media. They often purport to be presenting a narrative of what is happening in society at any given moment. More often they are defining and creating a narrative within which to report their stories in a coherent way.
Christians, however, have the most powerful narrative of all time: the story of King Jesus. The morals of Jesus are still compelling to many, but we go much further by declaring that the Christ of Scripture is also the Lord of Heaven. So as we speak about the same subjects the media covers, we interpret them through a lens which is infallible. The Christian worldview makes sense of the world in all its glory and garbage. It accounts for the exemplary athletes and the despicable ones. But it also holds all of us accountable.
The notion of moral authority is a thorny one to be sure. But Christians must not back away from it simply when others seek to usurp it. We recognize that only King Jesus has ultimate authority, and we want to live under that authority as we proclaim it in a confused, media-saturated world.
 Daniel Boorstin, The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America (New York: Vintage Books, 1961).
 Malcolm Muggeridge, Christ and the Media (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1977).