Journalistic Integrity, the Bible, and Marriage in Newsweek's Gay Marriage Piece: A Need to Give Context
by Darrell Bock
The issue of sexuality has hit the front page again. Barack Obama selects Rick Warren to pray at the inauguration and all the forces of supposed equality react, saying that someone who stands against gays and gay marriage (read proposition 8) should not be welcome to pray, even though everyone knows this topic is one where a passionate division of opinion exits.
Watching CNN panelists debate the matter on Anderson Cooper last night, I was struck by a position taken by two of the three panelists that said the complaints were not about defending gays and gay rights but about a kind of bigotry Rick Warren is said to represent that should preclude him from participation, even though it is recognized he represents a significant element of the American population as a well known evangelical pastor. On the issue of gays and gay rights, our country struggles to have a conversation versus a shouting match. One national reporter told me years ago that there are few topics that surface in the national media where balance is harder to come by today. The reporter pointed out to me that journalism tends not to do well in this area. It tends to advocate, not report. In the last week we have a vivid illustration of this point, now reinforced by the latest public square exchange (By the way, Obama has someone giving the benediction at his inauguration who believes in gay rights, because Obama said he wanted the inauguration to represent all of America).
My illustration comes from the cover article a week ago from Newsweek magazine on gay marriage. It illustrates an opportunity missed, as the story was clearly not an example of reporting but of making a statement. It is disappointing when a cover article in a national news magazine becomes strictly an advocacy piece that really does not engage its opposition fairly. That is certainly the case with the Newsweek opening set of paragraphs on gay marriage. Lisa Miller begins her "report" with the following selective use of the Bible. She says,
"Let's try for a minute to take the religious conservatives at their word and define marriage as the Bible does. Shall we look to Abraham, the great patriarch, who slept with his servant when he discovered his beloved wife Sarah was infertile? Or to Jacob, who fathered children with four different women (two sisters and their servants)? Abraham, Jacob, David, Solomon and the kings of Judah and Israel—all these fathers and heroes were polygamists. The New Testament model of marriage is hardly better. Jesus himself was single and preached an indifference to earthly attachments—especially family. The apostle Paul (also single) regarded marriage as an act of last resort for those unable to contain their animal lust. "It is better to marry than to burn with passion," says the apostle, in one of the most lukewarm endorsements of a treasured institution ever uttered. Would any contemporary heterosexual married couple—who likely woke up on their wedding day harboring some optimistic and newfangled ideas about gender equality and romantic love—turn to the Bible as a how-to script?
Of course not, yet the religious opponents of gay marriage would have it be so."
What is missing here is precisely what reporters are taught to provide, context. Her effort "to take religious conservatives at their word" has little of their word present in what she raises.
No mention is made that although Abraham is following ancient custom in taking a servant for a child-bearer, something conservatives are quite aware of, the text in its narrative makes it clear that this was not a move approved by God.
No mention is made before we get to this text about how Adam and Even are presented to each other as gifts to each other from God and that this first union is the basis for remarks about marriage (Gen 2:23-25).
Nowhere is it noted that the various marriages David and Solomon had are depicted in Samuel, Kings and Chronicles as producing chaos for the nation, being presented as a sign of significant moral failure on their parts. There is a difference between a narrative’s recording what takes place and endorsing it as morally right.
Nowhere do we get a word about how the exemplary woman of Proverbs 31 is set forth as a positive and powerful image of a faithful wife.
Nowhere do we get a sense of how Hosea, betrayed in the context of an unfaithful marriage, is seen as a faithful husband. These texts give a far better glimpse of what the Bible actually teaches about marriage and commitment to a spouse than the narrative descriptions the Newsweek piece treats as prescriptive teaching.
Let’s ignore that Paul compares marriage, as a picture of affirmed intimacy, with the sacred relationship Jesus has with his bride, the church, even using Jesus’ self sacrifice as a model for how husbands and wives are to respect each other.
Let’s ignore how Paul calls for faithfulness in that relationship when he complains about sexual immorality that is rampant in 1 Corinthians 6 and that is part of the contextual explanation for his "burning" remark in 1 Corinthians 7.
Let's ignore that Jesus’ remarks about family, where he appears indifferent to it, belong in a context where God is to receive primary allegiance over everything including the next most important cultural relationship, the one with family. It is the family's very importance that makes the backdrop to Jesus' remarks so important for appreciating what he is saying. Miller does allude to this later in her piece, but still leaves that point undeveloped, leaving an impression Jesus did not care about families. In the process she ignored Jesus’ effort to make sure his mother was cared for as he was crucified (John 19:25-27) and how Jesus consistently used the imagery of family to describe the kind of community he sought in his followers, not to mention his endorsement of marriage from Genesis 2:23 in Mark 10:6-9 and his affirmation of faithfulness in such a defined marriage in Matthew 5:27-32.
So to that couple that is newly married and is optimistic about marriage, gender equality and newfangled love, I say, turn to the Bible, as I have couples do when I counsel them about marriage. See the solemnity of what they have committed before God to do and be. It tells us far more about how to live than this selective dip into the biblical texts devoid of any effort to balance the report by noting the context of the passages selected and lacking context that gives the impression the Bible has nothing to offer us on this key topic.
It is this kind of flat engagement with the text and the dismissive way of engaging the issues from the other side that mars Newsweek’s attempt to have a meaningful discussion about the questions tied to gay marriage in their "report".
Here was the apparent strategy: Begin by trying to neuter the Bible’s value to speak to the issue. Do so by ignoring the context of what the Bible presents. Leave the impression it has nothing to say or is woefully outdated, and all the modern world has to say on the topic is far more valuable and profound. Then the way is clear to go in the direction you advocate. Call it all reporting—or at least leave that impression.
Such dismissive handling of issues tied to an important topic is not worthy of a national news magazine. These writers are capable people. I know, I have worked with them on other topics. I know they can do far better if their desire to advocate does not get in the way of their calling to report and then assess. So let’s have a dialogue on such an important question, but let’s do so in a way that is fair to those with whom we differ as we discuss what the sides are. Is that too much to ask of journalists who also seek to treat theological topics in a national setting, especially when that topic is a polarizing as gay marriage is?
(For more posts on this issue and other like it where faith and culture interact, see www.darrellbock.com, this post also appears there.)
Darrell L. Bock (PhD, University of Aberdeen) is professor of New Testament at Dallas Theological Seminary.
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