By Scott Robertson
Columnists, at least those who wish to have regular readers, endeavor to avoid being preachy when stating arguments. A journalism professor once told me there’s a fine line between writing a good sermon and a bad column. To my surprise, my religious studies professor agreed, at least to a point. Not me. I see that line as very, very blurry.
I don’t think it’s great that we as readers are generally more accepting of sermons from the media than we used to be. When I was studying journalism (the same professor I mentioned above referred to J-school as ‘learning to type for fun and profit’), preachy columnists would thump bibles of conservative or liberal dogma. That was bad enough.
Now we have alt-left and alt-right sources that just want to talk down whomever they don’t like. Alleged conservatives say it’s a great thing that Congress and the President just passed a law allowing the sale of your social security number. Conservatives used to be all about individual rights, not the least of which was privacy.
Alleged liberals just spent a few days praising a military action targeted at a nation against whom we had not declared war. Liberals used to spend flower-haired hours singing, “Give peace a chance.”
It’s gotten to where you can’t tell the preachers without a program.
And lookie there. Just like that, I’m preaching.
See how easily that happened? And that was on a secular topic.
The best columnists, of course, hardly ever preach. They’re too busy reaching your heart with great storytelling or your mind with salient points.
Pulitzer Prize-winner Jimmy Breslin, who died last month at the age of 88, was a storyteller to make my friends in Jonesborough weep. He won his Pulitzer in 1986 for a column about an AIDS patient. He came to national prominence in 1963 when he wrote a column about the man who dug the grave of John F. Kennedy. He later told the New York Times, “So you go to a big thing like this presidential assassination. Well, you’re looking for the dressing room, that’s all.”
Another Pulitzer-winning columnist, George Will, takes a more cerebral approach, utilizing dry witticisms often couched in historic fact. “The strongest continual thread in America’s political tradition,” Will wrote, “is skepticism about government.” Will also declared, “World War II was the last government program that really worked,” and “As advertising blather becomes the nation’s idiom, language becomes printed noise.”
Will is so studied in the locutia of American history that when he was lampooned in the Doonesbury cartoon strip, he was drawn as a 1700s-era scrivener dispatching “quote boys” to find appropriate bon mots attributable to the founding fathers.
When Will wrote a book about baseball, a colleague joked that Will only did to prove he did get out of his study every once in a while.
The commonality between the Breslins and the Wills of this business is the fact that they don’t waste ink making declarative statements about how the reader should live. They simply write relevant thoughts and opinions, shown either through the lens of anecdotal narrative or historical perspective, and challenge the readers to apply their hearts and minds to the column, and, if they so chose, to act accordingly.
Which brings us back to this space, and to Easter.
If I were to have spent this space on the page in a very George Will-like discussion of the facts of the Christian commemoration, this column would have appeared to be something like a repudiation of Easter. After all, we have only our faith that the stone was rolled away. Cold, hard historically verifiable facts about most anything Biblical are hard to come by.
On the other hand, had I retold any of the touching testimony I’ve been fortunate enough to hear over the last 50 years, this column would have been, in its entirety, a sermon.
Having avoided both to this point, I’ll see if I can share one last thought to which you may apply your heart and mind, and, if you choose, act accordingly. I’ll do what that journalism professor advised me to do: “Write what you know.”
“For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.”
Dang, but that line is blurry.