(Update: I have modified the second last sentence in the fourth paragraph to clarify it: “does not report all facts, it presents positions” TW)
“Official newspapers” are breeding grounds for pride in their publishers, and cynicism in their readers. We rightly ridicule the likes of Granma, “Órgano oficial del Comité Central del Partido Comunista de Cuba”, but what are we to make of party-line publications in free societies and religious polities?
Those were my thoughts upon receiving the latest edition (Dec 2014) of the Reporter, the “official newspaper of The Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod”.
All sorts of organizations have ‘official publications’, and the meaning of that phrase is clear: “This is what we want you to know and believe about us.” That is not necessarily wrong or a bad thing, but such publications need to be read with great care because they are essentially propaganda. They are designed for influence and control rather than information and debate. That becomes a lethal problem when the target audience discovers the world to be very different from what has been described to them – think escapees from the North Korean gulag.
The Reporter has a primarily propagandistic function which would be less of a problem if there wasn’t confusion about whom the LCMS is actually targeting. The Reporter is produced as if its primary audience is external to the Synod, yet the bulk of the circulation goes to members. It’s name is also misleading because it does not report all facts, it presents positions. So it might be more accurate to rename it Presenter.
The Reporter formula is straightforward:
- LCMS responses to natural and human disasters dominate the text and graphics (Mercy).
- Missions and activities receive most of the rest of the space (Witness).
- No space is given to intra-Synodical controversies (Life Together).
The Synod bosses are certainly entitled to fill their own newspaper any way they choose. However, given the nature of our polity, putting a smiley face on everything is patronizing. It creates a reality vacuum that has to be filled, and the result is that we have a situation with the Reporter on one end and Christian News at the other. The reason we know that it’s a problem is because you cannot reconcile the two after reading them. The Reporter is all unicorns and rainbows, Christian News is all Sturm und Drang. There is simply no middle ground. Consequently, it is nearly impossible for LCMS members with vocations outside the Synod, and who cannot invest a great deal of time to understand the issues, to come to grips with disagreements, debates or controversies.
It seems that our Synod likes it this way.
For example, my congregation recently spent dozens of hours unpacking the controversy regarding Prof. Jeffrey Kloha’s “plastic text” paper and presentation. It dragged on until October when we finally drew some well balanced conclusions after a good deal of debate and research. The Synod and Seminary were aware of our efforts. Yet only in November did we find out that way back on August 15, President Harrison had issued an exoneration of Kloha via a letter to the Regents of CSL. Adding insult to injury, we have yet to receive any clarification of the revisions made to the paper by Dr. Kloha in response to “official” critiques. That information should have been carried in the Reporter.
Not doing so is utterly tone deaf and rather irresponsible. It suggests that members are to be patted on the head and sent on their way to less taxing endeavors like writing checks to the Synod.
My plea is for the Synod to be honest with itself. We are not too frail or stupid for hard debate. Why not use the Bible as a model? Tell it like it is, even when it has to be something like Judges 19.
There are dozens of issues on the boil that need forthright handling. Failing to do so imperils the Synod because each controversy is taking chunks out of the foundations. If we cannot rely on Synodical publications to address us robustly and honestly, then we should take a hard look at the communications budget which sucks up over $3 million a year. Imagine if we deployed those funds to supporting churches struggling to maintain a full-time pastor?