Mean Girls take on Chuck Colson

Ever since the movie Mean Girls came out, I can’t help but think of the Washington Post “Style” section as the “Mean Girls” section. I sort of imagine its copy editors in the same way Lindsay Lohan’s character describes the animal world (see the movie clip). Now, we live in an era where such snark is almost certainly popular, but it really doesn’t set well with me — especially when applied to serious news topics.

A recent example comes in the form of a profile of an evangelical program run by Chuck Colson, who I think we’re supposed to believe is an extreme egotist. I don’t know Colson, although I know people who do, and that’s pretty darn close to the opposite of how they would describe him. At the very least, the opinions on this subject must be mixed.

The headline writer took a motif from the article and ran hard with it. It set the stage:

Evangelist Charles Colson’s final mission: Spiritually cloning himself

The angle taken is that Colson doesn’t care about the Gospel of Christ so much as his own view of the Gospel. Colson doesn’t care about the salvation of the world so much as his own political vision of how that world should operate (Once again, convictions about doctrine equal politics). Colson doesn’t care about Christ so much as himself. He wants to clone himself, remember. But the substantiation for those allegations is a bit lacking.

The article is pretty light on actual Colson quotes and very heavy on exposition. I think there are only four or five quotes from Colson in a 1,700-word article and they’re very brief, so you really have to trust the article for context.

I’m admittedly pretty skeptical by nature but it was hard for me to get into that Tree of Trust. Here’s how the article began:

Charles Colson assembles the newest members of his Christian army at a Loudoun County convention hall on a winter Saturday.

Seated before the aging Watergate-era felon-turned-evangelical leader are dozens of handpicked disciples: a woman who sings at patriotic events, a sports psychology professor, a real estate developer, a pharmaceutical salesman.

They’ve spent the year — and as much as $4,000 — reading the books Colson reads, watching the movies he watches, praying the way he prays. It’s all part of an ambitious effort by Colson to replicate his spiritual DNA and ensure that his vision of Christianity doesn’t die when he does.

“This is the time for us to metastasize and impact society!” the gravelly-voiced former Nixon aide tells his rapt audience. “And this is a really, really urgent hour.”

The very next paragraph has the claim that Colson’s final mission is “saving what he regards as true Christianity from American extinction.” Is this how he puts it? Why not quote him? Why point out that he thinks what he’s teaching is true? Isn’t that a given? This distancing language (“what he regards as true Christianity,” “his vision of Christianity,” “his views about the inerrancy of the Bible …”) almost seem to tell us more about the Washington Post‘s position than Colson’s.

Newsflash. You may want to sit down. I don’t think the Style section is terribly sympathetic to traditional Christianity.

I mean, I don’t mean to be too harsh. The piece reminds readers of some well-trod but interesting information about Colson’s dramatic conversion to Christianity. We looked at a good discussion of same from Slate last November. Highlighting Colson’s passion helps us also learn a bit more about the man.

But the emphasis on cloning seems a bit overplayed. Or maybe it just seems tonally off for a Christian ministry. It all comes from the claim of a Breakpoint board member that they were trying to develop more people like Colson. That makes sense, since Colson has accomplished so much — from prison reform to theological writings — during his lifetime.

Now, maybe the Centurions program is — contra its own literature — a Colson vanity project. I don’t know. I had never heard of it before this article. But if so, I need a bit more understanding of how we know this. One board member saying something very typical about how he’d like more people like his organization’s founder and leader is not enough.

There was this part that made me laugh:

So dark was Colson’s reputation that much of Washington laughed skeptically when he announced that he had embraced Christianity.

“Someone in the newsroom wrote a fake headline saying ‘Christ Rejects Colson.’ Here was the toughest of the tough,” said Bob Woodward, an assistant managing editor for The Post who won a Pulitzer Prize for his reporting on the Watergate scandal with partner Carl Bernstein.

It’s a great anecdote and also, it’s almost like the Washington Post has particular ideas about “what it regards as true Christianity,” “its vision of Christianity,” “its views about the inerrancy of the Bible …”

Anyway, as I mentioned above, the article does a good job of portraying Colson as a passionate, committed Christian who cares deeply about all aspects of Christianity. It just could have used more quotes from the eminently quotable and unbelievably prolific Colson and his committed team of co-workers.

And when it gets to the whole cloning scheme, it doesn’t sound much like cloning at all. We get some interesting details about the course of study — not cloning so much as a college-type course with lots of books, movies, discussions, theology. You know, the kind of stuff religious groups have done for centuries.

The kicker, the ending graph, goes back to the idea that this is about ego and cloning:

The key is to have “a really big vision,” he tells them. And to listen for God’s plan — just as he does.

I just don’t see why we can’t get Colson’s exact quote here. I mean, again, maybe this is all about ego. But if so, the “really big vision” quote doesn’t tell us that. If he said this educational program was about listening for God’s plan just as he does, it might. The bottom line: This structure of this article is missing some really important journalistic building blocks.

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  • http://www.colsoncenter.org Stephen Reed

    Great analysis, Molly! Granted, we may sometimes use certain terms in religious circles that can be misinterpreted by members of the secular press–or regular folks. We can do better at representing ourselves, no doubt.

    But anyone who has worked for Chuck Colson, as those of us at the Colson Center for Christian Worldview, can attest that Chuck values what each individual brings to the cause. No clones here.

    Yes, Chuck does believe that it’s important for every Christian to get a thorough grounding in the historic truths of our faith. But just as Chuck himself is interested in every subject under the sun, as evidenced by the wide range of his radio commentaries and books, his students delight in a wide range of interests as well.

    We have authors, radio broadcasters, teachers, bankers, engineers, medicos and politicos. The one thing we have in common is a desire to see Western culture work out its problems and offer something to the world again–all through a winsome Christian worldview.

    I think if more journalists would come and take a look at what Chuck Colson and his friends are doing to encourage the best in our society, they’d get the most unique story of their careers: a positive story that surprises even the most hardened cynic.

    As Chuck likes to say “If God can save Chuck Colson, He can save anybody.” That doesn’t sound like an egotistical guy to me. Keep up the good work, Molly!

  • Truth Unites… and Divides

    “The bottom line: This structure of this article is missing some really important journalistic building blocks.”

    Is this a nice way of saying that this article is a slanted hit piece on Chuck Colson?

  • Bethany

    It does seem like the Washington Post is comparing Colson’s version of Christianity to it’s own, as thought it’s version is the objective one. A better objective standard might be the Bible, and some commonly accepted creeds (raised Southern Baptist, they don’t really have stated creeds, per se).

    Colson’s program reminds me of when Paul says things like “follow me as I follow Christ” and “what you have heard from me entrust to people who will be qualified to teach others.” Reproduction of self is the model of discipleship and raising leaders going back to the early days. If Colson is being narcissistic, then so was Paul

  • Martha

    ““This is the time for us to metastasize and impact society!” the gravelly-voiced former Nixon aide tells his rapt audience.”

    *raises eyebrows so high they disappear into hairline*

    He used a metaphor comparing the putative growth of discipleship to cancer? Really? I think I’d like to get a third-party check on that one, please; either he really did (and it’s particularly tin-eared of him) or he didn’t and the reporter either misheard or is letting their prejudices seep through.

  • Mollie

    Martha,

    I see no reason to believe that the quote is inaccurate. It is a very abbreviated quote, so context might be debatable.

  • Julia

    Bethany:

    Paul immediately came to my mind, too. He started out persecuting Christians and then became the very effective apostle to the Gentiles. That’s a bigger conversion than Colson.

    Perhaps the Washington Post finds somebody thinking they have discovered the truth and want to share it oppressive and objectionable.

    A book called “The Imitation of Christ” has been a huge influence in Catholic life over the ages. Modelling Christian behavior is classic for most Christian traditions. The mean girls attitude would be that indifferentism is the only acceptable way to be a Christian.

  • Martha

    Mollie, I would love to see the full quote. I have difficulty believing anyone would be so lacking in nuance that he used a comparison between being “salt and light” (which are the usual metaphors used in these instances regarding the necessity of evangelisation and cultural change by example) and being a cancerous tumour.

    “Let’s get out there and spread like a malignant, nearly always fatal, and extremely distressing disease in the name of life eternal and everlasting joy!”

    Yeah, that’ll pack ‘em into the pews?


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