Strange Things Afoot in Christian Media – Part 1

One of the more enjoyable facts about my present job is that I can, from my perch here at Patheos, see a fairly broad range of what’s going on in the world of Christian media.  And lately, strange things have been afoot.  No one seems to know quite what to do or say about it.  Everyone seems to be waiting for the next shoe to drop.  But let me see if I can explain what’s been going on and provide some perspective.

On August 16th, Christianity Today published a lengthy, long-percolating piece on Korean pastor David Jang and the extended network of companies and organizations under his influence.  Jang heads the Evangelical Assembly of Presbyterian Churches, founded Olivet University, and through Olivet and its student ministries (among other avenues) has apparently developed a very broad network of organizations that includes International Business Times, Young Disciples of Jesus (YD), Apostolos Campus Ministries, The Christian Post, Christian Today (not to be confused with Christianity Today) and Gospel Herald.  In that list, the name that will raise the most eyebrows, amongst my readers, is The Christian Post.  Of Christian media websites in the United States, The Christian Post draws the largest audience; its reporters cover news of interest to Christians, and it reprints columns and newsletters (often in the form of guest columns) from the likes of Al Mohler, Richard Land, Eric Metaxas (formerly Chuck Colson, as it reprints the Breakpoint commentaries) and Russell Moore.

The piece in Christianity Today is meticulously researched and finely calibrated, going to great length (it’s eleven pages) to consider the many sides of this complex story and to consider what can be fully substantiated and to clarify what cannot.  It was written by Christianity Today‘s managing editor, Ted Olsen, and by Ken Smith, an independent writer who attended Bethany University in California, which went under, and began to investigate Olivet University and the organization behind it after it took over Bethany’s campus in some ways he found ethically suspect.  Smith clearly has devoted a great deal of time to untangling the relationships between Jang and the many organizations under his umbrella, but it is Ted Olsen’s considerable credibility, and his obvious influence in producing such a carefully modulated story, that gives it real heft.

The essence of the story was that David Jang appeared to have been involved with Sun Myung Moon’s Unification Church — but claimed to have taught at Sun Moon University, for instance, only in order to confer orthodox theology to members of the Unification Church — and may have taken over a rather distinctive Moonie tenet: that he is the Christ of the Second Coming.  At least, some former members of the movement David Jang leads claim that they were led to confess that he was “the Second Coming Christ.”  It’s possible that Jang himself never taught this, and that his lieutenants presently no longer teach it.  Jang has been investigated several times for heresy, but has largely been acquitted, albeit amidst allegations (from some) of influence-peddling and threats and intimidation from Jang followers.  The net result of the article is to depict the Olivet Movement as (quite possibly) having some vaguely cultish elements: an extraordinarily high view of the exalted status of its founder, a tendency to give secret teachings that are proffered to the chosen within the fold but publicly denied, and a practice of ostracizing anyone who leaves the movement and attacking anyone who criticizes it.

It all makes for a fascinating story, and certainly one that falls in the “important, if true” category.  I have to confess that I don’t know the truth of the matter.  It’s theoretically possible that there has been an elaborate conspiracy to bring down Jang and his affiliated enterprises.

But the rest of this post really has nothing to do with Jang and the “Second Coming Christ” allegation.  It has to do with journalism, and specifically journalism within the Christian fold.

Christianity Today is famously careful.  When you work at the helm of a magazine with a legacy like theirs, you always have people pressing you to write one story or another, to attack one group or another, and the leadership at Christianity Today has always been circumspect.  They went through an extensive deliberation process before publishing the piece, sought an interview with Jang but were refused, submitted versions of the story and received lengthy counterarguments from Jang associates and The Christian Post, and published the story even against legal threats.  All of this is reflected in the piece itself.  After telling the whole story, Olsen and Smith essentially present the evidence against their story and indicate where any of their sources have credibility questions.  You can practically hear them saying to one another, “Maybe we should put this in, so we can quote it to the judge after they sue us.”

What amazed me was what happened after Christianity Today published the article.  Literally.  I found it nothing short of astonishing.  Regrettably — and I do mean that, because I like the few people I’ve come to know there — I think The Christian Post has done more harm to itself through its response to the article than the article could have done by itself.

The Christian Post was founded, at least largely (presumably there were older mentors and encouragers), by students from Olivet University and Cal-Berkeley.  I expected a defense along these lines: “We disagree with the thrust of Christianity Today‘s article, but more importantly The Christian Post really has very little to do with David Jang.  We have complete editorial independence and we are no mouthpiece for David Jang or the movement he has inspired.”  Instead, what they issued was a full-throated defense of David Jang and an even more rip-roaring excoriation of Christianity Today and every person who criticized Jang within the piece.  They issued, in other words, a performative affirmation that they are, in fact, David Jang’s mouthpiece.

The purpose of the response was to defend David Jang.  If possible, however, the nature of the response was even worse — presented as journalism, it was actually a no-qualifications, no-holds-barred defense.  There was not a single criticism of Jang that possessed any merit whatsoever, and none of the figures cited in Christianity Today‘s article were anything but complete and utter liars.  Meanwhile, the people who defend Jang and who attack his critics, even if they themselves work for Jang-affiliated companies, possess unquestioned authority and good will.  This is not journalism; it’s public relations.  It’s not reporting, but spin.

I think you’ll see what I mean.  The article in The Christian Post begins thus: “U.S. and Korean evangelical leaders are rallying around Olivet University and its founder Dr. David Jang in the wake of an article published by Christianity Today (CT) which attempts to rekindle in the U.S. a decade-old Asian controversy over alleged “Second Coming Christ” beliefs regarding Jang. All of the allegations against Jang have been dismissed as false.”

Who are these U.S. and Korean evangelical leaders?  Well, it turns out they are the president and chancellor of Olivet University, a faculty member of Olivet University, and the head of the World Evangelical Alliance, which is thoroughly interrelated with Olivet and comes under scrutiny in Christianity Today‘s article.  The only leader most of my readers will recognize is Richard Land, but he does not defend Jang so much as he says that the people he’s known at The Christian Post seem to be “earnest” and “sincere” believers.  This is not “U.S. and Korean evangelical leaders rallying around” Olivet and David Jang.  This is Olivet-affiliated individuals defending their guy, and Richard Land defending his association with The Christian Post (he’s listed as “executive editor” for CP, though I’m not sure what that means on a practical level).

In Christianity Today, you found statements like these: “No one CT talked to for this story claimed that the ‘history lessons’ that allegedly encourage the belief that Jang is the ‘Second Coming Christ’ were ever taught in Olivet classrooms, or that Apostolos or Young Disciples members have encouraged the belief among its members in recent years.”  Clearly, Christianity Today is issuing qualifications and trying to be fair.  Compare the Christian Post: “In East Asia, all of the sources who have come out publicly in the past have been discredited.”  Or take the subtitles: “Sources Cited by Christianity Today Widely Discredited in Asia,” “‘Everything She Testified was a Lie,’” “Yamaya Makoto: ‘Cyber-Terrorist’ Blogger,” and “Sam Kyung Chae: ‘Cult Fabricator’ and ‘Heretic.’”  Immediately after the subtitle referencing Makoto, the article states:

As part of the story, Christianity Today also interviewed Yamaya Makoto, who works for the Salvation Army in Tokyo and runs a blog critical of Jang and Christian Today in Japan. Hokuto Ide, a reporter for Christian Today in Japan, has stated in his blog that Yamaya is notoriously known as a “cyber-terrorist” for using blogs to criticize not only Jang but also foreign missionaries in Japan.

So, the article references — and never questions or indicating that anyone might want to question — what a reporter for Christian Today (one of the media entities under Jang’s umbrella) says in a blog, that Yamaya is “notoriously known as a ‘cyber-terrorist.’”  No evidence, no counterclaims, no consideration of the reliability and independence of the source.

Similarly, one of the named sources in the Christianity Today article is Ma Li.  To refute her, the article in the Christian Post references a spokesperson for Young Disciples — another ministry founded by David Jang — named Rachel Cheung: “According to Cheung, Ma was coaxed into testifying against YD by Tze Chung Yeung, a former key member of a cult group in China called Zion Church, whose members drink hydrogen peroxide as a way to cleanse their sins.”  Whatever Ma Li said is, of course, an “outright lie.”  Again, no evidence, just an allegation from an obviously interested source, with a heaping dose of guilt by association.

I asked Ted Olsen whether Christianity Today would publish a counter-rebuttal, and he said no, since they felt the piece spoke for itself.  Also, they wanted it clear that this was not a fight between Christianity Today and The Christian Post; this was just about investigating a story and telling it fairly.  His co-author, Ken Smith, did respond to one or two points on his personal blog, defending Ma Li’s account, but also, importantly, defending himself.  Because The Christian Post had taken to attacking Ken Smith, and they would up the ante considerably in a followup article the next day.

Come back later today for Part 2.  This is too detailed and too important to be crammed into a single blog post.  But it was with the attack on Ken Smith — someone I have never met and have no personal interest in defending — that The Christian Post went even further beyond the pale.

Again, to be clear: this is not about David Jang and the specific accusations made against him.  I have no information beyond what Christianity Today and The Christian Post has already published (and Christianity Today did recently publish accounts from some sources who came forward publicly).  This is about encouraging a venture in Christian journalism to be more Christian and more journalistic.

***UPDATE: Part 2 is available here.

About Timothy Dalrymple

Timothy Dalrymple was raised in non-denominational evangelical congregations in California. The son and grandson of ministers, as a young boy he spent far too many hours each night staring at the ceiling and pondering the afterlife.
 
In all his work he seeks a better understanding of why people do, and do not, come to faith, and researches and teaches in religion and science, faith and reason, theology and philosophy, the origins of atheism, Christology, and the religious transformations of suffering

  • Tim

    I know I have to really discipline myself to look for the log in my eye before seeing my neighbor’s speck. Sadly, I think I have the speck and the neighbor has the log.

    Christians like me seem to struggle with this.

    • Timothy Dalrymple

      I think you can strike “like me” from that final sentence.

  • Steve Odom

    Thanks for taking the trouble to explain a complicated scenario. As a decades long reader of Christianity TOday, I can certainly agree that they are always “careful,” as you say, and have practiced a great deal of painstaking journalism.


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