Peggy Noonan was a speechwriter for both Presidents Reagan and Bush. She is called a hack journalist by some liberals. Yet she penned some of Ronald Reagan’s most memorable speeches. At a lecture she once gave to the students of a prestigious school of journalism, she offered the following advice.
Don’t study journalism. Study literature and history. If you want to write well, study great writers. If you want to be able to provide an interesting take on just about any subject, study history. These two subjects give budding young journalists far more grist for their mills, she reasoned, than the narrow topic of journalism ever could.
Prior to my conversion to Christ at age 23, I began college as a psychology major, mainly because I was seeking for something I could do to help people. I found that the answer wasn’t in psychology. I then began taking English courses because, like many other students in the major or in online English degree programs, I reasoned, “These are books I would want to read eventually anyway.”
But what would I do with English? Speak it, read it, write it, teach it? The possibilities were both limitless and limiting.
It was only after my conversion when I considered becoming a missionary to foreign countries that I seriously applied myself to becoming an English teacher. I wanted to experience firsthand the Revival that is sweeping over the earth in these last days and work to bring a much needed Spiritual Awakening to America as well. At that time, someone suggested that I become a tentmaker, that is, a missionary like the Apostle Paul who supported himself through a much sought after trade. English teachers are, in fact, one of the professions in most demand in many foreign countries. As part of my teacher training, the School of Education at UMass/Amherst was at that time emphasizing the teaching of writing. I actually took a graduate level course entitled, “Writing and the Teaching of Writing.”
To make an otherwise long story short, I began writing more about my faith in Jesus Christ. I began publishing a little newsletter using the new technology of desktop publishing. Then in 1989, I was invited to join the staff of The Forerunner in Gainesville, Florida.
I never set out to become a “good” writer. I would tell people that I aspired to be a Revivalist and a Reformer. I hoped to preach the Gospel to the nations. Writing was just a tool to change the world, just as the shepherd’s rod in Moses’ hand was a tool to lead God’s people out of the bondage of slavery.
In the last 23 years of using writing as a ministry, I’ve been called a lot of things. Some people have said I am a good writer, a bad writer, a boring writer, an interesting writer and so on. It doesn’t matter to me. I hope they are impacted by my message and not my style. In fact, I don’t see myself as primarily a writer. However, as a teacher, I hope that people do pay attention.
According to our server statistics logs, over a million unique visitors a year come to this website. Although this indicates that I must be doing something right, even this is not what I am aiming at. In fact, the relatively good traffic this website enjoys came about as something of a fluke. In the mid-1990s, shortly before we launched Forerunner.com, I wrote a series of controversial articles linking the modern Wiccan religion with abortion. Even prior to the popularity of the world wide web, these article garnered some notice by our local press.
A year ago, an anti-abortion newsletter, The Champion, published a story tying the Church of Iron Oak to Melbournes abortion clinic and accusing the Wiccans of promoting child sacrifice. After the newsletter appeared, Zaleski [a local Wiccan priestess] says she was spied on and harassed, and house guests were pelted with oranges.
Such is the power of the 26 lead soldiers!
And as a disclaimer, I never advocated pelting witches with oranges.
When these Witchcraft and Abortion articles appeared on-line, I soon began to get up to 30 emails a day from various teenage Wiccans complaining about my bias against pagan religion. Soon Wiccans began posting links to my articles all over the web calling for other Wiccans to read them and work to have them removed from the Internet. Little did they know that the number of incoming links is exactly how search engines rank websites.
Not all the articles on The Forerunner website are by me. The most popular piece in fact is not. The number one article is a piece by Gary DeMar on Behaviorism, which averages about 55,000 hits per month. It is popular because many university websites link to it. The most popular article of length written by me is called, The Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. It gets over 10,000 views per month. I am proud of this article because I put a few years of study into it before I wrote it. I hope that out of the thousands of people who find this article each year that a few get something valuable from it.
As I already have emphasized, popularity does not automatically equal good writing. Some bad writers are wildly successful and some good writers go unnoticed. This has always been the case. The “greats” of one generation are forgotten in the next and the “unknowns” become the idols of a new generation. Even beyond that, some talented writers and artists who are recognized in all generations promote a message that is as lifeless as the corpses they leave behind in the dust. What the world values most is seldom truly “great.”
The Bible itself is the most influential book of all time. Yet few critics consider it the greatest literary classic of all time. This was the argument that the pagans of the early centuries used to try to discredit Christianity. Early Christian intellectuals, such as Justin Martyr, Hippolytus and Origen sought to explain why Homer, Virgil and Sophocles wrote better prose than John and Paul – and why Herodotus and Plato wrote better history and philosophy than Moses and Isaiah. The early apologists for the Christian faith countered that the message of the Gospel was as priceless as gold, silver and precious gems, while the pagan worldview as expounded in its vast body of classics was as worthless as wood, hay and stubble that would soon be consumed by the fire of God’s holiness.
My advice to budding journalists and writers is to strive to be neither. Focus on the message, not the package. Content is worth a million times more than style. As a Christian, you become a “good” writer the same way you become good at anything else you set out to do. You do it for the glory of God and with the purpose of advancing His kingdom.