Jake Adelstein is an aspiring Jewish-American journalist who surprisingly won a position as a reporter at a Japanese news agency. In his story, Tokyo Vice (Pantheon: New York, 2009), he retells his experiences as a young reporter learning the ropes of journalism in a foreign country, of mastering a difficult language, to his eventual work on the Vice squad, and ending with his efforts to expose Yakuza (Japanese mafia) crimes in human trafficking. His story is fascinating, gritty, and at times gruesome in its descriptions of human behaviour. (NB: Adelstein’s book is not for the faint of heart, and I would cautiously recommend it—with reservations—to others, like me, who enjoy crime stories, journalism, and are sometime Japanophiles.)
Early on in Adelstein’s career, an older, wiser, Japanese journalist pulled Adelstein aside and gave him an earful of advice—eight rules, in fact—on how to be a reporter. These rules come to form the basics of Adelstein’s journalistic ethics, but I was impacted, reading them, on how strikingly they correlated to the minister and his use of the Scriptures. The ethics of sources and writing, in other words, are very nearly the same as those of a preacher and the Word of God. Permit me, then, to quote Adelstein’s eight rules for you now. As you read, I expect that you will begin to immediately recognize the connections between a reporter’s sources and the Christian Scriptures. Still, at the end of the passage I’ll return to each of the eight rules and make the connections explicit.
The older Japanese journalist said the following:
“There are eight rules of being a good reporter, Jake.
“One. Don’t ever burn your sources. If you can’t protect your sources, no one will trust you. All scoops are based on the understanding that you will protect the person who gave you the information. That’s the alpha and omega of reporting. Your source is your friend, your lover, your wife, and your soul. Betray your source, and you betray yourself. If you don’t protect your source, you’re not a journalist. You’re not even a man.”
“Two. Finish a story as soon as possible. The life of news is short. Miss the chance, and the story is dead or the scoop is gone.
“Three. Never believe anyone. People lie, police lie, even your fellow reporters lie. Assume that you are being lied to and proceed with caution.
“Four. Take any information you can get. People are good and bad. Information is not. Information is what it is, and it doesn’t matter who gives it to you or where you steal it. The quality, the truth of the information, is what’s important.
“Five. Remember and persist. Stories that people forget come back to haunt them. What may seem like an insignificant case can later turn into a major story. Keep paying attention to the unfolding investigation, and see where it goes. Don’t let the constant flow of news let you forget about the unfinished news.
“Six. Triangulate your stories, especially if they aren’t an official announcement from the authorities. If you can verify information from three different sources, odds are good that the information is good.
“Seven. Write everything in a reverse pyramid. Editors cut from the bottom up. The important stuff goes on top, the trivial details go to the bottom. If you want your story to make it to the final edition, make it easy to cut.
“Eight. Never put your personal opinions into a story; let someone else do it for you. That’s why experts and commentators exist. Objectivity is a subjective thing.” (Tokyo Vice, 26)
#1 Don’t ever burn your sources. The minister’s first responsibility is to the Scriptures and the faithful treatment of them. “Your source,” says Adelstein’s advisor, “is your friend, your lover, your wife, and your soul. Betray your source, and you betray yourself. If you don’t protect your source, you’re not a journalist. You’re not even a man.” Betray the Scriptures, and I have betrayed myself. Betray the Scriptures, and I am no longer a minister. I’m not even a man. Furthermore, “If you can’t protect your sources, no one will trust you.” If my ministry is based on the casual reading of Scripture, of mercenary exegesis, and convenient interpretation, then in time my people will learn to take my words as casually as I have taken my authority. I breed distrust, and breeding distrust I create un-faith. Betray the bible, and I betray the people I am called to serve. I must never, ever, ever, ever, treat the Scriptures contemptuously. They are my source, my life in ministry.
#2 Finish a story as soon as possible. Sometimes ministry is about responding to situations, sometimes it is about planning for the long term. When those issues arise which burden the hearts of my congregation particularly—a natural disaster, a shooting, the death of a member, or some other tragedy—then I must teach from it quickly while the burden is present. I cannot sit and wait on issues while the issues go away. People’s souls need answers while their needs are strong—it is my job to answer those needs in a timely fashion. Therefore I must not wait on a scriptural story, or perhaps I will miss the opportunity for someone’s salvation.
#3 Never believe anyone. Above all, never trust yourself. A healthy doubt must accompany all personal theologizing. The scriptures are true, but I am deceptive and false, and I (and all others with me) will always squirm and worm our way out of the hard obedience. Measure all things against the Scriptures as our sole canon of Truth. Doubt everything else, especially yourself, appropriately.
#4 Take any information you can get. One of the professors at my university famously said, “All Truth is God’s Truth.” He was right. If it is true, it is God’s, regardless of the human source. Therefore draw from any source you can—the sciences, humanities, pop culture, history, literature, or even books about crime in Japan—in order to facilitate the Truth of your message. Take from any source you like, only ensure that it is the Truth when you take it. Read theologians you agree with, and those you disagree with, and always be on the lookout for avenues and resources to communicate the Truth.
#5 Remember and persist. What are the long-term patterns in your ministry? What topics come up again and again? While you’re being faithful to address the temporary (albeit important) needs of your community, do you have a finger on the pulse of their longer-term needs? An issue that seems unimportant may be a harbinger of deeper concerns. One case of infidelity may signal many more! One sermon preached on a particular parable may come to be the focus of your entire ministry! Are you paying attention to those trends?
#6 Triangulate your stories. Back up what you say. Find theologians and authors who agree with your interpretation. Find a group of other ministers, also committed to the gospel, who will check and balance your teaching. Make sure you have people around you who have both the courage and the permission to say, “You’re wrong.” And make sure you have the courage to say, “You’re right.” Furthermore, don’t repeat stories if you aren’t sure they’re true. Many ministers have polluted the Truth of their message by repeating fabricated or convenient sermon illustrations. Is what you speak the Truth? Make sure before you speak.
#7 Write everything in a reverse pyramid. Write your sermons with your hearers in mind. Pay attention to their ability to hear you. Focus on take-aways and memorable moments. Make sure that, along the landscape of your sermon, the main points truly rise like peaks above the surface.
#8 Never put your personal opinions into a story. Present the Truth, and allow your people to draw their own conclusions. Present the gospel, and allow the Holy Spirit to cause the change. Speak the Scriptures, and allow the Spirit to convict people of sin. Seek, as much as is in your power, to eschew your own opinion and present the Truth of Jesus Christ. But don’t forget a dose of rule #3, and present the Truth with healthy doubt about your self. There is no minister so good that he will not be corrected, no minister so truthful that he will not fall short of the Truth in some way. This is a grace from God, because it means that we always have space for Him to move and fill our fallen sermons. Nevertheless, seek Christ first, present him above all, and leave your opinion somewhere else.
There you have it. Advice from an older, hardened Japanese reporter that applies to how ministers of the Gospel ought to handle the Scriptures (proving, again, that all Truth is God’s Truth). They are simple rules, but they provide a profound framework that shapes the ministry of the Word. May God grant that all His ministers be faithful to the Scriptures they are entrusted to teach.