Editor’s Note: WORLD magazine editor-in-chief Marvin Olasky was at Cedarville today and I had the opportunity to sit down with him for 20 minutes to talk about his testimony, as well as his thoughts on modern Christian journalism. I’m writing a piece on the conversation for our school newspaper, CEDARS, which will be printed next week. For now, enjoy the interview.
AS: I’m familiar with your testimony. I know you grew up Jewish and became an atheist at 14, then later became a Christian. How was it that the Lord drew you to himself?
MO: Well, actually just take the stuff I mentioned up there. That’s fine with me.
AS: Okay, sure. [Edit: you can watch a good, concise video of his testimony here. For the main idea, Olasky was born Jewish, had his Bar Mitzvah at 13 and became an atheist at 14. He went to Yale, where he became a communist, moved to Oregon, where he quit his job because of his boss’ “capitalistic oppression.” He moved to Russia to learn Russian so he could speak with his “Soviet Big Brothers.” He moved back to the States and became a communist writer for the Boston Globe. While in graduate school at the University of Michigan, Olasky learned that to get a doctorate, he needed to be well-read in a foreign language. Because he was familiar with Russian, he chose that. He took the only Russian book he had not yet read off the shelf–it was the Russian Bible. When he reached Matthew 5, he realized that it was better than anything he had ever written. It wasn’t from man; it was from God. He left communism because he was no longer an atheist, but he did not trust Christ and join a church until a couple years later in 1976. ]
AS: What is the difference between you and someone like Christopher Hitchens? He was a Trotskyist-Marxist, and you were a communist as well and you both came to capitalism, now he’s an American citizen. But now you’re on opposite sides of the religious spectrum. Why do you think that is?
MO: It’s a mystery. I never know why God chooses one person and not another. And I would not give up on Chris. One of the enjoyable things in hearing testimonies is that everyone is different. The penny drops for some people at a particular time and for others it takes much longer. I think in my particular case, the penny should have dropped a couple years before it did, but I’m grateful that it did when it did. I was just reading yesterday an account of someone who—this is in the sixties—someone gave him advice—he was in Switzerland—to drop in on this fellow who was Francis Schaeffer. And not knowing what to expect, he did, and he ended up staying there all summer. In my case, in the fall of 1972, I was traveling around Europe and was in Geneva, and didn’t really have a place to stay. If someone at that point had said, “Oh, here’s a really interesting person to meet,”—and Shaeffer at that point was actually much better known than he had been back in 1964 or whatever—if just one person had said, “Are you looking for a place to stay? This place is interesting; there are interesting people there, this guy’s interesting. Why don’t you come?” I would have gone, I suspect. And the penny may have dropped right then, but for whatever reason in God’s Providence, no one gave me that particular piece of information, and on I went. It took other things to happen. So, you know, for Christopher Hitchens, 30 years are like a day in the eyes of the Lord. So, maybe.
AS: What did you find enticing about Communism that made you go to it, that you found satisfied in Christ and in Christianity?
MO: I don’t know if what I wanted in Communism was satisfied by Christianity, because what I wanted in Communism was the opportunity to—I certainly did not admit this to myself back then, I didn’t even understand myself—what I really wanted was the opportunity to lord it over other people. To be a master of the universe. And Christianity doesn’t provide that. What Christianity does provide is a sense that there is a purpose to life, that life is not anarchic, and that—I think it’s in Psalm 73 that there are a couple of verses, referring to God—and this is maybe loosely translated here—that “God is by his wisdom,” “he will bring me to glory,” and “who else do I have in heaven but him.” So there, God’s providing his wisdom, providing his council, so there’s a lot of understanding of how the world works that God offers. And “God will bring me to glory”—there’s hope after death, and “who do I have in heaven besides him”—what’s the alternative? So those to me are three powerful arguments, three needs that are supplied. Wisdom about living in this world, a sense of what happens in the next and all the other alternatives are clearly faulty.
AS: So it’s more of just instead of yearning to be all-powerful and be the master of the universe, it’s just submitting to a being that’s greater than yourself?
MO: Yeah, I think so. But submission is not really something that comes naturally to me. I don’t like the idea. But that is indeed what we are called to do. So, that’s not necessarily an appeal to me. I think the Bible is true and I would be incredibly stupid, given that knowledge, not to submit.
AS: What was so meaningful to you about the Puritans like Edwards and Cotton, and what was so meaningful about Calvin that drove you to Christianity?
MO: Well, the Puritans blew apart one of the prejudices I had. I had grown up thinking that Christians were rather stupid, silly people who worship Christmas trees—that’s it. So, Christianity was something for children. And the Puritan divines were very smart, love them or hate them. And it’s hard not to recognize that they work things out very logically, these were great—but humble—brains at work. So that was very impressive. Calvin, well I could go through the logic of it, but in some ways it made sense in terms of my own experience. I knew I was not seeking God. I knew it was all God. I didn’t pursue God; God drew me to himself. So that’s basic Calvinism in the sense of the sovereignty of God in regard to calling, election and salvation. So, when I started reading it seemed exactly in accord with my own experience. And then beyond that, there is a logic and elegance to it, but I suspect if I had set out to find God, then I would probably not be thinking so positive about Calvinism.
AS: So, would you say that you’re sense of hopelessness was what drove you to the Christian faith?
MO: Well, maybe, but at the time I left communism, I didn’t feel hopeless. I mean, that was the strange thing, when I left communism it wasn’t because of any sense that there was a huge lack. Now, I think that later on it made enormous sense to me, and Christianity made enormous sense to me in a way that other things had not.
AS: So it was a bit of Paul on the road to Damascus kind of thing.
MO: It really was. Now Paul changed more quickly. I mean, one day he was out to kill Christians, and several days later, he understood that he was a Christian. In my case, in a sense I was out to kill Christians, and it wasn’t in three days or whatever, it was really three years. So, I was slow. So yeah, this is the way God works—all different ways for all different people, sometimes fast sometimes slow. In Christopher Hitchens’ case—let’s say for Paul it was three days, for me it was three years and for Christopher Hitchens maybe it’s thirty years. In the span of eternity it doesn’t matter much.
AS: Let me ask you about WORLD magazine, and some general thoughts on journalism as well. Explain “advocacy journalism” and what you mean by “biblical objectivity.”
MO: There used to be dominant in journalism, at least newspaper journalism, the idea that reporters were supposed to be completely neutral. Sometimes, this was called objectivity, although it didn’t necessarily have any relation to the way the world really is. But it was certainly neutrality. The job of a journalist is to push the reader towards a certain position or understanding. And to a certain extent, any reporter is an advocate in some way. Some are more overt, some are more subtle. By “biblical objectivity,” I mean that only God knows the nature of the world, or has an accurate, complete sense of the nature of the world, and why things are the way they are. And so, the way we can get the most objective sense of the world, that is how things really are, is by reading the Bible and then trying to—in our fallen and sinful ways—trying to think as God thinks. Now again, we’re not going to get there, we’re very limited, but nevertheless that should be our goal. The closer we get to it, the more objective we will be. So it’s the opposite of traditional objectivity defined as neutrality, but it’s also different from advocacy. I mean, advocacy is basically acting as a propagandist, in some ways. Now again, you may be a good advocate or a bad advocate, but your goal is to do what it takes to move personally into a particular direction. Basically, I don’t think God needs any public relations help on our part, so we should try to look at things biblically, report things accurately, in the sense of biblical objectivity. But there’s no reason to lie for God, or try to exaggerate or stretch the truth or anything like that. God’s in charge, he doesn’t need us as his PR people.
AS: Is there “Christian propaganda” or would you not put it that way?
MO: Yeah, there’s propaganda by Christians. Insofar that one of the definitions of speaking rightfully as a Christian is that you’re telling the truth. Now, the way the word “propaganda” is used, there is no such thing as Christian propaganda. But there certainly is propaganda by Christians, because we’re sinners, and sometimes we do lie and exaggerate and try to get our way in ways we should not.
AS: Question about the WORLD Journalism Institute—I know you didn’t start it, just tell me briefly how you were involved in that.
MO: Oh, that’s a long story. We just thought it was a good idea for future journalists to gain some biblical training. But that would be a long time to go into the various curves and the different ways it’s gone at different times.
AS: How did the Jack Kelley controversy at USA Today affect World Journalism Institute?
MO: I really wasn’t involved at WJI at the time, so I really don’t know.
AS: How has WORLD magazine changed in recent years, considering the moves toward media convergence?
MO: We now have an active website in WORLDmag.com and that’s the place where we want to put breaking news. WORLD was a weekly for many years, now it’s a bi-weekly, but it’s twice as big as it used to be so it’s the same content, we’re on a biweekly schedule, so same quantity of content. But it changes things a little bit because we know that we cannot for the most part be reporting new stuff in it. Sometimes we do, we do investigative, entrepreneurial stories. But for the most part, the factual reporting are probably—at least on big issues—facts people have already heard. And so that makes analysis and thinking through things biblically that much more important. So the hard news that’s going to be available in other media we put more and more on the website. And then big news, [we] analyze in a biblical way, or small news that other media don’t touch is what we’ll put in the magazine. And the small news includes some very important things, like reporting on compassionate ministries. So it’s important stuff, but it’s not headline news all over the world.
AS: A lot of people said WORLD was like the Christian TIME or Newsweek, and that was when it was when it was weekly—now that it’s bi-weekly that’s not necessarily true. But is that the goal of WORLD, to kind of counter-thrust secular media sources?
MO: The goal is to glorify God, and help people enjoy him forever, and forever begins right now. So we learn about the nature of the world, we learn what God does. We can pray more faithfully, think more intelligently—that’s the basic goal. Now, in the course of doing that, there is going to be a contrast between what we report and say what TIME and Newsweek report. So in some ways we’re like them, especially because they have moved more towards commentary in a very overt way. They used to be subtle about it, now for the most part they’re not. So there’s that similarity. In some ways we’re like the New Republic, I’d say. But we want to be reporting-based, we don’t want to be essayist. I have a lot of respect for, for example, the National Review. National Review tends to be more essays. We want to emphasize reporting. And that remains our goal.