Getting An Orthodox Column Into Your Local Newspaper
By Fr. Thomas Kulp
Those who want to write religious columns for the local secular press (whether priest or authorized lay person) might find non-sectarian, non-controversial “inspirational” items the surest path to gain public favor. By “playing it safe,” it is unlikely we shall offend anyone (including the editor of the Church Page). The question is, what will we have accomplished? The public can get its daily dose of “religion” simply by calling “Dial-a-Prayer.” There is enough generic spirituality available in the marketplace, attractively packaged and especially tailored for the American religious mentality. But our task as Orthodox is to announce to the world, “And now for something completely different . ...”
Writing a newspaper column is an obvious means of proclaiming America’s “best-kept secret” but beware of trying to please everyone. An article that is “appreciated” by the local Catholics might well be considered rank heresy by the Fundamentalists. In my own overwhelmingly Catholic area. Catholic clergy and lay people have written, phoned and stopped me in the street, saying how much they have enjoyed learning about our Faith, and expressing surprise at some of the similarities and differences that were pointed out. A number of Fundamentalists, on the other hand, have written long, scripture-studded letters pointing out our Church’s “obvious” errors, and ending with hopes and prayers that I will soon see the light. One generous correspondent even sent me a copy of J. I. Packer’s Fundamentalism and the Word of God for my spiritual enlightenment and edification.
Making Our Witness in an Age of Religious Pluralism
While my articles were widely acclaimed, there was a small but vocal minority who felt I was trying to monopolize the Church Page and to propagandize the public with the views of one particular “denomination.” In our age of religious pluralism with its slogan, “We all worship the same God anyway,” this is a “no-no.” Besides, the Fundamentalists reason that if there is going to be any religious propaganda, it needs to be their own.
In any case, I plead guilty as charged. My articles were most definitely intended as propaganda to publicly promote the Orthodox Faith. Nor am I ashamed to make this confession. The issue here is much broader than that of writing columns for the local paper. For too long we Orthodox have been ashamed or afraid to proclaim what we believe. Yet if we are truly convinced that the Orthodox Church possesses the fulness of truth and grace, is it not imperative that we begin to bear bold witness to our Faith, both in word and in deed? Certainly the “deed” packs more power than the “word” to convict and convert, yet both modes of witness are essential.
How to Begin
The idea of writing a regular column for the Church Page of the local newspaper was suggested to me by one of my parishioners, who is himself a retired newspaper man. He told me to use his name when writing to the Church Page editor, with whom he is well acquainted. Here, as elsewhere, the surest key to success is knowing the right people. However, some newspapers have a policy of publishing columns written by local clergy. Contact the religious editor personally to find out what opportunities exist. If no columns are being published, take the initiative and suggest to the editor that your own articles might have broad popular appeal. Take him or her a sample of your writing and offer your services.
It is not my intention to teach technique; any good writer’s manual can do this. But here are some suggestions:
1. An article will be effective when it has a well-defined and interesting subject, written about clearly and concisely.
2. The article should be positive toward Orthodoxy while not criticizing or blatantly offending those of other traditions. People want to know the difference between our Faith and theirs, especially those beliefs and practices that are unique to Orthodoxy. But this can be presented without implying that the Orthodox are a superior race!
3. In choosing topics, you have a range as broad as the Faith itself. I have written on icons. Church music, the veneration of relics, saints and the Theotokos, the sacraments, life after death, marriage today, and abortion - to name but a few. Even if you write in more general terms, your articles can and should reveal the theological perspective and worldview of Orthodoxy.
4. Articles should be short (it’s usually best not to go longer than one typewritten page) and make sure you are not verbose, rambling, or writing in the “stream of consciousness” style. Remember, too, that if your first sentence fails to catch the reader’s interest, he or she may not bother to read any further.
While many people have expressed an enthusiastic appreciation of my column, the comments I receive are seldom specific. Nevertheless, the mere fact that perfect strangers stop me in the street to tell me how much they enjoy and look forward to reading it proves that what I write is somehow “hitting home.” Why this popularity? I think people in general are hungering for a deeper and more meaningful understanding of the Christian Faith. They’re looking for clergy who “tell it like it is.”
Many Americans are longing for the “meat” of sound doctrine. They have grown tired of the “milk” of a trite and banal, watered-down faith expressed in pious platitudes and simplistic moralizing. This is why I endeavor through my articles to challenge popular misconceptions concerning Christ and His Church, to shock people out of their complacency. One common misconception is that the Orthodox Church is an outmoded relic of the past, with lifeless rituals and quaint ethnic customs. My writing, therefore, bears witness to the prophetic message of Orthodoxy, proclaiming that this is a living and vital Faith, relevant to the spiritual needs of modern man.
With this in mind, one can draw upon the vast riches of our ancient Faith. For example, I have quoted sayings of the Desert Fathers and discussed the martyrs of the early Church. I have drawn a comparison between the suffering and persecution of the Church in the Soviet Union and the spiritually lax and lukewarm climate of religion in America. Modern attitudes on topics such as death and dying, sin and confession, fasting and self-denial need to be challenged from an Orthodox Christian point of view. Avoid vague generalities, however aim your challenge directly at the reader. Relate your articles to the day-to-day life and conflicts of the average American who struggles to find meaning in an increasingly impersonal and materialistic society.
To be sure, it is unlikely that converts will come pounding at our doors demanding chrismation simply because they have been enlightened by a newspaper column. But if we accomplish nothing more than making people aware that Orthodoxy is a living presence in their community, and that our Church is not merely the “eastern” branch of the Roman Catholic Church, our efforts shall not have been in vain. Beyond this, we should pray with fervent hope that the seeds we plant, watered by God’s grace, will eventually bear fruit. Finally, our parishes must work tirelessly toward achieving a common vision that is faithful to Holy Tradition. Otherwise the casual observer will fail to see any relationship between the ideal abstract Orthodoxy of the printed page and the concrete Orthodox community.
“That Seeing They May Not See”
The American public has, in a sense, been “brainwashed” by religious institutions which hold to the basic assumptions and categories of Western theology. You will find, especially among Protestants, “blindspots” that seem to render them constitutionally incapable of comprehending certain aspects of Orthodoxy. This is so because words alone are inadequate; the Mind of the Church can be comprehended fully only by those who live the Faith within a concrete eucharistic community.
I have discovered, for example, that it is futile to try to explain the Orthodox understanding of Scripture and Tradition. Overlooking the subtle but essential differences, most people will assume that our position is identical to that of the Roman Catholics. For the Fundamentalist, the Bible is viewed as an ultimate and autonomous authority standing over and above the Church. Any approach to the truth which seems to bypass or supplement the scriptural text is anathematized as a “second source” of revelation. Mention Holy Tradition and immediately you will be accused of holding to those “traditions of men” for which Christ condemned the Pharisees.
The role of the Theotokos in Orthodox worship and theology is another touchy issue. Protestants, especially, are prone to misinterpret and misunderstand our position. When a local church bought space on the Church Page to refute the doctrine of the Trinity, there was no public response. More than one “raw nerve” was touched, however, when a Baptist group published a poem with the enticing title “Message from Mary.”
This mediocre verse envisioned the Virgin in heaven, sadly observing that many Christians were offering to her the prayer and veneration that is due to Christ alone. A number of Catholics wrote letters to the editor condemning the poem as tasteless and offensive. There soon followed letters from Protestants defending the poem and attacking those who dared criticize it. My own response was to write a “sermon” in praise of the Theotokos. This, in turn, drew fire from a couple of determined Fundamentalists intent on “converting” me.
As a result of all this, I have begun to wonder if it is proper to unveil the mystery of the Mother of God before the eyes of the world, and subject her to public scrutiny and debate.
Transparent to Christ
One thing I’ve discovered along the way is that being a local “celebrity” has its dangers and pitfalls. Naturally it is gratifying to be recognized in the street, but this should not be our object in writing articles. As in everything we do, our goal is to give glory to Jesus Christ - not to glorify ourselves.
Many Americans nowadays are searching for a “guru,” a spiritual hero worthy of their veneration. If your articles succeed in striking a responsive chord, they may want to put you on a pedestal. At a recent concert, a man wanted me and my wife to jump onto the stage at the end of the performance while the spotlight was still on the singer so that he could take a picture of all of us together. Needless to say, we refused! Still, there is always a temptation to enjoy being in the spotlight - for the sake of personal pride rather than to proclaim the Gospel of Christ.
I am currently attempting to establish an Orthodox mission in a nearby community. I believe there is potential there, partly because I have become so well known through my articles. But again, nothing worthwhile will be accomplished if I cast myself in the role of a cult figure or a modern day staretz. The only worthy goal of our spiritual efforts is the building up of God’s Kingdom on earth. The public’s attention should be drawn not to ourselves, but to Christ and His Church. That is, we should always strive to become transparent to Christ and the power of His Gospel.
New Ways to Proclaim an Old Message
The general rule of the Christian life, as laid down by the Apostle Paul, is that whatever we do should be done in love. Free publicity for “our Church” should not be our primary aim in writing articles. Our real goal is to proclaim the way of salvation as a communion of love with the Holy Trinity, as revealed in and through Christ’s one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church. If we truly believe that the Faith we profess is of the most vital and critical importance for men and women everywhere, love constrains us to publish the “good news” using every possible and legitimate means.
We might even learn from the Fundamentalists. Who has not encountered those little “tracts” they deposit in every conceivable place? Often I find them in my mailbox, or even on the sidewalk in front of the rectory. Many of these tracts are poorly written, if not tasteless or downright offensive. But at least they are simple, to the point and effective. Why not distribute some attractive and well-written tracts of our own, dealing in a simple yet meaningful way with the most basic and fundamental issues of the Faith?
Consider also the multitude of advertisements placed by various cults and religious peddlers in the popular magazines and tabloids which grace our drug stores, news stands and supermarkets. It occurs to me that we Orthodox must become more aggressive in reaching out to those who are searching up blind alleys for the fullness of truth. A well-organized advertising campaign could attract many who might not otherwise hear of the Orthodox Church. At the very least, every parish should list their times of services on the local Church Page directory. Special programs and events should be publicized, stressing that the public is welcome to attend.
We Orthodox have not even begun to make the impact on American society that our historical claims should justify. Whether we write articles for the local press, pass out literature, or simply share our Faith on a one-to-one basis, every baptized and chrismated Orthodox Christian is called to be an evangelist. “Witnessing” is not an invention of the Protestants it is an integral part of what it means to be Orthodox. The Holy Martyrs of the Church sealed their witness to Christ with their own blood. Shall not we, who have been blessed to live in a free society, avail ourselves of every conceivable means to proclaim the true and eternal Gospel of salvation?
1. Considering the various newspapers that come out in our area, is there a possibility for some kind of Orthodox column in one of them? Why? Why not?
2. What other means do we have locally to spread the printed word about Christ and the Orthodox Church?
3. Think through one such project, outlining the various steps needed to be taken in order to accomplish it.
Examples: Newspaper column
Information in the newspaper
Information in the yellow pages
Distribution of tracts on Orthodoxy
Public notices of church events
- in the community
- on local college campuses
Extended parish mailings
Town, hotel, motel church directories
4. If we undertake a project or several projects of evangelizing through the printed word, what results might we expect - positive, negative? How should we be prepared?
Fr. Thomas Kulp is pastor of St. Michael’s Church, Mt. Carmel, PA.