Friday, March 18, 2005

CNN, John MacArthur, and Slander by Suggestion

The other day CNN's Bob Franken did a segment on Rick Warren's The Purpose Driven Life, given that it was in the news again with fresh prominence after Ashley Smith read portions of it to Brian Nichols, the Atlanta killer.

Last night I was talking to my mom on the phone, and she said, "Can you tell me about the controversy with Warren's The Purpose Driven Life? Dad saw that CNN was talking about it, and said that people like MacArthur are pretty jealous about it."

I had heard about CNN's story from Challis Dot Com. The segment was fairly balanced on the whole, looking at personal stories of the impact Warren's book has made and attempting to set it within the historical context of American evangelicalism. Then came the obligatory "criticisms from others section," with Bob Franken reporting. Here's the transcript, interspersed with my own comments in bold so it's clear exactly what Franken is doing.

Here's Bob Franken.


JOHN MACARTHUR, GRACE TO YOU: Passing through history. BOB FRANKEN, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Pastor John MacArthur preaches the Gospel of a stern God. (Obviously prejudices the audience against MacArthur right off the bat. MacArthur doesn't preach on The God Who Loves [the title of one of his books]. Rather, he has a mean God.)

MACARTHUR: We're going to see about devastation, wars, judgments to come.

FRANKEN: In his own books, he derides "Purpose Driven Life" for treatment of scripture that's too casual, too shallow.

MACARTHUR: What you've got is a feel-good kind of approach. This is telling people exactly what they want to hear, telling people that God agrees with you. God wants you to be what you want to be. And this is pretty heady stuff, to tell somebody that the God of the universe wants them to be exactly what they want to be. But that is not the Christian message.

FRANKEN: MacArthur's radio tapes are played on more than 1,000 stations worldwide. His worshipers hear music from a huge choir and a full symphony-sized orchestra. (Hmmm--I thought this was about Warren, not MacArthur. Well, we at least learn that 1000 stations carry his radio program, and that his choir is "huge" and his orchestra is "full." Relevance? It's part of Franken's pre-conceived storyline, as well see.)

(on camera): John MacArthur draws about 8,000 people to his Sunday services here, not the largest of the so-called mega-churches, but big business, nonetheless, with stiff competition. (Pretty subtle! 8000 peple--BUT, that's not the biggest church out there. Add the words "not the largest," "mega-churches," "big business" and "stiff competition" and you've got the recipe for one jealous fella!)

(voice-over): A columnist in Los Angeles who writes about religion likens it to a battle between retailers.

TIM RUTTEN, "LOS ANGELES TIMES": This is about two approaches to marketing evangelical Christianity to a larger number of Americans. (Note: "This is about" marketing and who can get the bigger numbers.)

FRANKEN: Rick Warren's message has resulted in an operation that is more than twice the size of John MacArthur's. (Wow--MacArthur must be green with envy. Warren's "operation" is twice as big as MacArthurs!)

MACARTHUR: It's a pop gospel. It's just exactly what people want to hear, and so they like who says it. So, popularity goes with it. (A good quote. Why was it selected? Because it fits the pre-conceived storyline that MacArthur is simply jealous of Warren's success. So Franken asks something like, "Why do you think it's so popular?" MacArthur responds, and his response is indication that MacArthur is obsessed with its popularity.)

LYNN GARRETT, RELIGION EDITOR, "PUBLISHERS WEEKLY": There's probably some jealousy involved there because of his success. He's got a phenomenally successful best-selling book and a huge church. And it sounds a little bit like sour grapes to me. (Now Franken gets Lynn Garrett to say for him what Franken has spent the entire segment thus far implying: the reason MacArthur criticizes Warren's approach is jealous sour grapes. The evidence? None. Just a suggestion.Just floated out there. Just an accusation of sin without substantiation. But now the idea has been planted in millions of viewer's minds.)

FRANKEN: Warren writes of those who become addicted to attention. (This statement just floats in from nowhere. Given the context, the implication seems to be that MacArthur is addicted to attention and can't stand that Warren is more popular than he is.)

MACARTHUR: It's a great ploy to push away criticism, because, if you endeavor to call somebody to accountability and to measure them against the truth, you fall into trap of being accused involved in some kind of turf battle. I just see it as a ploy. (I'm glad at least they included this quote!)

FRANKEN: Battles over doctrine are as old as religion itself. Modern times haven't changed that. (Franken strings together the whole segment as one man's jealousy over another man's success, and then summarizes it as a "battle over doctrine." Which doctrines do Warren and MacArthur disagree about? Franken never says. The doctrinal disagreement is essentially reduced down to envy.)

Bob Franken, CNN, Los Angeles.

Warren's book is subject to some legitimate criticism. (See, for example, these three thoughtful critiques.) It's a debate worth having. But understanding is not going to be advanced by means of an pre-conceived, unsubstantiated storyline of jealousy regarding whose ministry is bigger and better.