What’s going on at Rolling Stone magazine? If you have paid any attention to the national news lately, you’ve undoubtedly heard about the now-infamous story published by Rolling Stone purporting to expose the awful rape culture at the University of Virginia. It had everything a story like this could want: innocent victim, brutish frat-boy villains, administrators more concerned with reputation than doing what’s right, clueless friends, and enough grisly details to all but guarantee a Lifetime movie someday. It had more than that, though. It also fit the right narrative. We have heard about for years that college campuses are being overrun by a rape culture. We’ve heard that 1 in 5 women have been sexually assaulted on college campuses. This is an epidemic about which something needs to be done and this Rolling Stone piece had the potential to serve as the match to set this tinderbox ablaze.
At least it did until people started doing the journalism that neither the author nor the magazine editors apparently did. When journalists from mainstream and new media sources alike began to investigate the details of the story, the wheels started to come off the wagon. Specific things remembered by the heroine of the story were in conflict with other reports or otherwise didn’t make sense.
As one domino after the next began to fall people began questioning just how much of the story was true and how much of it was just that … a story. Initially Rolling Stone stood behind the reporter and her story. Eventually, though, mounting skepticism not simply from sources prone to be skeptical, but from those inclined to be deeply sympathetic to the narrative of the story such as the New York Times, the Washington Post, and even several prominent feminists forced their hand, and they issued a statement backing away from the story. Perhaps Jackie wasn’t quite as forthcoming and honest as we thought they said (a deep irony since a big part of the initial story was about people turning a disbelieving eye to her tragic tale). Then came a second more thorough retraction that included putting some distance between themselves and the reporter. Finally people began to openly wonder if the whole thing hadn’t been made up in the first place.
As this increasingly hot mess continues to fall apart, I think there are a couple of lessons that Christians can take away from the whole affair. First, the truth is really important. We serve the God who defines truth by his very nature, and thus we must be absolutely committed to the truth. Lies in pursuit of an agenda, even a noble agenda, should never have a place in our lives or our ministries.
Among some in the world of modern journalism, with its growing emphasis on narrative journalism, there is a thought that if a story achieves some desired end, it doesn’t matter so much if all the details are correct. This whole episode puts this mindset on a rather severe display. The problem, though, is that if the end is really worthwhile, then it is worth pursuing with the truth. If the end is really noble, the truth will lead to it. If getting to a certain place requires fudged details, misattributed quotes, and other forms of lying, then perhaps it isn’t a place worth going. Put another way, if the truth isn’t enough to get us there, perhaps we’re heading toward the wrong destination. Narrative journalism isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Stories are really powerful. But, if the narrative is rooted in a false worldview belief, then the story is going to be all wrong.
Second, while the oft-heralded statistic that 1 in 5 women are sexually abused on college campuses today is questionable, if the number is 1 in 10 or even 1 in 20, that is way too high. Sexual abuse and assault is a violent tragedy that directly attacks basic human dignity and which should be opposed at every turn. The truth in this, though, is that the American college campus today is a place rife with sexual brokenness of about every kind imaginable. The movement that began in the 1960s championing sexual freedom has brought anything but that. The lives of students who have been negatively impacted by sexual experimentation are too many to count.
The truth is that worldview matters a great deal. What we believe matters. If we believe things that are false, we will get ends that are bad. The worldview prevalent on college campuses for several decades now is not a good one. It starts from all the wrong places. It makes assumptions that are false or otherwise unfounded about people and the nature of the world around us. It reduces creatures uniquely and singly created in the image of God as the pinnacle of all that he made into mere animals and then rails at the injustices perpetuated by the animals it has created, surprised that people did what they were taught to do.
This is a problem that will unfold itself and bring its awful fruit to bear for many more years. But there is a solution. As people who are committed to a better worldview, we need to be bold about proclaiming it. We need to be intentional about teaching this worldview to our young people before they go off to college so they can withstand the onslaught. We need to actively counter the lies of this false worldview, exposing them for the folly they are every chance we get. And we need to put the moral superiority of our worldview on display in every place we can be actively serving and showing love to those who have been broken by false worldviews, restoring them gently in the name of Christ. By this we will advance the kingdom in which justice and peace are the law and where truth reigns; the kingdom in which we don’t need false stories to shed light on real problems because those problems aren’t created in the first place.
Rolling Stone magazine wasn’t wrong in its desire to pull back the curtain on an often overlooked source of injustice in our culture with an eye toward provoking a conversation that leads to a solution. As Christians we should commend them for that and join them in opposing it. But, they don’t have the worldview necessary to properly identify the problem or effect any kind of a positive solution. For that, we need to lead the way because we do.