Writer, editor, stumbler after Jesus

Putting your but in the right place

I’m not a big fan of the word but. That’s because it usually means, “Ignore all I said before.” As in, “I really like him, but…” Or, “I know people are sincere when they believe such-and-such, but…”

I try to use the word “and” instead. This, to me, seems to acknowledge that life can be a bit messy, and sometimes we just have to hold conflicting pieces of information in healthy tension, without choosing one over the other. Both/and, rather than either/or. Things can be too complicated to tie up in a nice tidy bow—and even if you succeed, you’ve got a knot hiding in there somewhere.

But (!), if you are going to use the word, you need to be very careful where and how, especially as a journalist. Look what happened when it was misplaced by ten of the travel correspondents—or spies, as Scripture describes them—sent out by Moses to sample the Promised Land ahead of the rest of the Israelites, in Numbers 13.

They reported back that it did flow with milk and honey, just as the ads said. “But,” they went on, there were sitting tenants. Big people who couldn’t be displaced. These press-junket doubters spread a “bad report” that changed the direction of a generation. It sent the people of God on an extended detour, missing all that He had planned for them.

Joshua and Caleb tried to bring some balance. In their minority report in Numbers 14 they confirmed that the place was good, and they agreed that the people living there were a challenge. “But,” they went on in verse 9, “the Lord is with us.”

This critical placement of the word was at the heart of the difference between bad reporting that led people out of God’s will and good reporting that would have taken them into His blessings. What separated the two accounts was not so much the facts as the focus.

The ten saw things from ground level. They looked up and saw giants. Joshua and Caleb saw the same things, from God level. They looked down and saw an inconvenience. As Caleb later looked back on this time (Joshua 14), he explained that he had brought back “a report according to my own convictions.” This was an account that was prepared to challenge the accepted version of events, one that saw similar facts—but from a different worldview.

This is worth remembering when we’re evaluating the news. From what “angle” are the correspondents seeing things? Their viewpoint will determine how they make sense of what they see. No ifs and buts about it.

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