Truth, Having Nothing to Fear From Investigation, Should Be Pursued Relentlessly in all Disciplines
Thread pulling is hard wired deep into my personality.
I can't help it. When a new thread of thought comes along or a thread is loose that doesn't quite fit, I pull and pull and pull until it is all unraveled.
As a Pepperdine freshman back in 1998, pulling the threads I saw led me to faith, because I found a faith community willing to help me wrestle with big questions. Like Hermione at Hogwarts, I then followed those threads to keep learning about Christianity and how it intersected with politics and history and culture. A wonderful new world had opened up to me, and I needed to learn everything I could. I added a religion minor to my journalism major and then a master's degree in both for good measure. I eventually earned a PhD in church history after working as a reporter and work now as a professor in journalism and church history.
As a general assignment reporter at the Las Vegas Sun, new threads hit me every day, some exciting, some sad. I found myself praying for those I encountered, whether it was elementary school students receiving food to abate hunger over the weekend or inmates awaiting sentencing.
Some stories still haunt me, people's threads cut too soon, such as the man who lost his wife and unborn child because of a drunken driver after only two weeks of marriage.
Some threads were just a hoot, like the Elvis impersonators competition or Harry Potter convention I covered.
As I shifted to covering higher education in Nevada, I started to be able to see the direct impact of my thread pulling. If the general public was only skimming my reporting, it became clear that the powers that be were reading it very closely and reacting accordingly. When students, staff or faculty came to me with problems, I could get answers. But I could also highlight the good work being done to serve and educate the state's residents.
Here, there's many threads I never got to pull, story ideas I left unexecuted, sources that never materialized, questions I couldn't get answers to.
Sometimes though, my thread pulling led to massive investigations. This kind of thread pulling left my subject exposed. Or fired. Or indicted. Eventually, it sent one man to jail and put several of his peers on probation.
I pissed off the powerful by pulling those threads. I also defended taxpayer dollars and ended corruption. And I am proud of that.
But I also prayed in these investigations that truth would emerge. That the evidence would mount if the person was guilty or that evidence would exonerate them if they weren't, all the while pulling at every possible thread to exhaust the possibilities.
All of the journalists I've worked with have been thread pullers and they've all done so with a great sense of responsibility. The journalists I've known have been the kind to wake up at 2 a.m. to reread their story, worried they got even the tiniest detail wrong. Mistakes haunt us even more than the threads we haven't gotten to pull.
We journalists tend to be idealistic, realistic and cynical all at the same time. We're idealistic because we all pull at these threads because we want to make the world a better place by shining light into dark places. But we've pulled at enough threads to be realistic about the pace and possibility of real change and we've been lied to enough to be cynical about the politicians promising to bring it.
Thread pullers keep pulling because we believe our profession serves democracy. The wider public isn't so sure. Some call us fake. Some call us names. Some attack us for doing our jobs or label us as the enemy of the people. Most just ignore us or give their attention to click bait because they don't want to pay for real news.
My fellow Christians are often among the loudest lambasting the press. Even a member of Pepperdine's own Board of Regents learned I taught journalism at a dinner this past fall and told me my entire profession was immoral.
But I'd argue, in line with my friend and former Las Vegas Sun colleague Marshall Allen, now at ProPublica, a nonprofit investigative news organization, that thread pulling is very moral. It is biblical and like Allen, my faith made me a better thread puller.
Psalms and Proverbs repeatedly remind us to seek truth, speak truth, live truth. The prophets told us the truth of who God is. The Apostle John tells us that Jesus Christ is full of grace and truth. Jesus promises that those who seek God's word will know the truth and be set free, and that he will send the Spirit of Truth to help reconcile us to God.
Luke's Gospel opens by informing the "most excellent Theophilus" that he had spoken with all eyewitnesses and ministers of the word and investigated with his own eyes, and now was putting all of those threads down in an orderly account.
There are many biblical passages about God or Christ bringing light into darkness. Christians love to cite John 3:16 but not the passages that immediately follow, in 3:19-3:21: "And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed. But whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his works have been carried out in God."
Being a thread puller means shining light into places where people don't want light, where people prefer to stay in the darkness.
Thread pullers thus ruffle some feathers, to quote Han Solo. There have been times where I haven't wanted to pull at threads I see, for fear of creating waves or hurting feelings. I carry the stress of it in my shoulders, in my stomach. But I always end up pulling the thread.
More and more, in my religious scholarship, God has forced me to pull threads that expose Christian nationalism, racism and sexism, in our country, in our university, in my church and in myself. But I know the only way back to the light is through, so I keep pulling at the thread.
Being a thread puller has earned me an interesting reputation. Students think I'm too demanding in my reporting and research expectations. Colleagues sometimes wish I'd leave the string alone, or that I wouldn't pull so hard sometimes. Others have applauded my string pulling only to joke that they hope they aren't ever holding the thread.
But Pepperdine affirms thread pulling, making me forever grateful to be able to teach here, helping journalism and religion majors pull their own threads. I encourage both to seek Truth, because I believe, like the Washington Post affirms, that democracy dies in the darkness. And I believe that God is big enough to handle our questions.
And I affirm, with Pepperdine, "that truth, having nothing to fear from investigation, should be pursued relentlessly in all disciplines."
Dr. Littlefield is an associate professor with a dual appointment in religion and journalism at Pepperdine University. Specializing in church history, journalism history, sociology of religion and investigative reporting, Littlefield's interdisciplinary work looks at the intersection of religion, politics, media and culture.