A world of good
Joel Belz became a journalist with a desire to help Christians think Biblically about the news, even when the truth is unpopular. Decades later, he’s still pounding out columns and hoping shoe-leather journalism remains helpful—and even hopeful—in a divisive and difficult age
Editors and writers spend lots of time in front of computer screens, looking for the right words to express what they mean. But WORLD founder Joel Belz has also spent plenty of time in front of a local Walmart, looking for ordinary people to ask what they think.
For years Belz grabbed a pen and a notebook, walked the short distance from his WORLD office to the nearby Walmart, and perched near the front door. He usually spent a couple of hours outside, interviewing a few dozen people about topics he chose in advance: social security, immigration, rising taxes. Sometimes the subjects were thornier: same-sex marriage, race relations, politics.
In his columns, Belz acknowledged his semiannual surveys weren’t scientific, but his questions were sincere: He knew the best way to understand people grappling with pressing issues was to talk with them directly.
It’s the same shoe-leather instinct that led Belz to the book-cluttered office of J.I. Packer to interview the renowned theologian and author—and also to the days-long vigil outside the hospice center of Terri Schiavo to report on the court-ordered starvation of a disabled woman who couldn’t speak for herself.
These days, a trying mix of health problems prevents Belz from standing outside a Walmart for hours, but on a recent fall morning he sat at his dining room table tapping out another column in the home he’s shared with his wife, Carol Esther, since 1977.
With a walker sitting close by, Belz explains he’s battling a tough trio: prostate cancer, Parkinson’s disease, and a left leg still recovering from a femur break last year. But the tremors in his hands don’t keep him from his MacBook or his biweekly deadlines for the column he’s written for decades.
What’s he writing about this week? “The Sabbath,” Belz replies. He wants to encourage readers to approach the Sabbath as “a happy demonstration of what we think about our God” and not as “a rule book.”
The Sabbath seems like a fitting reflection for a man who’s worked hard for more than 40 years to nurture Christian journalism but who also knows the importance of resting in Christ’s work instead of our own.
In a 1997 column, Belz wrote about WORLD’s work as a mission “to help readers see the world and everything in it from a God-centered perspective.” That work has been joyful but not always easy: In the early days, WORLD almost didn’t survive. It’s also required tough stories about problems in the world—and sometimes problems among Christians.
That’s not always popular, but hopefully it’s helpful, even when it’s done imperfectly. Decades later, Belz says he’s still most encouraged when he hears a WORLD reader, podcast listener, or program viewer say, “You helped me.”
When I visited Belz in his Asheville home in October, I told him I wanted to talk with him about his work at WORLD over the decades. That was true. What I didn’t tell him was that for his 40 years of perseverance in helping Christians see the world through God-centered journalism, Joel Belz is WORLD Magazine’s 2021 Daniel of the Year.
DRILL A FEW MINUTES into a conversation with Belz, and he’s already talking shop.
“Have we ever had a discussion about quotes?” he asks.
We talk about the challenges of interviewing and quoting sources faithfully, and Belz says he’s thankful he’s never had anyone say, “What you printed is not what I said.” That’s no small accomplishment, but Belz sounds less proud than grateful for “a feeling of security that I have not abused the relationship.”
Belz’s relationship with publishing began early: As a child, he helped run his family’s printing press. He grew up in a pastor’s home in rural Iowa with four brothers, three sisters, and a daily ritual that helped shape him: family worship and reciting the Westminster Shorter Catechism around the breakfast table.
He graduated from Cono Christian School and Covenant College and earned a master’s degree in communications from the University of Iowa. He taught a communications course at Covenant College for a year and says he knew “I did a lousy job.”
He was determined to improve and worked hard to get ready for the next round of classes. The first day of the fall semester went better, but he realized “I’ve got to do it again tomorrow.” He’d spent the whole summer preparing for the first class. He concluded: “No, that’s it for teaching.”
He still remained involved in the burgeoning Christian education movement, and other forms of teaching were also on the horizon. In 1975 he married Carol Esther, and the couple raised five daughters. They now have 16 grandchildren.
(This year, for his 80th birthday, his daughters gave Belz an electronic frame loaded with digital pictures of the family. It sits on a table in the living room, and Belz says it serves as a “sort of prayer book” for the couple: “Whoever’s on the screen when we walk by—they get prayed for right at that moment.”)
In 1977, Belz and his family moved to Asheville, and he began work for the The Presbyterian Journal, a publication aimed at resisting theological liberalism in the church. The journal carried theological essays, but Belz says it was rooted in “the news of the church”—a kind of template for the journalism to follow.
In 1981, Belz added to the company’s offerings by launching a newspaper for children. He modeled It’s God’s World after the Weekly Reader publication that he and many other children grew up reading.
In a 1981 letter to Norm Bomer—who would go on to edit the children’s papers for 30 years—Belz described the kind of writing samples he wanted Bomer to send if he was interested in a job covering current events for children: “Perhaps the assassination attempt in the El Salvador situation, as you might write them for the publication we project.”
The publication was a hit with Christian families, and parents soon began asking when they might see a version of the papers tailored for adults. In 1986, Belz pioneered the launch of WORLD Magazine, but he’s still glad the children’s papers came first: “If we had done it the other way around, WORLD would have started off as an academic journal—very gray, very theoretical. It would not have been rooted in news.”
When he thinks about WORLD’s beginnings, Belz recalls “our almost naïve approach.” He remembers thinking, “All we have to do is tell the truth, and we can get a start.” WORLD got a start with a 16-page issue in March 1986, featuring a cover story written by Belz’s sister-in-law, Mindy Belz, who went on to become an international reporter, editor, and senior editor in a career at WORLD spanning 35 years.
But almost as quickly as the magazine got a start, it soon ground to a halt.
After 13 issues, WORLD had a loyal following of 5,000 subscribers, but that wasn’t nearly enough to sustain the operation. “We had a venture, but no capitalists to go with it, and therefore no way to continue,” Belz wrote in a 2001 column. “Our board pulled the plug on continued publication, and we sat dazed for the next few weeks wondering what lay ahead.”
What lay ahead would breathe unexpected life into WORLD: The board decided to end the 44-year run of The Presbyterian Journal and devote all the organization’s energies to the children’s publications, a book club for children, and the magazine. The Journal’s subscribers flowed into WORLD’s orbit.
Meanwhile, the Christian magazine Eternity folded, and WORLD inherited thousands of its subscribers. Belz called it “a once in a lifetime opportunity, a transfusion without which WORLD would have probably died an early death.” Still, there were plenty of circulation struggles ahead and challenges to WORLD’s survival.
“In fact, the end was always only a week or two away,” Belz wrote about those early years. “But that fact kept folks’ trust focused on God Himself rather than on any ingenious human plan.” That trust would prove important over the years ahead.
FOR BELZ, a key part of earning readers’ trust was finding good writers.
In 1996, he wrote about three qualities he searched for in writers for WORLD: First, they needed “trained insights to tell me what’s happening. At WORLD, such insights must also incorporate a well-rounded biblical point of view—or what we sometimes call a ‘God’s-eye perspective.’”
A good writer also needed the ability to “write with uncommon clarity and interest.” And if a writer passed both of those tests, the third was still daunting: Belz wrote that a Christian journalist needs “a pastoral or shepherd’s heart.” That means writers “who will pick us up like lambs and carry us along, who will be tender and careful—never cocky and cavalier. Neither, of course, are we looking for wimps; but good shepherds are rarely wimps.”
The shepherd metaphor was fitting for Belz, an elder in the PCA church he helped start in 1980, shortly after moving to Asheville. He still attends Covenant Reformed Presbyterian Church, and during our kitchen table conversation in October, we talked about the similarities between the job of an elder and a Christian journalist.
The analogy has its limits, but Belz said “part of it is certainly that you can’t be sensationalistic in the dispatch of your duties. Your main task is not to get people excited. Your main task is to help them discover and hold onto the truth.”
That doesn’t mean the task can’t be exciting.
In 1992, he recruited Marvin Olasky to begin working with the editorial team, as Belz shifted to focus on the organization’s work as CEO. Five years later, WORLD reported on what it called “the stealth Bible”—a secretly planned gender-neutral translation of the New International Version (NIV). At the time, the NIV was widely used among evangelicals, and WORLD’s report of a compromising new translation sent shock waves among many.
The timing was awkward: Two years earlier, Belz had been elected president of the Evangelical Press Association (EPA). The organization wasn’t pleased with WORLD’s coverage of the NIV controversy and how it affected major EPA members like Zondervan Publishing and the International Bible Society (IBS). Zondervan filed a 10-page ethics complaint against WORLD to the EPA.
Belz didn’t blink. He backed WORLD’s coverage and flew to Colorado for a meeting with other evangelicals opposed to the translation. Belz huddled with John Piper, Wayne Grudem, R.C. Sproul, and others at a local hotel until 2 a.m., hammering out a list of mistranslations to present to Zondervan and IBS.
The group met with publishing executives a few hours later, and the story took a surprise twist: IBS announced it would keep the current version of the NIV and halt plans to publish the new translation.
Over the next two decades, WORLD continued to publish investigative stories that sometimes reported problems in Christian organizations and well-known evangelical leaders. (In 2014, The New York Times described WORLD’s reporting with the headline: “A Muckraking Magazine Creates a Stir Among Evangelical Christians.”)
Controversial stories always bring high-pressure moments, and I asked Belz if he was ever tempted to tamp down a story that could cause the magazine problems: “No,” he replied. “No, just absolutely not.”
He also didn’t tamp down his own concerns with both the Church and the outside world. In a 1996 column Belz challenged Christians not to water down the gospel: “We have vast movements in evangelicalism devoted to cheery chatter, to frivolous fellowship, and to warm-ups for worship—all which goes on endlessly while waiting to get to the core issues.”
He’s also called on evangelicals to stand firm in defending the unborn and the Biblical definition of marriage, while also warning Christians not to put their ultimate hope in political power. He’s encouraged faithful believers to stay engaged with the political process but warned, “As soon as you start thinking God needs that effort to achieve His ends, you’ve quit being faithful.” That was a sometimes unpopular message as elections grew particularly divisive in 2016 and 2020, but Belz stuck by it.
FOR BELZ, being a faithful journalist also kept him interested in those who had no power at all.
In 2005, he joined other pro-life advocates outside the hospice center of Terri Schiavo—a 41-year-old woman left profoundly disabled after a heart attack 15 years earlier, but also described by her parents as very much alive. Schiavo’s husband disagreed and won a court battle to order her feeding tube removed.
Belz traveled to Pinellas Park, Fla., as Schiavo began to die, and he reported on the scene outside the Woodside Hospice: “They built it—but almost nobody came.” Belz was referring to the lower-than-expected turnout of pro-life advocates outside the hospice center. Police had prepared for as many as 25,000 people to descend on the town. Belz reported several hundred showed up. Schiavo died March 31, 2005.
A few weeks later, Belz wrote about his experience in Florida, and he offered a correction to one part of his earlier story: He had reported that a young lawyer camped outside Schiavo’s hospice center abandoned his post after committing to stay. Belz interviewed him on Saturday, and he was gone on Sunday. The lawyer later called Belz to tell him the report wasn’t fully accurate: He had returned to his vigil when he realized a congressional action aimed at saving Schiavo had actually failed.
Belz apologized. “Even when you’re right about the main point, you can be wrong about the details,” he wrote. “Journalists have to keep learning that lesson.”
He also reflected on another lesson: Had journalists done enough to highlight Schiavo’s story from the beginning? A few weeks after Schiavo’s death, Belz interviewed David Gibbs, the attorney who represented Schiavo’s parents in their attempt to keep her alive. He asked Gibbs what he wished might have been done differently in Schiavo’s complex case. Gibbs replied simply: “I wish that we’d been able to show the American public how very alive Terri was.”
Belz admitted: “As a newsman, I understand Mr. Gibbs’ sense of failure—for I share it painfully. Why couldn’t we in the media have done our job more diligently?”
Such lessons are painful, but Belz kept looking for opportunities to learn. In 2008, he traveled to Canada to interview J.I. Packer—one of the most influential theologians of the 20th century. The pair had a robust conversation, but Belz also had a reporter’s nightmare: He lost the recording of the interview. After his conversation with the elderly Packer, Belz slipped his recorder into a pocket in his bag. By the time he reached home, the recorder was gone.
“I had repaid his kindness with carelessness,” Belz lamented, “and now WORLD readers would simply miss out on a few insights into this great mind.”
Except they wouldn’t. Five years after his reporter’s nightmare, Belz experienced something of a reporter’s miracle. A package arrived at his office with no return address. It contained the tape recording with the full Packer interview.
During their conversation, Belz asked Packer about his unswerving commitment to defending the inerrancy of the Bible and the truth of the gospel. He also asked Packer how he encourages someone who writes to do it “with vividness, with vim, with vigor.”
As the interview continued, Packer described himself as “an adult catechist,” and he told Belz that a catechist’s job is “to teach the truths that Christians live by, and to teach how to live by them.”
It felt like a leading question, but I asked Belz if he thought Christian journalists might have a similar function as teachers. “Oh, surely,” he replied. “I think we do that. … We’ll keep doing it.” (And he keeps on learning himself: In the evenings, he and Carol Esther are reading Total Truth, the classic book by scholar Nancy Pearcey about Christian truth and the public square.)
Journalistic comparisons aside, Belz seemed as interested in talking about the value of the catechism and Biblical teaching itself. As age and health problems sometimes cloud his thinking, Belz says what he learned as a child remains. He quipped that he couldn’t quite remember what time we were supposed to visit on this crisp fall morning, but his eyes brightened as he remembered with ease: “God is a spirit, infinite, eternal, and unchangeable, in His being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness, and truth.”
“I learned that more than 70 years ago,” he said. “And it’s still there.”