John Yemma, who was Editor of The Christian Science Monitor from 2008 through 2013 (see p. 26), has been in the news business since he was a freshman in college, where he was a sports reporter for his local paper. He says his interest in news started even earlier—it was his job as a newspaper carrier during the ’60s that sparked his fascination with current events.
This past fall I sat with John in his office, a converted conference space at one end of the Monitor newsroom. Covers of recent weekly Monitors covered the walls. As we chatted about his background, John mentioned that his discovery of Christian Science—which happened shortly after he met his wife—changed the way he thinks about “truth” in journalism.
When you found out about Robin’s religion, how did you feel about it?
One of the things that really intrigued me about Christian Science was the way that Truth is a synonym for God. You know, as a journalist, truth is hugely important. Human truth is all relative and journalists know that, but they strive to tell the story truthfully, to be fair to all sides, to convey the world accurately.
So I was striving, like any journalist, for small “t” truth—and then the idea that Truth was something bigger than that just blew me away! It’s bigger than human perception, the human senses, or the human ability to investigate. Truth is something that actually is the foundation of everything. It’s still through fits and starts that I’m learning, as all of us are, how to demonstrate Christian Science. It came through first seeing this wonderful truth, and then knowing that you have to go back and think it through, and work with it, and build on it.
I was striving, like any journalist, for small “t” truth—and then the idea that Truth was something bigger than that just blew me away!
What was it that made you want to join the Monitor staff?
As I was reading the Monitor I thought, “You know, the stuff that I’ve been writing is exactly the kind of thing that they do.” So I started freelancing, and there happened to be an opening in the Washington bureau, right around the time I took Christian Science Primary class instruction.
After a year in Washington I was offered a position in the Middle East as a correspondent, and Robin and I moved to the Middle East for three years. It was vivid, and wonderful, and harrowing, and an incredible place to be. I did a brief stint in New York, and then came back to Boston for the Monitor.
Next I worked at the Boston Globe for about 20 years as a writer and editor. The last job I had at the Globe in the mid-2000s was as the editorial chief of boston.com, which gave me a lot of experience in digital journalism. At that time the Board of Directors of The Mother Church approached me about rejoining the Monitor and becoming the editor. The Monitor was moving more into the digital space, so it was kind of a natural fit.
Was there a time when you had a really tough story that you were working on, and you felt that your faith informed your work as an editor or as a writer?
I remember being in Beirut in 1982—this was after the Israelis had invaded Lebanon, and there was a huge conflict going on. I was there for the whole summer for that war, and one evening I was walking in a part of the city that I wasn’t familiar with. In these conflicts there are all-out violent episodes, but I was walking during a relatively quiet period. I had kind of lost my way, and I happened upon a military sentry at a building. I heard the safety go off on his gun, and he turned the gun at me and started yelling at me.
I just took a moment to pray—to really pray, and to understand where I was—that “If I take the wings of the morning, and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea; even there shall thy hand lead me, and thy right hand shall hold me” (Psalms 139:9, 10). And I was able to feel a kind of peace. I don’t know if the sentry decided I wasn’t a threat, or what, but in the next instant he dropped his gun. He didn’t smile, but he waved me on and said, “Be careful around here.”
It’s all explainable, humanly, except that if you really are living prayerfully, you know that these things are an outcome of your thinking. As you pray, your experience improves, and you see that in small ways all the time. I think that’s really one of the beauties of Christian Science: Yes, there are powerful and marvelous demonstrations, but there are also quiet day-by-day readjustments. That’s living within God’s universe.
There are powerful and marvelous demonstrations, but there are also quiet day-by-day readjustments. That’s living within God’s universe.
Would you say that recognition of “living within God’s universe” filters into the Monitor’s editorial take on things?
Absolutely. There are probably people within the Monitor’s readership family who have wondered, “If the Monitor is reporting the news, that’s fine; but doesn’t that just make it a smart newspaper? Where’s the Christian Science?” Well, Mrs. Eddy explicitly made the Monitor into a real newspaper, without a church denominational slant. It’s very important to have the Christian Science Perspective article in the Monitor, and on our website, and in every other venue we can. But I also think it’s important that Monitor journalism be appreciated for what is inside of the actual articles.
Everyone at the Monitor understands that being fair in how they see the world means being constructive and celebrating progress when it’s verifiable—not in a Pollyanna way, but noting when there’s real, fact-based progress.
That distinguishes the Monitor from other journalism, which often just looks at interesting news. The Monitor is specifically seeking to show the progress of humanity, which is a move toward greater political and economic freedom, and also freedom from various forms of enslavement, including, ultimately, material enslavement. So, the Christian Science of The Christian Science Monitor is readily seen in the quality of the journalism. We try to meet human thought where it is, to decrease fear, to bring some understanding, to look over the horizon.
Most of the Monitor’s readers aren’t Christian Scientists, though, right? How does that impact the way the stories are written?
Leading up to 1908, Mrs. Eddy recognized that Christian Scientists needed a newspaper to keep them in touch with the world, so they could pray about the world. It needed to have journalism that they could trust and that was non-sensational. That approach, it turns out, appeals to a lot of other people. It appeals to non-Christian Scientists. And the Monitor’s mission is to Christian Scientists and to all mankind. There are a lot of people who understand that the world is not just a series of problems, but it’s a place with incredible beauty, and incredible progress, and cultural achievements. Speaking to them about that has got to be salutary—it’s got to be helpful.
To me the exciting story—the story that I want to tell—is the unfolding of the Christ-idea in human thought, which takes the world through periods of doubt and chemicalization. Often you see people unsure of which way things are going, or frightened by things, but if you stand back, you can see real evidence of progress. You can see crime falling, and you can see poverty rates falling; you can see that AIDS is no longer a death sentence in Africa. It’s not a straight line. And sometimes there’s a media effect that’s going on that’s making people believe that we’re living in a much more out of control world than we’re in. We can be careful to bring that perspective of progress at the right time.
Something I’ve been thinking about as you were talking about the Monitor’s expanding reach is that phrase “To injure no man, but to bless all mankind,” which Mrs. Eddy said is always the Monitor’s “object.” There’s more of mankind to reach today, and I’m curious about where you see the Monitor in five or ten years.
I would never underestimate Mrs. Eddy’s vision for the Monitor or for Christian Science. I think if the Monitor has a mission to all mankind, then that mission is not fulfilled if, for instance, it is published only in English. I admit that we’re America-centric, although we’ve tried, probably more than any other American-based news organization, to break out of that ethnocentric box.
The Monitor is already available around the world, but we do a lot of news about America—I could certainly see our Monitor Weekly being regionally available with as much news about Canada, and India, and France, and South Africa, and any number of other places, and done in native tongues. That is hugely ambitious, and I can’t say there are plans in the works for that, but if the Monitor’s mission is to all mankind, and mankind speaks in different languages and lives in different nations, then our mission should ultimately be there. I should say I think it’s important that we take that step by step.
You know, I’m totally on board with the idea that there’s a forward sweep of human progress that gets lost in the noise sometimes. But it would be tough to say the same thing about the news industry, right? In some ways the Monitor stands alone, in that in the past half-decade it has increased its reach while decreasing expenses. My impression is that that’s not the case with a whole lot of other publications.
I think there’s something else going on. There is a fundamental shift in the whole concept of news, and who is a journalist. I mean, we can all be journalists, right? It used to be that only if you bought ink by the truckload and paper by the trainload could you publish something. And now a lot of new kinds of reporting and watchdogging and storytelling is going on, and it’s being done by non-journalists. That’s a wonderful thing.
For a journalist who’s been around for a few years as I have, it’s tough to see the industry in transition, but it’s also very heartening to see people who were not necessarily trained as journalists, but who care about the world in some way—they care about an environmental issue, so they post articles about it. They care about good government, so they write about that. There’s some new form that’s being born right now, and we don’t exactly know what’s going to come out, but I’m relatively hopeful about it.
It’s wonderful that Christian Scientists around the world have supported the Monitor. We’re moving off of a direct subsidy from The Mother Church, but we definitely need the support of Christian Scientists to continue through subscribing. During Annual Meeting a couple of years ago I mentioned that the Monitor comes from a publishing society—not a publishing company. We’re all a society together, so anybody who subscribes to the Monitor is essentially a publisher of the Monitor. Anybody who promotes the Monitor on Facebook, or with their friends, or circulates an article and says, “Hey, this makes some sense of Syria” is publishing the Monitor. They’re making it public in the original sense of the word—how back in the days of the Bible, people made the Good News public.
There’s no mystery to it: You take the fears of the world, and you work on countering them through Christian Science, by knowing what the truth is.
So what would you say to a Christian Scientist who’s saying: “I subscribe to the Monitor, I share it with my friends, and I promote it whenever I can. I want to go a little deeper in prayerfully responding to the things that I’m reading about in these pages.”
We all have to work for the world as Christian Scientists, but you could work for the world without using The Christian Science Monitor. You could work for the world by reading The New York Times or by listening to NPR [National Public Radio], and then taking those issues that the world is dealing with and praying about them, and that would be a great thing. But how much better is it to have the Monitor, where in a way we’re already praying for the world like that.
There’s no mystery to it: You take the fears of the world, and you work on countering them through Christian Science, by knowing what the truth is. The truth is that this is God’s universe we’re in—it’s really the Truth with a capital “T”. So whatever’s coming to thought that indicates fear, or violence, or inhumanity, or injustice, we can reverse it through a present knowledge of God’s thought. Then we patiently put aside the case, and keep our inspired thought, but go on with life—that’s what you have to do every day. But you also have to know that you’re going to see the progress, and the Monitor shows you the progress when it occurs, too. Other newspapers don’t necessarily do that. Other newspapers can give you the agenda to work for the world, but they don’t necessarily tell you that your work has been effective.
You may have forgotten about the prayer-based treatment you gave, because it may be several years later when, for example, the Berlin Wall falls—but you know that as you’re praying for freedom in Eastern Europe and in the Soviet Union, the Christ goes into all those places and shines a light, and that’s what we report. It’s kind of thrilling to be reading the Monitor and to see what’s going on.
If you really understand and believe in Christian Science, you know that you can see something amazing going on in the world. You are seeing the march of Truth—you’re seeing the march of light, and the Monitor’s writing about that. That’s the story that we’re writing, and that’s the only story there is—that’s the good news.
That is thrilling to think about.
It is. You know, Mrs. Eddy wrote, “As human thought changes from one stage to another of conscious pain and painlessness, sorrow and joy,—from fear to hope and from faith to understanding,”—this is the part I love—“the visible manifestation will at last be man governed by Soul, not by material sense” (Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures, p. 125). The visible manifestation is not just “I hope things will be better.” We’re going to see this evidence as human thought changes through the Christ.
She goes on to say, “Reflecting God’s government, man is self-governed.” That’s the march of democracy and freedom. That alone is what’s going on, this idea of putting off matter, putting off shackles. That’s happening to humankind. It’s not always evident. It sometimes looks like it isn’t happening. It sometimes looks like we’re going backward, but you can be sure that, ultimately, we’re always going forward, and the Monitor gets to write about that.