Jerry Falwell Jr.’s disappearance is great media fodder

There is no sanitary way to recount the fall of Jerry Falwell Jr. How could there be? The saga revolves around a illicit relationship between the former president of Liberty University; his wife, Becki; and a young pool attendant at the Fontainebleau hotel in Miami. Not a good start, and it’s getting worse.

In 2012, Jerry and Becki seduced 20-year-old Giancarlo Granda and over the next seven years kept him in check with promises financial success, implicit threats of exposure, and assistance of a well-placed fixer. All this while Falwell ran one of the largest Christian universities in the world.

It’s no surprise that history elicits all kinds of talk. rolling stone, vanity lounge, the new yorker, and others have it all covered. More recently, Granda himself published his version in Off the deep. Granda also speaks in new Hulu documentary God forgive.

Predictably, other sordid stories also surfaced, from Becki pursue aggressively a regular Liberty and Jerry student report to work drunk. The more we learn, the more we cringe. And the hits follow one another.

Pulling the curtain even further, the gangster capitalism podcast uncovered even deeper levels of corruption at Liberty. This series in turn paved the way for a ProPublica investigation in the school’s mishandling of Title IX complaints, where many Liberty students and staff accused the school of indifference and bullying after reporting sexual assault. This alleged institutional misconduct sparked a court case against the freedom that was settled in May.

But this is far from the last we will hear about this tragedy. At least two other television productions on Liberty are underway: one on the Title IX Jane Does fights for justiceand another more sympathizing with the Falwells.

From the negative coverage on Liberty, there seems to be no end. Which brings us to the pressing question: How should Christians respond? For the sake of the victims, we cannot ignore the coverage. But for the sake of our souls, we cannot relish it either. So what is the solution ?

In this situation, as always, we must be wise as serpents and innocent as doves. Our Christian obligations demand that we approach these outrageous revelations with discernment, motivated by an unwavering commitment to truth, grace, and justice.

Concretely, the way it unfolds may seem different for each of us.

Some of us may simply be unable to keep up. Maybe personal stories make reporting too triggering. The details may be too flashy or the framing too salacious. Each of us knows our own emotional bandwidth best, and we are wise to protect it, especially in the face of such ugliness.

What we cannot do, however, is dismiss the reflexive tribal loyalty blanket, imagining these stories as merely diabolical attacks on a righteous school. Some evangelicals may have good reason to believe the journalistic spotlight shines unfairly on Liberty and suspect that some journalists are happy to magnify any minor missteps. But it’s hard to argue that the spotlight has revealed a lot that demands our attention.

Yes, the bulk of recent Liberty reporting has come from outside of evangelicalism, and some of the attempts at analysis miss the mark by far and betray the political and ideological agendas of the producers. The Hulu Show God forgivefor example, leaves Granda’s story far behind as it ends with the January 6 uprising and implies that the political violence there stemmed entirely from evangelicalism.

Better to follow the example of someone like Daniel D’Addario, whose documentary review deftly separates objective detail from framing. Specifically, he finds the project’s goals too ambitious and the evidence too thin: “Director Billy Corben’s attempts to connect [Granda’s] Colliding with the Falwells of the baby boom generation to the broader history of evangelicals in the United States sometimes seems exaggerated.

For Christians in particular, worries about storytellers’ motivations and shortcomings pale in comparison to the harrowing stories of abuse and corruption brought to light by these reports. In each project, the producers have given a platform to those who have been silenced by Falwell or Liberty, members of the school community who can finally reclaim their story and speak out about the hurt they have suffered.

These are the people we have an obligation to listen to, regardless of the medium. And I dare say that for every victim whose voice has been amplified by current news reports, there are many more who still need to be heard. Ignoring these reports effectively continues to silence them.

Some might suggest that we should ignore these stories because they are unpleasant. Isn’t it better to focus on the good done by Liberty and the evangelical movement as a whole?

Certainly, there is a danger in focusing on depravity, cataloging the sins of others and detailing offenses. Galatians 6:1 warns believers of these dangers, urging them to restore sinners in a spirit of humility and meekness, lest they themselves fall. But the charge of Scripture to expose the acts of darkness (Eph. 5:11) is just as strong.

Both positions, then – either blithely ignoring media coverage or indulging our morbid curiosity – fail to take our responsibility as Christians seriously.

Instead, we should approach the situation with sorrow, lamentation and prayer and with requests for a independent investigation in Liberty culture. Falwell’s behavior was shameful, and much of this corruption is revealed by the projects named above. But what about the system he ran? What about Liberty executives who didn’t hold him accountable? What other harmful consequences need to be exposed and corrected?

Ravi Zacharie International Ministries (RZIM) is a cautionary tale of what happens when leaders ignore red flags and resist accountability. The devastating consequences of RZIM’s downfall have spread well beyond the ministry itself, compromising evangelical apologetic witness more broadly. We run the same risk in Christian higher education and beyond if we simply scapegoat Falwell. Freedom too must be held responsible.

Where there is smoke, there may be no fire. But the incessant smoke swirling around Liberty cannot be ignored. If the fire is not recognized, it will consume anyone and anything in its path.

Granted, Liberty’s recent cover assault doesn’t always hit the mark, but it does provide us with an opportunity. Rather than ignoring the reports or rejoicing in the fall of others, and rather than further silencing the victims by dismissing the messengers, Christians must trust in the power of the gospel story and demonstrate its relevance in this tragedy.

The truth will set us all free (John 8:32). We should not be afraid to learn what lies behind the Falwell scandal and expose the school conditions that allowed such evil.

So far, Liberty has avoided accountability. Instead, he has promised surveys that two years later seems little more than an appeasement and management of the impression. As more and more Falwell and Liberty blankets increase, we have a responsibility to no longer accept these fig leaves.

There is a better way. In everyone’s interest, we must encourage the school to change course. If Liberty submits to a thorough independent investigation, if current and former leaders acknowledge their wrongdoings and are willing to right the situation despite personal or institutional costs, and if they trust in God’s provision of grace through all this, then this shameful episode can still be a powerful witness to the glorious good news of the gospel.

Marybeth Baggett is a former Liberty University English professor and two-time graduate of the school. His most recent book is Telling stories: allusions to the sacred in popular culture.

Barry F. Howard