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The Dispatch Monthly Mailbag with Michael Reneau
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The Dispatch Monthly Mailbag with Michael Reneau

Michael answers questions from members about evangelicalism, his role as managing editor, and being an Atlanta Braves and Tennessee Vols fan.

Thanks so much for the thoughtful questions. I appreciate both the serious wrestling on issues such as faith and news consumption, and also for some of you indulging my love for Tennessee athletics and the Atlanta Braves. And hey—there are more East Tenneseans than I realized hanging around these (Dispatch) parts. We may have to organize a mini-meetup.

I probably wrote way too much below, so how about we just get to your questions? 

Kevren22: As a fellow evangelical, what are some of your favorite books/resources/thinkers for how your faith impacts your view of news, politics, and the public sphere as a whole? And what advice do you have on training your kids to think deeply and Biblically about matters of societal importance without forcing your beliefs on them in a way that encourages them in terms of how to think instead of just what to think?

In terms of books/resources/thinkers: One of my favorite books of the past few years is Reading the Times by Jeffrey Bilbro. At The Dispatch, we’re harping all the time on the need to slow the news cycle down, to put less weight on the micro-scoops so many news outlets (especially in Washington) chase, and instead seek to understand the big picture and why it all matters. Bibro encourages this too, while examining how our news consumption can draw us closer to God. It’s a great read. Lots of other writers have influenced me over the years and still do: my good friend and former boss Marvin Olasky, Mindy Belz (also a good friend and former colleague), Trevin Wax, Jake Meador and other writers at Mere Orthodoxy, Daniel Darling, Jon Ward, John Stonestreet—lots of others I could name.

As for training our kids: My wife and I approach it in a pretty straightforward way. Our oldest is 12, so we’re gearing up for some of the deeper interactions that come with the teenage and young adult years. But we’ve always taught them what we believe to be true and tried to answer any question about our faith—or anything else—as best we can. We try to be honest and accurate in describing how different people have answered life’s ultimate questions differently than we have. But we believe what we believe for a reason, so we hope they will continue to believe it too while always being honest in examining their own hearts and minds. The community with which we’ve surrounded ourselves plays a large part in all this too. This includes close relationships with both sides of our extended families, but also a strong local church that challenges us to take our faith seriously and live up to what we believe the Scriptures profess. And finally, my friend Matthew Lee Anderson has just published Called Into Questions, a rewritten version of a book he wrote years ago that seeks to help readers lean into questions about their faith. My copy just arrived, so I’m excited to dive into it.

Kgfroehle: Three questions; take your pick. 1. How many people work for The Dispatch? 2. What English solecism grates on you the most? 3. Is Tennessee worth retiring to?

I pick all three, so here you go:
1. Not enough so please keep spreading the word about us so we can keep growing.

2. Easy call: Using subject pronouns when you should be using object pronouns. For example: “He gave money to Bob and I” is wrong. Correct: “He gave money to Bob and me.”

3. Is this even a question?! No state income tax, relatively low property taxes, beautiful mountains in East Tennessee, cities like Memphis and Nashville contrasting with more rural locales like where I live, up-and-coming places like Chattanooga, a wonderful climate (especially in the mountainous areas like mine)—when can I put you in touch with a realtor? Somewhat related, Billy.Faires asked which city is better to spend a weekend in, Chattanooga or Knoxville. I was born and raised in Chattanooga, so I’m obviously biased, but unless you want to see the Vols play, Chattanooga is hands down a better getaway city. It has a great food scene, any kind of non-beach outdoor activity you could want, and is just generally a more beautiful city. 

Angie: There are many kinds of editors apparently, and I never was sure of the differences. What specifically does a managing editor do and how is that different from content editors, or executive editors, etc?

This is a great question. I came up through newspapers where titles such as “managing editor” have a more narrow meaning than what I’ve experienced at magazines and digital news outlets. But generally, an editor-in-chief or executive editor is responsible for overall editorial strategy and vision: What kinds of stories should we be doing? How should we shape our coverage? How should we allocate our editorial resources now and in the future? Each publication (and editor!) is different, but I’ve never known an executive editor who wasn’t involved in day-to-day editing to some degree, whether it’s on the front end of stories during the assignment/reporting phases or in editing and reviewing what writers have filed. 

The go-to metaphor for managing editors is that they’re the ones who “keep the trains running on time.” So, making sure the day-to-day work is getting done well and adheres to the overall vision/philsosophy set by the executive editor or editor-in-chief. That means working a lot with writers and being in their copy a good bit. Titles like associate editor, senior editor, assistant editor can connote any number of things depending on the publication in question, but people in those positions are often doing a fair bit of writing as well. While I’m one of two managing editors here, my portfolio is a bit more varied than just keeping up with schedules, enforcing deadlines, and turning writers’ raw copy around for publication. For a more comedic look into all this, The Paper, starring Michael Keaton, Robert Duvall, Glenn Close, and Randy Quaid, is my favorite journalism movie. It’s hilarious, illustrates the various roles in a bustling newsroom, and perfectly captures the personalities you often find in journalism.

Chad.Ingels: What was your journey from local news reporter to a managing editor of a digital powerhouse like The Dispatch? Did your attitude change as your perspective on the scope of the news changed?

The publisher of the first newspaper I worked at often called me an “old soul” (which I’ve now accepted just means I’m old-fashioned and a bit boring), so it makes sense I followed a path that used to be more commonplace a generation or two ago. I was a reporter for—and then editor of—my college newspaper (invaluable experience), then worked as a reporter at a small newspaper. When I say “small,” I mean tiny. Reporters had to do it all: report and write stories, help edit each other, shoot our own photos and video, design each print edition, and manage this thing we had just begun to call “social media.” It was a ton of fun and some of the hardest work I’ve ever done. But every bit of it was a fantastic experience, and I am now grateful for every second of it—especially the stuff I didn’t want to do at the time. Circumstances led me to become the paper’s news editor at the ripe old age of 22, which is the track that eventually got me to a bigger newspaper—first as an assistant editor, then managing editor and executive editor. I got into national journalism at WORLD Magazine because of some freelance work I had done for them and friendships I had formed with several staffers (including the aforementioned Marvin Olasky). The jump to national/international journalism featured a bit of a learning curve, but journalism is journalism. I loved my job at WORLD—steering our magazine staff and doing lots of longform/magazine editing. But then eventually an opportunity to join The Dispatch arose, and I jumped on it. 

Insofar as my attitude has changed, it’s that I’ve become more convinced that while one of our civic duties is to stay responsibly informed of the news, overconsumption—or even just passive consumption—is a problem of its own. That realization is in part the natural outgrowth of being a father to four kids between the ages of 6 and 12 with whom I want to spend devoted time. But the more that the news becomes a proxy for real-life interactions—or even for entertainment—the less we’re able to see what news matters and why. If anything, for a journalist, that puts all the more importance on telling the truth and trying to offer as much context as possible to help our audience understand the “so what?” of all this. Not because the news is an end itself, but because knowing the news can actually help us live the rest of our lives in an ordered way.

Austin from Atlanta posed a couple of good questions (and one about UT football that I’m choosing to ignore): Should Braves fans forgive Freddie Freeman for abandoning us for essentially no more net income with the Dodgers? On a serious note: How have you dealt with the intersection of faith and politics over the last few years? There is a role for Gospel-loving people to bring about the thriving of their cities through politics, but these days I’m more worried about compromising my witness by associating with the fecal festival (to quote Jonah) each party represents.

Atlanta Braves fans should absolutely forgive Freddie Freeman. Even with Matt Olson having a career year, it still pains me to think of Freeman wearing anything but a Braves jersey. The day we traded for Olson was the saddest I’ve been as a Braves fan since 9-year-old me sat on my bed and watched Atlanta second baseman Mark Lemke pop out to the Yankees’ Charlie Hayes to end the 1996 World Series (the year I fell in love with baseball). Freeman bridged the years between the residual goodness of those ‘90s and early 2000s teams and into the current era of Braves baseball. And he did it the right way: never thinking of himself, investing in those around him, upholding the best of the organization’s DNA, then leading it to a championship. You could tell from his first trip back to Atlanta in 2022 that he probably would have written his story differently if given the chance. I’m personally grateful for all he did for the Braves and even still wear his jersey.

On faith and politics: I am keenly aware of the stench from our national (and often state) politics. But if you’re considering local politics, I can’t stress how different the fecal festival in Washington and elsewhere can be from local governance. When it was my job to write editorials and columns for a local publication, I hammered this point often: People in Washington could actually learn a lot from local politicians if they cared to. The problems local officials have to solve are inherently different than those before federal officials, sure, but I still think it’s easier for a person to have a tangible influence at the local level than in the Washington machine. That applies to both people of faith and people who don’t profess faith. For my family, though, investing time in our local church has been a far more fulfilling way to spend our time than politics of any sort. The local church is a unique institution with a unique mission—the only institution God has equipped for such a mission—which is why I grow frustrated with some members of the New Right trying to make the purpose of the church (instilling a “Christian culture,” as some would describe it) the purpose of the state.

Volfarrell: The Vols program just feels right these days. Now that we have a coach with talent and cultural integrity, we can smile about the future after a brutally hard decade. But we fans wouldn’t have hired Josh Heupel—most of us (not me, honest) were infatuated with names like Lane Kiffin, Hugh Freeze, or Jon Gruden. Shifting to the national political scene, I think it’s hard to imagine the right leader getting the POTUS gig because the “fanbase” won’t give up on a pipe dream. Any chance this election or the next one stumbles onto a principled executive?

I’m not sure there is a more depressing question than one combining the last decade of University of Tennessee football with our current politics. But here’s my best shot at answering: Before what now looks to be a revival, I hated Tennessee’s years wandering in the wilderness as much as any Vols fan. Not only did that thirst for success drive the fanbase to be given over to some of the wildest “Grumors,” it led to the pretty ugly “Schiano Sunday” fiasco. (For the record: I don’t think Greg Schiano would have been a good fit at Tennessee, but the accusations Tennessee fans made against him relating to the Penn State sex abuse scandal were beyond the pale.) An earnest demand drove some pretty bad actions. I’m not sure what the “pipe dream” might be that voters won’t give up on in this case, but whatever it is, there’s no denying much of what’s wrong with our politics is on the demand side (not just supply side) of the equation. Liam Donovan said as much to Haley Byrd Wilt this week in discussing the ouster of Kevin McCarthy as speaker of the House: “So long as voters continue to channel their frustrations with Washington by sending people committed to burning it down, the cycle of dysfunction will continue.”

And we’ll close with a couple of good questions about evangelicalism. From Richard Kennedy: Tell us of your brand of evangelicalism. I salute your church involvement and pray you stay free of cynicism. Do you feel comfortable sharing how you and your church have navigated COVID and MAGA struggles? Churches seem to have been struggling with sustainable membership. Is this an issue in general in Eastern Tennessee? In your own church? Hope you and the Braves thrive!

My family and I are presbyterians, specifically part of the Presbyterian Church in America, the same denomination the late Tim Keller belonged to, if that helps. We are on the conservative side of theological questions. Our church closed for in-person services for a few weeks in the early days of the pandemic (in Tennessee, most of the state-mandated shutdowns ended on May 31, 2020), but instituted social distancing, masked-only worship spaces, and other provisions for several more months. Some families left because they thought we were too stringent with COVID provisions, and some left because they thought we were too lax with COVID provisions. So, there were some tensions, but not big flashes of outright conflict. I’d say the same is true of politics in our church. I know many folks in my church are more comfortable with elements of the MAGA movement or elements of the New Right than others of us are (I don’t know anyone personally who is enthusiastically supporting Donald Trump). So, many of the divisions that became apparent among American Christians in 2020 are present to some extent in our church. But our own membership has been climbing steadily for several years, and 2020 didn’t really slow that down once the most acute period of the pandemic abated. I believe that’s because our pastoral staff and church leaders are committed to expository teaching of what’s in the Scriptures. That obviously has lots of implications for spheres such as politics and civic engagement, but that’s not the focus of our worship, teaching, or fellowship. Far from it. And frankly, even though I probably have substantial disagreements with my fellow congregants on a number of issues, none of that has been worth breaking fellowship with them. What matters most is our repentance and belief in Christ for our salvation, even as we all work out practical implications in spheres such as politics.

Owenoofta: The once readily understood word “evangelical”—meaning more or less a person or organization professing orthodox (Bible-centered, faith-based, salvation-oriented) beliefs who consistently (not perfectly) lives in accordance with those beliefs and is comfortable telling others about the beliefs—has now suffered what C.S. Lewis would call verbicide. When I want to use the word evangelical in a sentence I must explain which meaning I intend, most often describing the traditional meaning (which is the meaning I most commonly use) while contrasting this with the current meanings to include “religious conservative.” I would be interested in any comments or reflections you have on this unfortunate verbicide, along with any suggestions for somehow resurrecting the traditional meaning.

I feel this acutely. I rarely ever use the word in the politicized sense, merely referring to the voting bloc. Instead, I am almost always referring to the theological understanding of the word. Another reader asked if I would suggest another word to replace it, and I really don’t think there’s another word or term wholly suitable. To that end, I try to contextualize the word whenever I’m talking about it—much the same way I now must contextualize the word “conservative,” since it has suffered a similar verbicide in recent years. As to what’s caused all this, I think it’s a combination of things: Relative ignorance of all things faith-related on the part of many journalists and social scientists is one. But I also don’t think politically conservative Christians helped things by leaning so hard into overtly political movements like the Moral Majority once upon a time ago. Yet, Christianity certainly has implications for our politics and civic engagement, so I really can’t say politics or the law have nothing to do with our faith. That’s why I think concepts like “sphere sovereignty” (coined by Dutch theologian and statesman Abraham Kuyper) and the Roman Catholic principle of subsidiarity are important for helping believers keep each in check our expectations for how much certain institutions or spheres of society can do. Understanding this would help us to put less hope in politics than many evangelicals have in recent years. If evangelicals suddenly did all this today, it wouldn’t revive the term itself. But it would go a long way toward helping us give a more compelling public defense for the hope within us.

Michael Reneau is a managing editor at The Dispatch and is based in Greeneville, Tennessee. Prior to joining the company in 2022, he was editor of WORLD Magazine and for several years was editor of a daily newspaper in East Tennessee. When Michael isn’t editing, he stays plenty busy with his wife and four kids.