A warm-hearted voice and a shepherd's heart
Joel Belz - 1941-2024
World-shaping and personal news for me continue to collide. Joel Belz, founder of World Magazine and brother of my late husband Nat, died Sunday after a lengthy battle with Parkinson’s disease. He was 82. His wife Carol had just read to him from Psalm 140: “Surely the righteous shall give thanks to your name; the upright shall dwell in your presence.”
Joel and publisher Will Barker hired Nat as a graphic designer for their kids’ publications in 1984, but they took a leap of faith a few years later when they asked me to write articles for their new venture, a Christian news magazine for adults.
Joel’s first choice was to name it Worldview but he was persuaded to go with World. The longer term seemed too unfamiliar to most readers. “Worldview journalism,” something nearly every news outlet practices today, was unexplored. The idea that Christianity gave us a lens through which to see not only religious life and church affairs but all of life was exceptional and hard for many to grasp. World with its pages devoted to politics, science, movie reviews, and sports coverage seemed too secular for many believers, and too Christian for secularists to take seriously. World Magazine struggled for nearly a decade to take hold.
Yet writers and editors, me included, felt drawn to Joel’s vision. He understood instinctively that, for those in and outside the church, the longing for belonging and a wide-angle view was powerful. To grapple with how God was at work in the world and to understand our purposes in relation to even far-flung events could be an exciting voyage of discovery. Joel loved to quote Abraham Kuyper: “There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry: ‘Mine!’”
But as much as Joel’s vision gave everyday vibrancy to timeless truths found in Scripture, he was also the son of a pastor who ran a print shop in the basement. He came from small beginnings in rural Iowa, the second-oldest of eight children. And he was a mid-century newspaperman at heart.
“’I’m a $250 a week newspaperman. I can be had for $50. I know newspapers backward, forward and sideways. I can write ’em, edit ’em, print ’em, wrap ’em, and sell ‘em. I can handle big news and little news. And if there’s no news, I’ll go out and bite a dog. Make it $45.’”
The words of the scrappy reporter from Billy Wilder’s 1951 Ace In the Hole captured Joel’s willingness to go for big ideas on a shoestring budget. In the early days World had one full-time reporter, a handful of part-time contributors, and Nat doing layout, cover design, and illustration. Sometimes Joel would stand by the AP teletype machine as deadlines neared, willing it to churn out news he could use. On deadline days the crew boxed up the magazine pages, tied the box with string, and drove it to the printer. Nat and Joel often took turns making the trip, usually in the wee morning hours when the work was done. They’d meet up at Waffle House afterwards for a postmortem over breakfast.
Joel lived perpetually with the risk of failure in those early years. He’d recall often and almost as an emblem the story of his first publishing venture. He purchased a Model 8 Linotype for $2,000 to set up a print shop at college his freshman year in 1958, only to have it fall down the stairs of the school’s main building, Edwards Hall. He had borrowed the money to buy it. “It may have been worth thousands at the top of the stairs,” he said, “but by the time it reached the bottom it was worth $20 in scrap metal.”
Lean years, though, couldn’t dent Joel’s trademark optimism. “Go break a story,” he’d tell new reporters. He stayed the course by charting warm-hearted ways to cover the hardest news, and his writing “voice” was the model new editors wanted us writers to strive for.
I was struggling in the craft and as the organization grew beyond its familiar core. At one point I went to Joel for advice. He listened, as my questions turned to complaining, and started writing on a blank piece of paper. Then he pushed the paper across the desk and said, "Here's what I see as important. See what you think." It read:
To see with artistic imagination
To write with a reporter's eye
To discern with a shepherd's heart
Years upon decades later, those three precepts energize and help me, and many others. They bring me up short all the time, but they also provide a framework, a way to bring something fresh, distinctive, and above all true, when sometimes all we can see is a broken world. Every writing and reporting opportunity I’ve had I owe first to Joel Belz and his wide-open vision to embrace small beginnings.
In case you missed it: a personal note on losing my husband Nat.
Other news I’m following this week—
Middle East: More insight on the Islamic Resistance in Iraq, a catch-all name for Shiite militias associated with Iran that appear to be behind the 160 or so attacks on U.S. forces in Iraq and Syria since the Oct. 7 Hamas attack on Israel. The United States has vowed further retaliation after a Jan. 28 drone strike killed three U.S. soldiers at a base in Jordan near the Iraqi border.
Besides the three killed, 34 American military personnel suffered traumatic brain injuries, a phenomenon defense officials appear reluctant to divulge, despite a 2023 inspector general report showing TBIs are a big problem.
From 2000 to 2022, according to the report, 458,894 Service members were diagnosed with a TBI during training or in combat. The report found that Pentagon officials “did not consistently implement policies and procedures to determine the care needed for Service members with TBIs.”
I reported on TBIs in 2020 after an Iranian-led missile strike on Ain Al-Asad Base in Iraq left more than 100 U.S. military personnel with TBIs. The injuries, explained expert Chris Adsit, stem from a blast wave moving through the brain:
“Basically our bodies are big sacks of water … The force of a blast squeezes the hydraulic system and moves up the veins of the brain. It can pop small veins and capillaries in the brain just as if they have been hit with an object.”
Symptoms are often slow to emerge and can be life long, especially without careful treatment. They can include severe headaches and cognitive reduction with memory loss, imbalance, and ringing in the ears. Sleep difficulties, irritability, and anger also accompany TBI, and can lead to depression, similar to PTSD, and sometimes suicide.
Ukraine: The longer this war lasts, the better Russia will get at learning, adapting, and building a more effective, modern fighting force to best Ukrainian forces. Russian offensives are intensifying, and with catastrophic results for children in Kharkiv. There a two-month-old boy was killed today when a Russian missile hit a hotel, and strikes continue to target residential areas.
El Salvador: Nayib Bukele, the millennial president who reshaped his country by cracking down on both gangs and civil liberties, claimed he won 85 percent of the vote and 58 of 60 seats in the Salvadoran congress. The Salvadoran Constitution prohibits two consecutive terms, but Bukele packed the Supreme Court with loyalists and changed the rule to be able to run for re-election—all prompting questions about whether there can be democracy without an opposition.
Afghanistan faces its worst drought in 30 years following a warmer-than-usual winter and amid severe shortages following the Taliban’s 2021 takeover.
China opened diplomatic ties with the Taliban Jan. 30, becoming the first country to do so since the extremist group seized power in 2021. To watch: for other countries, including Russia and Iran, to follow.
Europe: The European Commission has dropped key passages in a proposal for cutting greenhouse gas pollution following intense protests from farmers.