Christians and the News Media (part 1) – By Thomas Lambrecht
I was trained in seminary under the slogan that we need to “preach with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other.” In other words, it is important to relate biblical faith to the everyday lives and happenings of the people in our churches.
Some preach only the Bible, leaving the message hanging in midair, disconnected from practical, daily reality. Others preach only the newspaper, focusing almost exclusively on the events of the day and pontificating on how a Christian ought to react to those events. How do we responsibly connect biblical teaching and theology with the experiences of our world?
In the last decade, the situation has become much more complicated and harmful, with the proliferation of news sources available on the Internet. Many of these sources, whether established news networks or random individuals who post their thoughts for the world to see, no longer pretend to be objective sources of news, but end up injecting so much political opinion in their reporting that it ceases to be objective. We even have news sources offering conflicting stories and contradictory “facts.” How are we to discern what is true? What implications do these conflicting perspectives have for how we are to live our lives as disciples of Jesus Christ?
Christian author and editor, Dr. Jeffrey Bilbro, has just come out with a new book addressing the fraught relationship that Christians can have with the news media. Reading the Times: A Literary and Theological Inquiry into the News offers a biblically-influenced way to think about how we consume the news.
As we begin this new year, perhaps some have resolved to do better in how we pay attention to the news and how we interact with social media. I would like to highlight a few thoughts from Bilbro’s book to help guide our thinking in this area.
To What Do We Pay Attention?
Bilbro begins by surfacing the problem of information overload. We are bombarded with thousands of messages every day, whether Facebook posts, Twitter threads, TV news stories, reality shows, and more. Some information is important: a storm is moving into the area tomorrow, the president is proposing a new program to deal with poverty, the latest wisdom on adjusting to the Covid pandemic. Other information is trivial: cat videos, a new store opening downtown, what my best friend is having for lunch.
He warns that paying attention equally to all these various pieces of information can harden our minds and hearts. We begin to not care about any of the things we hear or read because it is too much for us to care about. Nearly every day, I read about a shooting that has taken place in the Houston area. (With a population of 6 million people, that is not surprising.) Paying attention to all of those reports, I may soon begin to think daily shootings are normal and expected, not something I should care about. Perhaps on the order of another traffic backup on the daily commute home.
Bilbro warns that this hardening of the mind and heart (what he calls “macadamization,” like paving an asphalt road) can be dangerous to our spiritual and emotional health. The hardening of our hearts and minds prevents us from caring about the things God cares about and wants us to care about. We become inured to situations that we ought to engage in helping to find solutions. We find it harder to hear God’s voice and feel his heart for the world.
Antidotes to Hardening
Bilbro offers several ways to counteract the hardening effect of the news.
Most obviously, we can reduce the time spent watching or reading the news. I know some people who spend 8-10 hours a day watching a news channel or surfing Twitter. There is no way that amount of exposure is healthy for our minds or spirits. One helpful rule of thumb might be to spend no more time on the news media than we spend reading the Bible, praying, or reading devotional books. It can help us get our lives back in balance.
A second solution is to spend more time contemplating and thinking about the things we read. Reading or listening to one news story or opinion after another tends to make us glaze over. Instead, we can put our roots down deeper into selected issues that we are passionate about. If ending human trafficking is our passion, we can spend more time on news related to that and less time on other social problems. We can spend time learning about that passion and engaging in activity addressing it. Focusing on a few key issues helps combat the hardening that comes from dabbling in many issues.
That leads to a third option, which is to pay attention to stories that directly affect me or enable me to get involved. I can do something about human trafficking. I can help people whose town was wiped out by a tornado or a wildfire. Learning how a politician views issues important to me will affect how I vote in the next election. Caring enough about something to take action in response combats the hardening that deadens our conscience and our capacity to love.
A fourth suggestion is to focus on meaty issues, rather than fluff. C.S. Lewis recommended that, after reading a new book, one should read an old (classic) book before reading the next new one. Read things that have stood the test of time. Bilbro supplements that advice by saying, “we ought to spend at least one – and probably more like two or three – minutes reading books or meaty essays for every minute we spend scrolling through a news feed, listening to the radio, or surfing around the Internet checking in on the latest news. These longer essays and older books act as a kind of ballast, helping us better discern which new headlines are actually significant.”
Bilbro’s final suggestion to combat hardening of the mind and heart is to learn a craft or a hobby. Such things as cooking meals, building wooden furniture, growing a garden, playing piano, or knitting a sweater teach us to focus on everyday reality and keep us grounded. They may even open space and inclination for more contemplation, thinking about reality and how things relate to our spiritual life in Christ. I remember as a child practicing piano and stopping every now and then for a moment of silence to think about the music and what I was learning. Cultivating a craft or hobby helps make us more susceptible to God’s Spirit moving and working in our lives.
When I was a child, the adults around me often talked about “hardening of the arteries,” a disease that afflicted many of their friends and relatives. The hardening of the arteries hinders the flow of blood to the body and contributes to the decay of various bodily organs.
In the same way, the hardening of our minds and hearts due to information overload can hinder the flow of the Holy Spirit and the working of God in our lives. We can lose our sensitivity to spiritual things and our ability to care about others. It is important for us to take steps to guard and preserve our spiritual sensitivity and create a climate in our lives where the Lord can do his transforming work.
Our next blog on this topic will explore how our consumption of the news affects our perception of time.
Thomas Lambrecht is a United Methodist clergyperson and the vice president of Good News.