Timely and timeless
Review of "Reading the Times" by Jeffrey Bilbro.
“Reading the morning newspaper is the realist’s morning prayer,” quipped the philosopher Hegel. If he’s right, what does this reveal about my own heart when I groggily reach for my smartphone upon waking up, scrolling through headlines before even a word of prayer to God or a verse of Scripture?
Jeffrey Bilbro’s Reading the Times is a timely and timeless evaluation of how Christians consume media. Its critique of North America’s overgrown media ecosystem (which has ensnared Christians along with everybody else) is penetrating and uncomfortable. By drawing on the deep wisdom of Scripture and the classical Christian tradition, it exposes our contemporary hunger for information as idolatrous. At the same time, Reading the Times provides relevant, concrete tips to help Christians use media wisely and with the aim of better loving God and neighbour.
In our age of social gridlock, political partisanship, fake news, and diminishing attention spans, experts often urge us to access media with less frequency but also greater discernment and breadth. Bilbro agrees but only to a point.
When we are inundated with stories and issues that demand our attention it seems rather naive to think that democracy will be preserved if we simply have more news, more fact checking, more investigative reporting, and more deep dives. We don’t just need the media to cast a more piercing light; rather, as consumers of the news, we need to reevaluate the light we rely on to understand our times and discern how to respond.
In offering a “practical theology of the news,” Reading the Times commends especially three formative habits for a Christian usage of media: attention, time and community.
Because there is so much to see and hear on our media feeds, voices and images become louder and more outrageous to grab our attention. And complex issues are reduced to memes or hashtags. This renders us perpetually distracted, preoccupied with the immediate, and mere passive consumers of information. Bilbro remarks on the gap between our huge appetite for political news and our actual participation in civic life, which is meagre and sporadic.
If we do manage to find some way of acting in response to the latest gripping news event, it tends to be through a kind of dramatic gesture – donating to a celebrity’s foundation or posting a video of someone dumping ice water over us – that aims at distant symptoms rather than nearby causes.
So how can we respond meaningfully to what is going on around us? How do we know what truly demands our attention amid screaming headlines?
For a start, Reading the Times encourages practicing silence and solitude. This might seem quietist, but it is, in fact, radical. Silence and solitude create the space necessary to be able to discern and act responsibly. Similarly, Bilbro recommends an attitude of sancta indifferentia [holy indifference] exemplified in thinkers like Pascal and Merton. This is not to disregard what is happening in the world. It is, rather, a deep trust in God’s providence that gives us equanimity about the day’s news. Modern media is a combative atmosphere, and so much of our emotional investment in social and political news is to track whether our side is winning or losing, ergo ‘good news’ or ‘bad news’. A robust doctrine of providence reminds us that we walk by faith and not sight through our world and its news; it also gives us leave to simply trust outcomes to God.
“If we want to learn how to read the news Christianly, we’ll have to learn to tell time Christianly”, writes Bilbro. He argues that secular people exclusively keep time as chronos, in other words, as the linear movement of hours and years. Our chronological clocks and calendars leave us obsessed with the news of the moment: daily events takes on “outsized importance in our lives” because each and every event is quite literally the vanguard of history. Reading the Times is sharply critical of both the left and right for equating chronos with progress, whether it’s the liberal progressivism of CNN and Obama or Fox News and Trump’s desire to make America great again.
Scripture, however, keeps kairos time. This is the ‘right’ time to act, time invested with meaning from outside history. “In the fullness of time, God sent his Son….” (Gal 4:4). Like the prophets of the Old Testament, who interpreted Israel’s daily news by a standard outside of chronological time, Christians should read the news “not from an event’s location on the plane of chronos time but from how it participates in God’s kairos drama,” specifically the life and death of Jesus Christ. Only this way can we gain perspective to understand what is truly significant in the happenings of chronos.
The final section of Reading the Times laments how modern media has shifted the practice of community away from rooted relationships and local places to trending issues and online factions. When genuine, embodied community is usurped by special interest swarms on social media, we easily “register our outrage over a #MeToo scandal or a #BlackLivesMatter tragedy”; but, asks Bilbro, “will we actually discuss such issues with our neighbours or, better yet, actually address them in our communities?” Reading the Times recommends a simple stroll through our neighbourhood for the “radical act” it is! This encourages us to lovingly notice the actual places in which we live, play and work, as well prioritize our attention to the news produced within these civic and religious communities.
Bilbro is aware that preferential attention to local places and people can become insular. So he does encourage Christians to form relationships and online communities that cut across our all-too-human tendency to homophilia (love of the same). But there is a whiff of the parochial about Reading the Times! I would have liked to see Bilbro wrestle more with the habits of attention, time and community in light of the fact that Christians are members of the church catholic and citizens of a world that belongs to God. After all, Jesus’s most famous teaching on loving our neighbour, the Parable of a Good Samaritan, expands the notion of neighbour to those who are neither local nor rooted but foreign and in transit.
Witty and often wise, Reading the Times is challenging and sometimes contrarian in argument. It suggests formative practices for “reading the news Christianly” that are concrete, creative and practicable. Highly recommended for parents, pastors, teachers, and small group leaders.