The News Won’t Set You Free (Even If It’s ‘Christian’)

How round-the-clock headlines distort our focus on eternity.
The News Won’t Set You Free (Even If It’s ‘Christian’)
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These days, Christians may be tempted to join the 24/7 news cycle to push back against the ignorance, distortion, and bias they see emptied into the public square.

That’s what the Christian Broadcasting Network recently opted to do with its new CBN News Channel.

I understand the desire to offer even fuller coverage, but I can’t help thinking our impulse to join reveals an essential worldliness, marching to the beat of secular headlines and falling in with the fears of a fallen realm.

It means that we have not recognized that the larger enemy is precisely that 24/7 news cycle.

Christianity does not exist in some Absolute Present, as CNN and Fox News and Twitter do. Its home is in eternity. We don’t live within the world’s shifting judgments but in truths that are under no ultimate threat. Of course, we recognize that much of humanity does not acknowledge or even recognize these truths, and we do have a responsibility there.

Twenty years ago, in How the News Makes Us Dumb: The Death of Wisdom in an Information Society, I tried to show how the sheer dailiness of the news product distorted everything: politics, science, religion, elections, values, worldviews, culture, and social relations. This dailiness was more damaging than any bias, since it went unrecognized, seeming only natural.

Now, the news cycle has grown even more ever-present, with constant updates pinging us around the clock on our phones, computers, watches, and other devices. But my concerns are still the same: We cannot counter the distortion of dailiness we see in the news by the same means of constant coverage that produced them in the first place.

(Remember, the news comes to us daily, hourly, minute by minute, only because the industry’s profits depend on us believing in the constant news cycle. We regularly see news producers creating commotion to have enough “news” to fill a broadcast.)

Our faith is indeed involved in the realm of public opinion, the discussion used to put the news into its larger context. But the pace of commercial news production often ignores that context. Seeing the big picture usually makes today’s contribution seem small, which defeats the industry’s hype.

Christians have a stake in Wisdom, seeing things in the widest perspective. Constantly reacting to the latest explosion in the hourly news will not accomplish this.

Such reactions will seek to prove themselves, score points, and invite further response. Wisdom aims for different ends. Showing things in a wider context—involving religion, history, ethics, social philosophy—is the loving way to free our audience from their anger and despair.

The very earliest attempt at a Christian periodical, in England at least, was a chapbook-style “newsbook” published in 1643. That was in the midst of what must have seemed like an apocalyptic struggle—the English Civil War between Puritans and their religious opponents. The paper was called New Christian Uses, Upon the Weekly True Passages and Proceedings, and it offered to show how events appeared to the eye of faith, that is, from God’s own perspective.

After each news item, culled from other news-sheets, the editor added both “the providence” that he thought it showed, and a prayer of either petition or thanksgiving. As I described it in The News Revolution in England: Cultural Dynamics of Daily Information, it is not news as we know it but an actual exercise of religion. But with only one surviving copy, it seems that it didn’t catch on.

Winning the ear of the public for something like Wisdom is obviously a challenge. How could viewing current issues in a larger historical or ethical or social perspective be made to seem exciting?

Actually, we already have an example of sorts. TheEconomist magazine has been operating for 175 years, since 1843! It has some unique features. First, it seeks to report on the whole world each and every week, not just a few places where trouble is brewing. (In doing so, it may show how little interest we have in the whole world, as we skip through our issue.)

Second, it reports on a lot of things that don’t seem exciting or scary or sexy. This makes a contrast with the rest of our media, which specializes in such matters. And third, every article has a time horizon of at least a decade, and often a century, reminding us that change has long roots. All this may seem like a formula for commercial failure.

Yet the result is that The Economist is practically required reading for our elites. Instead of creating a news addiction, requiring ever-increasing doses of stimulant, the magazine seems to satisfy a hunger, giving one time to digest things.

Readers can then get on with life, instead of hanging suspended until the next briefing. If it were not so expensive, it might be much better known. For when a news source is known to be essential reading among our leaders, it will probably be taken up by others who want to be informed.

The Economist does have a bias—toward free-market economics and a libertarian culture. But rather than simply insinuating this bias, the editors frequently mention it, allowing readers to discount it. Despite the allowances we make, we are still grateful for their wider perspective, keeping us from feeling we are drowning in churning change. Writers who strike us as wise can win us to their biases.

There are already Christian opinion journals and Christian columnists and Christian bloggers who want to widen our vision rather than react to each and every accusation, insinuation, and error.

By acknowledging these sources and recommending them, we can help others lead faithful, hopeful lives.

We can’t do this within 280 characters or a two-minute news spot, but need to show we inhabit a wider world.

C. John Sommerville, author of How the News Makes Us Dumb: The Death of Wisdom in an Information Society, is emeritus professor of history at the University of Florida. He writes on British religious history, and now lives in Durham, North Carolina.

Speaking Out is Christianity Today’s guest opinion column and (unlike an editorial) does not necessarily represent the opinion of the magazine.

April
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