By Thomas Lambrecht
This is the second in a series of blogs looking at how Christians can view and interact with various forms of news media. When I was growing up, there were three networks, whose nightly news programs controlled the narrative. The public station had more in-depth analysis that tended to be more liberal back then. Major newspapers like the New York Times and the Washington Post were also highly influential, and their news stories often made the jump to the network programs.
Today, the media landscape is much more complicated, with all the previous news channels, plus dozens more on cable and the Internet. Social media adds the ability to amplify certain viewpoints and find sources of information that may or may not be credible. Most of the current news channels have a point of view that they are promoting, which influences what they report and how they report it.
This series of blogs is based on the book, Reading the Times: A Literary and Theological Inquiry into the News, by Jeffrey Bilbro. In the midst of the emotional and divisive atmosphere in our country, it can be helpful to back up and look at the bigger picture from a Christian perspective. Part 1 spoke about the question, to what do we pay attention? It surveyed the problem of paying attention to too much, leading to a hardening of our hearts and a reduced ability to care about and respond to the information that we hear or read. This of course has a spiritual dimension, as a hardened heart is much less responsive to the working of the Holy Spirit.
Today’s blog looks at another aspect of the problem, which is the filter that we use to view the news. Bilbro speaks of it in terms of time: cyclical vs. narrative time. Through most of history, the “news” consisted of what happened in relation to the king/ruler and priest/religious authority. In cyclical time, dates were figured based on the years of the king’s reign. The actions of the religious authority often determined the direction that the rulers and the society would take.
What the rulers and religious authorities did was considered “news,” while the things that happened to and with regular people was considered “gossip.” Only the former was considered important. A person would never find out about the latter unless they were in the word-of-mouth network where this “gossip” was shared. (Of course today, we have Facebook, Twitter, Nextdoor, and countless other apps that deluge us with this kind of “gossip,” which leads to the problem we talked about in Part 1 regarding paying attention to too much.)
In our own media environment, the cyclical filter results in our focus on celebrities, in addition to rulers (government officials) and religious authorities (popes and leading clergy). Many people fixate on what these celebrities (be they politicians, actors, musicians, athletes, or influencers) are saying and doing. Is this really the most important news of our day?
The other filter that is used to view news is the narrative filter. The people telling the news have a story or narrative that they are trying to tell, and they couch the news in ways that support that narrative. Much of the polarization in our country today is the result of conflicting narratives about who we are as a country and what we aspire to be.
News tellers formulate their telling of the news to support their own narrative and deconstruct the narratives of their opponents. The narrative determines what news is covered and how it is presented. News is no longer objective, but becomes a tool in the service of a cause. In the process, truth is sacrificed for the sake of promoting a narrative. And because it is a human narrative, it is partly false and incomplete (no matter what narrative “side” one is talking about). Yet, because the narrative acts as a filter, the narrative cannot experience the correction and refinement that comes from taking account of reality. As Christians, are we to disregard the truth and reality just because it does not fit our preconceived narrative?
A Christian Alternative
The Christian alternative, according to Bilbro, is not a happy medium between the cyclical and narrative filters, nor is it to reject both filters. Surprisingly, a Christian approach unites the two filters in a transcendent way to give a larger context to both celebrity and narrative.
As Christians, our “celebrity” or primary actor is, of course, Jesus Christ. Our primary focus, therefore, is on what Jesus has done and is doing in the world. Everything else fits around that.
The primary narrative is the biblical story of God’s love for the world, leading to his redeeming the world through Jesus Christ. This narrative begins with Creation and extends through Christ’s return and the New Creation, including the resurrection into a new heaven and a new earth. All the events of our world need to be viewed in the context of that overarching narrative.
This approach means that we ought to look beyond just the facts of an event. For example, when we hear stories about refugees coming to America from Afghanistan, we can ask what Jesus is doing with these people. We can also ask how being a refugee fits into the narrative of God’s love for all people and his desire to draw them into relationship with himself. We can further ask how we can participate in what Jesus is doing and advance God’s mission of redemption.
We are not used to thinking this way about the news. Often, we simply react with an emotional approval or disapproval of what we hear or read about. As Christians, we are called to go deeper, to think and pray over what is happening in the world. That means we can give our attention in this way to far fewer news stories – which is a good thing (as Part 1 proposes)!
Looking at the news from the perspective of what Jesus is doing in the world and the narrative of God’s creation and redemption puts the news in a different perspective. It helps us not get consumed by trivia and discern the importance of various events in relation to our connection with the Lord of the Universe and in light of the Christian hope for resurrection and the New Creation.
One cautionary note here is to be humble and wary about applying biblical prophecy to current events. Prophecy about the future is part of the biblical narrative and can help us discern meaning in contemporary situations. However, interpreting prophecy is notoriously difficult and uncertain. Most biblical prophecies only make sense in hindsight. They are meant not so much to guide us through situations as to provide assurance after the fact that God was working in and through what took place. (Witness the fact that few in Jesus’ time understood he was fulfilling biblical prophecy until after his resurrection – not even his closest disciples or the most educated religious leaders of the day.)
It is well understood that there is a variety of understandings about what will happen in the “end times.” Will there be a “rapture” of believers out of the world or not? If so, when in that series of events will it occur? Will there be a 1,000-year millennium of earthly life under Christ’s rule before the final conflict with evil? When will the end of the world and Christ’s return happen? Throughout history, Christians have disagreed over the answers to these questions.
Therefore, we should be reluctant to impose our particular understanding of biblical prophecy on the daily news. When we propose possible connections, we should be tentative and humble about doing so. We will only know for sure the meaning of events in their aftermath.
One way we can nurture this Christian alternative to the world’s news filters is to observe the Church’s liturgical year, suggests Bilbro. The two cycles, Advent – Christmas – Epiphany and Lent – Easter – Pentecost, recount the Bible’s narrative of God’s redemptive love every single year. Observing these cycles helps ground us in the biblical narrative and continually reminds us to look for what God is doing in the world today as an outworking of that narrative. We need that continual reminder of the big picture, and the liturgical year reinforces the narrative using selected Scriptures and themes, colors, music, artwork, and traditions that retell the story in new and multisensory ways.
Bilbro also suggests that we cultivate a greater appreciation for the arts, which focus not on day-to-day happenings, but whose meaning transcends time. The depictions of paintings, music, drama, dance, and other arts connect more deeply with the timeless human condition and how God addresses our humanity through his Son, Jesus Christ. Even when those arts are not overtly Christian, we can discern Christ’s message in and through them.
Finally, Bilbro reminds us to ask the Henry Blackaby question: Where and how is God working in our world today, and how can I join him in his work? I remember when the news came that the Berlin wall was coming down and the Soviet Union was changing dramatically. Those changes opened a great opportunity for the rejuvenation of the Protestant churches in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. Bibles were once again in high demand. Evangelism was once again possible at a level much greater than before. Many denominations and parachurch groups jumped on this opportunity (including United Methodism) to replant or nurture the roots of long-dormant churches.
We can see how the events of today present opportunities for ministry and find their meaning as part of the overarching narrative of God’s redemptive love in Jesus Christ. That is a far healthier perspective than obsessing over the latest antics of the celebrity of the moment or the partisan machinations of our favorite political nemesis.
Thomas Lambrecht is a United Methodist clergyperson and vice president of Good News.