This week on Family Policy Matters, host Traci DeVette Griggs welcomes Dr. Jeffrey Bilbro, author of the new book Reading the Times: A Literary and Theological Inquiry into the News.
TRACI GRIGGS: Thanks for joining us this week for Family Policy Matters. As Christians, we know that we are to be in the world, but not of the world. For many of us that can mean striking a balance in how we consume and react to the news. I think many of us would be embarrassed, especially us news junkies, if we compared our time spent daily reading news versus reading the Bible. Today’s guest argues that to have a better understanding of what the news is and how to consume it well, we need a theological framework.
Dr. Jeffrey Bilbro is the editor-in-chief of Front Porch Republic, associate professor of English at Grove City College, and author of a new book entitled, Reading the Times: A Literary and Theological Inquiry into the News.
Dr. Jeffrey Bilbro, welcome to Family Policy Matters!
DR. BILBRO: Well, thank you very much. I’m glad to be with you.
TRACI GRIGGS: So are we to understand that the Bible actually has something to say about reading daily news?
DR. BILBRO: That’s my contention, yeah. The Bible is—and sometimes we read it as being exclusively about eternal things and the good news—but it also has a lot to say about contemporary events and how we should inhabit that tension between the eternal and the unchanging on the one hand, and what’s happening in our day-to-day lives and in our society at large.
TRACI GRIGGS: Do you have some specific principles that you draw on theologically? Are you going to get into that a little bit later, or are there some things that you can pinpoint for us to start off with?
DR. BILBRO: Sure. One of the examples that I talk about in the book is the example of the Old Testament prophets who speak to particular social and political and economic problems of their day. They’re concerned with the geopolitical affairs of the moment, but they don’t explain how we should think about these events in terms of sociological analysis or polls of likely voters, or something like that—the kinds of things that many contemporary commentators rely on. They go back to God’s revelation of himself in scripture, and they seek to apply what they know of God and his unchanging character to these particular historical events and these particular issues of the day.
TRACI GRIGGS: One of the reviewers of your new book commented, “When we consume news, we are not only being informed, but also formed.” So, is there a way to consume news in a more informative way rather than being formed by it, do you think?
DR. BILBRO: Yeah, that’s a great question, Traci. I guess I would say ultimately—not entirely—ultimately we are going to be formed, and so the question is how, and by whom. Maybe ideally we would then be more deliberate about where we are being informed and who we turn to for that information, and try to be informed by the kinds of people whom we also want to be formed by. For instance, you know, I think it’s healthy to read news and learn how to think about the events of the day from people—maybe from Christians—people who you turn to for a biblical perspective as it were. But I think it also can be helpful to listen to people who you might not agree with theologically or politically, but whose mode of thinking and engagement you respect. So even if you’re reading a story or an opinion piece by someone whom you might ultimately disagree with, hopefully you are still being formed in rigorous thinking and modes of charitable dialogue that you would want to adopt yourself. Because we might read some article or news op-ed from someone whose theology we agree with, but whose disposition and tone is perhaps not great, and that can make us angry people or outraged people or fearful people. And so I think that the tone and the mode of engagement is as important as the sort of ultimate conclusions of the news that we engage with.
It’s tricky because oftentimes when we are exposed to counter views or counter evidence, it’s in this kind of agonistic media environment where we are sort of hate-reading the opposition in order to prove why they’re wrong. And I think that’s not a great context for actually thoughtful engagement or for learning from people who we disagree with. So ideally, we would find trusted friends or trusted voices in the media whom we respect, even if we disagree with ultimately, and then we might be more prone to really listen to them and engage with them and at least walk away thinking, “Well, I now have new things to consider that I can’t just dismiss or can’t just argue away.”
TRACI GRIGGS: So, do you believe that it is absolutely necessary for Christians to stay abreast of the news? Is it our duty as citizens and as Christians to help us understand the culture that we live in?
DR. BILBRO: That’s a great question, Traci. I think in part because in some ways we never ask that question. So often we kind of assume that we have a duty to be informed. I hear people apologize if they’re not up-to-date on the latest scandal or tragedy or news. But I think we might not have a duty to be informed about everything. We are limited creatures; we can’t know everything about everything, and that’s okay. The duty we have, I think as Christians is to love God and love our neighbor.And certainly, we’re going to have to know some things about our neighbor and the world in which he or she lives if we’re going to love them well. And so, yeah, I think freeing ourselves from the impossible duty of knowing everything and being up-to-date on everything, might give us the space that we need to take action toward loving and working redemptively with the people whom we can help. I don’t want to say that we should just put our heads in the sand and ignore what’s going on, but I think today the more likely problem is on the other side where we know too much and do too little.
TRACI GRIGGS: That’s a great point. What do you consider the proper historical nature and purpose of the news, and why is that important for where we are in history right now?
DR. BILBRO: Yeah, so I talk a little bit in the book about not just the recent digital media revolution and how that’s changed the news landscape, but also how in some ways that just amplifies what’s been going on for a long time, really ever since 19th century with the introduction of the telegraph and photography and steam-powered printing press and cheap paper. So that information overload, and the tendency to have a difficult time to kind of sift through what is important to know about—because we have so much we can know about—that’s been a problem for a while, at least a couple of hundred years, and it’s only getting worse, I guess. So, I think recognizing that is important, and then hopefully that helps us see how the news today is not just about informing us, but it also becomes a way that people make money through kind of entertainment, or through signaling their particular partisan political identity. So there’s a lot of things that kind of qualify, or go onto the banner of “news,” that aren’t just about current events, but it’s a whole social fabric. And recognizing that hopefully helps us be more deliberate about which parts we engage with and read about, and which parts we think, “Oh, I don’t need that; I can safely opt out of that part.”
TRACI GRIGGS: In your book, you echo a long list of great thinkers like Thoreau, Dante, Merton, Frederick Douglass, and Dorothy Day in offering an alternate vision of the rhythms of life. I guess this is what you’re talking about, that focuses more on timeless things. Talk a little bit about that.
DR. BILBRO: Yeah. And in some ways that’s kind of what I was saying earlier regarding the biblical prophets. But maybe my favorite biblical image of what I think distinguishes those people that I point to as models in this regard comes from Psalm 1. And this image of the blessed man as a rooted tree, where this person is rooted in the word of God and in the eternal truth conveyed in that word. And then the person becomes this flourishing, healthy tree that bears fruit for the good of its neighbors. So sometimes we think that we have to know what’s going on in the world around us in order to engage it and participate well. And that’s certainly true to some extent, but perhaps the redemptive quality of our engagement with contemporary affairs is proportionate to the roots that we have put down in the eternal truths of God. So that if we’re really steeped in the word of God, and that’s the kind of center of our identity and our mental perspective, then we’ll be able to actually give our neighbors the resources they need to navigate the particular events that we find ourselves in together.
TRACI GRIGGS: You highlight in particular Frederick Douglass’s journey, from learning to read through being a leader of the abolitionist movement here in America, as an example of building community through media consumption. So why did you choose to highlight his story?
DR. BILBRO: I liked Douglass for a lot of reasons, I guess in part because it’s clear Douglass lived in a different time and a different media landscape. But today there’s a lot of people who have remarkable life stories like Douglass did, and they seek ways to kind of leverage that for personal celebrity. They want to be a thought leader with a big platform. Douglass, he went on a lecture circuit and he certainly was a celebrity. I think he was perhaps the most photographed American in the 19th century. But he devoted much of his energy to the kind of daily difficult work of running a newspaper and building a community of readers and writers who were committed, not to celebrity or sort of flash in the pan activism, but to building a community of people who were committed to righting a whole set of social wrongs. Douglass was very clear about his Christian commitments and the fact that his vision of justice flowed from the Bible, and the biblical prophets in particular. And so I think he’s one good example of somebody who tried to build a community of people who are committed to engaging a particular social issue of their day—in that case slavery and racial inequity, racial injustice—and they did so from a perspective rooted in the word of God.
TRACI GRIGGS: If community and the opportunity to build community through news—and I’ll assume through social media—is one of the good things that you can say about news, how can we be a part of the good part of engaging in news as individuals?
DR. BILBRO: A couple of things. I guess one is just to be cognizant of the fact that though we often consume news as individuals, it is a very social activity. And so trying to find people ideally in real life at church or in our neighborhoods or at work, you know, people who we can talk about issues with and consider other perspectives. But then I think there are also some examples of good online communities where people oftentimes are formed around particular concerns, like Frederick Douglass was around the issue of racial justice or slavery. So, there’s a lot of sort of small pockets online of people, maybe a private Facebook group or a threaded discussion, where it’s not like a free-for-all where you’re just trying to own the other side of the political spectrum. But whereas people who have a sort of shared set of common principles and common concerns and are trying to figure out what that means for a particular issue that is pressing today. I think if you can find a group of people to weigh and discern and respond charitably to the events of the day, then you’re more likely to do so well, and recognize that we maybe aren’t good at sifting through a lot of information and making good choices about it as individuals.
TRACI GRIGGS: Do you think that this is one of the best ways, finding a few communities that are discussing the issues that you find to be most important in a way that you think is helpful as an individual? Is that one of the best ways to curtail this chaos that you mentioned earlier, this kind of emotional whiplash that you spoke of when we watch news and read it?
DR. BILBRO: Yeah, I think that’s exactly right, Traci. Yes, 100 percent. Finding a community of people that we trust and that we build relationships with over time, even if they are unfortunately only digital, that can really help.
TRACI GRIGGS: Well, thank you very much. You have been listening to a conversation with Dr. Jeffrey Bilbro, author of the new book, Reading the Times: A Literary and Theological Inquiry into the News. Dr. Bilbro, thank you so much for being with us today on Family Policy Matters.
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