A Christian Assessment of News Consumption (with Jeffrey Bilbro)

In a world in which our consumption of news is increasingly polarized and sensational, and disinformation is all too common, how do we combat such unhealthy habits to form a better relationship with the news? And what, after all, is the news even for? What is a particularly Christian mode of engaging and consuming news? In his book, Reading the Times: A Literary and Theological Inquiry Into the News, Jeffrey Bilbro provides a theological, even historical, perspective on the function and impact of the news in our lives, a diagnosis of our problem, and a reframing of how we might construct alternative practices.

Access the episode here. (Available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Podcasts, Stitcher, and more.)

Some key concepts and ideas from the book:

  1. “Macademized minds” (or fragmented attention)

Our attentions are overloaded; we are unable to attend in meaningful ways because there’s too much to attend to.

As a result, presentations of the news become competingly sensational in order to compete for our distracted attention.

Thus, we need to develop better habits for shaping what we give our attention to.

  1. “Mental Dyspepsia (or disordered appetite)

It’s easier to consume junk food vs. substance, what’s actually nutritious. And the more we consume junk food, the more our appetite is inclined toward it.

News outlets take advantage of our appetite for the sensational for their own interests.

Yet our appetites for the sensational leave us unsatisfied, constantly looking for the next hit.

  1. Becoming “passive thoroughfares” (susceptibility to groupthink)

Much news today is presented to us as passive spectators. News is entertainment (it’s entertainment masquerading as news); we are the audience.

This mode of consuming news hampers our ability to contribute meaningfully, as it turns us into passive spectators susceptible to messaging, groupthink, and being told what to care about.

  1. Deformed affective responses

We fixate on sensational, distant events with which we can have little meaningful response at the expense of important matters at hand, what’s nearby, proximate, and immediate.

Our attention is profaned, as we become consumed with trivial, superficial, sensational issues rather than substantive ones.

e.g., a fixation on sensational distant events, obfuscating important matters at hand; or being consumed with trivial and superficial issues rather than substantive ones.

  1. Sanctified indifference, sancta indifferentia (or a holy apathy)

That is, faithful action with no concern for the results or outcome.

Based in a confidence in God’s providence and the final outworking of his purposes, this posture tempers our emotional investment, relieving us from worry and fury.

It’s also based in epistemic humility, which tempers our sense of our own ability to rightly assess means and outcomes of events in the news.

This isn’t saying that we shouldn’t care, but we should do so proportionally.

The less we care about outcomes, the more faithful we can be; the more we can be devoted to integrity and the less susceptible we are to a sense of desperation where “the ends justify the means.”

It is a martyr-like posture, where “losing” and suffering is an accepted option because of a firm grasp in God’s providence and Christ’s ultimate victory and vindication.

When we obsess over the news, we display a lack of faith in God’s providence and display an oversized view of our own impact on matters.

Concern over “winning” leads to an “us vs. them” mentality, rather than seeing our own contribution to evils.

  1. Kairos & chronos conceptions of time

Our sense of time (history) shapes what events we evaluate as being important.

So, as Christians, we must learn to evaluate time Christianly.

Chronos cultures obsess with current events because they are meaningful to history’s progress—

For many in chronos cultures then, news is not the background to real life; it’s seen as the main drama of our lives.—

This sense of a “progress” to history meets the human desire for meaning (a desire Christianity answers better). In fact, this framing of history is a descendant of Christian assumptions about history (it has meaning, there’s an end/goal).

From a Christian perspective, chronos events (even the most mundane) find eternal significance, not on their own terms, but in relationship to the kairos Christ-event.

The eschatological horizon frees us from fixing our hope on chronos events or assuming we see the full picture of such events.

With this perspective on the course of history, we are then released from fear and frenzy and enabled for faithfulness despite outcomes.

As Christians in chronos culture, we can be tempted to conflate historical events with redemptive history, see ourselves as heroes in current events, etc.

  1. News’ relationship to our sense of community and belonging (and vice versa)

News can form a sense of community by grabbing individuals’ collective attention and thereby forming a shared social consciousness (we perceive ourselves as participants in a larger conversation and series of events).

Consequently, our news sources shape our identity and sense of belonging.

But as our community has grown to become shaped by news, it has become shallower and more partisan; “thicker” forms of community have eroded.

Given the market nature of news and social media, language and information are commodified and interactions become transactional and manipulative.

Instead of sustained, rich communities, we behave like “atomized swarms” (pseudocommunities).

And our social belonging matters because it guides our thinking (more than we probably want to admit).

Thus, calls for fact-checking and diversifying sources, although fine, are insufficient.

We must attend to who we keep company with.

We need our local communities (e.g., churches) to shape our primary sense of belonging (rather than online swarms) if we are to foster better engagement and loving action.