What We Believe
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How the News and the Good News Shape Our Lives: A Review Article

Gregory E. Reynolds

Reading the Times: A Literary and Theological Inquiry into the News, by Jeffrey Bilbro. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2021, xii + 187 pages, $24.00.

I was intrigued that Bilbro, an orthodox Christian, would begin a book on media with a lengthy section on Henry David Thoreau. In 2001 I quoted Thoreau for being unique in his mid-nineteenth century era as a critic of the new electronic medium of the telegraph:

Henry David Thoreau was one of the few intelligent critics to point out the most significant negative consequence of the new wonder. In the seclusion of Walden Pond (1845–47) he opined: “We are in great haste to construct a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas; but Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate. … We are eager to tunnel under the Atlantic and bring the old world some weeks nearer to the new; but perchance the first news that will leak through into the broad flapping American ear will be that Princess Adelaide has the whooping cough.” By decontextualizing information the new medium would change the nature of discourse, trivializing the profound and making the irrelevant relevant.[1]

While Thoreau was a Transcendentalist in a very Unitarian religious environment in Concord, Massachusetts, there still existed the culturally pervasive remnants of a once vibrant Trinitarian Christianity. Thoreau was a diligent student of the Bible along with many eastern religious texts such as the Bhagavad Gita. He rejected the institutional church and clearly did not side with a minority of Trinitarians who started their own church in reaction to the liberalizing of the town’s First Parish Church in Concord, Massachusetts. On the other hand, Thoreau was a brilliant naturalist, an ardent abolitionist, and critically astute in observing man’s inventions.[2] It is refreshing for Bilbro to appreciate these aspects of Thoreau’s thought.

Bilbro divides his book into three sections of three chapters each, covering attention, time, and community.

He begins by analyzing Thoreau’s essay “Life Without Principle” in Chapter 1, “Macadamized Mind” (11–32). The proliferation of printed news and then the speed of the telegraph fragments our attention, leaving us unable to properly assess what is really going on (11). Thoreau’s warning about the dangers of contextless, and thus useless, information have proved prescient. He was deeply concerned that such news distracts from transcendent realities that he called “the Eternities” (12). Thoreau’s essay poses the question “How are you spending your life?” (14). The daily newspaper can become an idol that steals one’s life. Thoreau warns “You cannot serve two masters.” In quoting Scripture I fear that he is substituting the God of Jesus’s quote for the Unitarian or Transcendentalist God, who may be known and approached without a Mediator. However, as Bilbro asserts, “Thoreau claims that the news competes with his God, offering an alternative, secular ground of being” (15).

Thoreau used an industrial metaphor to make his point. “I believe that the mind can be permanently profaned by the habit of attending to trivial things, so that all our thoughts shall be tinged with triviality. Our very intellect shall be macadamized …” (17). Macadam covers nature completely. It is a brilliant metaphor to accent the point that the news tends to reduce everything to the horizontal, making us earthbound. Bilbro is reminded of Paul’s instruction to the Colossians to “set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth” (Col. 3:2). Thoreau’s two-part remedy is simple but profound: “Read not the times. Read the Eternities” (19). Thoreau’s borrowed Christian capital is vague enough to be easily applied by the Christian.

Changing metaphors, Thoreau likens the “indiscriminate consumption of news” to a cultivated craving for junk food. Bilbro sees Twitter as a heightened example of this (20). The ingredients in food and advertising alike are designed to addict (21). Worse, the addiction leaves us spiritually and intellectually malnourished. Moreover, the news tends to focus us on distant events with which we have nothing to do, rather than what is happening in our neighborhood (29). Neil Postman agreed with Thoreau’s dislike of contextless information, “Only four years after Morse opened the first telegraph line on May 24, 1844, the Associated Press was founded, and news from nowhere, addressed to no one in particular, began to crisscross the nation” (30).[3] More information, but less meaning.

In Chapter 2 Bilbro analyses Jewish artist Marc Chagall’s painting, Solitude, painted during Hitler’s rise in 1933 Germany. The heifer in the picture is a symbol of meditation as she chews her cud (34). Chagall’s love of the Jewish Scripture depicts a seated figure beneath an angel in heaven, reminding the viewer that like David in Psalm 1 the person who delights most in heavenly realities will be most useful in this world of trouble (35–6). French mathematician and theologian Blaise Pascal “recommends a profound sort of apathy, sancta indifferentia.” Epistemic humility relies on God’s sovereign workings of Providence (37). Being aware of what is going on in the world while rising above it by faith avoids being overwhelmed by current events. Both Thoreau and Pascal were deeply involved in the world around them, without being swallowed up with the news (41). True discernment of what is going on around one requires silence amidst the cacophony of the news (51). Bilbro concludes this chapter with sage advice,

When we leave the outcome in God’s hands, we receive the courage to do what is right regardless of the consequences. A contemplative response to the news, then, depends on eschatological hope, on fixing one’s identity in a victory that lies outside the vicissitudes of daily news and politics. (54)

In the final chapter of this section, Bilbro focuses on the liturgies of attention, habitual patterns of thought and life that shape our theology (56). He suggests reading widely, serendipitously, old, and new works (59). Bilbro recommends the homely activities, like gardening and cooking, crafts that form an antidote to distraction (64).

Chapter 4 begins Part 2, on time, with a fascinating and important distinction between kairos and chronos. Kairos time is “rhythmic, cyclical, seasonal,” whereas chronos time is “linear and sequential … of quantifiable duration” (67). Paul uses this idea in warning the Corinthians (1 Cor. 7) that the time is not propitious for marriage (68). The modern idea of progress makes us focus on the news through the lens of chronos time. The Christian must seek to interpret the events in chronos time in light of the history of redemption. Bilbro warns the reader not to overvalue either kind of time. Kairos time alone makes history meaningless; chronos time alone makes daily events the sole locus of meaning. The technological environment concentrates on the temporal (81).

Appeals to being on the right side of history are rooted in the temporal. Metanarratives are no longer tenable (85). But, declares Bilbro,

People long for such a narrative in order to make sense of the news and events of their time. And a Christian mode of keeping time provides exactly that, enabling us to value the news according to the horizon of divine redemption while steering clear of both the Scylla of kairos and the Charybdis of chronos. (87)

In Chapter 5, “Figural Imagination,” Bilbro explores the implications of Galatians 4:4–5, “But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons.” Augustine and Dante located the temporal “events of chronos within the divine drama enacted in kairos time” (88). Such a configuration reorders secular time (89). “The trivia of our lives becomes caught up in the eternal significance of Christ’s life” (98). Thus, great Christian thinkers like Dante and Jonathan Edwards have read the times “by an eschatological horizon” (104–5).

Chapter 6 enumerates the “Liturgies of Christian Time.” The Mosaic feasts are recapitulated in the life of Christ (109). Bilbro suggests that “Calibrating ourselves—body, soul, and mind—to the liturgical calendar” will mold our lives and change our relationship to the news (111). He goes on to recommend some profound Christian classics that cultivate our figural imaginations as an antidote to the patterns cultivated by the news (112).

Bilbro begins Part 3 on community with the lapidary statement, “What we attend to determines to whom we belong” (119). The danger of the daily news is it tends to bind us to communities created by “secular chronos time and the market” (121). Tradition is eliminated (125). “[W]here we get our news signals and shapes our identity” (126). Communities rooted in secular chronos are thin and lonely; whereas Christian community is “thick” because rooted in Christ’s kairos (127). Christian community is embodied in places. Bilbro quotes Elizabeth Eisenstein to the effect that the reading public is dispersed and individualistic. But he overlooks the difference commitment to one transcendent text, the Bible—the ultimate metanarrative—makes in term of community solidarity. It is rather the disembodied nature of the electronic media that makes us “alone together,” as Sherry Turkle observes (130–1).[4]

Bilbro is well versed in the literature of media ecology. Neil Postman, Marshall McLuhan, Jacque Ellul, Lewis Mumford are among the constellation of sources he has gleaned. Bilbro counsels us to diversify our news feeds (138ff). Better still is to be part of communities that foster various points of view and cultivate nuanced understanding of complex issues. This can only be fostered in what the title of Chapter 8 conveys, “Belonging Outside the Public Sphere” (143ff). “[W]e need to cultivate embodied forms of belonging and allow these commitments to foster … convivial modes of participating in the public sphere” (145). He wisely concludes, “In short, if we want to think well about the events of our day, we will first need to belong well to the body of Christ and to the neighbors with whom we share our places” (147). He commends the distinction elaborated by Daniel Kahneman in Thinking Fast and Slow[5] in which System 1 is “intuitive, fast, and relatively effortless, whereas System 2 is rational, slow, and requires hard work” (147). The electronic environment fosters System 1 thinking and connects us with invisible “communities.” Bilbro gives examples of redemptive publishing and exemplary lives, concluding the book with Chapter 9, “Liturgies of Christian Belonging” (165ff). In good Walden fashion he recommends walking. Thoreau wrote an entire book on the subject.[6] Our own J. Gresham Machen wrote a fine essay “The Benefits of Walking.”[7] Bilbro provides some fine suggestions for “aspirational subscribing” (170–73).

The combination of Bilbro’s excellent writing style and his finely tuned literary and theological sensibilities makes this book a very edifying delight to read. I highly recommend it.

Endnotes

[1] Gregory Edward Reynolds, The Word Is Worth a Thousand Pictures: Preaching in the Electronic Age (Eugene, R: Wipf & Stock, 2001), 140. The Thoreau quote came from Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business (New York: Viking Penguin, 1985), 65–69.

[2] For some of the content of this paragraph see Laura Dassow Walls, Henry David Thoreau: A Life (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2017), 47–49.

[3] Postman, Amusing Ourselves To Death, 67. See also Reynolds, The Word Is Worth a Thousand Pictures, 270.

[4] Sherry Turkle, Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other (New York: Basic, 2012).

[5] Daniel Kahneman, Thinking Fast and Slow (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2011).

[6] Henry David Thoreau, Walking (Thomaston, ME: Tilbury, n.d.). Published posthumously in 1862.

[7] J. Gresham Machen, “The Benefits of Walking,” in D. G. Hart, ed., Selected Shorter Writings (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2004), 438–40.

Gregory E. Reynolds is pastor emeritus of Amoskeag Presbyterian Church (OPC) in Manchester, New Hampshire, and is the editor of Ordained Servant. Ordained Servant Online, April 2022.

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