Reviewed by: Diane L. Olinger
Reading the Times: A Literary and Theological Inquiry into the News, by Jeffrey Bilbro. InterVarsity, 2021. Hardcover, 187 pages, $19.60 (Amazon). Reviewed by OP member Diane L. Olinger.
Books and essays that critique modern journalism abound. This book offers critique as well, but differs in that it calls us as Christian readers of news to address the problem by becoming better consumers of news. Author Jeffrey Bilbro, an editor of Front Porch Republic and a professor at Grove City College, aims to produce a “practical theology of the news” that considers “how a Christian account of attention, time, and community might inform our relation to the news” (6).
Bilbro’s main point is that, if we want to understand our times, we must read the news in light of what is timeless. Or, as Bilbro puts it, we should read chronos (secular, progressive history) in light of kairos (God’s redemptive drama). This does not mean that we view the news as a cosmic scoreboard, with ourselves as the “good guys and our opponents as the “bad guys” to blame for all the ills of culture (45). In fact, Bilbro recommends something quite the opposite from this news-as-scoreboard reading: he suggests a sort of “indifference” toward the outcome of issues we read about and advocate for, one that is “rooted in a confidence that God is in control and in a humility about our own ability to discern the workings of Providence in contemporary events” (37). Far from a privileged insulation from the effects of bad news, Bilbro urges us to have an attitude like the martyrs, who faithfully obeyed God regardless of the consequences because of their eschatological hope (42, 54). Reading the news in this way, Bilbro posits, can help us to love our neighbors well.
To illustrate his points, Bilbro draws on the work of writers from Thoreau and Dante to Merton and Berry, along with activist-journalists like Frederick Douglass and Dorothy Day. A quote from Thoreau is repeated throughout the book: “Read not the Times. Read the Eternities” (from Thoreau’s Reform Papers).
Happily, Bilbro not only identifies problems, but offers helpful suggestions for Christians trying to navigate the digital media ecosystem. If our “tastes” for news have been malformed, the good news is that we can “begin to change our cravings by changing what we consume” (57). It’s not enough to just diversify our news feed. Instead, he encourages us to look for writers and institutions “who attend to the news from a longer, deeper perspective,” rather than those who drive us to flit from scandal to scandal (170). He also urges those who are tempted to find community and identity through partisan, screen-mediated discourse, to re-connect with their neighborhoods.
I found this book to be convicting. Particularly, this statement: “Reading the morning newspaper is the realist’s morning prayer” (75, quoting Hegel). When I reach for my phone first thing in the morning, what am I orienting myself to—God or the world? What community do I imagine that I am a part of—the one outside my door or some far-flung group connected by a similar news feed?
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