Engaging culture

New Ways to Follow the News

Reviews of Reading the Times: A Literary and Theological Inquiry Into the News by Jeffrey Bilbro.

Quiet Wisdom for Christians Engaging the Loud Media  

By Bruce McKanna

Many pastors say  their congregants are being discipled by the news media more than the Bible. Should we be surprised, when so many Americans see their preferred channel as the source of inerrant truth and tribal identity? How do we, as Christians, counteract this media-driven distraction and division? 

Jeffrey Bilbro has written Reading the Times to help us. Bilbro, a professor of English at Grove City College, does not offer yet another critique of media bias. Rather, his aim is “to think theologically about how Christians should consume the news,” focusing on three considerations: attention, time and community. For each, he offers three chapters addressing the current media environment, a better theological response and practical steps for healthier habits. 

Bilbro repeats the maxim of Henry David Thoreau: “Read not the Times. Read the Eternities.” Yet, as Thoreau demonstrated, this is not a call to retreat from the events and issues of our day. In this way, Bilbro calls for a different kind of engagement, citing voices and artwork from the past. He stretched my mind, imagination and attention span, and I needed this.

[This book] is a welcome respite from the clickbait and hot takes that fill our news feeds.

Besides his role in academia, Bilbro is the editor of the localist and communitarian website Front Porch Republic. This comes through in many of his prescriptions, whether urging a “faithful joining” to churches and community organizations or simply walking your neighborhood to foster relationships beyond the virtual world. As a pastor in the rural Midwest, I resonate with these values which are not as common as they used to be, even in small towns among self-proclaimed conservatives. 

Sadly, I fear that those who most need this book—those who are most enamored by and absorbed in their preferred news media—will not find this book very interesting. It is not a targeted attack on political enemies and “fake news.” There is little discussion of sobering statistics on attention deficit or rising rates of anxiety and depression. Instead, Bilbro authors a quiet and thoughtful engagement with intellectuals and mystics from long ago—Augustine, Pascal, Merton and more—who offer wisdom for our moment.

And that’s why, for those who are patient enough to listen, Reading the Times is a welcome respite from the clickbait and hot takes that fill our news feeds. Though not a long book, it encourages slow, meditative reading and introduces perspectives that we may have forgotten or overlooked. It’s not a comprehensive analysis of today’s news media, but Bilbro’s work provides the gift of attention and time that it commends. If you read and discuss it with others, it may bless you with community as well.

Reading the News to Love My Neighbor

By Thomas Cackler 

“How should a Christian consume the news?” Odds are good that you’ve never considered this question. I know I hadn’t. For me, the question was, “Should a Christian consume the news?” 

Once, I was an avid consumer of the news, but increasingly, I found that consuming the news only served to make me angry and frustrated. I had more important things to consider and do than worry about the latest debate in Washington, D.C. on an issue that wouldn’t matter to me. A few weeks ago, I decided I would operate from a mindset that “the news will find me” rather than the other way around. Then, I received a copy of Jeffrey Bilbro’s book Reading the Times: A Literary and Theological Inquiry into the News and I began to rethink my news media fast.

[E]ngaging the events of the day through the pages of Scripture reminds the Christian that while today’s events are important, they are not ultimate.

Bilbro is clear early on that the Christian should consume the news, but not in the same way or for the same reasons that the world does. In an age when people consume the news to “own” their political opponents, Bilbro suggests that the news “plays a vital role in enabling [the Christian] to love our neighbors” (pg. 7). Bilbro encourages Christians, echoing Henry David Thoreau, “to be wary of trivia and devoted to eternal truths” (pg. 35). Rather than thinking that every piece of news is the most important of our lifetime, the Christian should view the events in light of Scripture and how it motivates love and good works. For the Christian, knowing the events of the day helps us to be agents of the Kingdom through both prayer and action to make a difference in the world.

While at times this book leaned more to the philosophical rather than scriptural, there is nothing that contradicts Scripture. I mention this only because I wish Bilbro had appealed more to Scripture at times than history or philosophy. Likewise, this book might be a little too academic for your average church member in the pew. Even so, I still strongly recommend this book to everyone in church leadership so they can teach the principles of this book and apply them to their own lives to lead better. I especially recommend it to those like me who have gravitated to one extreme or the other (news consumption to win a debate or abstaining from news consumption). Bilbro’s arguments are well-reasoned and his suggestions  on how to responsibly consume the news  are strong and welcome.

Ultimately, engaging the events of the day through the pages of Scripture reminds the Christian that while today’s events are important, they are not ultimate. Yes, there are serious issues in the news today; yet none of them are the last word on any issue. Bilbro challenged me as a pastor to not abstain from the news but to consume it in such a way that it allows me to love my neighbor better. Better still, he gave me a framework to help my congregation consume the news responsibly and love their neighbors. In all, Reading the Times is a welcome addition to my library and my tool-kit on how to lead my people to a deeper relationship with Christ.

Bruce McKanna

Bruce McKanna is senior pastor of Evangelical Free Church of Mt. Morris, Illinois.

Thomas Cackler

Pastor, Cumming Community Church

Thomas Cackler is the pastor of Cumming Community Church (EFCA) in Cumming, Iowa. One of his goals as a pastor is to, in the words of John Piper, “help people fall out of love with this world and into love with Jesus.”

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