A Feature Review of
Reading the Times: A Literary and Theological Inquiry into the News
Hardback: IVP Academic, 2021
Buy Now: [IndieBound] [Amazon] [Kindle]
Reviewed by Cort Gatliff
Before a once-in-a-century pandemic infected the globe, historic protests against police brutality engulfed the nation, and a violent mob besieged and breached the Capitol, we were already a news-obsessed people. For years now, cultural commentators, psychologists, and others have written about the addictive nature of the 24-hour news cycle and the dangers of a compulsive need to refresh our social media feeds. But the past eighteen months or so have exacerbated these existing problems.
We’ve been isolated from our communities and unmoored from our regular routines of work, worship, and play. This disruption has forced us to live more of our lives online, where we’re saturated in our digital media ecosystem. Again and again, the seemingly endless barrage of “breaking news” lures us back to our screens to discover the latest pandemic updates, trending hashtags, or sources of outrage. This addiction to minute-by-minute news coverage of, well, everything, has left us angry, exhausted, and not particularly well-informed.
We must all attend to the news in some form or fashion, but too often we do so mindlessly, without any clear end in view. As Christians, what are we to make of this? How should followers of Jesus relate to the news? What theological ideas should shape our engagement with and response to current events? Or, put more simply: “What do we need to know to love our neighbors well?” These are the questions at the heart of Jeffrey Bilbro’s essential new book, Reading the Times: A Literary and Theological Inquiry in the News.
To answer these questions, Bilbro steers us away from the urgency of the present moment and delivers a much-needed historical and theological perspective on our engagement with the news. The book is divided into three sections: attention, time, and community. According to Bilbro, each of these categories are areas in which we’re especially at risk of being malformed by contemporary news media.
Our attention is one of our most valuable—and limited—resources. What we do with it, Bilbro argues, shapes not only our minds but also our souls. The news media of our day are competing for our eyeballs, that is, our attention, and the longer we stare at the television or stay on a website without clicking away, the more advertising they can sell. This has led to news that leverages our worst instincts of outrage, fear, gossip, slothfulness, celebrity obsession, and hatred for profit. Combine that model with technology designed by Silicon Valley to encourage addiction, and our minds become fragmented and bloated with meaningless trivia. “The more we give in to this craving,” Bilbro writes, “the less we are able to resist it.”
Our news media also distorts the way we understand time, Bilbro contends. He identifies two understandings of time: chronos and kairos. Chronos, related to the word chronological, is our modern view of time. It focuses on the here and now above all else. The value and meaning of current events are determined by whether or not they’re moving in the vaguely defined direction of “progress.” When we immerse our lives in chronos time by, say, spending eight hours a day in front of cable news or staying up past midnight scrolling through social media, everything feels urgent. Missing the latest news leaves one feeling insignificant and behind—and yet no matter what, there are always more posts to see and hot takes to read. The Christian tradition, however, provides another understanding of time. “Kairos time is rhythmic, cyclical, seasonal,” Bilbro writes. This is an understanding of time that seeks to view events in light of what God is doing in the world, and therefore meaning is less determined by the latest breaking news.
Bilbro’s third and final section explores the effects of our local communities being replaced by digital communities formed in the public sphere. As an example, he points to cruises hosted by news organizations like the New York Times and the National Review that give subscribers the chance to go on adventures with “like-minded travelers.” On the surface, communities formed around a news organization may seem legitimate, but in reality, these communities are tenuous at best, based solely on ideological bent rather than lived experience. Bilbro writes, “When we no longer belong primarily to those who share our place, we turn to dispersed, disembodied modes of community.” That’s not to say digital communities are always bad, but they’re insufficient for the flourishing of human beings. We desire to belong and be known in a truer, deeper way.
When I was in college, before I knew I would become a pastor, I studied journalism and worked for my city’s local newspaper. I wasn’t in a major media market, but it was large enough to give me the sense of working in a real newsroom with real journalists. At least once a week, I would find a clipping of a national news story on my desk with a note from my editor: “Make it local.” That was his way of telling me to find the local, more direct angle to a larger story in the world. Bilbro, in this timely work of practical theology, urges us to do the same thing. Christians, he argues, should counteract the digital media ecosystem’s formative power by developing wiser, more biblical, and more local liturgies of attention, time and community.
Instead of immersing ourselves in the constant background noise of news media, we should follow Thomas Merton’s and Henry David Thoreau’s examples and create space for silence and contemplation. This simple act is a form of resistance against a system that makes money by stealing our attention. “Instead of a turning away from the world . . . contemplative silence creates the interior space necessary to discern the particular issues to which we may be called to attend and respond,” Bilbro writes. Another practice worth pursuing according to Bilbro is learning a craft and working with one’s hands, which pulls us out of the digital world and focuses our attention on that which is directly before us.
Along those same lines, Bilbro encourages readers to go for a walk in their community. Walking through the neighborhoods in which we live, work, and raise our families will offer opportunities to meet our neighbors first and foremost as human beings as opposed to pixelated avatars and potential ideological opponents on social media. The core of our identity should be rooted in a specific place with specific people, thick communities rather thin.
One piece of Bilbro’s advice I found especially helpful is to subscribe aspirationally. Attend to and pay for the media you wish to see in the world. I often find myself mindlessly reading whatever clickbait the algorithm gods place before me, but I usually end up feeling outraged, depressed, or numb. The media we consume shapes us, so we must be careful about what and how we read. Bilbro challenges readers to “look for—and patronize—writers and institutions who attend to the news from a longer, deeper perspective.”
Most importantly though, Christians can reshape their understanding of time by following the rhythms of the church. By committing to a local church and practicing the daily and weekly habits of personal devotion, sabbath, and worship, as well as the yearly liturgical calendar, with a body of believers, we can escape the tyranny of chronos time and live according to kairos time, an understanding of time in which God is actively redeeming and making all things new.
At just under 200 pages, Bilbro’s book is a practical, yet theologically rich exploration of the news that would benefit pastors and laypeople alike. We Christians are, after all, people with urgent news to share: Christ has died, Christ is risen, and Christ will come again. This is the News that must inform how we read and interpret the news. Bilbro has written a resource that will be invaluable for the church as we seek to move forward faithfully in a news-saturated, divided world.
Cort Gatliff is the Assistant Minister of Discipleship at South Highland Presbyterian Church in Birmingham, Alabama. Find him on Twitter at @cortgatliff.