By Jeffrey Bilbro | | 200 pages
Published in June of 2021

SUMMARY: From newspaper fact checkers to evaluation methods such as S.I.F.T. to diversifying one’s news feeds, there is a tremendous amount of time and energy devoted to debunking lies and conspiracy theories. Despite the trend to provide more quality information to the public, according to a 2022 PPRI poll, 60% of white evangelical Protestants believe the 2020 election was stolen from Donald Trump while QAnon conspiracies ravage large swaths of churches in America. While fact-checking methods and diversifying one’s news feed can be helpful, it seems to do little in the way of moving people from yelling at each other to holding a respectful conversation. How did the church get here? Is there a theological way of consuming the news? How can we think and act Christianly to the news?

In Reading the Times, author Jeffrey Bilbro doesn’t give Christians a list of websites to visit or not visit or topics that Christians should give priority to, but challenges Christians to reorient how we view and interact with the news, how we relate to time, and how to live in community to shape the news.

“As consumers of the news, we need to re-evaluate the light we rely on to understand our times and discern how to respond,” Bilbro writes.

The first three chapters are devoted to attention. The vast majority of media is geared towards “news-as-spectacle” where we are informed about events, such as a terrorist attack, that we can do little about. This trains us to be passive consumers of the news, susceptible to “advertising jingles, political slogans, and hashtags.”

Bilbro often references Henry David Thoreau who, back in the 1860s, wrote about “macadamized minds” where our intellect has been ground to bits with trivial information. Thoreau’s visionary writing describes social media and internet news organizations that provide quick emotional hits but do little to change how we live with and love our neighbors.

“When our experience of the world is filtered through the news media, the tragedies that play out on our screens can seem more pressing than the ones that happen closer to home,” Bilbro writes. “In this condition, we risk being like the priest and the Levite, who passed by the wounded man on the side of the road, rather than the Samaritan who saw, had compassion for, and took action to help his neighbor (Lk 10:25-37).”

The second part of the book is devoted to kairos time and chronos time.

“Kairos refers to…time that is right for a certain act–the time to plant or harvest a crop, for instance. Kairos time is rhythmic, cyclical, seasonal. Chronos…is closer to our modern understanding of time. This is time as quantifiable duration, as something that is linear and sequential.”

Chronos time dominates American culture. Our news cycle is based on chronos time. It is so embedded in our culture, it is difficult to conceive, much less adopt, an alternative view of time. Yet kairos time provides us the opportunity not to let the daily headlines drive our mood and how we interact with people. It pushes us toward humility and faith that God is in control–no matter who wins an election or wins a war.

“Because Christian hope is rooted not in historical time, but, rather, in the eschaton, the drama of the Daily News is relativized and muted. We are freed from seeing the news as representing a series of existential crises and can instead take up a posture of sancta indifferentia (holy apathy/indifference) from which we can respond in love, prayer, and hope.”

The final three chapters of the book focus on community where Bilbro postulates many Americans live in disembodied, market-driven communities that put the commodification of words and people above all else. Despite our best intentions, we self-select into groups that already agree with us. And even if we try to get outside our information bubble, websites are incentivized to keep us in our bubble and on their website, delivering us ads as we retweet or repost the sins of those we disagree with.

“We respond to events primarily based on prejudices and hunches–feelings formed in large part by the communities we imagine ourselves belonging to. In this way, the news primes our affective responses, shaping the intuitive heuristics we rely on to judge the affairs of our day. It is these almost instinctual, gut feelings that lead us to respond to a story with protests, praise, prayer, or lament and to act on this response by volunteering, by rallying around a need in our community, writing a legislator, or attending a city council meeting.”

For Christians, this should simply not be so.

Fortunately, Bilbro departs from the critique stage in the final chapter of each part where he provides suggestions on ways Christians can engage with the news from a distinctly Christian point of view.

To refocus our attention, he suggests employing the practice of sancta indifferentia (holy apathy/indifference) where the goal of the news “is faithful action that’s not concerned with the results.” He suggests paying more attention to the news of our neighbors where “the news of what our neighbors are going through invites us to enact our solidarity with them.” (Some have termed this “hyper-local” news, read News as Spiritual Formation for more.)

To reorient how we view time, he suggests following a liturgical calendar and viewing art. Art and following a liturgical calendar (we recommend the one in Common Prayer: Pocket Edition) reminds us we are creatures of two times. That tension is part of what should make a Christian’s approach to life and news distinct.

In his final chapter, he suggests taking a walk in your neighborhood to get to know your neighbors. Here he quotes writer Gracy Olmstead.

“Walking is a slow and porous experience…To walk is also to be vulnerable: It forces us into physical interaction with surrounding streets, homes, and people. This can delay us, annoy us, even put us in danger. But it connects us to community in a way that cars never can.”

Ultimately, Bilbro suggests walking in humility in an embodied community not marked by the latest headlines but by the history-changing event of the incarnation of God.

KEY QUOTE: “What we really need is to be shaped by embodied communities that are rooted outside the public sphere and its unhealthy dynamics. Our engagement in the public sphere can only be redemptive to the extent that it is predicated on prior commitments–most fundamentally, commitments to loving God and our neighbors. If these are indeed our primary commitments, we may learn about and respond to current events from a posture characterized by loving attention to the needs of our places and by a profound sense of our participation in God’s ongoing drama.”

BONUS: Listen to Bilbro talk about his book on the Gospel Bound podcast.

DID YOU KNOW? Sunday to Saturday has a Good Reads page where we post all of the books we have read – even the ones that didn’t make the cut.

Our latest curated content on reading the news:

LEARNING CAPSULE: How to Read the News

Keeping up with the news can be overwhelming. Where do you start? Who do you trust? Here is a guide to help you read the news through a Christian lens and with a critical eye (HINT: Think local!)

PODCAST: The Pour Over

In a world of 24-hour news coverage, it is easy to get lost in the shear volume of information. Fortunately, the fine people at The Pour Over Podcast are producing three (M, Tu., Fri.) sub-eight-minute podcasts each week that highlight top news while keeping the focus on Christ.

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