A Pew Research Center report about U.S. media polarization and the 2020 election found that “Republicans and Democrats place their trust in two nearly inverse news media environments.” Tell me whether a person watches Fox or CNN, in other words, and I’ll tell you how they likely vote. Victor H. Lindlahr, “You are what you eat,” but when it comes to media, you are what you read.
The fact that partisanship and news sources track so closely is worrisome. Are our opinions shaped by which channels we watch? Then we are too passive. Do our opinions decide which channels we watch? Then our problem is confirmation bias. Either way, we need to engage media more critically.
As Christians, that means we need to engage it more theologically. In Reading the Times, Jeffrey Bilbro outlines “a practical theology of the news.” He focuses on three themes in particular: attention, time and community.
According to a 2021 Nielsen report, the average U.S. adult spends 10 hours daily on media of some form. The amount and variety of information consumed forces the first question Bilbro asks, “To what should we attend?” We cannot read the news theologically without determining what’s worthy of our attention.
A second theme revolves around the question, “How should we imagine and experience time?” Greek distinguishes between kairos (“propitious time”) and chronos (“quantifiable duration”). Bilbro argues that Christians need a “figural imagination” that interprets chronos in terms of kairos. As Karl Barth advised his students, “Take your Bible and take your newspaper, and read both. But interpret newspapers from your Bible.”
The final question a theological reading of the news asks is, “How should we belong to one another?” Bilbro argues that “media technologies and institutions have reconfigured social belonging.” Thus, Fox-watching Republicans may feel closer to other Fox-watching Republicans they’ve never met than to their next-door neighbor who’s a CNN-watching Democrat. (And vice versa.)
“If the problem is that our belonging to one another has become increasingly mediated through the media and the public sphere,” Bilbro writes, “the solution may be to root our fundamental commitments outside this space.” A good start would be simply to turn off the TV and go talk to your neighbor.
At 200 pages, Reading the Times is a brief book, but don’t mistake brevity for shallow analysis. Bilbro mines the Bible, theology, classic literature, and history to explain why our media consumption is hurting us, how we came to this crisis, and what Christians can do differently to help make things better.
Jeffrey Bilbro, Reading the Times: A Literary and Theological Inquiry into the News (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2021).
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P.P.S. This review will appear in the summer 2021 issue of Influence magazine and is posted here by permission.