How are Christians to think about national news?

How are Christians to think about national news?

Last November on the night of the U.S. presidential election, around 10pm I decided to check out the voting results for the first time that day.

For a variety of reasons I hadn’t followed the campaign much at all.  But from the little I’d heard (or couldn’t help but overhearing), Clinton was expected to win.

Within moments of checking online, I discovered that Florida had already reported a large majority of its votes, and it was essentially a tie.

The remaining Florida votes would be coming in from the Panhandle, where Sarah and I had lived for five years.

And that’s when it hit me.

I yelled to Sarah, who was in the other room:  “Unbelievable.  Um, I think that . . . Trump might . . . actually . . . win.”

The Florida Panhandle is quite conservative (as we had learned from living there), and with Florida traditionally being a swing state, for Clinton to lose there probably meant for a long night.

And, wow, was it a long night:  for the first time in my life I stayed up until 4am watching . . . an election?

(Well, here’s why:  once Clinton conceded, I had to hear her speech–more out of curiosity than anything.  And when she didn’t speak–which completely boggled my mind, it made me even more curious to hear Trump’s acceptance speech.  So there you go.)

And that’s how I got hooked on the national news.

I went from not following the campaign / election at all to being utterly immersed in national news for the next–I don’t know–probably 4-6 weeks.  By the end of that time, I felt like an overly complicated cocktail:

1-part fascinated
2-parts exhausted
3-parts confused
1-part depressed
4-parts powerless.

Where was I supposed to go to find reliable national news, given the polarization, even fragmentation, of our country, the abysmal complexity of the issues, and the lackluster reporting of so many of the news media sources, who regularly churn out entertainment-oriented, spin-filled, big-data-driven articles that perpetuate the endless (and vicious?) 24-hour news cycle?

If you’ve ever asked this, you’re not alone.  In fact, you’re in really good company.

In Tom Nichols’ recent work The Death of Expertise (Oxford University Press, 2017), he writes of a 2015 study by the National Journal in which “congregational staff, federal government executives, and private-sector public affairs professionals [were] asked . . . how they got their news.”

How did these “Washington insiders” respond?  Nichols summarizes:

“According to the study, it was now easier than ever for these ‘insiders’ to obtain information, but ‘harder than ever for them to make sense of it all.’ Professionals in Washington, like everyone else, were ‘somewhat paralyzed’ by a ‘glut’ of news that left them ‘lacking confidence in individual sources and information'” (143).

Then Nichols rightly asks:  “If professional policymakers and staff in Washington can’t make sense of the news, how can anyone else?”

In the 4-6 weeks after the election, after all the reading I’d done, I asked myself:  What did I really know now?  And how sure was I of it?

And that made me step back and ask an even more fundamental question:

How should my faith inform how I go about trying to inform myself of the national news?  (I’m going to leave out the very important question of international news for now.)

In short, as a Christian, how am I supposed to think about the national news?

Here are a few initial thoughts on that question in no particular order.   (I’d love to hear your feedback.)

1. In humility, just don’t have an opinion (at least not yet).

Christianity says that we humans are not gods:  we weren’t created to be know-it-alls.  However, we do have an incredible capacity to learn.  But until we actually use that capacity, as the Old Testament wisdom literature says, wisdom involves freely admitting what we do not–and perhaps cannot–know or understand (e.g., Prov. 30.18-19).

Today there is immense social pressure to be ‘in the know’ and to always have an opinion.  This is complete foolishness, perpetuating ignorance rather than preventing it.

So when you’re discussing national news with others, it’s an altogether edifying thing to say, “You know, I’ve only skimmed an article here and there, so I’m fairly sure I don’t know enough to have an opinion on this yet.”

And, truth be told, the same just might be the case for everyone else in the discussion.

2. In humility, realize you may have the wrong opinion.

The beginning of the Christian journey is the end of arrogance, an arrogance that just assumes that it’s already got the inside scoop (it only needs to find the facts to prove it).

The Apostle Paul argued that Jesus’ crucifixion was proof of how completely foolish humanity is:  Love came down, and we all banded together to crucify him. That is, the Creator sent the Solution to all the darkness within us and around us, and we all thought he was the Problem.  So we killed him.  That’s how “wise” we are.

To be a Christian, then, is to understand not only how incredibly wrong we can be, but how often the truth is both counter-cultural and counter-intuitive.  Stop and actually contemplate just how sobering, even harrowing, are the following words of Jesus concerning the opinion of the masses:

“…wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and those who enter through it are many.  But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and those who find it are few” (Matt. 7.13-14).

Dare we just assume that we just happen to be among the few?  Really?

Christians need to seek out and read opinions that may contradict our initial understanding of what’s happening in our nation and why it is.

When discussing national news with others, it’s a very powerful thing to say, “You know, I came to this issue thinking such-and-such, but I’ve come to realize that I was wrong in these ways . . . .”

In short, for the Christian, the cross of Christ means the death of what’s called “confirmation bias”–i.e., the default pride in all of us that searches first for the facts that will confirm our initial–and often self-interested–impression.

3. Read in-depth articles–and, yes, even books–written by experts in a given field.

Have you ever wondered:  just who is writing so many of the news articles we read online?

Nichols gives us his answer:  as a professor himself, he laments that at many major universities today the communications and journalism departments . . .

“. . . crank out young people with little knowledge about the subjects of their correspondence. They are schooled in the structure of a story but not in the habits or norms of the profession . . . . The market’s focus on form rather than content, the need for speed, and the fashionable biases of the modern university combine to create a trifecta of misinformation” (160).

By contrast the wisdom literature says, “Whoever walks with the wise grows wise” (Prov. 13.20).  In Scripture, the “wise” are not other-worldly, reclusive spiritual gurus, but those with an expertise and skill learned only by an intimate, experiential familiarity with the world.

An example of wisdom or “skill.”

If we really want reliable national news, given the astonishing complexity of the issues, we need to hear from experts in a given field, especially when those experts disagree.

If you’re too busy (or too lazy) to take the time to read longer, more in-depth articles and books, then come to terms with that.  Admit to yourself and to others that your priorities are elsewhere, which may not always be a bad thing (as we’ll see shortly).

But what you can’t do is this:  pretend like you know what you’re talking about on a topic of national news.

I spent all last fall reading in-depth articles and books on the topic race and racism in America (I may write a series of posts about it later this summer or fall).  I’ve read 30-odd books and numerous in-depth articles on the topic as it relates to the criminal justice system, education, the trans-Atlantic slave trade, religion, the arts, economics, Jim Crow and the civil rights movement, etc.

None of this makes me an expert on the topic.  But what it has revealed, not too surprisingly, is the virtual Grand Canyon between what I’ve read so far by subject experts, on the one hand, and what I daily read in the news media, on the other.

To give but one example:  though written 20 years ago, Harvard Professor Randall Kennedy’s work Race, Crime, and the Law is simply outstanding; it’s almost prophetic (it’s scary; his more recent, more accessible Sellout is also fantastic).  I probably have a good measure of disagreement with Kennedy on a number of philosophical, social, and political issues, and yet I find his central arguments cautiously made and either thoroughly convincing or quite compelling (e.g., his ‘take’ on police brutality is outstanding and would give pause to both liberal and conservative pundits on, e.g., Fox News or CNN).

Race Crime and the Law

Here’s the point:  experts help us understand (what are usually) long-standing national issues, so that we can better interpret any given national event, crisis or issue when it (re)surfaces on the national news scene.  And when we do that, we’ll respond with far more intelligence and empathy and far less emotion and anger–like too many persons we all know, both progressive and conservative.

So when we’re discussing national news with others, it communicates a lot when we say, “I read an intriguing book / article on that topic by so-and-so, a subject expert in the field. I’m not sure I agree with all of it, but she argues such-and-such.  I don’t know–what do you guys think about that?”

4. Have real relationships with persons who really disagree with you.

This is essential.  I am regularly fascinated–and frustrated–by things people are willing to say on social media, things that they would never say in person.  When we share our views on a computer (rather than in a conversation) we’re far more inclined to be guilty of caricature and condescension.  We fool no one but ourselves.

For Christians, what Jesus called the Second Greatest Commandment–viz., “Love your neighbor as yourself” (which we’ll discuss more in a moment)–gives no ideological exception; Jesus doesn’t say:  “Love your conservative neighbor as yourself.”  People are not arguments to be destroyed, but persons made in the image of God.  Even if their arguments are of little worth, it doesn’t remotely mean they are.

When discussing national news with others, we need to do it with people whom we love deeply and with whom we deeply disagree.  Also, it’s a powerful thing to say, “My good friend so-and-so really disagrees with me on this.  He maintains such-and-such, and I have to admit: I hadn’t thought of that; it’s actually a really good point.”

5. Distinguish between individual “lived experience” and aggregated research.

With the arrival of the cell phone (with its ability to record live footage) and Western culture’s long-standing prioritization of individual experience, many news media outlets will present as news what has happened to one person:  systemic issues (from cancer treatment to car crashes to incarceration) are reported through the story of a single person.

This is human testimony, and it’s powerful.

But it is only one human’s testimony.  With good reason Old Testament law required “the testimony of two or three witnesses” for a matter to stand, a principle that Jesus himself reinforced (e.g., Deut. 19.15; Matt.18.16).  In similar fashion, the wisdom literature states what every parent on the planet has experienced:  “The first to present his case seems innocent, until another comes forward and questions them” (Prov. 18.17).

Due to confirmation bias, many news media stories, whether conservative or progressive, will capitalize on a single person’s story that confirms their own ideological inclinations.  In contrast to this anecdotal argument is aggregated research, which quite probably takes into account personal testimony but also includes historical, sociological and statistical methods of analysis (not to mention a review of the scholarly literature to date), the results of which can be altogether counterintuitive.

Why?  Quite simply, because the world looks different from 10,000 feet (than from 5 or 6 feet).  Who can disagree with that?

Dashcam capturing struggle between suspect and officer

To give but one counter-intuitive conclusion of aggregated research:  One of the central findings of the scholarly, if scathing, work Intellectuals and Race by Stanford economist Thomas Sowell is that all too often people over the past 30-40 years–from U.S. presidents to professors to the press–have ever so wrongly concluded that demographic disparity (in, e.g., a career field or in mortgage lending) is necessarily a demonstration of discrimination.

When discussing national news with others, Christians should recognize both the legitimacy and the limitations of “lived experience,” including our own.  Inevitably, arguments based upon lived experience dwindle down into an unhelpful “he said, she said” disagreement.  By contrast, it’s a powerful thing to say, “You know, from my own experience, I feel like such-and-such is the case, but according to economic research done by so-and-so, that’s actually the exception, not the rule.  That’s given me real pause.”

6. Pray nationally.

The Apostle Paul unambiguously instructs Christians that “petitions, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for all people–for kings and all those in authority” (1 Tim. 2.1-2).

Consider these words:  he doesn’t just say to pray against (or in spite of) those in power.  Paul says to pray for them–indeed, both to intercede and to give thanks for them.  Huh.

When reading the national news, we may feel powerless, but, as Christians, there’s simply no excuse for being prayerless.  Prayerlessness is the only true powerlessness.  Both corporately and individually, Christians are to pray to a God who hears and acts, a God who, says Hannah, “raises the poor from the dust and lifts the needy from the ash heap and seats them with princes” (1 Sam. 2.8) but also “brings princes to naught and reduces the rulers of the world to nothing” (Isaiah 40.23).

prayerlessness.jpg

7. Finally, live, learn and love locally.

From what we’ve seen thus far, it actually takes some work to be even relatively informed about the national news.

In fact, I think it’s quite difficult to know with any measure of certainty what’s actually going on at any given time:  we may have educated guesses, but it usually takes the perspective of at least 20–but more like 50 to a 100–years to get a sense of what’s actually going on, not least in a country as vast, diverse, and polarized as the United States.

In Scripture a common metaphor for the nations is the sea.  Not a calm, serene harbor, but a raging, stormy sea.  Why?  Because national and international events often come at us with chaotic and overwhelming force.  One of the prophets declares:

“Oh the raging of many nations
–they rage like the raging sea.
Oh the uproar of the peoples
–they roar like the roaring of the mighty waters.”

(Isaiah 17.12-13; see Jer. 47.2-3; Ezek. 32.2; Dan. 7.3, 17).

No wonder we so often feel powerless (and even depressed) after reading the national news.  But these same inspired authors insist there is one far greater than the chaotic turmoil of the nations.  King David speaks of Israel’s God as…

“…God our Savior,
the hope of all the ends of the earth
and of the farthest seas, . . .
who stills the roaring of the seas,
the roaring of their waves,
and the turmoil of the nations.” – Psalm 65.5, 7

Such an impregnable hope cannot but inform how the Christian reads the national news:  cynicism gives way to supplication; frustration, to lamentation; in the place of annoyance grows repentance; and in the place of frustration, intercession.  Christian, ask yourself:  is this what characterizes your Facebook posts, tweets, and conversations with friends and family?

Buoyed by this sure hope, the Christian, especially when storm-tossed, then looks for guidance from God’s law.  We need to look no further than the Second Greatest Commandment:  “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

As already mentioned, the single constraint in this command has nothing to do with ideology or ancestry or capacity, be it physical, mental, social, or financial.  It has only to do with geographical proximity.  In both Hebrew and Greek the word translated as “neighbor” describes the person to be loved precisely in this regard–as “one who is [geographically] near [you].”

This is both reprioritizing and re-energizing.  It’s actually within our ability to learn about our neighborhoods and communities, to become intimately familiar with their beauty and brokenness.  Even better, such learning means getting away from (instead of being glued to) our screens.  It calls forth the best in us–namely, humility, hospitality and generosity.

In sum, the Second Greatest Commandment summons each of us to return home, to where we actually live–not in D.C. but in Denver, Durham, or Dorado; not in the Beltway but in Boston, Baltimore or Billings.  Why?

To learn the local news, so that we might live the Good News.

And change the world.

One thought on “How are Christians to think about national news?

  1. When Jesus was asked if the Jewish people should pay taxes to to Romans, it was a trick question. He threw the coin back at a Roman soldier and said “give to Cesar what belongs to Cedar, and give to God what belongs to God.” The hidden meaning of this is to let the things and our preoccupation with the things of this physical world go. Give your heart, mind, and energy to God, and don’t be consumed with the matters and things of this world.

    Turn off the TV………..or at least don’t be all consumed by its outrage….focus on letting go of this world and giving yourself to God…..

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