Reading the Times, A Literary and Theological Inquiry into the News

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In light of the consolidated, monetized and dominate flow of news coming from modern media sources, we need a practical theology of the news. Jeffrey Bilbro writes this volume to help his readers “think theologically” about how Christians should consume the news (p. 6). Each of the three parts addresses a particular set of questions: To what should we attend? How should we imagine and experience time? And how should we belong to one another? Each part follows the same pattern, with a chapter considering how our contemporary media offers inadequate answers, a second chapter, which proposes a theological answer, and the final chapter suggesting specific practices, which “might cultivate a healthier posture toward the news” (p. 6).

A quote by Josef Pieper sets the tone for Part One: “The average person of our time loses the ability to see because there is too much to see!” (p. 11). The constant bombardment of news tends to macadamize (blend) our intellect, wills, and emotions in such a way that we find ourselves paying more attention to matters that are distant and having less involvement with those nearby (p. 12). We are so concerned about issues and people that we do not know and can do nothing about that we have little time, emotion, and interest in our neighbors. The author’s solution is not to ignore the news and world events, but to devote our attention to things that matter to God and His redemptive plan for the world. Quoting Henry David Thoreau, he encourages his reader to, “Read not the times. Read the eternities” (pp. 19, 58). Drawing from Thoreau’s essay “Life Without Principle,” and pointing to Colossians 3:2 for support, the author claims our minds can be permanently profaned by the habit of attending trivial things (pp. 17, 19-21). We become like what we love, so we must be careful about what we love (p. 16). With Pascal, Bilbro suggests we develop a holy apathy toward most of the news, and no concern for the outcome, because this is not in our hands but God’s (pp. 35-43). This does not mean we become totally indifferent to the world around us, rather that we choose a few critical items to attend. Unfortunately, while Bilbro suggests we attend to the things that matter most to God (p. 39), he inevitably points to social concerns such as climate change, racial injustice, systemic poverty, and migrant workers (p. 39). The biblical gospel and discipleship are not discussed in Reading the Times. Still the author is correct when he says we can change our cravings by changing what we consume – our tastes are trainable (pp. 57-58).

In Part Two, Bilbro discusses time and distinguishes between kairos (the time that is right for a certain act) and chronos (chronological time) (pp. 67-71). He believes the contemporary interest with progress did not develop until the 18th century and we are too wrapped up in it today. We should be more interested in God’s ongoing redemption of creation (pp. 69, 92, 105-108). This Christian mode of keeping time enables us to value things properly because it gives things meaning (pp. 87-88) and Augustine’s The City of God serves as a model for this form of understanding the times (pp. 88-90). As an aid, the author turns to Roman Catholic authors (e.g., Flannery O’Connor – p. 112), and spiritual disciplines such as the divine office and practicing the liturgical year (pp. 110-11).

In Part Three Bilbro focuses on “community” and warns that the less we are involved with person-to-person relationships, the more we become involved with social media platforms, and the outcome is an epidemic of loneliness such as our society is currently experiencing (pp. 127-128). The author suggests that “what we attend to determines to whom we belong” (p. 119). Additionally, we identify ourselves by the media we habitually consume (pp. 121, 126). Bilbro is especially concerned with the internet mobs, what he calls swarms (I like that) who control the narrative for many. His remedies for the swarm is fact checking (pp. 133-138) and diversifying our news feed (pp. 138-143). He wisely warns that if our communities aren’t formed around God, other focal points will spring up to compete for our attention (pp. 144, 157). Also, practices such as walking, developing a longer perspective, and pilgrimaging together are suggested (pp. 164-174).

Reading the Times provides much to ponder and is worth reading and considering for both the cultural analysis and proposed solutions. That the believer’s perspective should be on the eternals rather than current news poured out by the media, filled with bias or, worse, that which is vomited out by the swarm, is wise counsel indeed. However, Bilbro’s choice of wise counselors leaves much to be desired. Mostly he looks to unsaved sages such as Thoreau, Wendel Berry (pp. 26, 155), and Fredrick Douglass, or to Roman Catholic mystics and influencers such as Simone Weil (p. 15, 48), Pascal (p. 35), Henri Nouwen (p. 54), Julian of Norwich (p. 54), St Francis (p. 98), Flannery O’Conner (p. 112) and Dorothy Day (pp. 162-164). This is not to say that insights cannot be gleaned from such a think tank, but it shows the author’s perspective and drift. That virtually no contemporary or even ancient Christian thinker, save Augustine, is referenced, is a strong clue as to where Bilbro is coming from and where he is headed. Still the book has value if read with careful discernment.

by Jeffrey Bilbro (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2021) 186 pp, hard, $18.39

Reviewed by Gary E. Gilley, Pastor-teacher at Southern View Chapel

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