Dr. John E. Johnson

Dr. John E. Johnson

Getting the News Right

I’m on my way back from theological meetings in Fort Worth, Texas. It’s important I make the annual pilgrimage. After all, it’s vital to be a person in the know. I owe it to you, the critical reader.  There are always significant sessions to get to, papers demanding my best attention. This year they included—

“Zombies Come for Yablo’s Annoying Pigeons”

“The Quest for the Goldilocks Zone of Trinitarian Theorizing: A Conversation with Adonis Vidu on Inseparable Operations”

“‘In Us’ versus ‘In Y’All’: Examining Newly Published P139.”

(It’s little wonder such presentations have often generated previous posts under the title “My Top 10 Most Irrelevant Awards”).

As you can see, theologians can be an odd mix. It’s hard to imagine some would actually live outside their ivory towers, doing manly things like spreading bark dust, gutting trout, eating beef jerky, and driving manual stick. Still, they offer hope for the future. They might even be the answer to a righteous parent’s prayer. This was underscored Tuesday when I picked up a card distributed on chairs in the first main session: “Seeking a Son-In-Law. We have a shy daughter who is in need of a husband. She is a PK so she understands ministry demands. She wants children and a strong marriage. Pray about this and call 920-XXX-XXX to learn more.” Talk about desperation! (Wait, I have a 34-year old unmarried daughter. Why didn’t I think of this?).

To be fair, there were some relevant papers such as “Vaccine Reluctance and the Development of Covid-19 Vaccines from Aborted Cells.” Most papers get a question or two and polite applause at the end, but this one came closest to provoking an actual fight in the room. Evangelicals and Transgender Identities was also an interesting session (especially in light of my last post). Here we were challenged, as with other papers, to guard against giving thin answers to thick questions. I’m reminded of God’s admonition to the prophet in Ezekiel 33 to be a watchman, with grace, sounding the warning to a post-fact culture that is going off the rails.

Part of what I always come away with is a stronger determination to think, to be more judicious when it comes to where I spend my mind. We live in distracting times, and one can’t but feel there is a conspiracy of sorts to make us numb to reality and dull to reasoning.

In Jeffrey Bilbro’s Reading the Times: A Literary and Theological Inquiry into the News (a book I am finishing on the plane), he counsels that, given the “plasticity” of our brains, they can be “permanently profaned” by the habit of attending to trivial things. As a watchman, he uses his book as a warning that much of the news is intentional to sidetrack us. Broadcasts have set themselves up as the light of the world, often usurping the true Light. The clamor of the immediate is drowning out the voice of the eternal. We awaken to read the Times and miss the Eternities.

I know the temptation. I grew up drinking in each day’s news, becoming a sort of “newsaholic” in the process. There was always left to center or right to center agendas, but it was not as pronounced as it is today. Those who consume the news, especially on cable networks, are made to feel they are either on the right or wrong side of history. Talking heads seem less intent to inform and more aimed to form. In-depth reporting has given way to soundbites. Bilbro cautions that the increased abundance and speed of the news, and its tendency to hone clickbait headlines, is threatening to fragment our attention and damage our ability to concentrate.

Over time, a mind given to the inconsequential results in what he calls “intellectual bloating.” We become, as he puts it, “passive thoroughfares, the objects of our attention determined by whatever headlines or memes happen to be going viral.” We are less able to feel and act in a responsible way.

The alternative may not be a theological paper (especially some of these papers!) but greater attention to news of real substance. While I try to daily read the Wall Street Journal, I look for thoughtful opinions, be they in the Washington Post, National Review, New York Times, or The Atlantic. I search for books that reflect a reverence for truth, work to give historical context, and substantiate conclusions with careful research. I try to avoid airheads and blowhards at all costs. But this takes time which all of us have. It’s basically how you use it. As Bilbro puts it, we may have to relearn how to tell time Christianly.

What matters most is giving myself to the wisdom that comes from an alternative horizon, a divine understanding that enables one to discern the nuances of events happening in our time.   Such prudence frees us from “the emotional over-investment in the day’s drama,” warns us not to be too quick to assign significance to the events of the day, and trains us to have a sanctified indifference (even to irrelevant papers). Loving devotion to God and trust in his providence is what matters, which often simply includes silence.

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