Reading the Times: A Literary and Theological Inquiry into the News, Jeffrey Bilbro. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2021
Summary: A discussion of what Christian faithfulness looks like as we engage the news, focusing on our practices of attention, our awareness of the time we are in, and the communities of which we are part.
We are in what some have called an epistemic crisis, particularly as it pertains to the news. We have more access to news media than ever on broadcast and cable TV, print and online publications and stories that pervade our social media feeds. Yet we are less confident than ever in the veracity of these sources and so we turn to those that our particular “tribe” favor. Jeffrey Bilbro comes at this slant. Eschewing the traditional advice (that has even appeared on this blog) of fact-checking and diversifying our news sources, Bilbro proposes a different theological framework for how we engage with the news.
First of all, he considers the Christian practice of attentiveness. He observes what he calls the “macadamization of the mind” with all the different news fragments that come across our attention every day, that flattens our critical and perceptual abilities. He commends sancta indifferentia, a holy indifference that is not disengagement but rather responses that come out of contemplation and not knee-jerk passions, allowing us to discern what we ought really care about and focusing on truth rather than outcomes. We need to learn how to read not the Times but the Eternities, in the words of Thoreau. Some of this may come through the liturgies of attention of reading books, particularly old books and learning a craft that grounds us in the physical world rather than the virtual life of our screens.
Second, Bilbro focuses on time, distinguishing between chronos or clock time, and kairos, an awareness of the seasons and rhythms of life. Both may be over-emphasized. Instead, Bilbro commends Auerbach’s idea of “figural realism” that “locates common individuals and events in the grand architecture of heaven.” In Christian faith, the Incarnation may be considered the greatest example of this as the coming of Jesus brings to focus the redemptive purposes of God pointing to their ultimate fulfillment in the eschaton. For Christians, the practices of the liturgies of the hours and the church year as well as the meditation upon works of art attune us to the great realities within which our daily, embodied life is lived.
Finally Bilbro considers the communities to which we belong–not nebulous, online communities or political tribes, but the local communities of our physical place, our congregations, and those we join in deeply shared interests. This is why the safeguards commonly proposed to dealing with media are not enough. They do not engage the atomization of community into amorphous “public spheres.” Here he commends the forming of real communities that cross ideological line in addressing localized and practical concerns such as has occurred with the Catholic Worker Movement and the Bruderhof, and notes the publishing efforts that arise from these that provide redemptive alternatives to much of our media. He notes the examples of both Frederick Douglass and Dorothy Day, whose writing came out of and was sustained by the communities of concern of which they were part. Bilbro shares the example of his own efforts in local culture, reflected in the website Front Porch Republic. He argues we ought both support and engage in such efforts in real community.
There is much I like in what Bilbro proposes in having our lives grounded in attention, aware of the kairos moments of God amid the stream of events, and real belonging to our local communities–even to the point of walking in them, which many of us have rediscovered in the pandemic. I would have appreciated some discussion about distinguishing between redemptive and toxic communities. White Citizens Councils and abolitionist and civil rights organizations both functioned at local levels and published. What is the difference between a community that draws one into a dark place, and one that strengthens and calls out the better angels of our nature?
What I most appreciate is that Bilbro proposes that the shape of Christian faithfulness as we engage the news is really one of bringing our reading of the news into a richly textured life of attention, of awareness of the grander story in which our lives are embedded, and of the communal life of those with whom we walk through life. Bilbro offers both fresh perspective and practical steps that help us read both the Times and the Eternities in our lives.
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.