True facts, alternative facts, contradicting facts, and born-yesterday facts swirl like cyclones spinning out from mass media, social media, and more. These relentless storms of “news” might not only be dangerous to one’s physical, social, and political equilibrium, they can knock you off kilter spiritually as well, says Jeffrey Bilbro in his new book, Reading the Times: A Literary and Theological Inquiry into the News (IVP, May 11).
Bilbro, an English professor at Spring Arbor University—an evangelical college in Michigan, draws on scripture, history, philosophy theology, art, and literature to argue for the “news that matters: what we really need to know in order to love our neighbor well." Jon Boyd, IVP academic editorial director, says: “Bilbro offers an alternative vision of the rhythms of life, one in which we understand our times in light of what is timeless.”
PW talks with Bilbro about news, Thoreau, and the meaning of “time,” and why he has no smartphone.
(This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.)
Your book and your title were inspired by Henry David Thoreau’s words, “Read not the Times, Read the Eternities.” What do you mean by this?
There is a cultural belief that we have a moral imperative to be informed. And we do. But informed of what? News of the “times” is often simply alarms or entertainment. Thoreau was not saying we should ignore what is happening now. He was very attuned to the social problems of his day. He was saying we need to root ourselves in deeper narratives to be better able to recognize what is really important and what is not.
How are we hurt by the onslaught of news that, as you wrote, mixes tragedy and scandal and cat videos and wedding invites?
What we attend to determines to whom we belong. As our attention becomes more fragmented and more fixated on the present, our forms of community become more partisan and superficial. Instead of looking to the news to create better communities, we should be looking to strengthen communities so that they can create better news.
Is this book only for a Christian audience?
It is a very theological book but there is a lot of common ground for people who are not Christian or not explicitly religious. Maybe a Christian theological account might prompt them to consider their own spiritual perspective, to interpret the events of life within a religious story. I’m trying to suggest ways people can discern what is essential to know in a democracy; what serves the common good.
Some people have to pay attention to survive. Can’t tuning out be simply apathy—or worse, privilege?
I’ve wrestled with this and I’m trying to make a distinction between culpable indifference—where you are withdrawn into privilege and ignoring uncomfortable news. That’s willful blindness and that’s a sin—and just being emotionally worked up over every tragedy near or far that you are powerless to control. We can’t substitute outrage and emotion over proper charity and loving actions. We can avoid the drama.
Your book offers “liturgies”—small simple actions that can promote reorienting our sense of time—such as turning off broadcast media. You write, “What we may need is simply silence” and “Netflix isn’t the balm of Gilead.” What should we do with the time freed up?
Take a walk. Read a book or meaty essays. Talk to neighbors. Think about what really defines you through your values. You can’t respond well if your moral and intellectual formation is primarily cable media outlets or scrolling on your smartphone.
Speaking of smartphones, why don’t you have one?
What for? I have a phone I use for making phone calls and talking with people. There’s a deep, eternal human need for connection.