In the halcyon days of youth, after being inebriated by a strange cocktail of holiness preaching, Henry David Thoreau, and the occasional walk outdoors, I decided to give up media for my spiritual health. So I did. And it was pretty easy; it didn’t take much discipline. This was before social media had really taken off (I was late to that party anyway), I didn’t own a cellphone, our family shared a “supercomputer” from circa 2000, and for some reason the only programs I remember being on TV were The Price Is Right and Oprah.
It was easy, and it was great. My mind was liberated and so was my time. I lived at a more human pace. I read a lot and didn’t have kids, so I had enough energy to venture out after 8 p.m. But now, not a few years later, I find myself pulling away from media for other reasons that have only seemed to intensify.
For some reason I consider it my duty to be informed, but I find watching the news absolutely soul-crushing. It makes me angry, but rarely leads to action. In short, like the experience Sarah Puryear describes (“Why I Gave Up My Smartphone for Lent — And Took It Back”), I have felt like technology is sucking my soul away from a deeper life of prayer or, more specifically, my consumption of media via technology.
If Sarah looked at the value of the devices we use to access media, I am interested in looking closely at the content we are accessing, particularly national and international news as it is consumed via a computer or a similar device. (From my standpoint, local news is largely innocent of the evils I address here, and actually has the potential for a little good.)
Let’s begin with some questions. What answers are we looking for as we skim through headlines? What questions are we asking? Are they What is happening in the world? or What do I need to know to keep up conversation with friends and colleagues? Why do we read the news each day, sitting on the bus, or scanning screens as we brush our teeth? What narrative do these little articles advance?
It’s not just our technology — the smartphone, for example — that requires rethinking, but the reasons why we use it at all. If we are immersing our minds in streams of data, is it only to hide our hearts from God’s call for us to pray? Or are the purveyors of technology actually using us?
One possibility: Our inundation with news — constant, and increasing in speed as technology soars — is one way we displace divine providence. Taking in the news is a way that we as Christians avoid asking what God is up to in the world, and in or lives. We don’t need to grapple with the ways God is weaving history together, because we are told what events mean by journalists: “This political move is an instance of the progress of toleration” or “That hurricane is a meaningless cataclysm.” Such interpretation takes an air of authority; it is seldom provisional.
What is more, we think because we have scanned the day’s headlines that we have glimpsed the mysteries of the world. We believe we know enough to make judgments with certainty (or to have them made for us). We gaze into flattened crystal balls, LCD displays that flash with the horrors of war and the weddings of princes, thinking that we can now assemble the puzzle pieces of the world together (without missing one) until their finished picture can be read with a glance. We forget the words of God in Job about our illusions of understanding the world.
Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?
Tell me, if you have understanding.
Who determined its measurements — surely you know. (Job 38:4,5a)
As Sarah asks, what is this obsessive phone-checking keeping us from? Our devices divert our attention from speaking to the God of Job and Ezekiel, the Father of Jesus Christ.
How does Scripture figure into this? No doubt in many ways, but here is one: We no longer read Genesis or the Psalms or Matthew in order to understand what is happening in the world.
Surely everyone stands as a mere breath,
surely everyone goes about like a shadow.
And now, Lord, what do I wait for? (Psalm 39:5b-6a, 7a).
All of our written history is interpretation, including that written about today’s events. There is now not enough time between the event and the writing for reflection or investigation. There is not enough time for the dust to begin to settle. Now, everything we consume is clickbait. Today’s history, the news, displaces God’s providence, as we are told, or are forced to judge for ourselves, what each day’s events mean. We ride the wave of constant information, and need never grapple with the God who exists beyond time, or his entering into it with his blessed Incarnation.
In him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or authorities — all things were created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. (Col. 1:16-17)
But there are other ways to hold “all things together.”
Many narratives parlayed in the media are useful ciphers for the shocking diversity and challenge of trying to pinpoint events, and from them to bring meaning to the chaos. Evolutionary biology can be applied in all sorts of ingenious ways. The decline of the West is another useful cipher, favoured more by conservatives. For liberals, it’s the inevitable progress of humanity that takes the day.
But all of these constructs diminish the necessity to talk about God at all, and they need to be fed to stay viable. The influx of news is useful to this end. Our grand narratives are nurtured by their symbiotic relationship with the news.
For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own likings, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander into myths. (2 Tim. 4:3,4).
We construct our newsfeeds. We are the mythmakers, all of us, weaving tales about the world, imagining ourselves as little gods, imposing our wills upon the planet.
So where does this leave us? Is this a layman’s yearning for something like monastic simplicity, or the first steps toward a dreamy Benedict Option? Perhaps.
Have my quietism and semi-Luddite tendencies pressed me to a withdrawal from a fuller engagement with the world? Maybe.
But thinking about the kind of news we are consuming and why is important. In my next two posts I will look more specifically at what we are consuming, and will ask whether we should consume it at all.