I was trained to be a journalist; my undergraduate degree is in journalism. I was a reporter, news editor, and managing editor for my college newspaper. My first job out of college was with a daily newspaper in Texas. Even after I went into corporate communications, a significant part of many of the jobs I had was working with reporters.
The journalism I read today in the newspaper or see on television news seems completely different from the journalism I was trained in. I can read almost any story, and I hear the voice of my toughest and best college journalism instructor handing back an assignment with an automatic F on it: “You write the news. Save your opinion for the editorial page.”
For Christians, and even for the culture at large, the news has become increasingly problematic. It’s not so much the “news” of a news story as it is the 24-hour saturation of what is called news, the almost grotesque one-sidedness of how stories are written and produced, and how every story seems to become a flashpoint of political division. Everything you read in the newspaper seems filtered through a political lens. It has become far too easy to define life in terms of whether you love or hate Donald Trump.
We may cancel our newspaper subscriptions and turn off television news and television talking heads, but the reality is that news is still important, not matter how badly or biasedly it’s reported. The challenge, and especially for Christians, is how to understand and respond to what’s presented to us as news.
Jeffrey Bilbro, editor-in-chief of Front Porch Republic, has an approach specifically aimed at Christians that might help us navigate the culture and the news that informs, shapes, and saturates it. In Reading the Times: A Literary and Theological Inquiry into the News, he considers insights from sources as diverse as Blaise Pascal, Wendell Berry, Henry David Thoreau, Thomas Merton, and Marc Chagall, among others, to show there is a better way than merely to embrace CNN/MSMBS/NBC/ABC/New York Times/Washington Post or Fox because one fits our particular view of the world.
Our view of the world should be something decidedly different. Key to this difference in how we understand and assimilate the news is the two concepts of time, both from Greek words.
The first is kairos time, referring to “the propitious time, time that is right for a certain act—the time to plant or harvest a crop, for instance. Kairos time is rhythmic, cyclical, seasonal,” Bilbro writes. The second is chronos time, from which we get the word “chronological.” It’s the time we understand the best, because we live it, day by day. It’s time that’s linear and sequential, he says, and it is the time in which news is rooted. When the culture and daily life is engulfed by and obsessed with the chronological, it is the understanding and importance of kairos time that retreats and subsides.
Christians live with both concepts of time. Kairos time speaks to the eternal; chronos time speaks to the temporal. We know this; we know we live in this world but that we are not of this world. We often feel caught between the two – and we are. Our challenge is to understand which is more important, and which to store up our treasures within. And it creates tension, within ourselves, our families, and our churches. (A related concept is the one known as “the already-not yet”.)
Bilbro shows what confusing the two senses of time can lead to – the worship of the temporal, or secular, at the expense of the eternal, or sacred. Knowingly or not, we all do this. We worry that the moral underpinnings of the culture and society are collapsing, or that change to some imagined state of temporal perfection simply isn’t happening fast enough. And the news, with its social media handmaiden, is accelerating that division. It’s also resulting in the ongoing destruction of the idea of local community.
In addition to his work with Front Porch Republic, Bilbro is the author of Loving God’s Wildness: The Christian Roots of Ecological Ethics and Virtues of Renewal: Wendell Berry’s Sustainable Forms, and co-author of Wendell Berry and Higher Education: Cultivating Virtues of Place.
Reading the Times is a thoughtful work and a vital work. It should appeal to the culture at large, but it is especially significant for Christians. We are supposed to be the lights in the darkness. Instead, we can get as caught up as everyone else in turning the lights out.