Thursday, April 18, 2013

Good news and bad news for the information age

Your brain on news; w/ thanks to Rod Dreher. (Image from Up!; copyright Disney/Pixar)
"Gospel" literally means "good news." To most Christians this is obvious. Yet sometimes the obvious needs to be called out of its obviousness to us. We need to make this word, gospel, appropriately strange.

In his book God and Gadgets, theologian Brad Kallenberg says that as news, the gospel of Jesus Christ is something that must be offered in such a way that it can be rejected. Otherwise it is not news; it is rather propaganda (e.g. "We've always been at war with Eastasia"). Further, to be received as news that is good it must be offered non-coercively. The gospel cannot be shoved down peoples' throats. If it is offered coercively, then it is bad news for those on the hearing/receiving end. Or as Kallenberg puts it, "The Crusader who cries 'Christ is Lord!' while cleaving the skull of the Turk has got something terribly wrong" (48; Kallenberg cites John Howard Yoder in this section).

So far so good? Kallenberg then draws on Ludwig Wittgenstein's philosophy of language to argue that absorbing the gospel - if the news is heard as good and is accepted - takes time and practice with other people. How much time? A lifetime. (It is a long game.) How many people? The entire body of Christ across its long and rich history. Our "fluency" in speaking "Christian" is inextricably bound up with the faith overtaking our whole body/mind/spirit in the community of gathered believers. By God's grace and Spirit, embodying the gospel reconditions our seeing of and being in the world.

That's the good news. Now, the bad news...

We live in an age of information overabundance, and one of the primary fountains of this overabundance in the U.S. is the news media industry. Their raison d'ĂȘtre is to make money by keeping you, the consumer, informed as to what's going on in the world. We've been convinced that this is a good thing, and we Americans seem to have an insatiable appetite for this kind of news. In the age of the iPhone and Twitter, news is ever pecking at our eyes, ears, and brains. (How's that Twitter bird look now?)

It's been a big week for news and it's only Thursday - forced feedings at Gitmo, a bombing in Boston, yet more bombings in other countries, a piece of legislation getting rejected. So perhaps now is a good time to ask ourselves, is what think of as the news - the information itself, as well as the ways it's delivered and our practices of receiving/consuming it - is all this good?

Well, Swiss author Rolf Dobelli says "no," and I tend to agree with almost every one of his points that what we think of as "the news" today is not good for us. Indeed, it is bad for us. Here are his points:
  • News misleads
  • News is irrelevant
  • News has no explanatory power
  • News is toxic to your body
  • News increases cognitive errors
  • News inhibits thinking
  • News works like a drug
  • News wastes time
  • News makes us passive
  • News kills creativity
That doesn't sound very good, does it? The news today enslaves us to the hegemony of the now foisted upon us by the purveyors. It emaciates our ability to play the long games of life - including Christianity. I am by no means suggesting, nor is Dobelli, that we should be ignorant of the world. He for instance draws a helpful distinction between "journalism" and "news"; the former is a longer game, the latter a ceaseless stream of babble.

So: Turn off the TV. Silence your news apps' notifications on your iPhone. Get the Twitter bird off your shoulder. Find sources of journalism rather than news (they're out there, even if they're hard to find). Read books & the Good Book for hours at a time. Have discussions for hours at a time. Don't get antsy if church worship goes over an hour. Cultivate slow rhythms in your life that orient you to the long game of God's in-breaking kingdom on earth as it is in heaven. Think about what it might be to practice "slow church" and "gospelizing" - as Kallenberg calls it - in ways that run counter to how the "bad news" of the information age has taken over our imaginations and bodies.

Be at peace, and unafraid.

(Again, thanks to Rod Dreher for the tip to the Dobelli piece.)

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