Loving our Neighbors while Reading the Times: A Literary and Theological Contemplation on the News

A weekly current events Jeopardy! competition hooked me on the news when I was a teenager.

As all good teachers do in varied ways, my high school American history teacher opened a way of life to his students by helping them develop a positive habit. In his case it was the habit of keeping up with “the times.”

By creating a low-tech version of a TV game show and impishly shaking his head when his Kansas prairie students failed to answer a question we ought to have known, my American history teacher revealed to me how good and important it was to keep current with what was going on in politics, sports and the arts.

Whether we were to become farmers or mechanics or teachers or engineers or college professors, Mr. Ashenbrenner wanted each of us to be informed participants in the world we were about to enter as adults.

He hooked me on the news.

I had an edge over many of my classmates. My parents watched the news every evening, took in the political conventions of the Republicans and Democrats every four years and discussed it all with my brothers and me. 

Keeping current was a habit I wanted to pass on to my own family. When my husband and I were raising our sons, we subscribed to the newspaper, watched the conventions and presidential debates and followed CNN shows like Crossfire and The Capital Gang to stay up on events and arguments of the day and to hear “both sides” of the issues. 

The biases of the guests were easy to detect, but cable news wasn’t overly compartmentalized back then, and the newly-emerging social media was still social

But gradually, as everybody now knows, the heat in the social media/talk radio/cable news pot began rising, and for a while most of us news consumers simmered together without noticing the damage we were doing to ourselves and to each other.

As commentators put forth fewer arguments for proposed policies and began assigning more blame for the country’s ills, we imitated them in our own conversations. Our social media posts became rants about the idiots who were responding to current events in ways we didn’t like. 

How can we recover from the soul-scalding toxicity of today’s news without retreating from the culture altogether? 

Be not afraid. Jeffrey Bilbro’s Reading the Times: A Literary and Theological Contemplation on the News is a tonic in a tome, and at only 174 pages, it’s a slim one worth reading more than once.

Reading the Times, Bilbro says, is the book he wanted to read, and I’m grateful he wrote it. Bilbro, who edits the Front Porch Republic, has produced a perfect manifesto for souls seeking “the point of intersection of the timeless/With time,” an apt phrase from “The Dry Salvages” in T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets.

Why keep up with the news anyway? “All it does is make me mad about things I can’t control,” one of my friends likes to say.

Bilbro provides us with a noble answer: to better love our neighbors.

That motivation wasn’t present in my high school Jeopardy! games which, while fostering an important habit, also fostered pride about being “in the know.”

Rather than a self-centered desire to be up on all things current, Bilbro suggests we ask ourselves, “What do we need to know to love our neighbors well? Or, to frame the question differently, to what do we need to attend in order to live faithfully in this place and time?”

This perspective will require a theology of the news, and rather than offering immediate solutions, Bilbro suggests we apprentice ourselves to a long tradition:

from the Old Testament prophets to Jesus to the church fathers to many saintly contemplatives and social advocates [that] models a way of responding wisely to contemporary events.

In tackling the issue of attention, Bilbro offers as our first model Henry David Thoreau, the activist-essayist whose critiques Civil Disobedience and Walden remain standard in American letters, but whose lesser-known Life Without Principle addresses the fragmenting of the American mind already happening in his day due to the industrialization of the news.

“I believe that the mind can be permanently profaned by the habit of attending to trivial things,” Thoreau wrote, “so that all our thoughts shall be tinged with triviality.”

If you’ve ever worried about whether all this digitized media is tinging your mind with triviality, Thoreau’s essay, summarized in the book’s first chapter, will strike you as more than prophetic.

Henry David Thoreau

“Read not the Times,” the transcendentalist punned in the line from which Bilbro takes his title. “Read the Eternities. Knowledge does not come to us by details, but by flashes of light from heaven.” 

Bilbro employs the proposition well as he contrasts the eternal perspective of God’s kairos with the clock-punching demands of chronos, and he maintains that this is not mere mysticism.

When we see how attention to “The Eternities” is displayed in Thoreau’s abolitionism, Frederick Douglass’ impassioned civil rights leadership and Dorothy Day’s Catholic Worker activism, we glimpse its transformational practicality. 

Bilbro also highlights Marc Chagall’s artistic response to the Holocaust, Trappist Thomas Merton’s social critiques and Simone Weil’s identification with French laborers’ poverty as unveiling possibilities for greater spiritual authenticity in our own lives.

Though we are not all called to political activism, we are daily aligning our local lives in one direction or another.

We must reorder our thinking according to The Eternities. And because “it’s our daily habits that reveal and shape our actual theology,” Bilbro tackles this necessary reordering by organizing his book around three essential questions:

  • To what should we attend?
  • How should we imagine and experience time?
  • How should we belong to one another?

Exploring these questions, we have the power to transform our interaction with the news.

“In response to the atomized, fractured public square,” Bilbro notes, “many people experience a deep hunger for genuine, embodied community.” Reading the Times concludes with a section of practical suggestions for those who long for connection and community in an age of division and diatribe.

Drawing on Wendell Berry’s “contrarian sanity,” Bilbro insists on recognizing that we’re “embodied, communal” creatures. Only then will we be wary of the tendency to deny the reality of social modes of reasoning, who in “trying to become a community of rational thinkers,” instead “become a swarm of atomized emoters.”

Like everyone else in this hair-on-fire culture, we must scrutinize our tendency to reduce thought into the demeaning categories of “them” and “us.”

Liberation from 24/7 tyranny is found in keeping time with the rhythms of liturgy and locality.

We escape the abstract by walking our own neighborhoods, talking to people who attend our churches and work alongside us, especially when they belong to the “other” party.

And I love this practical plea: Communities who embody our aspirations deserve subscribers to their publications. Reading long-form essays leads to deeper understanding than the impossibly-tainted televised news ever could. Those deeper understandings will inform what actions we may take in our real, embodied lives that will lead to embodied love for our real, embodied neighbors.

Bibro includes a diverse list of news sources and subscription suggestions that include a local newspaper, Plough Quarterly and Local Culture, the semi-annual journal of The Front Porch Republic, the website Bilbro edits (on the strength of this book, I subscribed).

Reading the Times will not excuse you from involvement in the world. But it has the power to reorder the way you go about it, because, as Bilbro says:

We don’t just need the media to cast a more piercing light; rather, as consumers of the news, we need to reevaluate the light we rely on to understand our times and discern how we respond.

First things first: read The Eternities. Worship liturgically. Practice daily prayer, contemplation and spiritual reading. Consider the saintly lives of those who have lived in other contentious eras. Then, find better ways to keep up with The Times.

Whenever possible, in community.

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You might also like Land of My Sojourn: Ugly Politics and our True Home and The Extremists We Need Right Now.

I’m continuing the quest for literature addressing The Eternities with Jessica Hooten Wilson’s The Scandal of Holiness: Renewing Your Imagination in the Company of Literary Saints. This inspiring commentary on a collection of writers from Zora Neale Hurston and Julia Alvarez to Sigrid Undset and George Bernanos is lighting my imagination with hope.

Also highly recommended: Charles Camosy’s Resisting Throwaway Culture, one of Sparrowfare’s Most Surprising 2021 Reads.

Jonathan Haidt’s Atlantic essay Why the Last Ten Years of American Life Have Been Uniquely Stupid is an enlightening analysis of how we got here…and what we need to do about it.

What habits are you developing as you engage with the news these days? I’d love to hear from you!

Photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash. Thoreau’s portrait courtesy of Wikipedia.

2 thoughts on “Loving our Neighbors while Reading the Times: A Literary and Theological Contemplation on the News

  1. Dear Peggy,

    First of all – I miss you for all the reasons that anyone misses a dear friend, but particularly the “community of us” as we grappled with issues like this. The content of your head and heart always helped keep the content of my head and heart reminded of who I was at my core, so that I could move forward through my days. Without our conversations, I often end up circling on the surface of the issues like a water strider. Of course there are others with whom I’m “in community” that contribute to my growth, and I’m grateful for the sparrow fare that I receive from your blog – but, I miss YOU.

    I’ll order Reading the Times today. I need this kind of support to stay engaged in the news which generally saps my spirit because I find it punctuated with disdain and derision and void of compassion and hope.

    As always, I am nourished by your messages –
    Kristin

    1. Kristin, I resonate strongly with the way you expressed your heart and as always, I feel the same. I thought of you often as I read this book; we helped ground each other with the kinds of ideas Bilbro values in it…so let me know when your book arrives and let’s arrange a “real, embodied” meet up to talk about it (and more)!
      I even love the textured feel of the book’s cover. A gem of a find among so many books available. I do miss the “community of us.” Let’s see what we can do about that!

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