THE NEWS WHERE WE ARE
Rolf Dobelli is on a mission: to stop people watching the news. For ten years he has avoided it and reports ‘clearer thinking, more valuable insights, and vastly more time’. Having been a news junkie, a decade of de-toxification has turned his life around.
This stance produces mixed responses – the more so in a moment of global crisis induced by Covid-19. News has been overwhelmed by coverage of the virus. TV bulletins have no space for anything else. This makes viewing a profoundly depressing activity. It also makes people wonder what happened to other news. Syria. Flooding. Yemen. Climate change. Did they magically go away?
Yet keeping up with the news has rarely been so important, enabling governments to give valuable advice to their citizens about how to combat the virus and keeping them abreast of developments. Not to consume news in 2020 somehow feels like a failure of citizenship.
Leaving to one side the existential crisis we face, let’s think about less demanding times. Dobelli argues that most news is irrelevant to people’s daily lives and their desire to live well, however defined. News editors decide what to put into bulletins and websites, but their notion of relevance may have little bearing on our needs. Journalists confuse “absent” with “unimportant”’ according to Dobelli in his slim book Stop Reading the News (Sceptre, 2019). But what’s absent may be most relevant to us. With telling prescience, he cited long before 2020 the ‘absence of a statistically likely worldwide pandemic’ from any news schedules.
Passivity is also a problem. The more we encounter news we can’t do anything about, the more resigned we become, what’s termed learned helplessness. And it’s here that the Christian is faced with a specific challenge, because our faith says there is something we can do about it. Seed sized trust is enough to uproot a tree and plant it in the sea, Jesus says.
So, here’s the rub.
It’s notable how many Christians have an almost religious devotion to consuming news. In the UK, given the age of the average churchgoer, this means watching TV news especially. The capacity to share news across the world in seconds, and significantly to film it, has somehow turned everyone into a neighbour. The belief that God’s love encompasses the whole world confronts racism and division, but when Jesus was asked who a neighbour is and responded with the story of the Good Samaritan, it’s a stretch to say he meant his followers today to live this out for nearly eight billion others. There have to be limits, lest we burn ourselves out. But what are they?
Too many of our prayers of intercession follow the news agenda, meaning we are led less by the Holy Spirit and more by the priorities of a stressed news editor. As we follow one crisis upon another around the world, we are left with a permanent sense of vertigo and nausea. Prayer becomes disorientating. There is rarely a conclusion, thus diminishing rather than empowering the intercessor. Instead of an imaginative reflection on how the kingdom of God might come, we try to put out huge bush fires that run beyond our control, swooping over them to release water but then flying off at speed. This is not good for spiritual health.
Let me finish with a confession. I am a news junkie. I can’t imagine giving up the news like Rolf Dobelli. I would feel stupid, exposed, easy prey for those who think church leaders know nothing about the world around them. I have too many insecurities to permit this. However, I have made adjustments by reading long form article periodicals more than instant news outlets, and books more than social media. I access the International Crisis Group to get a deeper grip on global affairs, not least because all national news outlets are more parochial than we’re prepared to admit. I still use the news for my prayers. But exposure to these sources damages me – and that’s before we get to those who want to deceive us online.
When we think about what it means to follow Jesus, we rarely stop to analyse the trends that have the most impact on us. Until we face up to this, we risk being ‘tossed to and fro and blown about’ by TV news’ hourly winds of change.
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