Part One of Reading the News Like a Christian
By Abigail Woolley Cutter
There are weeks when, even though everything is going well in our house — the kids are happy, we parents are sleeping enough — a cloud nevertheless descends. It’s not only lately, but it seems to have been happening more often in the last year and a half. Sometimes it’s as we watch the climbing case count of a new virus, or see nauseating footage of police violence and watch protests break out, or shake our heads at the run-up to an election, or see the Capitol building overrun, or read stories of Afghanis fleeing the Taliban at the last minute, or follow along on Facebook as friends far away walk through tragedy. My husband and I have each gone through periods of carrying these burdens in our minds, anxiety and sorrow accompanying us through the days.
The two of us — like so many others — aren’t the sort who tend to sit back and disengage. We like to raise our hands and say, “Pick me.” We assume that when something needs to be done, we should at least think about standing up to do it. When we look at the world, we like to see how we fit in with the bigger picture.
But for everyone who tends to feel implicated in what goes on in the world — who tends toward involvement, who feels some kind of responsibility — the last year and a half has been relentless. Besides the fact that few of our own homes have been untouched by illness, loss of income, fear for vulnerable loved ones, loneliness, or alienation from family members, the fact that there are fewer opportunities to connect in person with others has meant that the news plays a more important role in many of our lives than it used to. As a result, added to whatever struggles we ourselves are facing, the pain of faraway others looms larger now than it ever has before.
This intensified awareness of other people’s pain has weighed on both my emotions and my prayers. If I know other people are suffering profoundly at this very minute, how can I celebrate the joys in my life? I have many blessings for which I could thank God. But if other children of God are experiencing horrific things instead, to praise God happily for my good fortune would seem blithe and blind. Particularly when the contrast between my own circumstances and others’ is sharp, I don’t know how to hold them both in my mind and heart. I risk cynicism and a loss of hope in the Lord.
Over the course of a few posts, I intend to pause over various parts of this dilemma, taking help from several directions as I piece together a “spirituality of reading the news.”
For now, though, I will name what may be the clearest part of what I’ve described so far: the extent to which I struggle to process the pain of others is closely related to how much I rely on news and social media to connect with the outside world. No, I’m not suggesting that the problem is paying attention, as if I should ignore what is going on outside my life. I am noting that there is a close overlap between the stories of devastation that I encounter through technological media and the stories I don’t know how to respond to.
Neil Postman observed something like this in his now-classic Amusing Ourselves to Death. He introduced the concept of the “information-to-action ratio,” which refers to how powerful or powerless we are relative to what we know. There has probably never been a time when someone could affect every situation she knew about. But for much of history, people had very little information about things far away. What that means is that a very high percentage of what a person knew about, she could also do something about. If your neighbor was sick or grieving, you knew about it, and there was likely to be a clear way to help. Your support made a difference, and you could see it. But as the amount of information we get about faraway places balloons, the number of circumstances we can do anything about shrinks in comparison. We stop feeling as if we can do anything and are rendered passive. The more we tune in to the world, the less we hear about local concerns. We are then so overwhelmed by all we can’t do that we are less likely to do even the things we could.
What interested Postman is not how this trend stifles do-goodism, but how it fundamentally changes the mode in which we receive information. The less personally implicated we are, he said, the more we respond to the news as entertainment, and civil discourse gets reduced to soundbites and spectacle. But while this may have been true of TV in the 1980’s (when Postman wrote), it seems that today’s media promote less disengagement than shallow engagement, proliferated factions for engagement, and hot-headed engagement. Civil discourse, needless to say, still suffers. And for all who try to engage the news responsibly and with compassion, the outsized information-to-action ratio threatens despair.
These dynamics affect so much of our world that there is no easy solution. But in response to this trend toward media-overwhelm and hopelessness, Kate Rademacher recommends a few practices of slower, prayerful news consumption. In Reclaiming Rest, she shares that, at least during Sabbaths, she has chosen to take control of the medium by only reading news in print. She reads the stories carefully, “praying the news.” It seems to me that, by turning from a medium like a smartphone, where chaotic headlines can grab one’s attention at any moment, to a medium that requires intentionality and close attention, a practice like this reintroduces to our minds the possibility that God still orders the world.
Rademacher also offers an image she uses to guide her intercessory prayer, a (truly) Christian adaptation of a Buddhist practice. The meditation technique she learned from her Buddhist husband involves imagining the suffering of others as smoke hanging in the air: “You breathe that suffering into yourself with the hope that the smoke will destroy your self-cherishing. You then imagine breathing out a sense of peace to others.” But as a Christian, Rademacher had to invite Christ between herself and the suffering of others — “as a kind of filter” — because only he could bear the suffering of others, and only he could generate peace for them. As much as these physical prayers express a longing to do or give something on behalf of the world, each breath is an invitation to Jesus to be the real mediator. In this image, the praying Christian can only give something to the world by being joined to Christ.
The twist in this prayer practice comes to me as a gentle rebuke: when I find my own present comfort almost intolerable in comparison to the suffering of others, and have the urge to distance myself from it, it is almost as if I imagine I can pour from my cup into everyone else’s — as if I can take the suffering of the world upon myself, and will peace on others. No wonder I am flattened before the enormity of the task! Not only do the needs I know of far exceed what I can give, but the impulse to breathe peace out of my own lungs is simply not a Christian one. I need Jesus to bear the burden for me, to pour out his life, to breathe his Spirit into the world.
Recognizing the swollen information-to-action ratio of today’s news media, along with my frustrated impulse to take on the worries of the world, helps a bit. But even though I can’t do anything about most of the troubles in the world, there are times I am called to act. How do I then sort through all the information to discern the right action? A future post will take up the question of reading the news through the lens of vocation.