Writings by Cole Huffman

CNN, FOX, TMI: Accessia in the Information Age

“How Much Land Does a Man Need?” is a Tolstoy short story about Pahom, a man who believes land is his salvation. The Devil overhears Pahom say, “If I had plenty of land I shouldn’t fear the Devil himself,” and decides to put Pahom to the test, guiding him to the Bashkirs, simple people with vast land holdings. Their terms: For a price of 1,000 rubles Pahom can have as much of their land as he can circle on foot in a single day, sunrise to sunset. If he doesn’t make it back to the starting point by sunset he gets none of the land and forfeits the purchase price. 

At daybreak Pahom starts his loop and marks his progress with a spade shovel. Each time he thinks to close his loop and head back he sees another tract of lush acreage before him and he’s just got to have it. He keeps going and going until the shadows of late afternoon encroach and Pahom realizes he’s a long way from home base. In a panic he starts back, running. He’s never run so far and so fast in his life, but it’s for what matters most in the world to him. Just as the last rays of sun fade to black on the western horizon, Pahom lunges for the finish line. The Bashkirs cheer and congratulate Pahom on his grand achievement, but he can’t hear them. The physical exertion was too much. Pahom is dead. How much land does a man need? Pahom’s servant buries him in a six-foot box. 

How much information does a man need? Between information and thought there’s news, live and in twenty-four hour cycles. T. S. Eliot’s poetic adage that “humankind cannot bear very much reality” (Four Quartets) is perhaps never more true than when news is breaking. 

Evangelicals are newsy people. We cannot bear very much irrelevancy. We want to be in the know, current, informed. We theologize from news. An old caricature of Dispensationalists was you could open our Bibles to prophetic passages and note the newsprint smudges in the margins. Our hope was built on nothing less than Jesus’ blood and Hal Lindsey interpreting the Associated Press. 

An angel told Daniel “knowledge will increase” (Dan. 12:4), and as it does, “Many will run to and fro.” In good Lindseyian form let’s say those runners are globetrotting anchors, reporters, and cameramen, the high definition exegetes of our “time, times, and half a time” (also from Daniel).  

I should find out when and how journalism tipped toward commentary over reporting. Local news still depends on reporting, but national outlets shack up with one story and cover it for days “in depth,” by which they mean piles and piles of punditry. Like for Pahom, more coverage is everything. But how much of this information do we actually need? And is the information always right? I’m glad John Mayer agrees with me on one thing at least: “When you trust your television, What you get is what you got, Cause when they own the information, Oh, they can bend it all they want.” 

Occasionally I’m asked if I’m going to “say something” about something in the news. Americans are like the Athenians of old; Luke said they spent their time in nothing except telling or hearing something new (Acts 17:21). I don’t commend acedia concerning the news. Acedia, great Augustinian word, is sloth or apathy, as in I don’t care to know. But perhaps we need a word as well for the insatiable desire to be in the know. I’ll coin one: “accessia.” 

In accessia, CNN and Fox are more than news providers but discipling entities. Information is our salvation. They give us what to pray about. They give us what to preach about. In accessia, you come to church after a week of Rush and Sean and Glenn and Bill O’—or Anderson and Erin and Wolf—or Rachel and Jon and Bill M. if you’re a real evangelical outlier—hoping your pastor will address the latest elections or attacks, tragedies and tensions domestic and abroad, and if he doesn’t he must not care. (I’ve been told at times I don’t.) 

Let no one take me for an elder of The Village, M. Night Shyamalan’s 2004 drama depicting a community of modern adults who forsake the troubled world they knew to raise their children in a idyllic place completely cut off from it—so much so the kids think it’s the 1800s. I keep up with currents. But I’m not going to burst my heart like Pahom trying to “say something” about the next thing and the next thing and the next thing dominating the news. My primary job as a pastor is to stand in a pulpit and say the one thing that is eternally current: Let us worship God. You’re not going to get that on CNN or Fox.

In the Information Age logging out becomes something of a spiritual discipline. How much information do you really need? Alan Jacobs observed the Internet (instant accessibility to vast tracts of information bytes continually updating) is the friend of information but not thought. It’s not the friend of worship either. Information transfixation might bury you the more you grab for. That Megyn Kelly is cute though.    

Posted by Cole Huffman at 9:23 AM
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