Writings by Cole Huffman

The News

“Societies become modern . . . when news replaces religion as our central source of guidance and our touchstone of authority. In the developed economies, the news now occupies a position of power at least equal to that formerly enjoyed by the faiths. . . We approach it with some of the same deferential expectations we would have harbored for the faiths. Here, too, we hope to receive revelations, learn who is good and bad, fathom suffering and understand the unfolding logic of existence. And here, too, if we refuse to take part in the rituals, there could be imputations of heresy.”

Those words are from Alain de Botton’s book The News: A User’s Manual. Please read his sentences again. He’s saying the News is more formative than the Word.

Christians reflexively deny that. Nothing is more formative or powerful than the Word of God, we say. But what is being pointed out to us is a kind of reigning power we give the News (I’ll capitalize it, opposite Word). The News is even a principality, to think biblically about the kind of influence “principalities and powers” exert (Eph. 6:12).

My contention here is not that we should give up the News. There is a public service to journalism, and my critique does not apply evenly to every pundit. We often speak of “the media” in wholesale terms, mostly negatively, and that’s not entirely fair. The purpose of this article is to second Alain de Botton’s notion that News is “our central source of guidance and touchstone of authority,” to admit this is true even of the evangelical church, and to call this out as a form of being “blown about by every wind of doctrine” (Eph. 4:14).

The News doesn’t just report, it indoctrinates. We give a lot of thought to the News but almost no thought to this formative power it has. Media sources play up their trustworthiness in fact gathering, but much of modern journalism is styled. That means we’re conditioned to take sides. The point in News-making is no longer to inform but interpret. Pundits function like quasi-religious figures. If I like their interpretation, I give them my trust if not my devotion.

What’s wrong with that, you ask? Take Alain de Botton’s last two lines above:

“Here, too [in News], we hope to receive revelations, learn who is good and bad, fathom suffering and understand the unfolding logic of existence. And here, too, if we refuse to take part in the rituals, there could be imputations of heresy.”

If everybody has been glued to a major News event all week but the pastor doesn’t address it on Sunday, he is thought by some to be unconcerned, uncaring, or complicit in silence. If he does address something from the News, others hold their breath: Does he take the “right” view? (Which is the view of their favored News personalities, and Christian radio personalities.) If he’s out of step with that messaging, there is no burning at the stake anymore—the fate of ancient heretics—but there is the firing squad of social media, and some moving toward the exits hoping to find a church whose pastor has the right political and social opinions.

You really haven’t lived until you’re considered too liberal for rock-ribbed conservatives and too conservative for woke evangelicals. Whatever happened to just teach the Bible?

The Principality and Power of News happened. Where we stand politically or socially is everything now. This is not to our betterment. Even among evangelicals, the News has replaced the Word as our central authority, and I believe the petty divisions among us are a kind of resulting judgment on us. Judgment always starts with God’s people (1 Peter 4:17). God gives us over to our insistence that hot takes be gospel, allowing cultural resentments to replace repentance. Eventually, God shelves us and gives His gospel to a people more fully His, who will produce its fruit.

Charles Spurgeon said that discernment is not knowing the difference between right and wrong, it’s knowing the difference between right and almost right. News, even when it reports accurately, will never be more than almost right. Democracy may die in darkness, but News is insufficient light by itself.

My calling is to promote the unity of the church around the centrality of Jesus’ preeminent way, truth, and life. The News is hardly an ally or asset in this when we immerse ourselves in its political and social preoccupations. We need to come up for air more.

I’ve drafted a small prayer to say before turning/clicking on the News. Feel free to use it if you like:

“Lord, I’m about to peruse things happening in the world, with commentary. This world is Yours, and eventually your glory will fill it whole. Keep me from filling up on fear and agitation and distrust. Keep me from gullibility and self-righteousness. May I not invite worries.

“I seek to be informed by reports but formed by your Spirit. May the Word be more to me than the News. If I can do anything about where the world is most broken, show me the way and give me the courage to follow it. Let me not become preoccupied with lesser kingdoms.

“Keep falsehood and lies far from me. Yours is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, forever. Amen.”

Posted by Cole Huffman at 2:59 PM
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