People who know me in real life consider me to be an “anti-social media” evangelist. I not only am unabashed in my attempt to encourage people to leave these websites (or at least severely diminish their time on them), but I also have grave concerns regarding the way these websites encourage us to speak and relate to one another. While my critiques span several different areas, I am growing more and more apprehensive as I witness America’s shift in going to social media to read, or rather consume, the news.
This is why I wasn’t surprised when a friend sent me a link about Jeffrey Bilbro’s Reading the Times: A Literary and Theological Inquiry into the News. To be clear, the entire book is not focused on the “evils” of social media, as Bilbro himself has a Twitter account and recognizes the websites can be used for good. Rather, it’s his concern in how and why we as Christians engage with the events of our time, and he does this by asking some simple, but incisive, questions: “To what [news events] should we attend? How should we imagine and experience time? How should we belong to one another?”
In other words, how do our news consumption habits determine the way we love and serve God and our neighbors?
To keep his arguments clear and focused, Bilbro separates Reading the Times into three parts dedicated to the aforementioned questions. Each section then consists of three chapters: the first chapter highlighting how “our current contemporary media ecosystem offers inadequate answers to these questions”, the second focusing on how to solve the problem theologically, and the final chapter honing in on liturgical practices we can embody to better read and discern what’s happening in the world around us. While I didn’t find any of the topics to necessarily be complex, this approach serves the book well as Bilbro lays the initial foundation and continues to build on top of the previous points until the conclusion.
By and large, as we saw in the questions he asks of his readers, Bilbro is concerned about the things we pay attention to, how we perceive ourselves in regards to history, and what our participation in the public sphere says about, again, how we perceive ourselves and others. For example, think about how easy it is to log into Twitter and scroll through your timeline, witnessing the mess that is your newsfeed. You might see a Fox News article about President Biden’s foreign policies, followed by an Atlantic essay on capital punishment, a few memes sprinkled in between, and, to top it all off, another aspiring author getting harassed by the online mob for not writing the correct things in her debut novel. Chances are, what might be substantial in all of this will be, most likely, scrolled past in lieu of the easily consumable, the “mental junk food” that might scratch an itch for a moment, but does nothing productive for us long term.
Not only is Bilbro concerned about the time we might be wasting here (especially how it’s more likely we’ll spend an hour going down a drama rabbit hole rather than actually clicking on and reading a long-form essay), but the majority of these news pieces are not nearly as important as we make them out to be. Part two of Reading the Times challenges Christians to worry less about being on the “right side of history,” and to focus more on “history’s true meaning emerg[ing] only in the light of Christ’s life.” He doesn’t downplay the difficulty in doing this; in fact, I found bringing up the fall of Rome in 410 to be a helpful anecdote, reassuring 21st Christians this is not a new problem we face. Rather, if we look at the Old Testament prophets and the Incarnation, “[i]nstead of searching for the meaning of our lives in some historical arc, we can look for God’s hand in the news of our day and seek to discern how he might be calling us to participate in his ongoing work of redemption.”
Of course, none of what Bilbro argues for matters without a proper understanding of how we participate in the public sphere. As he demonstrates, unfortunately, even Christians are not immune from partisanship, finding more in common with those who watch the same news channels or vote for the same candidate compared to those who also profess Jesus is Lord. This is why, instead of focusing on “diversifying our newsfeeds” or “fact-checking,” Reading the Times asks an important question, which in itself provides a way forward: “Is our belonging in the public sphere dictating our interactions with our fellow church members, relatives, and neighbors, or are we entering the public sphere on the basis of our commitments to our neighbors, the least of these in our community, and our fellow parishioners?”
Bilbro may not be an Anglican, but between his call to let the Christian calendar help direct our rhythm of life, multiple references to the importance of liturgy, and the evident dedication to putting the Gospel story first and foremost in how we interact with contemporary events, this is a book I believe all Christians, especially Anglicans, will benefit from. Reading the Times doesn’t present a step-by-step chart on how to read newspapers and how to connect current events to eschatological symbols, but it does call us to focus on the meaningful, on heavenly things, rather than be swayed by what is trivial and designed to distract and amuse us. In fact, one might say Reading the Times is the spiritual successor to Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death as both authors are capable of seeing when the news can be helpful, and when it needs to be critiqued. “Reading the news will not save a single soul,” Bilbro concludes, “but journals and the vibrant communities of wayfarers they gather can be indispensable guides as we seek to faithfully enact God’s divine drama of redemption in our particular place and time.”
A copy of this book was provided by NetGalley in exchange for a fair and honest review, with no expectations about how I would critique it. If there are any errors in how I have represented the author’s argument, those faults are mine and mine alone.
David Marshall (MAT, Fuller Seminary) wears many hats: husband, father, Anglican, podcaster, writer, metal vocalist, and tokusatsu enthusiast. He’s the co-host of “Saved by the Belial: An Atrocious Ultraman Podcast,” and writes about technology, social media, and spiritual formation over at his Substack. You can’t find him on social media, but you can find him attending St. Aidan’s in Kansas City, Missouri.