News as Spiritual Deformation – D. J. Marotta

Here’s a question to ask any pastor: “What’s the greatest challenge to discipleship in your church?” This is the likely answer: “The news.”

When I press for more details, I hear something like this:

People’s preferred news source seems to be the most powerful voice in their lives. It tells them what to believe about who they are, the problems of the world, who is at fault, and what to do about it. The news has become a lens through which the Bible, the Christian faith, and the local church is interpreted and evaluated.

Christians will often agree:

Yes, sensational, heavily political news is the problem. That’s why I only follow [my favorite outlet]. Other people are influenced by the news, but not me. I’m a free-thinker.

Gnosticism Revisited

Why is news so enthralling? It doesn’t seem rational. Most news content is depressing and terrible. Why do we keep coming back for more?

One theory is that most news sources pitch themselves as a sort of gnostic gospel. Gnosticism began as a second-century quasi-Christian spinoff religion. The church fathers soon identified Gnosticism as heresy because it invited people to trust not in repentance of sin and salvation in Christ but in special mystical knowledge or esoteric insight.

Such special insight is what news offers us. News media say, implicitly, “We’ll give you the inside scoop. Follow us and you’ll be one of the enlightened few and not in the mob of fools.” The news offers salvation through special knowledge.

Follow us and you’ll be one of the enlightened few and not in the mob of fools.

Let’s take things a bit deeper. The news offers a substrain of the temptation presented to the first humans in Eden: to be like God.

God, in his omnipresence and omniscience, knows and cares about all things happening in all places. We, in our finiteness, only have the capacity to know and care about a few things happening where we are.

Contemporary news sources present our finiteness as a problem to overcome. We must transcend our locale and become global. We must leave behind the darkness of not knowing and enter the light of “breaking news.” We must, in short, become like God: knowing and caring about everything.

It’s a heady tonic. This is why following the news makes us feel important. There is something godlike about the illusion of knowing and caring about everything.

Inactionable News

Most news is bad: an earthquake, a hurricane, a murder, a scandal. Most news is also inactionable: there is nothing you can do about it. What does knowing all this inactionable bad news create in you?

Most news is inactionable—there is nothing you can do about it.

  • Anxiety: The sheer quantity of evil reports being pumped at you 24/7, like a firehose to the face, will not leave you more peaceable, more content, or more joyful. It will leave you more anxious.
  • Loss of agency: Because you grow accustomed to hearing about problems you can’t fix and suffering people you can’t help, you develop a deep feeling of lost agency.
  • Anger: For anyone with a moral compass, this leads to anger. Because you are made in the image of God, a sense of justice rises against villains.
  • Hate: Anger is like the evaporated alcohol that rises from fermenting grain. It can be distilled and bottled into hate.

This is why Christians who watch or read a lot of news usually end up hating, not loving, their neighbor. They have been spiritually deformed by truckloads of voyeuristic, inactionable horror stories. They perceive themselves as part of a small, heroic, minority of good people at war against powerful multitudes of the ignorant (at best) or the wicked (at worst).

Most news is inactionable—there is nothing you can do about it.

I ask again: What’s the use of inactionable news?

It doesn’t typically help me love the Lord our God with all my heart, soul, mind, and strength.

It doesn’t typically help me love my neighbor as myself.

In short, it’s typically of no use.

Choose Local News

You may respond: “Are you suggesting we should withdraw from society? Retreat from the real world?”

Quite the opposite. News only gives the illusion of engagement and thus inoculates you against actual engagement with real people. I’ll take it a step further: you should not seek to know everything or care about everything, because you should not aspire to be like God.

Your opportunity for obedience to God is a local opportunity. Therefore, the primary news that should matter to a Christian is local news. By local news I don’t primarily mean news about city or state government. I mean something more intensely local, what some thinkers call “hyper-local”:

  • News about a neighbor with a cancer diagnosis
  • News about the young couple down the street having their first child
  • News about someone in the church who’s lost a job
  • News about someone’s coworker visiting church for the first time

The primary news that should matter to a Christian is local news.

This is news for the average human. This news presents you with an opportunity to love, to pray, to serve, or to celebrate at the human level.

As you respond to such local news, a different kind of formation will work within you. Anxiety will be replaced with confidence, helplessness with initiative, anger with delight, hate with love.

You will not find such hyper-local news in daily papers or TV reports. Rather, you will likely discover it the same way people have for generations: through ordinary conversation.

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