On Reading the Bible and the Newspaper

In the intersection of faith and culture,
Barth said it’s necessary to read the Bible and the daily

A chapel service in our agency today led me to think about the challenge of communicating about faith in a media-driven culture, and how we face that challenge.

Each new generation has the task of taking the new technology of its age and rediscovering religious truths and making them meaningful in the light of cultural changes. This has always been a religious task. Each new cultural situation, shaped by the communication media of its time, reformulates the question: What does it mean to be human? –William F. Fore
In doing this, we stand in the middle of a cultural swirl that is unlike any ever known to human beings. Standing between the extremes, communicators are sometimes a convenient target. And, like it or not, it’s the extreme voices that make their presence known. That’s a feature of a media-driven society; you have to be visible to attract attention to your position. In this way, visibility equals “success.” And the easiest way to attract attention is to cut through the clutter by making a statement that gets noticed.

Thus, critique sometimes turns into criticism. Differences of opinion turn toward rather hard characterizations of the positions of the “other.”

This isn’t a post that’s going to devolve into whining, so don’t give up on me yet. I’m not even going to criticize the critics. I’ve developed thick skin and so have the other staff here.

But, hearing the discussion, I was moved by the depth of their theology and their commitment to the task, a task that is sometimes thankless and that elicits stinging rebuke from one or the other of the extremes.

We deliver messages to public audiences on behalf of the church. Quiet messages. The people in chapel today told stories of conversations with crew members on a recent location shoot, people unfamiliar with the community of faith. The conversations were in reaction to the messages they are crafting for television. It’s a different message than the advertising they normally work on. They hear the distinctiveness, and they ask questions.

So here we stand in the middle of this cultural mish-mash of messages about consuming, discussing questions about community, faith and the meaning of life. Here on the ground, at sidewalk level, and on the screens that are so pervasive and influential in our lives, the messages we deliver compete with hundreds of other messages that scream for our attention. We’re trying to break through the clutter, too. This is, of course, the challenge that every pastor of a congregation faces every day as well. It’s not unique to our work.

The aim of Christian theology is not to baptize the world as it is but to seek the world as it ought to be. The gospel has priority over politics, but one misses the gospel if one ignores its vision of a new society predicated on liberating grace. –William Stacy Johnson

I remember the theology of the Confessing Church in Germany, seeking to stand apart from the culture of death and maintain faithful witness even at the risk of death. I recall Karl Barth writing that one must read the Bible in one hand and the day’s newspaper in the other. Such is the dynamic relationship between culture and faith.
But here’s the rub. I read theology and listen to cultural critique today and I don’t find much that presents a viable alternative; one that breaks through the clutter to get at the mindspace and make an impression on people in this culture. I reflect on the challenge. I ask myself, “How do we communicate about faith today, remain faithful and preserve the integrity of the faith tradition in this cluttered, consumerist environment?”

Some disavow the need to do this, believing the culture is so polluted it must be rejected out of hand. I don’t defend popular culture, but critiquing it isn’t enough, is it? Don’t we also have to find a way to communicate in this culture? Not simply to determine how to communicate, but to communicate clearly so people can accept or reject the message. We communicate not to manipulate, but to engage in a relationship.

How else are we to offer alternatives to this culture that is grinding up people and redefining humanity in ways that crush our spirits?

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