Thou shalt not Cable News?

Thou shalt not Cable News?

Over at The Gospel Coalition, Trevin Wax is asking whether Christians should consider “pulling the plug” on an increasingly unsanctified form of television entertainment.

No, it’s not the racy or gratuitously violent scenes on “Skinamax” or other channels— it’s cable news.

Cable News

Here’s the money quote:

In a culture that has lost its appetite for truth and has developed an appetite for coarseness and sensationalism, cable news plays to our worst tendencies.

(Read the full thing here.)

 

Like me, Wax admits to having once been a bit of a “political junkie.” But as he puts it, “Election 2016 changed that.”

It wasn’t because, this time around, I was unable to enthusiastically support either candidate. It was a growing concern with the toxic atmosphere of the cable news channels and the worrisome trends they reveal about our society.

He then gives three reasons why the rise of niche-market news channels–tailor made to heighten our existing biases–have had cancerous effects.

Here they are:

  1. The Disappearing Aim of Journalism

While absolutely no one is unbiased, the claim here is that today’s cable news outlets (whether Fox News, CNN, or MSBC) aren’t even trying.

The aim is no longer truth or journalism; it’s ratings via sensationalized pandering to a specific demographic. For proof, one need only recall the admission of a CNN producer that the Russia scandal was “great for ratings.”

  1. The Disappearing Desire for Truth

Worse yet, many viewers do not seem to care.  We tune in for validation, not objectivity, and the media on both sides plays the music to our band.

  1. The Rise of News as Show

Wax’s third claim is that the line between news and entertainment has all but vanished.  What we have now are “shows,” or rather: “food fight journalism,” dished out by the likes of Hannity, Maddow, and (formerly) O’Reilly.

On this point, Wax gives a telling example from the life of Roger Ailes, Fox News founder and longtime Harvey Weinstein impersonator:

Ailes knew what types he wanted on that show: the “bombshell blonde,” the middle-of-the-road guy, the renegade, the brunette, and the token liberal (white or black) to round out the panel. When casting the show, he made it clear to the panelists that they were replaceable precisely because they were typecast.

In the end, such typecast replicability also led, by all accounts, to a newsroom that made Ron Burgundy’s look like a paragon of gender equality and female respect. The non-disclosure agreements were stacked like papal indulgences.

WAIT A MINUTE

But wait a minute… is all this an exageration?

Despite such strong indictments, Wax doesn’t want to go too far.

As he notes, moments of real journalism do sneak through on the cable channels.  And in moments of crisis, like the recent hurricanes, we are thankful to be “inspired by the stories of individual families, of daring rescues, and the ongoing relief efforts.”

Cable news is not all bad; not all options are equally biased; and simply tuning out to world events does not seem like a great alternative.

Perhaps one possibility then is to step away from cable–millennials like myself have long since done this (what are channels?)–and get our news from a variety of other sources.

The best of these may even involve (wait for it…) reading. While this would hardly free us from the grip of bias, the choice to read our news from more reputable sources would eliminate the endless food fights (read: panel discussions), engineered by Ailes and others. It would also prevent the binge-newsing that fuels an obsessive and over-politicized paranoia.

In the recent words of David Brooks:

[Our] public conversation is over-politicised and under-moralised … we analyse every single movement in the polls, but the big subjects about relationships and mercy and how to be a friend – these are the big subjects of life and we don’t talk about them enough. Or we have our moral arguments through political means, which is a nasty way to do it because then you make politics into a culture war.

A PROBLEM ON BOTH SIDES

As Wax makes clear, the problem exists on both the Right and Left.

In this, we have yet another example of how both extremes within our current culture wars are locked in a symbiotic existence that is simultaneously a carnal embrace.

They need each other; they are producing offspring (“As even your own poets claim”); and they ought to be in each other’s Christmas cards.

In the end, the greatest danger is what such WWE-inspired journalism does to us.

It changes us in subtle ways.  And it leaves us drawn (perhaps subconsciously) toward leaders with these qualities.

We form our media; then our media form us.

Before we know it, one might even feel “strangely warmed” toward a figure whose philosophical and rhetorical inspirations seem like an odd amalgam of Gordon Gecko and Ric Flair.  Hypothetically.

BEYOND LEGALISM

After reading Wax, my own takeaway was not a legalistic command along the lines of “Thou shalt not cable news.”

In all honesty, my own tradition has sometimes erred in this direction. My grandparents tell an old story of unloading the family moving van at a new church parsonage, only to be asked brusquely by a church elder:

“Do you own a television?”

“No,” replied my grandfather.

“Good; we throw those in the river!”

Neither Wax nor I are advocating this.

Even so, perhaps evangelicals would do well to recognize that “sex and cussing” are not the only forms of television viewing that can malform us when it comes to holiness.

Oh be careful little eyes…

We are Seven: On counting miscarriage

We are Seven: On counting miscarriage

“How many children do you have?”

That was the seemingly innocuous question that I asked my new acquaintance as we sat around the chips and salsa at our local Chili’s.

Like most parents, he answered with a number. Then he said the part that I had not expected:

“We had two miscarriages. And we always count those.”

While I responded with empathy, I recall thinking that most of us (myself included) do not publically number our children to include the little lives that never made it to delivery.

And on many levels, that is understandable.

We all deal with grief differently.  And it would be wrong to force one way of processing a failed pregnancy on others.

OUR MISCARRIAGE

About a year and a half ago Brianna and I walked through our own experience of miscarriage. And while it was sad for me, at the time, I was primarily concerned for her well-being.

After hearing a noise in our house, I came into our bedroom to find Brianna unconsciousness from blood loss.  I panicked.  Then I phoned my mom to watch our kids; I carried Brianna’s (now) semi-conscious body to the car, did my best to place her inside, and then drove us to the hospital.

Thankfully, she was soon okay.

But the baby had been deceased for several days.

Later, as some readers can relate, there was the awkward reality of having already told some folks that we were pregnant, and now having to explain.  Partly because of this, Brianna chose to share publically that she had lost a pregnancy.  And soon after, she was overwhelmed by the many friends and family who then confided their own stories–some far more traumatic than our own.

It happens often.  But that doesn’t make it nothing.

CONSISTENTLY PRO-LIFE

In Christian circles, one hears much about the need to be “Pro-Life,” and rightly so.

While the issue of abortion is polarizing, my own view leans on both Scripture and science to conclude that an unborn child is indeed a sacred human life, however small.

Even so, the consistent application of my “Pro-Life” stance involves much more than just abortion. It is a virtue that spans from womb to tomb, and sweeps up everything from welfare to warfare within its complicated wake.

I aim to be consistently Pro-Life.

Yet this too raises questions as to how I “count” our miscarriage.

WORDSWORTH OVER CHIPS AND SALSA

In a slightly different vein, something like my Chili’s conversation also happens in a classic poem by William Wordsworth (“We Are Seven”; pub. 1798).

Its verses recount an exchange between a traveler and a simple peasant girl.

The traveler asks:

“Sisters and brothers, little Maid, / How many may you be?”

“How many? Seven in all,” she said, / And wondering looked at me.

“And where are they? I pray you tell.” / She answered, “Seven are we; / And two of us at Conway dwell, / And two are gone to sea.

“Two of us in the church-yard lie, / My sister and my brother; / And, in the church-yard cottage, I / Dwell near them with my mother.”

Yet this statement brings confusion to the traveler: “I thought that you said seven.”

“You say that two at Conway dwell, / And two are gone to sea, / Yet ye are seven! I pray you tell, / Sweet Maid, how this may be.”

The misunderstanding, of course, involves the girl’s counting of her two dead siblings (“who in the church-yard lie”) as present members of her family.

Unfortunately, the mathematical modern adult doesn’t get it:

“You run about, my little Maid, / Your limbs they are alive; / If two are in the church-yard laid, / Then ye are only five.”

WE ARE SEVEN

As I read the poem recently (outside, on a nice morning, as is legally required of Wordsworth), it struck me that perhaps the number “seven” reflects our family too.

For if I were to begin consciously “counting” the child that we lost to miscarriage, then we would indeed be Seven. –(1) Brianna, (2) Josh, (3) Lucy, (4) Penny, (5) Ewan, (6) Baby unnamed, (7) Teddy.

And while I have no plans to begin saying this whenever someone asks about my children, perhaps it is a more consistent conclusion for those of us who consider ourselves “Pro-Life.”

After all, the weight of Wordsworth’s poem lies in the child’s stubborn insistence that death does not erase a child from the family roll.

To live at all is to be woven forever into the fabric of “present personhood.” We are eternal.

For to use Donne’s metaphor, “all mankind is of one author, and is one volume.” And while death is powerful and grievous, it cannot tear out words and pages from this book.  It can only translate them–if they be written in Christ’s blood–“into a better language.”

The trouble, however—as my two-year-old reminds me daily—is that children learn new “languages” far easier than grown-ups.

Thus even our ostensibly “Christian” thinking about miscarriage can often leave us thinking as only slightly more cordial versions of Wordsworth’s adult traveler, in need of child-like wisdom:

“How many are you, then,” said I, / “If they two are in heaven?” / Quick was the little Maid’s reply, / “O Master! we are seven.”

“But they are dead; those two are dead! / Their spirits are in heaven!” / ’Twas throwing words away; for still / The little Maid would have her will, / And said, “Nay, we are seven!

 

On Protests

On Protests

In recent weeks, social media has been ablaze with opinions over what does or does not constitute an “appropriate” protest.

This piece, however, is about a much older controversy.

Exactly five hundred years ago (this month) an act of dissent began that was far more incendiary than a few athletes kneeling for an anthem.

In the heart of Germany, a young monk named Martinus Ludher (Martin Luther) felt compelled to speak out against the abuses of his church—and particularly, against the unjust selling of indulgences.

Yet while many celebrate Luther’s legacy this year, it bears noting that he was hardly a hero to many at the time.

Protests, it seems, can be variously interpreted.

MEDIEVAL MEMEs

Thanks to J. Gutenberg’s 15th century invention of “social media,” one can still access a plethora of medieval memes depicting the Reformer in all manner of unflattering ways.

There was Luther as the beast of Revelation; Luther as the devil’s bagpipe (below); and Luther as a sex-crazed infidel who wanted only to satisfy his lust and break his vow of celibacy.

Lutherdevil

Like and share if you agree!!! –proclaimed the Hapsburg troll farms.

On the other side, the pope was also lampooned in a variety of viral .gifs, er… pamphlets.

The holy father was here depicted as a bare-breasted dragon with the head of an ass; and  as a decrepit pseudo-Jew riding a pig while holding a pile of steaming excrement.

Popeonsow
In the period, Jews were often erroneously slurred as riding pigs.

Apparently, the poop emoji is hardly new.

Nor, sadly, is anti-Semitism.

IMPERIAL REBUKE

In response to Luther’s protest, the Holy Roman Emperor himself decided to weigh in.  And in 1521, at the Diet of Worms (not a .gif), Charles V pronounced a somber “SAD!” over the idea of justification by faith alone.

Oddly, however, the interjection of a world leader only fueled the fire.

Luther’s protest spread.

BLOOD AND SWORD

In the wake of such polarization, one might hope that the following decades would bring a return to civility between the factions—both claiming to be Christians.

It did not.

So while the fruit of the Reformation is now seen in ideas like sola gratia, sola fide, and sola scriptura (grace alone; faith alone; Scripture alone)—the more immediate fruit was  the Thirty Years War: the deadliest religious conflict in European history.

Many cite this bloodshed today as a reason why Europe became aggressively post-Christian in the years to follow.  The idea was that strong theological commitments invariably bring bloodshed.  And while the twentieth century would show that atheists can wage jihad even more effectively (#Marxism), the damage was done.

WORTH THE TROUBLE?

So was Luther’s protest worth it?

I think it was–although I don’t agree with all his tactics.

As a Protestant myself (though one with great respect for Catholicism, and for my Catholic brothers and sisters), I tend to think that the Reformation was necessary, not least because the gospel badly needed a retrieval from the tentacles of medieval tradition.

Even so, Martin Luther was a terribly imperfect activist.

IMPERFECT ACTIVIST

Believing that all his adversaries were literally in league with Satan, Luther often chose the most profane words and images imaginable.  (I’ll let you Google it.)

He had seemingly never met an ad hominem—or a reference to the human G.I. tract—that he disliked, and he shared more than his share of “fake news” stories, especially against the Jews.

His treatment of “law” and “gospel” sometimes verged toward anti-nomianism.  And his anti-Semitism made the Holocaust more possible in modern Germany (though most of the blame for this lies elsewhere).

Partly to shore up political connections, he once commanded that the “murderous, thieving hordes of peasants” be slaughtered in the most inhumane of terms.  And while some of these peasants were indeed both murderous and thieving (see Münster), others were just poor farmers who had been frightfully oppressed by local lords.

Apparently revolts against an over-taxing monarchy can also be variously interpreted.

LESSONS LEARNED

What then is the point of this history lesson?

To be sure, every act of protest is unique–as is every “protestant.”

Thus it would be wrong to equate any of them, just as it would be wrong to declare every protest praiseworthy. Some are not.

Even so, we fool ourselves if we think that any act of dissent was ever deemed “appropriate” at the time.  That’s just not how it works.

Just ask the other Martin Luther. In 1966, Gallup registered MLK’s disapproval rating at 63%, while only 32% of Americans approved of him. Yet in 1999, MLK ranked #1 amongst U.S. citizens to be voted on.

Apparently it takes more than flash polls or “gut feelings” to discern morality.

And perhaps in one instance, it took a chronically cussing and perpetually constipated monk to get a needed conversation going.

Happy (early) Reformation Day.