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On (Not) Working Backwards

The events of one week ago at the Capitol in Washington, DC have produced a veritable torrent of outrage, analysis, reaction, despair, fear, defiance, and many other things besides. The vision of a mob of rioters descending upon this hallowed symbol of democracy was unsettling, to put it mildly. Even more distressing, from a Christian perspective, was the sight of religious imagery and language (crosses, signage, etc.) on display throughout. There is a kind of perverse irony in the fact that this event took place on the Day of Epiphany, a day when Christians celebrate the revealing of Jesus Christ as the light of the world that pierces the darkness and reveals the path of peace. There was indeed a revealing on this Epiphany, but it was not of God.

There are obviously multiple sources that feed into cultural moments as fraught as this one seems to be. But at the risk of repeating myself ad nauseum, I think that near the top of the list would be a communication ecosystem and media culture that has shaped, is shaping, and will continue to shape us in profoundly corrosive and destructive ways. The news was never “objective,” no matter what we might think as we cast a nostalgic glance backward. But it surely wasn’t like what we see out there today. It is now entirely possible to live and move in pretty much completely different information universes, depending on whether you prefer the conservative or liberal version of reality. And it is of course highly profitable to create and maintain these separate worlds.

A few days ago, Matt Taibbi wrote a piece called “We Need a New Media System.” In it, he articulates well what’s going on before your eyeballs or mine ever happen upon the news of the day:

Media firms work backward. They first ask, “How does our target demographic want to understand what’s just unfolded?” Then they pick both the words and the facts they want to emphasize.

According to Taibbi, the news these days is less about “just the facts” than about “sorting and commoditizing information.” It’s hard to argue with him. If you read the Toronto Star and the National Post back-to-back most days you would wonder if you’re living in the same world, so different are their priorities, preoccupations, and hysterias. This sort of media environment, combined with financial incentives that reward click-baity type pieces that play on what frightens, titillates, and outrages us, cannot but produce division.

In light of the media ecosystem that we all live and move and have our being within, we should not be surprised by what happened last Wednesday, the ugliness that was revealed on the Day of Epiphany. Again, Taibbi puts it well:

What we’ve been watching for four years, and what we saw explode last week, is a paradox: a political and informational system that profits from division and conflict, and uses a factory-style process to stimulate it, but professes shock and horror when real conflict happens. It’s time to admit this is a failed system. You can’t sell hatred and seriously expect it to end.

That’s a firecracker of a paragraph, right there, and one that we would all do well to ponder, whatever version of the news we happen to prefer.

It’s worth ruminating on for those of us who presume to speak about God with any regularity, too. What is true of media firms is true of churches and pastors, too. The formula holds: First ask, “What does our target demographic want?” Then pick both the words and the facts you want to emphasize. Work backwards. I would venture a guess that every pastor can look out on a Sunday morning (back when we were looking at actual people instead of cameras) and know that if they talk about God and the life of faith using certain language and assumptions that some heads will eagerly nod, and others will shake in disgust.

I certainly know this. If I want my more liberal congregants to smile and nod, I need to talk about Jesus using lots of peace and justice language being sure to reference the teachings of Jesus (specifically, the ones that align nicely with the preferred ethics of the broader culture; those that don’t, should be studiously avoided). It helps if I talk about environmental concerns and express remorse for the many and varied sins of the historical church. For extra marks, I can speak in disparaging terms about “those evangelicals” thus affording the pleasure of defining ourselves by what or who we are not. If I’m more interested in affirmation from the conservatives, I need to speak about personal holiness and prayer and sin and the cross. I need to defend the church from her many enemies and lament the encroachments of the godless secularists. Again, it’s a bonus if I can throw some shade on weak-kneed liberal Christians who lack all conviction and are hastening the demise of the church.

I hate that I know this, that these cultural defaults creep so easily into my brain. I hate that it’s so easy to “work backwards” according to that the customer wants and how they want to hear it.

I’ve probably mentioned this before, but every Sunday I have a short time of prayer with those involved in the worship service. Every Sunday, I say something like, “Help us to speak truly of you this morning in all that we say and sing and pray and do.” I say this because we need a truth beyond ourselves so desperately. I say this because it fits so deeply with how I understand my vocation a writer and a speaker. To at least consistently attempt to speak truly of God. To resist, with all my being, the wearisome ideological habits and assumptions being inculcated in the media context I inhabit and contribute to. To never “sort and commoditize” the words and the work of God. To work forwards, not backwards, stretching out in hope toward the God who exists beyond and above our incessant demands that reality accommodate itself to what we understand or prefer.

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I meant to include this note at the end of my first post of 2021, but, well, I forgot. Just a reminder that if you’re interested in getting updates on new posts here, you can subscribe to email updates via the “Follow Blog Via Email” button near the top of the page on the right. I know many rely on social media for updates on pretty much everything, but as I’m no longer on Facebook and only briefly flirted with the madness of Twitter, I have to rely on more primitive means.

The featured image above is called “For God So Beloved” by Jules Atkinson. It is the image chosen for the season of Epiphany in the 2020-21 Christian Seasons Calendar

8 Comments Post a comment
  1. Jimmy the kid #

    It seems there are two sides (broadly speaking) to the debate: are we primarily here to bring the Kingdom of Heaven to Earth (social gospel) or are we primarily here to ensure people get to Heaven when they die? My thoughts are could it be both?? Are there aspects of both the liberal and conservative ideology that is correct?? Could there be a common ground??

    January 13, 2021
    • I think there could be, should be, and is. 🙂 Perhaps we just need to prioritize these things rather than the differences we so easily gravitate towards.

      January 13, 2021
  2. Dan #

    Thank you Ryan, great post. It gives me hope for my children that they could be a part of a church where the leader is self-reflective and discerning in the manner you describe. (I was nodding for part of the text I was reading…lol)

    January 13, 2021
    • Thanks kindly, Dan!

      January 14, 2021
  3. Ashley Miller #

    Ryan, I’m so grateful to still read your thoughts here. Thank you, as always, for your thoughtful and vulnerable reflections.

    January 14, 2021
    • Thanks, Ashley. So good to hear from you!

      January 15, 2021
  4. Great post,Ryan, really stirs the pot, so to speak, and thanks for the link to the Taibbi article…EXCELLENT!

    I scan Christian radio daily and I’ve noticed what I think is a distinct change in the theme of messages being delivered. I’ve noticed an increase in warnings of impending Christian persecution, even martyrdom. My spirit agrees with this. The most relevant message today based on the signs of the times should be: “Repent, The Kingdom of God is at hand”…

    January 14, 2021
    • It’s a message that is indeed relevant—during these times and all times.

      January 15, 2021

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