Friday, October 22, 2010

The Bible in One Hand and the Newspaper in the Other

Karl Barth is said to have said: "We must hold the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other." Actually, The Center for Barth Studies at Princeton Theological Seminary has not been able to pin down exactly from whence that quote emanated. However, it is widely known that Barth made the Bible/newspaper connection frequently throughout his illustrious career. They have, however, substantiated the following quotes…

In an interview from 1966, for example, he stated: "The Pastor and the Faithful should not deceive themselves into thinking that they are a religious society, which has to do with certain themes; they live in the world. We still need - according to my old formulation - the Bible and the Newspaper."

Perhaps the source that is most consistent with the alleged ‘quote’ comes from a Time magazine article published on Friday, May 31, 1963, which states: "[Barth] recalls that 40 years ago he advised young theologians 'to take your Bible and take your newspaper, and read both. But interpret newspapers from your Bible.'"

I say all that as a preface so that you’ll understand two things: first- the importance of journalism in our world, and second- so you’ll understand the background of why I frequently say, “I read the Bible while listening to both NPR and FOX News.” I’ve been saying it for years…if you know me well; you’ve no doubt heard me say it. Over the years, that statement has put more people off kilter in their assessment of me that I can name. And for good reason-it is meant to be disarming. It is meant to make your unsure of who I really am. Here’s why…because no matter who you are or what you believe, that sentence will be off-putting. But for different reasons. When I say it to conservatives- I have been corrected and told that NPR is not ‘fair and balanced’; likewise, the response of liberals to this statement has been equally disappointing, for I am consistently reprimanded by them that FOX news is ‘just a bunch of haters.’ I have had representatives from both camps tell me that I am navigating dangerous waters by “listening to the propaganda of the evil enemy.”

So what’s the truth? Who should we, as Christians who want to be informed, listen to? Are my critics right or wrong in their warnings to me?

What strikes me in all this is that both are equally right and wrong. Here’s the rub: each holds themselves in such high esteem that they are incapable of seeing their own foibles. Both groups have more in common with one another than they would perhaps care to admit. Here’s what I mean- when you set yourself up as a “purveyor of truth” and align yourself with “the good guys” you run the risk of setting yourself up as a god of sorts. When you begin to believe that your opinions (or the opinions of the pole with which you choose to affiliate) are “more right” than the “other guy,” you run the risk of becoming a number of things, none of which are consistent (when all is said and done) with The Truth. At the very least, one (and the opinions one holds) has the potential to become the following things: Arbitrary. Capricious. Suspect. Dangerous. Arrogant. In short: guilty of hubris.

So, for me, the challenge of reading the Bible and listening to both NPR and FOX is that such a practice forces me to apply the same level of consistent and critical interpretation to both, irregardless of where I “would like” to settle my opinions. It forces me to be honest with myself, to always correct my potentially ever-narrowing thoughts, and to find my truth in neither expression of ‘truth,’ but to find my purpose, meaning, mission and impetus for living in ‘The Truth,’ instead. It is a challenge that I have found exceedingly rewarding because it stretches me to be all that I can be, and it forces my faith out of any polemic pigeon hole that I am liable to shove it in for the sake of ignorance, convenience, or (God forbid) laziness of intellect. It is a humbling task to live in this tension, but one that is well worth it.

It also prevents anyone else from being capable of pigeon-holing me (or at least it keeps them somewhat confused and off balance). You see, I don’t want people to judge whether or not they believe what I say because of its source. I want them to be able to listen with a certain level of not-knowing, and let the Truth resonate where it will. My parents and husband (conservatives) often think I am an off-the-wall liberal, while my ex-husband and many of my more liberal friends think I am a dyed-in-the-wool conservative. Funny that…it may seem an odd tactic, but it achieves its desired effect: I won’t be labeled…
Neither would Barth, for he is quoted as saying, In his Romans commentary (Cf. Römerbrief (1922), p. 413: "Reading of all forms outspokenly secular literature - the newspaper above all - is urgently recommended for understanding the Epistle to the Romans." So clearly, Barth recognized the importance of digesting a kaleidoscope of information. That said, I’m sure you can see how it’s safe to assert that Barth would agree that both NPR and FOX fall into the categories of “secular” and “outspoken.” Therefore, I believe Barth would agree with my methods, and if he were alive today, would (like me) be availing himself of as much of the outspoken journalistic polemic that he could stomach.

It must be noted that when looked at as a whole, the three above Barthian quotes call for two things: one- the viewing of the news though scriptural lenses, and two- the viewing of Scripture through cultural lenses. So, while “all forms of secular literature” help us understand the Bible, it is also that the Bible assists us in understanding all forms of outspoken journalistic opinion, irrespective of their source. Barth was not alone in this opinion. In Billy Graham's Biography (Just As I Am, p. 126), Graham cites a newspaper advertisement which described his style of preaching as one which was done with “the Bible in one hand, the newspaper in the other.” Graham asserts that he didn’t recall ever actually doing this, but that the spirit of his preaching always was centered around finding the cultural relevance of scripture, as well as making scripture relevant to the culture. Additionally, John Stott recommends an approach that he calls "The Word and the World." So we see that a number of discerning and wise spiritual forefathers see the wisdom of this practice.

That’s because it is an indispensable one. The Word of God, living and active, separates out, refines, and helps me to accurately judge the wisdom, relevance, and helpfulness of the myriad opinions that fly at me each waking moment of the day. It is the Word of God that allows me to sift through all the polemic and find the nuggets of truth on both sides that are worth being mined and refined. Finally, it is the Word itself which provides me with the ability to take captive every thought and argument and make them obedient to Christ. No matter how much I attempt to inform myself, I cannot truly understand the culture in which I am living unless I view it through Kingdom lenses. Thinking otherwise is nothing short of absurd.

Living betwixt and between the tensions of these two poles is not easy task, particularly this week...As Juan Williams, one of the finest journalists there is, found on Thursday. Williams found out the hard way that trying to keep listening to both camps, with one's feet firmly planted in the DMZ between is nearly impossible... By publicly confessing to a flawed opinion on Monday while commentating on FOX, the NPR reporter found out that honesty and transparency are not always looked upon as honorable traits, and that making self-effacing revelations about one's fears might not be appreciated for its humility. His biggest mistake was in underestimating the vitriol and arrogance of his own tribe. This week, Williams fell victim to politicalcorrect-itis and discovered that admitting to being human, fearful, and flawed is not “consistent with [NPR's] editorial standards and practices.” I'm sure he was astonished to learn that NPR felt that his admission of belonging to humanity "undermined his credibility as a reporter" and that (per Vivian Schiller, NPR’s CEO) his thoughts are consistent with being psychologically impaired and unbalanced. Wow.
This week, it was even harder than ever to find that still small voice of reason.

And yet, I'll continue to try to hear it. Help me out here: There is a difference between editroial and journalistic standards of practice, right? As I understand it, a journalistic standard of practice requires an unbiased, objective stance. But editorializing, by its very nature requires a level of opining, and sometimes that level is downright provocative. But it seems in the instance of Williams, NPR is deciding to make no distinction whatsoever, and has made the arbitrary and capricious decision to hold his commentating (opining/editorializing) on FOX to journalistic standards of conduct, rather than editorial ones. This makes no sense to me, since NPR clearly holds a different plumb line when it comes to editorializing about things like the Tea Party Movement. In fact, they allow a deliberately provocative tone in this instance (look here). This is stark evidence of ugly hubris and what it looks. Just so we're clear- hubris when it rears its head (and it rears its ugly head in both camps) looks like this: capriciousness, inconsistency, and arrogance.
The point that I am trying to make here is simple: we actually need to carefully assess the information that comes out of both camps- because, sadly, both camps are equally at risk of falling prey to hubris. Doing this keeps us honest, and will help us form opinions that are less likely to be tainted. Being able to listen to the sanity within both sets of opinions provides one with the ability to filter out truth from propaganda. If I am wrong, then we should just revert to what communist countries do and have just one source of all things news, and be done with it. But you and I both know that would be damning and damaging. So why does it seem that NPR is trying to do just that? I don’t know, but I don’t like it.

And I’m not alone. In an editorial blog yesterday on the official NPR website, Alicia C. Shepard (Ombudsman for NPR) called the firing “poorly handled.” She stated that in the time following the firing, NPR has received an unprecedented amount of correspondence and calls (8,000 two days ago)- the “overwhelming majority” of which were described as “angry, furious, and outraged.” Why? Because NPR’s move was reprehensible, polemic, and hypocritical- in that it did was not consistent with its own editorial standards and practices. This cannot be allowed to be okay. This behavior cannot be condoned. It makes a laughing stock out of the First Amendment. It binds the hands of Liberty. It ductapes closed the mouth of Justice.

So what do we do? What 'side' should a Christian take?

Barth’s thoughts on journalists and their place in the world (from that 1963 Time article) give us an idea of how to approach this dilemma: "Newspapers, he says, are so important that 'I always pray for the sick, the poor, journalists, authorities of the state and the church - in that order. Journalists form public opinion. They hold terribly important positions. Nevertheless, a theologian should never be formed by the world around him - either East or West. He should make his vocation to show both East and West that they can live without a clash. Where the peace of God is proclaimed, there is peace on earth is implicit. Have we forgotten the Christmas message?'"

So, I end with these few admonitions/suggestions:
1) If we are to take the Bible at it’s word, we must then Pray for the "Principalities and Powers" (this includes journalists), and pray for and love our enemies (this includes the journalists that oftimes get under our skin)- So join me in prayerfully lifting up those on the front line of opinion formation like Juan Williams (and while you’re at it, shoot a couple more blessings upward for Vivian Schiller et al, Bill O’Reilly, Glen Beck, Sean Hannity and their lot…);

2) Don’t be formed by the World- be formed by the WORD…because (to paraphrase a scripture):
“NPR will wither and FOX will fade…but the Word of Our God stands forever.”
(my paraphrase of 1 Peter 1:25 & Isaiah 40:6-8.)

3) Somehow, we must exist to show “the East and West” (i.e. NPR and Fox, the right and the left, liberal and conservatives) that there is a way to live without a clash…that while both sides are purveyors of ‘truth’ to some extent, neither have the right to claim full ownership of “The Truth.” We must always proclaim the Gospel of Peace, which transcends all of man’s attempts at reason.

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