There have been some interesting, wild and weird posts from Christians leaders in the attempt to assess what is taking place in the world today. There have also been interesting comments about media and media’s role. What’s clear is, the world is in a time of transition. The Church is unlikely to emerge from Covid-19 unchanged, just as the world is unlikely to return to pre-Covid normal.
Here are a few words from the preface to Church in Society: First-Century Citizenship Lessons for Twenty-First-Century Christians, following which is an excerpt from the chapter on the Church’s relationship with media.
In the pages ahead, I hope to both inform and challenge your perspective on citizenship as a Christian. Like much of twenty-first-century Christianity, you and I have been influenced by the changing society in which we live. What if we could reverse that influence so that instead of changes in society influencing us, as Christians you and I influenced the changes in society?
Church in Society – Chapter Thirteen – The Church, Media
Again he began to teach beside the sea. And a very large crowd gathered about him, so that he got into a boat and sat in it on the sea, and the whole crowd was beside the sea on the land. And he was teaching them many things in parables, and in his teaching he said to them: “Listen! Behold, a sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seed fell along the path, and the birds came and devoured it. Other seed fell on rocky ground, where it did not have much soil, and immediately it sprang up, since it had no depth of soil. And when the sun rose, it was scorched, and since it had no root, it withered away. Other seed fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked it, and it yielded no grain. And other seeds fell into good soil and produced grain, growing up and increasing and yielding thirtyfold and sixtyfold and a hundredfold.” — Mark 4:1–8
A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger. — Proverbs 15:1
If one gives an answer before he hears [listens], it is his folly and shame. — Proverbs 18:13
There are multiple sides to Christian citizenship and media (in which I include social media). What media do you take in? What media do you rebroadcast? What do you share as a participant in media? How do you assess the accuracy of what you receive and what you personally broadcast?
Growing up, we frequently had dinner on TV trays while watching the six o’clock news. Mum was parenting three kids and working full-time. By the time dinner was prepared, it might be near six. In our household, it was important to understand the news of our city, province, nation, and the world, particularly the big neighbour to our south that had regular coverage but wasn’t consigned to the world news segment of the broadcast. We also had a newspaper subscription.
As I got older, I added the ten o’clock news to my nightly viewing. On Fridays and Saturdays, I watched the eleven o’clock news on a different network. The hosts of these later broadcasts often concluded by saying goodnight. I developed the habit of returning the greeting. “Good night, Uncle Knowlty.” “Good night, Lloyd.” I still do, although sometimes with additional comments on the quality of the newscast. I let them know when their commentary didn’t match news clip content, along with other journalistic failures or successes. They don’t hear my comments, so these are one-sided conversations.
Spending summer vacations with my dad, there were two daily must-watch TV shows: Sesame Street, which helped with my rudimentary Spanish, and the six o’clock news in English.
Today I check several news sources. Five newspaper apps. A Twitter feed that allows me to intentionally follow select media, reputable organizations, bloggers, social media sites, and individuals. I go beyond the headlines to scan or read the content. Headlines and content don’t always line up. Most days I still watch the six o’clock and ten o’clock news on TV.
Sowing seed (Matthew 13:3–9; Mark 4:1–8; Luke 8:4–8) isn’t just about sharing the Scriptures or planting literal seeds in the ground with the intent of harvesting a crop, it’s also about our use of media. Prudence (common sense) is required in our assessment of the seeds we allow to be sown into us, because they take root and grow. Prudence is also required for the seeds we sow. Take the time to think about what you are doing, and what is likely to come of it. This is particularly true in the current era in which almost anyone can blog, meme, or share, but seemingly few fact-check.
In the story Jesus told, using the available media of the day, a sower was spreading seed by hand, a small quantity at a time, across a large area over a long period of time. In regard to media in the twenty-first century, we are not hand-seeders but broadcast-spreaders covering vast territory in an instant. Other broadcast-spreaders share with us and we with them, and they with others, and so on.
As English Anglican priest and theologian John Stott stated in the first line of the preface to Malcom Muggeridge’s book Christ and the Media, “The influence of the mass media upon us all is continuous, insistent and pervasive.” In the body of the text, Muggeridge, an English journalist, augments Stott’s comment, stating,
This influence, I should add, is, in my opinion, largely exerted irresponsibly, arbitrarily, and without reference to any moral or intellectual, still less spiritual, guidelines whatsoever…
The ostensibly serious offerings of the media, on the other hand, represent a different menace precisely because they are liable to pass for being objective and authentic… This applies especially to news and so-called documentaries, both of which are regarded as factual, but which, in practice, are processed along with everything else in the media’s fantasy-machine. Thus news becomes, not so much what has happened, as what can be seen as happening, or seems to have happened. As for documentaries, anyone who has worked on them, as I have extensively, knows that the element of simulation in them has always been considerable, and has only increased as making and directing them has become more sophisticated and technically developed.
Three decades later, in his 2009 book Through a Lens Darkly, a study of Canadian news media treatment of evangelical Christians based on a review of the framing for news stories between 1994 and 2005, associate professor David Haskell of Wilfred Laurier University makes a similar point, and extends the point to note the role of the audience:
The greatest problem with news is not that journalists are influenced by their perceptions; the greatest problem is that news audiences do not realize journalists are influenced by their perceptions.
Mass media, of course, now includes mainstream media and social media, among other types. Yes, prudence, common sense, and even diligence is required. We are not passive recipients of the seeds planted by media.
Christians are needed who will hold fast to truth in themselves and in media representations. Christian media representation takes place in mainstream media, Christian media, social media (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc.), blogging, etc. Christians active in media include professional journalists as well as amateurs like you and me. We must be mindful of the biases in the media we receive, and our own biases in what we produce and share—the seeds sown into us, and the seeds we sow.
Why is it important to be mindful of biases in presentation? We are ambassadors for Jesus (2 Corinthians 5:20). We don’t want to become the story that betrays that role. Barry McLoughlin has said, “Hypocrisy in religion is the low hanging fruit of the media.” It’s up to us not to provide that low-hanging fruit. …
The chapter continues, noting how to ascertain bias in different forms of media, as well as personal bias, and then how to effectively engage various media from a Christian perspective.
This link will take you to the Table of Contents for Church in Society, should you want an overview of the book.