“But Pastor, aren’t we supposed to stay up on the news?”
You can imagine what I had told this poor woman just before she said this. I had told her to turn the news off. Her husband, standing right there, said “Thank you” when I said that.
But behind her question was, I believe, a fairly commonly-held belief. I think it goes something like this. You can’t be a good citizen if you are not up on current events.
I would like to challenge that idea. To some extent, I agree with the premise in theory. I would suggest that most people are not really up on current events, no matter how much they have the 24/7 networks on. But that is another post for another day…actually I’ve written on it many times. I don’t need to belabor it.
I would more specifically like to challenge the idea that it is responsible to be up on current events, especially when the news is stressing us out like never before. I would also like to challenge this idea based on history. Before “instant news” it was not possible for people to be as up on current events as we are today. Were their lives impoverished for it? It doesn’t look like it to me. Were they bad citizens for not having the technology to know about the latest Covid death in Kansas City? (I’m in Wisconsin).
You see, being “up on current events” in our context could just be a cover for being addicted to screens. One idol feeds another idol…
Indeed, American education did not always stress current events. The “pop current events” quizzes of my youth–which I was good at–were a relatively new trend in education at the time. In the early to mid 1970s, public education largely dropped Civics classes, which were about our government and how it is organized and had a direct connection to good citizenship. The emphasis on current events rose largely in the civics void. My generation was taught that good citizens were up on current events.
Again, in theory I don’t disagree, but without a good education in the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, do Americans today have a well-developed enough filter to really understand current events? Last summer, I watched 20 somethings defile the Lincoln Memorial in the name of “anti-racism.” What I (and many) saw was kids who were poorly educated, even with their college degrees. The Declaration probably never saw a greater champion than Lincoln in assuring that the nation saw “all men [as] created equal;” the Constitution’s concern for freedom equally so. The sheer ignorance of these actions belies the poverty of their educations. The mob was never known for careful critical thinking.
But the same ignorance that moves anxiety-to-anger in the mobs is often seen in those who cannot seem to turn off the news as well. I admit. I surely have been guilty of this. I have not always practiced what I preach. When my mother was in the nursing home before she died, I would hear how worked up she was over the news…which was constantly on in her little room. I told her to shut the TV off and go down to the library down the hall and check out some books. Interestingly, she did! And it made all the difference.
You see, I think what’s actually happening is that “being up on current events” has become a cover for our collective addiction to screens. I can justify staring blankly into my dumb phone if I am reading the news and not, say, watching pornography or playing games, or just looking at silly memes. After all, isn’t it important that we stay up on current events?
I make no apologies for telling my mother (and the woman from my congregation in the quote at the outset) to turn off the TV and the news. One, I am not confident in any of what is called news reporting today. I cannot say that I am up on current events simply by listening to the networks. Two, I probably can make the argument that the person who is not tuned in to current events may be a better citizen than the one who is. Three. if all the news does is ratchet up anxiety, it’s not even healthy for us to be so tuned in.
It’s Lent, so my advice is to go on a news fast. I have quite literally been on one for almost two months, with rare exceptions. Life’s a lot better. Turn it off. Hear God’s Word and meditate on it. The good works that follow will make you a better citizen than anything else I can think of.
And don’t believe them when they tell you that you need to be up on current events. I’m not sure I even know what that means anymore.