When we think about spiritual disciplines we tend to focus on the details of our prayer. There are, however, other important questions. What do we give our attention to? Where do we invest our emotions? We can unwittingly waste much energy on worthless things.
If we observe the nature of the discourse that is presented to us in the various forms of media, we have to come to an unavoidable conclusion. Much of the discourse that fills time in our world is shallow. The details of the tragedy, political fight or stock market performance are communicated clearly enough, but when we get to analysis and narrative, the issues are seldom unpacked in meaty ways. The discussion invariably devolves into the idea that there are only two ways to look at any issue, and with the representatives of those views yelling at each other. Media forces all conversation into its popular shape—and then it’s off to three minutes of inane commercials.
The best representatives of a view are almost never on the popular shows. When they are there is not sufficient time to articulate the nuances of the truth—there is only so much time before the next commercial. The internet can be worse because all sources look alike. The latest crackpot with a decent looking website becomes the expert. A while back there was an internet debate about creation and evolution. The contestants were a popular TV science teacher and someone from a “creation research” organization, who believes in a “young earth” (a view held by a small minority of Christians worldwide). With all due respect to the combatants and their training, they did not present the listeners with the full range of current ideas in their highest and best forms. Nonetheless, many listeners thought they were hearing the case for science or religion—there is a popular media fiction that you can’t have both.
I recently attended a parents’ weekend at my son’s college. A professor gave the parents a thirty minute talk about the lessons Lawrence of Arabia can teach us about the current Middle East conflict. There was more wisdom in those thirty minutes than I’ve heard in ten years of news coverage about the region. The nature of the media conversation does not allow for intelligent, reflective discourse. The only options are to choose a side and argue with the goal that your side will win.
I offer a couple of counsels in response. First, Christians should resist getting sucked in to this continuous and mindless chatter that is largely driven by commercial interests. It is easy to get caught up in the fight and invest great emotional energy in a battle that will not be won, has little to do with reality, and is created specifically so that people will watch, listen or log on. It is spiritually distracting and fuels all sorts of unworthy emotions. The virtue of not getting caught up is called “detachment.”
Second, we should beware of the temptation to fight the genuinely good fight by the rules we unconsciously adopt from the media. It is tempting to enter into the fray and argue for God as though we must win public opinion via the media to win the spiritual battle. Marshall McLuhan taught us that “the medium is the message.” When we choose a shallow and argumentative medium, we send the message that faith in God is just another opinion vying for 51% of the vote. The church should cultivate a more thoughtful conversation, and the church should be better at listening.
This is not an exhortation to put our heads in the sand and avoid all media. It is an exhortation to be watchful (Revelation 3:2). Our habitual engagement with media has a profoundly formative impact on us. We should be aware of this and make wise decisions about how we will invest our time and emotional energy (Philippians 4:8).