Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary

26 Sep 2022

“Read the Eternities”: A Brief Review of Jeffrey Bilbro’s “Reading the Times: A Literary and Theological Inquiry into the News”

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The quotation in the title of this blog post comes from Henry David Thoreau, who more broadly warns that “We should treat our minds, that is, ourselves, as innocent and ingenuous children, whose guardians we are, and be careful what objects and what subjects we thrust on their attention. Read not the times. Read the eternities” (quoted on pg. 18).

In previous ages, there were few sources vying for our attention. Not so in the present world. How then should we attune our attention so that we benefit most from the gluttony of news and information? Perhaps more importantly, how can we protect ourselves from the devastating consequences of overconsumption?

To answer such questions, Bilbro has written this book. It comes to us in three parts, each addressing a different question that gets at the broader question. First, what should we give our attention to? Second, how should we experience time? Finally, how should we relate to others?

What Should we Give Our Attention To?

The first section of the book helpfully shows the problematic nature of the current news culture. Three problems arise. First, the speed and volatility of news create in us boredom for the mundane and appeals to our meanest appetites. Accordingly, we scroll looking for the next big tidbit that will spike our interest. Nothing holds our attention for long; it is not designed to. This leads to the second problem.

The current news culture “makes us vulnerable to the wiles of advertisers and politicians” (11). The more you scroll, the more advertisements are shown (and money generated). The more you click, the more the algorithm determines how to satiate you. These combine to form an intentional addiction in your soul. You have become a source of income, and you will be used.

On the political side, much money is spent to determine how to shape and present news to move public opinion. You are a cog in that very large machine. Bilbro notes that “insofar as we are formed by the ephemeral dramas and scandals of the Daily News, we will be unable to contribute meaningfully and redemptively to the real issues and concerns of our times. We will simply be passive highways for the trends and outrage that populate our news feeds” (18).

The third problem with our current news culture it “Warps our emotional sensibilities, directing them toward distant, spectacular events and making it more difficult for us to sympathize with and love our neighbors” (12). In my estimation, this is a massive problem. When we know more about the war in Ukraine than we do about our neighbor struggling with dementia, there is a serious problem. We can’t do anything for Ukraine, but we can aid in our local sphere.

As a positive alternative, Bilbro suggests that we release ourselves from the junk-food news diet by attending to resources that are deep and rich. This is essential because “so much of what people do under the rubric of unwinding or self-care doesn’t actually recreate or restore; It scratches the itch of our restless souls and, by doing so, keeps the wounds from healing. What we may need is simply silence, long walks, or even the quiet work of washing the dishes by hand. Netflix isn’t the balm of Gilead” (57).

C.S. Lewis once gave the advice that people should read an old book for every new book they read. The reason for this was not that they were necessarily better; instead, “They made as many mistakes as we. But not the same mistakes” (quoted on 59). Bilbro adapts this for the present age: “We ought to spend at least one—and probably more like two or three—minutes reading books or media essays for every minute we spend scrolling through newsfeed, listening to the radio, or surfing around the Internet checking in on the latest news” (59).

How Should we Experience Time?

The second part of the book addressed an interesting issue: how do we think of time and how does that influence the way we consume news? Some cultures have viewed time as cyclical and static and thus have little interest in contemporary events. Other cultures view time as directional and thus believe that current affairs are trajectories that will determine the future. The Western world is decidedly directional.

Bilbro suggests that the believer’s approach should be both cyclical and directional. By attending to the liturgical calendar, we can provide the foundation for consistent life. Nevertheless, we recognize that all is directionally headed to the consummation God has preordained. This allows us to consume news without angst and anxiety, for we know the end of the matter. Additionally, despite what is happening outside, we can produce through liturgy and church communion a solace for our souls.

How should we relate to others?

The final section of the book highlights the need for the right community. Bilbro provides a good turn of words: “instead of looking to the news to create better communities, we should be looking to strengthen communities so that they can create better news” (120).

One of the chief problems faced today is the atomization of our communities. The solution to this problem is not to be found in simple diversification, for as Bilbro aptly notes, we judge our news sources by the communities we inhabit. Accordingly, we must “take very seriously who we spend time with and think alongside” (152).

The solution to our problems, in a nutshell, is the creation of community. This can only be done on the small scale, with believers intentionally relating to those around them. Of course, this includes the local church, but it also includes taking walks and getting outside one’s home to see the needs, desires, and interests of neighbors.

Final Comments

I loved the idea of this book; I did not enjoy the execution of it. I have two criticisms: First, Bilbro enjoys using words few others use (e.g., dyspepsia, macadamize, convivial). Consequently, you need a glossary to read the book well. I say this as a person who is well-read and is sometimes criticized for using words no one knows (genuine thanks to my wife who helps me on this front!).

My second critique concerns the sources he used. Throughout the book, you will find philosophers and literary critics cited with frequency. Their thoughts are deep and include specialized language. But when you get down to the matter, most of the principles he draws from these complex theories are simple and could have been drawn from the Scriptures. Very few biblical references are used, however. The Hebrew wisdom literature is a rich resource that remained almost entirely untapped by this volume.

In sum, the topic is important, but a better, shorter, easier to comprehend resource, in my opinion, is the Wisdom Pyramid by Brett McCracken. It is not as focused as this volume on the news, but it captures the essence of this book with less technical jargon and more scriptural attention.