In a world with ever-present access to news and commentary, it’s no wonder we find it difficult to keep the Christian story front and center in our day-to-day lives. Our phones have become news devices, and the amount of time we spend online can make “the news” not just one aspect of life, but the main drama—the story that gives us significance and by which we judge our worth and value.
It’s easy to think about the news the moment you rise and to check in for the latest right before bed. In Reading the Times: A Literary and Theological Inquiry into the News, Jeffrey Bilbro writes:
Perhaps we should inscribe a warning across the bottom of the screens on which we read the news: “Objects on screen are more distant than they appear.” (81-82)
Bilbro believes this obsession with the news (especially news from far away) is morally de-formative. It keeps us from feeling rightly and acting responsibly. Flooded with information to which we lack any ability to respond in a meaningful way, we get “caught up in distant dramas.” Our news intake can keep us from the good life of love and good deeds.
Are We All Mrs. Jellyby Now?
Bilbro uses a minor character in Charles Dickens’ Bleak House to show how giving too much attention to “distant drama” can deform us morally: Mrs Jellyby. She’s a “telescopic philanthropist” who fixates on helping people in Africa while she neglects her own children. He writes:
In our twenty-first-century media ecosystem, we are all in danger of becoming Mrs. Jellybys: making the news media the primary lens through which we view the world magnifies the significance of distant, shocking events and obscures the important events happening at hand. (28)
The danger isn’t in receiving news from around the world, but in devoting so much attention to world news that we neglect the people closest to us. We know what’s going on in the world more than what’s happening in our own community. We know what’s happening in “the Church” worldwide more than what’s happening in our own congregation.
This “telescopic” vision changes us and cheats our neighbors, because it’s almost always here at home, among the people closest to us, where we could have the most impact. Devoting so much time to what’s happening way out there instead of right around the corner shifts our sensibilities and steals from our neighbors the good deeds we might have done on their behalf. Our powerlessness to respond meaningfully to news across the world gets translated into similar sensibilities regarding problems nearby: we receive news but don’t believe there’s much we can do in response. The result? Bilbro writes:
When our experience of the world is filtered through the news media, the tragedies that play out on our screens can seem more pressing than the ones that happen closer to home. In this condition, we risk being like the priest and the Levite, who passed by the wounded man on the side of the road, rather than the Samaritan, who saw, had compassion for, and took action to help his neighbor. (29)
Imagine Jesus’ parable retold today, except that the priest sidesteps the wounded man on the road because he’s scrolling through images of people in a war-torn country on the other side of the world. The question is one of time and attention. When we are consumed with distant drama, we miss chance after chance to contribute something of value in the place we are most likely to have the biggest effect.
As a guest on a podcast recently, I was asked what message I’d put on a billboard—what one thing I’d want to communicate to church leaders today. After giving the question some thought, I answered, “Look local.”
There’s a missional component to looking local, as Calvin Miller once described evangelism as “the art of looking around.” We look to the people around us because neighbor love requires knowing our neighbors.
There’s also a doctrinal component to looking local. By getting to know, really know, the people in your congregation, you avoid the danger of being consumed by online news and controversy. Looking local means stepping outside the social media chambers of constant controversy, turning down the volume of the loudest voices online, and then carefully discerning the best way to shepherd the people for whom you will give an account.
Then there’s a service component to looking local. Bilbro quotes Augustine:
“All people should be loved equally. But you cannot do good to all people equally, so you should take particular thought for those who, as if by lot, happen to be particularly close to you in terms of place, time, or any other circumstances.” (31)
Yuval Levin describes this as “subcultural conservativism.” It’s not about ignoring the news or withdrawing from online conversations. Instead, it’s refocusing on the people closest to you “as a way of forming human beings and citizens who can then contribute to their society as well as to their community.”
Let’s not be so consumed with “distant dramas” that we fail to “look local,” and then lose sight of the fields of service where we can actually make a difference.
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