Breaking news! (Insert dramatic gong sound here.) Find out if you’re on the right side of history. Learn about the latest celebrity you should cancel for the wrong view on oat milk. After this commercial break.
Not so fast says Jeffrey Bilbro, editor in chief of Front Porch Republic and the author of the new book Reading the Times: A Literary and Theological Inquiry into the News (IVP Academic). Bilbro warns that “objects on screen are more distant than they appear,” and that “the public sphere is simply not conducive to the formation of loving, sustaining communities.” He writes:
When the news sets itself up as the light of the world, it is usurping the role that rightly belongs only to the Word proclaimed in the gospel. But when the news helps us attend together to the ongoing work of this Word, it plays a vital role in enabling us to love our neighbors.
So take a walk! Carve some wood. Spend time in embodied communities. And don’t worry too much about that next election, he says:
Epistemic humility, particularly regarding the workings of Providence, requires us to acknowledge that even when our candidate loses, or when a court case is decided in a way that seems wrong, or when tragedy strikes, God is still working out his will—and he cannot be defeated. The reverse holds true as well: it may be that just when we think we are winning, we are going astray from God’s kingdom. A high view of Providence and a chastened sense of our ability to recognize God’s methods of victory frees us from worrying about whether a given event is good or bad.
Bilbro joined me on Gospelbound to discuss the perverse incentives of our media ecosystem, holy apathy, and whether anything good can come from TV news.
Collin Hansen: Breaking news. You can insert your dramatic gong sound here. Find out if you’re on the right side of history. Learn about the latest celebrity you should cancel for the wrong view of oat milk after this commercial break. Well, not so fast, as Jeffrey Bilbro, editor-in-chief of Front Porch Republic, and the author of the new book, Reading the Times, a literary and theological inquiry into the news, published by IVP Academic.
Collin Hansen: Bilbro warns that objects on screen are more distant than they appear, and that the public’s sphere is simply not conducive to the formation of loving, sustaining communities. He writes this, “When the news sets itself up as the light of the world, it is usurping the role that rightly belongs only to the word proclaimed in the gospel. But when the news helps us attend together to the ongoing work of this word, it plays a vital role in enabling us to love our neighbors. So go ahead, take a walk. Carve some wood. Spend time in embodied communities. And don’t worry too much about that next election.”
Collin Hansen: He says, “Epistemic humility, particularly regarding the workings of Providence, requires us to acknowledge that even when our candidate loses, or when a court case is decided in a way that seems wrong, or when tragedy strikes, God is still working out his will and he cannot be defeated. The revers holds true as well. It may be just that when we think we are winning, we are going astray from God’s kingdom, a high view of Providence and a chasing sense of our ability to recognize God’s methods of victory frees us from worrying about whether a given event is good or bad.”
Collin Hansen: Well, Bilbro joins me on Gospel Bound to discuss the perverse incentives of our media ecosystem, holy apathy, and whether anything good can come from TV news. Spoiler alert, the answer is no. Jeff, thank you for being here on Gospel Bound.
Jeffrey Bilbro: Well, thank you, Collin. I’m happy to be talking with you today.
Collin Hansen: Looking back on this era, today’s era, do you think the personal computer and dial up internet in the 1990s or the iPhone in 2007 will mark the bigger turning points?
Jeffrey Bilbro: Yeah, that’s a good question. I guess the way I try to frame it is that they both mark turning points, but of a different sort. And I think sometimes we think about all technological change as kind of progress and things are always getting better. But I found the work of someone like Ivan Illich to be quite helpful here in thinking about how some modes of industrialization or technological improvement can actually bring about real goods.
Jeffrey Bilbro: But sometimes when those extend or amp up, their results can get worse. So he talks about things having kind of two watersheds when they industrialize. So he talks about this in terms of schools and hospitals and other spheres. But the first watershed is where the application of industrial technology really does solve some problems. It really does improve some things.
Jeffrey Bilbro: We can be grateful for many aspects of modern medicine, and I think we can be grateful for many aspects of modern computing as well. But at some point, when you just keep implying more and more technological power to these spheres, oftentimes they create their own problems. And he identifies that in terms of how medicine gets so expensive and we start to have diseases that are caused by the cures for other diseases.
Jeffrey Bilbro: And I think the same thing can happen in computer technology, where what at first improves communication later on just improves chaos and noise. And it can become really hard to attend to what’s important and to sort through while it’s out there. So yeah, maybe early computer technologies did solve some problems and help out some ways, but maybe the iPhone is at least one mark of a prevalence of that technology that unless we put pretty careful limits around it causes perhaps more harm than it provides goods.
Collin Hansen: I think the way I’m trying to process it is that when the internet was still something you had to go somewhere to be able to do, then it was a part of the rest of our lives. Now that it’s something that goes with us wherever we are and intrudes into our lives, it actually becomes the default experience of the world. And that seems to be what I see at least as the transition of what the iPhone raw 2007.
Jeffrey Bilbro: Yeah. I think that’s helpful. That’s right. And even if you don’t have a smartphone, even if you’re not on social media, I think if you live in America, you can no longer escape the ecosystem that it has transformed. So it’s not like you can just kind of opt out, like you say. Even if you don’t choose to go there, it chooses to find you.
Collin Hansen: Right. Now, another turning point, which I think is largely driven by the iPhone. I mean, we can talk about all kinds of derivative technologies. The fact that we’re doing a podcast right now is essentially because of the iPhone. People wouldn’t be listening to them without that. They just wouldn’t be sitting at desktop computers or within range of their speakers to be able to listen. It’s the ability to be able to take it and listen everywhere. But another one of those technologies introduced that transforms our experience of the news, our consumption of the news is social media. But I think you need to explain, a lot of people listening may not even be able to remember really a time apart from that. So explain what social media did to the way we engage with the internet.
Jeffrey Bilbro: Well, that’s such a big question, Collin. Many things.
Collin Hansen: Go check out the whole book if you want the full answer to this. I mean, I’m speaking as somebody whose media career, journalistic career has transcended the before and the after. And I think a lot of people just take for granted, oh, you mean it didn’t used to be the case that everybody just had Facebook and Twitter open all day and they just saw the internet through that? That was a big change.
Jeffrey Bilbro: I mean, I think one of the challenges is that journalists no longer really have, again, the option of whether they’ll be on social media or whether they’re reporting will be shaped by those constraints and incentives. Because if you want to get sufficient clicks to pay for the journalism that you’re doing, you have to at least pay attention to what’s going to spread on social media.
Jeffrey Bilbro: And then on the consumer side, as readers of the news, social media, whether it’d be Facebook, or Instagram, or Twitter, you can be looking at pictures of your nieces and nephews and you can be looking at horrible images of what’s happening around the world. And you can be looking at a silly meme. And all these different kinds of information have been stripped of their context and laid one alongside another just by virtue of the fact that they are all new. They’re all happening right now. But it makes it really hard to figure out and discern, which of these should I attend to?
Jeffrey Bilbro: Obviously, I should attend to them differently, but how? Which of these should affect me more? And it can be really difficult to navigate that when it’s all been flattened and put in the same sort of curated experience for us. So it’s not like there’s a front page that organizes things. You look at the newspaper, you read what you need to know, and put it down and move on. But now it’s just part of this larger stream.
Collin Hansen: Well, what if I told you, Jeff, that journalists at our elite institutions get evaluated and paid by how many people read their articles on the internet? If I told you that, what would you then tell me about out how that shapes their vocation and how then as a result, that shapes our perspective on what’s happening in the world?
Jeffrey Bilbro: Yeah. And this is why I tried really hard not to brow beat journalists. Because I think by and large, many journalists want to do good work and many of them do good work even in difficult circumstances. But the whole profession right now is kind of caught in these perverse incentives, where if you publish things that push all the right buttons and get people angry, then they’ll share it with their friends and more people will read it and you’ll get more views.
Jeffrey Bilbro: And so your ads will bring in more money. And that’s how the business works right now. So there were some bad incentives with previous iterations of the journalistic economy, but I think this current one we have now that’s certainly still in flux. I mean, it seems like every few years there’s the introduction of Substack or podcasting or something else that’s going to change it.
Collin Hansen: An ad? I mean, just to jump on that point, just think about this. I would say 10 years ago, that would be… Okay. Well, we can clearly see the model here. The model is you need to be able to produce something that will go viral because when something then goes viral on Facebook, then all of a sudden people will click on that. That will make our ads more valuable. That world doesn’t exist anymore.
Collin Hansen: Because advertising is more or less a monopoly now of Facebook and of Google. So advertisements outside of those sites digitally basically don’t have value. And then on top of that, Facebook also, for a variety of reasons, will not make you go viral anymore, for the most part. So that’s not even there anymore. So when you talk about being in flux, absolutely. Everything is still in flux.
Collin Hansen: Now, the new thing that’s kicked in since ’16 is that places like the New York Times are increasingly online subscriber-driven, but that also means then that they built that subscriber base basically based off tribalism, off I’m the kind of person, and you talk about this in your book, I’m the kind of person who consumes the New York Times. I’m that cultured person. Well, that creates incentives, doesn’t it? As well to what journalists will cover.
Jeffrey Bilbro: And maybe they’re not quite the same as the incentives to go viral, but they’re also not great. Also, places like New York Times or the Washington Post can build those subscriber bases by going national. So they have to appeal to this national or international market. And so local news really suffers. And many of the things now that we pay for to read don’t relate to our regional communities.
Jeffrey Bilbro: And so there’s this increasingly prevalent problem of what some people call news deserts. So yeah, it’s challenging. And I hope that some smart journalists will keep experimenting with things and maybe some new models will come up that are more healthy. But we have to be clear-eyed about the incentives toward tribalism or kind of confirming our worst impulses toward reading news that only confirms what we preexisting believe, doesn’t cause us to wrestle with nuance, all those things that seem to be in place.
Collin Hansen: Well, you hear all the time people respond to what you’re saying right here. And then they say, “Well, that’s why we just need to escape our echo chamber. What if we just diversify the voices we hear on social media?” You don’t recommend that because you actually see that having its own problems. Go ahead and explain that. What problems do you see with that?
Jeffrey Bilbro: Yeah. I wrote this the last couple of years. And then just this year, about the same time my book came out, Chris Bale has a book I think called Breaking the Social Media Prism: How to Make Our Platforms Less Polarizing. And he begins by giving this long, fascinating study that exposing people to voices outside their echo chambers actually increases polarization. So I was like, oh, I was right. But I wish I’d had his book to confirm.
Collin Hansen: No, that was confirming for me as a reader. Because I’d seen so many other people say this just recently. And then I saw it pop up in your book and I thought, wow, yeah, he could see this coming. It’s counterintuitive. But then you think about it and you realize, oh, that is what happens.
Jeffrey Bilbro: And part of it is, because of the issues we just talked about, the kind of news and the kind of things that spread on social media and national media are sort of predisposed toward the extreme. We hear the crazy stories about those dumb liberals or those really dumb conservatives. Those are the things that get shared. And so actually what people call high information voters or people tend to caricature various political or social groups worse than low information readers.
Jeffrey Bilbro: It’s like the more you know, because of the nature of our media ecosystem, the more crazy you think people are. So it’s really perverse and kind of backward from what you would expect. But when you recognize how our whole information ecosystem has been kind of degraded by some of these technologies and incentives, then you realize just tuning into some other extreme voice on the other side of the political spectrum from you is unlikely to actually help you think through issues more carefully.
Collin Hansen: I think you could say that somebody who is a high information voter, high information reader in 1960, 1970, 1980, 1990, 2000 is extremely different from what that means now.
Jeffrey Bilbro: Yes. Absolutely.
There was a complete flip there.
Jeffrey Bilbro: And I think, again, there were some problems with the kind of centralized media ecosystem of that day and opening the gates, letting more people participate in the media certainly helped solve some those problems, but then it also created its own set of new problems.
Collin Hansen: Right. I love your perspective here. You say this, “If your response to the news fits perfectly with any partisan narrative, whether a nostalgic longing to restore some idyllic time or a woke fury at those on the wrong side of history, it’s unlikely to be keyed to God’s escanological victory.” Explain, Jeff, how does our view of progress contribute to the problems you’ve identified?
Jeffrey Bilbro: Yeah. One of the ways to define the news, as its name suggests, is what’s new, what’s happening right now. And I think that kind of interest in what is current is a relatively recent phenomenon that I try to show is caught up in this Hegelian view of history as a progressive development of the human civilization, human condition. And that can be narrated in all kinds of different ways.
Jeffrey Bilbro: You can be a Marxist and narrate it towards the communist vision of a good society. Maybe more likely today, you would be some sort of a democratic liberal, not in the political party sense, but in the sense that like all nations and all human civilizations are becoming more egalitarian and democratic and liberalism is spreading. So there’s different way… Or a kind of a technological version that just shows how technology will continue to get better and better. And that’s the way that we mark the progress of history.
Jeffrey Bilbro: But all these I think are not really Christian and lead us to kind of overemphasize what’s happening right now because we want to see, how is my vision of history coming to fruition? And Christians should be, the way I read the Bible, waiting for Christ’s second coming to bring about redemption and pretty skeptical that anyone before Christ who offers that view of redemption is false, is not offering the true gospel.
Jeffrey Bilbro: So we can cheer when we see the kingdom in breaking, in a broken world, and be grateful for that. But we shouldn’t put our hope in these instances or try to see human progress as a kind of ushering in Christ’s redemption. So I try to draw on say Augustine’s two cities there, where he is responding to people in his time who had conflated Roman empire with the spread of Christianity.
Jeffrey Bilbro: And when the empire takes these body blows, they think, whoa, it was God losing the battle. And Augustin says, “No, we can never conflate the city of man with the city of God.” These cities are always overlapping. We’re always part of these two realms, and it can be hard to distinguish them sometimes. But we’ve got to try because otherwise we’re going to become idolaters and misplace the kingdom of God with some version of the human good.
Collin Hansen: I’m just going to transition straight into this one. Have you ever seen someone who consumes a lot of news today, on whatever platform, become a better neighbor as a result of that? It’s going to sound like a facetious question, but it’s not. It’s just a straight up question.
Jeffrey Bilbro: Yeah. I mean, I want to say that that’s at least possible, right? That we can become more empathetic or… I will say this: during the pandemic, say, sometimes people who try to understand as best as they could sort through the craziness and all this, there’s a lot of voices, what’s actually going on and what are the real concerns could maybe speak up with greater wisdom in a school board meeting or in a church trying to sort out how to mask or not mask.
Jeffrey Bilbro: So I do know, say, some church elders or some people with local responsibilities who really do a good job or try to of sort of sorting through these broader voices from a more national global perspective, and then bring that information to bear on these local decisions. But of course, they are fighting an uphill battle, right? Because these decisions… To take the pandemic because it’s such an obvious example, these decisions about whether pastors or musicians or congregants should be masked or not masked, or we should gather indoors or outdoors.
Jeffrey Bilbro: We can’t just have sort of real discussions about these and make the right decision for our community because they get so caught up in the national politics. So in general, it’s been really counterproductive for helping us to love our neighbor well. It’s a tragedy because you would think that making more information available to everybody would help us all make more informed decisions. But given, again, what we’ve talked about in terms of the media ecosystem, that’s usually not what happens.
Collin Hansen: I want to try an emerging thesis on you and you can pick it apart. All right? Okay. So especially now, it’s always been hard for somebody to just have to sift through all of the information on a given topic, given all the different topics we have to confront day to day, and decide for themselves which ones they’re supposed to trust and how to make a decision. That’s always been hard.
Collin Hansen: How much more difficult is that now, of course, when the outlets have proliferated beyond anybody’s comprehension. Okay. So as a result, we’re in a situation where not only is it harder for any individual to try to discern between source to source, from topic to topic, what’s authoritative, what’s true, what’s right. But now we also have the same problems that we’ve always had, which are that most people don’t think that way. Most people find a perspective on the world that they launch onto, latch onto, and then they just stick with that.
Collin Hansen: And that becomes their interpretive grid for everything. And that’s often been politics. All of your conclusions are predetermined according to which team you’re on. Most people do that because they simply don’t have the time. They don’t have the ability. They don’t have the understanding. It’s just beyond their grasp, for very understandable reasons.
Collin Hansen: Here’s how I see people sorting out generally right now. And I think this is, almost in some ways, replacing our political parties as they sort of map onto these media consumption realities. You have two options. You can choose conspiracy or you can choose credentials. Trust the credentials, trust the science, trust the experts, or trust the Facebook group. Trust the email from your friends. Never trust the authorities in there. Do you think there’s any merit potentially to that thesis?
Jeffrey Bilbro: Yeah. I mean, I certainly agree with your description of the landscape and absolutely the human problem of not knowing what to trust and having to trust other people to guide us through information overload is only more acute now. The only thing I would sort of add maybe to that is that even people in the state of conspiracy side often… And actually, it goes both ways. But often it’s like the sort of celebrity who gives voice to that conspiracy, right? So you have your own alternative…
Collin Hansen: External authority.
Jeffrey Bilbro: Yeah. And similarly, even on the credential side, it can become kind of… What’s the right word. It’s like this sort of mystical voodoo, like, oh, because you have this letter after your name, you can do no wrong. Because you say you understand the biology of viruses, you’re obviously an expert on how to persuade people or how to organize political or economics.
Collin Hansen: Yeah. Public health, or just public health decisions or school decisions.
Jeffrey Bilbro: Yeah. So like the credential thing is a weird conspiracy, too, because people who might be experts in one thing obviously don’t always have expertise in other fields.
Collin Hansen: And I don’t mean to suggest that those are coherent or logical. I’m really talking about the mood and the immediate reaction. So essentially, there’s the reaction of credentialed authority, boom, or just the reaction of I don’t trust credentialed authority. I will say that one of the things I’ve come to understand about myself in recent years is that many people who taught and raised me to be a political conservative were never political conservatives in any kind of historic or coherent ideological sense. They were people who had rural instincts and hated the media.
Jeffrey Bilbro: Yeah. And I think, Collin, someday I want to think through this more deeply. So maybe this is kind of half baked, but hey…
Collin Hansen: That’s what podcasts are for.
Jeffrey Bilbro: Yeah. I’ve just been struck. And it’s not just me. Obviously, after Trump, a lot of people turned to Christopher Lash. But I think Christopher Lash’s book revolted the elites, which is like kind of 1992 ish, I think, where he talks about how the credentialed class has kind of abandoned the populace. And it’s continuation or kind of follow up to his bigger book, True and Only Heaven, about the longer populist tradition in America.
Jeffrey Bilbro: Populists aren’t always conspiracy theorists. They’re oftentimes people who see the problems with credentialism and recognize how elites have abandoned their responsibilities. To me, those problems that Lash identifies in the ’80s and ’90s have only been exacerbated. And so what you’re seeing now is kind of the consequences of an elite class that really has revolted, that has given up on the populous. And then a populous who for lots of good reasons and then lots of bad reasons, both, no longer trusts the elite.
Jeffrey Bilbro: So many of these problems come back to trust. Who do we trust? How do we know who we should trust? And that’s why I try to talk about ways of restoring trust, even in limited ways, in terms of finding people that you can belong to, that you can feel we belong to one another. We might disagree, but we’re responsible to and for one another and I trust you. And even if I disagree with you on certain things, I trust you. And those opportunities and occasions just have become so much more rare, I think, in our social media-shaped world.
Collin Hansen: Well, a couple years ago, just to take this in some personal directions, a couple years ago, I published something about vaccines. I think it was during the measles outbreaks. And I just was not aware of the violent response that we were going to get to that. And so I was talking with one of my colleagues about it and we just sort of shook our heads, like, where are people getting this information?
Collin Hansen: Why are they so confused about this? And then I stopped and I started to list all the things that I don’t trust about the government and all the things that are completely proven that the government had totally lied about and that media had been complicit in perpetuating those lies. And I stopped and I thought, this is an epistemological crisis. I don’t know who I’m supposed to trust and how.
Collin Hansen: So my instinct says, okay, I don’t really have any option here but to trust the doctor on this issue. But then I don’t trust the authorities on 20 other issues. So that’s why I’m trying to say that there’s not some sort of easy answer. I wish there were this self-righteous approach where we could just say, why is everybody being so dumb? And here’s Jeff Bilbro’s book, Reading the Times, to be able to help give the answer.
Collin Hansen: No, there’s a bigger shift that’s happening underneath that makes things very difficult. And I’ll take this to my community growing up. The best of my rural community growing up was because we attended two relationships over the course of generations in just the way you described right there. The localism was the strength. The sense that you knew everybody would take care of you and that, that was just a given because you were part of that community.
Collin Hansen: And if you needed any further incentive, your parents went to school together, your grandparents went to school together, fought in the war together, things like that. For a young person growing up, there was a tremendous amount of comfort that came from that. But it has changed in 20 years. Because those people are not primarily attending now to each other and those relationships, they still do in a lot of ways, but see, now you have social media. And I didn’t know what everybody’s politics were when I was growing up, but now I do. And holy cow, they are really extreme. I don’t know if that resonates at all with what you’ve seen.
Jeffrey Bilbro: I think both of those are accurate. And I think [inaudible] he has a new book about his own struggles with, I think, Lymes disease.
It is. It’s Lyme disease. Yes.
Jeffrey Bilbro: And how when he was trying to get that diagnosed and treatment, he experienced again and again the medical establishment writing off his experiences and symptoms and not giving him straight answers. He said at one point, I think in one of his columns, that if you’ve gone through that kind of an experience, well, then it makes sense to not trust the vaccine.
Jeffrey Bilbro: These guys, their science has not helped me or acknowledged my reality. Why should I trust their signs? So I think people who don’t see the ways that the medical or the political or the journalistic establishment have failed then don’t give enough credence to the legitimate distrust that a lot of people have.
Collin Hansen: Jeff, I think you just taught me something there because the areas that I know professionally, that I’ve worked in, are media and politics. And I often get really confused with beloved family members of mine who don’t seem to understand my cynical views on those two things that are hard earned from experience in those realms. Now, here’s an interesting thing though. Early on in my marriage, I would often say, “We got to go to the doctor for this. We got to go to the doctor. We got to talk to the doctor about this. We got to find out what the doctor’s going to say.”
Collin Hansen: My wife would say, “No, we don’t. We can figure that out on our own. That’s not a big deal.” And I just kept thinking, “What is her problem with doctors? These are the people who tell us what’s wrong. These are the people who help us.” Her dad’s a surgeon. She knows what doctors know and what they don’t know. And so she actually had much less trust in doctors because of the doctors in her family, not because they were bad, they’re very successful, but because she has a more realistic perspective about their abilities and their blind spots.
Collin Hansen: And you’re helping me to connect the dots here in ways that I hadn’t quite done before of, yeah, I just don’t have experience in that realm. So I’m apt to over trust. And I’ve had to learn that over time of doctors, in some ways, clearly they know what they’re talking about in so many ways, but they also depend a lot on our self diagnosis to be able to make decisions. And then you get a situation like this in Lyme disease where they just will not listen to you at all.
Collin Hansen: Yeah, that’s why I don’t think there’s some sort of neat narrative coming out of your book, except that we should give attention to those relationships that God has called us explicitly to tend to, the physical neighbors, starting with our families, and those other physical neighbors, our church. And that’s one reason why I love this book so much. Now, I want to ask a skeptical question because I think it’s going ti be something that people will ask naturally coming out of your book. And I would say, do you think I shouldn’t care or even watch the tragedy that unfolded at the Kabul airport in Afghanistan?
Jeffrey Bilbro: Yeah. I mean, how could you not be aware? How could you not watch? I guess what I would say is I think it depends. I do think one of the strengths of American Christianity and evangelicalism, in part because of its missionary focus has been a real concern for international relations and how the body of Christ extends beyond national borders. And I think missions is good. I think caring for people, both Christians and non-Christians, in other places is good.
Jeffrey Bilbro: I think that the danger is that we don’t always recognize our own limitations. So I have this whole section where I talk early on about what Charles Dickens terms telescopic morality. That sometimes we can attend more with greater energy, emotional or spiritual energy, to issues that are far away about which we can do little. And then we’re limited people. We have less energy and prayer and attention to those close at hand.
Jeffrey Bilbro: Of course, Dickens’ great example is this woman in a brick house who cares all about these African orphans and doesn’t really do much to actually help them. But she’s very active nevertheless in organizations and her own kids are basically orphans because she ignores them. So that’s clearly an extreme. But I do think it can be so easy to be emotionally disturbed about these things.
Jeffrey Bilbro: But then what do we do about at it? Do we just get all worked up and post about these things on Facebook and then forget? Did that really help anybody? What I try to recommend in this is to be attentive to what our vocations might be. And I get part of this from Thomas Merton. What is God calling me to attend and be invested in? And I hope for some American Christians, it’s Afghanistan, or it’s Haiti, or it’s these other places.
Jeffrey Bilbro: But I also hope that for them it becomes a long-term process of learning and dialogue and conversation and meaningful involvement both in prayer and in physical things so that it’s not just, did you see the latest, crazy thing that happened? What a tragedy. Let’s blame it on the people that I hate. So I think we have to be really careful about how we attend to these things and just recognize our limits and try to be prayerful and listen to others around us about, what might God be calling me to attend to? And then not feel bad about not being informed about everything. We shouldn’t feel like we have a responsibility to know everything about everything.
Collin Hansen: Holy apathy, right?
Jeffrey Bilbro: Yeah, exactly.
Collin Hansen: Holy apathy. I didn’t think I would end up here, as somebody who is a professional journalist. But my professional journalism has always coincided with a kind of classic conservatism, which I think is part of why I resonate with your writing there. You said recognize our limits. That is classic conservatism. That is not contemporary conservatism. There is no limits party right now in the United States.
Collin Hansen: There are no limits parties. Just speaking personally for myself, it’s why I feel politically homeless there. But recognizing your limits does not mean you don’t care about the world. It simply allows you to be more attentive to the things that you can make a difference with. And you gave the example of the woman whose own children were orphans. I would say in response to the classic conservative view would be the revolutionary mindset that I think we take for granted so much today in both parties in some ways.
Collin Hansen: But I would say that was also captured very well by Fyodor Dostoevsky, of course, an anti-revolutionary writer. And one of the things he says so eloquently that goes along well with that, he puts in words in one of his characters, “Humanity I love, it’s just humans I hate.” It’s the same concept there. It is easy to get wrapped up in a love for humanity, which actually becomes a license for evil.
Collin Hansen: Because you’re exactly right. When you see the Afghanistan thing, you jump straight from there to and now it’s time for me to grandstand in blaming whatever people I’ve already determined are at fault. I don’t have a lot of sympathy for that. Now, the people who have done good work in Afghanistan, who have friends there and who have family there and are trying to help those people get out, given what’s coming, I got a lot of respect for those people.
Collin Hansen: But that’s a different thing because the reality is the rest of us, we don’t really control much when it comes to this. That’s our limit there. I’m not trying to put words in your mouth, but I’m trying to process and apply.
Jeffrey Bilbro: Yes. That’s right. And I think what you said also is important to remember, that sort of classical conservative ideas of human limits and our own fallibility is really not represented by either a major political party in America right now.
Collin Hansen: Our own fallibility… Yeah, I just couldn’t agree more. That’s why I love that perspective on providence that you stayed in this book of, if you know anything about history, and that should be what classic conservatism does, is we learn the lessons of history, it should be that… I mean, I’m a big World War II buff, but you can apply this to every single event.
Collin Hansen: The moment when people seem to be at their pinnacle, when Hitler is on the doorstep of Stalingrad and they’re just about to win the decisive final battle of world war II is exactly the moment when everything’s going to collapse on him. That’s the lesson everywhere in history. So if you’re trying to read the news to decide, am I on the right side of history? Good luck. Because the one thing we know is history will probably judge you harshly.
Jeffrey Bilbro: I mean, that’s the great irony, I’m sure, about our current political and cultural moment with this obsession about adjudicating the virtues or vices of past few people. That in a hundred years, we do not know what that generation will judge to be our greatest faults. But we will be judged because we all have our own sins, right? So we should be a little bit more, I guess, merciful.
Collin Hansen: Chasing some sort of humility in there. Well, let’s end on this final three. I like to ask these final three questions. I’m looking for quick responses here from Jeffrey Bilbro, author of Reading the Times: A Literary and Theological Inquiry Into the News. First one, how do you find calm in the storm?
Jeffrey Bilbro: I think I talk in there about learning a craft that has been very helpful to me as a academic intellectual who spends a lot of time thinking to shut things off and make something, whether that be a meal or something I like that goes with my daughter, or mowing the lawn, or taking a bike ride. That’s very helpful to me.
Collin Hansen: Yeah. I like that. I didn’t understand why so many theologians were also amateur woodworkers until I started doing this kind of knowledge work and then you understand the beauty of just sitting down with your six-year-old son and putting together a Lego castle. It’s very cool. Well, Jeff, where do you find good news today?
Jeffrey Bilbro: I mentioned this in the book. And I just read this in World Magazine. I am so impressed with World Magazine’s compassion Hope Awards, I think they call them, where they profile these nonprofits around the country who are doing the kind of… There’s nothing headline-worthy about this stuff. It’s not like some scandal happened or they just transformed 10,000 homeless people who whatever.
Jeffrey Bilbro: These are people who are in the trenches, having worked at these nonprofits for decades, but often don’t get much notice. And World sends a reporter out to talk to them, talk to people they work with and try to understand what makes them so vibrant. And those stories always both encourage and convict me. How can I more radically live out the good news of Christ in my neighborhood? And those stories often, yeah, they help me with that. You gave me a chance to caveat, that if I’ve said thing in this podcast that could be construed as criticism of Mindy Bells or Marvin Laski, I take it back. Two of my heroes. I take it back. There are good ways, redemptive ways to be a Christian journalist in ways that do raise awareness for good. And I think that’s what you’re talking about there. That is something that news you can use. That is both inspiring, it’s challenging, and it also gives you ideas of what you can then do, how you can love your neighbors. That kind of journalism I will always support. Last question, Jeff, what’s the last great book you’ve read?
Jeffrey Bilbro: I guess I’m confirmed middle aged. So I now have to reread books that I read as a college student because I’ve forgotten them.
Collin Hansen: That’s why you teach them.
Jeffrey Bilbro: That’s exactly right. It’s exactly right. But sometimes my class rotations, I don’t get to reread all books. So I recently reread Boetheius’ Consolations. Man, that was a book I needed to read. It had been a decade since I’d read it and I’m a different person now. So I think returning to kind of that classic of the early Christian period was quite helpful for me.
Collin Hansen: Great. My guest on Gospel Bound this week has been Jeffrey Bilbro, author of Reading the Times; A Literary and Theological Inquiry Into the News, published by IVP Academic. Let’s go ahead and say, as I said on social media, that it’s been my favorite book that I’ve read this year so far. I’m always hopeful. Maybe there’ll be a better one out there. But this has been one of my top recommendations for the year. So Jeff, thanks for writing it. And thanks for joining me on Gospel Bound.
Jeffrey Bilbro: It was a delight. Thanks so much, Collin.