Reading the Times: A Book Review
Updated: Mar 22, 2022
Read not the Times. Read the Eternities.
-Henry David Thoreau
Each year with the new calendar, I anticipate the arrival of one of my favorite lists. Christianity Today’s Book Awards. Fourteen categories, each announcing a winner, an Award of Merit, and two finalists. A book for every week of the year, with a couple left over. Not that I’ll be interested in every single title, but certainly enough to fuel a bookworm’s fires for a nice long season.
And enough to break the household bank. rats.
Since the local library tends to be slow on the uptake, I hold out hope for deals on Kindle. And this year, the best value did not disappoint. Jeffrey Bilbro’s Reading the Times: A Literary and Theological Inquiry into the News won Award of Merit for Culture & the Arts; and it was hands down the best book I’ve read in a very long time.
In addition to its price-tag, I chose Bilbro’s book thinking it might bolster an area of personal weakness—that being my overall ignorance when it comes to The News. Also, CT’s review told me: This book is like the best class you ever took in college. And who wouldn’t be hooked by a promise like that?
The promise delivered. But the book itself was a total surprise.
I suppose I expected a bit of a scolding. Something akin to a reprimand. Get your head out of the sand. Pick up a newspaper. Stay awake for the 10pm news. Or something like that. But what I got instead was
The book starts with Part One: Attention.
Quoting Henry David Thoreau, a poet and naturalist who lived in the 19th century, Bilbro proposes that an obsession with news can reveal an inattention to the ongoing work of the Creator. And ATTENTION is everything, because what we attend to, reveals and shapes what we love. The goal of attention is right love and right action.
Thoreau equates a mind with a temple (temple = fane); and a mind is profaned (outside the temple) when it dwells on trivial things.
Such “trivial things” might actually be those things which seem the most fantastic. Says Bilbro, “Watching the world blow up is more exciting than studying its treasures,” and “tragedies that play out on our screens can seem more pressing than the ones that happen closer to our homes.”
Bilbro, again quoting a wise old sage, borrows a solution from Pascal, who suggests “a practice of holy apathy, a sancta indifferentia, toward temporal frenzy.” This is the indifference of the martyrs, who fix their attention on God, rather than the events of the world.
This is not to say Bilbro, or any of his sources, turned a blind eye to world events. Each was quite socially engaged. But their engagement stayed closer to home. Per 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.
Two centuries ago, Thoreau equated fragmented attention with our fascination with news, and cited three (still quite relevant) repercussions: a vague sense of boredom; vulnerability to the wiles of advertisers and politicians; and the warping of emotional sensibilities.
The almost shocking relevance of Thoreau’s two-hundred-year-old assessment is a perfect example of Bilbro’s Part Two: Time.
Indeed, one of the reasons our culture has an unhealthy obsession with the news is because its sense of time is off kilter.
Here Bilbro contrasts chronos with kairos. Chronos measures time according to the events of history, while kairos is more like “seizing the moment.” As Christ followers, we can “understand kairos and chronos as stitched together through the events of the incarnation.” Or, in the words of Thoreau:
Read not the Times. Read the Eternities.
The prophets are great examples of this, fitting the news of their day within “the grand movements of God’s kairos drama.”
If your response to the news fits perfectly with any partisan narrative…it’s unlikely to be keyed to God’s eschatological victory. Christians have the difficult task of learning to read the times according to the grammar and logic of eternity.
Which leads, finally to Bilbro’s solution. Part 3: Community.
Instead of looking to the news to create better communities, we should be looking to strengthen communities so that they can create better news.
There is a serious danger in becoming more comfortable with the “swarm” following our preferred newsfeed, than we are with fellow churchgoers (or neighbors) who vote for the wrong political party. But what we really need is “to be shaped by embodied communities that are rooted outside the public sphere”—resulting in redemptive participation within this said sphere.
We need to love God and our neighbors.
In conclusion. Bilbro suggests “practices and liturgies that reshape our intuitions and belonging.” And it is here, in these liturgical practices, where I find my own spirit’s YES.
Attend. A garden. A poem. A craft.
Time. Not the Times. But a walk with a neighbor.
Walking as loving liturgy, a way of stitching one’s life into the fabric of place.
Community. Belonging. To Church and to neighbors.
Where we strive TOGETHER to apprehend
the point of intersection of the timeless with time.*
*Italics throughout denote direct quotes from the author.