I grew up in a house where we talked about political races and foreign policy nightly. We watched the party conventions every four years like most people watch the Olympics.
During the 2016 Republican primaries, I got sucked in. Part of it involved fascination and part of it fear. Regardless, I found myself consumed with cable news, Twitter, and articles on the internet. (In the interest of full disclosure, I am a “flip between CNN and Fox News to find the middle ground” type who scans the headlines of Real Clear Politics.) There came a point where I knew something was off. I was up at night fretting about the political situation. I started to experience resentment toward a couple of GOP political figures. I had this cocktail of anger, anxiety, and frustration that was making me increasingly short-tempered and aloof (that “in my head” version) around my family.
Finally I came to a point where I had to ask, “Why am I doing this to myself? Why am I making myself miserable? This is stupid.” So, I turned off the news.
With the exception of days when major events occur or the nights of big elections, I generally never watch cable news. I blocked Twitter on my computer. I rarely consume social media. I still do a five-minute scan of the headlines on Real Clear Politics just to be basically informed and I regularly check the polls when elections are coming. Otherwise, cable news and I broke up, and I have come out on top.
Now at this point in the article you could say, “Hmm, that’s a nice piece of advice. Maybe I’ll consider doing that.” However, I want you to consider your relationship with the news at a more theological level. I also want you to consider news in relation to your family. And I want you to take this seriously, because I have seen many people —conservative and liberal alike — transformed, and not in a good way. Not in a way that has helped them create peace in their homes or enabled them to spiritually lead their kids or neighbors toward Christ.
In Romans 12:2, Paul writes to believers, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.” This transformation comes after this appeal in 12:1: “…in view of God’s mercy….offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God.” Paul is calling for believers to not become like the world but instead to be transformed into people like Christ.
Two features of the grammar of “be conformed” and “be transformed” inform this conversation about media consumption. First, both of these verbs are present imperatives and thereby continuous verbs, meaning that they refer to an ongoing process. Whether we are being transformed toward godliness or conformed to the world involves a fluid, ongoing process.
Secondly, both verbs contain the passive / middle voice, meaning that we do not transform ourselves. Outside sources and forces shape our hearts and minds. God’s word, the Holy Spirit, and the gospel change us.
If you find yourself tied in knots of anxiety as a result of your media consumption, if you find yourself resenting people with MAGA hats or Biden / Harris bumper stickers, if you feel like the world is falling apart, if you find yourself carrying anger from media engagement into your family and relationships, if you find yourself speaking in hateful ways about politicians (who are human beings made in the image of God), then this is a spiritual problem. If the news is influencing you in this way, just…..turn….it…..off.
What I am getting at is that the news and media are capable of transforming us, and, in this case, not in a good way. As parents, secular and Christian alike, we know this. The transformative power of media compels us to monitor what our kids watch and to filter damaging content. We know that what our kids consume can shape their character and behavior.
We have all observed people whom news and media has shaped for the worse. There are people who have become chronically fretful and continually live in fear of “the world today.” There are Christian people who speak hatefully and disparagingly of those outside their tribe, because that’s the tone to which they’re constantly exposed. Sadly, there are many Christian people who have discredited their witness to the gospel through the divisive, unconstructive, and ill-advised media content they post on social media.
This negative transformation makes sense. Most news and media do not operate “in view of God’s mercy” (12:1). Thus, there is not a redemptive historical narrative under which they tell their stories, assuring us that God has defeated sin, death, and the devil. Understandably the tone contains panic and fear. Furthermore, communicating with a “view of God’s mercy” means viewing each person with the dignity and tenderness of Jesus, who saved us when we were enemies of God. The tone in news and media hardly ever takes on this charity.
If we are not wakeful and wise, we can become like a five-year-old unknowingly watching horror movies and pornography. Just like the five-year-old, we have no idea just how damaging the content is that we consume. As my rough and tough baseball coach, Ronnie Baynes, used to say, “[bad stuff] in, [bad stuff] out.” (Or something like that.)
Your need to lead your children with peace and love is much greater than your need to know the latest news. Your need to set an example of loving your perceived enemy is far greater than your need to vent. Your need to demonstrate living under God’s mercy is far more vital than the risk of missing out on the latest scoop.
How Do We Responsibly Turn Off the News?
Many would rightfully say that entirely cutting off the news and withdrawing from the world’s problems constitutes irresponsible Christianity. In truth, believers need to lean into, pray for, and serve society as a whole. To close, here are some questions to ask in discerning when to turn it off and how much to consume.
(1) Does news and media consumption affect your mood in a way that yields bad fruit?
The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, goodness, kindness, patience, self-control, gentleness, and faithfulness. Sometimes watching the news can make us feel sorrowful compassion and burden for the world. These things all represent good fruit. If the fruit is resentment, fear, strife, and anxiety, limit your consumption and turn it off.
(2) What is your calling in life, and how much news do you need to watch to be faithful in that calling?
My friends who work as civil servants or lobbyists, or in the world of politics, need to watch the news quite a bit. Every person in a democracy is called to make wise voting decisions and to contact their government leaders when they have concerns. Being faithful in this way does not require hours and hours of exposure to news content. Let your consumption align with faithfulness in your calling.
(3) Do you feel like your news sources are trying to influence you?
I used to really enjoy several programs on one cable news network, but over the past four years, I started to feel as if they were omitting facts and distorting the message in order to influence me. They started to feel more like propaganda to advance their side than a news service trying to inform me. I just stopped watching them. Using fallacy to influence people for ulterior purposes is inherently evil. A big part of this question of discernment regards procuring helpful content versus content littered with fallacy. Just a hint: social media platforms, like Facebook and Twitter, tend to be the places where the least factual and most dishonest media content reside.
(4) How does your news and media consumption compare to your engagement with scripture, prayer, and worshipful content?
In my early twenties, I noticed that I was reading about Alabama football 45-minutes per day and was reading my Bible about 5-10 minutes. I identified an obvious need to reallocate that time. The same is true with news and media consumption. Reading scripture, praying, listening to sermon podcasts, and singing along with worship music do far more to give you peace and to sanctify you. If you consume too much news and media, a good step may be to reallocate that time toward spiritual practices that encourage and uplift.