Churning the Culture: Why Religion News is Always Bad

If the average person were asked to name the top religion stories of the
past year, chances are they'd remember a scandal involving a minister,
a battle over church-state relations, or maybe an assault on religious
people or their churches.

In his new book, HOW THE NEWS MAKES US DUMB, John Sommerville says there's
a reason why the media's coverage of religion is always so negative:
it's because religion and daily news simply don't mix.

We all remember the headlines about how outraged Hindu and Jewish leaders
became over the reports that Baptists were planning to pray for their
conversion.  The networks were all over that story.

Sex scandals involving clergy always make page one, so they're hard to
forget. And remember all those Y2K stories? Many focused on how those
crazy religious folks were stocking up on Spam, and bracing for the end.

Sommerville says there's a good reason why church controversies get
publicity, while good works go unnoticed. It's because religion and the
news are polar opposites in their approach to life.

"Religion celebrates what we believe to be settled and even eternal,"
Sommerville says. But the news is about change and excitement. So
reporters yawn when Christians go to church or volunteer at soup kitchens.

Before news became an industry, Sommerville writes, society was held
together, not by news, but by their cultures. People shared "fairly
settled assumptions about what was reasonable, natural, expected or
good." Scholars call this a culture's meta-narrative -- a narrative that
"binds our thinking."

In Western culture, the Bible provided this meta- narrative. Even
non-believers were familiar with its stories and ways of structuring
moral and social reality.

But the daily news industry changed all that. Those in the news
business tend to be far less religious than most Americans; and they're
distrustful of a culture built on the Judeo-Christian narrative. These
elites think it's their job to make us aware of the cultural restraints
on our thinking, Sommerville says. That's why they sponsor "a continuous
referendum on our cultural inheritance."

The result is that many people accept the idea that we should be
constantly re-evaluating what we believe and understand about the world --
including our religious beliefs.

It's proper for news outlets to raise questions about dominant ideas
-- to reform or reshape traditional culture. But news stories cannot
replace a culture's META-NARRATIVE, because, by its very nature,
the news gives priority to the shocking and the new. It is a cycle of
endless deconstruction.

The good news is that Americans are recognizing that the "news" is
becoming little more than vulgar entertainment, largely irrelevant to
our lives -- which is why it has so little impact.

In the end, Sommerville says, we must use news for the limited purposes
for which it is suited -- and realize our need for the more settled
culture the news constantly questions. We should balance our appetite for
daily news with a cultural diet rich in books, reflection, and discussion.

The news may make us dumb -- but reading and discussing great books,
especially the Bible, leads to the kind of wisdom that brings real

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