Prayers of the People

“Take your Bible and take your newspaper, and read both. But interpret newspapers from your Bible.”
~Karl Barth

In the first of the appointed Psalms from last Wednesday’s Daily Office, the psalmist says, “Thy word is a lamp unto my feet and a light unto my path.” (119:105) The image of a darkened path needing illumination struck me as particularly apposite last Wednesday. Alongside of my Bible I had a late edition of The New York Times which had been printed sometime in the night before Donald Trump’s staggering upset victory had been declared but after it had become clearly imminent. The paper included at least two articles reflecting on the way the media had been caught off-guard by Trump’s win: “News Media Again Misreads Complex Pulse of the Nation,” and “An Election Ill Timed for Media in Transition.” Dozens more articles, essays, blog posts, news segments, and podcasts varying on this theme have since filled the mainstream media outlets in the days since the election. Rarely, if ever, has the public seen the journalists, pundits, and “experts” second guess themselves so much and so publicly. But what else could they do when some of the biggest news of the day is that the newsmen and newswomen had gotten things so glaringly wrong? In any case, our need for better light is readily apparent.

Timeless truths and settled verities do not usually make headlines, but they are necessary to make sense of them. That is why I decided last week to take up a new spiritual practice, inspired by Karl Barth, of reading the Bible alongside of the newspaper, and interpreting the latter in the light of the former. And so each Thursday morning for the rest of this school year* I will meet with any student who wishes to join me for a morning prayer service at New York University in which we will read first the Daily Office Lectionary texts and then The New York Times, reflecting on the day’s news in the light of the Good News (euangelion), recent history in the light of salvation history (heilsgeschichte). I hope that God will guide us as we pray for the university, the city, the country, and the world, guided by His Word.

It is often said, though evidence is lacking, that there is an ancient Chinese curse: “May you live in interesting times.” Whatever the saying’s provenance, its point still stands: It is a frightening thing to live in uncertain days. But it is just as perilous to live in times when all things seem settled and secure, when we are tempted to trust too much in ourselves and in our institutions. It is precisely during such times of relative stability when foolish rulers who “have neither knowledge nor understanding” and “walk about in darkness,” are most tempted to trust their own lights too much. (Psalm 82:5) Psalm 82, the third assigned Psalm from last Wednesday’s Daily Office, ushers us into the divine court where God calls such rulers to account:

“How long will you judge unjustly
and show partiality to the wicked? Selah
Give justice to the weak and the fatherless;
maintain the right of the afflicted and the destitute.
Rescue the weak and the needy;
deliver them from the hand of the wicked.” (vv. 2-4)

Sooner or later, the psalmist says, “all the foundations of the earth are shaken,” and all rulers, however powerful, are mortal: “You are gods, sons of the Most High, all of you; nevertheless, like men you shall die, and fall like any prince.” (Psalm 82:7 ESV) As Eduardo Porter of the New York Times reminded us last Wednesday,

The next administration will face rampant inequality and persistent poverty, decaying infrastructure, and mediocre and segregated public education. It will have to deal with one of the most expensive, least effective healthcare systems in the industrialized world. And one way of another, it will have to address climate change.

Moreover, Porter notes, the current scene “is one dominated by racial hostility, which stands above any other consideration, undercutting the very notion that national problems merit a collective response.” All of these problems threaten our poorest neighbors the most, and, if the Gospel is true, the next administration cannot afford to pursue policies that will show partiality to the 1%.

But the psalmist’s warnings to the “princes” may also be applied to the press. It has become undeniably clear that our nation’s newspeople have been living in a biased bicoastal bubble, an echo chamber that muffled evidence countering their narrative of an inevitable Clinton presidency. As the election map turned red last Tuesday night, John King of CNN acknowledged that the media had “not been having a reality-based conversation” about the election. As Jim Rutenberg noted in the Times, “That was an extraordinary admission; if the news media failed to present a reality-based political scenario, then it failed in performing its most fundamental function.” It is bad enough to have a post-Truth President-elect (whose capacity for prevarication has outpaced even the most ardent fact-checkers and who, mind you, is on trial for fraud). But woe betide us if we have a post-Truth news media. I think, at the end of the day, the reason why the media did not see this coming is because they simply did not take white, working-class voters very seriously. This, too, is a sort of partiality, shown, if not to the 1% or “the wicked,” at least to the college-educated, racially diverse but politically homogeneous city-dwellers with whom our journalists have a personal affinity. Let us pray for our journalists to have better judgement going forward.

But let us also see to it that they have the resources necessary to doing  thorough, honest, balanced, serious journalism. Newspapers and magazines around the country are folding because “we the people” increasingly insist on getting our news for free. The market pressures on major news outlets pushes them not to strive for analytical rigor and objectivity, but instead to cater to either the right wing (think FOX News) or left wing (think MSNBC) niche-markets of upper-middle class urbanites and suburbanites (think everyone). And, so, it is for this reason too that I suggest that we Christians, particularly Millennials, take up the practice of first buying copies of and subscriptions to The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Economist, and other serious news sources, and then prayerfully reading them through the lens of Scripture.

In these “interesting times,” many of us are anxious. But He who is Faithful and True is the defender of the downtrodden, the King of all kings, the Alpha and the Omega, and it is in Him that we should hope. (Revelation 19:11) And so I would like to close with a salutary word from the late great British journalist Malcolm Muggeridge:

“We look back upon history and what do we see? Empires rising and falling, revolutions and counter-revolutions, wealth accumulating and wealth dispersed, one nation dominant and then another. Shakespeare speaks of ‘the rise and fall of great ones that ebb and flow with the moon.’

I look back on my own fellow countrymen ruling over a quarter of the world, the great majority of them convinced, in the words of what is still a favorite song, that, ‘God who’s made the mighty would make them mightier yet.’ I’ve heard a crazed, cracked Austrian announce to the world the establishment of a German Reich that would last a thousand years; an Italian clown announce that he would restart the calendar to begin his own ascension to power. I’ve heard a murderous Georgian brigand in the Kremlin acclaimed by the intellectual elite of the world as a wiser than Solomon, more humane than Marcus Aurelius, more enlightened than Ashoka. I’ve seen America wealthier and in terms of weaponry, more powerful than the rest of the world put together, so that had the American people desired, could have outdone an Alexander or a Julius Caesar in the range and scale of their conquests.
All in one lifetime. All in one lifetime. All gone with the wind. England part of a tiny island off the coast of Europe, threatened with dismemberment and even bankruptcy. Hitler and Mussolini dead, remembered only in infamy. Stalin a forbidden name in the regime he helped found and dominate for some three decades. America haunted by fears of running out of those precious fluids that keep her motorways roaring, and the smog settling, with troubled memories of a disastrous campaign in Vietnam, and the victories of the Don Quixotes of the media as they charged the windmills of Watergate.
All in one lifetime, all gone. Gone with the wind.
Behind the debris of these self-styled, sullen supermen and imperial diplomatists, there stands the gigantic figure of one person, because of whom, by whom, in whom, and through whom alone mankind might still have hope. The person of Jesus Christ.”
*Every week excepting those when I am traveling or sick.
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6 thoughts on “Prayers of the People

  1. As always, David, very well-written and cogent perspective. I would suggest however, that you direct your students to some other source than the once-revered, but sadly now pathetically ultra biased, NY Times. FT is no better. WSJ and Econ will give you some hope of reality in journalism. Press onward my friend!

    1. Thanks, Tom! I will probably alternate between basing our discussions on the NYT, the FT, and the WSJ in order to try to both balance our perspective and to help us be more sensitive to the biases of different media outlets. But I can’t just abandon the NYT! David Brooks and Ross Douthat are there!

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