Good News and Bad News, Fake News and the Gospel by Rusty Nelson

Given my topic, I might as well go with the old good news-bad news routine.  I’ll give you the bad news, first.  I like to talk, and I have an awful lot to say about news…good, bad, fake, broadcast, print, electronic, and so forth.  I don’t hesitate to comment on news presentation, style, grammar, pronunciations, fact-avoidance, fairness, balance, or lack thereof.  And, I have a few observations about the Gospel, as well.  Also, I come from a genetic background of preachers, pontificators, and filibusterers.
Before the good news, here’s the 21st Century bonus:  The fake news is that I’m old enough, experienced enough, and wise enough to know more about all this than you do.
And the good news is that I’m not going to tell you every anecdote and every opinion I have.

Full disclosure:  I made a mistake by naming this presentation before I wrote it, intending to serve up some glittering examples of misdirectional reporting and media malpractice.  I envisioned reading ridiculous headlines from MSN, showing you sensational stories about kittens and celebrities while major disasters get a few lines at the bottom of page 5.  I wanted to complain about happy talk on local tv, where there’s no time to dig into the reasons for poverty and violence and polarization in our community.  I hoped I could make a case for engaged journalism that emphasizes justice over the almighty dollar and distinguishes between The Economy held so precious by the kings of capitalism and the economy in which most of us slip and slide and worry and struggle.  I’m really tired of having puppies and potholes thrown in my face when I have to search for the stories of courageous people overcoming fear and oppression to bring change and hope to others who have no access to the corporate media.  I’m sickened by the unending storyline that we have freedom and opportunity because of the so-called sacrifice and heroism of those who served corporate entities who convinced them to suffer and kill in unending wars.  Then, of course, I would show how we can deal with all these distractions and serve God instead of Mammon.

But…I’m easily distracted.  If I weren’t so easily distracted, I might have learned to keep more than two balls in the air at one time when my daughter was juggling and unicycling with a performing team at Roosevelt School, about 25 years ago.  I might have become a rich and famous talking head on your television news.  Or I might have worked myself to death selling sand in the desert without ever noticing that burning bush that said God still knew my name.  Distractions can keep us grounded, alert us to a higher purpose, make us more accountable to God and God’s children.

I accidentally became involved in radio news after accidentally surviving a year in Vietnam and then accidentally teaching high school for three months.  That’s not news, it’s ancient history.  I wanted to announce football and basketball play-by-play, and I got that opportunity.  It was fun.  I liked it.  But, at the entry level, it wasn’t enough to constitute a real job, so I was expected to be a news reporter, as well.  That was fine.  I had written a little for my college newspaper, and I was interested in politics and current events.  I was glad to share the airwaves with Douglas Edwards, Walter Cronkite, Daniel Schorr,  and other CBS tv lumenaries who still did regular stints on network radio.  Eventually, sportscasting worked its way down my resume, and I considered myself a newsperson with back-up skills in general announcing, as long as that didn’t infringe on my objectivity.  Ah, journalistic objectivity.  Objectivity in the news.  What a concept. Is the Gospel objective?  Good news!  Consider John 3:16:  “God loved the world so much He gave his Son, his one and only son, so that no one need be destroyed; by believing in him, anyone can have a whole and lasting life.”  Is that not the essence of the Gospel?  The writer of the Gospel According to John is quoting Jesus from the conversation with Nicodemus.  And still, we hear people say, “What would Jesus say?” or “What would Jesus do?” even if they claim the Holy Bible is the inerrant word of God.  I think these questions provide a platform for Fake News, an escape hatch for rich young rulers and casters of the first stone. It’s like saying, “In God we trust,” when what we really trust is overwhelming military force or the AR-15 with the banana clip in the gun safe that’s not really locked in case we have an emergency that’s too big for the 9 mm semi-automatic pistol under the bed.

For real news, you’ll ask, “What did Jesus do or say?”  Even then, we have work to do to make determinations about audience, cultural context, translations and interpretations.  But don’t expect objectivity.  It can only be objective if it doesn’t concern you.

I figured I had to get out of the news business when I realized I could no longer pretend to be objective, that all news stories concern me, especially those about war, poverty and poor people, and the destruction of the environment.  Ironically, my decision came about the time some radio personalities were learning they could become rich and influential by being very subjective, self-righteous and judgemental in their commentary on these very themes.  You know some of these folks because they have distorted Judeo-Christian values to find resonance with millions  who long for someone to give them permission to skip the propaganda about turning the other cheek or loving our enemies.

The familiar verses I intended to use as scriptural support, today, are found more than once in the Bible, and have been used to support various stories about history, faith, and prophecy.  In Isaiah 61, we read, “The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me to bring good news to the afflicted; He has sent me to bind up the broken-hearted, to proclaim liberty to captives, and freedom to prisoners; to proclaim the favorable year of the Lord…. [NAS]

In Luke 4, we find Jesus, early in his ministry, returning to Nazareth and going to the synagogue on the Sabbath.  When he was handed the scroll of Isaiah, he found what we call Chapter 61, and read, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because He anointed me to preach the Gospel to the poor.  He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to set free those who are downtrodden, to proclaim the favorable year of the Lord.” [NAS]   After restoring the scroll to its place, he sat down and gave some breaking news.  “Today, this  scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”[NAS]  He had everybody’s attention.  This guy had it all, even if he was the carpenter’s kid.  This might be just the news anchor they’d been looking for, someone they’d be glad to listen to any day and twice on the Sabbath.  But Jesus went off the bulletin and offended the local orthodoxy, bringing up some sensitive areas in their scriptures, to the point where they were ready to lynch him, and not just in print or on the air.

Journalism is actually a recent concept. Until about 100 years ago, there was no such profession recognized, in spite of the significance of newspapers and news reporting and commentary in our society.   In scripture, we see that there were scribes, who were useful and vital cogs in the community, but they were hardly news gatherers even if they did sometimes have reporting functions.  The idea of news, however, has been understood since humans began to communicate beyond the comfort of their own clans.  It’s my unscientific guess that news and propaganda originated at about the same time, but for this discussion, let’s be clear that propaganda can be a positive form of communication.

We who try to stay well-informed by the news media are all subject to being manipulated and influenced by journalism and propaganda and by the way our news is delivered and consumed.  I think that means we have a duty to process and act upon news in a responsible way.  And, I don’t think that can be done if we are limited to one source or one perspective, especially when commentary is involved, whether or not it’s labeled as such.   And it seems to come only with commentary from some sources.  Even when I was a child, I was told to “consider the source.”

It’s not that difficult to get news from a number of sources.  For years after I was finally connected to the worldwide web, I did not visit websites to broaden my perspectives.  It was enough to read my email, because my friends and acquaintances sent me more commentary, facts and data than I could ever read, from more sources than I could count.  And that was before Facebook.

I hadn’t intended to delve into journalism and propaganda so much, but it’s a bit like eating one potato chip. It seems to me that it’s not possible to know even the basics about current events and world affairs if one relies upon one source of news, whether it’s CBS or Fox News or NPR or the Inlander or the Washington Post.  Many of my friends gave up on the Spokesman Review years ago, but I need to see what’s in those shrinking pages, and I need to participate in the newspaper of record, with my own opinions and observations.  It doesn’t accomplish anything for me to tell Quakers and Mennonites that war is wrong and stupid.

No matter how cynical I get, there’s a pundit, a propagandist, or a reporter who makes me think I’m not cynical enough.  For several years, I’ve been getting mail addressed to Spokane Veterans for Peace from an organization that claims to have my best interests in mind as it tries to undermine this country’s gains in tolerance toward people of other faiths and ethnicities.  Sometimes, the propaganda begins with facts and causes for which I have a strong affinity- the evils of military spending or unrestrained support for the State of Israel, but it invariably leads to racist, anti-semitic, and bald-faced spewing of hatred.  I look at it  to see what new angles are being used to gain support from the poorly informed and the fearful and to see if I can resist the temptation to hate the individuals involved with the American Nazi Party.  I pity them, but I can’t say I love them, yet.

What’s important to me is to keep myself from becoming so caught up in the struggle between real news and fake news that I forget about the good news.  That doesn’t mean I want to beat anyone over the head with my understanding of the Gospel, the good news, the startling idea that each of us is important to our creator, the great “I am.”  As a Mennonite, I’m with most of you on evangelistic fervor.  I think it’s more important to be witnesses to truth and light and love, as each opportunity presents itself.  I didn’t come here today with any plan to convert, frighten or condemn anyone, but with the hope that I might give a little encouragement to fellow sojourners in a journey that seems to be growing more dangerous if not downright terrifying.  In turn, I know I can draw strength from your persistence as a small, often ignored or misunderstood, community of faith.

What was going on in that community of faith in Nazareth?  How could they turn on Jesus so quickly?  He had grown up as one of them and then came back, speaking with authority, reading well, showing grace and maturity.  But then, he brought up a few sore spots, he picked at their scabs, their spiritual insecurities, and they wanted him gone.  This was not the voice or the face they wanted to assure the reputation and prosperity of their synagogue.  He was anti-establishment poison.  Good news is over-rated.  Let’s put the fake news imprint on this, right now.

We interrupt this sermon with a news bulletin.  Your messenger has been detained by an unforeseen scriptural connection that may take precedence over my goal of pointing out pitfalls for people of faith in trying to negotiate our overwhelming systems of information, propaganda, and news.

What was the context of Jesus showing up at the synagogue in Nazareth?  Luke says he had returned to Galilee, where his ministry was off to a great start.  He was making headlines, packing meeting places, getting air time.  He had returned from 40 days in the wilderness, no crowds, no media, not even anything to eat.  It was his time of testng by the Devil.

I don’t know how you think of this time of temptation.  My view was not powerful.  From Sunday School about 65 years ago, I had some images that were less than inspiring, intense or compelling.  That changed when I saw the film version of the Last Temptation of Christ, a controversial and daring tale.  My takeaway from the movie was an understanding of how Jesus the man, Jesus the son of God, the lamb of God, our teacher, our saviour, our brother could be put to the test…could be tempted just as you and I are tempted… to take shortcuts, to take bribes or accept influence to spare ourselves criticism, sacrifice, suffering, being ignored, or just hard work.  In a time of mass media, it could have gone a little like this:

Jesus worked 40 days and nights as an unpaid intern in a remote outlet of the Murdoch communications empire, constantly on call, honing his skills in news reading and writing and analysis, doing scheduling, writing copy, and cleaning the bathrooms, but always taking note of the suffering and injustice in every major news event.  At the end of that time, he had earned the admiration of the station’s viewers and staff, but he was broke, exhausted and hungry.  Rupert Murdoch, himself, took Jesus into his office and said, I have a company credit card here for you.  All you have to do is go on the air and read this statement that says I can be trusted to tell this community how to think, act, vote and spend money, and you’ll be my general manager and never be denied anything again. Or, you could have your own show on my network and make $36 million/year.”  Jesus quoted from Deuteronomy that it takes more than a cushy job to really live.
Next, Murdoch pulled curtains to uncover a huge monitor that showed images of his networks, newspapers, and film studios all over the world.  I own all this, and I can give it all to you.  Think of all the time and trouble and pain this could save you in accomplishing all your goals.    Worship me, and it’s all yours to use as you please.  Jesus pulled out his phone and read another passage from Deuteronomy:  “Worship the Lord your God and only the Lord your God.  Serve him with absolute single-heartedness.”

Then, Murdoch switched the monitor to Windsor Castle and referred to the upcoming royal wedding.  He pointed out that the eyes of the world would be on this place, and he could arrange for Jesus to intervene in a large terrorist attack on international television.  No one would be hurt, but Jesus would instantly become the most widely recognized and adored person on earth.  The powerful media mogul said, “It’s written that God has placed you in the care of angels to protect you.”   “Yes,” said Jesus, “and it’s also written, ‘Don’t you dare tempt the Lord your God.'” My intention is not to equate Rupert Murdoch to Satan, or to warp your comprehension of Jesus.  I want us to be able to recognize evil and to withstand 21st Century temptation.  I want to let Jesus out of the little box the news and entertainment industries keep him in.

Some scholars say the statement of Isaiah 61 was never intended as a prophecy about Jesus, and some say it is proof that God planned hundreds of years in advance for every step of Jesus’ time on earth.  That’s all beside the point, to me.  What if it’s now for you and me to open to that passage and make that declaration to our communities and to the world?  And, isn’t it true? Hasn’t God annointed us, educated us, blessed us to preach good news to the poor, heal the brokenhearted, announce freedom to all captives, pardon all prisoners….?  Maybe not on television or in the newspaper, but somewhere you have standing.  At home, at work, in a political caucus, in a letter or a meeting with your elected representatives.  The Spirit of God is upon us.  Our calling is not to be famous, or rich, or successful, but to overcome evil with good.  God calls us still, to be his people.  May your faithfulness bring you joy and peace.

[Bible quotes are from The Message except where designated NAS-New American Standard.]

 

 

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