In Marilynne Robinson’s luminous epistolary novel Gilead we read the musings of the Rev. John Ames. Ames is coming to the end of his days but wants to leave behind a testament for his young son who had been born when Ames was already an older man. The novel is Ames’s extended letter to this son, reflecting on everything from family history to the intricacies of theology. Along the way Ames reflects on the arc of his own ministry as a preaching pastor and how things had changed over the years (the novel is set in Iowa in the 1950s). At one point Ames laments the increasing role that the radio was playing in the lives of his parishioners. Ames notes that as a pastor he can preach his heart out on any given Sunday clearly to proclaim certain biblical and theological truths from the orthodox Christian tradition. But more and more he sensed his influence was waning in the wake of all those radio preachers who probably did not know their theology from a hole in the ground but they end up having a big megaphone and end up engaging Ames’s parishioners for more hours per week than he’ll ever get and so what is a pastor to do? The shaping of people’s spiritual and theological sensibilities seemed more and more to be out of his hands.
It was not always so, of course. Back in the days of my great-grandparents and mostly for also my grandparents, the Sunday sermon was one of the few times — maybe the only time — in any given week when they heard a discursus on biblical and theological ideas. Preachers had no competition. Probably that is in part why in the past, barring a horribly inept communicator, preachers could survive across decades of pastoral ministry despite being somewhat lukewarm speakers. No one could go home and download a better sermon on YouTube and then make the inevitable comparison to their own pastor. And mostly — even where there were some local options — people tended to be loyal to the home congregation and did not shop around to listen to other (perhaps more lively) preachers in the area.
I recalled and pondered all this when reading an intriguing — though doubtless it will prove controversial — New York Times article on Sunday by Amy Sullivan. Sullivan’s thesis is that many who self-identify as “evangelical” seem (based on polls and other public statements) to be drawing the content of their faith less from the local church and its pastor and more from the media and for many, from Fox News in particular. On a variety of issues, public statements by evangelicals and some vocal evangelical spokespersons seem at variance with some core Christian and biblical concepts and even with some fairly clear teachings of Jesus. What explains the disconnect? “That disconnect underscores the challenge many pastors face in trying to shepherd congregants who are increasingly alienated from traditional Gospel teachings. ‘A pastor has about 30 to 40 minutes each week to teach about Scripture,” said Jonathan Martin, an Oklahoma pastor and popular evangelical writer. “They’ve been exposed to Fox News potentially three to four hours a day.’”
To be fair, one could possibly make similar observations about the shaping influence of CNN, MSNBC, and the like. The fact is that for many of us, we spend more time absorbing ideas and stances and the apologia for various stances from TV than from any pulpit. What made Fox News a target for Ms. Sullivan’s article is a demonstrably accurate observation that far more evangelicals watch Fox than other networks even as Fox tends to engage the “culture war” issues that fire up evangelical voters perhaps more than other networks.
But the challenge comes equally to all of us and calls all of us — starting with me even as I write this — to wonder from what sources are we drawing biblical, theological, and spiritual insight into the issues of the day? Beyond the obvious fact that preachers cannot possibly occupy as much time in any given person’s week as television will, how do we parse what we hear from other sources? Should it matter to us that the people who seem to have the most to say about certain issues Christians rightly care about do not themselves have any formal biblical-theological training? Should it matter that we may tacitly trust someone on TV who has no relationship with us more than our own pastors who (one hopes) have a loving pastoral interest in our lives?
Again, I am raising questions and they apply to me, too. But I confess that of late some of what seems to pass as the “Christian position” on certain issues (not all issues) seems glaringly at variance with the Bible. Huge chains of Facebook back-and-forth posts (conducted by Christian people all around) go on and on and on without anyone’s invoking Scripture, the tradition of the church, or the ponderings of even one credible theologian or Christian ethicist. Why is that?
Probably Rev. Ames was right. And if he thought radio preachers of the 1950s had influence over his flock ... well, he did not know the half of what was yet to come.