The Bible and the Newsfeed
Twentieth century Swiss theologian Karl Barth (1886-1968) was featured in a Time magazine article in 1966. In that short piece, he was quoted as having said the following:
“take your Bible and take your newspaper, and read both. But interpret newspapers from your Bible.”
This short quotation has had staying power in theological and pastoral circles ever since…and for good reason. As I take it, this means that we as people who lead in ministry and theological reflection must continually be aware of both who we are and where we are. These twin concerns have important implications for the ministry work with which we are engaged and speak to the importance of the kind of training we do here at Northwest University.
I like the idea of a pastor or theologian having a newspaper (or, these days, a newsfeed or even social media) nearby. But not so that we can become obsessed or anxious about the news of the day, overfocused on the latest fads, or taking our main theological cues from culture. Such things would be out of balance. And not, I think, what Barth is saying here.
When I think of a news-informed theologian or pastor, I think of someone who wants to understand what is going on. Understand the people and culture to which she or he are ministering. Understand the hurts and pains of the world around them. Understand the unspoken truths and unfortunate lies that a society has to offer. In other words, knowing what is taking place so that they will know the kind(s) of work they will need to do as they fulfill their calling from God. The “newspaper,” in this way, can provide vital insights.
At a place like Northwest, we embrace this kind of approach in the undergraduate core curriculum that is a part of every four-year student’s coursework. For nearly every major, a set introductory study in things like history, literature, and communications help to round out their education. Other requirements can involve students taking courses in psychology, business, or a number of other subjects.
These things by themselves, though, are just a part of equation. As Barth reminds us, there is more. There is the Bible. There is God. There is a story truer and greater than any other. This reality is why Northwest requires all undergraduate students to have coursework in theology as well as Scripture. We believe it to be vital for Christians in all vocations. The story of God—a story of Creation, the Fall, God’s work through Israel, the person of Jesus Christ, the redeemed community of the Church, and the promised coming Redemption—all of this should be embraced and understood by Christ followers. It provides a solid foundation for understanding the story in which we have been made a part.
Undergraduate students in our College of Ministry go beyond such core curriculum courses, because as leaders in the Church they will be called upon to help guide others in understanding and reflecting deeply on this story. Our graduate students are themselves asked to consider the interpretation of Scripture as well as spiritual and theological themes. Indeed, all those engaged in a course of study in our College of Ministry are called to take the truth of God seriously. For, after all, many of them may be the ones for whom, as Barth says, the interpreting of the newspaper is done by means of the message of the Bible.
This last bit is particularly important, for Barth’s quotation reminds us that it is not our culture that guides our understanding of the Scripture, but that it is the message of the Word of God that takes first position. It is the Bible that interprets the newspaper. They are not, as someone has said, equal sources of authority. The hallmarks of God’s story, in other words, are not defined by this earthly world. Earthly kingdoms do not define or interpret the Kingdom of God. It is, as Barth says and we affirm, the other way around. To be sure, there can be a conversation back and forth. But the core narrative of God’s truth, love, and holiness is the interpretive lens with which we must move forward.
For students here in our College of Ministry, this approach will be key. As they prepare for ministry and step into the complicated situations that our world presents, they must be aware of the times. But they—and we—must never let the times dominate them. For there is another truth—a greater Truth—one in Whose light we come to understand and see the path forward even when the way seems dark.