To briefly review, in his book Volf touches upon two means of engaging the public sphere with one's faith. Both of these, according to Volf, miss the mark and fall short. The first way of engagement is "idleness." Idleness is actually non-engagement with the public. Essentially the believer holds that their faith is private and subsequently not meant to be shared publicly. The second one is on the opposite end of the spectrum. Volf calls this option "coerciveness." This option takes place when a believer attempts to force their faith onto another. Usually when this happens we have violence of some sort. In the last two posts we examined some of the outcomes and implications of these two options. Today we will look at the role of media and the possible implications it may have on this topic.
I'm sure many of us at some point have had a conversation with someone regarding the nightly news. Invariably in those conversations we will likely hear another say something to this effect: "I don't like to watch the news anymore. It is always so dark and negative." I would agree that this is the picture that we often find. The news appears to focus on the negative: wars, murders, fights, court cases, robberies, fires, etc. Who wants to watch that every night? What about Christians and Christianity in the media? From sitcoms to the nightly news it seems that Christians often receive a bad rap. Volf points out that this is significant and largely influences the way which people think and act toward others.
For example, in his book he quotes Avishai Margalit, who wrote about ethnic belonging, and applies it to Christians and violence. Volf quotes: "It takes one cockroach to be found in your food to turn the most otherwise delicious meal into a bad experience...It takes 30 to 40 ethnic groups who are fighting one another to make the 1,500 or more significant ethnic groups in the world who live more or less peacefully look bad" (p.52). What does this quote have to with with our topic? Volf uses this as an example of what he calls "the self-inflation of the negative." Essentially this refers to the tendency of evil to loom larger than the good. This is were the role of media comes into the picture.
Apparently the media today follows "the self-inflation of the negative." As an example Volf introduces the reader to Ms. Katarina Kruhonja of Osijek, Croatia. Ms. Kruhonja was awarded the "Right Livelihood Award" which is an alternative to the Nobel Peace Prize. However, Ms. Kruhonja is virtually unknown. She is a medical doctor who has worked hard to implement peace initiatives which have been largely motivated by her faith--Christianity. Why has the world largely not been introduced to Ms. Kruhonja and her peace initiatives? To put it simply, mass-media communications in this world are driven by what sells. What is it that sells in today's world? The answer: Violence. Volf states in his book:
"Violence sells, so viewers get to see violence, without media outlets being much bothered about disproportion between represented and actual violence. The mass media credit reality, but they do so by building on the proclivities of viewers...Religion is more associated with violence than with peace in the public imagination partly because the public is fascinated with violence. We, the peace-loving citizens of nations whose tranquility is secured by effective policing, are insatiable observers of violence. And as voyeurs, we show ourselves as vicarious participants in the very violence we outwardly abhor" (p.52).According to Volf's argumentation, the media gives the people what they ultimately want. This point coupled with the previous point brings us to a question: Is Christianity as violent as appears in the media? I think the answer is "no." The over-focus of the media on religious violence gives the appearance that faith is more violent than it actually is. We could quote the old cliche: One bad apple spoils the whole bunch. The media seems to focus on the one bad apple, thus giving all people of faith bad rap. In reality, people of faith do much good for the world and their local communities but media doesn;t often cover these stories because they don't receive the high ratings that violent stories provide. Thus the picture that is painted portrays people of faith as violent hypocrites because this is what sells.
To reiterate, the Christian faith is to be neither idle nor coercive. As Jesus said to his followers according to John's Gospel: Be in the world but not of the world. We are called to engage the world but we are called to do so as Christ did--subversively. Jesus changed the world from the inside out. An idle faith neglects any engagement with the world. A coercive faith attempts to engage the world from a top down approach. Both of these miss the mark when it comes to engaging the public square. As Volf points out: "To be engaged in the world well, Christians will have to keep one thing at the forefront of their attention: the relationship between God and a vision of human flourishing" (p.54).
May we live our lives engaging our communities in a way that imitates the Messiah who took on human flesh and died a cursed death in the cross.