Skip to main content
Listen To Article

I average 9.7 out of 11 on the New York Times weekly news quiz. That means I subscribe to the Times online, as well as the e-version of the Des Moines Register. It’s not much of a paper anymore. But we’re told it is a good thing to support local journalism.

I say all that to pump up my credentials, to convince you that I’m in the know. I don’t live with my head in the sand. I’m not trying excessively to avoid the constant grind of the vicissitudes of the world.

Yet I watch almost no TV news. Occasionally, I catch a few minutes of NPR in the car or YouTube Colbert’s monologue the next day.

I find that reading the news gives me more choice and freedom. I can ignore this. I can skim that. I can read the click-bait headline, but skip the article. TV news, in contrast, comes at you like water out of a firehose. You’re overwhelmed — drenched and drowning. They, not you, decide what stories to share. But this isn’t supposed to be yet another attack on the media. They’ve become so wearisome.

Somewhere in the past two or three years, I made the intentional decision to pay less attention to the news. (Remember my 9.7, however!) My decision was partially motivated by survival, by the well-being of my soul. During the years of our previous president, I just couldn’t bear to hear the inane bluster, to know about every act of cronyism and self-promotion, or every effort to eviscerate institutions and side-step the Constitution. I couldn’t step into the pulpit spitting bile and ready to denounce that week’s machinations. It was all too corrosive. I had to step away.

* * Principalities & Powers * *

But it isn’t simply survival that caused me to turn down the volume on the news. It’s about more than using time wisely or guarding my heart.

In some sort of incipient, intuitive way, I believe that one thing the “principalities and powers” hate is to be ignored. I pick this up both with Jesus and his accusers, as well as Paul and the Empire. There isn’t fear. It isn’t hiding. It isn’t capitulating. But neither is it reacting. It is refusing to take the bait. Not playing the game. It is maybe something like benign neglect.

My attitude sets off alarm bells in many of my friends and colleagues, and perhaps in you too. We are trained that being informed is our civic duty, our American heritage, part of being a good Christian.

Pay attention. Do something. Get involved. “Silence=Death!” Stand up for justice. Speak out for the weak and vulnerable. These are the messages we receive. And I don’t disagree. But I also believe there is a risk of being lured into an unhealthy cycle of reactivity, losing our focus, being consumed rather than consuming,

“Christians should hold the Bible in one hand and the New York Times in the other.” So says a well-known quote attributed to one of my theological heroes — Karl Barth. I’ve never found where or when he purportedly said it. I doubt he really did. If so, it is unfortunate. Certainly Barth was not suggesting that scripture and the Times were on equal footing.

What is unfortunate about the statement is that it gives the impression that we are most likely to discover God’s activities on the front page of the newspaper. We’ve become convinced that we serve best when we are in the halls of power. I don’t think that’s where we are likely to find mustard seeds, yeast, and lost pennies. It’s like we’ve been beguiled by some strangely utilitarian arithmetic — that in the “events of the day” we make the biggest impact.

I don’t think I join the work of God’s Kingdom most by watching the news, writing my legislators, or being part of the political process. You certainly may do those things. I, however, still believe the heart of the Kingdom’s work is in the church, in grassroots ministries, in deeds of compassion and love.

I’ll even go so far as to hypothesize that when we think that being informed and getting involved are the primary expression of our faith, we have been drawn away from higher and better priorities. I am not endorsing passivity or ignorance or withdrawal. Instead, I’m calling for a certain distance, along with healthy and deeper engagements elsewhere.

* * Biden * *

Up top, my title promised you my one year evaluation of the Biden presidency.

I’ll give him a B -. If you want, you may round him up to a B or take him down to a C+. Any grades much beyond that, in either direction, are just petty partisanship.

My grade for Biden is not based so much on specific policies or decisions. It’s based on having a competent, even-keeled, sensible person as president. Perhaps his biggest attribute is that he isn’t the other guy. Sure, the US has abundant troubles. But it no longer feels like we’re being held hostage by a mobster. I don’t wake up worried to read the latest bellicose tweet. Our nation’s mental health may still be fragile and frazzled, but it sure feels better to me. Even though covid is unceasing, at least we have professionals, well-prepared and stable people, running the country.

Yes, I know about his approval ratings, not to mention inflation and supply chain issues and the labor shortage (Immigration Reform, anyone?). Presidents might be able to turn some knobs and dials one way or another to mildly alleviate these difficulties. But by and large, these are symptoms of global covid-chaos that no one person or country can fix.

No one, including Biden himself, is suggesting he should be added to Mount Rushmore. There’s no hero worship on my part. He’s not as elegant or eloquent as Obama. And that’s okay. I’m content with “adequate.” Perhaps I had small hopes that folksy Uncle Joe could have some success bridging divides. But who am I kidding? Santa Claus couldn’t pull that off.

Beyond that, I don’t want to be drawn into the latest from Nancy Pelosi or Mitch McConnell. Filibuster or no filibuster — sigh. Hearing about Marjorie Taylor Greene and Brett Kavanaugh is repulsive to me. It’s like (or maybe it actually is) a bad soap opera where we’d all like to change the channel. I don’t want to try to psychoanalyze Joe Manchin or dissect Krysten Sinema’s poll numbers.

Maybe that’s what I like about Biden’s okayishness, his relative adequacy, I can sort of shrug and half-trust that this country will be able to plod along.

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell and his wife, Sophie, are the pastors at the Second Reformed Church in Pella, Iowa. Steve has served on numerous Reformed Church commissions and task forces, and also edited the journal Perspectives for many years. Before coming to Iowa, he lived and served as a pastor in upstate New York. Sophie and he have two adult children. He holds a Ph.D. from Boston College in theological ethics.

12 Comments

  • Daniel Meeter says:

    I’m with you totally, no surprise. Don’t take the bait. I fear you might be misunderstood as projecting passivity, but I know you are not.

  • Timothy Brown says:

    Great pastoral wisdom that I intend to imitate. And this one of the savviest insights I’ve read in a while, “ In some sort of incipient, intuitive way, I believe that one thing the “principalities and powers” hate is to be ignored.” Thank you Steve.

  • I agree with the other comments — your thoughts, Steve, were well crafted and on target. I, too, need to dial-back on TV news.
    Harold Gazan
    Holland

  • Jim Schaap says:

    Yup, more of this and less of that. Me too.

  • George Vink says:

    A loud Amen” and thank you for articulating it so well.

  • Kris Swieringa says:

    I agree with a lot in this article. As an unabashed Biden supporter I would too give him a B or B- I too was hopeful for more compromising but it seems America is beyond that right now. I think we are seeing the sure but slow demise of our democratic Republic. However, I would disagree on his “disconnecting”. We are called to do Jesus’ work in this world and I feel an important part if that is being civically engaged in what our country is doing for “the least among us”. Thanks for a well written article

  • Valerie Van Kooten says:

    Darn. I rarely get higher than an 8 on that quiz. Maps are my downfall.

  • Rodney Haveman says:

    Steve, on the whole I understand where you are coming from, but I can’t help feel the itching in the back of my mind that I can ignore what’s going on because ignorance doesn’t really hurt me in any way. I’m priveleged by the fact that plodding adequacy keeps me quite comfortable. I wonder if I was really uncomfortable, struggling, suffering, if general adequacy was “good enough.”
    On the other hand, what I think news junkies (too often like me) engage in is political professionalism that leads to quite a bit of knowledge (nationally) but very little action (locally). I do feel like spending 99% less time with the news and using all that time on actions that reflect the lectionary gospel text for this week (good news to the poor, release to the captives, recovery of sight, freedom for the oppressed, jubilee) would be much, much more helpful all the way around (for me, others, and our communities).
    Thanks for the challenging words.

    • Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell says:

      Rodney, I think your concerns of “privilege” are genuine and on target. How not to become indifferent to suffering and distant from the vulnerable? And I don’t want to sound like things happening in DC have no real impact. The earned income credit, for example, is really helpful and good. I think, or I hope, that we have enough contact with non-privileged folk locally so that cutting down on the news does not cut down on caring

  • Debra Rienstra says:

    As always, I so appreciate your candid wisdom, Steve. I think you’re describing something like what the “refugia church” can be: well aware of broad issues, active on those, but focused especially on creating spaces of healing and capacity-building on a small scale, with the hope of connecting up to help the renewed “ecosystem” spread.

  • Keith De Witt says:

    If you are giving Biden a B- you better start watching more news to find out what’s going on. I give him a D-. What has he done to deserve a B-?

Leave a Reply