The Swiss Reformed theologian Karl Barth is often quoted as having said “One should preach with the Bible in one hand and a newspaper in the other.”
For those of you not familiar with that name, Karl Barth is regarded by many as the greatest Protestant theologian of the twentieth century. Ironically, the Roman Catholic Pontiff, Pope Pius XII, once called Barth “the most important theologian since St. Thomas Aquinas.” (Quite the compliment for a Protestant to be compared to a Doctor of the Church!)
“Preach with the Bible in one hand and a newspaper in the other.” Sounds like pretty good advice, right?
The only problem, however, is that there is no evidence that Barth ever said those exact words. And for anyone familiar with the priority Barth ascribed to the doctrine of the Word of God, it would come across as incongruent for him to place newsprint on the same level as holy writ.
As for the source of the remark, the Center for Barth Studies at Princeton University has never quite been able to pin it down. It appears to be a paraphrase of something Barth remembers telling budding theologians back in the 1920s. In an interview with Time Magazine from 1963, the closest statement in print appears as: “[Barth] recalls that 40 years ago he advised young theologians ‘to take your Bible and take your newspaper. Read both. But interpret newspapers from your Bible.’”
So the message Barth seems to be trying to convey is not so much that we should go around preaching with the bible in one hand and headlines in the other, but that we should interpret the news through the lens of holy scripture.
Now there’s a doozy. Who’s ready to exegete this week’s headlines?
In all seriousness, if we, as people of faith, are to resist the cynicism and despair that seem to be prevalent in this election cycle, we must be willing to interpret the news through the filter of faith. Our trust in God must outweigh our mistrust of those who are different from us. We must start by removing the artificial layers of party affiliation and political preference that have left us so sharply divided. When I read the news oblivious to my blinders of privilege and bias, the end result will most certainly be further distortion of the truth.
If we are to take Barth’s admonition to heart, we must take the words of holy scripture at least as seriously as the latest breaking news.
Consider, for instance, these ancient words of wisdom from Saint Paul:
Remember Jesus Christ, raised from the dead, a descendant of David– that is my gospel, for which I suffer hardship, even to the point of being chained like a criminal. But the word of God is not chained.
We hear so much these days about a silent majority whose words are choked and strangled, those who want to speak up, but are too confused or afraid to do so. This is the person who remains silent when a coworker or acquaintance makes a racist remark. This is the man who nervously laughs along at so-called “locker room talk” that is demeaning to women. Such words are chains that weigh down the soul, and our fearful silence is deafening to those at whom they’re aimed.
We hear of minority voices that get shouted down by racism, misogyny, and xenophobia; Systemic racism that institutionalizes oppression, makes injustice somehow legal, and laughs off iniquity — The very same kinds of things that Jeremiah and the prophets and Jesus all railed against, still alive and well in our world. The ancient chains of slavery still digging in to bind those who would threaten the status quo.
But the word of God, we are reminded, is not, can not, will not be chained. It is the lens that grants clarity in a time of confusion and anxiety. It is the chain that keeps us bound to one another in community, but never binds against our will. The Word of God speaks life in a way that headlines and tweets simply are not able.
The Elder Paul goes on to teach his young disciple Timothy: “Remind them of this, and warn them before God that they are to avoid wrangling over words, which does no good but only ruins those who are listening.”
I don’t know about you, but I know that I have certainly gotten trapped, from time to time, in such wrangling over words. I get stressed and anxious and worry “Good God! What’s this world coming to?” Though I’m embarrassed to admit it, I have certainly been guilty of popping off in righteous indignation from the relative comfort of my keyboard.
The prophets did not proclaim their message of divine judgement from the safety of their sofa. They did not post their prophetic acts so as to solicit likes, reposts, or reaffirmation. They spoke on behalf of those who had been shouted down and counted out, not to wrangle over words or relieve some subconscious guilt.
And the Apostle Paul reminds us…merely wringing our hands does no good, but only ruins those who are listening. Instead, he says, present yourself to God as one approved by him. At your place of work, at your school, or home. Amongst family and friends…present yourselves as ones approved by God. In emails and texts and Facebook feeds present yourselves as those who have no need to be ashamed.
In the midst of much hand wringing, Paul warns his people not to take the bait, not to get caught up in the mayhem. Don’t let the news of this world dictate your faith.
In the midst of what can seem like a constant barrage of bad news, we must never forget the good news that God has given us. “Remember Jesus Christ, raised from the dead,” says Saint Paul, “That is my gospel.” This is our good news! “If we have died with him, we will also live with him.”
In a world gone mad, it does little good to shout louder. In a world of talking heads, it is the person centered in silence who speaks volumes.
I ask you then to consider a question I have been struggling with all week: In your own actions and reactions to the news of this world, do you (knowingly or unknowingly) fan the flames of hatred and fear? Do your words stir up anxiety and cause wrangling over words? Or are we striving to live more fully into our identity as a people with good news to share? Do we allow the headlines to dictate our mood, or do we interpret the news in the light of faith?
So, yes, by all means, go ahead and read the headlines. Just don’t forget to interpret such news in light of the gospel.
The Rev’d Brad Landry
St. Paul’s – San Antonio