What to Read this Week: First Things

Why am I wary about reading the news?

The crux of this issue is the overwhelming focus on entertainment in our current age. This is something I discussed in my review of Neil Postman’s brilliant book “Amusing Ourselves to Death.” With the advent of the television and more recently, digital media, the image reigns supreme, and along with this shift from word to image comes the overabundance of visual stimuli. When we are constantly flooded by images, there is no longer the same focus on logic and permanence implied in the written word. Instead, with the image, transience is key. The image is not designed to last. But it is certainly designed to distract. And it is absolutely designed to amuse.

It’s hard to avoid the news nowadays, whether or not we tune in to a television program on which a broadcaster informs us of the latest goings-on. News is spouted off from so many different mediums and then passed around from person to person so that we hear many things without explicitly seeking them out. The problem is not that we don’t have enough news; it’s that we have too much of it. What’s more, most of this “news” only comes to us in fragments. How much of the information we have about current issues in our culture is gleaned from headlines scrolled by on Facebook, or from a condensed 140 character version of what happened? These broken pieces may provide good ammunition for a trivia competition, but overall they lack value and any real usefulness. There is no context in a little shard of information like this; there is only the semblance of knowledge, which is perhaps very dangerous indeed.

Fragments like these are also, as mentioned above, ill-suited for permanence. As a result, they are catered to providing immediate responses. As soon as some notable event occurs, the focus is on how quickly a response can be churned out. The response time is then prioritized over the actual content of the response. We may know nothing, but the nothing we know, we know now.

All of this leads me to my recommendation of “what to read this week,” which, as you can tell by the title, is the subject of this post. First Things is an American journal on religion and public life: they publish a monthly print magazine as well as numerous online articles to their website: http://www.firstthings.com/ Although they do not report the news, they comment and engage in thoughtful intellectual discussion on current events, and this is the kind of thing I think we so desperately need to counter the trends outlined above.

In a publication like this that only comes out once a month, there is an obvious distinction from the instantaneous response of news outlets. Because of this distinction, First Things has far more of a focus on permanence and ultimately on value. Events, ideas and issues take time to process; responding to something right away excludes or discourages the need for thought and reflection. First Things, on the other hand, may not be the first to make a statement, but their statement will carry far more profound echoes of knowledge and of truth, and it will not be devoid of context but enriched by context in the careful consideration of this great map of human history.

Visit the website and see for yourself what I mean. It may be easier to read tidbits of news in quick doses (and this is not to say that one outlet must be entirely cut out to introduce the other), but First Things (and other meaningful commentary like it) is infinitely more rewarding and guides us towards real knowledge, not just the appearance of knowledge that seeks to keep us entertained.

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