Why are some people fearful of engaging with the media?

Well, you only have to know anyone who’s fallen foul of them to know why keeping your distance might be a wise tactic. So, given that I know plenty of people who would include themselves in that category, why do some of us keep getting stuck in?

Last Sunday I was asked to address a hundred or so theological students (St Milletus College) on the theme ‘Old message, new media’ – a theme that got me asking questions about language, content and confidence. Having commended engaging with old media and new social networking media (in a disciplined way, of course), I emphasised three points:

  • we need to be confident about the message we hope to communicate via various media
  • attention needs to be paid to learning the languages that people speak/hear in order that we can ensure good communication
  • new media offer great new possibilities for (a) giving people access to people (like me – a bishop) whose life and preoccupations might otherwise belong to a remote and mysterious hidden world, (b) engaging outside  and beyond the safe and comfortable territory of those who ‘belong’ to the communities in which we live and work, (c) being present in a space where a different sort of conversation can be had, and (d) allowing connectivity between people, groups and ideas that in a previous generation might not have been possible, even if desirable.

Then, today I went to Cambridge for the first day of an Apologetics Conference at Westcott House. The theme was ‘How Does Today’s Church Engage with Today’s World?’. The first speaker up was Professor Alister McGrath who seems to write a new book every week. He stressed the need for clergy to help their congregations to grapple honestly with tough questions and grow in confidence in the competence of a Christian world view to account for the way the world is (and could become). Critiquing the New Atheists, he made the point that simply making assertions is not the same as rationally arguing a point (something Christians need to note also).

I followed Alister with a ramble through my apologetic method and illustrated what it looks like in my own experience. Key to this approach are the following:

  • objections to religious belief must be taken with the utmost seriousness
  • interlocutors are people with histories, contexts and contingent lives: they are not projects upon whom we work our philosophical or theological games
  • the way Christians speak to and about each other is sometimes so scandalous that many observers get nowhere near hearing the ‘good news’ behind the sheer bad news of how some Christians behave (parodied as ‘They’ll know we are Christians by the intensity of our mutual loathing…’)
  • Christians need to model the ‘ministry of reconciliation’ and change the rumour about God and the church
  • we must start on other people’s territory and learn their languages – primarily in order to listen and understand before questioning coherence or consistency.

Underlying all this, however, is the conviction that unless Christians are prepared to open themselves to the possibility of changing their mind, they have no right to expect anyone else to do so. Conversation must be respectful and genuinely dialectical.

This was followed by Dr Andrew Davison, Tutor in Doctrine at Westcott House, who looked briefly at such matters as creation, God, christology, eschatology and pneumatology in their apologetic connection. And he was followed by Ruth Gledhill, Times Religion Correspondent who reflected on journalism, journalists, the Church and media.

Two points need further thinking through on my part.

First is Ruth’s statement that the erection of the Times paywall has (a) vastly reduced the number of screaming nasties on her blog, (b) improved the quality and courtesy of the discourse between those who do engage with her and each other, and (c) led to a recovery of clearer (less distracted) journalism.

Now, I am opposed to the paywall, but I know other news agencies are keen for it to work. A new and effective business (financial) model for journalism is needed if quality journalism is not only to survive, but thrive in the complex new media age. Despite my prejudices about the effects of the paywall model on universal access to news, I hadn’t thought about the potential for the paywall to change/improve the quality of the discourse between those who do engage behind it.

Second was a question posed to me about mad or dangerous Christians – a question to which I did not respond adequately. Having asserted that Christians need to stop bitching about each other and work out their inherent unity as disciples of the Jesus who calls them, how should we then deal with the crazies and horrible nasties who claim the Christian label? Or, put more simply, when is it legitimate to disown and firmly distance ourselves from the loonies?

On initial reflection I think we can say that (a) Christians who, for example, espouse violence should be disowned and distanced, and (b) this should be done in language that still bears the hallmarks of grace and generosity, not arrogance and self-righteousness. More reflection needed on this one.

So, the last few days have exposed me to a wide range of people who are taking really seriously the need for Christians to engage with the wider world on the wider world’s terms, bringing a confident and gracious critique to the world’s presenting agenda, and offering an apologetic for Christian faith that is rationally coherent, emotionally powerful, existentially consistent and makes sense of human experience (which is more than purely rational).

In last Sunday’s Observer Victoria Coren invited theists to own up confidently to their faith:

Come on; let’s make this a fair fight, at least. Identify yourselves, thinking believers! Don’t be cowed into silence by the idea that faith is the weakness of a halfwit, like buying your goldfish Christmas presents or watching ITV2. It isn’t. I’ll start: I believe in God and I’m perfectly intelligent and rational.

Time to stand up. And new media make this possible in new ways. (The Apologetics Conference continues tomorrow, but I won’t be there…)