Of all the reader responses to former editor in chief Mark Galli’s editorial on President Donald Trump last year, the most encouraging of those disagreed graciously. “We feel differently,” they said. “But we have benefited from CT for decades. We can handle the occasional disagreement.”
Little did we know, in the waning days of December, what challenges the new year would bring. A contagion swept the planet and forced entire cities to a standstill. Then a series of events ripped open the wounds of our racial history and provoked months of civil unrest. Which is to say nothing of a string of historic natural disasters.
But what has made all these things more painful is the rift in our social fabric. Suffering is lighter when borne together, in a sense of neighborly love and common cause. Yet we cannot suffer together when we blame one another for the suffering. Everything from the fundamental science of the pandemic and the practice of wearing masks to the persistence of racial inequality and the need for law enforcement has become battlegrounds of partisan animosity.
The evolution of media has shaped those battlegrounds. The typical media consumer today has thousands of sources at her fingertips for news and opinion. In the democratized digital marketplace, anyone with a social media account can build a platform.
The positives in these developments are undeniable. Powerful stories that earlier might never have seen the light of day now can spread instantly to everyone. Important voices that might never have made it past the old media gatekeepers can now shape the world. The same digital networks that carry conspiracy theories and pornography also carry praise songs and sermons and Bible translations, expose dictators, educate pastors, and reach the lost in some of the most remote and repressive places on the planet.
Yet the negatives are significant, and they go beyond conspiracy theories and pornography. The competition for audience share is fierce, and the tides of human attention flow all too naturally toward that which offers instant and uncomplicated gratification. Content that is immediate, hyperbolic, and hyper-partisan carries the day. Thoughtful interpreters of culture are replaced by conspiracy-mongers, scorn merchants, and torchers of straw men. This impoverishes social discourse and leaves many isolated in separate media spheres that fail to challenge or broaden horizons.
Unfortunately, at precisely the moment we need media to model balance, nuance, and charitable disagreement, even some of the most venerable media institutions plunge in the opposite direction. Editors with the temerity to publish dissenting viewpoints are voted off the island, and the institutions that once employed them become smaller and more extreme. It’s easier to bear the torch for the tribe than it is to build a fire and invite the tribes together.
As a consequence, Americans today occupy dramatically different informational worlds. If you draw your news from one set of sources, then America is under threat from hordes of ignorant and hateful conservatives. If you draw your news from another set, then America is dissolving into chaos at the hands of Marxists, global elites, and the despisers of Christianity. We cannot come together on solutions if we cannot agree on the nature of the problems in the first place.
The solution is not to return to a pre-internet era, when a narrow set of people—who were often unfriendly toward Christian concerns—tell the stories of the world. The solution is to renew our commitment as a people to gracious and loving public engagement. CT will remain a magazine that affirms the essential convictions of the evangelical Christian faith but also stretches our thinking and challenges our complacency. We do not agree with every piece we publish. Listening and conversing well are dying arts, but they are essential to a life marked by the grace of Jesus Christ.
We can handle the occasional disagreement. In this season of division and rancor, we pray that Christians, followers of a Savior who engaged the faithful and the unfaithful, the insiders and the ostracized, the rabbis and the heretics, can model what it means to listen with love and disagree with grace.
Timothy Dalrymple is president and CEO of Christianity Today. Follow him on Twitter @TimDalrymple_.
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