Matthew T. Phillips: Talking heads

Far from trusting cable's talking heads, churches need to understand what Credit Default Swaps are. Really.

Where did you go for updates on the slow-motion disaster that was the financial meltdown? Cable news, right? Watching cable and discussing the Dow Jones Industrial Average has become a common experience for many Americans. There, on CNN, Fox News, MSNBC and more, people are subjected to a shotgun blast of short, shallow stories. Because pain and panic sell, they are the dominant themes of cable news.

But whenever anyone points out how we have turned away from traditional forums of civic discourse such as churches or the town square, we’re typically told that this is what our culture demands. The argument is that people want to get news any time and to see personality-driven analysis of that news. “Fair and balanced” has become helpful shorthand for analysis with readily identifiable political biases. This should be of grave concern to churches and related institutions. In a world of short, shallow stories, truth is lost.

The coverage of retention bonuses paid to AIG executives is a fantastic and sad example. In March 2008, long before widespread concern about the economy, the first hints of financial problems at AIG began to emerge. As the first news broke, many executives at the insurance giant started to look for better job opportunities in stronger companies. To stem the tide of employee departures, AIG promised bonus payouts to a group of key executives who were responsible for bringing in millions of dollars of income that would help offset losses from what we now know to be dangerous investments. The bonuses worked, keeping employees at AIG who could have easily moved on to greener pastures and who had the skills and knowledge to slow the company's downfall. But when those bonuses became due a year later, that account of their origin and purpose was not so interesting. Instead, most news outlets went with a different version in which the bonuses were paid by taxpayers to line the pockets of evil market manipulators who caused economic catastrophe.

There's an old saw that the truth is easier to tell than a lie, but it's also easier to find evil than good. Evil sells. So why bother seeking the good?

A world that does not know how to listen is a dangerous place for Christianity. The truth that binds us in Christian mission is not a short or shallow story. We follow one who ignored gossip and public relations to mingle with criminals and prostitutes. So we need to be able to tease out careful distinctions and look beyond the scope of the news cycle to larger historical causes and trends. We need to consider the good in people that the press labels as villains and to see the sin in people who are lauded as heroes. Theology is not a simple matter. Throughout history, our churches have often spoken the words “yes, but,” in matters of public discussion. That is exactly the kind of approach the world needs. If we do not approach the financial crisis that same way, then theology will become even more marginalized as a contributor to public dialogue.

The church needs to broaden its discourse to address not only obviously theological matters but also other complex stories of the day. The church’s natural focus on the people and organizations affected by the recession is predictable and important. But we also need to spend energy struggling to understand the causes. To say, “I have no idea what credit default swaps are, and so they must be bad and the people who wrote them must be evil,” is intellectually lazy. Christianity, however, is not an intellectually lazy faith. The complexities of the economy are ones that we can master, and we must do so if we are to preserve the rigor and relationships that theological discussion requires. If the church can supply needed insight and information on such topics (and given our connections to one another we can find people who can provide such insight), we will move back to the center of public discourse. If we form the skills to engage this kind of economic complexity, we will increase our ability to effect positive change and perhaps even help avert the next crisis.