Information Overload

September 23, 2014

One of the 21st century’s greatest blessings is also its greatest curse. I’m speaking of information technology that has given us the Internet, the World Wide Web, not to mention social networking. It used to be that one found out what was happening in the world by radio broadcast or newspaper. As an aside, one of my all-time favorite museums is the Newseum in Washington, D.C. (next door to the Canadian embassy). Worth the price of admission is the amazing collection on Level 5 called the News Corporation News History Gallery. This display covers more than 500 years of news history, showcasing almost 400 newspaper front pages dating back to the 1500s. Fascinating!

For centuries, because of the limitations of transportation, transmission, and imaging, people got their news slowly and locally. It was simply not possible to know what was going on unless a written text was carried by a messenger. For this reason, there was a lot of room for rumor, miscommunication, and apathy because news was not delivered in a timely fashion.

Need I describe the situation now? Any citizen of the earth who has an iPhone or Samsung Galaxy, for instance, can write an article and/or take a picture, and transmit both to anyone else around the world who has the same gadgets. It is very hard to keep a secret these days, even in North Korea, (I think) the most severely restricted nation for Internet access in the world. Not only does the Internet reach the world, it does so almost instantaneously.

The blessing of this reality is that the world can find out right away when atrocities are perpetrated so that world citizens can be moved to action. It makes me wonder if the Nazi death camps could have sustained operation for as long as they did if one key person had detected their existence and posted a picture for the world to see. Currently, at least we know to some degree the evil ISIS is doing in Syria/Iraq, the kidnappings Boko Haram is arrogantly pursuing in Nigeria, the threat of a smoldering volcano in Iceland, the spread of the Ebola tragedy in West Africa, and the extent of damage to Baja California by Hurricane Odile. Whereas in 1976 it took a personal messenger from Antigua, Guatemala, to bring first-hand news of that country’s terrible earthquake in order to enlist our relief efforts, now within minutes such a disaster is broadcast by satellite all over the world, enabling money, supplies, and aid workers to go to work as soon as transportation can be organized.

The curse of knowing this much about what is going on is the burden such knowledge puts on our minds and hearts: the burden of sadness, the burden of responsibility, the burden of fear or mistrust or anger or outrage. [I must interject here that it has also activated a global prayer response, which we know “avails much.”] But sometimes, even watching the evening news—which generally dispenses a very America-centric viewpoint on world events in chewable bites—can be exposure to “too much information!” Not only do I ask, “What is happening?” but “Why is this happening?” and most difficult of all, “What am I supposed to do with this knowledge?” It’s enough to render a writer wordless, which it did for me this summer. Where does one start? As I think Charlie Brown used to say, “No problem is so big or so complicated that it can’t be run away from.” I suspect that TMI in the news department may be desensitizing us, diluting our sense of responsibility, or building up mental callouses so that the fact we have no categories for some of these atrocities doesn’t even bother us.

But if we are to be responsible world citizens, specifically World Christians, what are we to do with the knowledge we can access at the click of a button? This question opens a can of worms, I know, leading to discussions I am not competent to moderate: What is the nature of journalism and how does it relate to social networking? How can we know what is true vs. what is manipulated by journalistic PhotoShop? When Jesus said, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” did he mean a Nigerian is my neighbor? [My list of questions is long . . . ]

If my mission is Bringing the Word to Life, then part of my call is to reflect upon Life (the good, the bad, and the ugly) in light of God’s Word. I’d like to write more about this tomorrow, but it involves being attentive to world news and anchored in the Scriptures, while finding a bridge between the two. Most people are experiencing the kind of life that cries out for a word of hope, purpose, or blessing. Unfortunately, there are some also who are evil in their intent, destructive in their actions, and very powerful in earthly terms. We cannot go down the road to perdition with them, but we can keep erecting signposts in the right direction. That, too, is bringing the Word to life.

At the very least, the news invites me to consider how things could be different if Christ’s disciples realized their potential for turning the world upside down (Acts 17:6), not by military force or coercion, by remaining steadfastly loyal to Jesus Christ. If we follow in his footsteps by demonstrating the grace and truth of God’s Kingdom, serving “the least of these” (Matthew 25:40), and embodying the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22), we might—slowly and locally—make a world of difference.



6 Responses to “Information Overload”

  1. This summer the military forces of the state of Israel killed over 2,000 people, most of whom were civilians and many of whom were children in Gaza which is a big outdoor prison. Much of the killing was on live television. Yet the United States supports Israel financially (about $3 billion a year), militarily, and politically never voting against it at the United Nations. It is time for followers of Jesus to speak out against the racist, colonialist regime in Israel. It is time to promote justice and democracy for all residents in the territory controlled by Israel. It is time to be peacemakers.

  2. Mary, thanks for your post. Gives me something to think about as I work on my sermon this week based on the Good Samaritan (Lk. 10:25-37). I am thinking of responding to the where do I begin with the starfish story. (The kid saying I can’t save them all, but I saved this one as he throws the starfish back into the ocean.)

  3. If you are not already familiar with them, I think the writings of Ann Voskamp and Lisa Terkeust are going in the right direction in these days of bad news.

  4. Jodie Says:

    Curious comment by Mr Goff, since at the same time the events he was describing were taking place, this other group of people calling themselves Muslims were decapitating little children and proudly parading their bodies because their parents belonged to a religious sect they despise. They intentionally killed thousands of innocent civilians execution style. Whereas in Gaza, the civilians who died got killed because they were standing between the Israeli army and their legitimate military targets. The Hamas was using civilians as a shield to protect and hide their rocket launchers. And when they fired those rockets the civilians were cheering.

    Now I don’t presume to understand the blood lust of warfare and the deeply ingrained hatred that drives people to commit such atrocities. Nor do I understand the math that raises up two evil people to take the place of every one that is killed. I have been surrounded by love – God’s love and people’s love, all of my life. I don’t understand hatred. Not really.

    Jesus said that the answer to violence and hatred was to do good and to love one’s enemies. Pray for them even. I don’t know if he was being universally practical or not, but I can say that in my little corner of the Universe, His teachings have proven to be true.

    Why then would I choose to hate one side, and love another? Why should I pray to surrender to evil, when Jesus teaches me to pray to be delivered >from< evil?

    Maybe God's Grace is like a light you shine in the dark. If you think about it, Darkness isn't even real. Its only the absence of light and we give it a name as if it had power. But you can't shine darkness into light. You can only shine light into darkness. And maybe somewhere in that old metaphor lies the answer to all the bad news we get thrown at us every day.

  5. David Says:

    I agree that seeing such suffering on the news on a daily basis has desensitized us (or at least me). It’s just too much to absorb. Our neighbor is anyone whom God puts in our path, but when our path is crowded with people who are starving and dying (or fighting each other) which neighbor do we try to help? Do we pick the closest neighbor, or the one who screams the loudest, or do we try to help everyone? And after a while do we just put on blinders and push our way through the crowd? As we flick through the TV channels and come to a picture of a starving child in Africa, do we quickly flick to the next channel? Do we hang up on the phone solicitors who call several times a day asking for donations? Do we stop watching the news and reading the paper?

    • revmary Says:

      Painful, good questions, David! We get our “practice” at answering them every time we walk from BART to Symphony Hall in San Francisco and try to figure out how to respond to the homeless begging in the street.

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