Changing the Channel

In March someone got a hold of Vice President Dick Cheney’s list of “downtime requirements” and promptly posted it on the Internet. Having such a list of requested amenities is standard practice for celebrities and politicians who travel a lot. Mr. Cheney’s list is, for the most part, unremarkable with one exception: before arriving, the Vice President asks that all televisions in his hotel room be tuned to Fox News. Late-night comedians had a field day with that particular item!

Probably the Vice President views news programs and reads newspapers that contain a variety of opinions and political slants. But Mr. Cheney’s Fox News request opens up a subject that all of us should take seriously; namely, how well-acquainted we are with the spectrum of ideas that exist in the larger world. Left on our own, we all gravitate toward that which shores up the way we already think. Few of us want to listen ever and only to the voices of those who oppose us at every turn. Still, it may be fruitful to ask if we ever seek out contrary opinions, worldviews, or ideas.

In one of the congregations I served, some members took note of the fact that I made frequent sermonic references to articles I had read in The New York Times. No one ever suggested that I should not read that paper, but a few people decided to give me year-long subscriptions to other papers like The Washington Times and The Wall Street Journal. Initially I felt like these well-meaning people were trying to “fix” me (and maybe to an extent they were!). But their efforts may be viewed in a more contructive light insofar as they wanted to expose me to a variety of ideas and perspectives.

Especially for those of us who teach and preach–but really for all Christians– there is great value in absorbing the thoughts not only of people who believe as we do in the first place but of those with whom we cannot help but disagree. And this goes well beyond the realm of politics but traffics in far more vital matters related to the faith we profess. As we bear witness to the gospel, our witness will be sharpened (and our credibility bolstered) if we can make it clear that we believe in Christ Jesus as Lord not because we prevent ourselves from pondering the opinions of those who do not buy into our worldview. Rather, we continue to proclaim the gospel even though we have, as a matter of fact, had some serious engagement with those whose faith and worldview differ from our own.

Richard Mouw once said that if you know only one religion, you don’t know any (including your own). That may be a bit of an overstatement, but from an apologetic and witnessing standpoint, Mouw is on to something. But in an increasingly polarized world, we may be in danger of losing our willingness to listen to those who go at life from starting points quite different from our own. In a sense, this could get included under the larger categories of hospitality and courtesy. Not long ago philosopher Nicholas Wolterstorff said that Christians must not take cheap shots at those whose ideas we have not checked out–we must earn the right to disagree and we do so by hospitably making room in our lives to hear what other people are saying and thinking.

Beyond the matter of what newspapers we read, what radio shows we listen to, or what television shows we watch, Christians do well to expose themselves to the thought patterns of the wider world through also what books we read. Confining ourselves ever and only to novels written from a specifically Christian point of view will not enlarge our capacity to witness to a world that mostly writes and reads very different portraits of reality.

Of course, I have heard people say that reading other kinds of fiction is altogether too offensive due to the language used or the situations that are portrayed. Granted, as followers of Christ we never want to lose our ability to be offended–if we start to absorb even graphic material without batting an eye, that would indicate a lapse in the ability to see the world through the lens of Scripture. Nor does a desire to understand the world better license us to read everything available–we are called to think critically and judge what is appropriate and what is not.

Still, I would imagine that during his lifetime, our Lord Jesus was offended at most every turn. As this world’s Creator, surely Jesus could not fail to notice every sinful, tawdry, wicked, petty, and stupid thing that happened all around him. It must have offended his holiness constantly. Somehow, though, his pitch-perfect internal balance of “grace and truth” prevented Jesus both from losing his ability to be offended and from turning into a shrill critic who did nothing but wag his finger in people’s faces. Despite being the Holy One in our midst, Jesus managed to attract the wayward. What’s more, once those people got close enough to speak with Jesus, they found him to be such a thorough realist about life in this world that when he pointed them to the better ways of his Father’s kingdom, not a few hardboiled sinners fairly sprinted in the direction Jesus pointed.

Preachers with whom I have spoken have lamented how polarized everything seems to have become in recent years. Statements in sermons that a decade ago would have elicited little reaction are now pounced on by those who fear that everyone (including preachers) are always grinding one kind of axe or another. In an age of wariness and uncertainty, it’s tempting to retreat into a corner where all we hear, read, and see confirms what we already think. Make no mistake: now more than ever we Christians need to know deeply what we believe–a pluralistic age is no time to have only a vague awareness of the faith! But to articulate that faith well, we need to know about the world in which we find ourselves.

Left to our own devices, perhaps we’d all prefer to keep watching the same show. But sometimes it is instructive to, as it were, change the channel.

Scott Hoezee is the director of the Center for Excellence in Preaching at Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and co-editor of Perspectives.