If the average person were asked to name the top religion stories of the past year, chances are they'd remember a scandal involving a minister, a battle over church-state relations, or maybe an assault on religious people or their churches.
In his new book, How the News Makes Us Dumb, John Sommerville says there's a reason why the media's coverage of religion is always so negative: it's because religion and daily news simply don't mix.
We all remember the headlines about how outraged Hindu and Jewish leaders became over the reports that Baptists were planning to pray for their conversion. The networks were all over that story.
Sex scandals involving clergy always make page one, so they're hard to forget. And remember all those Y2K stories? Many focused on how those crazy religious folks were stocking up on Spam, and bracing for the end.
Sommerville says there's a good reason why church controversies get publicity, while good works go unnoticed. It's because religion and the news are polar opposites in their approach to life.
"Religion celebrates what we believe to be settled and even eternal," Sommerville says. But the news is about change and excitement. So reporters yawn when Christians go to church or volunteer at soup kitchens.
Before news became an industry, Sommerville writes, society was held together, not by news, but by their cultures. People shared "fairly settled assumptions about what was reasonable, natural, expected or good." Scholars call this a culture's meta-narrative -- a narrative that "binds our thinking."
In Western culture, the Bible provided this meta-narrative. Even non-believers were familiar with its stories and ways of structuring moral and social reality.
But the daily news industry changed all that. Those in the news business tend to be far less religious than most Americans; and they're distrustful of a culture built on the Judeo-Christian narrative. These elites think it's their job to make us aware of the cultural restraints on our thinking, Sommerville says. That's why they sponsor "a continuous referendum on our cultural inheritance."
The result is that many people accept the idea that we should be constantly re-evaluating what we believe and understand about the world -- including our religious beliefs.
It's proper for news outlets to raise questions about dominant ideas -- to reform or reshape traditional culture. But news stories cannot replace a culture's meta-narrative, because, by its very nature, the news gives priority to the shocking and the new. It is a cycle of endless deconstruction.
The good news is that Americans are recognizing that the "news" is becoming little more than vulgar entertainment, largely irrelevant to our lives -- which is why it has so little impact.
In the end, Sommerville says, we must use news for the limited purposes for which it is suited -- and realize our need for the more settled culture the news constantly questions. We should balance our appetite for daily news with a cultural diet rich in books, reflection, and discussion.
The news may make us dumb -- but reading and discussing great books, especially the Bible, leads to the kind of wisdom that brings real understanding.