Matthew T. Phillips

Talking Heads

My essay on the financial crisis was published at “Call and Response,” the blog of Faith & Leadership, a resource website from Leadership Education at Duke Divinity. Click here to read on the Faith & Leadership website, or read the unedited version below.

As the financial crisis continues to unfold, all eyes are trained squarely on cable news networks for updates and analysis. In fact, watching cable news and discussing the Dow Jones Industrial Average has become a chief point of common experience for Americans. What they find in that common experience is a shotgun approach of short, shallow stories. Because pain and panic sell, those are the common themes in broadcasts.

The turn of attention away from traditional points of civic discourse–churches or the town square–is typically described as a matter of demand. The argument is that people increasingly expect to be able to get news at any time and to see personality-driven analysis of that news. They want that analysis to come from politically-identifiable biases, for which “fair and balanced” has become helpful shorthand.

The issue is actually one of supply, and it 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 of 2008, as the first hints of financial problems at AIG emerged, but long in advance of widespread concern about the economy, executives at the insurance giant started to look for opportunities in stronger companies. In order to stem the tide of departures, AIG promised bonus payouts to a group of key executives: people who were responsible for millions of dollars of income that would help balance the company’s losses from what we now know to be dangerous investments. The bonuses kept employees who were key to slowing the company’s downfall who could have easily moved on to greener pastures. When those bonuses became due a year later, that story was not nearly as interesting as a differently cast version in which the bonuses were coming from 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, and evil sells, so why bother seeking the good?

A world that does not know how to listen to a more considered discussion is a dangerous place for Christianity. The truth that binds churches in Christian mission is not a short or shallow story. Following one who ignored gossip and public relations implications to mingle with criminals and prostitutes means that we need to be able to tease out careful distinctions, to look beyond the scope of a few days or a few hours in a news cycle and to historical causes and trends. We need to consider the good in people that the press is willing to label villains and to be honest about the sin in people who are lauded as heroes. Theology is not a simple matter, and throughout history, our churches have said “yes, but,” as we augment public discussion. That is exactly the kind of approach the world needs, and if we do not exercise those muscles in this financial crisis, theology will have moved even further from the field of sources contributing to public dialogue.

The church needs to broaden its infrastructure for discourse to include not only theological matters, but also the most complex stories of the day. If the changing economic landscape of the world forces us into change, it should be a broadening of mission and aggressive building of relationships across disciplines so that we have the resources to engage the most complex issues of the day. The church’s natural focus on the people and organizations affected by recession is predictable and important, but we need to spend energy struggling to understand the causes too. 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 an intellectually lazy approach, and Christianity is not an intellectually lazy faith.

This is a time when the connections between churches become more valuable, as the complexity of the issues requires sharing the burden of education to dig into the complexities of our new reality. But those complexities are ones that we can master, and the endeavor is one we must undertake to preserve the kinds of rigor and relationships that theological discussion requires. If the church could supply sources of information again, we will move back to the intersection of public discourse. If we form the infrastructure for engaging this kind of economic complexity, our ability to effect positive change is multiplied, and the next crisis may be averted.