Michael Pfundner explains how the word for ‘news’ in German, his native language, implies information so significant it demands an actual response, not just a scroll by or a retweet. Likewise, the good news of the gospel is so significant it necessitates a change in the course of our lives.
There used to be a saying about today’s newspapers lining tomorrow’s bins.
It’s well out of date. Papers still get printed, but there is no longer such a thing as today’s news. Instead, we have a deluge of short-lived information, endlessly proliferated, constantly updated. Today’s news is rarely new.
Nor is news restricted to a handful of official channels. Millions are tweeting, posting, sharing, 24/7. News keeps spreading like droplets from a giant magic spray can which never runs out.
Whether it’s a BBC headline or a TikTok video, because of the sheer volume of information, nine times out of ten, we aren’t going to do anything with or about it. Unmoved, we move on to the next clip or post, driven by an insatiable thirst for more. Yet, even before the Internet, news tended to be too remote or overwhelming to elicit any kind of action on the part of the one who’d read or heard it.
We have to go far back in time to find people for whom every piece of news was newsworthy. The German word for news, Nachricht, emerged from that period. It is related to a phrase which means, to respond appropriately to something. In other words, back then, a bringer of news expected more than a retweet or an emoji. Nachricht was like a royal messenger reading a proclamation while everyone gathered around them in the town square. Nachricht meant, don’t just stand there; do something!
The New Testament author James’ idea of God’s news was much closer to the venerable German word Nachricht than the Breaking News banners on our screens. James was proclaiming good news, which is the literal translation of the original Greek word for gospel.
The early Christians whom James addressed in his letter had heard the news of Messiah Jesus, learnt about his words and deeds and come to believe in him. No doubt, new Christians were taught sayings of Jesus and credal formulas by their Christian elders, presumably on a regular basis, so they wouldn’t forget them. And we all know what it’s like to learn something off by heart, by hearing and repeating it over and over: it’s easy to become desensitised to the deeper meaning and deaf to the challenge.
As a result, James tells his flock:
‘Do not deceive yourselves by just listening to his word; instead, put it into practice’ James 1.22, GNB.
James goes on to talk about someone who looks in the mirror (they used shiny things as mirrors back then), only to forget the image moments later. Sound familiar? The dubious impact of digital media on our attention spans is widely attested. In a climate of distraction, our ability to focus on God and his message struggles to thrive. We’re conditioned to look and forget.
Translated into our times, James is telling us, don’t treat the good news like something to scroll past on your phone. Don’t skim. Don’t browse. Stop. Listen. Reflect. And most importantly, act upon what God is saying.
Author: Michael Pfundner, 25 August 2023