There’s an underreported aspect of the ongoing Hong Kong protests. It reminds us of how news and religion are natural antagonists.
On June 9, protests erupted over a proposed law that would allow Hong Kong citizens to be extradited to China. Different groups in various districts organized demonstrations. They came together in larger protests on Hong Kong Island.
Protests continue to this day. A week ago Sunday, police fired a barrage of tear-gas canisters at an estimated 430,000 demonstrators. It marked the strongest show of force by police to date, even though Carrie Lam, Hong Kong’s Chief Executive, has pronounced the extradition bill dead. Demonstrators remain dubious.
You’ve probably read all this. What you probably haven’t read is a BBC report on an important aspect of the story. Soon after they began, a Christian hymn became an unofficial anthem of the protests.
On June 11, a group of Christians was holding an all-night public prayer meeting. They started singing “Hallelujah to the Lord.” Edwin Chow, 19, acting president of the Hong Kong Federation of Catholic Students, said other protestors picked up the song. “It is short and easy to remember. There’s only one line: ‘Sing Hallelujah to the Lord.’” The BBC reports the hymn became an unofficial anthem of the protesters.
Not that every protester is a Christian. Some might have hoped the hymn would have a calming effect on the police. Or it would be a guarantee of the protesters’ safety. According to the law, any religious gathering in public areas is not considered illegal.
Whatever the protesters’ motives, we won’t find this story on the pages of the New York Times. “All the news that’s fit to print” is the paper’s motto, yet news of protesters singing a hymn doesn’t seem to be news that’s fit to print. C. John Sommerville thinks he knows why. News and religion are natural antagonists.
Sommerville is Professor Emeritus of English History at the University of Florida. He’s also the author of a number of books including The Decline of the Secular University and Religious Ideas for Secular Universities. But Sommerville’s interests also include the history of the media, described in his 1999 book, How the News Makes Us Dumb.
We’re dumb because we bought into a bias—news happens daily. Or hourly. Or every minute. Up until the 18th century, news only happened periodically (published in periodicals). Then the news industry came up with a novel idea: news happens daily. So we have to have an up-to-the-minute news industry supplied by an almost endless number of media outlets. Consuming this industry’s “news product” actually makes us dumb because newsworthy events don’t happen daily. In fact, they rarely happen.
It’s true. In an hour or two, you could read all the news God feels is fit to print about the life of Christ. Vast swaths of Jesus’ life—almost all of it actually—go unreported. Not newsworthy. Nor is most of my life. Or yours.
We’ve forgotten this. Since 1999, social media has exacerbated this bias for news being daily. We unthinkingly assume events in our lives are newsworthy and ought to be posted for the world to see. Sommerville says this whole idea “would be considered by any of the world’s major religions a sign of being spiritually lost.” Spiritually lost people have forgotten that “news and religion are natural antagonists.”
Not antagonistic in a sacred/secular dichotomy (religion is sacred/news is secular). Rather, natural refer to the nature, or essence, of things. The nature of news is to breathlessly report on what’s immediately in front of us. It naturally crowds out reflection. Religion is reflective, perceiving from an eternal perspective if any daily events are newsworthy (most are not). Religion naturally crowds out immediacy.
This is what good news does. Some in the news industry recognize this. On occassion, it’s the BBC. Or it’s the work of Paul Glader, who spent 10 years as a staff writer at The Wall Street Journal. Glader is helping launch an online magazine, religionunplugged.com. If you want to read newsworthy stories, I recommend subscribing to it.
 C. John Sommerville, How the News Makes Us Dumb: The Death of Wisdom in an Information Society (Intervarsity Press, 1999), 50.