'Godfulness' – one possible Christian response to the godlessness of modern society?

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We've all had that experience of life seeming to be too much for us.

Many years ago, my response to the pressures of young adulthood was to turn to mood-altering substance – chiefly alcohol.

As it says in one piece of literature I was given, 'Alcohol gave me wings to fly, and then it took away the sky.'

Long sobered up, I now need alternative means of dealing with stressful situations.

And one such means is practising what I'm starting to call 'Godfulness'.

The word of course has its roots in 'mindfulness' but my concept of it is not exactly Christian mindfulness, as I undertand that, though it does draw on both concepts. It also draws on the practices of prayer and meditation as developed in the 12-step programmes of recovery.

There have been two direct applications for me this week.

One is in developing an argument around applying Godfulness to problems journalists are having coping with the growing number of 'fake news' outlets.

Media sites such as Snopes are trying and testing news outlets for 'fake news'.  Individual journalists must also take steps to help ourselves in an environment that can feel frightening and sinister, especially if we are unlucky enough to find yourself being trolled on social media.

'Fake News' is a handy weapon of abuse which is often directed at journalists, particularly by the present incumbent of the White House.

As just one example, a recent story I wrote about President Donald Trump's first travel ban was that a Christian family was among the first to be turned away at a US airport and sent back to the Middle East. Supporters of Donald Trump's policy on this issue didn't like this story because it contradicted Trump's own message at that time that Christians would be getting special treatment and not be subject to the ban. So my accurate story was attacked on social media as 'fake news'. 

The manifestations of fake news are so serious that the Culture, Media and Sport committee in Parliament has launched an inquiry to seek evidence and report back. Launching the inquiry, Damian Collins, chair of the committee, said: 'The growing phenomenon of fake news is a threat to democracy and undermines confidence in the media in general.' 

My small suggestion for journalists, at least in Christian media, is to move towards using and defining a sense of how Godfulness works in the sense of being a practitioner when going through this persona testing of ourselves as we try to live and work in this environment where there is such a strong sense of attack and undermining.

It has to do with Christ-like principles of neighbourliness, of loving our neighbours as ourselves, treating others as we would wish to be treated.

Should we 'turn the other cheek', as a saint-like person such as the former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams might do, or fight back, like Donald Trump, when we are being traduced? We should certainly take stock and promptly admit it when we do make mistakes – and attempt to put them right. 

We can try to enact the ideals spoken of by Jesus, so that even our opponents do not feel misrepresented when we write about them. And we can turn to the beatitudes, to the lives of the saints, which apply still in so many ways today, when working out a response to a social media or 'fake news' storm that might one day catch us by surprise, either about ourselves, a loved one or an idea or institution we care about.

I'm not suggesting we go and sit on columns away from it all like the ascetic saint Symeon Stylites – although some people I know very well still have phones that do nothing more than make calls and SMS. Some people actually don't have mobile phones at all. So opting out is one option, but obviously that is not a realistic one for those of us who use or work in media. These are the kinds of things I would like to explore in a future book.

As the means of news production have become more sophisticated, with technology is such that in five years time we could be able to alter moving images so much that we can make videos of people saying whatever we want, it is no longer the case that pictures cannot lie. The technological capacity to ape reality is gathering momentum. The implications for fake news are obvious. If it is easy to manufacture, more will be made. So we do need to work out responses, both at individual and organisational levels.

So it is good that the Government is looking at this. It is good that Tim Berners-Lee, founder of the World Wide Web, feels so strongly about it that he used the Internet's 28th birthday a few days ago to write his own epistle setting out his concerns about fake news. Legislation is probably one way forward. And while we wait for that, we can meditate on seeking the truth in the white-out of the media blizzard.

On a more personal note, I found a second application for Godfulness when asked to go on Sky News to talk about the headscarf ruling from the European Court of Justice. I was 'up against' Julia Hartley-Brewer, the rebarbative and respected TALK Radio presenter, who compared a Muslim woman wearing a headscarf at work to herself, as an atheist, turning up with Darwin's On the Origin of Species on her head. As if having a faith means a person cannot possibly believe Darwin's theory of evolution is correct. The fact that her image was huge on the screen, and I was just a tiny little thing by comparison, didn't help. Responding to her in the setting of the studio felt a bit like a 21st century version of David versus Goliath, except I'm not sure I 'won'. But I did breathe deeply, and think: 'Godfulness'. So perhaps it was not a disaster.  

Whatever the stresses and strains of our lives – and goodness knows there are so any more than the two mentioned here – hopefully, if we can remember to keep God in the picture, we won't go too far wrong. 

Sky News/Twitter

This column is developed from the Hugh Price Hughes lecture delivered at Hinde Street Methodist Church in London on Tuesday March 14. Follow @ruthiegledhill on Twitter.

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