Archive - February, 2005

Framing Fear


“There are many more messages of fear about the world in U.S. media than in Scandanavia or Europe,” according to a member of the board of directors of United Methodist Communications, an international agency whose board recently met in the United States.

Delegates from Africa and Asia nodded their agreement.

As a result, a worldview is being created in the U.S. that sees the world as a fearful and dangerous place. These remarks set me to wondering about the function of fear and how it captivates us and changes us. How is it that people in other parts of the world, who have also witnessed horrible violence and terror on their own continents, are not inundated with fearful messages, but we here in the U.S. are?

A dictionary definition of fear is that it’s an “emotion experienced in anticipation of some specific pain or danger (usually accompanied by a desire to flee or fight).” Language that invokes fear creates a “frame” in George Lakoff’s terms (Don’t Think of an Elephant) that results in a way of viewing the world.

But the frame is merely language that interprets ideas and values, according to Lakoff. Framing the world as a fearful and dangerous place leads us to believe that we need a strong father figure to protect us and to conclude that we must either fight or flee.

This is what puzzles me. The idea that it’s a fearful world runs counter to a fundamental tenet of Christian faith that this is God’s world and Creation is good. I’ve been taught that God comes to us and we, in similar fashion, should engage the world and other human beings.

I’ve seen more than a fair share of war and suffering firsthand. I’ve been a part of humanitarian aid operations from Ethiopia to Brazil; from Kampuchea to Somalia. But this experience doesn’t lead me to believe that I should live in fear and withdraw into a bunker. It leads me to the conclusion that I must work even harder for economic justice, an end to poverty and equal rights for all, especially women, around the world.

This is essentially a set of values born from an understanding of the world as God’s creation and rooted in the belief that the call of the Christian faith is a call to accept responsibility for the world and for working toward a community that nurtures all peoples. It’s about looking for alternatives in the face of unacceptable violence. This is not so much idealism as basic, practical good sense.

A world in which injustice reigns is a world that creates anger and despair. This is a breeding ground for hopelessness and violence. Hope leads to dreams and ambitions. It leads to life.

We have a choice. Create communities of hope or communities of despair. Hope springs from the belief that together we can get through troubles and build a better life. I think this is a frame the Christian community must advance as often and energetically as possible.

If it represents “counter programming” to the mainstream media in the U.S., so be it. Perhaps that’s the role for communicators from the Christian tradition. Perhaps It’s actually more realistic than the fearful framing that is so common today.

Goodbye Television, Hello Videostream


Is television passe’; an old medium that’s outlived its usefulness? Are web pages a thing of the past? Is traditional marketing being surpassed by word-of-mouth, “viral” marketing? Is there a place for marketing of any kind within religious communities? Can traditional religious institutions survive in a new digital culture that bypasses traditional gatekeepers and empowers people to act in direct ways, immediately?

These
and a host of other intriguing questions were the subject of a series of
conversations I was involved in the last couple of days. The conversations
result from the struggle of some forward-looking people of Christian faith to
envision what the faith community will look like in the future and how it
adjusts to the realities of the digital era in which the world finds itself
today.

I’m still forming my own
take on these conversations but among the thoughts they inspire are
these:

No people in the world are
beyond the influence of digital media and their impact. The Internet,
cellphones and satellite dishes bring information to people with immediacy and
visual impact that was unknown to earlier generations.

A global consumerist culture has
developed that is neither friendly to religious values, nor understands the
language of faith. Of course this culture takes different forms in different
regions and it is lived out in unique ways, but, never the less, it is pervasive
and it’s changing how people around the world live and what they expect from
life.

This culture is about
information. It’s about images and how to convey messages in a compelling and
effective way given competition for mindspace. It’s about knowing how to use
media to inform, inspire and engage. It’s about being in the stream of the
information flow and not standing on the shore watching it move by, and, in
effect, being bypassed, or worse, being left
behind.

These media impose upon
organizations transparency and responsiveness in ways that have not been so
demanding as before.

Loyalty, if it
exists at all, is much more tenuous in this environment. Because of the
Internet, people have multiple choices for information and for action, if they
want to act. Certainly, traditional organizations cannot take loyalty for
granted among those who have grown up in the digital
age.

The Digital Divide is less
about affordability and more about how the different generations engage digital
media.

The digital environment is an
interactive environment. It’s about relationships built on trust and
responsiveness to individual needs, desires and
expectations.

The demand for
information is immediate. Expectations are ratcheted up. If you’re not in the
information stream, you’re out of
mind.

These are just a few of the
reflections these conversations started me on. I will be writing about more as
I wrap my own thoughts around this new environment and how I am adjusting, or
not adjusting, to it.

Sister Dorothy Stang

An article in this morning’s Washington Post reports in detail on the aftermath of the murder of Sister Dorothy Stang in the northern Amazon region of Brazil.

The
nun was an advocate for peasant farmers and the poor in the region. She also
advocated for just land use and preservation of the environment. For this, she
was shot three times in the face, one of more than 1,300 murders in the region
last year, all related to environmental and economic
justice.

The article says she often
told people the only weapon needed to combat injustice was the Bible.
Eyewitnesses say she quoted Bible verses as she died. Her death has galvanized
national government officials and local peasants, according to the
report.

The Voice of the Right

Today’s Tennessean, the Nashville daily, features a profile of Dr. Richard Land , President of the Ethics and Religious Liberties Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention. Dr. Land supports the war in Iraq, believing it meets the criteria for a “just war.”

Speaking
of terrorists, Dr. Land is quoted by Tennessean staff writer Holly Edwards
saying, “There are just some people you have to kill if you want to live in a
civilized society. This is a battle between civilization and
barbarism.”

Edwards reports Land was
interviewed 660 times last year and has weekly teleconferences with the
president’s aides.

Religion Writer Needed–No experience required

The lack of coverage of religion in mainstream media has been a source of frustration for many of us in the religious community for years. Even worse is reporting that reflects a lack of understanding. Julia Duin identifies the problems in an article on Poynter Online.

There is
fear and
loathing of
religion
among the
gatekeepers.

She cites two examples of advertisements for
new hires on the religion beat–one from the Washington Post and the second from
the Nashville Tennessean. Neither requires previous experience covering
religion. The Post even went so far as to state that candidates need not be
religious themselves.

Imagine the
science or medical beat covered by a writer with no experience in the field.
Every day religious stories make news. The election turned on a vote about
values. We have an administration that is perhaps the most vocal about religion
in U.S. history. Religious pluralism is greater in the country today than ever
before.

Yet, despite the obvious
need for informed and competent reporters to cover this beat, it’s not even
considered a priority. This is nothing new, of course, it’s been this way for
many years. If anything, mainstream media are falling even further behind.
Duin’s conclusion: “There is fear and loathing of religion among many
gatekeepers who call the shots.”

Blogging a New World

A writer raised an interesting question with me recently. Can the practice of traditional journalism accurately report on dialogue between people about a new vision of community life? It’s more than an interesting question.

It
points to a concern about how journalism is practiced today. The tendency
toward storytelling in major media is to highlight conflict and emphasize polar
extremes. It’s about framing stories in either/or language. In matters of
religion this comes down to moral absolutes. If we accept the framing of
important differences of faith as polar opposites we accede to a media-imposed
model that makes it impossible to carry out constructive dialogue.

new information
technologies
inevitably
threaten existing
hierarchies

We’ve seen the result. Political dialogue
in the U.S. has become so vitriolic that politicians talk past each other or
worse, they simply go on the attack. This doesn’t lead to problem-solving or
compromise. It leads to divisiveness and alienation.

How do we reclaim community and
deal with differences more constructively? Could digital media such as blogs be
used by religious groups to stimulate cross-cultural dialogue or give voice to
those who are left out of the mainstream media or discuss those issues of faith
that we are not of one mind about?

Most denominations teach that
authentic community can only occur in local congregations in face-to-face
relationships. Mainline denominations have been critical of televangelists, in
part, because televised worship and talk shows do not offer the full depth of
human interaction that creates authentic community.

The gatekeeping
function
is being
bypassed.

But the new media are more interactive.
Differing points of view about theology create the opportunity for genuine
dialogue about matters of faith utilizing digital media. Whether this fulfills
the qualities of authentic community is another question. Community is more
than interactive exchanges. It is people sharing life together in direct
interchange.

But this doesn’t
diminish the value of dialogue in digital media. The issues that are shaping
the future are not being addressed in the mainstream media in a manner that
fosters reconciliation and understanding. If journalism continues to be
practiced as a rehearsal of either/or positions we won’t close the gaps, we will
make them deeper and wider.

We
need dialogue about those matters that people feel deeply about. This is
threatening to those who would like to control the flow of information. Hugh
Hewitt in
Blog:
Understanding the Information Reformation That’s Changing Your World

makes the point that new information
technologies inevitably threaten existing hierarchies. The gatekeeping function
is being bypassed by digital media such as
blogs.

The Internet empowers people
and puts considerable control of information selection and information-sharing
in their hands. It’s a new power reality. It may be that the new media can
strengthen traditional community by stimulating more transparent discussion of
important differences leading to greater understanding, tolerance and respect.
If we can encourage such dialogue it may lead to renewed communities and
building bridges over the gaps in understanding that have been created by the
voices at the extremes.

Blogging the Information Reformation


Hugh Hewitt writes in his newest book Blog: Understanding the Information Reformation That’s Changing Your World that the ground is shifting so quickly it’s impossible to overstate the impact of new digital media, especially blogs. An information reformation is happening right now now and its influence is as decisive as the Reformation that split Christianity in the sixteenth century when Gutenberg revolutionized printing.

Hewitt identifies himself as center-right and his writing throws off sparks like an ideological grinding wheel. I don’t share his political perspective, but his understanding of the information reformation and how it’s changing the public dialogue makes this book a compelling read.

Here are a handful of key points:

Change as a result of new media isn’t coming. It’s here.

New technologies in communication radically affect hierarchies of power.

Blogs are all about content, trust and immediacy.

The gatekeeping function of hierarchies is gone.

These changes and more are creating a new reality. Hewitt understands this and he tells us how to jump in.

Sister Dorothy Stang

As I read of the murder of Sister Dorothy Stang in Brazil, I felt a sickening revulsion. My stomach knotted. Her death is a reminder that Christian faith is a threat and therefore dangerous to principalities and powers in this world.

She was an advocate for poor farmers seeking
to work land declared unproductive and made available to them in the Amazon in
northern Brazil. With Sem Terra (Without Land), an organization of peasant
farmers, she had become a threat to those who would harvest the forestland for
its timber. She had lived under death threats and continued to work with the
peasants, and even became a Brazilian citizen
recently.

At the core of Christian
faith is the teaching that God is with us, especially with those of us who are
poor, vulnerable, sick, imprisoned–those who are valued least, except by God.
God chooses, especially, to be present with
them.

We who believe are called to
be present as well, to stand with those who are rejected and forgotten. It is
an expression of faithfulness and it is a risk. Sister Dorothy Stang took the
risk and paid the price. As I read the story of her murder I was humbled at her
faithfulness in the face of clear
danger.

In August, she told her
community her concern was for the people with whom she worked and that she and
her sisters want to be a sign of hope. Reading her conviction, I thought of the
young pastor in Indonesia who also spoke of repairing a flooded-out church and
saying he did so as a sign of hope to the community.

It led me to the eleventh chapter
of Hebrews to consider faith in the face of such evil. Even in death, her life
remains a sign of hope.

Goodbye, Friend

Goodbyes are never easy. At least, saying goodbye to friends who have stood with you through those times that make or break you. Dick Butler was such a friend. He stood with many people through the years, always with a steady certainty that gave us strength even when we doubted ourselves.

Dick
was the CEO of Church World Service and before that the Director of The Middle
East Office of the National Council of Churches and Church World Service. He
stood with people in the Middle East when it was difficult–to the point of
life-threatening, in fact.

He stood
with me through career challenges and changes that were as difficult as any I’ve
faced. A sure and steady presence. He opened doors. He stood on principle.
He demonstrated faith more than spoke of
it.

His death leaves a hole. I will
miss him. So long, friend.

The Crisis in Darfur

With world attention focused on southern Asia the past five weeks, conditions in the Darfur region of Sudan continued downhill.
The United Nations reports 1 million people remain homeless and subject to violent attack. Despite recent steps toward peace, the UN is calling this the worst humanitarian crisis in the world today. Many humanitarian agencies are working in the region.

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