Media for Community-building

In an email responding to this blog’s post
News or PR, the author Michael Bugeja (<i><b>The Interpersonal
Divide:The Search for Community in a Technological Age</b></i>),
says that Martin Luther’s contribution to the revolution that resulted from the
moveable type printing press was to demonstrate the power of truth over
authority. Luther not only understood the power of truth, he also understood
how the medium of printing could advance his ideas.

Michael Bugeja writes in (The Interpersonal Divide:The Search for Community in a Technological Age), that “machines skew people’s perceptions of the world, altering fundamental aspects of the life experience. Not only do vocabularies change, entire cultures do. (p. 110) Consider the private world of the so-called iPod culture, for example.

Used with care, machines can benefit the human community, but used with less care they can undermine community. In an email to this blog Bugeja says that Martin Luther’s contribution to the revolution spawned by the moveable type printing press was to demonstrate the power of truth over authority and this, in turn, undermined the authority of the leadership of the church and created a new faith community. Luther not only understood the power of truth, he also understood how the medium of printing could advance his ideas. This was a pivotal point in human history.

are we using
media to enrich
our lives and
reaffirm our
values, or are
media and
technology using
us to program
our lives and
influence our
values?
–Michael Bugeja

Using new print technology to point out discrepancies between the teachings of the church and those of scripture, Luther shifted public perception away from the authority of the pope and created a new collective consciousness, Begeja says. Today we know it as the Protestant religious community.

Out of this historical understanding Bugeja asks a critical question: “are we using media to enrich our lives and reaffirm our values, or are media and technology using us to program our lives and influence our values?” (p. 111)

It’s even more pertinent in light of a USA Today article appearing this morning and a Christian Science Monitor article last week, both of which focus on how churches are using media and marketing.

I frame the question in this way: Can we use media as tools and marketing as a discipline to encourage individuals to grow in spiritual depth within an authentic faith community and also foster civic engagement?

In religious language this is referred to as discipleship.

Secondly, can we use media in a way that reveals authenticity, integrity and, therefore, truth? Put another way: Can marketing be healing?

What I hear from skeptics is “no.” In the religious community, if the content of a message is not to the liking of a critic, it is often critiqued as unfaithful, or lacking in some important theological principle. On the other hand, if a religious community imperfectly embodies values contained in a message it sends to public audiences (in the case of my denomination it’s a promise to be people of open hearts, open minds, open doors), other critics contend that the message is misleading, untrue or hypocritical.

Invariably, it seems, the conclusion drawn is that we can’t “do media right,” and we should disengage from the media altogether.

But I contend that this isn’t an alternative. It’s what we in the mainline denominations have been doing for the past twenty years. These denominations have been disengaged from public media to such a degree that they have lost their voice. We have abandoned the most powerful and pervasive communications systems ever known to humankind and turned them over to commercial interests and those religious groups with enough moxie and political acumen to advance their agendas while the agendas of the mainline denominations–inclusive community, interfaith cooperation, compassionate social policies and peace with justice–have taken short-shrift.

In effect, we have given over to others the power to shape culture, perceptions and even life experience. A lively dialogue is occurring in many parts of the world incorporating new technologies while also preserving culture. Do we really want to stand on the sidelines as this formative discussion takes place? To do so is to leave broadcast, narrowcast and personalized media to those who commercialize life on the one hand or, on the other, who manipulate information to fit their own preconceived political agendas. That’s what disengagement means.

Bugeja notes that the new medium of moveable type led to upheaval. it was a generation, 65 years, before Luther emerged to “aright” and set it on a more balanced path.

In the speeded up environment of digital and electronic media, 65 years isn’t a generation, it’s a lifetime. To be disengaged for 65 years until we “get it right” is to stare extinction in the face.

Our response to rapid, unsettling change should be engagement, not withdrawal. We must do the hard work necessary to deliver messages that re-connect us in communities, speak to our hopes and aspirations, affirm and lift up human dignity.

institutions and social practices
should be judged rational,
efficient, and productive not
only to the extent that they
maximize money and power,
but also to the extent that
they maximize love and caring,
ethical and ecological sensitivity
and behavior, kindness and generosity,
non-violence and peace, and
enhance our capacities to respond
to other human beings in a
way that honors them as
embodiments of the sacred
–Rabbi Michael Lerner

This work is not just about advertising or marketing, it’s about human community. It’s about the values of inclusiveness, compassion and justice. Strangely, the fact that we’ve trained people in more than 30,000 local congregations in skills in welcoming and hospitality is left out of most stories about the United Methodist media campaign. But it’s in these local churches where values become real.

And it’s this effort at community-building that distinguishes most mainline denominational advertising from the rest of the commercial pack. In fact, I believe this is a counter-cultural statement.

The media do isolate us. Many marketing messages do undermine our self-worth. In particular, much of the content of television and radio diminishes community. But the mainline churches extend an invitation to authentic community, make the claim that human life cannot be reduced to a life-long series of economic transactions, affirm human dignity and call for social justice, all within an inclusive community.

The harmful qualities of media are not reasons to disengage, they are reasons to transform the culture. I agree with Rabbi Michael Lerner who writes, “Here is the New Bottom Line that we advocate: We believe that institutions and social practices should be judged rational, efficient, and productive not only to the extent that they maximize money and power, but also to the extent that they maximize love and caring, ethical and ecological sensitivity and behavior, kindness and generosity, non-violence and peace, and enhance our capacities to respond to other human beings in a way that honors them as embodiments of the sacred, and nurtures our capacities to respond to the earth and the universe with awe, wonder, and radical amazement.”

However imperfect the attempt, this means to me that we continue to use media for community-building.

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