Archive - March, 2008

One Laptop Per Child

olpc.jpgSomething interesting happens when people see the new laptop we just got from One Laptop Per Child. They want to play with it! The design invites them to pick it up and explore. Before they know it, they are engaged with the attractive little laptop. It’s inviting.

We took advantage of the promotion OLPC had before Christmas in which they encouraged donors to buy a laptop to be given to a child somewhere and the donor could also buy one for himself. So we did. And it arrived this week.

olpc2.jpgWhen my associate took it out of the box I immediately started to play with it. It is compact, well-built, colorful, unique. It immediately identified our wireless network and in a few moments I was surfing the web.

I took it home and showed it to my wife who played with it for several minutes–much longer than I did I might add–and pronounced the kids at her school would love it.

I took it back to the office and left it in a common area and also showed it around. One of our senior staff people sat down at a table and found features that I hadn’t yet discovered.

I went to a meeting and upon returning noticed that the little green and white package was gone from the table. I asked about it and learned our IT director had come and taken it to his desk. I laughed and went to see him, just to get his opinion.

I found him and our web director hunched over it. He smiled and said he had to get one for his daughter. He had discovered the webcam, which I had not yet found. He pronounced it a feature-packed, cute laptop.

Granted, we’re a technology-oriented company, so we would be interested in this small wonder. But I think the machine itself is unique enough in design and features to make it a magnet to anyone with the slightest interest in new technology.

Around our shop, at least, one laptop per child is a hit. As I left his desk I met my assistant who was carrying to him an order form and a promotional brochure.

Poor Health and Low Income

The richer you are, the better your chance for good health and a longer life. New research by the Department of Health and Human Services reported in the New York Times, documents that life expectancy is directly related to income. Those with rising income experience longer life span. Health disparity mirrors income disparity.

On the face of it, this isn’t surprising. Those who have access to health care are more likely to benefit from preventive care, early detection and treatment. Some commentators say those with higher income are also likely to have access to information that isn’t available to those with less access to the Internet and other sources of health information. The poor also eat less healthy foods and are more likely to smoke.

The report should be a reminder of the need to expand health care coverage for all. It should also provide data to support extending health care for poor children which President Bush has vetoed because he believes the proposed State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP) legislation would lead to socialized medicine. It’s now clear that lack of health care is deadly for the poor.

And it should remind us how our resources are being utilized right now. The Right Rev. Peter Price, Bishop of Bath and Wells, Church of England, writes in the God’s Politics blog that $1 trillion (Joseph Stiglitz, the Nobel Prize-winning economist, estimates the total cost of the war will be $3 trillion) could pay for health care for 530 million children.

In his column on Sunday Nicholas Kristoff puts it succinctly, the Iraq war is burning money at the rate of $5,000 per minute, money that could be put to life-enhancing use.

Kristoff asks us to imagine how that money could be put to use otherwise and one of the alternatives he suggests is “underwriting a global drive to slash maternal mortality, eradicate malaria and de-worm every child in Africa.”

Doubtless it could be done at a fraction of the cost of this war.

click here to learn more

Extending Cell Technology in Africa–Saving Lives

One of the advantages of cell technology is its capability to improve quality of life in places where landline technology doesn’t exist. Digital technology makes it possible to leapfrog over the more cumbersome landline infrastructure.

The technology has great value in locales that are off-the-grid. Bishop Joao Machado of Mozambique tells the story of massive flooding in his country a few years ago. Many people in the pathway of the floodwaters lost their lives for lack of a warning system. The bishop says community radio stations and simple handcrank radios could have saved many lives.

Cellphone technology has advanced in Africa with similar benefit. Jonathan Marks at Critical Distance weblog reports on the value of extending cell coverage on Lake Victoria.

Marks says the new service will make it possible for 200,000 fishermen to have the opportunity to use cellphones if they get into trouble on the lake. Marks says 5,000 deaths a year occur now.

Besides this obvious advantage, Marks says the new technology with bring economic and social development to lakeside villages that are not well-served right now.

He makes an interesting proposal. Couple cellphone technology with FM radio and it would be possible to provide fishing families with market information as well as weather warnings. Add to this the capability of cellphones for SMS text messaging and the technology becomes both life-enhancing and life-saving.

In Audio Lead with Your Best Quote

When producing audio lead with your best quote, writes Journalist Christine Gorman in a brief overview of a workshop on audio she attended recently as a Nieman Fellow in Journalism.

Radio was (is) my first love in the media. It’s a medium that encourages imagination on the part of the producer and listener. It gets my creative juices flowing.

When produced well, good audio is as involving as a good book. It’s about experiencing a story by placing you in it. But the medium can’t carry the same information as print. It doesn’t work well to quantify the story or present comparative data, for example. That’s best left to tables and charts that can be viewed.

Working with a good sound person is an experience all its own. I’ve watched sound engineers go through painful contortions to get the right sound for the audio track of a film. I waited in the waning light of a long, long day in sub-Saharan Africa while a sound engineer tried to capture the buzzing tiny wings of an insect. I wanted to eat and sleep. He wanted bzzzzz. I waited, and it was worth it when we got to post-production.

And I’ve been frustrated at meticulous calls to “do it one more time” because some imperceptible (to my ears) errant sound crept into an interview. Later, when I heard the takes, I was so grateful the sound person was so particular.

Getting the right sound is such a precise skill, perhaps even a delicate skill because it requires an ability to know what sound cut works to set a mood, make an impression, or draw you into the story without referring overtly to itself.

I haven’t produced audio for a number of years, primarily because the nature of my work changed from producer to administrator. But I’ve often wondered what it would be like to host a radio talk show today, or to produce audio for the Internet, which I’ve only experimented with.

With podcasting as accessible as your keyboard the only limits today are your imagination and the company you keep, I suppose. (I know that’s an old, old line but it’s still true.)

At any rate, Christine got my juices flowing, as you can tell. She provides a good brief overview of the workshop and she lists a couple of “how-to” websites. If you’re interested in audio storytelling, it’s worth a hop over to the Global Health Report Blog.

Jesus The Misunderstood Jew: Part 4

This is the fourth in a series of posts on differences between Jewish and Christian traditions focusing on attitudes toward the Bible, learning and dialogue.

It would be irresponsible and inaccurate to claim fascism is taking root in mainline denominations today. It isn’t.

But an insidious, destructive strain of anti-institutionalism coupled with an individualized theology that insists on its own rightness is present, and it’s doing harm. Division has torn at the Episcopal Church. Southern Baptists are another conflicted communion.What is present in mainline denominations is disdain for institutions coupled with an ideology of individualism that finds expression in divisive issues the most notable being human sexuality. Pressing claims of doctrinal correctness, critics have undermined or sought to take control of the institutions that help carry out some forms of ministry as in the Episcopal Church and Southern Baptist Convention.

While some regard it as faithfulness, Hedges points out that the insistence on rightness of belief makes it easier to exclude those who don’t believe “correctly” and it leads to an insularity that opens the way for manipulation by leaders bent on advancing particular agendas.

I believe it also reduces vision because it focuses attention inward rather than outward. Survey after survey of attitudes toward churches reveals those who have negative views speak of churches run by cliques, as unhospitable to new persons and more concerned with institutional preservation than with problems people face in daily life. Whether these criticisms are accurate matters less than the perception these seekers have of religious communities. They paint a picture of self-absorbed, inhospitable, insular groups unconcerned with the everyday matters that affect faith and offer assistance toward a spiritually fulfilling life.

And so I end where this series began, but with questions. If I were seeking to understand faith more fully would I go to a community that openly accepted my questions, doubts and all, and engaged in a dialogue with me about them and affirmed that my quest is acceptable faithfulness? Or would I go to a community riven with division, one that excludes some people and holds absolute positions on key issues of faith that I am required to accept or be condemned as unfaithful?

Those who claim the decline of mainline denominations results from disaffection with liberal leaders, ineffective clergy or lack of doctrinal faithfulness find easy answers for complex problems that are far from the simple clarity they claim. Membership statistics are, at best, inexact and at worst incomplete and inconsistent. They don’t prove or disprove much beyond the haphazard way most denominations keep such records.

But the claim that lack of orthodox belief is a cause for decline presents an interesting question. Why is the Southern Baptist Convention, a denomination that has been most aggressive replacing moderates with hardline conservative leaders, in decline at a pace even greater than some mainline communions? According to research by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, Roman Catholicism, which has seen a clear return to traditional dogma under Pope Benedict, is in greater decline in the United States than any mainline communion. And, more troubling, the Pew survey finds the number of unaffiliated persons has doubled.

Rabbi Funnye says he was drawn to a community that willingly asked the questions more than it proferred the answers. Dana Jennings writes he was attracted to the diaogue, a dialogue that spans centuries, yet remains current.

The conclusion I take from this review is that there are those in the Western world beleagured by materialistic individualism for whom the search for meaning is more attractive when conducted in an accepting, inquiring community open to questioning, even doubt. The search is seen as a natural outgrowth of faith and it is conducted with integrity by honoring both tradition and on-going dialogue that allows for new interpretations.

They are not seeking fixed answers so much as they seek guides along the way as they explore. Interestingly, when it was experiencing its greatest growth, the Methodist movement created “learning societies” in which inquirers sought greater understanding and came to a deeper appreciation of scripture. Perhaps the journey of faith is not about finding the right answers but probing ever more deeply to ask the right questions.

Perhaps faith is a journey not a destination, and there is richness in discovery. I wonder if that’s how we could understand Jesus’ statement, “I have come that they might have life and have it abundantly?” (John 10:10)

Jesus The Misunderstood Jew: Part 3

This is the third in a series of posts on differences between Jewish and Christian traditions focusing in particular on attitudes toward the Bible, learning and dialogue.

The views Christians and Jews have about community affect how sacred text is studied and how it shapes faith. Levine says God has given the Torah to Israel, the community, and it is the role of the community to interpret it. In this way Israel honors both the Scripture and God. Faithfulness demands engagement, questioning and on-going dialogue.

In contrast, among some Christians–not all, but a vocal minority–the Bible is viewed as the absolute, unchanging, inerrant word of God. Faithfulness involves holding fast to unchanging principles. Those preaching this view have been in the ascendancy in public media exposure recent years. They have shaped how Christian faith is perceived among those unfamiliar with more moderate faith groups.This approach creates a different kind of community than the learning community Levine characterizes. In the latter instance, it is one which leads to a view of the world as hostile and a stance that faith is a bulwark against this hostility. Viewed from this perspective, the Bible must be defended from those ideas that challenge its inerrancy rather than to engage and challenge it as a way toward more complete understanding.

Similarly, the community must defend itself against all manner of threats. Questioning and dissent are viewed as unfaithfulness. Mix this with labels such as liberal or conservative and left or right, and the debate becomes more than a little unsavory. It starts to characterize people and their faithfulness, or insufficient faith. It is the soil in which division is sown and purges develop. It’s my way or the highway.

At its worst this leads to facism. For an excellent discussion of Christian facism see Chris Hedges’, American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America. Hedges says Christian fascists are a minority but regardless the number, fascism must be watched and refuted.

The most unsettling result of the methodology of individualistic faith is its distortion of the biblical principle of justice. Justice in the Christian right’s definition is a legal system based on “Christian principles” which they alone have defined. As Hedges notes this results in a legal system designed to protect “Bible believing Christians.” It no longer revolves around universal human rights.

One need only recall the Judicial War on Faith Conference following the Terry Schiavo episode and the national telecast a couple of years ago in which some high level right wing politicians equated U.S. judges to the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan to see how this perverted definition of justice finds expression. Writer Max Blumenthal explained how key values of a democratic society get re-defined when framed in this narrow view of the world.

Jesus the Misunderstood Jew: Part 1

This is the second in a series of posts on differences between Jewish and Christian traditions focusing in particular on attitudes toward the Bible, learning and dialogue.

In her book The Misunderstood Jew: The Church and the Scandal of the Jewish Jesus, Amy Jill Levine says willingness to search and remain open to new understandings of faith and sacred text within a community of faith marks a fundamental difference between Jews and Christians.Levine, a Jewish scholar who teaches New Testament at Vanderbilt University, writes,

“the general sense in the Jewish tradition is that one argues with the text and with fellow Jews about the text, and that in some cases multiple meanings are possible. Jews are more inclined to say, ‘I’m right and you may be right, too.‘” (p. 205)

This perspective sheds a different light on the divisive theological quarrels that occur in nearly every Protestant denomination today. These quarrels don’t often result in the mutuality Levine describes. Only the first half of the equation–the “I’m right” half–applies. In fact, some antagonists are more likely to seek banishment of those who believe “incorrectly,” that is, who believe differently from what the purists claim is the historic faith.

Levine says Jesus was a product of the rabbinic tradition of dialogue and his teaching must be understood in this context. It is marked by continuing discussion, discernment and new interpretation. To consider Jesus out of this context is to misunderstand his Jewishness and equally problematic, to misunderstand his teaching. Levine concludes Jesus is a misunderstood Jew.

We have come to this point she says because Jesus’ followers faced a challenge–How to extend his teaching among Jews and to non-Jews as well. Inherent in the challenge is another question: Was it necessary or desirable for non-Jews to become observant Jews?

It became clear to first century Christian leaders that it was neither possible nor desirable. Cultural contexts, political realities and racial and ethnic differences led the early Christian leaders to see that a dual mission was necessary, one that reached Gentiles as well as Jews. Paul took the mission to the Gentiles and Peter sought to present Jesus to Jews, primarily from his base in Jerusalem.

Because it took place outside the synagogue in social, political and cultural settings different from Jerusalem, the effort to reach non-Jews resulted in a different method, a focus on individual voices–Jesus, then Peter, and Paul–and their teachings. The Gentile mission also stepped outside the give-and-take of the rabbinic tradition.

Levine says this was a crucial shift. It led to different readings of sacred text and interpretations of the importance of religious practices. These, in turn, led to doctrinal disputes that required resolution and as Gary Wills has pointed out elsewhere, much of Paul’s writing deals with his attempts to keep the Gentile churches together and to clarify a consistent theology for the growing faith.

Jesus The Misunderstood Jew: Part 2

This is the second in a series of posts on differences between Jewish and Christian traditions focusing in particular on attitudes toward the Bible, learning and dialogue.

It’s a measure of how enduring historic Jewish and Christian approaches to faithful inquiry are that they find fresh expression in the daily newspaper. Dr. Amy Jill Levine raises several significant concerns in The Misunderstood Jew about how Christian biblical study misses the sharpness of Jesus’ first century critique of religion and also has progressively (and unintentionally in many cases) bolstered anti-Jewish attitudes.What is striking today is how differently the two traditions interpret the role of Jesus and scripture and how these affect our contemporary religious practices and attitudes. Levine writes that Christians read the Old Testament retrospectively and see Jesus as the suffering servant described by Isaiah.But she writes,

Jews traditionally see Isaiah 52:3-9 as referring not to a single, future figure but to God’s servant the people Israel, redeemed from exile. (p. 211)

In contemporary Christian understanding Jesus as the messiah is viewed as a personal savior of individuals, a role so sharply defined it is a mission statement for many Christian denominations. But the understanding in Jewish teaching, expressed most beautifully in Isaiah, is that Israel the people are the suffering servant called to obedience to God. The two could not be more divergent–individual or community.

Dialogue and Disagreement in the Jewish Tradition

This is the first in a series of posts on differences between Jewish and Christian traditions focusing in particular on attitudes toward the Bible, learning and dialogue.

The Jew has always questioned,” says Rabbi Capers C. Funnye, Jr. profile in the Sunday New York Times. Rabbi Funnye states he found intellectual and spiritual liberation in Judaism because it encourages constant examination.As a teenager he felt disconnected and dissatisfied in his Methodist faith. He tried other religions including Islam before turning to Judaism.

In a first person account a week earlier, New York Times journalist Dana Jennings reports converting for a similar reason. These two narratives caused me to reflect on how the two faith traditions view inquiry and spiritual development, an especially relevant subject in this Holy Week for Christians.

Both accounts captured my curiousity because I’m trying to understand why a vocal minority in my own faith community seem offended by much that it is doing that I consider good and a willingness to do harm to those they disagree with to the point of calling them pejorative names. There seems to be no sense of mutuality much less compassion and respect.

In the next few posts I will write about this effort to understand a seeming paradox.

The Fairness Doctrine: Bush Remarks in Nashville

The Fairness Doctrine was a policy enforced by the Federal Communications Commission designed to ensure that coverage of controversial issues by broadcast media is fair and balanced. The doctrine is built on the premise that broadcast license holders benefit from publicly owned airwaves and are therefore responsible to serve the public by providing balanced coverage of issues that affect the public interest.

In practice, the doctrine provided access to broadcast media to those who are often not able to get access unless they pay for it. It was designed to assure that all voices are heard. Under current policy groups lacking financial resources don’t get heard unless broadcasters voluntarily provide access. These groups include religious and ethnic minorities, volunteer organizations serving the poor, workers groups and others lacking money and clout.

The Doctrine was repealed in 1987 after a court ruling said it was not mandated by Congress and the FCC didn’t have to enforce it.

In Nashville this week President Bush spoke to the National Association of Religious Broadcasters and referred to Senate Bill 1748, the Broadcaster Freedom Act of 2007, which would prohibit the FCC from reinstituting the Fairness Doctrine. It is sponsored by Republican Congressmen Mike Spence of Indiana and Greg Walden of Oregon. The President alleged Democrats want to block programming by the religious right because they disagree with it and would use the Doctrine to keep them off the air. A charge like this from the President is breath-taking for the leap it makes.

It has been taken up by broadcasters on the religious right and was echoed by Tennessee Senator Lamar Alexander who said those in favor of the Fairness Doctrine support the “idea that government should dictate what views are aired on radio or television station[s].”

While there is plenty of room for debate about the merits of the Fairness Doctrine–the media choices today are enormously more varied than twenty years ago–the claim by the President and a Senator that it would lead to government dictatorship of content or the banning of right-wing religious views reminds me of a comment by the French philosopher Blaise Pascal in the17th century, “Truth is so obscure in these times, and falsehood so established, that, unless we love the truth, we cannot know it.”

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