Archive - March, 2011

The Ivory Coast in Revolt

As I write, rebels are moving into Abidjan, Ivory Coast after having taken the capital city Yamoussoukro, 143 miles north. It’s a fast-moving story, virtually invisible on U.S. mainstream media. However, it’s exemplary of the new media landscape and the resources it makes available to us.

I’m particularly concerned because I have friends in the country. A colleague has just concluded an interview via Skype with five employees in a radio station in Abidjan that our organization funded in a partnership with others in The United Methodist Church. Gunfire was audible in the background.

Besides direct contact, the most reliable sources of information are international news organizations providing updates from the scene. France 24 English language service is originating video and audio coverage from Abidjan.

As I write, I’m watching France 24 on an iPad with its live video stream, reading email from various sources and monitoring Twitter. I’m also surfing the web viewing Reuters,Yahoo and BBC to double check what I’m seeing on Twitter. While U.S. news organizations are not covering the revolt, these global counterparts are providing on-the-scene updates.

In this circumstance, non-profit information services are filling in some of the blanks. Staff of United Methodist News Service are in direct contact with church officials in the country and are monitoring and updating information as it’s available. I’ve also read releases from Medecins Sans Frontieres, AlertNet and the U.S. Catholic News Service.

This is a circumstance in which as concerned citizens we must seek out a variety of news sources. We must approach the news with a degree of skepticism and check multiple sources. I trust some sources more than others, of course, but in a fluid story it’s not unreasonable to verify reports as best we can. And we are blessed with multiple sources, most of them online.

This is the new media landscape.

How Blogging is Changing Journalism

The Internet undermines the power structure of the past 500 years of publishing. Since the invention of movable type, those who owned the presses controlled the information and how it was distributed. No longer. Power is shifting.

Anyone with a cell phone, laptop, or access to a computer has the ability to publish at will.

The Question of Trust

This is important to all of us because at root is a fundamental question of trust. Who do we trust for information that we act upon; that informs our understanding of the events, ideas and values that shape our world; and that aids us in forming opinions about the events and policies that affect our lives and those of billions of others around the globe?

For years, professional journalism was the only game in town because presses, radio and television stations were expensive. They were in the hands of corporate owners, and professional journalists were the gatekeepers of information. They set the agenda by deciding what to cover and how to report it.

With the disruption of the Internet, the business model of newspapers, general circulation newsmagazines and broadcast news can’t be sustained.

“The People Formerly Known As The Audience”

A second disruptive result is occurring simultaneously. When broadcast media were the primary means of getting information, we (the audience) were passive receivers of what others decided we should read, see or hear. We were atomized sitting in our cars listening to radio or watching TV at home. Journalism was a lecture.

Jay Rosen, journalism professor at New York University and a leading thinker and practitioner of journalism and new media, has coined a phrase, “the people formerly known as the audience,” which captures what’s happening. The social location of content creation has shifted. Today we comment, do our own research, challenge and bypass the gatekeepers. We participate. We blog.

Blogs are our own personal printing press, TV or radio station. Blogging is an irritant to journalism. It’s changing journalism, and that makes some journalists pretty frustrated.

Six years ago, Rosen said the debate about whether bloggers are journalists was over. But I was surprised to read recently that he thinks it’s back. And judging from the quotes from journalists and bloggers he provided in a speech at South by Southwest, it’s nastier than ever.

The Principle of Objectivity v. POV

One of the norms challenged by citizen bloggers is a fundamental principle of objectivity of professional journalism. Blogs thrive on point of view. Objectivity was an attempt to free reporting from the biases of the writer, source or reader. It was a way to apply scientific method – observable fact – to reporting, according to the editors of Telling the Story, a primer on journalism from the School of Journalism, University of Missouri-Columbia. It was an ideal.

But blogs don’t labor under this ideal. They are personal. Few bloggers make an effort to apply unbiased observation in their posts.

Objectivity evolved (erroneously, say Kovach and Rosenstiel in The Elements of Journalism) into a role of neutrality for reporters. Neutrality results in an attempt to provide balance.

Dan Gillmor, a journalist who now teaches at Arizona State and is an influential analyst and practitioner of new media, says the attempt to provide balance can result in an “unfortunate tendency of assigning apparently equal weight to opposing viewpoints when one is backed up by fact and the other is not, or when the ‘sides’ are overwhelmingly mismatched. This is often called ‘providing balance’ by journalists who are typically afraid that one side in a political debate will accuse them of being biased in favor of the other side. It is not ‘balanced,’ of course, to quote a supposition or a blatant lie next to a proven fact and treat them as having equal weight.”

Objectivity creates another pernicious unintended consequence. Rosen says the price of professionalizing journalism was the de-voicing of the journalist. Journalists are taught to write so they don’t betray their own personal passion for the content. We are served up a lot of stories that reflect this straightforward treatment.

The Cumulative Process

Blogs are cumulative, not fixed around deadlines or news cycles. Sometimes we’re able to see the blog in process. Journalism delivers a fixed product, gone over by a succession of editors, revised into a final form and published. Recently, we’ve begun to see stories online that are updated, or corrected, but the editing process remains dedicated to providing a finished product, not iterations of an ongoing conversation.

Finally, what this says to me is that if I want to be informed and knowledgeable, I need to participate in the online culture of sharing, researching and providing content – not necessarily as a professional journalist but as an engaged citizen. The information landscape is radically changing, and I need to understand both its strengths and limitations.

The best way to do that is to participate in it. I think it’s the only way to develop your own voice, and to learn the limits and strengths of the new media. And as we learn, we will also develop even sharper skills – along with justified skepticism – that can help us discern whom we can trust.

The Relief Effort in Japan

Sailors aboard USS Ronald Reagan move food and water onto helicopter for Japan relief. U.S. Navy photo by Commuication Specialist Apprentice Michael Feddersen.

As search and rescue operations continue in Japan, relief efforts are under way by military and Red Cross teams. Nongovernmental organizations with medical personnel are sending doctors and nurses. U.S. religious NGOs have announced they will enter after their Asian and Japanese counterparts determine needs and make requests.

Church World Service reports on its website that it will work with the Japan Platform, a consortium of 32 non-governmental organizations, government service agencies and media outlets. The platform members are assessing how to respond. In addition, CWS, which has had a presence in Southeast Asia since before the war in Vietnam, says it will work through its Southeast Asia Regional Office with individual members of the Japan Platform.

The General Board of Global Ministries of The United Methodist Church, which has a small number of missionary personnel in Japan, issued a statement saying the board was praying for Japan and awaiting further word on how to proceed. The United Methodist Committee on Relief, the relief, refugee and development arm of the board, was similarly assessing how to respond under the difficult circumstances.

As I write this, no word has been issued by the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry of The United Methodist Church about how church-related colleges and universities with which it works in Japan have been affected.

The complex circumstances involved in this disaster make response immensely more difficult for even the most experienced organizations. The destruction of infrastructure by the earthquake and tsunami, plus the nuclear reactor crisis, makes it unique. These complications are challenging even the well-implemented disaster response capacity of the Japanese government.

Fortunately, most of the nations of Southeast Asia are technologically advanced and have persons with the skills necessary to cope with humanitarian needs. This, coupled with material aid closer to the scene, means that logistics of aid delivery can be more timely and less complicated than delivery from the United States and Europe.

Clearly, the rehabilitation of Japan will require long-term commitment. This is a strength of most of the U.S. religious non-governmental organizations and their constituencies. As the drama of Japan unfolds, it’s wise to contribute cash for the immediate humanitarian needs while also keeping an eye on the future and how we can contribute to the rehabilitation of the country when these various channels open.

Reflecting on the Tragedy in Japan

The crisis in Japan is unlike any other. As the third-largest economy among developed nations and well-prepared with a national disaster plan, the country was as prepared as any could be to absorb the disaster it is facing.

Despite this, the extent of destruction and loss of life strains our comprehension and calls for our deepest compassion.

Even across the miles, our hearts ache as we identify with the human suffering. The Japanese were dealt a blow by nature that humbles not only them, but us as well.

The outpouring of concern is an expression of our common humanity, something that we’ve seen before and something that I believe helps us to retain a perspective that’s often lost as we go about our daily routines.

Life is fragile. In a matter of moments, whole cities in Japan were inundated. Thousands of lives lost. Homes and businesses that had taken years to build were swept away.

The surging waters also destroyed the order that we take for granted. The routine that we assume makes up our humdrum daily affairs turned to a moment of sheer terror.

Inevitably, some implicated God in the tragedy. As I type this post, email brings me a press release about an evangelical author speaking to the subject, “Does God Let Bad Things Happen?” It’s a futile question. I don’t believe we can implicate a providential God in the evil of undeserved suffering.

Rather, we live in an ongoing creation. The earth, if not the whole universe, is evolving, and we fool only ourselves if we assume that our existence is fixed and secure.

To recognize this does not weaken faith; it makes it more complex, durable and dynamic. I pray for God to be present with us, to strengthen us, to enter into this contingent experience we call life.

It’s the difference between believing that God walks with us through the valley of the shadow of death, or is the one who brings death. We will never resolve the enigma of evil by asking where tragedy comes from. This is the wrong question according to Rabbi Harold S. Kushner in his classic “When Bad Things Happen to Good People.” He cites German theologian Dorothee Soelle (“Suffering“), who says the more pertinent question is: Where does it (tragedy) lead us?

If the tragedy in Japan leads us to care more compassionately for one another; to give the whole of Creation the deep respect, wonderment and concern that it deserves; to value each day as an irreplaceable gift; and to bow before the Creator in humility and gratitude, then perhaps it will have led us to a more fruitful and productive state.

And for Christ’s followers, if it leads us to more fully appreciate and understand the God who is incarnate–present in this existence with us–and who, while enduring our suffering with us, also calls us to be servants and lift up others, then perhaps we will see that such a disaster is not God’s doing. Instead, we might see how tragedy can be an invitation to live the meaningful and abundant life that God intends for all.

Rob Bell and Hell

Yaweh. In Hebrew, "I AM WHAT I AM"

After reading reactions to megachurch pastor Rob Bells’s video trailer promoting his new book Love Wins, I thought he must be renouncing the faith! Bell is pastor of Mars Hill Bible Church in Michigan. Then I looked at the trailer and I couldn’t figure out what was behind the ruckus.

He asks if we might see God as loving, not punitive. He asks us to entertain the thought that there may be other pathways to comprehend God. And he hints that hell might be a state of being.

These thoughts aren’t spelled out in depth, but we’re led to the book where, we must conclude, the issues will be discussed more fully.

This does not strike me as cutting edge theology. In fact, as I see it, it’s the hindquarter of late 19th and early-20th century debates between liberals and fundamentalists. In the 1930s and 40s, Harry Emerson Fosdick was more provocative than Bell is today. Fosdick wrote, “The fact that astronomies change while the stars abide is a true analogy of every realm of human life and thought, religion not least of all. No existent theology can be a final formulation of spiritual truth.” This led him to be called heretic, as Bell today.

This leads me to wonder if this flap is a sign of the maturing of the evangelical movement, of which Bell is a leader. As he and his contemporaries wrestle with the complexities that we all face today, faith must be more adaptable to the challenges life presents us if it is to be relevant.

As with all Christians, they struggle with good and evil, personal faith and social responsibility, piety and justice, divergent theological propositions emerge. Life is complex, sometimes vexing. It confounds simple answers.

Some of us have glimpsed hell. If you’ve had to stand by and watch your child die from a debilitating illness that couldn’t be treated, if you’ve experienced an addiction that continues to ensnare you, if you’ve been to war and are haunted by the inhumanity of the human race, you’ve been to hell already. Hell comes in many forms.

We need a faith relevant to the hellishness of the human condition. We also need an understanding of God that helps us to know that God’s grace is provided to us before we comprehend it; that it precedes us before we even know if we can believe in it and before we have the words to speak of it. God doesn’t command us to accept it, God beckons us to apprehend it. In a still small voice, we hear, “Be still and know that I am God,” and Christians see God incarnate in Jesus.

And that leads to my second hunch. Evangelical Christians like Bell are also coming to terms with life in a multi-faith, interconnected global society.

If we believe this is God’s world and we are the beneficiaries of God’s graciousness, and utterly dependent upon it, then who are we to assert that we can define the great I Am, much less to claim with authority for all time and all people, that we know how God chooses to be revealed? Is God limited to a single expression of revelation? And is this great mystery comprehensible to us anyway?

No, the very thought is humbling. And perhaps that’s where faith takes us today, to a humble place between hubris and muddled, discombobulated belief.

We have scripture, the creeds of the church and centuries of writing to guide us. I’m not suggesting that we turn away from our understanding of Christian faith. In fact, we need to dig deeper, question more. But we must approach our faith and other faiths with humility. As Bernard Schweizer suggests, it’s hard to imagine that Gandhi, the Dali Lama, Aung San Suu Kyi or (I would add)  Muhammad Yunus are destined to roast in hell.

Maybe faithfulness is in that sweet spot where we search for truth, seek the Holy and apprehend through the great cloud of witnesses who have preceded us, that God is indeed still speaking in many languages and voices.

Wesley’s quadrilateral–the use of scripture, reason, tradition and experience to comprehend the life of the spirit–is enormously helpful to me in this search. It provides me with checks and balances that allow me to weigh the spiritual search, religious dogma, history and personal understanding. It’s an inclusive method. It supports humility and leads me to listen to others, and for that still small voice.

And we could do worse than to listen; to “be still and know that I am God.”

(A note: After writing, this seemed incomplete. I realized I had not provided readers with an especially important part of my theological life–the basic grounding that I find most helpful–Wesley’s quadrilateral. I edited the piece by adding the next to last paragraph to provide this background. Changed March 12, 2011, 9:20 a.m.)

Teddy Bears And Ash Wednesday

In the darkness of a winter morning some years ago, a young man crouched in the entry of a building on the grounds of the Kansas School for the Blind where my wife taught. When she entered, he knocked her to the ground, grabbed her purse and violently ripped off a gold necklace I had given her.

By the time I got to her, she had already spoken with the police but she was bruised, fearful and angry. Never the less, I was about to learn a lesson from her that seems especially appropriate on this Ash Wednesday.

Weeks later she got a small insurance settlement. The day it arrived we went to a Michael’s crafts store. Not for crafts but for redemption.

Sharon said she was so angry at the young man who robbed her, so upset that she had lost that particular necklace, and felt so violated that the only way to move past those feelings was to give them up. The toxic mix of anger, victimization and loss were taking a piece of her soul.

She took the insurance payment and used it to buy each child in the school a teddy bear. So here we stood in Michael’s packing two hundred bears in boxes.

And you know what happened? We had a ball! We forgot the robbery, the anger and the fear. We laughed. We teased the manager of the store. She had as much fun as we did.

We found ourselves by giving away those hurt, angry feelings. What mattered was imagining the joy we hoped the children would experience. What mattered was getting outside ourselves and focusing on others.

It’s a small story, not the whole story of Lent. Lent is about faithfulness and discipleship. Jesus said we find ourselves by giving, not by getting. His call is more profound than giving teddy bears. He called us to take on the yoke of servanthood. He even said those who give up their lives will save their lives, and those who seek their lives, who can’t get outside of themselves, will lose them.

The paradox of servanthood is that by living sacrificially we find life and we are made more whole. And his promise is that we will come to know the self-giving love of God which can’t be taken from us, neither fails nor rusts but is incorruptible and endures forever.

They Called Me Larry

I didn’t know I was “oil field trash” until the point was driven home to me as a child in elementary school. My dad was an itinerant oil field laborer, known colloquially as a “roughneck.”

We followed the oil rigs, moving every few months. I lived in Crane, Andrews, Brownfield and Odessa in Texas; Elmore City and Stroud in Oklahoma; and Newcastle, Wyo., all before the sixth grade.

While waiting for the school bus on a crisp autumn day in a small West Texas town, an older boy told me, “Hey, white trash, your bus stops over there.” He pointed across the street.

Another said, “He ain’t white trash; he’s oil field trash.”

I waited across the street as the bus came and went.

But that’s not the whole story. In every town, there was a United Methodist church. I gravitated to these. They had scout groups, youth activities, vacation church school, choirs and Christmas pageants.

In virtually every place, they were welcoming and safe. They called me by my name. I wasn’t “oil field trash.” I was Larry.

A church that makes outsiders feel welcome embodies the grace of God, a grace freely given, and extended to us without regard for our status.

Today, more than ever, we need that grace. The world needs that grace to heal the divisions that cut across our lives.

We see this need everyday. A continuous stream of news about racial conflict, political marginalization, economic exploitation, the denial of rights based on cultural profiles, and the outright bullying of everyone from small children to elderly people reveals it. Sometimes such behavior is based on little more than paranoia and pure meanness, but always it damages the human spirit.

We live in a polarized world, increasingly defined by “ins” and “outs,” “haves” and “have-nots.” It’s a world that we’ve inherited, but it’s also one that we’ve helped create. The responsibility for changing it rests with us. That’s where grace comes in.

The grace that I experienced as a child came through the outpouring of love from others. Where would any of us be if not for the grace given us through loved ones, family members, friends, and at times, complete strangers? Perhaps God’s highest purpose for us is to serve as channels of grace in that way.

The problems we face as a society and world will not be solved by intellect and political craft alone. The rhetoric is too loud, the suspicions too deep. Grace is the only power that can lift us up, mend our wounds and help us move forward together. It is the only power that can lead us to acceptance and understanding of one another.

Extending grace, however, requires us to reach out and make someone else’s life better – regardless of whether we approve of what that person believes or represents. That’s the thing about grace: It’s unconditional.

It also transforms lives. The acceptance that I experienced in churches as a child ultimately led me to choose a career in the ordained ministry.

Those small-town congregations offered safe haven to the scruffy son of an itinerant worker whose family followed the rigs, never staying more than six months anywhere.

They offered transformative community and, because they did, I experienced the transforming love of God. For this, I will forever be thankful.

Is Al Jazeera Real News?

Al Jazeera English viewership has increased 2500% in the past few weeks

“Their news is so much better,” she said, looking up from her iPad screen.
“Why?” I asked.
“Because ours is such crap.”
Case closed.

My media critic-spouse was watching Al Jazeera English and comparing its Middle East coverage to that of the mainstream U.S. media. She unknowingly echoed Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who told the House Foreign Affairs Committee that Al Jazeera was providing better coverage than U.S. mainstream media.

It’s a question getting serious attention today: Is Al Jazeera a serious news provider in which we can place trust?

The root of the question goes to the image of Al Jazeera as the medium through which Osama bin Laden chose to make his public condemnations of the United States after 9/11. With virtually no access to the network, U.S. audiences were left to conclude it was at least a tool of radical Islamists, if not a voice.

That perception is now being challenged by the network’s in-depth coverage of the uprisings occurring in its own backyard, Doha, Qatar. The coverage is straightforward, in-depth and comprehensive. It is giving exposure to human rights activists, people in the street and, when possible, to those leaders defending the status quo. But it’s clear that Al Jazeera’s English network coverage leans toward giving voice to those advocating for democracy, and this puts it at odds with governments bent on silencing dissent and experienced at using oppressive tactics to hold on to power. And it’s in sharp contrast to state-controlled media.

Al Jazeera English staff were beaten along with other journalists in Egypt, and its Cairo bureau was ransacked and closed. Reporters continued to phone in reports from the street level until they could restore live feeds.

I’ve been viewing Al Jazeera’s English-language coverage online since the start of the Egyptian uprising, and it’s been immensely more informative than any other source.

Its reporters have access to a wide variety of knowledgeable people who provide insight into the region and to country-specific circumstances. This coverage is deeper and offers more context than we see in U.S. electronic media.

Al Jazeera seems to believe our attention spans can hold on through a five- or 10-minute interview or a 30-minute panel discussion. And the truth is, when the information is compelling, informed and fresh, we can.

The network offers global news that rivals other providers and exceeds anything I’ve seen in U.S. electronic media. I’ve watched its documentaries and discussion programs and found the information reliable and relevant on a wide range of subjects.

This discussion at Columbia University of new media is but one example.

In a recent interview with Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, the Libyan dictator’s son and heir-apparent,  correspondent Anita McNaught pushed and probed with hard questions, at one point telling him as he interrupted to let her finish her question. It was an intriguing insight into his current rationalization of the violence in Libya, in contrast to his past statements about human rights and the need for democracy throughout the region.

So, do I trust Al Jazeera English as a news source? Yes, until I have reason not to. And that’s the stance I believe we must take today toward all news providers. Dan Gillmor writes that we must move from passive-consumption to become hands-on users of news and information.

We must have a healthly skepticism coupled with critical thinking in which we compare the information we hear from multiple sources and apply our own knowledge and experience against standards of fairness, accuracy and completeness.

Gillmor offers five principles: be skeptical, exercise judgment, open your mind, keep asking questions, and learn media techniques.

Using these principles as a guide, plus my own experience traveling the globe and my near-pervasive skepticism of all media, I am becoming a viewer who thinks Al Jazeera is a trustworthy provider until proven otherwise.

Citizen Journalists: Why An Open Internet Matters

When Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Al Jazeera provides real news and U.S. media are providing uninformative commentary between commercial breaks, she put in sharp relief the current state of the U.S. media.
It’s a complex, interrelated web of issues, and in this post I’ll limit myself to the Internet and access to news and information.

To do that, however, we have to accede to Secretary Clinton’s critique of U.S. journalism and its sorry state of global coverage.
If you want global news, or information that’s truly important, you have to hunt for it on U.S. cable or broadcast media. You’re more likely to find it in print or online, and frequently from a non-U.S. source.

Even as Clinton decried the lack of competent coverage of Middle East news, U.S. cable channels were telling us of Justin Beiber’s hair clippings being auctioned off on eBay, Charlie Sheen’s tragic meltdown, and the NFL owners’ lockout threat against the players. The latter was even raised at a White House press conference held by President Obama and Mexican President Calderone about border security.

U.S. electronic journalism reflects the corporatization of the electronic media, and we have no reason to expect that these media will ever be guided by anything but profit-making and entertainment.

Years ago, the FCC abdicated its responsibility for holding broadcast licensees responsible for serving the community, and in the recent Comcast/NBC decision, some media activists say it began the same giveaway of the Internet in the U.S.  The Internet is our tool for access to the public sphere today. The legacy media are on the wane, captured by corporate business models that provide us the fare Secretary Clinton decries.

An open Internet is an alternative to the old line media, and that’s why we must defend it against totalitarian governments on one hand and corporate capture on the other.

If the open Internet is not defended, we can expect to see online media become less participatory, less interactive and less accessible to those with limited ability to pay for premium service.  Clay Shirky offers insight on the dangers to the Internet from corporate control.

This defense of an open Internet requires us to learn the skills of citizen reporting, become conversant in social policy about net neutrality and an open Internet, become advocates for open access, and become participants in various online conversations with direct action in our communities.

My starting place for equipping people to engage this issue is Mediactive by Dan Gillmor. I also encourage people to become familiar with Seth Godin’s writings on leadership in the digital world. Clay Shirky is a thought leader in how we use the Internet and its effects on the social fabric.

The challenge to the open Internet is unfolding before our eyes in the uprisings in the Middle East. The Internet doesn’t make for revolution, but it enables people to organize and mobilize for change. The Internet is more than the wires, cables and servers that make up the technology. It’s also the means for communities to have a conversation with themselves, and for people around the globe to learn from, share with and support each other. It’s the way we participate in local and global conversations.

This makes it more like a public utility than a profit-making venture for private investors. This is why preserving an open Internet is important — because our ability to shape the world we live in and to have a voice is intimately connected to the World Wide Web.

The Most Typical Face on the Planet? Nat Geo Knows.

The Most Typical Face on the Planet

If I were to ask you to imagine the most typical face on the planet, would you imagine a blonde, Caucasian, female, or maybe a Beach Boy surfer dude? Perhaps a Hispanic, African or Indian?

According to National Geographic it’s none of these. It’s a 28-year-old Han Chinese male. National Geographic says this demographic makes up 9 million of earth’s soon-to-be 7 billion people.

In its year-long series, The Face of Seven Billion, the magazine says Chinese make up 19% of the global population, Indians 17% and Americans 4%. (I can’t find a definition of “American” in the online content. It could mean North American, Central American and South American, or some combination of the three. The term is too ambiguous for a study such as this.)

That complaint aside, this series is quite remarkable. Check out the online videos. They offer provocative information in concise packages and raise lifestyle questions that all of us should be thinking about.

Most importantly, the series leads us to not only consider the present, but to imagine the future. And the young Han Chinese male should enjoy his time in the spotlight. National Geographic says by 2030 he will be replaced by an Indian.



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