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Does God Evolve?

A few years ago I heard Bishop John Shelby Spong say the Bible is the story of pre-scientific, tribal people who lived before it was known that germs cause disease. He wasn’t denigrating the Bible. He was emphasizing that context should be considered when we read scripture. Obviously, context affected how people viewed the supernatural and ultimately how they understood and defined God, and much more.

Simple as it is, it’s a significant challenge. It raises the question: How does context influence understanding of the sacred, of God? And, of course, the writing of sacred text? Is religion merely a projection of human hopes and fears? What is the basis for our beliefs?

The question is being discussed today in interesting and relatively new ways in popular media outside the classroom. Robert Wright offers a masterful, comprehensive case for the evolution of belief about God. His thesis is mechanistic. "Scripture is obedient to facts on the ground," he writes in his book The Evolution of God .

As societies evolve, they define the deity from within a complicated mix of culture, politics, commerce and intellectual reflection according to Wright. He reminds us that Aristotle said, "Men create gods after their own image, not only with regard to their form but with regard to their mode of life."

I suppose some will consider Wright’s thesis a threat to faith. I don’t. While there is a significant difference between apprehending the mystery of the divine and believing the divine is created out of human apprehension, the rabbinic tradition of on-going conversation about religious perception and teaching provides for a fluid understanding of belief. The conversation occurs over centuries. Rabbis probe teachings, add to, suggest nuance and substantiate or clarify. This makes faith a living stream nurturing thought and practice. And through it teaching about the divine changes.

In the Christian tradition another stream of thought says on-going revelation alters our perception of the divine mystery. It’s about our ability to apprehend the divine. One starting place is textual analysis but it is complemented by philosophical and theological dialogue. And contextual analysis.

These neither refute nor support Wright’s thesis. Nor do they address the persistence of humankind’s search to explain and believe. Wright acknowledges that religious thought is resilient and universal but it is unlikely the result of a "God gene." He rejects an anatomy of belief for the terrain of belief.

Viewing scripture through this lens and considering how the original context shaped what was written or conveyed through oral tradition does not negate faith but it challenges the basis upon which we believe. That’s not a bad thing. It opens us to examine the contours of belief and to ask how our context contributes to, or leads us away from, belief and to what result. In an era of rapid change, globalization, narrow nationalism and fear it’s necessary to think deeply about faith and to disconnect it from partisan ideology.

At a personal level, it presents a challenge to discern how our own biases, perceptions, cultural context and daily experiences illuminate or distort an understanding of the great mystery we call God.

Wright says when commerce makes it more amenable for us to cooperate than fight we are are also more respectful of the beliefs of others and religion contributes to social cohesion. That’s a twist on the common criticism that religion is divisive and harmful to the social fabric.

In an interesting survey of the evolutionary perspective this Sunday, Nicholas Wade asks if this approach could result in detente between religion and science. And he points out that it might not be religion per se that results in good or bad ends, but the way it is used by leaders and others in the society.

Given the fact that we are now coming to the awareness that we are interdependent and our destinies are bound together on this small planet, social cohesion is a great step forward. If Wright leads us to think reflectively about the role of religion in this context, he will have given us a great gift.

(Revised for clarity Nov. 21, 5:33 pm)

Is Faith Relevant?

I needed to break free two frozen screws to remove a solenoid from a starter motor. Lacking an impact driver, I went to the local Pep Boys auto store. I waited as a salesperson explained a tire sale to a customer. The customer weighed the prices and decided all were too expensive. He was a worker dressed in a company uniform.

As I explained my need to the person at the counter, the tire shopper said he might have a tool in his truck that would do the job and the counter person said a mechanic in back might also be able to break the screws free.

It occurred to me that I had walked into the underneath side of the recession, the one that hasn’t been bailed out like Wall Street. The two thought I was saving money by doing this job myself, and both wanted to help. If the government won’t bail out working people, they, at least, will help out each other.

It’s always been like this.

Except I wasn’t looking for a freebie. I expected to pay. The mechanic took the part, and returned minutes later. The screws were loosened. I asked, "how much?" He said, "I don’t know, it’s not on my rate sheet."

It was his way of saying, "No charge." I protested but no one listened. The counter person became busy with a phone call. I stood there a bit embarrassed, and eventually I slunk out.

But the event still bugs me. I’ve just sat through several days of meetings in which I heard lots of talk about the effects of the economic downturn on giving to the church for which I work. A little bit of talk about the effects of the economy on the very poor, but no talk of how the recession is hitting working people. And that bothers me–a lot.

If faith is to be seen as relevant it seems to me it must address the real life concerns that give us meaning and purpose, or stand in the way of us living the fruitful lives that we say we are created for. If, as we are taught, this is what the Creator intends, that we live abundant lives in service to one another, then faith must provide us the guidance to do just that. And people of faith must live by these teachings.

Analyzing how much giving has declined doesn’t lead me to that end. It leads me to wonder if we have lost our way, asking how people are serving institutional needs but not asking how we are serving the needs of those who are struggling and losing in this economy.

If religious faith is to be meaningful today it must address the social settings in which life is shaped, or misshaped. And anyone who doesn’t understand that this relates to Jesus’ teachings doesn’t understand why Jesus was put to death by the Romans. He was a menace to the social order of empire.

If faith is to be relevant, it must address our quality of life individually and collectively. It must assist us to live fruitfully. This isn’t limited to economics, but surely it includes economic policy. And it includes change in individual lives, and surely the economic abuses that have put us in the ditch are crushing many individual lives.

Have the mainline denominations become enclaves of upper middle class wealth? It looks that way, and after listening to the conversations I’ve heard, it sounds that way.  Some members, to be sure, are hurt by this economy. But many are not, and among these are many of the leaders of these denominations.

Bob Herbert writes this morning: "The financial elites have flourished in recent decades to a great extent because they have had government on their side, with the politicians working diligently to ensure that rules, regulations and tax policies established an environment in which the elites could thrive. For ordinary Americans, it has been a different story, with jobs shipped overseas by the millions and wages remaining stagnant, with labor unions under constant assault and labor standards weakened, with the safety net shredded and the message sent out to workers everywhere: You’re on your own."

This is where relevant faith will be lived out today because this is where people are facing the struggle for meaning and purpose. I must make it clear this isn’t about good people or bad people among the leadership. It’s about economic polices and a theological understanding of them and their effects on the lives of ordinary people. It’s about the biblical teachings of justice and respect for human dignity. It’s about Jesus teaching us to serve those who are least among us for when we see them we see him.

It’s about faithfulness and relevant faith.

And if we in the mainline don’t find the voice to discuss these issues along with concern for declining revenues we will be neither relevant nor faithful.

Pharmaceuticals for Spiritual Conditions

Pharmaceuticals for spiritual conditions. Are we medicating for spiritual conditions by diagnosing the painful introspection necessary for growth as depression? And is this as beneficial as we seem to think?

Sometimes, painful emotions are both appropriate and necessary for greater understanding, the recognition and correction of our inappropriate or harmful behavior and the precursor to change in the form of forgiveness, reconciliation and redemption. Ah, but that is the question.

This is, of course, spiritual language. Psychological language would describe these circumstances differently. Is painful introspection necessary, or is it the snapping of synapses; the chemical processes of serotonin uptake in the brain, a physical process that can be changed by pharmaceuticals resulting in altered mood?

And what are we to make of spiritual despair as the birthing ground for the soaring creativity of the human spirit? Would a properly medicated Beethoven have written symphony no. 9, the Choral? Where would the world be without "Ode to Joy?"

I’m not of the position that suffering is necessary for creativity, nor that depression is a requirement for great art. Rather, the question is, what’s the difference between depression and spiritual despair? The "answers" lead to different destinations.

That’s the discussion on the Happy Days: The Pursuit of What Matters in Troubled Times blog. In an era when psychic life is described in terms of neurotransmitters, introspection–the self-examination necessary for spiritual growth–has become passe. Prof. Gordon Marino discusses the evolving attitude toward despair as a medical condition by citing the writings of Soren Kierkegaard, the 19th Century Danish philosopher.

Marino asks, "Have we lost the distinction between psychological and spiritual disorders, between depression and despair?"

I wonder. What do you think?

Pirsig was Right. There is Zen in Motorcycle Maintenance

It’s not only about the ride. The ride is great. But after spending parts of several weeks bringing a thirty-year-old motorcycle back to life, I’ve discovered it’s also about the joy of working with your hands, the smells of the garage and the sound of a motor roaring to life after a long, long sleep. Tactile. Auditory. Visual. Visceral.

The 1977 BMW R100RS sat idle for at least ten years. I started it once or twice in that time, but rubber bushings had deteriorated, water had collected in the transmission, brake pads had become soiled, electrical connections corroded. It was a shell of the beauty it once was. Glamor on the outside and corrosion on the inside.

I methodically cleaned electrical contacts, changed fluids and replaced parts that were bad. It’s been a long, tedious process. Not boring, but life-giving. I call it methodical because method is necessary. Doing electrical or mechanical work piecemeal is likely to lead to ongoing frustration. I need the benefit of a methodology. It leads to a way to manage a problem whose result is apparent but whose cause is unknown.

Why won’t that switch work? Where exactly is the fault? How do I trace it down? Test the voltage from the battery to the first connection and measure it. Then test the next section until the voltage drop is isolated. Method.

When I’m working on the bike, my mind is freed from the concerns of the day and it probes deeply into the mechanics of the machine. It’s not only right there in front of me in metal, it’s in my thoughts and imagination. Sometimes it’s necessary to visualize how each part contributes to the whole. In fact, when troubleshooting it’s required. It’s about connection. Each part is connected to another and they interact. A weak part will shut you down on the side of the road. The machine is only as strong as its weakest part, to cut to a cliche.

Connection leads to coherence.  All the parts working together create movement. Coherence is the life of the machine. As the bike, I also need coherence. I live a life disrupted by events, sometimes it seems moment by moment, day by day. Coherence  escapes me in that setting. But in the garage with wrench in hand, coherence gives me focus and reassurance, and leads me forward.

It’s been liberating in another way. I’ve not worked with a wrench for many years; not gotten oil under my fingernails since I can’t remember when. I’m a general secretary, that’s a ceo, if you’re not familiar with church language. This role isn’t really compatible with mechanical work in the garage for many reasons.

I work with my mouth, not my hands. I put together organizational parts, not physical nuts and bolts. But working with nuts and bolts is a part of who I am and as I grew into new directions, I left that part out. I’m rediscovering just how important it is. It’s necessary for me in order to be a together coherent human being, well-rounded and functional. I need to get my hands dirty.

And finally, there is precision, even in the art of maintaining. It’s true that intuition helps you to imagine the cause of a problem, but solving it comes down to precision. I mean more than using the correct size wrench on a nut. That’s precise also. If you don’t use the correct wrench you’re likely to round off the head of the bolt, but there’s more here than that obvious point. It’s about testing, verifying, measuring and outcome.

Some bolts require specific torque. Points and plugs operate with a precise gap. Carburetors flood when the fuel level is too high. When these (and many other settings) are precise the machine runs optimally. It’s exciting when this happens. Uplifting. Soul satisfying.

In my line of work precision is sometimes hard to come by. Not always, but enough to make it difficult at the end of the day to know what has been accomplished. It’s not ineffectiveness nor muddleheadedness. It’s the difficulty of knowing if you’ve made progress in work that isn’t concrete and specific, that can’t be contained in a physical way and measured. Work whose product may not appear but with the passage of time. Sometimes you only know it’s working after it’s working, when an event has been successful, an individual life has been changed, a group has taken up a cause and acted.

As I wrench around the garage, I think about this. Robert Pirsig was right. There is zen in motorcycle maintenance

Is it Melanoma or a Benign Mole? It Depends on Who You Ask.

To follow up on this post: the pathology report indicates all the affected lesion was removed and I have been given a clean bill of health. I’ll be monitored by a dermatologist. But the news could not be better.

An article on “diagnostic drift” today in the New York Times sheds light on a personal experience I’ve had the last month. Four weeks ago I underwent a biopsy for an unusual looking mole. The pathology report came back indicating it was melanoma in situ, a malignant lesion. I had skin cancer. A form of cancer that is successfully treated but which in later stages can be fatal. This is not exactly the kind of news that makes your day.

I was referred to a surgical oncologist and after a ten-day wait marked by anxiety, questions and numerous visits to the Mayo Clinic webstite and WebMD, I heard from the oncologist that a second pathology reading indicated the mole was more likely a melanocytic nevus, a benign mole. According to this interpretation I did not have cancer. Never the less, he said, the chances this mole could develop into a malignancy were good and it needed to be removed.

This is the diagnostic drift referred to in the study highlighted in the article–the growing tendency of some physicians to diagnose benign moles as malignant cancers.  The reasons are discussed in the article. What the article does not discuss is the dilemma of the patient. After having the bejeebers scared out of you, how do you evaluate such discrepancies? To the patient it’s more than an academic reading of the data. Regardless of the second opinion, the diagnosis that stuck in my mind is the first. I had cancer or I would get cancer.

These conflicting opinions presented me with several issues, not all of them related to health. I tend to keep my own counsel on such matters and would have preferred not to make this health condition public. However, given the earlier interpretation, I agreed with the oncologist that the lesion should be surgically removed. As it happened the only surgical date available fell on the same day as a meeting of the board of directors of our organization. I could not leave a meeting of my own board of directors without providing a good reason, so I told them about the situation. They were understanding and supportive.

And I cancelled attendance at another meeting out of town out of concern for hauling and lifting luggage with an incision on my shoulder. So now the word is out.

The surgery was uneventful. I am surprised at the length of the incision (six inches). It’s considerably longer than I expected, but the surgeon said he believes the excision removed all the affected tissue and the prospects for a positive outcome are quite good. I’ll get that pathology report on Thursday.

Whatever it says, I’m convinced we did the right thing. And I learned an important lesson. You have to arm yourself with knowledge from reliable sources. You have to ask questions. You have to assert yourself into the process. And you have to balance your fears against objective information and keep your head in the conversation. This isn’t easy but it’s necessary in order to manage your own care.

It falls to the patient to swim through the cross currents of diagnostic drift.

Depression: A Silent Global Burden

In twenty years depression will affect more people globally than any other disease, according the World Health Organization. A BBC report points out the prevalence of the disease among the poor and those living with disabilities. The BBC says developing nations spend only 2% of their health dollars on mental health while developed nations spend 200 times more.

However, the persistence of depression in the developed world reveals how difficult it is to treat the disease successfully. In a fairly comprehensive article U.S. News says medications are effective for 30 to 40% of the depressed.

Mental health is a sensitive subject, often misunderstood worldwide. The burden of depression adds to the struggle to survive in places where hardship is daily reality. Yet it’s a silent disease, often untreated and in some areas unrecognized.

The seeds of mental health treatment are being sown in many countries where these conditions haven’t been identified before. But they are very few and of limited scope. Anyone who’s seen people traumatized by war, natural disasters or political oppression, those left vulnerable by physical disabilities and diseases, and those struggling with emotional pain of the daily grind of poverty has also seen how these external conditions exacerbate depression. In most developing nations this includes the majority of the population.

WHO’s identification of the problem is a good first step, but many more steps will be required if the projection is correct.

Health Care is About How we Care for Each Other

Despite all the talk about costs, the health care debate is about more than money. It’s about how we care for each other. It’s about connection and community. By connection, I mean our recognition that we are connected as a human family and in a social network. We are no stronger than our concern for the most vulnerable among us. By community, I mean the principle that has been a foundation of the democratic experiment: that in addition to individual rights, we have a mutual shared responsibility for each other and this wider social network protects and assures rights for all of us. Civic responsibility and morality. The political posturing that has marked the debate the past few weeks could not be further from this reality and that’s a national disgrace.

Many of the most vulnerable are those with chronic diseases, some of which are untreatable but for palliative care; the poor who cannot afford access; seniors of limited means; children, who by their innocence are dependent upon adults for proper treatment. In a society of abundance, yes, even in the great recession we live abundantly, the idea that we are unable to care for all our citizens is disgraceful. Health care is a measure of what we strive to be, or what we have become. It is a moral issue.

It’s deeply disturbing that living wills and advance directives have been mischaracterized as death panels. I’ve found these to be among the most helpful and comforting tools available when I’ve faced agonizing decisions for which there are no easy answers. In those difficult decisions, I’ve wanted the wishes of a loved one to be followed and the sanctity and dignity of their lives respected. I’ve not wanted others who don’t know them to impose their views or judgments upon them. That’s the value of living wills and advance directives, exactly the opposite of the description of some political operatives today.

The inaccuracies and outright misrepresentations about reform add to the concerns and emotional burden of people who are already living in a vulnerable state. The harm done by introducing the fear they will lose even more of their access to health care is too high an emotional price to pay for political maneuvering. Many have already experienced significant cuts. Fortunately, some religious leaders in the mainline denominations and progressive evangelicals see it in this way. They are speaking out and organizing. This is as it should be.

If the religious community were to remain silent on this issue of civic responsibility and morality, it would risk betraying fundamental values about the dignity of human life and the value of our connection in community. The real cost of our uncivil debate on health care and our failure to reform, is not the loss of dollars but the loss of connection and community.

A Good Week

It’s been a good week. I traveled to Geneva with United Methodist, Lutheran and United Nations Foundation colleagues to meet with staff of the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria. United Methodists and Lutherans are partnering with the United Nations Foundation and the Global Fund to raise funds to eliminate malaria. The conversation was stimulating and exciting. I have more hope that the world can conquer malaria than I’ve ever had. The goal is 2015, a date called by UN General Sec. Ban Ki Moon. It’s great to leave a meeting feeling more excitement and hope than when you began.

Sen. Bill Frist and Larry Hollon A day after this, Sen. Bill Frist and a colleague came to our offices. Along with two of my staff colleagues, we had a very hopeful conversation about common concerns in global health. Since leaving the Senate he’s devoted his time to global health and poverty. We discovered several places where our interests intersect. And I learned that he played a key role in creating the Global Fund. Along with him, I believe the Global Fund is one of the greatest hopes the world has for significantly reducing the human toll of these three major diseases.

We also discovered we share relationships with people and organizations working on health and communications. The role of communications is often overlooked in addressing poverty and disease. But the challenge of getting life saving information to people, especially in underserved remote, rural regions where poverty is endemic is a function that deserves our careful consideration. I’m glad we were able to talk about it.

All in all, at week’s end I looked back and reflected; it was a good week.

Malaria and Hope: Why Domingos Antonic Matters

This is about hope. I ask you to stay with me and I’ll get there. But first I need to recount an experience that put hope to test. It starts with this lead-in to a story in Interpreter magazine about efforts to prevent malaria:

Watching a small child die from malaria is a horrific experience.

First come the headache, tiredness, weakness in the joints and general malaise,

followed by a very high fever.

Then the fever’s effect on the brain causes the child’s muscles to jerk, just before the end.

As I read this lead, I felt my heartbeat quicken and a sense of deep sadness came over me. I’ve seen children die in too many places. Honduras. Cambodia. More places in Africa than I can recall. This story is about 8-month-old Domingos Antonic who died of malaria in Malanje, Angola. One of the thousands whose lives are stolen by a disease of poverty.

But Domingos reminds me that every death is real. A face, a family, and real tears.

As I write these words I continue to feel a mixture of fear, frustration and anger. Fear because it’s so disorienting to see a child, or anyone else, overtaken by the symptoms of malaria and to be utterly helpless to change them. To witness the inexorable, uncontrollable ebbing away of life is fearsome.

Frustration, because this is preventable and treatable if addressed early on. And anger because it’s preventable and treatable, and economically feasible to end it. It doesn’t have to happen. Children need not die from this disease, nor many of the other diseases of poverty. And that alone is enough to cause a simmering boil of frustration within.

I know that emotional reactions are easily spent and sometimes they don’t generate much in the way of real change. I know that good people are doing all they can to bring health and healing to the world. In fact, Sen. Richard Lugar writes in the same edition of Interpreter about his legislation that would increase agricultural aid to combat hunger (Senate Bill 384, The Global Food Security Act). And I know that donors want program plans, measurements and outcomes–rational, systematic and manageable responses. But the Interpreter article set aflame old frustrations.

After all these years children are still dying in the poorest nations for lack of knowledge about preventing this disease and a ten dollar bednet. How many more? For how long?

Reading the article, my mind’s eye recalled the look on the face of the young indigenous mother I met thirty years ago at a health clinic in El Paraiso, Honduras cradling her malnourished infant. Her quietness and deep, brown eyes still haunt me. The memory of the labored breathing of the tiny child lingers. Then I recall a little body wrapped in white linen and laid into the ground in an African village near a river. And the look of pain on the face of a teenage boy in Cambodia, his brain swelling, unable to resist the progression of the disease.

The death of one child, when you know about it, doesn’t fade into the mists of memory to be forgotten. It stays somewhere in the pool of life experiences and comes to the surface with a word, a sound or an image. And the pain it carries is sharp and cuts deep for you know this is not the way life has to be.

Pain and grief are part of what it means to wake up to poverty every day in the developing world, but these conditions aren’t mysteriously inevitable. We can do something about them. They are not immutable reality. Nor should we be unaffected by them, not after looking people in the face and seeing what poverty means.

Hunger and disease are not about huge numbers. They are about one face at a time. Sometimes I think we let words mask our pain or gloss it over too easily. Lubricated with sweetness, they slide from our lips. “Hope never dies. Hope springs eternal.” Stand over your dying child, unable to do anything to wrench him or her from the grips of death, and then come and talk to me about hope.

I remember sitting with a mother in Brazil in a stinking favela talking about her son who was marked for murder by a vigilante group called “justicieros.” She had moved here hoping it would be safer. She was constructing a hut with boards scavenged from a wooden piano crate. We talked of life and hope. She was trapped in poverty. With tears sliding down her cheeks Maria spoke of the fears she had for her son. As she weighed the challenges she said, “But we have a saying in Brazil. Hope is the last thing to die.”

I think Maria’s view of hope is more accurate. When neglected, hope does die. Every day. With Domingos and every other child taken by the diseases of poverty and the injustices of life. That’s why we dare not forget Domingos nor all the others and turn away from them. If we do, we will lose our own humanity and hope will die. Hope, against all odds, is one of those qualities that defines our humanity. We must not let hope die.

There are many ways to keep hope alive:

  • Give to the Imagine No Malaria campaign to eradicate malaria in The United Methodist Church or the organization of your choice.
  • Participate in a volunteer partnership offerred by many local churches and other groups that provide volunteer opportunities to distribute bednets and provide hands-on labor.
  • Support Sen. Lugar’s Global Food Security Act, Senate Bill 384.
  • Read Nicholas Kristof’s comments in which he says we might get more support for humanitarian assistance by focusing on stories of individuals and opportunities rather than mass numbers.
  • Read Bono’s op-ed this morning and reflect on how we are all connected by our common DNA and consider how the death of any child is a loss to the whole human family.

It comes down to this. Hope is our responsibility. It’s not some mysterious force disconnected from hard realities. But it may, indeed, be written into our collective DNA, activated when we recognize that Domingos and every other preventable death by poverty is a call to us to be responsible for each other. When we care for each other, there is hope.

So you absorb the pain, fear and frustration and carry on. I laid the article down and walked away, collected my thoughts and re-grouped. Then I set about telling this story. I did it because Domingos is inside my brain. Look into his eyes and you cannot turn away your gaze. Domingos matters. And as long as I believe that, I can dare to hope and work to keep hope alive.


A Hopeful Postscript: The people of The United Methodist Church have entered into a campaign to raise $75 million to eradicate malaria. They have contributed well over six million dollars so far.

An article in the NY Times reports that Pres. Obama is asking the world’s wealthiest nations to contribute $15 billion to help the world’s poorest farmers feed themselves and their countries.

The Media and Junk Culture

Update : Bob Herbert writes a compelling assessment of the culture that has developed in the wake of the Jackson era. He says Michael mania was the beginning of extreme immaturity and grotesque irresponsibility.


Around three in the afternoon on July 2, three cable news networks simultaneously played and replayed a video of Michael Jackson’s last rehearsal taken two days before his death. California was effectively  bankrupt, issuing IOU’s for the first time since the Great Depression. Unemployment was up and stocks down, depressing hope for the end of the Great Recession. Sen. Kennedy announced a plan for national health care costing far less than those proposed before. But Michael Jackson, whose tragic death is as revealing of the paucity of celebrity culture as anything, led the news.

The video was provided by the company that bankrolled his planned comeback. There was much speculation that it was released as a preview of marketing plans yet to come. The cable networks took the bait.

That we are told more about Jackson’s will and the custody of his children than we are informed about the "public option " in the health care debate, war in Congo or the current state of Darfur , might understandably lead a reasonable person to wonder how the sideshow of popular culture became the main event.

In a provocative post on Alternet, Chris Hedges writes about the compliant relationship between junk culture, junk politics and the media. Hedges says over the years major media succumbed to corporate propaganda enabling corporations to undermine long held cultural values, redefining "American culture" and replacing it with a manufactured commodity culture. We are left with junk.

I thought his thesis severe until I turned on the TV that afternoon and saw it lived out before my eyes. David Shuster even analyzed it as he participated in it on MSNBC.

Chuck Todd, NBC’s chief White House correspondent, spent a quarter hour of Hardball, a program dedicated to politics, on Jackson. Talk about the marriage of junk culture and junk politics.

CBS and NBC led their national newscasts with Jackson. ABC opened with the unemployment figures released that day, the cutback in state government services and comments by President Obama about the state of the economy. To their credit, ABC got to Jackson eight minutes into its nightly newscast.

Hedges claims this  insidious, corrosive process has undermined journalism and traditional cultural values.

Recently I’ve been reading a lot about key issues confronting traditional institutions and organizations and their constituencies. I recall research by the Barna Group that says 18 to 34-year-olds say they can’t see a difference between professed Christians and others in the culture. One would assume that claiming the values of faith would distinguish a person of faith from the wider culture, especially if that culture is based on consumption, the attainment of personal wealth and idolizing celebrity.

These cultural values are in conflict with those of Jesus who called his followers to give up their material goods and serve other others, not hoard their wealth, take advantage of others for material gain or seek fame.

When Christianity, or at least those who claim Christianity, becomes indistinguishable from junk culture it has a problem. In fact, junk or not, it’s fair to ask if those who follow the teachings of Jesus can identify with any culture, or must stand within culture and remain in tension with it? If following Jesus is an ultimate claim, a claim that gives meaning to life and reshapes it, then that claim will, at some point, result in conflict with virtually any other system, most especially a lifestyle of consumption, excessive admiration of celebrity and political maneuvering.

It begs the question: What difference does belief make? What difference does it make to follow the teachings of Jesus? H. Richard Niebuhr addressed the issue in Christ and Culture and concluded that dynamic interaction between Christians and culture will change both.

The answer to these questions will be more determinative for the future of faith communities than the current cultural debates dividing them. The earliest followers of Jesus described their faithfulness as following The Way (Acts 19:23). The Way was an active journey through which commitment to God and other persons was expressed. And it brought them into conflict with the existing order. It was about what you live for, and in those early days, what you were prepared to die for.

More than dogma, it was how you lived your life in faithfulness, and it remains so today; ideals that cannot be contained by the smallness and shallowness of a culture of celebrity, consumption and politics.

Hedges holds out a glimmer of hope that a form journalism could emerge that combines rhetorical ideals with authentic storytelling, respecting but not misusing emotion, and it could help us to reclaim a more genuine, humane culture. Communities of faith will require a similar dialogue if they are to re-affirm that following Jesus really does make a difference; faithfulness to a way that is open to new possibilities, expansive, compassionate and committed to justice for all. A faith that does no harm, does good and helps us stay in love with God.

It isn’t rooted in popular culture and it’s unlikely to abide with it easily. But it could be a transformative presence in an otherwise sad and shallow culture of distraction.

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