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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.

Faith and Religious War in Somalia

Quran student As if fractured Somalia were not divided enough, a report this week says Islamic groups are realigning for renewed fighting. Somalia disintegrated 15 years ago when a corrupt government fell. Clan fighting plunged the country into anarchy and it’s remained there.

Jeffrey Gettleman writes in the New York Times that Sufi moderates are joining the fight against the Islamic Shabab insurgents. The Shabab teach an extreme form of Islam and have destroyed Sufi mosques. It’s a new and dangerous turn. Gettleman says Western nations hope the Sufis taking up arms will give moderates the upper hand.

More likely, however, it’s a sign of an intractable situation and a desperate hope for change. Trading clan for sectarian warfare is a dangerous exchange. In a society riven by division, it’s yet another deadly divide. The idea that changing the configuration of violence as a path to civic stability indicates the hopelessness of any other path and it takes more than a leap of faith to believe it will work.

It requires ignoring the potential for wider regional instability and rationalizing away the cultural and religious tensions that have long simmered in Ethiopia, disregarding the religious cleavage that is a major factor in the genocide in Darfur, minimizing destabilizing border tensions between Ethiopia and Eritrea and long-standing rivalry between Somalis and Ethiopia.

If the Sufis resist the insurgents and establish a working government with support across Somalia, it will reverse a decade and a half of bloody fighting that has taken a horrible toll on the Somali people and has made the region a tinder box. But the long term solution is to address the poverty, disease, land disputes and the need for justice. In Somalia’s anarchic state these have not been at the top of the list of policymakers. But the risk of Somalia becoming a base of operations for terrorist training and international lawlessness is clear.

Somali pirates have reminded the world of the danger of this failed state, once considered so remote and insignificant it was virtually forgotten. We now understand that’s an inaccurate perception.

It’s a long shot that a moderate government can take control. If it does, however, it will need more than moral support. It will need development assistance, infrastructure reconstruction and technical assistance. The last thing the Somalis need is more bloodshed and the last thing the world needs is a prolonged religious war in the Horn of Africa.

Are Institutions Obsolete?

Institutions. We don’t like them or trust them. Sometimes we want to bring them down a notch or two. They’re cumbersome, territorial, political and dysfunctional. They’re always behind the times. It’s easy to dislike them.

Writing in the 19th Century about governing institutions the sociologist Thorsten Veblen said, “Whatever is, is wrong.” He was observing the rise of institutions for a newly affluent “leisure class” in the Industrial Revolution.

Veblen said we form institutions out of our social experiences. But circumstances that cause us to create organizations have already passed by the time we get organized to deal with them. Therefore, institutions are always behind the times. It’s a social paradox.

I just sat through three weeks of non-stop meetings of an institutional church. Thinking about the institution is top of mind right now.

There’s no doubt in anyone’s mind that this institution must change. It’s organized around human experiences of the 1950s, 60s, 70s and 80s. The need to change is urgent. Not merely for financial reasons. That focuses attention, but the change was needed long before the global economy fell off the cliff.

Bishop Gregory Palmer, President of the Council of Bishops of The United Methodist Church, told the Connectional Table and General Council on Finance and Administration this week that the church is not structured for life in the digital age. “Life happens,” he said, “off-cycle of the General Conferences of The United Methodist Church. And we’re not structured to make certain movements that might need to be made in a world, in a digital age that is changing everyday.” The General Conference is the legislative and governing body of the church.

Bishop Palmer repeated his call for a realignment of the church to allow for faster response to its mission.

I think he’s right on target. When the last general conference met barely one year ago Twitter wasn’t even known to the delegates. Most had probably heard of Facebook but weren’t using it. That’s changed. Today young adults and youth are moving from Facebook as older adults are flocking to it. Twitter is the current most popular tool for social media and many others are also out there. And we’re still learning how to use it.

These tools have affected how people relate to each other and form communities. They obviously affect how we communicate with each other. Community is a central part of the life of the church–worshiping, learning, supportive community. But community enhanced by digital tools is something the institution hasn’t known before. And we’re not organized to adapt to it quickly enough. Veblen was as right for our day as for his.

The institutional church isn’t obsolete, but it must change. I’m skeptical of anyone who claims to know precisely what the change should look like. But I’m also in agreement with Bishop Palmer that the need for change has arrived, if not passed, and we must get on with it. We’ll probably stumble and make a mistake or two along the way. But that’s OK with me because we are trying to find new ways of being the church and making its teachings relevant in a whole new social context, one unlike the human race has ever known. A bit of humility and a lot of forgiveness seem necessary prerequisites as we journey to find a new way. But we must make the journey and it’s already begun.

From Instant Gratification to Deferred Gratification?

Can the U.S. move from a culture of instant gratification to deferred gratification? The question was inspired by a program on NPR this morning. From the car radio I went into a meeting where the same thing was being talked about.

There’s a lot of conversation and writing that says we’re re-considering our personal finances today. We’re saving more and we’re starting to live within our means. Some are asking, “How much is enough? What’s the difference between needs and necessities?”

I heard The Rev. Beverly Wilkes-Null in a meeting today speak about this and found her ideas thought-provoking. I asked her to do a brief Flip cam video interview and she graciously accepted. The video can be found here.

I’m interested in what readers of this blog think. Can we make the move from instant gratification to living with “just enough?”

Flip Video of Rethink Church Launch

I just posted my first Flip video. It’s the Rethink Church launch event at a Home Depot parking lot in Washington, D.C. last week.

I shot the video with a Flip HD videocam. Edited with iMovie, the basic Mac movie editor. Recorded the narration with a Blue Snowball USB microphone.

Rethink Church in the Parking Lot

workers The worker from Eduador spoke of his family back home as he stood in the Home Depot parking lot in Washington, D.C. last week. His brow wrinkled and his voice broke. He’s a long way from home and his existence here is day-to-day precarious.

As I listened, I felt a tug of emotion as well. The air was cool and wet. It was an unlikely day to pick up work. About 100 men stood in small groups dispersed around the lot. They wait here each morning for contractors and others needing day laborers. But if it’s wet they can’t paint, cut grass, install fences or do the myriad other jobs that are their lot.

I saw only one worker chosen this morning. For those left there will be no remittance back home. No food money. No rent earned today.

The bishops listened. They prayed with the workers, served them breakfast and introduced some of them to a staff member of Foundry United Methodist Church who works with migrant day laborers and with an organizer who has created an advocacy group for them.

The conversation was triggered by the launch of the church’s media campaign called "Rethink Church." It’s an effort to ask United Methodists to rethink how to be the church in this new century.

What happened in the Home Depot parking lot, and in other parking lots in metropolitan Washington that morning, was church. Not in the traditional sense. In the John Wesley sense. In the way Jesus did it. Church in the streets.

When Wesley confronted conditions of the poor in London and Birmingham he went to them. Outside the walls of the institutional church. In the fields near the mines where the miners toiled. In the teeming neighborhoods of the poor in the backstreets of London.

He preached, prayed, offered them medical care, taught them to read, led study groups, visited them when they were sick and sought work for them. He took the church outside itself and he started a movement.

The Lord's Supper In Gaithersburg, Maryland , Bishop Minerva Carcano and her episcopal colleagues had a similar conversation. But one worker saw her and said, "Obispo." Bishop. He asked her for holy communion.

There was a flurry of activity. Loaves of bread appeared, and what someone described to me as "some kind of purple liquid." And right there in that place spontaneously, unrehearsed, the Lord’s Supper was consummated. The bishops of the church and the workers who live hand to mouth every day shared bread and "wine" in Jesus’ name.

Bishop Carcano spoke these magnificent words: “I don’t think that it is enough to simply declare that we stand with the immigrant." The launching of Rethink Church at a day laborer camp is "a way of saying to those who are immigrants that we walk with you, we journey with you, Christ journeys with you. Scripture calls us to love you and therefore we are here with you.

Lest you think this was a moment in time, a quick, feel-good diversion, the bishops went to Capitol Hill in the afternoon and spoke to Senators and Congresspersons about poverty legislation and immigration reform. They also affirmed a call to action to address poverty and immigration and committed themselves to raise $75 million for global health. And they agreed to roll back their salaries to last year’s level and called each other to voluntarily contribute to the mission of the church.

I won’t claim I heard the voice of God in that parking lot, but when a reporter interviewing me asked, "What do you think Jesus would say about this?" the following thought came immediately to mind.

I’ve been too wrapped up in bureaucratic and administrative entanglements. I haven’t been here on the street where life happens. At least not as much as I would like and not as much as I should be.

I said, "I think he would say, ‘Welcome. I’ve been here all along. I’ve missed you. Welcome back.’"

By the grace of God we will rethink church and rediscover who we are and where we should be, and we will re-discover that church happens not only in the sanctuary during sacred worship but also in the noisy, wet parking lots where people hustle to get by one more day, places where Jesus is already present, calling us to join him.

The Institution as Connection

Institutions are necessary, desirable and, for all their faults and foibles, valuable. Here’s why. They can mobilize and when they do they achieve scale. They enhance capacity. They empower. In the case of religious institutions, they are expressions of missional theology.

Mobilization isn’t their most important function, but I’ll start here. When the people of The United Methodist Church in the Texas Annual Conference came together to raise $1 million for bednets they partnered with United Methodists in Cote d’Ivoire. That partnership and that million, small as it sounds, got the attention of the Ministry of Health and other civil society groups including international donors.

It was combined with other funds. Volunteers from Texas went to Cote d’Ivoire and participated in a national distribution that included vaccinations, de-worming and instructions for mothers on child care.

In Texas people talked about health needs elsewhere. They learned about the connection between diseases and poverty. Equally important, in Cote d’Ivoire a national grassroots community was energized, trained and empowered. This led to a more focused discussion about health care nationwide. A national conversation followed. Cote d’Ivoire captured this experience and put it to work. A plan was submitted to the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria for a wide-ranging attack on these killer diseases. Their plan was approved in round eight for $34 million dollars! (The United Methodist investment was multiplied thirty-fold.)

I would not presume the only catalyst was the participation of United Methodists, but I do contend their participation was important. It signaled the church, which is present in many places that others are not, was concerned and would walk the walk with officials and local people. And it revealed external allies from across the globe. This authenticity, scale and reach contributed to a growing belief that the challenge of eradicating malaria could be met. Resources could be brought to bear. Together, we can make a difference. All of us together. Scale.

But for those of us in the United Methodist faith community there is a deeper point. We are taught by scripture, and we re-state every Sunday, that we are connected to the whole human family, to the Creation and to God. This bond is transcendent, sacred and immutable. In The United Methodist Church we call this “the connection.” We define it in organizational terms. Lately, we’ve diminished it. We criticize it and act as if it’s a punching bag. Some are even considering how to dismantle it.

The connection is about more than scale, but it incorporates scale. It’s about more than organizational structure but it incorporates ecclesiology, how we describe ourselves in the language of theology. It’s about understanding our bonds to the Creator, the web of life and each other. It’s about how together we can influence the circumstances that affect quality of life globally and how together we support each other, relate to God and express our beliefs in the holy.

Empowerment, scale, influence. Mission, engagement and faithfulness. Transcendence, holiness and the sacred web of Creation. That’s the connection, and faithfully engaged it could transform the world.

Worship Often: Approve Torture

The more often you attend church the more likely you are to approve torture. As startling as it sounds, if we are to believe the latest Pew research on religious  attitudes, that’s the case.

This is just breath-taking. That a religious community would be favorable to torture, much less approve it, is so paradoxical it strains credulity. But there it is.

Susan Brooks Thistlewaite looks at why she thinks some Christians accept behavior that is, for some of us, beyond the pale. She believes it’s theological. If she’s correct, the amalgam of culture, politics and religion that she says is behind this view illustrates how differently Christians view both the social context of faith and how they interpret the teachings of the faith.

Thistlewaite notes that Jesus told Peter to put away his sword after Peter drew it and cut off the ear of one who had come to take him to trial. (Matt 26:51,52) His rejection of violence at that moment makes a case for not engaging in violence against one’s accusers, or enemies, she says.

It would take a volume to distill the different approaches to faith that lead to this wide discrepancy. But the Pew finding adds urgency to the need for education about what Jesus did teach and how he practiced his teachings, and in neither did he advocate torturing human beings.

Atheists Out of the Closet

Athiests are coming out of the closet. And in South Carolina, no less; a place noted for the strength of its religious and political values, strongly conservative and deeply held. That’s the gist of the NY Times piece on "emerging" athiests and secular humanists.

A Pew study on religious attitudes across the country provides context. Four in ten in the Pew survey say they abandoned the faith they were taught as children. In this fluid situation the largest group is people who disconnect from faith. Pew calls them unaffiliated. Roman Catholics lead the dropouts followed by the general category of "Protestants." The majority of those who move from their childhood faith do so before age 24 and are likely to change more than once. Religious churning.

A study like this provides a snapshot but it doesn’t get at the deeper emotional, psychological or spiritual issues that are at work. I wonder what people are turning away from, or giving up. Dogma? Belief in the transcendent? A sense of the sacred in life? The community in which they were nurtured?

And I wonder about what is being taught, and not sticking, in religious education. What is happening in our interior life that leads to this turn? More pertinent, how does secularization occur in the internal spiritual landscape that includes our rational thinking and emotions?

And how is that interior churning affected by the exterior, existential circumstances in which we live? As we become urbanized and disconnected from the natural order must we rediscover our place in the universe?  Does it signify the end of the Enlightenment and the dawning of a New Awareness, as some say? Is it the final stages of deconstruction or the ongoing work of empowered individualism that has been underway for the last several years in Western culture?

I am most interested in what leads us to define ourselves apart from the sacred, to devalue the transcendent and holy, and put ourselves in its place. And I wonder how faith becomes irrelevant to those who are nurtured in faith communities? Or, how faith communities fail in the nurturing?

And, finally, I ask if people are turning away from religious answers that no longer make sense, or are they discovering new questions for which old religious teachings don’t work? Is this an existential quest, and if it is, why is that not understood as the essence of faith, a search for meaning?

The Times article surmizes many causes, one of which is the embrace by the Bush Administration of the religious right. Thinking, caring people were put off by these extremists who made news and attempted to force their narrow values onto the rest of us. I suspect the damage done in this era will be long-lasting. But I also suspect that’s not the most significant issue. This churning is not merely reactive. Among those I know who have given up religion, it’s a thoughtful struggle to understand life in a more authentic and consistent way. It is reflective beyond merely rejecting right wing ideology.

I recall a thoroughly enjoyable conversation on a flight across the Atlantic with a Dutch pyschotherapist who made a point, in a kind way, to let me know he was not a religious believer. He is never the less a humanist and a remarkable person. He was returning from a volunteer mission to Peru that doubled as a vacation. The values he described and how they integrate into his life were impressive. I was in a better mood after our conversation than before.

I’m also intrigued by the desire for community that the Times article identifies. We need to be connected with people of like mind regardless of our religious sensibilities, it seems.

I take away from this religious churning and the emerging rejection of religion a challenge to listen and understand (in so far as that is possible). As we move into a new century and face unprecedented change, our humanity is being redefined. So too, is our relationship to the world and the whole of creation. The challenge to theology is to take us far beyond the bumper stickers and attention-drawing rhetoric and help us in the search for meaning and purpose. For me, that is a function of faith.

Bono’s Search for the Soul

Rock Singer and humanitarian activist Bono asks about the state of our souls in this time of great change.

In a Sunday op-ed he recounts Easter worship on an unnamed island and discusses the need for new beginnings. He writes affectingly about his search in scripture and religion to discern the state of his soul and shares ever so briefly his need to experience redemption at the death of his father. He raises questions about capitalism and globalization and affirms the value of the debt forgiveness policy known as Jubilee.

But what piqued my curiousity most is his closing comment. He recalls the benevolence of Warren Buffett and Bill Gates, Jr., both of whom he assumes are agnostic, and Nelson Mandela who doesn’t describe himself as religious. Recognizing their contributions to social good, Bono says not all soul music comes from the church.

His comments are perfect illustrations of a post-modern, post-religious commentary. His narrative is ambiguous enough that it can be interpreted in many ways. It’s positive toward worship and religion. It reveals experiential understanding. But his closing remark can also be taken as a jibe at the church. I don’t think it is. I think it’s more theological than critical.

He’s correct that not all the music of the soul originates in the church. If the source of the music is the Creator, and the Creation is being renewed and healed with or without the church, then Bono’s line reflects solid theology. What those who are believers call God is bigger than the human containers we construct to describe God. God is not limited to our containers, no matter how fervently we promote them.

An important function of faith is apprehending where God is at work in the world, with or without us. I think that’s what Bono is saying. What do you think?