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Hot Button Issues and the “Media”

The controversy around Da Vinci Code is as
important as a representation of institutional mistrust as it is important
because it is historically inaccurate.

Thomas Frank in his book What’s the Matter With Kansas?, said the “hot button” issues are diversions from more serious policy issues. Thomas de Zengotita says in Mediated: How the Media Shapes your world and the Way You Live in It we are buffeted by images and messages that point to something else. We live in a world of representation that distorts, and masquerades as reality. In fact, he makes the case that we don’t even consider the real from the representational because we’re immersed in web of media in which every message refers to something else. In the end, these messages and images come to represent reality.

Fr. Jim McDermott of the Jesuit magazine, America told a workshop of Catholic communicators in Nashville that when he began teaching about the Da Vinci Code, he approached the audience as if it were desirable to clarify inaccuracies in the novel.

But, he noted, this “let the air out of the room,” and discussion ceased. He came to understand that people wanted to talk and be heard. This was more important than the actual content of the book and movie. They told him they didn’t want a lecture, they wanted conversation.

The learning here seems to be that media events such as the Da Vinci Code and (perhaps) other hot button issues touch a deeper nerve. They represent unspoken, unrecognized issues, that lie below the surface for many people. In the Code the fictional storyline and inaccuracies of fact do upset many people, but these alone don’t create interest. The fictionalized conspiracy becomes more plausible in light of clergy sexual abuse and the break in trust it represents. The plausibility of the church withholding important information becomes easier to believe in the wake of misrepresentation by corporate leaders (Enron) and politicians (WMDs). The major institutions that influence our lives have manipulated information and deceived us. And we want to say something about that.

Combine these liabilities with antipathy toward reason and scholarship–such as historical and textual criticism of the Bible–and the confusion of fiction with reality becomes more understandable.

De Zengotita adds another important consideration. In a mediated society the telling of the story becomes part of the story, and eventually absorbs it. He asks the reader to consider how the traveling media motorcade shaped the telling of the story of OJ on the freeway. At what point does media intervention impinge upon reality?

If de Zengotita is correct, the question doesn’t matter because we passed that point long ago and now we’re in a media-influenced wonderland that fuses reality and representation. The distinction is lost. We can’t have reality without an accompanying storyline.

Viewed from this perspective the issues aren’t as important as being heard in the clamor because we are all participants in media events, even if we’re only playing the role of spectator. In this role, what is important is our interpretation of the story and how it affects us individually. Thus, it’s not about external facts rooted in history and practice. It’s about me, says de Zengotita.

We’ve arrived at the ultimate state of individualism and deconstruction. In this state, reality is what each of us makes it by picking and choosing from snippets of the multitude of storylines that cascade before us every day.

But this bubble bursts when harsh reality pricks its thin skin. We discover that we’re not really as privileged as we’re led to believe. Cancer happens. Death comes to a loved one. Calamity strikes. We’re helpless and the storyline can’t be manipulated. Then we face reality in a way that is terrifying and gives us perspective unlike the mediated reality of daily life.

I agree with de Zengotita that the elevation of the individual to a performer in the ongoing storylines is behind some of the reaction we see in hot button issues. Whether we can claim grounding in historical truth and experience in this mediated environment remains one of the most telling challenges of the Da Vinci Code and other similar media-driven experiences.
But as a person of faith, I would go further. The arrogation of the individual to define reality is hubris writ large. It’s at the core of the biblical teaching of the relationship of humans to God. In fact, a good theologian (which I’m not) could make a strong case for the effects of the mediated environment being blasphemy and the arrogation of individuals as idolatry. Jesus called disciples to be self-giving, to humble themselves and become as a servant. Christian discipleship is fundamentally at odds with this mediated version of reality. That’s a real hot button issue.

Somalia’s Renewed Violence

News reports today say Somalia is
experiencing the worst violence since the fall of the national government in
1991. The Council of Foreign Relations carries a report that identifies growing
concern over the potential for Somalia to harbor terrorists.

Somalia is experiencing the worst violence since the fall of its government in 1991 according to news reports today. Both the BBC and the New York Times carry extensive updates.

The Council of Foreign Relations also carries a report on the potential for Somalia to become a terrorist haven, something that is already happening. The Council says the concern of some officials is that the failed state will host greater numbers of dangerous terrorist groups than it does now.

Da Vinci Code and Catholic Communicators

The panelists who presented to the Catholic
communicators enlarged upon these inaccuracies and also discussed how the book
misrepresents Opus Dei, a movement that identifies itself as leading people to
see God in daily life through acts of faith.

The Da Vinci Code defames the Roman Catholic Church in the view of some Catholics, and according to others it creates a great opportunity to listen to lay persons whose curiosity has been stimulated.

These were some of the viewpoints expressed by an ecumenical panel at a workshop on the “Da Vinci Code: Fact, Fiction, Film & Faith,” held in Nashville during the Catholic Media Convocation, an assembly of Catholic communicators from around the country. I participated on the panel.

While some Protestants have criticized it for historical inaccuracies, Roman Catholics are offended that the book postulates a conspiracy by church leaders to deceive communicants by keeping part of Jesus’ life secret. Even as fiction, this makes it more offensive in the minds of some.

The panelists enlarged upon these inaccuracies and also discussed how the book misrepresents Opus Dei, a movement that identifies itself as leading people to see God in daily life through acts of faith.

Cliff Vaughan of the Baptist website said the book appealed to a deep interest in conspiracy in the society. Ray Waddle, a writer who has been published by The Tennessean, the Board of Discipleship of The United Methodist Church and United Methodist Communications, agreed, and said the book gained momentum from recent exploration of the gnostic writings of the first two centuries of Christian history. He said it appeared in a “perfect storm” of cultural change, media emphasis and interest in conspiracy theories that gained popularity after publication of the Warren Commission Report of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in the seventies. He also noted that the book provides a more “poetic” presentation of church history, something the church could learn from. The Da Vinci Code reveals a hunger for compelling, poetic presentation of faith, he said.

Fr. Jim McDermott, SJ, popular culture contributor to AMERICA magazine, published in New York, told the workshop that the book also taps into a suspicion of leadership that has developed in the recent past. But he said his experience of three years teaching about the Code has led him to create settings for conversation rather than to lecture about the accuracy of its content. He told the group people want to talk about faith and they use the book to explore deeper concepts than the book’s content.

Some of the most vocal refutation of the book comes from Opus Dei, a religious membership organization of both laity and clergy unlike any group in Protestantism. Opus Dei has long been considered enigmatic by some and controversial by others, as TIME magazine notes. It is presented as a secret, manipulative organization in the book.

Brian Finnerty, director of U.S. Media Relations for Opus Dei, told the group about several learnings. He said they learned they could use the interest generated by the book to clarify misunderstandings about the organization and refute myths. They recognized that the Code controversy could be approached through humor as well as through serious critique. The book brought record numbers to the Opus Dei website and despite controversy this became an unusual opportunity for recruitment.

In addition, the conversation ranged from the marketing tactics used by Sony Pictures to generate buzz to a discussion about anti-institutional attitudes and mistrust of authority. It was revealing how popular culture intersects with the teachings of faith and it made for an energizing and enjoyable afternoon.

Crime in New Orleans

Crime in New Orleans is different, according
to an article in TIME. And criminals from New Orleans re-located to Texas
behave differently in custody.

While in New Orleans this week I listened to a shopkeeper tell me about crime in the city. Her contention is that today it’s different than before Katrina, and before Katrina it was different than in her home state of Texas. She’s been in New Orleans for twenty years.

I had no experience nor frame of reference to understand her views. But an article in TIME about New Orleans criminals displaced to Texas provides very interesting insight into their behavior. You can find it at What Happened to the Gangs of New Orleans? It’s fascinating reporting.

New Orleans Unrecovered

Recovery eludes New Orleans. Despite
progress toward renewal in some areas the city remains a population in

Standing on a median strip in front of the Ernest C. Morial Convention Center in New Orleans yesterday, passing traffic drowned out the voices of the board of the National Council of Churches offering a prayer for recovery. It was a normal city scene until Wade Rathke, a local aid coordinator, pointed out where water had lapped at the windowsills of buildings and said, “This is where people laid down to die. Women, little children, those who could run no further from the water.”

Then he pointed down Convention Center Boulevard to an overpass that was named the “Bridge of Desperation.” It was one of the bridges on which New Orleaneans sought safe haven after the levees broke. Fear turned to despair when no one came to their rescue. All the images came back and I realized that the life and death drama that occurred here made this scruffy piece of land between traffic lanes sacred space.

Despite television ads to the contrary, New Orleans is not back. Yes, the casino is open and the French Quarter is a bit of its old self. But whole neighborhoods are still uninhabited. People are still living in tiny trailers. The diaspora has not begun to return in great numbers.

Stories of frustration with insurance companies and government are so common they’ve become part of local lore. Small businesses that once depended upon heavy tourist traffic are struggling. One shopkeeper told me her sales last week equalled one half day’s sales before the storm. She will close down soon.

But there is also a positive word here and I’ve heard it consistently. The religious community has made a difference. A Special Commission for the Just Rebuilding of the Gulf Coast, chaired by Bishop Mel Talbert of The United Methodist Church, reported on contacts it has had with policy-makers and local persons in the hurricane-affected area. He laid out additional work for the future.

Volunteers have helped those displaced and homeless. They have cleaned debris and gutted houses. They have continued to come in a steady stream. They work hard, and they give. To those who are no closer to getting back into their homes than they were eight months ago, this is some comfort. The awareness that they’re not forgotten is a degree of consolation.

We heard a meditation that seemed especially relevant with text from 2 Corinthians 4 in which Paul writes, “We’ve been surrounded and battered by troubles, but we’re not demoralized;…we’ve been thrown down, but we haven’t been broken.

Frank Rich on the Da Vinci Code and Exploiting Religion

Frank Rich writes that Sony Pictures hired a
bevy of consultants to get Christians to create “teaching moments” that
subsidized a movie that most Christians find offensive. He says it rivals Tom
Sawyer bamboozling his friends to painting that fence.

It rivals
Tom Sawyer’s
of his friends
into painting
that fence.
–Frank Rich

Sony Pictures hired a bevy of consultants to get Christians to create “teaching moments” as part of a calculated strategy to exploit controversy around the Da Vinci Code, according to Frank Rich, columnist for the New York Times. He notes Hollywood scriptwriter and former nun Barbara Nicolosi blogged that Sony coopted “legions of well-meaning Christians into subsidizing a movie that makes their own Savior out to be a sham.”

Rich sees this as a perfect metaphor for political machinations in which the conservative religious base turns out for the Republican Party but is always betrayed. He makes a strong case to support this contention.

Granting this, however doesn’t tell the whole story. Rich starts his piece by pointing to the remarkable capacity of movie executives to coopt virtually anything, including our religious sensibilities, and milk it for profit.

Some critics of the Da Vinci Code were clear about the obvious economic exploitation and called on interested inquirers to use library copies of the book, for example, to avoid adding to the coffers of the book’s author. However, unless you decided to neither buy the book nor attend the movie, it’s difficult to avoid getting pulled into the profit-making machinery. It’s just too pervasive and aggressive.

But this whole affair raises several interesting questions. Knowing that controversy feeds the coffers of those who are willing to exploit anyone and everything, is there another response concerned people can make when the next controversy looms? Now that these tactics are clear, can we find a way to deny the corporate exploiters the profit that feeds their exploitation? And will those vocal freelance religious entrepreneurs on the right who fan the flames of cultural skirmishes and who benefit from media exposure continue to be willing partners in this cooptation?

John Stossel Discovers Corruption

John Stossel of ABC’s 20/20 reports on
governmental corruption in Africa. Christine Gorman of the TIME Blog on Global
Health observes that this is neither a new discovery nor one that should result
in suspending all developmental aid.
(Revised 6:57 a.m., May 20, 2006.)

ABC’s John Stossel on 20/20 reported on governmental corruption in Africa and seemed to close out the possibility of discussing corruption in relation to developmental aid. This is a common analysis and it drew a sharp reaction from Christine Gorman at the TIME Global Health Blog. The message board for the show also has interesting discussion.

If you’ve been in the work of humanitarian aid for any length of time you’ve had to confront corruption and a host of other real and important concerns trying to do the “right thing.” The right thing is sometimes in dispute as well, of course.

But Gorman is on target when she writes, “Life is generally a lot more complex and interesting when you don’t assume you have all the answers.”

I’ve watched as a parade of people with great needs come to bishop’s offices of our denomination in African settings. They come asking for assistance to meet a current emergency. They need a bus ticket to get a loved one to a hospital. They need to bury a family member.

These are small scale, micro-requests, not at all what Stossel was talking about. But the point is, where need is great, life is far more complex than simplistic analysis can perceive. And, as Gorman says, bromides about compassion don’t cut it either. Somewhere between stopping everything because corruption exists and bromides that merely gloss over hard realities lies a middle ground that must be plowed through.

This is where the realities of human suffering meet with the realities of human exploitation. And that is complex and difficult territory. But the final destination is important. How do you get the programs and resources to people who need them, will benefit from them and are in desperate straits right now?

It is much more beneficial figure out how to do this than to report what we already know, namely, that human nature is human nature and sometimes it’s not good.

Writing for the Web

Writing for the web is different than
writing for print. Matt Carlisle offers tips in his new blog.

Writing for the web is different from writing for print. Matt Carlisle, a colleague at United Methodist Communications, provides helpful tips for this and many other skills unique to the digital environment in his new weblog at

He includes a collection of links and articles that are very useful, especially for writers like me who have been taught to write for media other than the web.

One article makes the point that we read the web screen differently than print. We don’t give it the same time and attention. Eye-tracking studies have captured how we move around the screen. It’s very helpful to know these patterns not only for writing, but also for designing web pages.

If you haven’t discovered Matt’s site yet, hop over to it and I think you’ll find something of interest.

UNICEF and Children

The UNICEF State of the World’s Children
Report is online, along with touching stories of children from around the world.
It’s a must-see site

The UNICEF State of the World’s Children 2006 report, Excluded and Invisible, is online and it’s a must-see. The wealth of information itself is reason enough to spend a lot of time with this report. But the execution of the website, which won a Webby Award, is another. It’s one of the best sites on the web for telling the story of vulnerable and invisible children. If you haven’t already done so, I recommend readers of Perspectives hop over to the link and plumb the site. I think you will be moved, informed and feel motivated to act.

Thanks to Ginny Underwood for passing the link along to me.

Child Health on the Gulf Coast

Irwin Redliner says the worst child health
crisis in U.S. history is happening on the Gulf Coast right

The gulf area
faces the worst
children’s health
crisis in modern
U.S. history
–Irwin Redlener

The worst crisis in child health in U.S. history is happening right now along the Gulf Coast according to Irwin Redlener, director of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University.

Writing in the New York Times, Redlener says an estimated 175,000 children lack health care. One in three have a chronic condition such as asthma. Many have experienced emotional trauma but are not receiving the attention they need to manage it in a constructive way. If they attend school, it’s likely to be overcrowded. They live in tiny trailers in temporary settlements, apart from community supports and stabilizing routine.

They share one additional condition–poverty. They were poor before the storm, he says, and exist in worse circumstances now.

Redlener proposes an allocation of $100 million to “support a force of at least 200 pediatricians and family doctors, 100 specially trained mental health workers, 25 mobile medical units and a much strengthened school-based health care network throughout the gulf region. It could also put vital health care information in a computer database and set up virtual access to medical centers for children who can’t get to specialists’ offices.”

It seems a small price to pay for the health of these children whose lives have been turned topsy-turvy and whose health is being jeopardized daily.