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| Perspectives from Larry Hollon


I hear it said that the magnitude of the tragedy is beyond comprehension. Perhaps. It is enormous, more than the mind can absorb. However, when I see a father carrying the body of his dead son it becomes immediately comprehensible. It’s personal and real. An editorial writer for The New York Times this morning got it right. The face of grief is personal. It’s our grief. It’s the recognition that our humanity is so vulnerable and tentative. In this, no matter our nationality or where we live, we are united as one human community.

And if this is so, then so, too, is our response. We are compelled to respond as brothers and sisters, to offer something of ourselves, for we understand that in doing so we are helping to heal our community and restoring health to the family.

In grief and hope, we discover we are united as

Faith Adapting

I’ve always thought preaching was the most revealing and daunting responsibility the clergy carry out. You reveal not only your speaking abilities. You reveal the depth of your scholarship, thought and faith. It’s a weekly display of one’s innermost capacities laid out before the whole world. Those who don’t understand this, or worse who think they can get by with something less than their best, are fooling only themselves. In a media-saturated world we have become acculturated to critique. Acceptance or rejection are second nature. To preach today is to enter into this culture and lay bare your soul, risking many outcomes–disagreement with deeply held beliefs, criticism for not doing it well and outright rejection. That’s daunting.

I think this dynamic, writ large, is why I found the documentary The Congregation about First United Methodist Church in Germantown, Pennsylvania, which aired on PBS last night, such a courageous step by these pastors and congregants. They allowed filmmakers Alan and Susan Raymond to document the struggles of a pastor who is grappling with his effectiveness as a preacher and leader, a congregation in transition, divided and stressed, and another pastor who comes out of the closet, declaring her lesbian orientation. It is a remarkable struggle and the documentary captures it with poignancy and integrity.

Facing these multiple challenges the congregation genuinely seeks to address them but first it has to identify them. Therein lies the drama, and a touching story.

In an open talking session brutal honesty surfaces some–but not all–of the problems. The senior pastor, The Rev. Fred Day, is critiqued, painfully in my opinion, and almost brutally. The worship style is dissected and the congregation’s storied history is recalled.

What is not shown is whether the members also understand their roles as leaders to bring the community towards health. This may have been part of the talking session and got edited out by the filmmakers. But the issue that cuts even deeper than the effectiveness of the lead pastor or the sexual orientation of The Rev. Beth Stroud, is whether this community of faith can recover their balance and return to health. Can they become an outward-looking missional people facing the real, vexing and complicated problems that daily confront each individual and the wider community?

I think they can. Their history as a vital congregation is a resource. They were shaped by a social witness over the past thirty years that gives them a track record. They face financial struggles but Rev. Day states at one point that when they are presented with a significant case for giving, they respond. And even in their division, most display remarkable gifts. And confronted with multiple dilemmas, they chose to spend money on consultants to try and get at their problems rather than repair the leaking roof. They listen to each other and express opinions with sensitivity. There is richness of talent and insight in these people that finally led me, even in the severity of their struggle, to hope.

Making a documentary such as The Congregation is a collaborative process requiring the active participation of those whose story is being told. The people of First United Methodist Church, Germantown demonstrate an openness and confidence that is quite remarkable. They allow us to sit in on their struggle. Ms. Stroud talks us through her “coming out” sermon, reflecting a theological understanding of preaching that is deep and grounded in strong faith. Rev. Day reveals unusual restraint as he comes to terms with the critiques of his leadership and preaching. I thought to myself, “Wow, one the hardest jobs in the world is to be a local church pastor.”

It’s paradoxical that even as they contend with the de-credentialing of Ms. Stroud as a “self-avowed, practising homosexual,” this congregation embodies an openness that lives up to the claim this denomination makes–people of open hearts, open minds, open doors.

Is Everything Falling Apart? (The Deep Support Economy)

I got on an airplane recently and the steward welcomed us by saying, “Thank you for choosing United. We know you had your choice of bankrupt carriers and we’re happy you chose us.”

For the airlines it’s a tough go these days. And it’s no picnic for customers either. Flying has become a hassle at almost every point of contact.
But it’s not only the airlines. Many other corporations and organizations formed in the last century to serve mass customers are finding it tougher to get their messages through today. It’s almost impossible to maintain customer loyalty and deliver satisfactory service. The mass market system is under stress, some say it’s breaking down.

Shoshana Zuboff and James Maxmin contend in “The Support Economy:Why Corporations are Failing Individuals and the Next Episode of Capitalism,” that a whole new form of capitalism is in the birthing, one that will serve individuals and families by offering deep support. Deep support is both service and advocacy to meet complex needs that are frustrating and time-consuming today.

If you’ve tried to straighten out a billing mistake on a medical claim or sought service for a home appliance, you know that the system is not designed to be customer friendly. The customer must fit the needs of the organization rather than the other way around. Mass organizations were designed to provide a product or service to great numbers of people. To do this, the individual needs of the customer must be sublimated to the production cycle and procedures of the mass organization. How else can it serve a mass clientele?

But in the sublimation of individual needs many customers feel abandoned in the transaction. If individuals must conform to the production and service system of the mass organization, Zuboff and Maxmin contend, they experience frustration and dissatisfaction because our lives are more complex and nuanced than ever before in human history.

The mass corporation seems oblivious to the daily realities of the customer. Recently my daughter tried to get a landline telephone installed. She was instructed to provide the installer with a four-hour window–which meant she had to adjust her work schedule to be there. You can almost write the rest of the story. The installer didn’t show up. She called and was advised the installer had attempted to contact her. In fact, the installer never came to her address. She was advised, however, since “she was unavailable” she faced a three-week wait for another appointment.

Zuboff and Maxmin make the case that such experiences will result in the demise of mass market capitalism and individuals, who are empowered as never before in history, will demand new and more effective services. It’s not just a matter of self-interest in a narrow sense, it’s a matter of using one’s time to live authentic, meaningful and fulfilling lives. It’s not about waiting on the installer to show up.

As I think about this proposition, I connect with research that reinforces the claim that people are searching for more meaning and fulfillment. I’m also interested in the growth of small support groups that seem to offer people an environment for growth and problem-solving. So, it rings true.

I’m also thinking that one place where this happens already is in active, informed, caring communities, such as local churches that see that they must be in mission and must carry out ministries of service. The book also suggest to me that in a de-personalized world, those organizations who see their role as healer enabling us to resolve the conflicts we experience and empowering us to live authentically will help us experience deep support. That’s not all the thoughts that Zuboff and Maxmin stimulate, but it’s a good start.

Imperial Hubris: Why the West is Losing the War on Terror

In Imperial Hubris: Why the West is Losing the War on Terror, which first appeared under anonymous authorship, CIA analyst Michael Scheruer offers his explanation why so many Arabs hold the United States in contempt, and why Osama bin Laden is nearly a cult hero. It’s intriguing and disquieting. He says they don’t dislike us because we’re free, they dislike us because of what we do in their part of the world. We extract oil that keeps despots in power. We overlook human rights abuses among some of the most corrupt governments anywhere. And we continue to tilt toward Israel and ignore the desperate pleas of the Palestinian people. They dislike our policies, not our freedom nor even our society. Mostly, he claims they would like us to leave them alone rather than make their lives worse.

Osama bin Laden has been adept at exploiting the
raw wounds that fester in corrupt Arab societies and pouring salt into them. As
a result, he has built a following in the Arab world that views him as a hero.
Scheruer is scathing in his critique of right-wing evangelical Christians who,
viewed from the ground level in Arab societies, represent the entire Christian
community. These folks have made statements that are not only insensitive, they
are inflammatory. Instead of helping us understand each other, such statements
lead to deeper division, according to Scheruer. While it’s not necessarily his
point, it leads me to the conclusion that the teaching organizations in the
U.S., the schools and churches have a significant responsibility to carry out
global education. And the voices of moderation and understanding, from all
perspectives must make even greater effort to be heard. We need to cut through
the rhetoric and get to real conversation that holds the promise for mutual
understanding and respect. That’s not an impossibility and its strategic
advantage is that it could help us find a way to peace.

It’s a Crossfire World

New York Times columnist Frank Rich writes that producers of television programs such as Crossfire who select controversial and inflammatory religious voices as guests on their programs also shut out those responsible voices of moderation.

don’t necessarily make for good television but voices from the middle offer room
for understanding and hope for compromise on many critical values-related
issues. In my opinion, this practice not only leads to polarization, it also
marginalizes many responsible religious leaders whose views should be heard in
the public conversation. It also reveals that content is secondary to
controversy, quirkiness or drama. The result is obvious. Content takes a back
seat to entertainment. The better entertainers get exposure, and, as Rich
points out, some of these don’t even serve within religious communities. They
are usually political partisans who represent narrow opinions that don’t reflect
the cumulative wisdom of religious tradition.

Yet, because they are presented as if they
represent the Christian community, they not only shape the discussion, they also
appear to define religious thought. Rich is correct to ask if Al Sharpton, who
doesn’t serve a congregation, and Jerry Falwell, who represents a narrow and
partisan slice of the evangelical right, are truly representative of the
Christian community, or are they simply the media-designated talk show guests
who provide entertainment but not much light? The public dialogue deserves
better, and the millions of responsible Christians who take faith seriously and
believe it has the capacity to reconcile us and heal brokenness, deserve better
as well.

Welcome to Perspectives

Welcome, and thanks for stopping by Perspectives.

In this blog I look at contemporary issues that intersect media, culture and religious faith. I’m motivated, in part, because I think the dialogue has been too limited; in part, because I’m interested in hearing from more voices; and finally because I have to be hopeful that we can overcome the namecalling and division that’s so prevalent today and create a more inclusive and affirmative society. So, I live in hope.

Christian values include
and justice issues,
and healthcare,
human rights
responsibility for
the environment

But hope must live in a real context. For example, the debate over so-called traditional values has been very narrow and incomplete. I believe Christian values include peace and justice issues, food and healthcare, human rights and responsibility for the environment. But these values have gotten precious little attention in the polarized debate about gay marriage and abortion. As a result, we’re not better informed, but we’re
certainly more divided.

I doubt that confrontational media framing brings much light to the darkness. Nor does the politicizing of religion. In fact, I think “either/or” framing of stories is harmful to the public conversation. It distorts our perception and simplifies complicated issues by turning them into bumper sticker slogans. It shuts out too many voices and it doesn’t lead us to creative problem-solving. If, as a result, we are more divided and less understanding then journalism has failed. I hope we preserve journalism that can help us sustain a diverse and inclusive society as the Constitution envisioned.



About Me

I started Perspectives two years ago as an experiment. Blogging was new and I wanted see what it was about.

I’ve been involved in storytelling in various media–radio, television, print, video–for most of my life. I continue to work in many of these media today. I suppose it’s a common hope of journalists that telling stories will in some way help contribute to positive change in the world–not that every journalist is an activist. But the very “act” of telling a story implies that something of value will result from it. Even when it’s not stated, I suspect this is an unspoken motivation.

There is something empowering about storytelling as well. I’ve seen whole villages
where people gained confidence and hope when they were able to tell their story to others from the outside. The very act of telling lends confidence. The willingness of someone to listen adds even more, because it honors the storyteller. If someone is interested enough to listen to my story then it must be important to some degree. That’s affirming in itself. So, I’ve worked at storytelling using this reasoning and it’s been an interesting and revealing journey. We live in a time of paradox. It’s both more difficult to get stories into the mainstream media today and at the same time considerably easier to document and tell stories with affordable digital media that are becoming available to nearly everyone–at least to most in the developed world.

This paradox keeps me energized. Some are saying blogging is dead, except for the top bloggers. I don’t know if this is true or not. I do know that it’s not as easy as it appears. It takes time and determination. I also think it continues to be important. So, I’m still here.

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