Post-modern Religious Sensibility

Referring back to the earlier discussion about a Post-Christian America, I found this commentary by Judith Warner relevant. Giving her first-person views of a mixed religious childhood, she quotes Charles Darwin who said if the brain is impressed early with a belief it holds onto it with an almost instinctive quality. It remains independent of reason. Paradoxically, however, it isn’t determinative.

Warner, who is Jewish, recounts her early childhood impressions attending an Episcopal school. She says on a good day her mind fills with hymns and she can see sunshine streaming through stained glass windows.

However, she describes a religious sensibility, not acceptance of a belief system. She writes that she and many of her friends are defined by bits and pieces of experience that don’t fit into traditional categories. This mosaic is sufficiently coherent for them. "Some of us just can’t find a home for ourselves in the categories of identity that make sense for other people."

Thus, to call these self-differentiated individuals religious seekers is to misconstrue their religious makeup, a point made by a commentator to my post. It presents a dilemma for religious groups who see their mission to evangelize from within a coherent belief system.

For example, Warner describes her daughter’s rejection of her invitation to attend a Unitarian church. “Enough harm has been done in the name of religion . . . I don’t want to be a part of it,” her daughter replies.

It seems to me Warner’s comments underscore the complexity of the human religious terrain today. She provides insight into how religious sensibility is formed, how it recedes and how it is rejected. The individuals she writes about respond with emotion and reason and are secure in their responses.

Her daughter’s views are consistent with research that reveals outright rejection of religion by many young adults today. Others are skeptical of religion and religious groups.

Warner is characteristic of what researcher George Barna dubs the “mosaic generation.” He applies the description to teens born 1984 and later but it applies more broadly in a secularizing culture. Among other things, they are comfortable with contradiction, eclectic with regard to faith, open-minded toward the beliefs of others and morally pragmatic.

This is a new religious landscape.

After Newspapers Die How Will Global News Be Reported?

Update : If newspapers die "hyperlocal websites" are positioned to take their place to report neighborhood news according to this NY Times article. New ways of underwriting journalism are being explored as traditional mass circulation print journalism contracts. Some contend it’s disappearing. is a non-profit, member supported form of community journalism.

Sara Perez writes and provides a video about saying the future of journalism will be radically different. However, as I assess this model I note it has produced 19 stories since its inception in November. These are membership assigned stories. Members determine content by anteing up funds for a reporter to research and write.

That’s not a huge number compared to the coverage of a daily newspaper or a major news website. The stories concentrate on local issues. That’s a good thing, but it leaves open the concern about how international coverage will be sustained.

As for other funding models, David Weir comments on cuts at both NPR and Newsweek which have different funding sources.

It used to be difficult to understand why something happening in Somalia should be important to people in Nashville or Omaha. The distance was so great and the Horn of Africa seemed inconsequential. At least, I heard that from time to time. (I’ve never agreed with that thought. I can’t recall a time when I wasn’t interested in global news, even in my youth.)

We know differently now. Caught in a global financial crisis, we’re beginning to understand that our lives are interrelated in complex, often invisible ways. The world has shrunk. What happens on the other side of the globe can affect us at the speed of the Internet.

At the same time newspapers are cutting global reporting and television, having never been really strong at it, covers the hot spots and almost never gets beyond that style. This raises the question of how global news will be collected and reported.

It will be mostly digital. In fact, it’s already digital. Every website potentially serves a global audience. Certainly blogs have filled in a gap in some parts of the world and social networking has been used to inform and mobilize people but it’s not a primary source of content. Whether magazines can make it is up for grabs.

So how will those who want global news get it after newspapers as we know them die?

David Weir has been writing about the decline of traditional print journalism and the business models of successful alternative journals. He also points readers to which seeks to become an alternative global news source.

A statement on that site explains it’s a for profit venture depending on advertising, syndication and Passport memberships which are subscriptions to premium content and services with some interactivity.

It’s a harbinger of what’s to come, the testing of new business models through different forms of financing including subscriptions, grants and advertising. What’s still unclear to me, and a lot of others, is how to reach the critical mass necessary to be sustainable. If it doesn’t exist today how will it be attracted in the future? And if not critical mass, then what?

In an age of fragmentation and specialization we have to scramble because we’re experienced with a mass market model that began in the 1900s and shaped our economics for more than a century. And that has come crashing down.

The successful alternative models Weir points to are all local. They are community newspapers augmented by effective websites, however, some comments on his posts say even  these have had advertising revenue siphoned away by Craigslist.

Magazines that are surviving do so by reaching niche markets. Is global news a niche market? Will we move to a completely different form of information beyond civic and political such as the sharing of best practices by those with particular interests. That’s the wiki model of interactive sharing in knowledge communities. I’ve seen it applied globally around community radio and literacy with some success but it’s functional information not interpretive.

These are only two of many questions yet to be answered. In a world that desperately needs greater understanding I hope we find a way to sustain the collection and distribution of quality reporting and analysis. We need it today more than ever.

Recession Anxiety

Update : Tour operators are offering guilt-free vacations.

We talked about canceling our vacation because we felt guilty. My spouse and I had more than one serious conversation about taking a vacation right now when so many are experiencing so much real economic pain, losing jobs, struggling to get by and experiencing the emotional trauma that comes with this recession.

Apparently we’re not alone. Recession anxiety is widespread according to an article in today’s New York Times and it comes in many forms. Many of us are plagued with everyday, on-going anxiety and decisions about the future.

As for my spouse and me, we wavered. We weighed pros and cons. We beat ourselves up. And, finally we went.

Both of us have jobs with a fair degree of stress and we agreed we needed time away. We had planned for the vacation and set aside funds, so it wasn’t taking away from necessities, it wasn’t running up credit card debt and it didn’t take the place of our giving to the church and charitable groups.

A couple of years ago I was admonished publicly to take time off. The board of directors made it clear. Frankly, it was embarrassing then and it’s embarrassing now to remember and write about. But this, too, came into our conversation.

Not taking time off would not change the global financial situation one iota, of course. Yet, it might make us feel better–or would it? Would we disengage and refresh ourselves by staying put? Would we feel we had done the right thing, even if we didn’t feel better after doing it?

So, we went. I’m glad we did. We both needed time away to clear our heads, rest our bodies, take in something new and replenish our emotional reserves.

But the doubt didn’t dispel easily. As we boarded the plane, she looked at me and whispered something about still feeling guilt. I said, "I know." And I really did because I felt the same.

Sunset off Grand Case Watching the sunset later that evening, listening to the ocean waves gently break I felt a sense of peacefulness and gratefulness that helped ease some of the doubt. Over the course of the next few days it nearly dissipated as we enjoyed our time together, relaxed and let the cares back home separate from our minds. Everyday, however, I said, "This was the right thing to do." As if saying would make it even more true.

I know today it was the right thing to do. I’m better at work and I’m thinking more clearly because I took time away. I really enjoyed taking pictures of butterflies and looking at the beauty of the ocean. We walked and swam and I feel as if I have more energy for the tasks at hand today.

But still, I waver. I even wavered about sharing the photos of butterflies with staff. Not because they were bad, or it was wrong, but because I was concerned about what they would think about me taking a vacation at this time! Wow, the punishment we visit upon ourselves–at least that I am able to visit upon me.

So however you read this–the musings of an obsessed workaholic, or the ramblings of an anxiety-riddled neurotic writer–I get it about recession anxiety.

I hope you enjoy the photos of the butterflies anyway.

Post-Christian America?

The loss of the political agenda of the religious right and Christian dominionists is not a marker for the demise of Christianity in the U.S.

Writer Jon Meacham apparently felt the need to clarify further the point of his cover story in Newsweek which was provocatively headlined The End of Christian America .

Meacham’s demurer isn’t a concern here. What intrigued me as I read the remarks of Albert Mohler, President of Southern Baptist Seminary in Louisville, is how different I respond to the same dynamics that he’s concerned about. The issue of how to live a meaningful spiritual life and make it inviting for others in a post-modern, secularizing society is real. One need not be naive or unrealistic about that. More people seem to be opting out of Christian faith and that’s a significant concern.

But the interweaving of politics with theology over the past several years has muddied the waters and also caused real harm to perceptions of religion and religious communions.

However, the broad principles of social justice, as distinct from the specific ethical issues that were written into the Republican platform, still remain strong and I hope will endure. So the fact that the political agenda of the religious right has been solidly rejected does not spell the end of Christianity. It spells the end of a political and social agenda advanced by one of the many branches of people who identify themselves as Christian.

I am encouraged by a new-found and growing sense of urgency in my own denomination. It’s expressed through reaching out to new people, tackling the killer diseases of poverty, addressing poverty, recruiting and training new leaders and living with greater concern for the whole of creation including concern for the environment.

I came away from a couple of meetings in the past two weeks with uncharacteristic optimism. Those who know me well are sucking air right now asking, "what’s happened to him?"

What’s happening is I’m seeing signs of awareness that the church (as it is represented by this particular denomination) needs to be relevant and to engage with people in an authentic, life-enhancing way. I hear concern about how the church provides opportunities for people to become servants in faithfulness to their religious convictions as followers of Jesus. And I hear sensitivity about language and culture and how the church talks with people who want to find purpose and meaning in these difficult times. And I see action that is energizing and fresh.

This is important and whether it results in renewal, transformation or completely new forms of religious communities and expressions, it’s exciting and encouraging.

We’re not facing the end of Christianity, nor its demise but there are urgent reasons for some of us to change and seek new ways to be faithful and relevant in the world today. The rejection of the public agenda of the evangelical right is instructive, but not a measure of the relevance of Christian faith to life today. Whatever it’s importance, the evangelical right is a branch of the Christian community, not the whole of the community in the U.S. much less Christendom across the world.

As I look at the challenges faced by people of faith today I am not discouraged, I am curious, enervated and charged up. We (followers of Jesus and those who don’t) live in hard times. Many are unsettled, in pain and struggling with life. The Christian faith was born in times like these. This is a wondrous time and we are a people of hope.

The AP Takes on File Sharing

The Associated Press is taking on file sharing. In an attempt to control unlicensed use of material it has generated and protect its financial model, the Associated Press is discussing how to deal with search engines and unauthorized use of its licensed content.

I understand the problem and sympathize with the economic challenge. But the music industry took a similar approach and hasn’t exactly prospered.

What is missing is the basic premise. The kids who share music files don’t see themselves stealing intellectual property or taking from the corporate bottom line, they see themselves sharing with their friends. This use of the Internet as a way to extend community and personal relationships flies in the face of the traditional gatekeeper role of content distribution. It blows it away.

That’s what the Internet has done. It was built into the medium from its birth. See Cluetrain Manifesto , the earliest assessment of the importance of an open Internet.

So corporate control of information as manifested in the AP effort will continue and some form of payment for information will eventually develop, I suppose. But the model isn’t yet clear, iTunes and Google ads notwithstanding, and AP doesn’t sound like it’s found it.

If the music industry is any guide, reacting, controlling, cease and desist letters and lawsuits don’t make for an expanding business model.

Poverty’s Effects on Children and the Rest of Us

Poverty diminishes general health. It causes stress. And now we know it also affects working memory. We’ve known about the debilitating effects of poverty for a long time but a new study documents adverse effects on brain function.

A few years ago we lived in one of the poorer neighborhoods in a very poor town in central Oklahoma. On any warm summer night I could go out on the porch and hear people shouting at each other. The level of stress in that economically strapped neighborhood was widespread. High blood pressure, anxiety and domestic violence followed.

I grew up in that neighborhood, in that environment. We weren’t aware of stress, we just lived it. It was so much a part of our lives that we didn’t identify it as anything but normal. Poverty is stressful, but talking about stress when you’re struggling to survive seems a luxury so it goes un-noted.

When kids live with this kind of stress it takes many forms, one of which is irregular sleep patterns, nightmares and insecurity. Unless the adults are wise, dysfunctional behavior takes hold and the family adjusts to both threats to emotional maturity and physical health.

The study’s mention of impaired working memory adds another dimension. One can imagine what this means to classroom function. Most likely it means nonlinear thinking which places different demands on teaching.

I produced a video on street children in Brazil some years ago and these kids were unable to give directions to places where they hung out daily. It wasn’t inarticulateness it was life experience that caused this inability.

They lived their lives in episodes of peace interrupted by violence. They were frequently beaten, chased away from stores and parks, and shot. Seven were killed a few weeks before I went to research the video.

This episodic life made it impossible for them to construct a simple narrative such as how to walk two blocks, turn right and arrive at the bus station on the corner.

Their disordered lives were so fragmented they remembered episodes of violence but linear memory was almost nonfunctional. This effect was environmental, not nutritional. But the interrelationship between environment and health is so organic, how can one approach health and not also address emotional and economic development, education and employment, and good governance and justice. Or does that make it too complicated and leave us saying we’ll always have the poor among us and so we can forget about it?

It’s clear enough that poverty is a breeding ground for human diminishment and we need to plant different seeds than the weeds of poor nutrition, poor education and stress. We can’t allow poverty to create memory loss among the affluent. If we do, we will all be diminshed.

Butterflies on St. Maarten

Blue MetallicaA few weeks ago I had the opportunity to photograph at the Butterfly Farm on St. Maarten. They have around forty species at the farm and the garden is compact and easily accessible. This is one of my favorite places on the island, so spending time there is a great diversion.

I went in the morning when the butterflies are becoming most active. They are activated by sunlight and warm tempertures. It’s a matter of waiting patiently for one to strike the best pose and snapping away as quickly as possible. A selection of photos is at this online album.

Upon returning home in the U.S. we had a remarkably warm Sunday and my daughter walked into the garage to discover that an eastern swallowtail chrysalis that I had set aside from last summer had emerged into a butterfly. It was an unexpected treat, especially after just returning from the Butterfly Farm. Early Swallowtail

Two more chrysalises matured over the next two days, then it turned seasonable cold again and the three remaining haven’t hatched yet.

FSA/OWI Photos

The FSA/OWI (Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information) is one of the most important, revealing  photo collections from the Great Depression and WWII eras, if not in the nation’s history. The Farm Security Administration hired Roy Stryker, an economist from Columbia University, to run the "Historical Section" of the FSA. His boss Rexford Tugwell, said he was to "show the city people what it’s like to live on the farm."

The FSA hired some of the best photographers in the country to document what was happening to people in the cities and towns at the height of the Depression. Among them were Walker Evans, Arthur Rothstein, Ben Shahn, John Vachon, Marion Post Wolcott, Russell Lee, Jack Delano, John Collier, Jr., Carl Mydans, Gordon Parks and Dorothea Lange.

While the majority of the photos are black and white, a number of color photographs were taken and many have the feel of a Norman Rockwell painting. While not as stylized and idealized as Rockwell, this quality is even more interesting in this is collection of documentary photography.

The Photo District News blog offered up a selection of the color photos earlier this week.

Root Canals, the Economy and Health Care in General

Since October I’ve been making the rounds of appointments between a general dentist, oral surgeon, endodontist and periodontist. What started as a simple filling turned into six months of extractions, surgery, root canals, re-treated root canals and more surgery. I’ve discovered how nerve damage can affect ability to pronounce words, cause loss of taste and contribute to TMJ making it painful to chew food. But this post isn’t a tale of woe, nor a complaint against these professions.

I’ve had good care despite complications and, thankfully, I have dental insurance that has covered a major portion of the costs. But the experience has highlighted a health issue I’ve given little thought. How we pay for dental care needs reforming as badly as other segments of health care. But dentistry isn’t mentioned in the wider health care discussion perhaps because it’s not perceived as the cause of life-threatening conditions and, except in acute circumstances, it’s considered optional. But oral health is neither benign nor optional. It’s as important to quality of life as sound heart and lungs, and as directly connected through the circulatory system. Sometimes a toothache isn’t just a toothache.

Sitting in waiting rooms I’ve heard patients talk about health, work and money. They speak of working with pain or missing work. Their untreated problems are costly to businesses in lost productivity and effectiveness. And dental problems are equally costly to individuals. They contribute to other health problems, some of which have significant effects on individual health. They can lead to emotional reactions that affect attitudes on the job. And they are costly in lost wages.

In every waiting room I’ve heard patients negotiating how to pay for services, sometimes unsuccessfully. I’ve wondered about the woman with no dental insurance who needed endodontal services but couldn’t work out a payment plan and the student looking for a referral who would take a small insurance payment. What does one do when the problem doesn’t go away but the cost is prohibitive? Find a dental school clinic? Keep searching for another provider who will deal? Stock up on ibuprophen and self-treat the symptoms?

Probably all of the above, especially if you’re working and can’t spend the time doing this research and can’t get the money together to pay the upfront portion of a large bill. In every office I’ve visited, the first matter dealt with is ability to pay. Then the consulting and diagnosis begin. Receptionists are trained to make clear what the costs will be. It’s done with finesse in some places and heavy-handed clumsiness in others, but in all cases this is the first item of business. (pun intended)

After hearing many variations of the problem, I wonder how many patients dental professionals are carrying and writing off. While I don’t wonder why the receptionists are trained to screen for financial ability, nor why the dentists don’t want to discuss finances after the patient is in the chair, a couple of times I felt as if I were buying a used car.

“If we do option A it will cost $500. Option B will cost $1000. Any questions?”

I say, “No.”

But I’m thinking, “Whatever it takes to end this pain.”

“Sign here for option A, and here for option B.”

Monetizing medical procedures changes the relationship between  patient and provider. It frames health and healing as a commercial relationship, which it is of course, but only in part. It is also a relationship of trust and compassion. One hopes for something more than a financial transaction, a modicum of personal touch and humanity, perhaps. I hope the person putting sharp objects in my mouth while I’m drugged is not only technically skilled but also compassionate and sensitive to my fears and concerns. Framing our exchange as a transaction from the outset puts this into question. It changes expectations, trust and, perhaps, results. I suspect it changes attitudes toward healing and followup.

Am I just old-fashioned and out of touch? Should we even attempt to change? And what would we change if we could? Well, that’s for another day. And I haven’t even begun with the time-consuming, wasteful, frustrating, incoherent maze we call insurance–dental insurance, health insurance, prescription drug coverage. But I’ll stop here. Just thinking about it reminds me I’ve got to take a pain pill.

Can Macs Get Malware?

Macs are relatively free of spyware, malware and malicious trojans, so they say. "They" are those who know better than I how computers become infected. And truth to tell, until now I’ve had no hint of infection and I’ve used a Mac for several years.

That changed recently when this blog got an unwelcome visitor. Fortunately, I was aware of the intruder almost as quickly as it appeared and removed it in a matter of minutes. But it was pure luck.

The visitor appears to be malware that attached a corporate logo and link to the opening page of Perspectives along with the Share This plugin logo. The logos redirected users to an online Japanese electronic store.

I disabled a suspect blog plugin and ran software to remove malware. I followed this with commands to remove infected files I found on the Internet from a reliable Mac magazine . I’m a rank amateur at using terminal commands but the instructions were clear and graphically illustrated. The symptoms matched and instructions to remove it worked, to my relief. I checked for unusual files in WordPress, based on other descriptions provided on the web.

Even after this I was unsure of my efforts and went to the Mac store and a local Mac dealer and asked about malware removal and protection. While staff at both places were courteous and helpful, neither was familiar with malware on a Mac because, they said, it’s so unusual.

The folks at Mac Authority took the time to look at my files, however, and agreed they look as they’re supposed to.

A couple of Mac blogs comment that as Macs increase market share they’re becoming bigger targets for viruses and malware. I can’t confirm that, but I can confirm that it’s a strange feeling to discover someone’s gotten into your computer and is using it for their purposes. It’s the same as someone violating your privacy. And, in fact, that’s what malware, spyware and viruses do. Hackers break into your space, and some are more damaging than others.

Windows users are familiar with viruses and other malicious intruders and know they must be on guard. As a Mac user, I’ve been less cautious but that changed today. I’m less trusting and better protected.