On Reading the Bible and the Newspaper

In the intersection of faith and culture,
Barth said it’s necessary to read the Bible and the daily
newspaper

A chapel service in our agency today led me to think about the challenge of communicating about faith in a media-driven culture, and how we face that challenge.

Each new generation has the task of taking the new technology of its age and rediscovering religious truths and making them meaningful in the light of cultural changes. This has always been a religious task. Each new cultural situation, shaped by the communication media of its time, reformulates the question: What does it mean to be human? –William F. Fore
In doing this, we stand in the middle of a cultural swirl that is unlike any ever known to human beings. Standing between the extremes, communicators are sometimes a convenient target. And, like it or not, it’s the extreme voices that make their presence known. That’s a feature of a media-driven society; you have to be visible to attract attention to your position. In this way, visibility equals “success.” And the easiest way to attract attention is to cut through the clutter by making a statement that gets noticed.

Thus, critique sometimes turns into criticism. Differences of opinion turn toward rather hard characterizations of the positions of the “other.”

This isn’t a post that’s going to devolve into whining, so don’t give up on me yet. I’m not even going to criticize the critics. I’ve developed thick skin and so have the other staff here.

But, hearing the discussion, I was moved by the depth of their theology and their commitment to the task, a task that is sometimes thankless and that elicits stinging rebuke from one or the other of the extremes.

We deliver messages to public audiences on behalf of the church. Quiet messages. The people in chapel today told stories of conversations with crew members on a recent location shoot, people unfamiliar with the community of faith. The conversations were in reaction to the messages they are crafting for television. It’s a different message than the advertising they normally work on. They hear the distinctiveness, and they ask questions.

So here we stand in the middle of this cultural mish-mash of messages about consuming, discussing questions about community, faith and the meaning of life. Here on the ground, at sidewalk level, and on the screens that are so pervasive and influential in our lives, the messages we deliver compete with hundreds of other messages that scream for our attention. We’re trying to break through the clutter, too. This is, of course, the challenge that every pastor of a congregation faces every day as well. It’s not unique to our work.

The aim of Christian theology is not to baptize the world as it is but to seek the world as it ought to be. The gospel has priority over politics, but one misses the gospel if one ignores its vision of a new society predicated on liberating grace. –William Stacy Johnson

I remember the theology of the Confessing Church in Germany, seeking to stand apart from the culture of death and maintain faithful witness even at the risk of death. I recall Karl Barth writing that one must read the Bible in one hand and the day’s newspaper in the other. Such is the dynamic relationship between culture and faith.
But here’s the rub. I read theology and listen to cultural critique today and I don’t find much that presents a viable alternative; one that breaks through the clutter to get at the mindspace and make an impression on people in this culture. I reflect on the challenge. I ask myself, “How do we communicate about faith today, remain faithful and preserve the integrity of the faith tradition in this cluttered, consumerist environment?”

Some disavow the need to do this, believing the culture is so polluted it must be rejected out of hand. I don’t defend popular culture, but critiquing it isn’t enough, is it? Don’t we also have to find a way to communicate in this culture? Not simply to determine how to communicate, but to communicate clearly so people can accept or reject the message. We communicate not to manipulate, but to engage in a relationship.

How else are we to offer alternatives to this culture that is grinding up people and redefining humanity in ways that crush our spirits?

Faith & Reporting

Can a reporter be connected with a faith
community and remain objective when reporting about faith?


How does personal commitment to faith affect coverage of the news? Does it result in skewed coverage, either in favor of religion, or casting it in a bad light by keeping one’s own beliefs at a distance?

Should the reporter’s commitment to a religious community or values, be disclosed? It’s not a new issue, of course, but a commentary on the Media Matters website about the closing of a piece by Barbara Bradley Hagerty criticizes her for the way she spells out the conflict over separation of church and state.

I’m reminded how difficult it is to cover religion these days. There really is no way to please everyone because the society is so polarized. Every word is parsed for meaning, hidden or otherwise.

The Media Matters discussion points to the deeper issue of personal values juxtaposed against the professional value of objectivity, a much-debated topic in these days of opinionated blogs and criticism of mainstream journalism.

In addition, I’d add that language is equally sensitive, and one place where I am often likely to trip up. Certain words hold specific meaning for some groups, often not so readily apparent to others. This isn’t really coded language so much as common definition that has, over time, come to be understood in a particular context.

But you have to be informed by that context to know it. For example, in the general audience the “emergent church” is a little-known phrase that carries barely a note of precise definition. However, among some who are seeking to renew the church and who have put their energies into a whole new expression of the church the phrase is loaded with meaning, energy and hope.

To use this phrase without that awareness is to step into language territory that carries more freight than appears on the surface.

Given my own human frailties, I’m willing to give Ms. Bradley Hagerty some slack. Anyone of us who writes should be on guard to use language precisely and carefully. And we should do our best to not stumble into advocacy when we’re not supposed to be advocates, but reporters.

Fortunately, there are plenty of listeners, viewers and readers who will call it to our attention, as Ms. Bradley Hagerty is aware.

Squandering Influence

One challenge religious leaders face is
convincing ordinary people they understand the day-to-day struggles that many
face.

If the Roman Catholic Church does not reconnect with its heartland, such as Brazil and other Latin American countries, it risks losing moral authority and social influence, according to Nicholas Kristof in his column this morning.

I’m going to intentionally mix apples and oranges here–or Protestants and Catholics. The challenge facing religious leaders today is to demonstrate to skeptical grassroots people that they not only understand the day-to-day issues that ordinary folks are confronted with, but that they also have a spiritual (faith) system that helps them to find meaning as they face these issues.

That isn’t just a challenge to the Pope. It’s also the challenge that every other religious leader faces, from the bishop of Rome to the pastor in the local church. And if they don’t address these issues, or address them in such a way that people feel they understand their struggles, they will be ignored and ultimately marginalized, as a Brazilian priest told Kristof.

If they ignore the best scientific and educational information (as in use of contraceptives for birth control), they risk loss of influence because people will exercise this option regardless.

Here comes the apples and oranges mix. Ultimately, this is the risk that the hard core right-wing evangelicals are taking on right now. Their super-heated rhetoric will run head-on into realities far more complex than they have demonstrated capacity to understand. It won’t be enough to demonize the liberal left relativists forever on issues such as end-of-life decisions, abortion, evolution and homosexuality, among others. They will have to show that they live in the same world, with its ambiguities and moral complexities that the rest of us live in. And they will have to demonstrate a capacity to function in a world of information and knowledge that is not a throwback to the 19th Century.

The rest of the world will move forward, and they will be marginalized. The new physics and genetic research are moving us forward at a rapid pace. Astronomers are finding new planets daily. The brain is being mapped in new ways for the first time. Both our interior space and outer space are being explored and put into new constructs that we have never before known. Think string theory, for example.

When the technology of the printing press made it possible for ordinary people to understand themselves differently–as thinking individuals instead of an uncritical mass that merely reacted to those in power–and when they took control of the information they were learning through the new skill of reading, they created a revolution in thought known as the Reformation.

A revolution is percolating today as a result of new knowledge and new technologies. It can’t be forestalled by intransigent religious figures who wish to hold on to the past without incorporating the best of the new into the best of the traditional. Kristof is onto something rather profound, I think.

If we look at the long sweep of history, the Christian faith has renewed itself maintaining both the progressive values that are at its core, while also adapting to profoundly different social contexts.

People who are searching for a faith perspective by which to live are looking for help to make it through the day, or night. We live in a world that is unique to our time and place, and with technologies that none of our human ancestors have known. That’s a different world.

It requires a faith that can help us to find the meaning and purpose of Creation in this confusing welter of newness that is unlike anything we’ve seen before. A bit of humility and openness to that challenge would go a long way for those of us on this journey. A closed system that hearkens to the past but cannot help us live into the future is a dead-end.

New Voices

An innovative community journalism effort is being carried out with the University of Maryland School of Journalism. It’s a micro-news project that gives local communities support for their own news operations. It weds the new capabilities of digital media with community participation.

Funds have been granted to ten micro-news projects across the country for 2005. Another grant cycle is open and will fund additional projects. It’s yet another way for people to find their voice and use new media to tell their own stories. It’s taking civic journalism to the grassroots.

More complete information is at New Voices.

Reform Culture or Redeem Individuals?

How did evangelicals move away from
redeeming individuals and become reformers of culture?

Dr. Bruce Prescott who blogs at Mainstream Baptist calls attention to a Christianity Today blog that discusses theocracy and persecution.

Dr. Prescott asks when evangelicals began to see their task as reforming culture and not individuals? It’s not an idle question. The evangelical movement has always lived with this tension but it never attempted to resolve it by creating a theocratic state, at least not in the United States.

Wesley sought to end slavery in 18th Century England, but he never sought to create a religious state. He is credited today with bringing together energy for individual transformation coupled with zeal for “social holiness.”

And that’s evangelical
Christianity’s little
secret right now.
We really are
theocrats. Only
in exactly the
opposite way
from how some
op-ed columnists
think we are.
Our hopes lie
far beyond the
next election, or
the next judicial
fight. Our king
isn’t elected, and
our judge isn’t
appointed. Sometimes
we forget that.
–Ted Olsen

But social holiness meant something quite different from theocracy. It meant concern for the poor, expressed individually by how one lives one’s own life, and attempting to influence social policy within the existing order to make life better for the poor and disenfranchised.

That balance is lacking today in the evangelical right. This movement has taken on the responsibility to change the culture using language and tactics that rightfully concern people of goodwill no matter what their political beliefs.

The roots of evangelical reform are in the changed heart that expresses faith in social reform. But social reform does not mean replacing social policy with religious doctrine. Not only are those evangelicals who are attempting to bring this about putting the state at risk, they are also putting their theological tradition at risk.

The community of faith is not a political entity. To treat it as if it is, is to lose its essential character as the leaven in the culture, calling the state to treat all people justly, to care for the vulnerable and to respect human dignity.

The great tragedy of the Bush presidency is its lack of appreciation for this history and its reliance upon those evangelical voices that betray the best of evangelical tradition.

Reality TV, Laura Bush and the Press

There are those who say life is performance. We
talk of the drama of food, the theatrics of the clothing display at the mall,
the automatic smile when a camera is pointed at us. Susan Sontag said the
abusers at Abu Ghraib could smile at the camera even as they engaged in abuse
because media are so pervasive and have embedded themselves into our lives so
deeply. Thomas De Zengotita writes that we are all performers. Frank Rich says
the White House Correspondents Dinner reveals how the press corps is
participating in a performance that compromises meaningful
journalism.

“reality” television and
reality have become so
blurred that it’s hard to
know if ABC News’s
special investigating
“American Idol” last
week was real
journalism about a fake
show or fake journalism
about a real show or
whether anyone knows
the difference – or cares.
–Frank Rich

Laura Bush’s jibes at President Bush at the White House Correspondents Dinner were genuinely funny. She showed a human side we rarely see, and she did it with great polish. It was great fun to watch.Frank Rich writes that it points to a deeper question about the relationship between journalists and the politicians they cover. As this event has morphed over the years, he says it has become appropriated by shrewd White House operators. The journalists become the backdrop for the White House story, Rich says. Whether intended or not, they become part of the image-making.

At first glance this criticism might seems a bit harsh. However, when viewed in the context of a White House that accredited a former male escort as a legitimate news writer, paid journalists to promote policies as if they were delivering independent commentary, and distibuted video news stories masquerading as “real” news, this isn’t just sour grapes. It’s a question of trust, or rather, of who we can trust.

Journalists should be concerned. They are among the least trusted professionals today, according to a Pew survey. Journalistic ethical lapses are well documented. Newspaper readership is falling. Nightly TV news is losing viewers. People are actually turning to The Daily Show on Comedy Central for news!

For those of us looking for reliable information which helps us frame our world, this isn’t a minor concern.

Is Dialogue Possible?

With the forced departure of Father Thomas
J. Reese as editor of America magazine, one wonders if dialogue is still
possible?

The resignation of Fr. Thomas J. Reese as editor of the Jesuit magazine America raises questions about whether it’s possible to continue dialogue between moderates and conservatives.

As Alan Cooperman reports, Reese had been crosswise with Cardinal Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, when he headed the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. The tension had been ongoing for five years.

In the absence of factual information, one is left to speculate, and The National Catholic Reporter, a reliable source, speculates the resignation is the result of this tension in addition to the public media role that Reese often played. He apparently riled some bishops in the U.S. by speaking in the public media on issues that involve church teaching. The bishops feel only they should speak for the church. It didn’t help that Reese promoted moderate positions.

It’s yet another illustration of the importance of communication today, and the difficulty of resolving deeply held beliefs that are in opposition. But it takes mutual respect, not the silencing of those with whom you disagree.

On a completely different subject, scientists are boycotting hearings in Kansas about teaching evolution in public schools. It’s understandable that they would want to do this. The very idea of the hearings is ludicrous to most scientists.

But in a media-driven world, the refusal to present your case is to empower others to characterize you, even if that’s not your intent. If you don’t tell your own story, others will.

More than ever, it’s a world in which communication is crucial. On the one hand, we have to communicate with each other, especially when we differ. On the other, we have to participate in the public dialogue in order to encourage the full expression of important ideas.

Who communicates and what they communicate makes all the difference. Communication is a two-way street and we all should be part of the public conversation about major issues that affect our quality of life today.

Religious Politics

Two stories that point to what it would be like and where we are headed if some folks get their way.

First, what it would be like. (Church Kicks Out Members Who Don’t Back Bush )

Second, where we could be heading. (Filibuster Fray Lifts Profile of Minister )

ABC, Give Me A Break!

ABC accepts an ad from James Dobson’s Focus on the Family and a spokesperson says with (I hope she could keep a straight face) The ABC Television Network does not accept ads from organizations which present religious doctrine.” But who does ABC apply this to? The United Church of Christ, not Focus on the Family. While refusing an UCC ad on inclusiveness, ABC sells time to Focus on the Family which is an organization expressly critical of the word inclusion. Give me a break!

By his own statements everything Dobson does he does because of his doctrinal mission to shape the world according to his religious beliefs. From telling parents how to parent, to telling the Supreme Court how to judge cases, his self-proclaimed mission is to create a social order based on his religious values.

ABC knows this. This is the man who equated the black-robed judges of our judicial system with white-robed Ku Klux Klan members. This is the man who called Sponge-Bob immoral, for crying out loud. Nothing escapes his moral judgement and his morals are rooted in his religious beliefs.

I don’t care that they sell time to Focus on the Family. But I do care that they refuse the UCC and characterize this mainstream voice as espousing religious doctrine while ignoring the overtly and aggressive, on-the-record messages of Focus on the Family that are clearly doctrinaire.

ABC, who are you kidding?

The Life Cycle of the iPod

A spate of articles the past several weeks assess the life-cycle of the iPod. It’s an endless circle. Innovation, acceptance, demand for something new. It’s the story of consumer culture. It’s only cool as long as it’s unique. When everyone has it, it’s time to move on. As quickly as the new “in” thing is accepted, it’s out. Something new must take its place, and so it goes. Desire is never satiated. It’s either an innovator’s dream–or nightmare. How to keep up with the never-ending demand for the next new thing.