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

“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

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.

The Blog as a Marketing Tool

Nothing is beyond the reach of capitalism, of course. As soon as a new idea is birthed the next thought that comes to mind is how to use it to make money. Or, even more crass, how to get rich off of it. So it’s not news that blogs are being absorbed into the great capitalist money-making scheme.

An article in this morning’s New York Times discusses Gawker Media which is a collection of blogs marketed as a set mainly for the purpose of selling advertising. Whether you regard it for good or ill, It’s a testament to the insatiable appetite of the capitalist model.

Participate in New Media or Die

Participating in new media isn’t an option.
It’s mandatory, if organizations want to stay in touch with people and

In an open letter to local television news people Terry Heaton says they need to participate in the transition from broadcast to the web, or risk the death of their industry. The transition is underway and those who don’t recognize it and continue to operate on old assumptions and attitudes are contributing to the demise of local television news.

This also applies to other areas but what concerns me is the apparent lack of awareness of the importance of digital media in shaping the culture–attitudes, perceptions and practices–especially among mainstream folks. The problem Heaton writes about is news people seeing beyond the broadcast technology to digital technology.

Here’s the fundamental shift that makes that difficult–broadcast is an elitist, one-to-many lecture. It is non-participatory and non-interactive. There is distance between the viewer and the individual receiving the information. It’s controlled by one side of the equation.

The web is interactive. It gives us many options, immediately. It is, even at this late stage, an uncontrolled medium. And here’s one of the big issues. Control.

The web is participatory, interactive, multimedia and empowering to individuals, the opposite of the old model of broadcast journalism. The web shifts control to the users of information, removing it from the messenger.

Those who can’t adapt to this, Heaton says, are looking at the decline of their industry because this change isn’t going to happen, it’s here now.

As I think about this, I am concerned with the lack of media savvy in the mainline tradition. A few, of course, are aware of the how to work with these media to advance messages, but when compared to the numerical strength and financial commitment of the evangelical right–such as Pat Robertson–it’s paltry at best.

The exciting thing is these media support participation, conversation and interaction. These are strengths the mainline can capitalize upon for good.

So the issue that I’m grappling with is how to move the mainline into the public conversation, where it needs to be, while it lacks the skill and resources to make the move. This is a different challenge than that facing local television broadcasters. It’s even more basic, but it has the same result. If either of these two don’t get with the digital media already in place, and that coming in the future, they will be left out.

Evangelical News and an Alternate Universe

Evangelical news operations have stepped up
recently. They are offering people interpretation for a worldview in uncertain

We don?t just
tell them what
the news is…We
tell them what
it means. And
that?s appealing
to people, especially
in moments of
cultural instability.
–Frank Wright
National Religious Broadcasters

Evangelical news operations offer more than the news, according to an article in Columbia Journalism Review. They offer an alternate view of the universe.

This is not a new idea. Many creators of content for evangelical audiences are intentional in presenting a point of view consistent with evangelical faith. They view their work as an alternative to the mainstream culture. And the market for it has been growing.

The marketing strategy is clear. News is a way to broaden the audience. It reaches out to a wider audience than currently watches religious television, or listens to religious radio. Audiences have leveled off in the past several months, but the public attention given to the Schiavo case, Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, and the judicial filibuster provide a forum for commentary and outreach.

Consider this: there are 2000 religious radio stations, 3 direct broadcast satellite systems and 1700 members of the National Religious Broadcasters. They have demonstrated that they are a force to be reckoned with.

In her comprehensive article, Stations of the Cross, Mariah Blake provides helpful detail that not only explains the structure of evangelical religious broadcasting, she also surveys its influence on the mainstream culture. She presents one of the most accurate and dispassionate assessments of the use of media by the religious right that’s been written recently.

10X10 News Site

Thanks to Matt Carlisle for sharing the news aggregation site ten by ten. It’s more than the traditional text-based site, however, so try it and see if it doesn’t present the top stories of the hour in a more creative and engaging format.