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.

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
survive.

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.