Media

Faith's Power and Variety

JEFF SHARLET, author of nonfiction books about faith including New York Times best-seller The Family and Sweet Heaven When I Die, isn’t so much interested in religion as he is in belief. “That interest sometimes leads me to people who might reject the term religion altogether,” he writes of drinking whiskey with Mormons and marching in Spain with Jewish-American veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, a volunteer group of up to 40,000 men and women from 52 countries who traveled to fight fascism in the Spanish Civil War.

In his newest book, Radiant Truths, Sharlet collects stories like these, stories about what happens when religious ideas meet social practice. He attributes this concept to anthropologist Angela Zito. In her essay “Religion is Media,” Zito ponders, “What does the term ‘religion,’ when actually used by people, out loud, authorizein the production of social life?” Using Zito’s question as a jumping off point, Sharlet dives into 150 years’ worth of literary journalism at the intersection of religion, culture, and politics.

He admits his own bias; as with most anthologies, his selections are personal favorites, and not wholly representative of the nation’s religious pluralism. Sharlet also explains each selection in a short interlude between pieces, a helpful cohesion if, like me, you read the book from front to back. Journeying from a 19th century Purim to a 20th century healing ceremony conducted by a traditional Laotian Hmong shaman is an exhilarating adventure, but one that requires a chaperone.

The anthology begins in 1863 with Walt Whitman, moving through the end of the 1800s with writing by Thoreau and Twain. The 20th century opens with a fierce female duo, Sara Jeannette Duncan and Jane Addams, writing about historic Hull House. By the middle of the last century, we’ve met boy preacher James Baldwin and been introduced to Louisiana voodoo by Zora Neale Hurston.

Darn It!

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Tell Me Why

I’M IN THAT cohort of earnest, educated, now-middle-aged North Americans who fell in love with Dave Eggers’ sprawling, sometimes unapologetically self-indulgent memoir A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. All my life I had lived with an ongoing inner monologue of exaggerated self-consciousness, but I’d never read anyone who could articulate the experience as precisely, never mind playfully, as Eggers.

Eggers could have made a fortune repeating the same entertaining self-indulgence, but he’s shaped his career into anything but navel-gazing. He’s formed writing workshops for kids; started two long-running magazines; cofounded an oral history book series on human rights crises; and written a string of beautiful, compassionate books of fiction and nonfiction with an unmistakably critical eye.

In his latest novel—Your Fathers, Where Are They? And The Prophets, Do They Live Forever?—Eggers uses a dialogue-only form to tell a compact story that thunders with probity and timeless, existential urgency. The main character, Thomas, a middle-aged man with psychological issues, has conversations with six different kidnap victims—an astronaut, a former member of Congress and Vietnam vet, his high-school teacher, his mother, a policeman, and a woman he meets during walks on the beach—holding them on an abandoned military base on the California coast. He doesn’t physically harm any of them; he just wants to know where everything went wrong. Why do our friends die? Why do our career dreams come to naught? Why do the mythical promises of science, democracy, education, nationalism, law, progress, and even love fail to deliver?

Darn It!

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Vatican Looks to Reform Its Media Operations, Add Multimedia

Photo via UK in Italy via Flickr / RNS

Lord Christopher Patten during the XXII Pontignano Conference. Photo via UK in Italy via Flickr / RNS

The Vatican is dragging its media machine into the 21st century, promising to promote social media and streamline its fragmented services with the help of a former BBC executive.

Lord Christopher Patten, former chairman of the BBC Trust, on May 27 outlined reform plans nearly a year after being appointed chief of the pope’s media committee.

Addressing journalists at St. Patrick’s church in central London, Patten highlighted “wasteful” duplications of media services at the Vatican and said modernization was imperative.

Synod on the Family: Dialogue or Clash Between Factions?

Photo by Paul Haring, courtesy of Catholic News Service / RNS.

Synod of Bishops on the family at the Vatican on Oct. 9, 2014. Photo by Paul Haring, courtesy of Catholic News Service / RNS.

Pope Francis used his weekly audience Dec. 10 to challenge media reports of “clashes between factions” at the recent bishops’ synod on family issues.

“Some of you have asked me if the synod fathers fought,” Francis said. “I don’t know if they ‘fought,’ but they spoke forcefully. This is freedom. This is just the kind of freedom that there is in the church.”

In a bid to set the record straight, the pope acknowledged the extensive media coverage of the global gathering in October and likened it to “sports or political coverage.”

“They often spoke of two teams, pro and con, conservatives and liberals,” the pope told thousands of pilgrims in St. Peter’s Square.

“There was no clash between factions … but a dialogue between the bishops, which came after a long process of preparation and now continues, for the good of the family, the church, and society. It’s a process.”

Election 2014: Here's What You Missed

In Tuesday’s elections, most voters didn’t see their candidates as leaders. Americans are cynical about politics, exhibited by the broad-based discontent with both parties, the president, and Congress. Nearly two thirds of the electorate didn’t even vote — turnout this year was likely lower as a percentage of the electorate than any time since 1942. Negative campaign ads reached depressing lows, directly appealing to Americans’ fears and anxieties, and most people don’t think the results of the election will change political gridlock in Washington. This election campaign was a loss for the common good.

We seem to have become cynically resigned to politicians always blaming the other party for every problem instead of solving them and alleged political leaders pursuing a 24/7, 52-week strategy of winning instead of governing. There are no more off election years to make society better; every day and every decision is just a part of the next campaign.

The campaigns and the media coverage were all about polls, attacks, and sound bites. The Republican campaign message was simply: vote against President Obama. And the Democrats deserted him, wouldn’t discuss either his accomplishments or his failures, and had no message of their own that got through. The campaign wasn’t about the most important issues facing the country. Here’s what we should be talking about.

#IfTheyGunnedMeDown: A Public Reflection on the Power of a Picture

In response to the death of Michael Brown, many people are using the hastag #IfTheyGunnedMeDown on Twitter to consider the role that images used by the media have on the public's perception of vicitms.

 

 

Here's more according to the Washington Post:

The concern is how media will portray a dead child’s life after he’s slain by police officers. This is the stuff of#IfTheyGunnedMeDown, a Twitter hashtag that trended Sunday as part of the conversation surrounding the death of Michael Brown. Brown, 18, was an unarmed black teenager slain in Ferguson, Mo. He’d recently graduated high school. Black users shared pictures of themselves at their best — in uniforms or caps and gowns — juxtaposed with images that would garner less sympathy and perhaps paint more tawdry pictures of their lives.

In Praise of Slow Response

Slow down sign, Semmick Photo / Shutterstock.com

Slow down sign, Semmick Photo / Shutterstock.com

The hum of 24-hour “news” drones on in the background most of my days. I’m not quite sure what television media's version of “Breaking” means anymore, though what accompanies it is closer to this Saturday Night Live spoof than real life.

Something is always “breaking.” And someone is always responding. We feel the need to get there first, to offer the most unique point of view, to lend our “expertise,” or to speak on behalf of our [fill-in-the-blank]. Organization? Generation? Gender? Or some cross-section of all of the above?

I know. I can definitely be part of the problem, and in this, I attempt my confession — sometimes my judgment fails me and I fall into the trap of the sensationalized newsbyte. I’m the web editor of a publication — meaning, I solicit, edit, sometimes even write some of these responses, of which there are a variety.

We have the “first response.” They are those who get there immediately. On television, these might come with the Impact font-ed “Exclusive,” or even “First to Report” (gross). Sometimes they just recount the events. Often, they will include — whether by slant storytelling or outright commentary — their reaction to said events.

Then there’s the “second-day response.” More nuanced, and typically with corrected “facts” that first responders didn’t mind repeating ad nauseam the day before, these reports put the events into greater historical context — or at least whatever context the writer could whip together from Wikipedia entries and closest possible “expert.” (We have a missing plane? Look, here’s a flesh-and-blood PILOT to explain what happened.)

From there, you get the out-and-out commentary. The “here’s my take,” or “this is whose side I’m on.” Rarely unique, though under the constant illusion of specialness, these commentaries attempt to stake out ground for a person or group of people. This happened, here’s how it happened, and here’s where I [we] stand on it.

Inevitably, you’ll then get the response to the response: How dare you stand there! She’s missing the whole point of [news-making event].

And on it goes.

The Church in a Media-Saturated Society

VLADGRIN/Shutterstock.com

VLADGRIN/Shutterstock.com

I grew up in the days of the encyclopedia salesman. I clearly remember the day when a clean-cut well-dressed man knocked on our apartment door to sell the 26-volume World Book Encyclopedia.

We were recent immigrants and could not speak English fluently. We had few worldly possessions and the last thing we needed in our house was a 26-volume encyclopedia.

After the hour presentation during which we flipped through the volumes full of exciting information, my dad said no. The salesman looked sad and pitiful as he packed his sales kit. As he exited the door, he gave one last pitch and, suddenly, my dad changed his mind and we bought the whole set.

Either the salesman was good or my parents had this strong desire that their children needed to know “everything there is to know about the world.” Maybe it was a bit of both.

In 2014, long gone are those 26-volume encyclopedias that once filled the bookshelves of many of my childhood friends’ homes. Now we have everything that we need to know at our fingertips through iPads, computers, cell phones, or other gadgets.

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