Media

Media Circus

I've been traveling lately, and in various hotels and friend's guest rooms, have seen more TV than usual. This sojourn away from my usual ignorance of broadcast television has provided the following dubious delights:

Shattered Truths

The transition of today’s churches from modernism to postmodernism dominates many discussions in Christian and secular media. While mainline denominations are experiencing dwindling memberships, evangelicals are witnessing explosive growth. But even within mega-churches that court thousands of members, some evangelicals point to a growing malaise among their members.

The novel Chasing Francis: A Pilgrim’s Tale, by Ian Morgan Cron, addresses this post-evangelical dilemma. What happens when the truth, typically defined as the Bible’s black-and-white answers to all moral questions, begins to take on shades of gray? And what about the paradox of taking the Bible literally but driving fancy SUVs, shopping upscale stores, and supporting war and violence to achieve certain ends? Morgan Cron explores these questions through the life of St. Francis, who lived in a time of extreme wealth for the few, rampant church corruption, and the Crusades.

Morgan Cron’s story begins with the main character, Chase Falson, doubting his deeply held evangelical beliefs. His life becomes meaningless as his pre-programmed idea of “Truth” begins to shatter. This type of crisis is serious for any Christian, but it’s especially troublesome for Falson, who is head pastor of an evangelical mega-church in New England.

Falson finds himself in Assisi on a forced leave of absence while visiting his uncle, a semi-retired Franciscan priest and spiritual director. Uncle Kenny suggests a pilgrimage in the footsteps of St. Francis, promising that the physical pilgrimage will mitigate Chase’s internal struggles by showing him the way of St. Francis. Kenny gives Chase a journal to document his internal pilgrimage.

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Sojourners Magazine March 2008
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God Bless C-SPAN

The voice of the people. Even the crazy ones.

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Sojourners Magazine March 2008
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Blocking the Big Mouths

One day when my oldest son was about 12 years old, I put on my best Pa Walton impression and said, “Boy, there are two things you need to know in the big, ugly world out there. One—it’s all about those standardized tests that come down from New Jersey. And two—for any adult with a job, real life is exactly like “Dilbert.”

For daily readers of The New York Times (which has no comics) , I’ll note that “Dilbert,” named for its pear-shaped protagonist, is set in the engineering department of some sort of computer company. It features the conventional comic strip gimmick of talking animals. For instance, a cat with glasses is the human resources director. But it also depicts the absurdity of life in any bureaucracy—the meetings for their own sake, the pointless training sessions, the petty corruption and pettier tyranny, and the barely-suppressed state of impotent rage that is the lot of the cubicle drone. In short, “Dilbert” may be the great American novel of white-collar life in the information age.

I’ve been a daily reader of the strip, created by Scott Adams, for as long as it’s been around. But it took a while for me to realize how fully it expresses the spirit of our age. From my earliest reading, I had a fondness for Wally, the character who sometimes goes around with a tank of coffee strapped to his back, and who uttered the timeless proverb, “Sadness is just another word for not enough coffee.” But when I started reading “Dilbert,” I was a freelancer, juggling as many part-time and contract jobs as I could scrounge, along with the care of small children. If I had really identified with a comic strip character back then, it probably would have been Lois in “Hi and Lois,” or the father in “Family Circus,” trying to tend his art with a small army of short people running around his knees.

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Sojourners Magazine March 2008
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What Would Dilbert Do?

One day when my oldest son was about 12 years old, I put on my best Pa Walton impression and said, “Boy, there are two things you need to know in the big, ugly world out there. One—it’s all about those standardized tests that come down from New Jersey. And two—for any adult with a job, real life is exactly like “Dilbert.”

For daily readers of The New York Times (which has no comics) , I’ll note that “Dilbert,” named for its pear-shaped protagonist, is set in the engineering department of some sort of computer company. It features the conventional comic strip gimmick of talking animals. For instance, a cat with glasses is the human resources director. But it also depicts the absurdity of life in any bureaucracy—the meetings for their own sake, the pointless training sessions, the petty corruption and pettier tyranny, and the barely-suppressed state of impotent rage that is the lot of the cubicle drone. In short, “Dilbert” may be the great American novel of white-collar life in the information age.

I’ve been a daily reader of the strip, created by Scott Adams, for as long as it’s been around. But it took a while for me to realize how fully it expresses the spirit of our age. From my earliest reading, I had a fondness for Wally, the character who sometimes goes around with a tank of coffee strapped to his back, and who uttered the timeless proverb, “Sadness is just another word for not enough coffee.” But when I started reading “Dilbert,” I was a freelancer, juggling as many part-time and contract jobs as I could scrounge, along with the care of small children. If I had really identified with a comic strip character back then, it probably would have been Lois in “Hi and Lois,” or the father in “Family Circus,” trying to tend his art with a small army of short people running around his knees.

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Sojourners Magazine February 2008
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Spirituality and the Media Arts

Even at a length of just under 100 pages, Ron Austin’s In a New Light: Spirituality and the Media Arts is four or five books in one, a quality that proves to be both an asset and a considerable stumbling block. Jumping hastily from theological aesthetics to film history to personal testimony, while also proposing a particular, collaborative approach to film production, Austin sounds an important wake-up call to inattentive consumers and creators of popular entertainment. That he moves too quickly at times, leaving certain parts of his argument in sketch form and making occasional factual errors along the way, is perhaps excusable in a book of this length and scope, but it’s a disappointment nonetheless. In a New Light is otherwise a significant little book—not to mention a pleasurably readable one—that reintroduces much-needed terms like “transcendence,” “imagination,” “empathy,” and “art” into a dialogue too often dominated, instead, by celebrity gossip, box office returns, and, particularly in Christian circles, simple moralizing.

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Sojourners Magazine February 2008
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Aiming at Headlines

Three years ago, the United States won a profound moral and foreign policy victory when it was instrumental in impelling the blood-stained regime in Khartoum to sign a substantive peace treaty with the main rebel group in southern Sudan. The Comprehensive Peace Agree­ment (CPA) stopped a civil war that had cost 2.25 million lives, and in which Khartoum developed its strategy of using ethnically based proxy militias against civilians—a strategy that is now justly being named as genocide in Sudan’s western province of Darfur.

To get the CPA, the U.S. and allies used a united front of active, on-the-ground diplomacy backed up by real economic and political sanctions. Khartoum agreed to peace, to concrete mechanisms for sharing power and oil wealth, and to elections that—if they actually happen—would bring a democratic government to Sudan (2009) and allow southern Sudan to vote on independence (2011). Similar diplomacy-with-pressure in the 1990s had impelled Khartoum to stop its proxy militias in southern Sudan from taking slaves, and to quit being Osama bin Laden’s home away from home.

These international achievements stand in stark contrast to the disastrous U.S. invasion of Iraq, which started a civil war, has killed thousands of U.S. soldiers and uncounted Iraqi civilians, and will cost more than $1 trillion.

The moral victory of U.S. public concern for Sudan continues. The regime in Khartoum thought we would not care about genocide in Darfur because the victims are Muslim. It was wrong; we do care about the 2.5 million Darfuris driven from their homes, the more than 200,000 slain, the uncounted number raped.

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Sojourners Magazine February 2008
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News in the Corporate Age

Shortly after we inaugurate the next president, the 75-year history of over-the-air broadcasting, as created by the 1934 Communications Act, will come to an end—to be replaced by what? Should faith communities, already fighting war, poverty, and global warming, take up the task of answering this question?

The authors of three new books say yes, and here's why: The media, technology, and telecommunications industries are in the middle of a wrenching shake-up of historic proportions. New technologies, new business models, and the upcoming move to digital TV in February 2009 have created the best opportunity in decades for people of faith to shape our communication environment to reflect our values.

If we take advantage of this turmoil to insist on radical change, then the struggle for every other change we want to make—universal health care, ending homelessness, ending war, or saving the planet—will get easier. If we fail to seize this moment, the most powerful communication tools in the history of humankind—from radio, TV, movies, and the next-generation Internet—will continue to be deployed primarily by people whose primary mission is to move merchandise off store shelves.

Eric Klinenberg, author of Fighting for Air: The Battle to Control America's Media, and Jeff Chester, author of Digital Destiny: New Media and the Future of Democracy, describe the efforts of a lonely group of scholars, attorneys, and activists to counteract millions of dollars that corporate lobbyists spend in support of mergers and acquisitions among an ever-shrinking number of larger and larger multimedia, multinational conglomerates.

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Sojourners Magazine September/October 2007
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