This year’s symposium question was: If the medium affects the message, how will the Christian message be affected by the new media? Be sure to check out all the posts linked above for the responses judged to be the best.
Normally I don’t celebrate coming in second in anything (it’s not “runner-up,” it’s “first loser”), but in this case I’m honored to share the company with these other worthy authors.
Yesterday, the New York Times ran a perceptive op-ed, noting the negative consequences of relaxed strictures on items such as sex and eating meat on Fridays. The author uses economic thinking to justify more traditional mores:
Larry Iannaccone, an economist at George Mason University who has studied religions, notes that some of the most successful, like Jehovah’s Witnesses or Pentecostal Christians, which have very fervent congregations, have strict requirements. Religions relax the rules at their own peril.
“Religions are in the unusual situation in which it pays to make gratuitously costly demands,” Mr. Iannaccone said. “When they weaken their demands they make on members, they undermine their credibility.”
So it is perhaps unsurprising that the church has been pushing the other way. Pope Benedict XVI has brought back rites abandoned after Vatican II and reasserted the church’s hold on truth.
In this context, it could be tricky to update sins in a way that could de-emphasize individual trespasses and shift the focus to social crimes bearing a collective guilt. New sins might be a better fit for the modern world, but they risk alienating the membership.
Not to argue theology with the Vatican, but environmental pollution is hardly among Satan’s strongest temptations. Pollution is not a passion we resist with an agony of will for the sake of our immortal souls. I’ve been to parties where all seven of the original deadlies were on offer in carload lots. Never once have I heard a reveler shout with evil glee, “Let’s dump PCBs in the Hudson River!”
If all environmental pollution were stopped forthwith–as any proper sin ought to be–wouldn’t this result in “causing poverty”? Eschewing New Deadly Sin #3 forces us to commit New Deadly Sin #4. And New Deadly Sin #5 as well, since “social injustice and inequality” cannot be eliminated without global economic progress. Furthermore, that progress depends in part on New Deadly Sin #6, the genetic manipulation entailed in the bioengineering of new high-yield crop varieties to feed the hungry. Here we have Bishop Girotti, who is supposed to be leading us to God, leading us instead to a hopeless paradox and the unforgivable sin against the Holy Ghost, despair.
Speaking of which, modern economists despair of any way to quit causing poverty except by accumulating excessive wealth–the excess supplying the capital needed for global economic progress. Also the Right Reverend should get out more and take a walk around Vatican City. A Mother Teresa leper hospital it ain’t.
And don’t forget to examine your conscience against O’Rourke’s own new deadly sins as well …
The official, Bishop Gianfranco Girotti, is the second-in-command at the Apostolic Penitentiary (despite the name, it is not a jail but the Vatican office responsible for issues relating to the forgiveness of sins in the Roman Catholic Church). The bishop spoke the day after the Penitentiary concluded a course for confessors. The bulk of the interview dealt with matters concerning canon law and the sacrament of confession, items of little interest to the general public. But the bishop also spoke about some new forms of social sin. Here are the relevant questions and answers:
Sometimes people do not understand the Church’s (issuing of) indulgences and Christian forgiveness? Why do you think it is that way?
Today it seems that repentance is taken to mean opening one’s self to others when resolving issues found within his or her own special social sphere, within which one expresses his very own existence, and does so by offering his own contribution of clarification and support for those having such problems. Repentance, therefore, today takes on a (special) social dimension, due to the fact that relationships have grown weaker and more complicated because of globalization.
In your opinion, what are the “new sins”?
There are various areas today in which we adopt sinful behavior, as with individual and social rights. This is especially so in the field of bioethics where we cannot deny the existence of violations of fundamental rights of human nature – this occurs by way of experiments and genetic modifications, whose results we cannot easily predict or control. Another area, which indeed pertains to the social spectrum, is that of drug use, which weakens our minds and reduces our intelligence. As a result, many young people are left out of Church circles. Here’s another one: social and economic inequality, in the sense that the rich always seem to get richer, and the poor, poorer. This [phenomenon] feeds off an unsustainable form of social injustice and is related to environmental issues –which currently have much relevant interest.
Anyone reading these passages can see that the Church is not proposing any new list of mortal sins, and certainly did not list “obscene wealth” and “pollution” as matters to be confessed by the faithful. The bishop simply referred to the social consequences of sin, some of which seem to be exacerbated by an increasingly inter-connected world.
Having worked in the Vatican for several years, I know many of the beat reporters, including some of those who botched this social sin story. Most have absolutely no interest in the larger theological or philosophical issues discussed at high levels, so in a way this is all the fruit of culpable ignorance.
But real damage is done to the Church and her flock by such slipshod reporting. Knowledge of Catholic social doctrine has surely suffered and people who may otherwise be interested in the Church have been driven away, all in the name of an eye-catching headline.
A few weeks ago I was listening to a very engaging American RadioWorks documentary, rebroadcast from last October, “Japan’s Pop Power.” The show focused on the increasing cultural imports to America coming from Japan, which by some estimations will soon dwarf industries typically associated with American-Japanese trade like automobiles, technology, and electronics. Japan’s economic success is a sure sign that human creativity and inventiveness are more important factors in human flourishing than mere material concerns or natural resources.
Some of the commentary expounded the typical pattern and dynamics of a sub-culture movement becoming mainstream. A great deal of the program focused on Japanese art, film, and media products, including the form of Japanese comic known as manga. Beginning with Mighty Morphin Power Rangers, the growing Japanese dominance of programming oriented toward youth is especially noteworthy (I’m a Yu-Gi-Oh! fan and my wife likes Ninja Warrior).
One portion of the program interested me especially because we have been discussing the importance of narrative here lately. As Chris Farrell and John Biewen spoke with an American teenager, it became clear that in part what draws our youth to contemporary forms of Japanese storytelling, beyond the inherent exotic elements, is the disjointedness of the narrative. It’s often a challenge to figure out who the main characters are and what they are doing. Some of the attraction is no doubt the mental agility that is required to induct a logical flow from the sometimes confusing morass.
But on another level, the attraction is undoubtedly a reflection of a post-modern mindset, which isn’t so concerned with logical plot progression. Japanese shows are renowned for their emphasis on glitzy effects, explosions, and action (oftentimes at the expense of sanity) such that they’ve become a staple of American parody:
It’s always a challenge for Christians to determine when and how to engage cultural movements. Some businesses and industries are without a doubt beyond the realm of moral permissibility, and the Christian is barred from licit participation. The message to those who are involved must be only, “Go and sin no more.”
But other times keen discernment is called for, and Christians at different times and places have come up with very different answers about how to engage the broader culture. At some point soon, for instance, we’ll look in more detail at the Christian Reformed Church’s synodical reports from 1928 on “Worldly Amusements” and from 1966 on “Film Arts.”
One approach I’m familiar with in a professional capacity is the attempt by some Christian publishers to transform the manga genre into something that is a positive and constructive influence, conducive to Christian piety, rather than one that celebrates moral depravity (for which manga is infamously renowned).
Zondervan, for example, has newly available a number of new manga series aimed towards youth or “tweens” audiences (full disclosure: I provided theological review services for a number of these products). On example is a series that follows the fictional exploits of Branan, the son of the biblical judge Samson. Other series follow a team of time-travelling flies and relate the biblical narrative in the form of a Manga Bible (the latter produced by a Korean author/illustrator team).
Whether such ventures are judged to be successful depends on the standards applied by individual Christians. No doubt many will be thankful for offerings in a pop culture genre whose contents are sincerely counter-cultural.
What is certain is that there is no better place to address the needs for a new generation of readers eager for meaningful narrative than to rely upon mythopoeia and, indeed, the greatest story ever told, the “True Myth,” the biblical drama of creation, fall, redemption, and consummation.
The confluence of two recent headline-making stories has the potential to impact the practice of free speech, political or otherwise, in this country.
First, let’s discuss the question of media bias that has surrounded the offer made by Rupert Murdoch to purchase the Wall Street Journal. The closure of the deal appears imminent, now that the formation of an independent board has been agreed upon.
NPR’s Morning Edition covered this story in detail yesterday, with a piece by David Folkenflik on the proposed merger, followed by an in-depth profile of Murdoch by Steve Inskeep. The Inskeep piece focused especially on concerns that Murdoch would influence the editorial stance of the journal.
Here’s how Inskeep finished the profile: Speaking of the WSJ, Inskeep intones that the paper “blends powerfully conservative editorials with powerfully balanced reporting.” According to a study of media bias published in 2005, however, Inskeep is only half right in that assessment.
In “A Measure of Media Bias,” appearing in The Quarterly Journal of Economics 120, no. 4 (November 2005): 1191-1237, authors Time Groseclose and Jeffrey Milvo determined that the WSJ was “the most liberal of all twenty news outlets” that they studied, a group including papers like the Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, New York Times, USA Today, as well as numerous other cable TV, network, and news magazine outlets.
“We should first remind readers that this estimate (as well as all other newspaper estimates) refers only to the news of the Wall Street Journal. If we included data from the editorial page, surely it would appear more conservative,” write Groseclose and Milvo. Apparently Inskeep didn’t read this study or others like it. Or, perhaps even more importantly, it fit with his own editorial agenda to cast the WSJ news reporting in as centrist a light as possible, the better to highlight any possible rightward shift that might come under Murdoch’s ownership.
The second set of items revolves around the speculation that the Democratic majority in the Senate might be considering steps to re-install the media “fairness doctrine,” in substance if not in name.
Concerns that talk radio is unfairly unbalanced in favor of conservative politics fuels the ire of Sen. Dianne Feinstein: “I think there ought to be an opportunity to present the other side. And unfortunately, talk radio is overwhelmingly one way,” Feinstein said. “I do believe in fairness. I remember when there was a fairness doctrine, and I think there was much more serious, correct reporting to people.”
There’s a lot to dislike about the “fairness doctrine,” but perhaps what concerns me the most is the precedent that such policies make with regard to political speech.
How easy would it be to expand the scope of such a doctrine beyond overtly political “talk radio” to other sorts of programming? What about religious broadcasting, whose content may have a greater or lesser political relevance depending on the particular issue? Could the censorship of religious speech in the US begin under the auspices of a politically-motivated “fairness” doctrine?
On this Good Friday, CNN commentator Roland Martin delivers a well-needed corrective to the errors of both the religious Right and Left.
It’s good to see that he doesn’t confuse action on poverty and divorce as primarily political but rather a social issues. Just because you aren’t explicitly partisan doesn’t mean that you cannot be as much or more political than some of the figures that are typically derided in these kinds of calls to action. It doesn’t look to me like Martin falls into that trap in this piece.
And although Martin rightly says that abortion and homosexuality are not the only issues on which Christian morality has important words to say, he needs similarly to be careful not to confuse Christian political action with the whole compass of Christian social action. That is, just because a person or group engages in political activism on one or another of these issues doesn’t mean that they don’t think these other issues are not important…it may just reflect their judgment that they are not primarily problems that government needs to be lobbied about.
Here’s one other aspect of the problem: the media decides which personalities from the Christian community to cover, and these choices aren’t always attuned to those who are really the most influential, but instead those who will fit easily into the desired stereotype of evangelicalism. So, when Martin says “it’s time to stop allowing a chosen few to speak for the masses. Quit letting them define the agenda,” his message needs to be heard as much by the mainstream media as it does by lay Christians.
Politics tends to be of the most public interest, so it’s Christian political activism that tends to get the most coverage. This doesn’t mean that Christians aren’t at the same time active on other social fronts.
One of the religion beat’s favorite canards is to implicitly equate what it calls American Christian “fundamentalism” with what it calls Muslim or Islamic “fundamentalism.” After all, both are simply species of the genus. For more on this, check out GetReligion (here and here) and the reference to a piece by Philip Jenkins, which notes,
Also, media coverage of any topic, religious or secular, is shaped by the necessity to summarize complex movements and ideologies in a few selected code-words, labels that acquire significance far beyond their precise meaning. Though designed as guideposts for the perplexed, all too often, such words rather tend to stop intellectual processes. One such demon word is fundamentalism, originally a description of a particular approach to reading Christian Scriptures, but now a catch-all description for supernaturally based anti-modernism, repression, and misogyny. Within the past few years, evangelical has been similarly debased, gaining its popular connotations of white conservative politics.
Indeed, evangelical and fundamentalist are often used interchangeably in media parlance.
One way to get at the radical difference, so to speak, between the two groups would be to guage the respective reaction when something sacred is mocked and blasphemed. We have seen what the Islamist reaction to the infamous Mohammed cartoons has been: violent protesting resulting in death. The Danish cartoonists have had to flee into hiding out of fear for their lives, a la Salman Rushdie circa 1989, and certainly with Theo Van Gogh circa November, 2004 in mind. (Update: It looks like they indeed have good reason to fear. A Pakistani cleric has put a $1 million bounty on the head of one of the cartoonists.)
By contrast, Charles Krauthammer has profiled some of the things that are offensive to many Christians, including the publication of pictures of the Virgin Mary covered with dung and the so-called “Piss Christ,” (a crucifix sitting in a jar of urine). The most you are likely to see from Christian “fundamentalists” in reaction to issues like these are public expressions of outrage and disgust, maybe a letter-writing campaign with some vitriolic prose, perhaps some picketing and protesting, and even some threats to pull public funding thrown in for good measure. The upcoming movie The Da Vinci Code, based on a Dan Brown novel, which depicts much of the Bible and church tradition as fictitious, has not resulted in either Tom Hanks or the author fearing for their lives.
Perhaps no one gets at the popular connotation of the word fundamentalist better than Christian philosopher Alvin Plantinga. In discussing his epistemological model in Warranted Christian Belief, Plantinga writes,
I fully realize that the dreaded f-word will be trotted out to stigmatize any model of this kind. Before responding, however, we must first look into the use of this term ‘fundamentalist’. On the most common contemporary academic use of the term, it is a term of abuse or disapprobation, rather like ‘son of a bitch’, more exactly ‘sonovabitch’, or perhaps still more exactly (at least according to those authorities who look to the Old West as normative on matters of pronunciation) ‘sumbitch’. When the term is used in this way, no definition of it is ordinarily given. (If you called someone a sumbitch, would you feel obliged to first define the term?) Still, there is a bit more to the meaning of ‘fundamentalist’ (in this widely current use): it isn’t simply a term of abuse. In addition to its emotive force, it does have some cognitive content, and ordinarily denotes relative conservative theological views. That makes it more like ‘stupid sumbitch’ (or maybe ‘fascist sumbitch’?) than ‘sumbitch’ simpliciter. It isn’t exactly like that term either, however, because its cognitive content can expand and contract on demand; its content seems to depend on who is using it. In the mouths of certain liberal theologians, for example, it tends to denote any who accept traditional Christianity, including Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, and Barth; in the mouths of devout secularists like Richard Dawkins or Daniel Dennett, it tends to denote anyone who believes there is such a person as God. The explanation is that the term has a certain indexical element: its cognitive content is given by the phrase ‘considerably to the right, theologically speaking, of me and my enlightened friends.’ The full meaning of the term, therefore (in this use), can be given by something like ‘stupid sumbitch whose theological opinions are considerably to the right of mine’ (pp. 244-45).