…assorted thoughts, musings, rants, etc…

Faith Stuff

On technology and reflection…

In the spring of 2007 I opened an account at twitter.com. At the time it was all the buzz among Silicon Valley types, so I thought I’d see what all the hub-bub was about. The “prompt question” on Twitter was “What are you doing right now?”, and the idea was for people to send text messages from their mobile phones throughout the day in answer to that question. The idea became known as microblogging – short posts that generally consist of fleeting thoughts or status updates. Because Twitter was designed around SMS text messages, Twitter established a 140-character limit for each post – the same limit that exists for SMS messages. Users could also choose to “follow” (or subscribe to) others peoples’ Twitter feeds.

I did a couple of “tweets” (the annoying term for posts on Twitter), and left it at that. The idea of continually posting the trivialities of my day seemed a bit too narcissistic for me. And there became a juvenile contest among tech insiders to see who could get the most followers on Twitter. Because I already had a standard blog, and a Facebook account (where I could post status updates if I wanted), Twitter seemed largely redundant and unnecessary.

Of course, for whatever reason, Twitter – like Facebook before it – has now started to catch on among the mainstream public, and the continual references to it have prompted me to reflect a bit on technology and culture. As I’ve stated in other forums, it’s been difficult for me to see Twitter as much more than a narcissistic, mutual-masturbatory echo chamber. I will concede that other people find it useful – perhaps even I will at some point. But some of the comments in support of Twitter have left me scratching my head, and have caused me to wonder about how we adopt new technologies without much rigorous reflection.

For example, a discussion of Twitter (and an argument for its usefulness) came up a few weeks ago on an email discussion group I participate in. It was right about the time that the U.S. Air jet crash landed in New York’s Hudson river. Somebody stated that, thanks to Twitter, they knew about the crash within minutes of it happening. It was simply assumed that this was an incredibly useful thing – all made possible by Twitter.

One question I have is this: Why do I need to know that the U.S. Air jet went down in the Hudson at the moment it happened? Unless I had a friend or loved one on the flight (extremely unlikely, given the limited number of people in the world I personally know, the number of flights on any given day, and the rarity of plane crashes), or I was in a position to render immediate physical assistance in the rescue operation (again, extremely unlikely given the total surface area of the earth and rarity of plane crashes), I have no immediate need to know about the crash. Aside from the rather childish “bragging rights” for having heard about it before anyone else, what purpose can that immediacy possibly serve?

Some might respond with, “Well, you could immediately start praying for those on board the plane, and those involved in the rescue operation”. And that’s certainly true – I believe very much in the power of prayer. But since I believe that God exists outside of our timeline, and isn’t constrained by temporal considerations, I believe that I can pray about it after the fact and that the prayer still “counts”. God isn’t bound by immediacy.

A broader subject that doesn’t seem to receive much serious reflection is how new communications technologies – including things like Twitter and Facebook – affect the ways in which we interact, live out our communal lives, process ideas, and view concepts such as friendship (and other relationships). There seems to always be two camps when it comes to new communications technologies: one predicting the demise of culture because of the new technologies, and another uncritically adopting the new technologies while regarding those in the first camp clueless, alarmist Luddites. But as these two camps cite studies supporting their position, and lob verbal grenades at one another, there never seems to be any middle ground of calm, rational dialogue about both the potential benefits and pitfalls of the technologies.

Technologies are almost always a mix of benefits and risks. For example, more opportunities for information and entertainment, while also enabling unhealthy isolation. It’s these types of issues that I’d like to see us, as a whole, become more reflective about, without having to worry about being labeled as too exuberant or too fearful about technology. For example, here are a couple of questions I’ve been pondering:

1. What effect do sites like Facebook and MySpace have on the concept of “friendship”? It’s clear that sites like these allow people to connect with one another in ways never before possible, and that can be a great thing. But is the person I sort of remember meeting at a party two nights ago really my “friend”? What are the characteristics of friendship? How do these sites enhance or distort the idea – and practice – of friendship?

2. As we adapt more to communicating via “tweets”, attempt to follow the feeds of hundreds of Facebook and Twitter friends, and get our general news and information in the form of short summaries delivered via RSS feed, how does that affect our ability – and willingness – to think and communicate deeply about things? In the midst of the constant barrage of input from email, text messages, IM, Facebook, Twitter, phone, radio, TV, video games, and iPods, how do we carve out space to be truly present with other people, and to hear the still, small voice of God?

Anybody care to disengage from the chatter long enough to engage in the dialogue?

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What we can learn from the newspaper industry

I’m several episodes behind in my listening to This Week in Tech (TWiT). A few days ago I was listening to an installment from early July, and one of the topics discussed was the changing paradigm for newspapers in the internet age. Their particular example was the Tampa Tribune, whose editor came to the realization that the online component of the paper was no longer just an adjunct to the printed version – they needed to start viewing the printed version as an adjunct to the online content. And that if they don’t make this shift, NEWSPAPERS WILL DIE.
That shift in approach involves all sorts of changes to how the business of publishing the Tribune is carried out – economic, structural, and procedural. When news is a commodity easily acquired for free from a huge array of sources online, how do you maintain a business model?

There are a couple of things that papers like the Tribune are focusing on: becoming more “hyperlocal”, and shifting from becoming merely a dispenser of news to becoming more a facilitator for discussion. Becoming “hyperlocal” means focusing more on local issues and activities in the local community. In the Tampa Tribune’s case, one result was to shut down their Tallahassee bureau, since Tampa locals were less interested in Tallahassee happenings, and the local Tallahassee paper could probably do a better job of covering that scene (and putting it online for anyone to see).

Becoming a facilitator for discussion of the news means shifting from a one-way model of dispensing information to a two-way model that includes feedback and discussion. While there has long been a limited feedback loop in the form of letters to the editor, this new model of feedback and discussion is immediate and has a very low barrier to entry. And many old school reporters and writers don’t like this new model – they’d rather dispense to the public, not discuss with the public.

Why am I writing about newspapers? Well, I see a lot of similarities to the church. If the church wants to keep new generations engaged, it needs to

a) become more “hyperlocal” in its mission and outreach, providing many opportunities to serve those in need within the local community in a very active, hands-on way, and

b) shift from becoming merely a dispenser of theology to more of a facilitator for discussion about theology, faith, and living the gospel – including letting worship be more of a dialogue rather than a monologue.


Church and the whole person

Emergent Village recently featured a post that is essentially a summary for a newly updated book called UnLearning Church. The book discusses the need to be aware of the different ways in which some people – especially younger people – are wanting/needing to engage the gospel. A couple of excerpts:

“UnLearning churches realize that people become engaged through environment and experiences. Such churches develop an environment that frees people and allows them to experience God in closer and deeper ways than they’ve ever experienced before. Too many people believe they cannot find an experience of God in the institutional church.”

“UnLearning churches focus more on connecting people to meaning than to activity. Fifteen years ago, we would have emphasized getting people to show up for church programs and listen-and-learn meetings. We would have sponsored a seminar and gauged its success by how many attended. Now we measure success by asking “How are people finding life change and purpose through the experience?” People are not looking for church meetings so much as for life meaning. We want to know if their church experience makes a difference in their relationships, parenting, Christian witness, and stewardship.”

While there’s a danger in focusing solely on personal experience and ignoring teaching/study/learning, churches would do well to consider these ideas. I’ve put the book on my “to read” list.


Yeesh

So apparently there’s this “controversy” over Lowes home improvement stores advertising “family trees” rather than “Christmas trees” in a printed flier. In fact, some of the people protesting Lowes are linking directly to an article on snopes.com:

http://www.snopes.com/politics/christmas/familytree.asp

It’s clear that those protesters pointing to the article on snopes didn’t even RTFA. Lowes has said the wording in the ad was an error and was missed during proofreading, and that indeed there are many displays in Lowes stores for “Christmas” trees, “Christmas” ornaments, etc.

Whether the ad was a mistake or not, why is it that Christians always get their panties in a bunch over stupid-ass stuff like this? I guarantee you there are a great many American Christians who are more upset about this than they are about people dying in Burma, Darfur, or Rwanda. Why is it that our priorities have gotten so messed up? I’m certain that God doesn’t feel threatened by a retail chain calling a bunch of molded plastic a “family tree”. So why should we?

Is it any wonder that Christians and Christianity aren’t taken seriously in our culture?

And they’ll know we are Christians by our misguided reactionary boycotts
By our misguided reactionary boycotts
Yes they’ll know we are Christians by our misguided reactionary boycotts


Wal-Mart To Sell Jesus, Religious Action Figures

I saw this on Digg this morning. Apparently Walmart is going to sell Bible action figures in some of its stores.

Here’s the original link:

http://www.local6.com/news/13686443/detail.html

Here’s the Digg posting, with well-deserved commentary in the comments:

http://digg.com/offbeat_news/Wal_Mart_To_Sell_Jesus_Religious_Action_Figures

And here’s the actual website selling the action figures:

http://store.messengersoffaith.net/taofgltost.html

All of this reminded me of a posting made on the rec.music.christian Internet newsgroup over a dozen years ago by a net acquaintance of mine named Andy Whitman. His posting was in criticism of a new line of “Action Heroes of the Faith!” dolls being sold at Christian bookstores across the country. His criticism caused quite a stir among some of the readers of the newsgroup, so he responded to them with the following. It communicates, better than I could, my feelings about the latest offering of Bible action figures.

Okay, I’m in a foul mood, and that probably colors my perceptions on life, the universe, and everything for the time being, but I’ll do my best to restrain my tongue.

I’ve received a half a dozen or so email messages over the last couple of days questioning my salvation and wondering why I bother to disturb the peace and unity of rec.music.christian. Apparently this is a result of my posting from last week where I suggested several new products for the Christian bookstore market, among them being AbbaWear, evangelistic toast, Phileo Mignon steaks, etc. Apparently some people have interpreted this posting as “mocking Christianity” and “mocking Christ.”

Since I don’t have the time or the inclination to respond individually, let me attempt to address the issues raised in this newsgroup. I apologize if this is the wrong forum, but I don’t have several hours to devote to responding to a bunch of email messages, and I’m hoping that I can address the issues collectively.

First, I am a Christian. Not a particularly good one, but if you put me on the rack and grilled me on my doctrinal positions I’d probably pass muster. I’m trying, with God’s help, to have my life reflect what I believe. The last thing I want to do is mock Christ. Nor do I want to mock Christianity, or other Christians.

In fact, I care about these things very much. And because I care about these things it disturbs me when I see the faith trivialized, and when I see the complexity and richness of the biblical revelation reduced to slogans and caricatures. And, unfortunately, I see this all the time in Christian bookstores, the very places where I would *expect* to find help. It disturbs me to see David, one of the most complex human beings I’ve ever encountered, reduced to an Action Hero of the Faith doll, as if this man who was full of faults and full of faith could be reduced to Rambo in a loincloth. It disturbs me to see bookshelves full of “Ten Easy Steps to …” titles, as if the Christian life was a matter of studying programs and techniques. And it angers me to see so-called Christian companies marketing “Truth Clothing”, turning the gospel into mere crass commercialization, something that Jesus had little patience for in his dealings in the temple.

So do I want to mock Christ, Christianity, Christians? No. But I want to mock those businesses whose business is to make the faith palatable for the masses, who want to turn the tough, lifelong journey of walking with God into a matter of what you wear, and what techniques you follow, and what cute little sayings you tack up on your wall. Do I want to mock that? You bet I do. Because it’s a lie. *That* is not Christianity. And I simply don’t buy the pious rationalizations of, “well, God can use it anyway.” God doesn’t *want* to use it. It’s crap. He wants you to know *Him*, not the dealers at the Jesus Mart.

And I’m getting carried away. Sorry. But I do get frustrated by it all sometimes. I hope this at least partially explains my views.

– Andy Whitman


Live from the Sr. High retreat

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The God of Irony

I just got home from sitting in on a Budget and Stewardship committee meeting at Eastridge. It’s getting to be that time of year again, when church members will be asked to give just a little more than last year. I was asked to be there as a representative of the communications committee. They want my committee to make a DVD, with footage of Eastridge activities and interviews with certain people and narration and background music, to send to all the members of the church as we approach Stewardship Sunday in November.

As I sat listening to the discussion, I just sort of smiled to myself at God’s sense of irony. Just as I’ve been feeling increasingly ambivalent about the church (though excited about ministry), and feeling more and more that I’m being called away from the church in order to do ministry, I find myself in charge of making a video to get people excited about the church.

Who says God doesn’t enjoy a good laugh?