Archive for the ‘media’ Category

More Newspapers!

February 1, 2017

Yesterday I subscribed (digitally) to the Los Angeles Times and the Washington Post. I already subscribe to the Santa Rosa Press Democrat (my excellent local paper) and The New York Times, and I really don’t need more reading opportunities. However, as I think about strategic action in these troubled times, I keep coming back to investigative reporting. We need reporters who dig deep and present facts about complicated matters. (We have plenty of opinions already.) Sorry, TV and the internet don’t do that. Newspapers do. And they need money!

I look on these added subscriptions just like my annual contributions to the Yosemite Conservancy and my local public radio stations and Amnesty International. They are for the public good.


What To Do  

December 16, 2016

A lot of us are alarmed about the state of America, and many are asking what they can do. Here’s my answer: subscribe to a newspaper.

There are so many issues that require good reporting. Just to name a few, we have questions about whether the FBI or the CIA has been politicized, questions about whether, how and why Russia tried to influence our election, questions about the future of healthcare. None of these can be answered by pontificating partisans on TV, let alone by Twitter. They need careful, thoughtful, diligent reporting.

A bigger question is whether America has become a post-truth society, with citizens who think the world is just a big reality TV show. At the least, we are drifting that way. Countering these tendencies requires citizens who read careful, thoughtful, diligent reporting, and don’t get their information from TV talking heads and tweets.

Good reporting and reliable sources of information start with newspapers. Nothing so far has surfaced to replace them. Yet newspapers are economically imperiled, and their readership has dropped. Therefore, a very practical contribution to these difficult times is to subscribe. That way, the newspapers get your money to pay their reporters; and you get better access to information.

Atticus Finch and Bill Cosby

July 21, 2015

I’ve been fascinated by the upset caused by Harper Lee’s new rendition of Atticus Finch in Go Set a Watchman, her followup to To Kill a Mockingbird. Evidently Atticus does not come off as quite so morally heroic, and that bothers people.

To which I want to say: Atticus Finch is a fictional character. Another novel that uses his name is just another novel, and another character named Atticus Finch has nothing to do with the first Atticus Finch. The character in To Kill a Mockingbird is his forever; it was complete when Harper Lee published the book.

I think this way because I’m a novelist. I love novels, but I know that they are illusions, carved out with careful intentionality by their authors. Novels may tell you some important truths—I believe they do—but they do not create lives. Only God does that.

My wife explains to me that people long to believe in heroes during these dispiriting times, and Atticus Finch is a hero. I take her point. How many characters in modern fiction can one see as genuinely heroic? I am having trouble thinking of a single one, besides Atticus Finch. Perhaps the upset over Atticus represents people who want heroes left alone.

Okay, I get that, but could we focus on defending heroes whom we know to be real people?

My thoughts about fictional heroes apply almost identically to the trouble with Bill Cosby. Of course, it’s upsetting that Cosby has turned out to be a wretch. (Or is that too kind a word to apply to a serial rapist?) But there are many serial rapists in the world. The particular trouble with the idea of Bill Cosby, serial rapist, is that we believed he was such a nice man. We believed, in fact, that he was our friend. Naturally we feel betrayed.

But that feeling of betrayal is based on a hopeless and willed naivete. I will contend (and here I rely on my experience as a reporter, not as a novelist) that the public figures we read about and see on TV—the athletes, movie stars, politicians, preachers and even scientists—are just as much fictional characters as Atticus Finch. Enjoy their performance, and draw inspiration from it, but resist the temptation to think you know anything about the real person behind the performance.

I’ve had a few experiences of this, with Christian celebrities who were widely believed to be wise and saintly characters, and whom I came to believe (from personal encounters) verged on the psychotic. Unless you know people personally, and know them well, you have no idea what they are like. Their public persona is an image, as carefully crafted as a character in a novel.

Bill Cosby of public life—let’s call him “Bill Cosby”—was a lovely old curmudgeon, funny and wise and delightful. “Bill Cosby” represented a projection of something that the real Bill Cosby wanted to be, and perhaps in small portions could be. But “Bill Cosby” has no more fallen than Atticus Finch. And you don’t know the real Bill Cosby, and Bill Cosby wasn’t your friend. Thankfully.

Robert Schuller

April 14, 2015

Christianity Today Magazine has published my lengthy retrospective on Robert Schuller.  (He died April 2.) Schuller was an important figure in 20th century American Christianity, with enormous influence. My best line: “He did for church what Disneyland did for amusement parks.” That may sound snarky, but if you think about how Disneyland changed the image of amusement parks (formerly seedy, dirty, morally dubious) you’ll understand that it’s not. For a certain generation, Schuller rehabilitated church, making it a happy, light-filled, positive place. But did that transformation really work? Thinking  about Schuller makes you consider seriously whether the Christian faith can be managed through a marketing campaign. He wasn’t the first or the last to try, but he was purer than most–and more skillful than most–in his wholehearted commitment.


January 27, 2015

Just a note to encourage you to see Selma. I’ve spent some time in Selma, visiting relatives and also doing research for my civil rights novel Birmingham, and it was good to see that big ugly bridge on film.

Yes, the movie does distort history rather badly regarding Lyndon Johnson and his response to the Civil Rights movement.

On the other hand, it’s strikingly accurate regarding the events in Selma. For one thing it portrays M.L. King as something less than an absolute hero of the movement. Selma was not King’s finest hour and the movie shows it as such. It also accurately portrays King as the indispensable leader of the movement, a man whose voice and reputation could draw reporters and move the masses. There’s an open-ended quality to Selma’s storytelling that leaves you in some doubt as to what actually happened–why did King turn back?–and who were the people most to admire.

Also, the movie doesn’t underplay nor overplay the role of faith in the movement. It clearly shows it as a church movement, with ministers leading the way. It doesn’t make them any better or any worse than they were, nor does it overly dramatize their faith struggles. It’s just factual: this is where it happened (in church); this is who led (the ministers); this is what they said (God cares about our treatment). This isn’t, or shouldn’t be, any big deal, but think about all the ways that Hollywood could play this. They were willing to distort Johnson’s role in order to make a better story; they could have done the same with matters of faith.

All that aside, it’s a pretty good movie and tells an important chapter of our history. The acting is good, the cinematography is good. The faces of the many extras they recruited in Selma are wonderful to observe.

A Good Local Newspaper

January 8, 2015

A friend’s father was murdered a few weeks before Christmas. He was shot at a trailhead after a botched robbery, with his wife witnessing his death. The murderer drove off to shoot another person a few miles away (though not fatally) and attempt another robbery before he was apprehended.

When I heard of this awful crime (through email) I immediately googled it to learn more. In subsequent days I searched the internet repeatedly. All I found, however, was one short, incomplete story from a television station. It gave no names and only the sketchiest information. Apart from that, it appeared that the crime did not exist.

I think there is a simple reason for the blackout: the area has no local daily newspaper.

I live in a community that has an excellent local newspaper, The Press Democrat, thoroughly covering local crime, local sports, local business, local politics and any other local news you can think of. I guarantee you that had my friend’s father been killed in our county, there would have been several detailed stories, with followup pieces on the subsequent prosecution and trial of the murderer.

There are many reasons to worry over the demise of newspapers. For me, most important is that the number of reporters assigned to national and international stories has plummeted, and with it the supply of in-depth understanding of complex stories. Twitter feeds are great for updates on spectacular ongoing dramas, but they don’t make up for the loss of experienced reporters.

Local newspapers don’t contribute much to this kind of investigative journalism, and never have. They have always depended on feeds from AP or the New York Times or other big media outlets for their national and international news. What local newspapers uniquely do, however, is create community. In particular, they assure us that nobody’s murder goes unnoticed by the community at large.

Double Standard

December 16, 2014

In this op-ed Ross Douthat continues his occasional reflections on the sexual revolution and its impact on class divisions. I think he puts his finger on something fundamental.

America historically has been a highly mobile society, in which the poor, hard-working immigrant could by pluck and luck rise to the top. In the words of Carousel’s Billy Bigelow, musing about the future of his unborn son:

“He might be a champ of the heavyweights,
Or a feller that sells you glue,
Or president of the united states,
That’d be all right, too
His mother would like that
But he wouldn’t be president if he didn’t wanna be!”

That’s the old romance of freedom. My son could be a champion athlete, or a successful businessman, or president. But only if he wants to be!

As I understand it, studies show that such possibilities are considerably more remote than they used to be. The top and the bottom are more than ever permanently divided, with three factors pre-eminent: income, education, and marriage. They tend to go together. If you are well-off and well-educated, the chances are good that you will marry and not divorce. The reverse is also true: if you are poor and poorly educated, the chances are good that you will not marry or stay married, and that you will raise children alone.

The double standard in American sexuality has gone beyond male and female. Now it is between rich and poor. Those who are well off can afford sexual liberty, because there are forces in their lives that limit destruction, not least of which is the power of cash. (The movie Chef offers excellent storytelling of how this works on the ground.) Those who are poor may be destroyed by liberty, as they lose their most valuable asset, family.

The mores of the well-off dominate the cultural scene: think movie stars, TV producers, magazine editors, public intellectuals. They celebrate freedom. The background insinuation is that if only everybody could be as flexible and non-judgmental and open-minded as we are, problems would quickly dissipate.

Douthat suggests that the poor have adopted that philosophy, much to their detriment. And that its adoption by the rich is  more tempered by conservatism than is obvious. “We may have a culture in which the working class is encouraged to imitate what are sold as key upper-class values — sexual permissiveness and self-fashioning, spirituality and emotivism — when really the upper class is also held together by a kind of secret traditionalism, without whose binding power family life ends up coming apart even faster…. If so, it needs to be more widely acknowledged, and even preached, that what’s worth imitating in upper-class family life isn’t purely modern or progressive, but a complex synthesis of new and old.”

Of three fundamental factors—income (jobs), education, and marriage—that correlate and interact closely, I believe marriage has the longest and most tenacious hold on people’s welfare. Clearly there’s no returning to the “happy days” of the Greatest Generation. Birth control has changed everything. So have “softer” factors: the (partial) undoing of the gendered double standard; the rise of two-earner families; the end of blame and shame for children born without benefit of marriage; no-fault divorce; a more positive valuation of sexual desire; pornography. Many of these changes are good, some bad, some worth arguing about. Put it all together and the situation is very complicated. It’s not easy to say how on earth you could change it.

But as we think about it, we would do well to bear in mind this two-class reality: what works for the rich may devastate the poor.

The Hopes of Modernity

September 22, 2014

One hopeful promise of the modern era is that improved communication between different cultures and nations will lead to greater international understanding. This expectation is closely tied to technological advancement: as the world grows smaller, due to airplanes and radio and television and internet, we can become closer neighbors. Greater understanding will naturally lead to greater peace.

Thus, for example, the enduring faith in foreign-exchange programs. If young people from countries around the world experience each other’s families and communities—and thanks to modern air travel, they can–they will return home with a more sympathetic understanding of the Other. If this happens often enough, there will be no more war.

It hasn’t happened like that. I’m reading The War that Ended Peace, by Margaret MacMillan, a history of how the enlightened nations of Europe (and ultimately America too) stumbled into WWI.

She includes a passing observation that in the years before the war “railways, telegraph lines and then telephones and radios transmitted domestic and international news at unprecedented speed….. Increasingly, newspapers preferred to use their own nationals [as foreign correspondents] rather than rely on locals.” As a result, public opinion became better informed and increasingly involved in foreign policy. Governments began to try to manipulate the press in order to form public opinion. And popular newspapers learned to publish alarmist interpretations of events, to “stir up public emotions and elevate patriotism into jingoistic nationalism.” Lord Salisbury, the British Prime Minister, “complained that it was like having ‘a huge lunatic asylum at one’s back.’” [112-113] Ultimately this public opinion became a force pushing for war—a force that statesmen had to appease.

So better communication did not lead to greater understanding; it actually worked to accentuate differences. Sound familiar?

It’s striking that the lunatics and killers running ISIS are very savvy at internet communications. It’s very high on their list to broadcast quality videos of their savagery. The internet offers almost unlimited possibilities for communicating across differences. Yet as many have noticed, we tend to find an echo chamber for our own ideas and prejudices; and the internet also offers almost unlimited possibilities for hearing from people who agree with you, and recruiting them to your cause.

Technology does nothing to civilize or humanize us. It offers possibilities for both good and evil. What we make of them depends on other humanizing forces—parents, teachers, writers, broadcasters, pastors. But there is not such a good market for them! Apple sold ten million iPhones in three days. There is no similar demand for thoughtful and humane books, schools, churches, families or news shows.

A very good film

May 15, 2014

If you haven’t seen Philomena, do. It’s not dazzling, but solid, entertaining and ultimately very thoughtful. It caught me by surprise: I didn’t see the meaning coming. The film moves along as a British character study of a spacey, aging Philomena (Judi Dench) and a slightly desperate, slightly embittered British journalist who is trying (condescendingly) to get a story out of her. Good storytelling fodder, which one assumes will come to some kind of feel-good conclusion. But the ending has an interesting twist. I’ll just say it’s the most attractive portrayal of a Christian in a movie for a very long time. But it’s not soupy, not in the least.

Only one quibble–not so much with the movie as with an unexamined prejudice of our times. Philomena is an older woman who got pregnant as a teenager, was taken in by some Irish nuns, and had to give up her baby. The movie emphasizes that she and other teenage mothers were used as profitable (slave) labor by the nuns, who treated them harshly for their sins, coerced them into giving up their children, and positively obstructed their attempts to track down those lost children later in life. (In the movie, Philomena is still trying to find her son.)

The nuns and by extension the Catholic church are portrayed as heartless, moralistic and hypocritical. I daresay that is entirely true and they deserve their reputation. However, I was struck by the absence of another question: who else was helping these girls?

I suspect the answer is that no one else was helping them. Their own families threw them out. Nobody else in Irish society offered them a place to stay. Nobody else took on their troubles.

So while the nuns were bad, it’s not quite right to portray them as the worst of society. Wouldn’t it be more accurate to say they were the best of very bad society?

How to End Slavery

March 14, 2014

Last week I went to see 12 Years a Slave, which won the Academy Award for Best Picture. It’s a harrowing portrayal of slavery in the American South. One of the galling features is the repeated church services in which Paul’s instructions to slaves to obey are read. Although there seems to be some historical exaggeration in the movie version–Master Ford was, according to the real Solomon Northrup, an exceedingly kind master–there’s no question that those verses were  regularly repeated to slaves. Their Christian sensibilities were used to control them.

For those who see Christianity as inherently conservative and repressive, Paul’s views on slave obedience are of a piece with the whole. For those of us who understand Christianity as fundamentally liberating and pro-justice, those verses are a puzzle–one that I, for one, generally prefer not to think about.

Any close reading of Paul will show that he is not actually pro-slavery, any more than he is anti-woman or pro-emperor. For example, he tells the Galatians that “in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith…. There is neither slave nor free… for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (3:26-28, also Colossians 3:11) He warns slave masters not to threaten their slaves, for both slave and master serve a Master in heaven “and there is no favoritism with him.” (Ephesians 6:9, also Colossians 3:25) In 1 Timothy 1:10 he puts slave traders in the same list with murderers, the sexually immoral, liars and perjurers.

If slaves and free are all one in the Messiah; if God shows no favoritism one over another; and if trading in slaves is the worst kind of immorality, then the highly hierarchical Roman way of thinking about slavery (and many other things) is undermined, to say the least. How can you own your brother or sister? How can you sell them? Tom Wright says that Romans could no more imagine life without slavery than we can imagine life without electricity–it was the way things got done. Yet there is clearly subversion going on. And it goes on even more powerfully whenever the church gathers. For, walking down the Roman street on the way to the ekklesia, the difference between slave and free is a chasm like the Grand Canyon. But once inside, there is no difference. They sit together, eat together, pray together, lay hands on each other, learn together as complete equals. They would never do this outside, but they always do it inside. When you have that kind of experience inside the church, how can you help thinking differently about the slave or master who walks out with you and down the street? In class-ridden, honor-obsessed Rome, the ekklesia was a revolutionary institution.

Yet Paul, while showing no respect for slavery, equally shows no interest in overthrowing it. Even if he thinks institutional change is impossible, he could at least betray the wish. He doesn’t. He tells slaves to obey, in very strong language. He tells masters to treat their slaves well. If they both do what they are told, slavery may last forever.

Is Paul conservative, then? Well, no. He believes that the present world is being turned upside down, and that it is being replaced by a new order that is ruled by the Messiah. In that order there is no slave or free. The God who freed the slaves from Egypt is not going to leave some of them in slavery in Rome’s outposts. All slaves will be freed under the new government. The question is, how do you get from here to there?

I think it is fair to say that Paul’s attention is focused on what happens within the ekklesia. It seems as though everything happening outside of that fellowship is just a passing and ephemeral reality for him. He, Paul, goes to prison unjustly, some of his friends are tortured or put to death, there are shipwrecks and famines and other mishaps, but he can barely be bothered to talk about all that because he wants to talk about the church. When its members are fighting or mistreating each other, that is a disaster worth discussing at length.

So Paul is miles away from our present-day approach to change. He believes in change completely, but seems disinterested in change that is based on institutional or coercive power. He believes in change that is implicit in the Messiah’s execution and resurrection, that has begun within the walls of the ekklesia, fueled by the power of the Holy Spirit, that will spread as those walls open out to cover the entire world. Not to mention that the Messiah will come back to call out those ekklesia to himself and then, with them, to rule.

That vision of change is precisely the pattern we see in Philemon, in which Paul writes his old friend in a letter carried by that friend’s runaway slave, Onesimus. Onesimus has become a Christian, and (in the process?) a very precious aide to Paul. But there is this little matter of his legal status. Paul sends him back–what courage and trust Onesimus shows, to go carrying the letter. Paul wants Philemon to free Onesimus and send him back to Paul unfettered. (Alternatively, he might want Philemon to give Onesimus to Paul, whereupon Paul would free him.) But that legal transaction–which Paul never actually mentions–is not at the urgent heart of Paul’s appeal. He wants the slave and his master to become brothers, exactly as Paul and Philemon are brothers. He begs Philemon to welcome Onesimus back “as you would welcome me.” (v. 17) He wants them to become partners (v. 6)–as unthinkable a relationship for slaves and masters as anyone could name. He wants them to share in the ekklesia.

And interestingly, he also himself longs to have that kind of relationship with Philemon. For just as a master controls his slave, so Paul, as Philemon’s benefactor (“not to mention that you owe me your very self” (v. 19)), could in Roman society order Philemon to do whatever he asks. He will not make that power play. It would be simpler and more direct, but it would bypass the more needful thing: love. (v. 9)

What about us, today? Can we, in the name of Christ, work to change institutional injustice? As reformers can we fight modern-day slavery, with its allies in sex trafficking, police and courtroom corruption, labor abuse? I feel sure Paul would say yes. For one, we are no longer in the Roman empire. Political power is widely democratized, and there are laws protecting human rights. “If you can gain your freedom, do so,” Paul advises slaves in 1 Corinthians 7:21. As opportunity is given to do good, we are certainly meant to do it. Regarding slavery, Christians did. It was abolished. A little late, but nonetheless.

All the same, Paul’s theory of change ought to challenge us to think bigger. We tend to think that practical and institutional reform is the only way to bring change. But Paul would surely want to enlarge our hopes.

After all, social reformers (many of them Christians, or inspired by Christian ideas) have been working hard for hundreds of years. Have they made progress? Yes. Are there signs that we will ever–let alone soon–reach our destination? No. We will never become the society we are meant to be by that route.

Paul’s grand hopes shine through his letters repeatedly. He believes in the coming kingdom of Jesus, and he knows he has been called to help found the ekklesia that presage it. That ekklesia in principle contains the material both for reform–for its members have their ideals stretched upwards and outwards–and something ultimate. “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters….Just as we have borne the image of the earthly man, so shall we bear the image of the heavenly man…. We will be changed. ‘” (Romans 8: 28, 29; 1 Corinthians 15: 49-52)