Friday, August 22, 2008

Getting the News

There is a lot of talk out there about how biased the news agencies are in the US. "Conservatives" talk about "liberal bias," and "liberals" talk about "conservative bias."

First, I think the labels "liberal" and "conservative" are completely useless and misleading -- except that they tell more about the one using them than about those they're labeling! The only thing "conservative" means is "that person is somewhere to my right" on the ideological or theological scale, and "liberal" means only "that person is somewhere to my left" on one (or both) of those scales. So, if you really want people to know where YOU are, go around labeling others! Let me know how that works out.

Second, in the historical sense the word "liberal" has functioned as the opposite of "conservative." So, what is a "conservative"? Well, it's someone who wants to conserve something -- some tradition he or she thinks is important. "Liberals," on the other hand, are those who want "tradition" to go away and want everyone to "think for themselves." This is what the philosophical movement known as "The Enlightenment" preached: "think for yourself," which Kant said meant to think independently of tradition, community, church, political authorities, religious authorities and even the Bible (witness his famous book, Religion Within The Bounds of Reason Alone). This "Enlightenment" itself became a tradition, of course (see the works of Alasdair MacIntyre to see this history laid out clearly) -- to the point that the very concept "think for yourself" became completely unquestionable.

But, what it meant was "think without tradition." Those who consciously and conscientiously thought within the tradition were the "conservatives" who wanted to conserve the tradition. Those who purported to "think for themselves" were the liberals.

So, since in our culture the concept of thinking for oneself has become part of our intellectual and cognitive furniture, we by definition are liberals. Now, in our country there are indeed a variety of types of liberals: there are "right-wing" liberals like Rush Limbaugh, and "left-wing" liberals like Al Gore, but they're all still liberals because they all claim to be thinking for themselves without the benefit of tradition. In our country we think everyone has to figure it all out for themselves.

The truth is that no one really can do that. We all rely on the thoughts of others, whether it's great minds of the past (like Kant, or Thomas Aquinas or Einstein), or just the books we've read. We all think within communities, and communities have histories that are called "traditions." The Enlightenment itself became a tradition! We learn what it means to be "rational" because of traditions of thought, and we learn what counts as evidence. In essence, we learn what is a "good thought" and what is not a good thought. These things are just handed on to us as "the way things work." They are part of our intellectual and rational furniture.

So, OF COURSE the news agencies have biases! Though they want to claim they are completely unbiased, to be unbiased is impossible. And in the United States, even the "liberal" news agencies (if such there are) are still very much slanted toward providing the news that seems relevant to people in the US, and that is generally pro-American. It's the same with the "liberals" as with the "conservatives." They all provide news that is biased toward the viewers -- toward citizens of the United States. Even NPR ("National Public Radio"), which I like very much and listen to almost daily, and may be the best news agency in the US, is biased.

So, since I don't trust ANY news agency to give me all the relevant news or all of the details of any one story that may be important, I make it a point to read news written by non-Americans. I have three RSS feeds on my web browser: NPR, the BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation), and the Arab news service Al Jazeera (yes, the one that publishes Osama bin Laden's videos every now and then).

In addition, I pay attention to "Alternet," an organization that is decidedly liberal in its politics and ethics, but frequently gives a side to stories that you won't typically get on major US news programs. Frankly, it's often refreshing, though very much biased against religious views.

So: get the news. Don't believe everything you hear on the US news outlets -- they're owned by major corporations and they serve their owners' interests, not the interests of the American people. By the same token, don't believe everything you hear on NPR, BBC, Alternet or Al Jazeera! But at least give yourself a chance to hear different points of view so you can make an informed decision. One thing traditionally valued by Christians is good information, and loving our enemies by hearing their voices.

Sunday, August 10, 2008


Glibity. Probably not a real word. On the other hand, it certainly seems to be a leading characteristic for worship leaders. It seems that the primary quality for a worship leader is glibity = the ability to get up in front of an audience and not put people to sleep within ten minutes.

Not a bad quality, of course. But when it becomes primary, or even solitary, we gots problems. And oh, do we gots problems!

We want our worship NOT to lead us into contact with God, but to be "worship lite": we want to praise God from a great, great distance. We want to maintain our dignity! True worship might rob us of dignity because we might be forced to do something, well, UNDIGNIFIED!

I can just hear the protests: "God wouldn't ask us to do anything undignified!" Which is, essentially, to believe that God is a good American who wants and requires a good American response to him -- a good American encounter that is superficial and ends with "lets do lunch!"

But I see Abraham, asked to sacrifice that which was most precious to him. I see David dancing around the Ark of the Covenant. I see Isaiah falling on his face, sure that God should kill him. I see Peter bowing down in the bottom of his fishing boat and asking Jesus to go away. I see the apostle John even bowing before an angel -- not even GOD! -- and having to be told not to do that (so: even being in the near vicinity of holiness ought to cause us fear!).

But instead, we prefer glibity -- because we don't want to encounter the living God. We do "worship lite," then do lunch.

It means we don't take God seriously. First, we probably don't even really believe God will show up. Does anything really happen when the church gathers for worship? Or are we just meeting together because God told us to do it and we have to get our card punched each week? I don't think God is about that. God wants us to worship, not because he has an ego problem and needs our praise once a week or so in order to maintain his fragile ego, but because he wants to be with us -- and not with us in the usual manner (along the lines of "lo, I am with you always"), but in some kind of special -- in fact UNusual -- way. But most Protestants stopped believing that long, long ago (in the bid to reject the RC doctrine of transubstantiation, most of us decided that Jesus doesn't really show up in the Lord's Supper at all; did the baby go out with the bathwater?).

Second, we probably don't believe that God's grace and love are large enough to allow him to show up and pay any attention at all to us. I mean, after all, we're a pretty stinky people, right? And God should probably kill us all because of our sin, right?

Right. He should. We deserve it. On the other hand, his grace and love ARE big enough to allow him to forgive and to pay attention to our feeble, paltry efforts to praise him. It is WE who have the ego problem, then: we think this whole thing depends on us! We've made OURSELVES the centerpiece of the whole operation, and Luther's dictum is true again: homo incurvatus in se (roughly, we "curve" everything back on ourselves, again and again making ourselves the center of the universe).

I love how Annie Dillard put it: if we really believed God, we'd come to church wearing crash helmets. We are, she says, like children playing on the floor with our chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. Do we really have any idea of who God is -- the God we ask to be present with us?

But we don't wear crash helmets. We want our worship to be lighthearted and glib, with just a faint whiff or goldleaf thin layer of holiness in order to make us think we've done something right.

Please do away with glibity and begin to employ the reverence due to the Creator! I'm so tired of going to church and coming away feeling like I've been to a Rotary business meeting (with apologies to Rotary Club members!) or to a group hug and/or group therapy program. Those things can be ok, but the only healing for what really ails us is the encounter with God. And that will force us to our knees or flat on our faces. It won't be pretty, and it won't be glib.