The news after Roger Ailes

What will history say about Roger Ailes? It won’t be kind, if the initial reaction to his death is any indication. I’ve seen him described as despicable, a career sexual harasser, a purveyor of conservative garbage information, slimy, dirty, unethical, one of the worst Americans ever, bloodthirsty, and responsible for turning Americans into “a hate-filled, paranoid, untrusting, book-dumb and bilious people whose chief source of recreation is slinging insults and threats at each other online.”

Holy crap, and this was even before he was buried!

Rolling Stone was among the harshest:

Like many con artists, he reflexively targeted the elderly – “I created a TV network for people from 55 to dead,” he told Joan Walsh – where he saw billions could be made mining terrifying storylines about the collapse of the simpler America such viewers remembered, correctly or (more often) incorrectly, from their childhoods.

In this sense, his Fox News broadcasts were just extended versions of the old “ring around the collar” ad – scare stories about contagion. Wisk was pitched as the cure for sweat stains creeping onto your crisp white collar; Fox was sold as the cure for atheists, feminists, terrorists and minorities crawling over your white picket fence.

Roger Ailes was eulogized Saturday as the architect of conservative TV, but while he was the founder of Fox News, he didn’t write its playbook. That was done fifteen years earlier in Virginia Beach, Virginia, the home of the Christian Broadcasting Network, Pat Robertson, and The 700 Club. I know, because I was there and participated in the creation, development, and execution of “TV News With A Different Spirit,” a genius level rewriting of the rules of journalism and marketing to suit a politically conservative audience. There isn’t one strategy or tactic used by Ailes and Fox News that we didn’t pioneer earlier, and it’s vital to our current cultural conundrum that we understand this. That’s because the term right wing media is not only supportive of Republican Party politics but it’s undergirded by a worldview that is entirely Christian of the fundamentalist, evangelical ilk. Zeal always trumps reason with those who practice extreme forms of religion, so it’s not the political conservatism that matters; it’s the Christianity that places itself above reason in its ability to easily govern the lives of participants.

What this means is that arguments by reasonable people are automatically dismissed without consideration, because they are determined to be contrary to the faith. Rationalized responses become fact, regardless of their absurdity, because “God chooses the foolish things of the world to confound (shame) the wise” (1 Corinthians 1:27). Hence, the many references among Evangelicals to Donald Trump as being like Cyrus the Great, the pagan Persian king that God “put in power” in order to free the Jews from Babylon and return them to Jerusalem where they rebuilt the temple. If Trump is a “Cyrus,” then, the thinking goes, it’s unnecessary to excuse his behavior, for God is using him anyway. The end justifies the means, although nobody is saying what that end will be.

…Trump had been elected by God…He was a warrior against the global “demonic agenda”, “raising the warning cry about the unraveling of America.” Trump’s obvious faults and flaws only confirmed the prophecy: Cyrus, like Trump, was powerful, rich, and pagan, not at all godly…

…Many Evangelicals who voted for Trump continue to have an abiding faith in his presidency. Just as Cyrus returned the Jews to Jerusalem, and restored their wealth, so Trump, they fervently believe, will restore a lost world of personal safety, psychological security and material prosperity.

The point is that unless you’re prepared to discuss the Cyrus argument, nothing else matters for those who put Mr. Trump in the White House in the first place. Just because the culture is uncomfortable with arguing religion does not mean that the basis for our differences aren’t essentially religious. The fact that we’ve generally dismissed such debates is what energizes the engine of American conservatism today. It’s what allows poor Republicans to vote against their own best interests and blindly sit by while the GOP deepens the pockets of the haves. The response of Christians is “I don’t care about his character as long as he gives us conservative Supreme Court justices.” To these well-intentioned people, abortion and same-sex marriage are the essence of all that’s wrong with our culture, and, by God, they’re going to fix it.

You can say what you wish about Fox News, but don’t be fooled into thinking there isn’t the constant hum of religious superiority that seeps through all of its programming, for contemporary political conservatism is sustained by evangelical Christianity.

Whatever you think of Roger Ailes, you must also concede that his efforts brought to the surface what had previously been hidden and assumed irrelevant by the progressive culture. Contrary to blaming Ailes for dividing the country, we should thank him for bringing that division into the light, where we might be able to actually do something about it. Actually, I don’t think we have a choice; we simply MUST do something about it in order to bring a sense of unity among us as a people. The problem, of course, is what to do and perhaps moreso, how to do it.

To me, it’s a personal journey that each of us has to make. It just won’t happen overnight in a one-to-many environment, because the “one” always – ALWAYS – begins and ends with self-interest. Neither side in this zero-sum game can “put forth” an unbiased representative to participate in an open debate. This can only lead to same-o, same-o. And this has always been the problem – even perhaps the cause – of our division. Each side instead must challenge, with open minds, its own assumptions, those that undergird what is presented as absolute truth. It is the unfortunate thinking of humans to posit that one cannot be simultaneously just and merciful anymore than one can be simultaneously liberal and conservative.

Meanwhile, we need to hear Christian arguments that challenge the assumptions of the right wing crowd, because that’s where the real battle lies. It’s THE challenge to journalism in the wake of Roger Ailes’ passing.

How ironic that our current president – the beneficiary of all that fundamentalist faith – would be lecturing Muslims in Saudi Arabia this weekend about Islamic fundamentalist extremism.

The Christian church and postmodernism

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is a topic I will be exploring much further in the time ahead.

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Many years ago, I was speaking to executives of a media company in Florida about my views of media and culture. I’ve always used culture to describe the forces impacting media, and I’ve been studying postmodernism or postmodern culture for over fifteen years. I had even named my blog after the term. One of the people in the audience that day spoke up that he was fascinated with my presentation, but that he’d only ever heard the word “postmodernism” in church and had no idea it was anything other than that. He thought it was a theological study of a fresh form of Christianity.

Up until that point, I’d never considered postmodernism to be a topic associated with Christianity, so I started researching the affiliation, which is where I first encountered Leonard Sweet. A quote of his sits at the top of this blog, because I think it’s so spot on. We’ve had conversations, and he’s way smarter than me. However, his understanding of postmodernism is a little different than mine, as is the understanding of a whole host of writers who fall into the category of “emergent” or the Emergent Movement. This, I believe, is what that executive back in Florida was referencing, because the arguments presented in making the case for a new “emerging” church use postmodern themes. One “deconstructs” their faith by going back and revisiting troublesome Christian assumptions. The idea is to then reconstruct that faith in a way that eliminates some of the nonsense of the evangelical Christian experience, including issues like gender equality and making room for gays and lesbians. It closely resembles a shift from Evangelicalism to Ecumenicism, although the energy is different, for it revels in its “newness” and change.

I’m currently a member of an organization that practices a form of this – The Lasting Supper  (TLS)- and I’ve really been enjoying the fellowship. It’s a breath of fresh air led by a remarkable artist, David Hayward, and I feel it’s likely to grow into something significant. Hell, it already is.

But here’s my problem with using the term postmodernism to describe the conflict with Christian tradition and not taking it any further: what’s “reconstructed” is simply another modernist view of an institution, a top-down, male-dominated, mass marketing enterprise that exploits for personal gain a very real search for spiritual belonging. This search is largely a response of intelligent Christians (no, it’s not an oxymoron) to the intolerance and divisiveness we witness today in person of the Christian wing of the Republican Party (or is it the Republican wing of the Christian Party?).

The problem with my view is that I, like many of the Christian writers, represent postmodernism as a new cultural era. The difference is that I view the Internet and the Web as the triggers for this new era, much as the printing press is viewed as shifting culture from one based solely on faith to one based on logic and reason, modernity. That era’s influence is diminishing as horizontal connectivity demolishes modernity’s institutions by directly challenging their authority. The Great Horizontal, as Jay Rosen aptly named it, will ultimately reshape everything, because it disrupts the fundamental protection accorded modernist institutions – hierarchical status earned through credentialing from the hierarchical elite. It’s all just self-serving and prevents any real challenge to the cultural totem pole it represents. This is why The Evolving User Paradigm remains one of the most important essays I wrote under the banner of Reinventing Local Media. Everyday that ONE “experiences” the Web, the disruptive nature of that one grows. This includes the church.

However, I think the biggest difference in the way I view postmodernism and the way it is viewed by these Emergent writers is that they view it as an event that demands a response, while I view it as a very long term shift that nobody really understands today. The moveable type was invented in the fifteenth century. Six hundred years later, and we’ve just begun to truthfully examine the shortcomings of modernity. The Roman Catholic church’s initial response to the printing press was first to try and stop it, then to prohibit printing a Bible without a license, then to shout down the evils of printing, especially erotic novels, then to question the reliability of any translation outside the original, and ultimately giving up with a huff, “The jewel of the elites is now the toy of the laity.” That same lament is echoing once again through the shrinking halls of the professional class, and it’s all just beginning. Culture will make the same mistakes made six hundred years ago, and “the” postmodern church will be a long time developing. Such is the lot of humanity.

Today, for example, the church is only active within the Great Horizontal as it uses the connectivity for mass marketing purposes. Getting the message out is the objective of modernity, while listening is the objective of postmodernity, and the church has never been big on the practice of listening. This is why people are beginning to turn away from the Emergent Movement. The books just aren’t selling as they once did. While I think it might end up in the “denomination” category, it’s producing new “stars” who bathe themselves in the prosperity of managing the new institution. With that has come the inevitable self-centeredness, scandal, and bullying, the traps of human nature that seem to follow those at the top of any human hierarchy. As it transforms from movement to institution, it becomes just another mechanism with which people who claim unique understanding can arrange their lives and the lives of those who choose to follow. The shame and humiliation that honest searchers feel today – because they’ve been duped once again – are testimonies to diminishing power of anyone who wishes a seat at the top of the heap.

Authority in anything postmodern must be spread out across the culture or subculture for these very reasons, and that’s where Christianity has completely missed it. It’s interesting to me, for example, that Christianity has been at the forefront of every communications breakthrough in history, except the World Wide Web. That’s because it is so different than anything that came before it. It rejects mass media, because it doesn’t present as a theatre. It’s not one-to-many; it’s many-to-many. We’re no longer captives of those who have the power to influence from a single location. Television advertising is shrinking, because it’s no longer as effective as it used to be. This will continue, and those – including modernist forms of Christianity – who cling to mass marketing as THE operative infrastructure representing their mission.

Welcome to the postmodern era. Now what are we going to do with all that connectivity?

The Emergent Movement’s big failure

dragonfly1Let us forever remember the words of Henry Adams, Chaos is the way of nature, but order is the dream of man.

As I’ve written over the last fifteen years, another word for chaos is change. Change is the norm for the twenty-first century, where equilibrium is a constantly moving target. Hence, we all must change, personally and professionally, in order to adapt, for the rules in a world of change are different from those in an ordered universe. The Internet is the backbone of postmodernity, the single most misunderstood and misapplied term of this century, and something about which I’ve been writing since the beginning. When Kevin Kelly wrote his seminal essay “We are the Web” in 2003, he wasn’t speaking metaphorically. We – the people – ARE the Web.

I used to write about media and proclaimed that the original sin of newspapers – the one that led to the downfall of the whole bloody institution – was reinventing themselves for the Web in their own image. This was a dreadful and costly mistake, for the Internet is not an infrastructure for mass marketing. All the terms associated with the newspaper industry come from processes and systems created for the printing and selling of newspapers to a mass, including the advertising that sustained the whole thing. It is both understandable and reasonable to assume this was the mission when forced to face the disruptive nature of the Web, but it missed what’s really been taking place: a dramatic retooling of the levers of commerce that vastly outperform the two fundamentals of mass marketing: reach and frequency. This is a message that newspapers rejected without serious consideration.

As I shift my focus from media to religion, I’m finding this same dynamic – identically – occurring within the institution of religion – Christianity in particular.

The last fifteen years have seen a ton of books by authors representing a movement that’s called the emerging church. “Emergers” are those changelings – such as dragonflies and butterflies – that live half their lives in one world and then “emerge,” transform to creatures who live in another. The movement is a response by a group of people to what they identify as the failings of “the church” in a postmodern world. The view that the church has failed extends far beyond this group, but Emergents (a subset of the emerging church), led by Brian McLaren, are the most popular and organized.

Their view, however, of postmodernism as a cultural era is badly limited, and this opens the door for the same error that newspapers made: you cannot reinvent church for the postmodern era by doing so in the modern era format. The Emergent Movement has planted church buildings and created new hierarchies, neither of which belong in the same sentence with “postmodern.” Despite attempts at adjusting theology and rules that better fit diverse interests in the twenty-first century, they lock themselves into a top-down paradigm designed to serve an archaic model of western culture. This will be its downfall. In fact, a well-known New York literary expert told me a few weeks ago that publishers are already backing away from these books, because they aren’t selling as well as they once did.

Does a nymph emerge from the water as a new nymph? No, it’s a different creature. Does a caterpillar emerge from its chrysalis as a new caterpillar? No, it’s a butterfly. Both of these emergers can actually fly! There’s nothing even remotely similar to their former state. “No one pours new wine into old wineskins.”

Many Christian writers will view the decline of the Emergent Movement simply as God “rejecting” heresy, but that is shallow and self-serving. There will be postmodern Christianity, but modernist Christianity – based on tradition – will continue also. One doesn’t “replace” the other; it simply modifies the old to better fit the culture. We’ll let culture figure out which one better fits.

So how does one reinvent church for postmodernity? It’s an important question that will take many years to better understand and adapt. It will likely happen long after I’m gone, but here are ten thoughts to begin the conversation:

  1. It will be horizontal, and God, the Holy Spirit will be our focus. This is, after all, the third branch of the Trinity and what Jesus departed to give us. It is a constant here, and a constant now, and it is spread out across the limitations of time and distance. The net facilitates this, just as it has disrupted or already transformed all of life in the twenty-first century.
  2. Community will be redefined. From the very beginning of the Christian church, assembling together has been geography-driven (“the church at Corinth,” etc.). The net overcomes geography, and communities of interest are springing up everywhere. In internet parlance, these are called “niche verticals,” and they are rewriting how and where we consume information. Facebook, for example, redefines community in many ways.
  3. Its mission will be “here and now” focused. The Holy Spirit isn’t confined to Sunday morning, and neither will be postmodern Christianity. This will require, for example, rethinking worship, for the chill bumps of Sunday morning contemporary worship are confined only to those in attendance. We’ll also have to rethink the Eucharist and how that can be administered to those gathered in a networked world.
  4. It will be participatory and self-governing. There can be no FORMAL hierarchical organizational structure, for it is the doorway to mischief and THE principle objection of modernity. It is sloppy thinking to believe that any postmodern “institution” can be top-down. God the Father still exists, but not as the be-all model for the church. This is why I always point to AA when people ask what a postmodern institution looks like. It shouldn’t function, according to traditional management theory, but it does.
  5. There will be no “rules;” a common need will drive us. Absent an enforcement authority, there can be no rules, but as noted above, that doesn’t necessarily mean chaos. The word chaos, as defined by modernist thinking, is abhorrent and cannot be permitted, but postmodernity sees past that and embraces the idea that common purpose and accompanying manifestos can keep us together.
  6. It will be collaborative and inclusive. No one can be dismissed based solely on those attributes that influence people coming together in the natural. It’s a lot harder for me to dismiss or dehumanize another person when I’m not sitting next to them, where they might “rub off” on me.
  7. It will be connected. It’s unlikely this connectivity will be universal, for there’s still that “birds of a feather” thing, even though the flocking together is no longer governed by vicinity. Obvious differences will still appear and have to be considered, but although people, like snowflakes, are all different, we’re still all human beings, and the ability to independently deal with our humanity will be our core motivator.
  8. Blogs will be more important than books. Think about it. If connectivity is our form, then the need for daily bread is part and parcel of that connection. Blogs were created by the network’s originators as the principal tool by which connected people (the Great Horizontal) pass along information. This innovation did away with the role of gatekeeper by displaying such information in reverse chronological order, putting new entries at the top of the distribution flow. The whole thing was designed for aggregation across a constantly moving timeline. Online information displays this way, including social media outlets. The postmodern church will be the same way.
  9. The task of members will be to be more human. This differs from the illusionary task of modernity’s church, which is to help people be more spiritual in order to gain a future goal. This, it turns out, is not the real challenge of Life, for the presence of the Holy Spirit assumes we are already spiritual, otherwise the connection would be impossible. The Kingdom of Heaven is at hand, not down the road somewhere. This alters the command and control mechanism of the modernist church’s hierarchy, because it no longer solely possesses the ability to determine and grant one’s eternity. The Holy Spirit is perfectly capable of that in the here and now.
  10. It will be culturally disruptive. Christianity’s ability to impact culture has always been through forcibly herding citizens into the pen of its laws and order. What we see in our world today is all the evidence we need to question the morality of such, and this, too, is one of the energies empowering postmodernism. The lasting way to influence culture is from the inside-out, and that will be the righteous consequence of postmodern Christianity. Joining our connected community will be based on the attraction it represents, not the mass marketing of some special lifestyle, guarantee of prosperity, or entryway into the gates of heaven. It will be knowledge that we are able to thrive physically, emotionally, and intellectually within the chaos of constant change.

We cannot overlook the development of new technologies, such as virtual reality and holograms, tools which will naturally advance the network and demand our continued willingness to adapt to postmodernity. Moreover, we must always consider the Evolving User Paradigm, because sophistication in the use of the Web grows with every day that a person uses it.

Please look at the above and think about what you might be able to add to it. Don’t be like the newspapers that rejected change, because they were so enamored with their existing model that they couldn’t imagine it would ever fall apart.

Finding order amidst chaos

scalesjusticeThe Bible teaches that God is completely just and completely merciful, which is hard for us to grasp. To humans, the concepts of justice and mercy are a zero sum game. It’s impossible for us to be BOTH just and merciful at the same time in judging the morality of any particular event, situation, person, or experience. One usually contradicts the other in the sphere of human order.

I’m reminded of the old racial redlining question about a white family selling a home in a white neighborhood to a black family. Who is the neighbor the white family is supposed to “love?” the black family or the remaining residents who believe their property values will go down? The just answer may be different than the merciful answer, but it certainly will be one or the other, depending on your bias or worldview.

Is it possible to be both right and wrong at the same time?

This is why human logic and reasoning are such poor vehicles for studying the spiritual world. An anthropomorphized God is less troublesome, and so we put Him on a distant throne and worship Him from afar. It’s also easier just to conclude that the world of the spirit “doesn’t exist” than to venture off into the unmeasurable. This is the great challenge for the postmodern era and why I’m so thrilled to be offering ideas here for your perusal.

Those Christians who preach and teach about postmodernism – even as a cultural era – often only go so far as to use the postmodern term “deconstruction” to define the individualized process of shifting one’s faith from a distant God to one that’s present with us. The problem with this is what’s presented on the other side of such a shift, because it’s really just more of the same. As a group, there seems to be an overarching attempt to create new hierarchies to replace the old, and this is a million miles from postmodernism. It’s the pouring of new wine into old wineskins, and this is a profound failing of the so-called Emergent Church. If the pulpit is a modernist control tool, why then are we elevating so-called “leaders” of the movement? It is doomed to fail, if we are, in fact, entering into a new era of epistemology – “I participate, therefore I understand.” Listening to a sermon may be an act of participation on some level, but there is absolutely nothing postmodern about it.

There’s no such thing as being “a little postmodern.” It’s like the cliche of being a little pregnant. Borrowing from it to better your modernist self is absurd, regardless of the motive.

My point is that many of those who write about “postmodernism” are merely seeking a way out of the chaotic mess that is postmodernism. That, I’m afraid, is just another symbol of modernity, as stated best by Henry Adams in the early twentieth century: “Chaos is the way of nature, but order is the dream of man.” As we’re discovering in the ongoing debate about the American dream, our way of order serves only the top layer of the culture. Maybe it’s justice over mercy but more likely, justice absent mercy. Regardless, it is the result of modernity’s logic and the principal reason that our connectivity is driving a new era. When the haves speak the old French saying Noblesse Oblige (nobility obligates), they are being quite self-serving in assigning a form of mercy to themselves, because they reserve for themselves the right to determine how much “mercy” is required of them. This is one of the core debates that divide us as a nation today.

The road ahead is going to be very rough, bumpy, and full of the sinkholes you might expect from chaos. The institutions of the West won’t survive without complete reinvention, and that is the task we face in the twenty-first century. Thusly, the creation of new hierarchies to replace the old is nothing more than a form of masturbation, which while perhaps satisfying to the actor is nonetheless disgusting to anybody else in the vicinity.