July 30, 2008

Read More, Blog Less

As I said before, one of my goals is to read more.
That might actually mean less blogging.
My blog posts are way too long.
They should be shorter.
I'll read a book now.
You should too.
The end.

July 25, 2008

Feeding the Monsters: How I Support My Favorite Corporations

I love information. For some reason, I've always had an interest in facts, trivia and general knowledge- the kind of stuff you might find in an almanac or on Wikipedia, which is possibly my favorite website. I like to read mini-profiles of the world's movers and shakers. I like to know how the world works, why it works (or doesn't work) a certain way, what people think and where their ideas came from. I like to know who said what and why they might have said it.

I also believe there are reasons that help explain why people do the things they do. Their reasons may not be simple, logical or popular, but there are always factors beneath the surface that help to place a person's words or actions into context. If someone presents an opinion that is new to me, I hope that I am always gracious enough to find out the reasons behind their words before I decide whether or not I agree. I always seem to have more questions because the 'big picture' is very important to me.

But sometimes information can be scary. There are certain things I just don't want to know. How many calories and grams of sugar are in tonight's dessert? How did the meat and vegetables on my dinner plate get from the farm to the grocery store? How much water do I waste in the shower every year? Who makes the clothes and shoes that I wear every day? What were the factory conditions like and how much were the laborers paid? Who is getting rich off my consumer spending habits? How many children died yesterday from preventable disease? How much of the injustice and exploitation in the world am I directly or indirectly responsible for? Don't tell me the answers because I don't want to know.

The phenomenon of globalization has made us more aware of how no single person or nation is an isolated island. All of humanity is interconnected not just by technology, but by the global marketplace that plays a role in everything from the cost of oil to the scarcity of food. The demand for resources can trigger innovation and collaboration, but it also can lead to war and environmental degradation. Thanks to the mixed bag of globalization, a host of transnational companies have arisen to provide goods for wealthier nations at the expense of poorer countries who supply the labor. Massive, multi-national corporations like Nike, McDonalds, Wal-Mart and Shell Oil can exercise extraordinary power through leveraging trade agreements that are necessary to keep profits up. Sadly, the production and distribution of these goods often results in pollution, deforestation, labor rights violations and infringement on cultural practices in developing countries.

In her anti-globalization bestseller entitled No Logo: Taking Aim at the Brand Bullies, Canadian journalist Naomi Klein explored the negative effects of brand-oriented corporate activity such as pervasive marketing targeted at increasingly younger audiences, the elimination of competition and the exploitation of cheap foreign labor. The critically acclaimed 2003 documentary The Corporation (also Canadian, hmm...) even compared the profile of the modern, profit-driven corporation to that of a clinically-diagnosed psychopath. After all, corporations are known to demonstrate callous unconcern for the feelings of others, an incapacity to maintain enduring relationships, a reckless disregard for the safety of others, deceitfulness (repeated lying to and deceiving of others for profit), incapacity to experience guilt, and failure to conform to the social norms with respect to lawful behaviors!

More frightening that the thought of an evil, merciless corporation invading my home is the reality that I have already invited them in and given them the run of the place. How could this be since I don't drink, smoke, drive an SUV or consume super-sized Big Mac meals on a daily basis? Does the fact that my wife buys all-natural fair trade cloth diapers and organic soap count for anything?

Time Warner Inc., the world's largest media and entertainment conglomerate, has the distinct privilege of being Hawaii's only local cable provider. Every time I pick up the remote, they have a reason to smile. But television is just the tip of the iceberg. If I pop in one of my favorite DVDs like All the President's Men, Chariots of Fire, The Mission, L.A. Confidential or The Fugitive, guess what? These movies all belong to Warner Bros. which is part of the Time Warner "family" that also includes box office cash cows like the Batman and Harry Potter franchises. Even my beloved Lord of the Rings movie trilogy cannot escape the clutches of Time Warner Inc. (formerly known as AOL Time Warner) since they own New Line Cinema too! What about artsy "independent" films in my collection like Before Sunset or Good Night and Good Luck? I was disturbed to learn that both are distributed by Warner Independent Pictures- an oxymoronic name if there ever was one. With this level of influence and control, it's easy to feel like you're trapped in The Matrix- another WB movie by the way!

But there's more. How often have I used MapQuest to get directions or visited CNN.com to catch up on the news? Same corporation, folks. I don't collect DC Comics, watch Looney Tunes or use AOL instant messenger, but those who do are inadvertently feeding the same monster. Time Warner practically owns the entire stack of waiting-room magazines because Time, People, InStyle, Real Simple, Sports Illustrated, Entertainment Weekly, Life and Fortune are all subsidiaries of this corporate giant. Even music acts ranging from Relient K to Eric Clapton, Matchbox Twenty to Ladysmith Black Mambazo are all part of their empire.

Don't worry, I am generously spreading the love to other corporations as well. You probably won't catch me watching Bill O'Reilly on Fox News Channel, but Rupert Murdoch still gets my money in other ways. Did you know that in addition to owning MySpace, The Wall Street Journal and every TV channel and movie studio with "Fox" in its name, News Corp is also the parent company of publishers like HarperCollins and Zondervan? So now I can't even pick up a book by C.S. Lewis, Philip Yancey, Dallas Willard or Rob Bell without selling my soul to 'the man'? Geez Louise!

Then there's the "family-oriented" Walt Disney Company. If they didn't already reel you in as a child, they'll be sure to entice you as a grown up. Even if you've managed to avoid Disney cartoons, toys, books and theme parks, you've still got to watch out for movie studios like Miramax, Touchstone and Pixar, all of whom are happy to take your dollars. How could anyone not like Finding Nemo or Ratatouille? Guess who's behind Pirates of the Caribbean, the Narnia movies and TV shows like LOST? The answer: M-I-C-K-E-Y M-O-U-S-E! The same goes for movies like Good Will Hunting, The Insider, Hero and Finding Neverland, which were all decent flicks in my opinion. For all the sports fans who enjoy ESPN (either on TV, radio, the web or magazine), we too have Uncle Walt to thank.

Let's move on to NBC Universal, which is owned by General Electric. If I watch shows like Meet the Press, Late Night with Conan O'Brien or The Office, I'm supporting the same conglomerate that controls film studios like Universal Pictures and Focus Features. Some of my favorite movies including To Kill A Mockingbird, Do the Right Thing, Schindler's List, The Bourne Identity, The Pianist, Lost in Translation, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and The Constant Gardener belong to this parent company. As the 6th largest corporation in the world, the executives and shareholders probably don't really care if I visit one of the Universal Studios Theme Parks, watch the Olympics on NBC or buy a GE refrigerator because they're getting into my pockets either way.

So there you have it. I have done my share to make corporations rich. Even if I threw out my
entire DVD collection and never darkened the door of another movie theater or big box store, I will make plenty of other consumer choices benefiting corporations who provide me with everything from light bulbs to cheddar cheese. If we will buy it, they will make it. This very blog is owned by Google, a company with close to 20,000 employees and revenues of over $16 billion dollars last year. Such is the world we live in; an uphill battle for farmer's markets, family owned restaurants and mom & pop stores. Even Naomi Klein's No Logo book was published by Alfred A. Knopf, a company that is owned by the gigantic Random House, the world's largest English-language trade book publisher.

There are some things I just don't want to know.

July 17, 2008

Can Blogs and Message Boards Change the World?

I've got a spring in my step today because my soap-boxy letter to the editor was printed in this morning's Honolulu Advertiser. Hooray! As you may have guessed, the topic was the proposed rail transit system (no surprises there), a local news story that has taken many twists and turns in recent days. As I predicted last month, the level of interest in this controversial public works project has soared to new SuperFerry-eclipsing heights which has made it an even more compelling debate to follow.

In the last week alone, the Advertiser has ran at least 11 major articles (most of them on the front page) covering the turbulent clash over the City's rail project. This doesn't even include opinion columns, commentaries, editorials and letters to the editor. On the newspaper's web site, citizen pundits (myself included) have gone full-throttle by posting sharp and fiery reactions of their own. Almost every article on the rail topic has generated well over 100 online comments while some articles (like yesterday's headline story about the anti-rail petition's faulty wording) have even provoked upwards of 320 responses. Taken together, we're talking about more than 1,500 rail transit comments in the span of 7 days!

Granted, many of these entries are posted by a small number of zealous people who submit multiple comments (again, I'm guilty as charged). However, I would imagine that the high number of responses represents only a small percentage of those that read the articles and skim through the reactions to see what people are saying. The typical pro-rail crowd includes the faceless ranks of SugarHippie, kailuaresident, Sheml, rblanton, McLovinTheBS and HapaBear (that would be me) while the anti-rail regulars consist of jaono, Kirkland, honjazzman56, Opposed and Triphesas. I'm not sure whether I'm proud or embarrassed to admit that I've posted 15 pro-rail comments in the last week, but it's hard to pull yourself away when someone quotes you out of context or puts forward an argument that can be easily refuted. Such is the thrill of spirited debate (or the compulsion to have the last word).

After sending off a couple of bleary-eyed pro-rail comments late the other night, my ever-patient wife asked me sleepily, "So are you done changing the world now?" Terrific question. Coming from her, I don't expect anything less. Even in my drowsy state, I was more than ready to dispense a full comment box-worth of answers to any anonymous transit opponent I might encounter in the blogosphere, but I didn't have an easy answer for my wife.

I'd like to think that I can change the world through the communication of ideas, although blogging and message board rants might not be the most effective ways to share them. Which begs the question: Do comments posted in online forums really change anything? How many people who browse through those so-called "reader reaction" pages have already made up their minds? Could the appeal and promise of interactive online dialogue be mostly just an illusion? Is posting your comment or opinion an effective form of web-based advocacy? Or are message boards and news article comment boxes just a ploy to generate more web traffic and advertising dollars for corporations who laugh all the way to the bank? Will my drop in the bucket letter to the editor play any role in the transit debate's outcome?

I will confess that I spend way too much time crafting comments to post on blogs (including my own) and newspaper message boards. The question is why? Do I offer my comments so I can hear people's responses to them, or is it mostly about loving the sound of my own voice? What's the difference between someone indulgently posing in front of mirror to see how good they look from every angle and someone who blogs or posts comments so they can see their name and opinions printed on the pages of a newspaper or website? Maybe blogging is more narcissistic than I thought!

In my very first blog post back in March, I explained why I was starting a blog over joining Facebook. Way back then, my thinking was that that blogging would be more about ideas and reflection instead of a self-centered "popularity contest" built around social networking and accumulating friends like boy scout patches or "pieces of flair" for my online identity. Now that I've had 4 months to experiment with the blogging phenomenon, I'm starting to re-think the whole concept and I'm wondering if it's actually blogging that is more self-focused whereas Facebook (still haven't tried it yet) could potentially be more outward-focused since it enables you to become more connected and aware of others' lives, at least in theory.

I suppose that blogging itself has already changed the world in some ways, just as the course of history was forever altered by technological innovations from the printing press to the typewriter. But even humanity's most clever inventions like the automobile or the microwave have had their drawbacks. I still believe in changing the world through ideas, but as Ghandi said, "We must be the change we wish to see in the world."

It's hard to imagine Ghandi having a blog...

July 10, 2008

What's Up with the News?

Is it just me, or has the "real" news gotten super boring recently? How did things become so dry and dull all of a sudden? Is it because the Hillary vs. Barack primary race took us for such a roller coaster ride that we're just spoiled and bloodthirsty for more excitement? I'm sorry, but Obama vs. McCain doesn't have the same level of intrigue or suspense- not yet anyway. I can only handle so many reports on salmonella jalapenos, economic gloom, gas prices, food shortages, natural disasters, Beijing Olympics controversy and the Iraq war. It's not that these events are not significant, but there is a limit to the number of stories I can stomach about factories closing down and famines in the Third World.

I never thought I would say this, but I think I'm actually more interested in local news right now than national and international news! It's painful to hear myself say such a dastardly thing. A year ago, I would have considered this statement to be a form of current affairs "blasphemy." How could city ordinances and neighborhood board meetings be more important than what happens in the halls of Congress or the United Nations? Why should a local parade make the front page when people are dying by the thousands in Africa? I never thought I would be one of those people that tuned in after the commercial break to hear about "tips for traveling with children" and other non-news stories. "Give me the real news!" I would say.

Why have I changed? Maybe it's because I have a kid now or maybe it's because I've lived in the same quiet suburb for close to 4 consecutive years. In any case, it appears that I'm not the news purist I once fashioned myself to be. In yesterday's paper, I found myself reading the "Central Oahu People" insert to find out about recent arrests made in Wahiawa as well as a First Hawaiian Bank Foundation grant of $25,000 for construction and renovation of a neighborhood church in Mililani. Thanks to the public controversy surrounding Honolulu's rail transit project, I have even learned the names of all 9 members of our City Council! How did traffic accidents, local burglaries and shopping center rennovations ever get so interesting? Am I a true "local" now?

Perhaps a brief history of my news consumption journey is in order. Like many typical kids, the Sunday comics used to be the only part of the newspaper I would ever touch. When my dad bought me some baseball cards and taught me how to interpret all the box score abbreviations and statistics, I started to read the sports section. Eventually, I figured out how to look up movie times and read reviews of the latest films when they opened. My news digest throughout high school was little more than sports and entertainment, with a few major stories thrown in such as the O.J. trial and the Lewinsky scandal. I also subscribed to "wholesome" magazines like Breakaway and Campus Life, but it would be tomfoolery to suggest there was any news content in there unless you included feature stories on Christian dating advice or interviews with Petra, a legendary band that pioneered the Christian rock genre with not-so-subtle album titles like Petra Means Rock.

A "Foundations of Politics" class I took during my freshman year in college required that I read The New York Times' front section every weekday which was more of an ego boost than an educational exercise that I could actually appreciate at the time. The intellectual benefits of the class, like much of my college experiences, lay dormant until after finished school and had time to put the pieces together. The 2000 Presidential primary season went completely over my head and all I knew was that Al Gore was silly for claiming to have invented the Internet. No wonder he lost the election (...wait a second). The Florida recount was interesting and suspenseful for a while, but most of the significance was lost on me because I was still submerged in the sports pages trying to improve my fantasy football acumen.

As I mentioned in a previous post, my post-graduation news internship at WGN radio exposed me to the complex world of politics, economics and social inequality. I was able to observe the 2004 primary season up close and part of my job was to dissect the campaign rhetoric in order to extract sound bytes from speeches and press conferences. I still remember John Kerry winning the nomination on Super Tuesday, the Madrid train bombings, the graphic images from Fallujah, Condi Rice testifying before the 911 Commission, Donald Rumsfeld deflecting questions about Abu Graib and Scott McClellan explaining why WMD's we not part of the rationale for war.

Interestingly enough, I also remember being in the newsroom on Illinois' primary election night in March 2004 (shame on me for not voting that day) when some guy named Barack Obama won the nomination to run for the U.S. Senate. It's fascinating to think that his now-famous keynote speech at the Democratic National Convention that year was delivered while he was still just a lowly state senator, "a skinny kid with a funny name." Even in Illinois, many people didn't know who he was until that moment. I remember playing fly-on-the-wall during the many heated off-air debates between the conservative and liberal reporters at the station, but I can guarantee that no one in that radio newsroom thought Obama could be on the verge of being elected President in 2008. Makes you wonder what things will be like in 2012- the return of Romney or Huckabee? A run by Bobby Jindal or John Thune? Half the fun is in the speculation.

It's hard to believe that 4 years have gone by since I paced those Windy City streets to and from the Metra station at Madison and Canal. So much has happened in the world. For me, the year 2004 marked the beginning of a more serious personal interest in the national and international news scene. Thanks to one of those limited-time-only promotion offers, I even subscribed to The Economist for a couple years before recognizing that although it ranks among the most refined and informative news periodicals in existence, some of the content went beyond my level of sophistication, not to mention my budget thanks to a subscription price of $120 a year! Since the headlines of recent days have been relatively uninteresting, I've decided to reflect on the events of the last 4 years by composing a couple verses to the tune of Billy Joel's "We Didn't Start the Fire." Sing along with me...

YouTube, Harry Potter, rising oil, falling dollar
Rumsfeld, immigration, Condoleeza Rice
Hybrid cars, housing bubble, Don Imus got in trouble
Darfur, Hezbollah, Beckham and Posh Spice

(musical interlude)

Podcasts, FaceBook, Idol's got a new Cook
Sarkozy, Gordon Brown, Fidel Castro stepping down
Gitmo convoluted, Saddam executed
New Orleans' levees broke, everyone left town


Tsunamis, Netflix, Kim Jong Il's latest tricks
Brokeback, Blu-Ray, Jeremiah Wright
John Kerry's flip flop, Red Sox back on top
New pope, troop surge, Benazir's last fight

Mac versus PC, House Speaker Pelosi
Terri Schiavo, craigslist, Barack and Michelle bump fists
CIA leak case, Tour De France disgrace
Myanmar, Congo war, Mugabe and MySpace


July 3, 2008

A "New" Way to Share the Gospel: The 4 Spiritual... Circles?

The illustration on the left is probably very familiar to you if you are an evangelical Christian in America. The famous bridge diagram showing how the cross of Christ bridges the infinite gap between God and humanity has been used millions of times in recent decades as a concise way to explain the essentials of the Christian faith concerning salvation. It would be interesting to find out the percentage of "born again" Christians who would identify this diagram (or something like it) as an important part of their journey of faith. It is estimated that over 2.5 billion copies have been printed of The Four Spiritual Laws tract since it was first created in 1965 by Bill Bright, founder of Campus Crusade for Christ. In terms of evangelistic preaching and outreach in the 20th century, the bridge diagram is right up there with the "Sinner's Prayer" and the The Four Spiritual Laws as one of the most commonly used tools to communicate the gospel to modern audiences.

But what about
post-modern audiences? To what extent should we care how they perceive our communication of the gospel message? Are we allowed to change the diagram to "contextualize" it better for the 21st century or would this just be a relativistic accommodation to the surrounding culture? What if we wanted to create a diagram that was more about transformational discipleship and less about a one-time decision? How would such a diagram be expanded to include more about the Christian life on earth and not just life after death? If both Christian community and individual conversion are central to the gospel, how could this be illustrated in napkin-sketch form? Should we throw out the bridge diagram altogether? And replace it with what? As you might imagine, there are a variety of opinions on the merits and shortcomings of the beloved bridge diagram.

Napkin sketches aren't always a bad way to communicate complex truths. I recently read
an interview in Christianity Today about an innovative but simple gospel presentation that is called "The Big Story" by James Choung, a 30-something who ministers to postmodern college students with InterVarsity in San Diego. Choung says he wanted to communicate "a gospel that describes something more than just about getting to heaven. It's a gospel that's more transformational, communal and missional- something closer to what Jesus taught." And so he came up with a postmodern/missional version of the traditional bridge diagram, but instead of the 4 spiritual laws, it's a diagram with 4 circles, with each "world" following the Biblical narrative of creation (designed for good), fall (damaged by evil), redemption (restored for better) and mission (sent together to heal).

So what does this "4 circles" diagram look like and how does it explain the gospel? What you see on the right is the finished illustration. I thought about trying to explain all the steps myself, but it's always much better to go back to the original source. Click here to watch a video of James doing a 3-minute version of "The Big Story" and here's a link to his write-up if you would like a more detailed reading of the presentation. I can't emphasize enough that you have to see the presentation or read the write-up before you draw any conclusions about the diagram.

For what it's worth, here's my take on it. Although it's difficult to be 100% systematic theology-proof in a 3-minute gospel presentation, I like James' diagram just as much as the bridge illustration because it gets at the purpose of being transformed participants in the Kingdom of God, a journey that begins (rather than ends) with the decision to accept Jesus as Lord and Savior. Like any diagram, "The Big Story" is imperfect and does not fully address the realities of heaven & hell or grace vs. works as clearly as the classic bridge diagram does. Still, I love the way
Choung's napkin sketch presents the larger story of how sin pervades the world at all levels (personal, relational and systemic) and thus Christ came to bring about redemption at each of these levels.

I am reluctant to bring categories, labels and denominations into this, but it's not hard to guess which evangelicals will like this presentation of the gospel and which ones won't. It's safe to say that my Calvinist and Reformed friends who enjoy reading John Piper, D. A. Carson and R.C.
Sproul will take issue with the focus of the diagram is not on penal substitution, the imputation of righteousness or the bearing of God's wrath. At the same time, my "missional" and social justice-emphasizing friends who read N.T. Wright, Dallas Willard and Shane Claiborne will probably totally dig this "new" presentation of the gospel and actually start evangelizing for the first time in years! (If you didn't catch that, it was joke referring to the stereotype of emergent/postmodern Christians who tend to downplay evangelism. Never mind.)

The tension between evangelism and discipleship has always been a delicate balance of emphasis for the Christian church. To be clear, I don't want to be guilty of an
either-or dichotomy when it comes to gospel diagrams. One of the criticisms I have of the missional movement (which is not the same as the emergent movement, but there is significant overlap) are the either-or labels that can sometimes be just as divisive and exclusionary as some of the older categories they like to deconstruct. Journey vs. destination, orthodoxy vs. orthopraxy and questions vs. answers are examples of these dichotomies that are false choices. Some missional / emerging writers and teachers make it seem like you have to reject one in order to embrace the other.

In the end, I think both diagrams are helpful ways to explain different aspects of the timeless gospel story at the center of orthodox Christianity. Like the differing theories of the atonement, both diagrams have their strengths and I'm reluctant to abandon the 4 spiritual laws just because "The Big Story" illustration may be more innovative, fresh and relevant to postmodern cultures. The bridge diagram remains one of the most simple and memorable ways to explain salvation by grace through faith alone. I think we still need it. However, the bridge diagram misses some of the biblical fullness of the the good news. Although my Reformed and Calvinist friends might disagree with me, I believe there is more to the gospel and more to the Kingdom than Christ's substitutionary atonement. I believe the gospel is a call to follow Jesus in this life in addition to trusting in his full payment for sin. The gospel is a message of good news to the poor as well as grace for the sinner. The gospel calls us to embody the mission of Jesus as we act justly, love mercy and walk humbly with our God.

As Shane Claiborne said, "Much of pop-Christianity is obsessed with the self-centered goal of finding our life, forgetting that Christ’s call is to lose our life for others in order to find it." This is why I appreciate
Choung's "Big Story"diagram with its four circles. It doesn't really add anything "new" the gospel, but I believe it will help us recover a more complete picture of the old, old story of Jesus and his love.