Thu, 30 Sep 2004

College, Seminary, Church

While some people are watching the presidential debate, and while the rest of my family is at back-to-school night, I will be starting a course with Fuller Theological Seminary's Santa Barbara extension on patristic theology.

I have also begun teaching a series on the pastoral letters (1/2 Timothy and Titus) at my local church for the college group. This Sunday we cover the dreaded 1 Timothy 2.

The combination of teaching commitments represents something of a realization of a dream: to train pastors, raise students, and teach a church. Theology belongs in every one of these places (and more). In fact, theology that excludes any one of them is in danger of distorting itself into something less than it should be. A theological career that includes all of them is healthily balanced. On top of my typical teaching load, these other courses make for an awfully busy but uniquely rewarding fall semester.

09:17 (file under /topics/general)

Sun, 26 Sep 2004

Westmont Homecoming

Ever wondered why tiny little 2 John is in the Bible? I think I have a better answer since preaching at this worship service for Westmont's Homecoming.

It's called Less Is More: The Joy of Preaching about Almost Nothing.

19:57 (file under /topics/preaching)

Mon, 20 Sep 2004

Lessons from Rathergate on the Trustworthiness of Sources

I am grateful to the Washington Post for continuing to be the most responsible big media outlet in holding CBS' feet to the fire. I am even more grateful for the widespread reaction among journalists that CBS is in the wrong. It took time – I hope because journalists were being careful to get it right before passing judgment.

(It occurred to me that I haven't noticed people linking to The Wall Street Journal, except for its free op-ed material. Has it been holding back on investigative coverage, or is the subscriber wall keeping the mainstream blogosphere out? I don't know ... since I am not a subscriber.)

Newcomers to the story may appreciate this detailed timeline from a tech blog most interested in the ramifications of the process for journalism. Doc Searls' roundup and analysis is also a good one. These pieces got me thinking about the lessons this saga holds for biblical studies.

Glenn Reynolds' comparison of the "high-trust environment" of big-media versus the "low-trust environment" of the blogosphere is very helpful, and bears upon something I care more about than American journalism: the world of the first Christians.

The world of Big Media used to be a high-trust environment. You read something in the paper, or heard something from Dan Rather, and you figured it was probably true. You didn't ask to hear all the background, because it wouldn't fit in a newspaper story, much less in the highly truncated TV-news format anyway, and because you assumed that they had done the necessary legwork. (Had they? I'm not sure. It's not clear whether standards have fallen since, or whether the curtain has simply been pulled open on the Mighty Oz. But they had names, and familiar faces, so you usually believed them even when you had your doubts.)
The Internet, on the other hand, is a low-trust environment. Ironically, that probably makes it more trustworthy.
That's because, while arguments from authority are hard on the Internet, substantiating arguments is easy, thanks to the miracle of hyperlinks. And, where things aren't linkable, you can post actual images. You can spell out your thinking, and you can back it up with lots of facts, which people then (thanks to Google, et al.) find it easy to check. And the links mean that you can do that without cluttering up your narrative too much, usually, something that's impossible on TV and nearly so in a newspaper.
(This is actually a lot like the world lawyers live in – nobody trusts us enough to take our word for, well, much of anything, so we back things up with lots of footnotes, citations, and exhibits. Legal citation systems are even like a primitive form of hypertext, really, one that's been around for six or eight hundred years. But I digress – except that this perhaps explains why so many lawyers take naturally to blogging).

The first Christians lived in a relatively low-trust environment. Forging was easy. Evidence was almost always hearsay. That makes us think of the Church's knowledge base as unreliable. Yet these people needed accurate information just as we do, and so they were careful with it. They paid attention to the trustworthiness of every messenger along the whole chain of custody of information. This is one big reason why the Church from the first-century onward had monarchical bishops in the line of apostolic succession. This was in part to keep the sources of apostolic traditions were, to appeal to Dan Rather, "unimpeachable."

Was this system infallible? Of course not. Could it be gamed? Sure. But it was surprisingly reliable.

Many of my beginning students have learned in their communities to treat the Bible as if it practically fell out of the sky. Conservative evangelical churches are definitely high-trust environments where Scripture is concerned. To discover that Holy Scripture emerged out of the ancient world's low-trust environment is a shock. Suddenly the sources look impeachable. They come from a world of secret gospels, alternative apocalypses, shadowy communities, "partisan political operatives" (another one of Rather's delightful recent turns of phrase), and deadly rivalries. How can such a world produce dependable information?

A lawyer can tell you. Lawyers have been at the forefront of the CBS story, because they spend so much time on issues of witness and document credibility. They are the contemporary equivalents of careful historians, dealing in the present rather than in the past. Lawyers not only make good bloggers, they make good apologists. Rules of evidence test information coming from an unreliable environment. What passes the test can then be treated as reliable and respected in the higher-trust environments of, say, courts of appeal.

The first Christians were careful in making sure the scriptures they allowed to be read in Church matched the testimonies of the leaders who had been appointed by the apostles or their successors and entrusted with their traditions. The good news of Jesus Christ was no trivial thing to them. The line of bishops, the rule of faith, and the canon of Scripture were a three-stranded cord that was not easily broken. Together they created a high-trust environment in which the Bible could be treated with the trust it had proven to deserve. That environment persists today in communities with or without bishops and rules of faith, but with respect for Holy Scripture.

One powerful force that drives later people to question the credibility of the testimony is ignorance of the process. I have a feeling that a Dan Brown looks out at the diversity of early Christian circles and sees the same formless chaos that a neophyte to the web or a new law student sees at first. Prudish Catholics conspiring to whitewash Jesus' family life by suppressing the gospel of Mary Magdalene! Freepers versus the Indymedia/DU tinfoil hat brigade! Bloggers in pajamas!

Those are cheap shots, but they aren't necessarily disingenuous. They can come out of ignorance just as well as malevolence.

In the current mess I don't (yet) see Dan Rather as a conspirator. Though he is pretty partisan, he's a journalist, and I haven't ever met a journalist who deliberately acts unfairly. I know there are exceptions, but I haven't met them, and they are universally famous as pariahs and betrayers of the traditions of journalism. Janet Cooke, Stephen Glass, and Jayson Blair are the journalistic equivalent of Judas Iscariot. Their exceptions prove the rule.

Instead, I see Rather as a 72-year-old technophobe and hotshot who doesn't understand the niceties of word processing, the web, the rules of evidence, or the speed of our information culture. I think of my mother, an accomplished classical pianist who is Rather's age and intimidated to death just by the idea of e-mailing, and I think: the poor guy. The worlds from which he is being attacked must be incomprehensible to him. Proportional fonts? Leading? Bloggers? Rather has been totally out of his depth since this whole thing broke. (A print journalist wouldn't be so vulnerable. We know all that technical stuff cold because of the role of typesetting.) Moreover, his arrogance and ideological filters have kept him from understanding how to respond. I doubt he will ever get the dynamics of his own career's undoing.

My challenge as a Christian teacher and scholar is similar to that of a devoted PowerLine reader trying to bring up to speed someone who has only heard that "Republican bloggers" are after Dan Rather. How does a pro who has learned how to navigate and tell the wheat from the chaff in the ancient Christian world convince either a disillusioned fundamentalist or a credulous reader of The Da Vinci Code that there is order in the Greco-Roman religious world, and that bishops charged with keeping the faith weren't as naive, clueless, or cynical as Dan Brown is?

It is a tall order – like convincing a journey of laypeople that evidence is reliable even though (and even because) its world is unreliable. I served on a journey several years ago, in which we were asked to judge whether a roofing contractor had been negligent. Both lawyers took us through three weeks of tendentious crash courses in architecture, framing, roofing, and grading. As a jury, we faced the task of deconstructing both presentations, not to avoid coming to a verdict, but to see the truth through all the spin. It was arduous, boring, and disillusioning. But we succeeded.

The early Church did too, against all the obstacles it faced.

As our culture returns to a low-trust attitude toward the Christian tradition, the Church can succeed again. We have treasure in our earthen vessels, empowered by the Spirit of truth.

What we have to resist is defensiveness. Defensiveness is what has killed CBS. Defensiveness injures the Church in the same way, even when it seems to work in the short run. The panic in the eyes of students learning something new and threatening about their own Bible is the fruit of past defensiveness starting to crumble. We have to repent of it.

The alternative to ignorance isn't "faith" in the old high-trust authorities; that's not faith anyway. The alternative to ignorance is education. For all the noise from blogger ideologues and "experts" speaking outside their level of competence, the Internet's fact-checking services are on balance terrific. The Church should welcome its equivalents. We will learn a lot when we do, and the fact-checkers will learn even more.

I doubt either the world's Dan Rathers and Dan Browns have the patience to submit to the necessary discipline to keep putting the Christian faith to a fair test. Nor will more than a few in their credulous audiences. Cynics will be tempted to take the apparent chaos as an excuse not to care, while fideists will want to take it as nothing more than a backdrop into which God somehow drops a pristine Bible. Both skepticism and fideism are convenient substitutes for hard work and true openness to correction. But those who really seek will find the truth is there to be found.

Toward that end, I will be assigning Robert Wilken's lovely The Spirit of Early Christian Thought and Bart Ehrman's feisty Lost Christianities in my Fuller Seminary class on patristic theology. Both are formidable scholars, with nearly opposite readings of early Christianity. The deliberations will be fun.

And enlightening.

12:49 (file under /topics/method)

Tue, 14 Sep 2004

Feeling a Little Better

My cold is easing, but more importantly, I feel better about the CBS situation now that The Washington Post has done the right thing and caught up its readers to where the blogosphere was three days ago, even doing some of the kind of reporting that only old-line news media are capable of. I'm relieved.

Of course, I'm still waiting for The New York Times, which is being dragged kicking and screaming to the reality of this story. How and when will they truly come clean? I wonder.

How fortuitous that I should just have received a solicitation from the NYT asking me to distribute little index-card subscription ads to my students. Get a load of the copy:

Sometimes it's easy to see the world in black and white. But as your students become more aware and delve deeper into issues, they may come to realize that the world is really made up of shades of gray.

Good Grief.

And for the first time in their lives, they're not just reading about a presidential election – they're a vital part of the process.
Bringing The New York Times into your classrooms every day will give your students a chance to see history as it unfolds.

Actually it will give them a chance to see history a little later, a little further removed, sanitized for bicoastal sensibilities, and made a little more predictable and ideologically consistent.

Exploring issues from many different perspectives will help them think more critically about things that affect their lives and our country. ...

It would, if the NYT offered many different perspectives. But as its own 'public editor' acknowledges, it doesn't.

Anyway, here is the response I e-mailed the college marketing director who signed the copy:

I would not have minded receiving your pitch to solicit subscriptions from my students if my respect for your publication had not plummeted in the past three years.
Of national newspapers, the Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal still have my respect. Yours does not. I want my students educated, not indoctrinated. Showing them news.google.com exposes them to a far wider variety of sources, for free. Recommending high-quality monthlies like the Atlantic exposes them to depth and originality of thought, for an affordable price. Introducing them to weblogs moves them days, and sometimes months, ahead of the big-media curve, for free, and without the pretense.
Please take this not as an attack but as freely offered market research. I invite you to send it to your management as a leading indicator of where your market is going. It may be that the NYT can reinvent its product and become attractive again to those of us who have lost our respect. But it will take such a reinvention to bring us back – and it will take an even more radical reinvention to bring on board my twenty-year-old students, who inhabit a different information universe than the one in which you and I were raised.
Our world needs what you can provide. America is governed by a ruling party that cannot tell the truth without losing power and an opposition party that cannot even articulate a position without splitting apart. We don't need more shades of gray from the Gray Lady; we need black and white. We don't need more false prophecy; we need authentic prophecy. If you want to offer it, then you will find the only audience that finally matters. If you don't, then someone else will.
In the meantime, I hope while you deliberate, I have called and asked to be removed from your mailing list.
Sincerely yours, Telford Work

A little melodramatic, I know. But that's my style. And I care about this stuff.

The tag line on the solicitation letter reads, "Prepare yourself and your students for what comes next." That's just what we're trying to do. I hope the NYT gets serious about helping.

09:30 (file under /topics/politics)

Mon, 13 Sep 2004

Stunned

I spent the weekend in shock. It wasn't really because I was remembering 9/11; my remembrance of the event was basically limited to gratitude that we have had a pretty safe three years here in the States, far safer than we dared to hope for in the weeks after the attacks. Thanks be to God.

No, what kept me reeling all weekend (besides a cold) were several interrelated factors:

First, the actions of CBS News in its original reporting and in its reactions to the forged Killian memos. They're guilty; they're acting guilty; and they don't know how not to act guilty. This from the very people who taught the country to recognize the signs of all three. Amazing. More than anything, it has disturbed me because I still respect professional journalism – perhaps out of family loyalty, perhaps out of my own past career in journalism and journalism education. In fact, I apparently respect it more than it deserves. I learned long ago that journalists (not every single one, but as a group) are biased, insular, subcultural, cynical, and ill-prepared. But I learned even further back that journalists are diligent, curious, public-minded, idealistic, and careful. I still trust both judgments, but this story is a gut-punch that has left me shaken.

Second, the tepid and unprofessional responses from others at CBS and especially other news organizations in the five days since the story broke. There has been some competent coverage and a lot of incompetent (uneducated, credulous, shallow, unfair) coverage. C'mon, people! Your future is hanging in the balance right now. This is a time for the profession to police itself. Journalism has done so successfully in the past. Not always, but sometimes. We will know in a couple of weeks whether it is doing so now. I wish I could be confident in its success, but I'm not.

Third, the talent, qualifications, distributed intelligence, quality and speed of networking, and self-policing of the bloggers and other new media. As others had noted, blogger triumphalism has been around ever since blogging. This is the most obvious case in which the self-congratulation is apparently warranted, especially in the cases of Instapundit, PowerLine, Roger L. Simon, Little Green Footballs (a site I had ignored for a year because of the meanness of its commenters), and Hugh Hewitt, and especially their readers, have performed at an extraordinary level. Honorable mention goes to ABC News' The Note and Mickey Kaus (whom I wish I was hearing more from right now).

Fourth, the disappointing reactions of other middlers and neo-libs I admire, for instance Jeff Jarvis. Their reticence has been almost as surprising as the achievements of the major movers on the story. Clearly the blogosphere's talents are issue-specific rather than all-around. People will rise and fall in relevance depending on the story and their expertise. I think we should expect to get used to these kinds of shifts in the future.

Fifth, the reluctance, even refusal, of some (many?) on the left to acknowledge what to the rest of us is obvious: that these are fakes. This is perhaps the most stunning thing of all – to see people so blinded by their own presuppositions. In the story of the emperor who had no clothes, all it takes is one child to wake up the crowd. That fable now seems charmingly naive. Modern absolutism – the conviction that the universality of reason makes it possible to convince anyone of any fact, unless he or she is crazy, stupid, or evil – is not what we're seeing here. Nor are we seeing modern relativism – the conviction that because truth is constructed, it doesn't extend beyond individual opinion – because these documents are changing some minds. What we are seeing is what Alasdair MacIntyre called "the rationalit[ies] of traditions," or what Wittgenstein called "the rough ground" of human epistemology: we see as our communities teach us to see in order to live; and the commonality of our life produces commonality of understanding that makes social mediators such as practices, language, and truth possible, sustainable, and sustaining. This is not as neat as either absolutism or relativism; that's why traditions succeed and fail. This story is showing and causing the success and failure of different traditions. The failures are as spectacular as the successes.

Sixth, the refusal among some to distinguish the issue of forgery from the issue of Bush's record. By all means, we need careful digging into the histories of the men who want to be President. Both are vulnerable, and both have things to hide. However, some reporters and commentators are so inured to horse-race mode that everything comes down to its effect on the Bush-Kerry race. Well, it doesn't. Life is bigger than American federal politics. Truth is not a function of power. People who won't see or admit this are simply not to be trusted.

Seventh, the applicability of all these insights to the tradition I care most about: the Christian faith. Our own tradition fails as well as succeeds. It overlooks as well as investigates. It hides as well as explores. It misleads as well as guides. It subjugates truth to power as well as vice versa. The crisis at CBS News and wider journalism is an object lesson for every tradition that wants to be and remain adequate, strong, honest, fair, self-critical, and properly confident about its message. The lessons are all the more stark where the message concerns God, God's world, and God's good news.

I don't want to be a Christian Dan Rather, or Christ's holy Church to be a Christian CBS News or Boston Globe, or theology to be a Christian conspiracy theory or power play. Our tradition has the vices to make all of these nightmares come true. However, we also have the gifts to make these and other nightmares no more than dark memories that fade with the bright light of day. Thanks to the Holy Spirit given to us, the happy outcome of the contest between these two is both certain, and up to us.

11:40 (file under /topics/politics)

Thu, 09 Sep 2004

Witness to the Signs: a review

The current issue of Pro Ecclesia features my review essay on the posthumous set of Lessie Newbigin essays, Signs amid the Rubble: The Purposes of God in Human History.

Executive summary: thumbs up!

Full version: here.

School is back in session. I'm enjoying classes and colleagues after the summer break, and having a wonderful time leading students through some tremendous books. More on that to come, I hope.

09:51 (file under /topics/publishing)
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