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)

Fri, 20 Aug 2004

Failures of Tribal Intelligence

Related to yesterday's ramble, and pressing home its point: this morning's news surfing turned up the most convincing explanation I've heard so far for Kerry's Cambodia troubles – one which if true basically exonerates Kerry:

In this case, the mistake on a detail tends to support everything else: he confused OUR holiday [Christmas], with theirs [Tet] – and over 30 years of telling the tale, he's gotten the handle wrong.

Even if this weren't the definitive explanation, it would still be a better way for the campaign to defuse the SwiftVets' bomb than anything it has done so far. So why aren't they using it? And why aren't the news media who are finally getting around to publicizing the issue testing this hypothesis?

Probably because they don't know about it. After all, it came from outside the tribe – from a reader's e-mail to Virginia Postrel, a libertarian who lives in Los Angeles.

From those humble origins the meme has been slowly working its way through the comments sections of related posts on other people's sites. In another day or two perhaps Glenn Reynolds will feature it and help shift the Internet debate. Unfortunately for the Kerry campaign, Kerry's people have already spun themselves too far towards incompatible and unpersuasive explanations to exploit it nearly as effectively as they could have.

This e-mailer's little insight could have really helped the campaign. It fits the mainstream media's generally pro-Kerry agenda. What is keeping it obscure is not "liberal bias," but the media-tribe's cocoon.

Why didn't all those intelligence agents and investigators connect the dots and see 9/11 coming? For similar reasons: disregard for outsiders, predisposition to seeing things a certain way, weak intelligence, and lack of coordination. They had made themselves structurally unable to see and act on it.

I don't know what I would do if I were in charge of an intelligence agency, but if I were a newspaper editor, I would employ a couple of interns whose whole job would be to scan weblogs and other materials from beyond the tribe looking for leads and learning about the communities those leads might come from. Then I would circulate their findings and air the most promising ones in my staff meetings.

I'm not a newspaper editor. But I am a teacher in the evangelical Christian tradition, where the dynamics can be similar. Some of us (especially fundamentalists) are huddlers: everything we learn is filtered for us by insiders. Some of us (especially missionaries) are travellers: we go outside the tribe to see for ourselves. Both approaches have their hazards and their benefits. Huddlers gain a depth and coherence of vision, while travellers gain breadth and freshness from seeing works of the Spirit they could not have anticipated.

We need to huddle and travel. In liturgical terms, we need to gather and go. We also need church offices to oversee, refine, and mentor both those activities. We need a higher regard for outsiders, openness to different ways of seeing, better intelligence, and tighter coordination.

Failure to huddle, to travel, or to connect the two will ultimately leave Christians either cocooned or dissolved – or perhaps cocooned then dissolved, as may be happening to the tribe whose oligopoly on information in America is eroding with every new failure of intelligence.

Success will not only serve the tribe and the tribes beyond it, but might just convert the tribes into something better: a fellowship that transcends the old boundaries.

Now in Christ Jesus you who were once far off have been brought near in the blood of Christ. For he is our peace, who has made us both one, and has broken down the dividing wall of hostility, by abolishing in his flesh the law of commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new human being in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby bringing the hostility to an end. And he came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near; for through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father. So then you are no longer strangers and sojourners, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God ... (Eph. 2:13-19).

Shabbat shalom.

14:27 (file under /topics/method)

Thu, 19 Aug 2004

Media Credibility after Objectivity

I've been following with interest the mainly conservative-libertarian, and now broader, discussion of the "self-destruction" of media credibility during this campaign. You will see below why I care so much about this; as usual, it's theological.

I have appreciated Roger Simon's remarks. Now, in Tech Central Station (via InstaPundit), Frederick Turner traces it back:

This collective view emerged as a rather well-intentioned product of an age of wild hope, ill-informed academic speculation, and youthful optimism about the world. Nurtured in the great European and American universities, it was statist, existentialist, anti-religious, suspicious of any science that did not support its views, snobbish, pacifist, anti-technological, hedonistic in practice, puritan in theory, postmodernist in its tastes, committed to a social rather than an individual morality, hostile to the virtue tradition, sentimentally Romanticist in its attitude to Nature (which, in an unconsciously Creationist turn, did not include human beings), relativist about cultural differences, legalistic, optimistic about human nature, and deeply hostile to the marketplace. In one sense it was a nostalgia for the aristocratic European world of our collective rose-tinted memory, when the virtues of artists and intellectuals and university-educated people were recognized automatically, and merchants and financiers were "rightly" despised. In another sense it was a yearning for the dear lost days of revolutionary fervor, moral certainty, "free" sex and callow cynicism about tradition and respectability. It was escapist in its worship of Otherness – cultural, social, political, economic, ideological, sexual, biological – and conformist in its anxious attention to the next move of its "coolest" current leadership.

Whew! The whole article has this kind of Destructive Generation feel to it, which will wreck its plausibility outside the circles that already share Turner's views. That's too bad, because aside from the melodrama his argument comes down to a much more supportable contention:

The problem is that with the collusion of their editors the new generation of reporters chose to use their exalted position of trust in the Fourth Estate to prosecute their political ambitions, rather than – as had the conservative talk show hosts – doing it the hard way, by creating a soap box of their own and building a popular audience. Their anthropology and history and literary theory classes had taught them that every system of knowledge was just the servant arm of the regnant regime of power, and that therefore no respect need be given to institutions of so-called objectivity and research balance. Editorializing crept into the news pages and then right out onto the front page above the fold.

Now I think every system of knowledge is the servant arm of a regnant regime of power, and I also think objectivity and balance are philosophically indefensible goals. This is not because I belong to the culture Turner describes in the first paragraph I cited. Systems of knowledge are powers and principalities because of human depravity, the noetic effects of sin, and the reality of structural sin. Objectivity is an illusion because of the irreducible subjectivity of the world, which is a consequence of the interrelatedness of God and creation. Balance is a Hegelian notion, not a Christian one; a balance of wisdom and folly is just folly.

So why am I sympathetic to the journalists' critics in this discussion?

Every literary genre comes with conventions and expectations: documentary, reporting, commentary, preaching, etc. Journalistic conviction and practice are increasingly incompatible with the conventions and expectations of its traditional genres.

The problem is that editors and reporters are letting go of their old (false) notions of objectivity and balance without properly embracing the virtues of trust, fairness, honesty, and humility that are proper to these genre of news reporting, and which keep subjectivity and conviction from metastasizing into dominance and arrogance.

Affirmation of these virtues may be hard to find in some classes and some schools, but it is certainly not absent in anthropology/sociology, history, or literary theory. (We offer it in theology too, if contrite journalists get desperate.)

I do not know exactly what is going on in contemporary journalism. But I do know that for whatever reason, mainstream journalists seem to be massively failing to appreciate both that our trust of them is slipping away, and on what that trust was and might again be based.

The unfolding disaster reminds me of the loss of credibility of clergy – particularly (and somewhat unfairly) Catholic clergy in the last few years. Priests weren't trusted because they are objective or balanced; they were trusted because they were good. They were grounded in a common tradition with their parishioners that was beneficial, visible, and somewhat appreciable even to outsiders. Violating the conventions of that tradition, not just in abuse but especially in responding to abuse of their own people, is what has cost them so dearly.

Like clergy, mainstream journalists also represent some social circles much better than others. They are partisan, in the general rather than formally political sense of that word. Such overrepresentation is not an optimal situation, but it is okay as long as members of the dominant group do their best to compensate. But failing to compensate (for instance, by dismissing rather than struggling really to understand and accurately represent outsiders) has greatly weakened journalists' standing.

Isolation and partisanship had already cost mainstream journalism the support of other tribes. These have created their own journalistic communities in response (some of whom have the same problems (cough – Fox News – cough). Now their own tribe members are suffering too (as Los Angeles Times readers suffered in November by being totally out of touch with the dynamics of the gubernatorial recall). The problem is thus reaching a new and critical stage.

My hope is that the disconnect between journalists and their own fellow tribesmen won't be as bad as the disconnects outside their tribe, and that this will put them in a better place to sense and correct the problem.

My fear is that a few "journalistic fundamentalists" will misdirect the salvage operation by trying to turn back to notions of objectivity and balance. That is not going to solve the problem, because those notions are both wrong and less and less intelligible to either journalists or their publics.

But trust, fairness, honesty, and humility are not. Postmoderns can earn and receive respect from both social insiders and social outsiders, just as premoderns could. Respect doesn't rest on fidelity to Enlightenment ideals, but on virtues and practices that maintain all human communities (and that come to judgment, redemption, and perfection in the Kingdom of God).

I don't really worry about chaos ensuing when the only press left in America is a partisan press and everyone knows it. Because we depend on virtuous practices and leaders to live, responsible and well respected people and institutions will fill the vacuums opening up as journalists, clergy, academics, and others fall from grace.

Perhaps the Internet, which has been such a force in speeding popular disillusionment with mainstream journalism, will be a primary medium for them. Who knows? There is no predicting the results of emergence out of instability.

I do know, however, that the virtuous – the good, the fair, the honest, and the humble – are in a much better position to emerge. And I think journalistic institutions are capable of being places that support and strengthen these virtues.

Consider how Esau lost his birthright. That's what the mainstream media are doing this year.

Then consider how Joseph, Daniel, and Esther win the respect of the powers inside and outside their tribe, and how Jesus will make his reign known to the ends of the earth. This is just basic Christian eschatology:

Beloved, I beseech you as aliens and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh that wage war against your soul. Maintain good conduct among the Gentiles, so that in case they speak against you as wrongdoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation. ... For it is God's will that by doing right you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people. ...
Do not return evil for evil or reviling for reviling; but on the contrary bless, for to this you have been called, that you may obtain a blessing. For "He that would love life and see good days, let him keep his tongue from evil and his lips from speaking guile; let him turn away from evil and do right; let him seek peace and pursue it. ... Always be prepared to make a defense to any one who calls you to account for the hope that is in you, yet do it with gentleness and reverence; and keep your conscience clear, so that, when you are abused, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame. For it is better to suffer for doing right, if that should be God's will, than for doing wrong. For Christ also died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God... (1 Pet. 2:11-15, 3:9-18).
14:38 (file under /topics/method)

Fri, 13 Aug 2004


I've been away, I've been busy, and I've been rather uninspired when it comes to blogging interesting things lately. We'll see whether this post continues that last trend.

A friend of mine, A.K.M. "Akma" Adam, is involved in an intriguing effort called The goal is to use the web for theological education.

The Disseminary stands for an approach to education and educational materials apart from the constraints of institutional education: credits, fees, restrictive copyright limitations, grades, and other limitations. The project envisions a variety of educational resources offered at no charge, for no formal credit. Such resources may in the long run include publications, asynchronous seminar discussions (kept available in archives), chats, interviews, audio and video recordings.
We’re passionate about what Mary Hess has called “open-source” theological pedagogy (at a 2002 Wabash Center conference).

It's a great cause, and I wish them well, but it will be quite a challenge. Learners whose exposure to theology (or anything else) mainly comes from across the net have a hard time gaining a coherent picture of a tradition. In the case of theological learning, what we end up with is often a surfer-theology. (Want a German term for that: Gewirrwellenreitertheologie. I made it extra-awkward on purpose.)

Will surfer-theology become a trend not just of religious observers and seekers but even of believers, as people form habits of learning by clicking through relatively quick and shallow impressions rather than really drinking in the visions of prophets in detail? I hope not. But I won't be surprised if it does. It takes an intensive school or vocational education to force most of us to learn any discipline adequately. And that means authorities assigning lengthy material and breathing down students' necks to make sure it is being digested. How many people in our circles either have that, or would stand for it if they didn't have to?

Whatever the fate of, in our emerging web culture good pastors will be essential in bringing depth to a community's theological vision. This is not because they will do all the teaching or all the thinking, but because they will likely be people's only personal focal points (a) for showing a whole community one coherent Christian life and (b) for providing the accountability essential to disciplined learning.

Perhaps this suggests an opportunity for traditional bricks-and-mortar seminaries and denominational ordination tracks: to form teachers who can lead their communities' learning rather than doing the learning for them or just being one information source in the mix.

15:46 (file under /topics/method)

Wed, 28 Jul 2004

Political Eye Care

One of my favorite bloggers is Mickey Kaus. And not just because he is from L.A.! Beyond the amazing writing, one of Kaus' most endearing qualities is that he usually picks on Democrats even though he is a neoliberal Democrat himself. Once someone asked him why, if he was a Democrat, he complained about his own party so much and tended to leave Republicans alone. "I think Democrats are redeemable," he replied. That made an impression on me. Kaus' endorsement of Kerry, in view of the fact that he complains about Kerry so much, really means something.

Since its heyday when its title included the misspelled "Wittenburg," The Door has done the same thing, skewering evangelicals from within evangelicalism. A recent book that caught my eye last fall, Adventures in Missing the Point by Brian McLaren and Tono Campolo, works out of the same spirit. It identifies longstanding weaknesses of evangelical theology not by labeling them accommodations to liberalism or some other plague from outside the camp, but by diagnosing them as failures from within.

I wish many more of us had that spirit. In fact, I wish I had that spirit more than I do. Perhaps more people do, and I just haven't noticed. The sociological dynamics of complaining mainly about political, ideological, or theological outsiders get unhealthy fast. Naturally, the theological dynamics do too.

Kaus is helping his own people take the beams out of their eyes first, and then get the specks out of others'. That's the right order. There is a time to criticize others: after we have thoroughly and properly criticized ourselves. This isn't weakness or selling out. It isn't inconsistency or hypocrisy. It isn't self-hatred. It's faithful leadership inspired by confidence in the intrinsic strength of one's own tradition.

Now is the time for judgment to begin with the household of God; and if it begins with us, what will be the end of those who do not obey the gospel of God? (1 Peter 4:17)
12:10 (file under /topics/method)
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