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    Entries in Culture (11)


    Taking Stock of a Culture

    In Daring Greatly, Brene' Brown offers ten questions useful for assessing a company culture:

    1. What behaviors are rewarded? Punished?
    2. Where and how are people actually spending their resources (time, money, attention)?
    3. What rules and expectations are followed, enforced, and ignored?
    4. Do people feel safe and supported talking about how they feel and asking for what they need?
    5. What are the sacred cows? Who is most likely to trip them? Who stands the cows back up?
    6. What stories are legend and what values do they convey?
    7. What happens when someone fails, disappoints, or makes a mistake?
    8. How is vulnerability (uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure) perceived?
    9. How prevalent are shame and blame and how are they showing up?
    10. What’s the collective tolerance for discomfort? Is the discomfort of learning, trying new things, and giving and receiving feedback normalized, or is there a high premium put on comfort (and how does that look)?

    I came across this list while reading Mandy Smith's The Vulnerable Pastor. I share them because I have friends in church leadership, though they can be applied more broadly. If you are part of a workplace, a family, or a fan base, you are part of a culture. Cultures can be healthy and yield flourishing. They can also be unhealthy, and harmful.

    When cultures are healthy, it is helpful to ask why. What principles, practices, and patterns contribute to the overall well-being of those who are part of the family, workplace, or congregation of which you are a part? What can you chronicle, capsule, communicate, and continue going forward?

    When cultures are unhealthy, people are often afraid to ask why. Facing reality would require facing the truth about oneself and the collective, which is always difficult. When an unhealthy situation is acknowledged, responsibility is assumed. When a problem is identified, resolution should follow. Confession and repentance are for more than private devotions: they are communal practices that can lead to reconciliation, renewal and revival.

    Take a look at these questions. If there is a culture that you want to be good, assess it. Gather with others who likewise would like others to flourish through participation in your shared life.

    Then get to work.


    Overheard on the Bus :: #20


    A middle school student:

    "I watched Dancing with the Stars last night...I only watch because Jaleel White, you know the guy who played Urkel, is on there."


    For more from the bus, click here.

    Click here for entry #19.

    Click here for entry #21.


    A Broader Narrative RE: Catholic Priests and Sex Abuse

    In Kansas City, one of the most disturbing and attention getting headlines in both The Kansas City Star and on local news programs has involved Father Shawn Ratigan, improper relationships with children, and the diocese failing to respond promptly and appropriately to concerned parents, parishioners, and school administrators.  The Catholic sex abuse scandal continues to grab headlines.

    That is why this posting by Ben Meyers struck me as fascinating.  Scott Stephens at the ABC has done some research on the Catholic sex abuse scandal, and has found that a different narrative may need to be told by the media in order to proper contextualize what has been happening, and what continues to happen, among Catholics with regard to the sexual abuse of minors.

    Meyers writes:

    The study, Scott says, shows "a sudden and disturbing increase in instances of sexual abuse from 1960, reaching its hellish pinnacle in 1975, followed by a sharp and sustained decline from 1985 to the present". By 2001, there were 5 reported cases of sexual abuse per 100,000 children (compared to 134 cases of abuse for every 100,000 children in American society as a whole in the same year). By 2010, there were just 7 reported cases across the entire Catholic Church in the United States. The report thus describes "the 'crisis' of sexual abuse of minors by Catholic priests" as really a "historical problem." 

    Scott discusses many other aspects of the report's findings. Most interesting, I thought, is his suggestion that "the foetid cultural soil of the 60s and 70s proved uncommonly conducive to the commission of sexual abuse" – and that the Church's reinstatement of a "punitive approach" to sexual deviance (as opposed to its earlier adoption of fashionable "therapeutic" approaches – counselling, treatment, relocation), together with "John Paul II's radical reform of seminary life and the spiritual formation of priests".

    Thus Scott offers his own blistering conclusion: "Those who incessantly call for an end to sexual abuse in the Church are effectively trying to break down an open door." The deepest problem, he thinks, was the cultural milieu of the 1960s, with its vociferous opposition to all taboos, and its sinister promotion of unchecked sexual experimentation. (Sinister if you happened to be a child at the time.)

    While I have not encountered additional coverage of The Catholic Church's report, The Causes and Context of Sexual Abuse of Minors By Catholic Priests in The United States, 1950-2010, I hope to.  If there are aspects of the report that are in need of challenging, such analysis would prove beneficial in establishing what has actually taken place, and the reasons abuse has been a problem among clergy.

    Considering that sexual abuse has been a major obstacle in people taking seriously the claims of the church, if the issue has been addressed and is improving among Catholics, then this serves to clear away some of the debris for all Christian people to give faithful witness to Christ.


    The Next Story :: A Theological/Philosophical Conversation

    Tim Challies, a well known Reformed blogger with an extensive following, recently published The Next Story: Life and Faith after the Digital Explosion, and, unsurprisingly, the book has been well received, generating a healthy conversation on technology, Christian faith, and how Christian people can faithfully fulfill their calling as disciples of Jesus in light of the "digital explosion."  I have no doubt that such conversations are pleasing to Challies.  He does not claim to provide an all inclusive account of technology and its positive and negative benefits, nor does he claim to provide every answer to how Christians should regard, utilize, and leverage new media.  In this respect, there is a subtle trust in the Holy Spirit present within Challies' work, something I appreciate.  Yet, Challies does not abdicate his responsibility to provide his readers with solid reflection, to nudge them toward the Bible as a fount of wisdom, and even to provide a strong word against certain expressions, forms, and practices relating to technology that are deserving of critical attention. 

    The book received attention from Mere Orthodoxy, a league of extraordinary persons committed to providing an intellectual, timely, and well-informed philosophical and theological perspective to a broad range of inquiry, including, but not limited to, public policy, ecclesial concerns, theological movements, mass media, television and film, books, and evangelicalism.  Matthew Lee Anderson's Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to Our Faith has shown promise as a rare treatment of the body within evangelical circles, and will be, I hope, a springboard for additional investigation and discussion.  A review that appeared at Mere-O of Challies' The Next Story provided the impetus for this posting, and is in fact more of a response to Eric Eekhoff more than a direct review of Challies.

    Eekhoff provides an excellent overview of The Next Story, so if you'd like to breeze through a helpful and more extensive overview than I will provide, click here.  Following the overview comes the critiques, each of which are incredibly valid though I believe not without need for response.  Eekhoff is concerned with theology, with Challies' instrumentalist approach (and subsequent philosophical inconsistencies) with regard to media, and his rendering of mediation as exclusively something that "stands between".  I will outline and respond to each of these concerns in turn.

    Theologically Inadequate?

    First, I would like to challenge Eekhoff's claim that Challies has provided an inadequate theology of technology.  Eekhoff states:

    First, his theology of technology was quite inadequate.  While Challies says that our ability and desire to create are a good part of creation, the technological devices we actually make are fallen.  Mediated communication technologies are described as concessions and not ideal.  They are second-best to the non-mediated communication man enjoyed with God in the garden.  Challies seems to view technology as a necessary evil.

    The concerns in this short paragraph are manifold, but for the most part, are rooted in a particular approach to Christian anthropology and the doctrine of sin.  In some respects, I sympathize with Eekhoff.  Challies likens the digital explosion to the Russian detonation of Tsar Bomba, and uses this as his primary metaphor; an unfortunate choice.  This metaphor focuses our vision on the negative influences of technology, and frames technological usage as primarily destructive, and, thus, solely as an amplifier for human sinfulness.  Thus, as Eekhoff suggests, Challies' thoughts on technology undeniably are presented through the Reformed lens, strongly emphasizing sin.  Yet, Reformed theology also possesses a strong tradition of emphasizing the doctrine of common grace, and, if I am reading Eekhoff carefully between the lines, I believe he is suggesting he would have enjoyed seeing this emphasis applied to technology as well.  Technology, then, would not be presented as a "necessary evil," but as rather a gift of God that is utilized to positive as well as negative ends.  Stated differently, technology can be used redemptively.

    While I agree with Eekhoff that Challies does often cast technology in a negative light, I think that he has slightly overstated his case by saying Challies "seems to view technology as a necessary evil".  Challies does establish that our creative capacities, including our ability to produce various forms of technology, are a result of our standing as image bearers of the Creator God.  Challies acknowledges throughout his book the various ways technology is good, enjoyable, and can be leveraged for positive, Kingdom ends.  If anything, Eekhoff's impression has validity because Challies also spends time talking about the potential for destruction, idol-making and idol worship, and sinful tendencies of human beings in employing technology.  Yet, the impression itself is just that--an impression.  Rather than simply classifying Challies' posture toward technology as negative, I would rather say that Challies does not have a linear, sequential, or coherent view of technology present within his book, though, because of his Reformed lens, tends to bring out the darker tones concerning human nature, and thus highlights our need for redemption, including in our use of technology.

    Finally, this brings me to the charge that Challies' has not provided us with an adequate theology of media, and I will be brief.  What does Eekhoff mean by theology?  What is meant by "adequate"?  While I might agree with Eekhoff that Challies does not spend a great deal of time developing a biblical and theological account of why we create media, how and why we use technology, and how technology has been utilized historically to bring honor and glory to the God who gave us the capacity to create our tools, I cannot say that the book is devoid of "adequate" theology.  Simply put, Challies' book is filled with practical, theological wisdom concerning how we use and approach technology, and how technology in turn forms and shapes us.  I was impressed by Challies use of Old Testament wisdom.  His quotations from the Psalms and Proverbs left me with much to ponder.  Thus, with regard to practical theology, I think Challies' book is rich, and is an invaluable contribution to modern Christian thought.  As tools change, there is much here that will need to be adjusted and revisited.  But for the moment, there is plenty that is more than adequate as Christian theological reflection.


    Secondly, I will address Eekhoff's charge that Challies is an instrumentalist with regard to technology.  He states:

    It is how we use the technologies that determine whether they are good or bad.  For Challies, “it is not the technology itself that is good or evil; it is the human application of that technology.”  This position is known as the instrumentalist position by many philosophers of technology.  It is a position that is widely rejected.  Technologies embody values and politics and cultural norms.  The fact that technologies can be used for good or for bad things is a rather uninteresting point to make.  Technologies affect us and others in ways that may have nothing to do with how we use them.

    I am in agreement with Eekhoff, and I quote him in full because I think he has effectively made a point that church leaders should carefully consider.  While one might humorously think that the lesson to be learned here is that logical inconsistency is easy to expose, and thus should be avoided, the greater lesson is that we must remind ourselves that our technologies are not neutral.  They effect and affect us.  They shape us.  Oftentimes in ways that are very difficult to perceive.

    While I was reading The Next Story, I couldn't help but notice that Challies, in one breath, claimed technology's neutrality, and in the next echoed Postman and McLuhan in their assertions that technology formed and shaped us.  If technology is totally a-moral, then how are we to regard these effects?

    In this respect, I think Amish communities have much to teach the remainder of Christendom.  They understand that technology forms and shapes communities, and thus communities have a stake in what technologies they accept and utilize within their common life.

    Mediatory or Enabling?

    Challies extensively discusses mediation, an unavoidable topic when examining technology.  Yet, Eekhoff has problems with Challies' approach.  He states:

    Another concern I had with the book was how Challies talked about mediation.  As stated earlier, for Challies a medium is something that stands in between.  What he doesn’t quite get right here is that media don’t just stand in the way, they are enablers.  Phones don’t just stand between you and me, they enable us to have a conversation.  To view media as something that enables rather than something that stands in between allows us to see mediation in a more positive light.  For Challies, mediated communication is worse than unmediated or immediate communication.  He says that unmediated communications is the ideal to strive for and anything mediated is only second rate (at best).

    There are a number of things wrong with this position.  First, Challies provides almost no argument for why mediated communication is worse than unmediated communication.  He mentions one Biblical reference (Gen. 3:8) where Adam and Eve heard the sound of God walking in the garden.  Challies interprets this to mean that Adam and Eve enjoyed face-to-face, unmediated communication with God before the fall.  But Genesis 3:8 occurs after Adam and Eve had already sinned.

    Second, it isn’t exactly clear what Challies means by unmediated or immediate communications.  Presumably, given his definition of medium, unmediated communication means any communication where nothing stands between two people.  But how far do we take this?  Does clothing stand between two people?  How about cultures?  Or language?  Or air molecules?  Challies never indicates what he means by this or where the line should be drawn.

    Third, the lack of nuance in this position is unhelpful.  Challies even (briefly) mentions a tool elsewhere in the book that would help him better evaluate communications technologies but unfortunately decided not to use it in this case.  The tool I’m thinking of is McLuhan’s tetrad.  The tetrad is a set of four questions to ask of any technology.  These questions help determine what the technology enhances, what it makes obsolete, what it retrieves and what it reverses into.  As Ian Bogost points out**, the tetrad helps us resist “our temptation to pass judgment on [technology] crudely – as merely good or bad, productive or distracting, enabling or dangerous.  Such an analysis also reminds us that no technological object can be seen as a simple force of either progress or destruction.”

    There is much here of value.  Eekhoff wants more clarity.  He wants a better and more robust account of how exactly technology serves as a go-between or as a conduit.  Eekhoff also seems to have some bias here toward mediatory technology.  His comments suggest that he regards them as bringing a much more positive benefit than a detriment to humanity.  This is inference.  Yet, Eekhoff's preference for technology as enabling over and against technology as mediatory is telling.  I understand Eekhoff's preference for regarding technology as enabling, rather than simply mediatory.  The language of "enabling" is much more positive.  But are these categories mutually exclusive?  I don't think so.

    A technology can be enabling at the same time that it is mediatory.  Skype might enable me to have a face-to-face conversation with Matthew Lee Anderson, thought we are not face-to-face.  Pixels stand in between, mediating between us.  Technology allows us to do more than we might be able to without its assistance, but our connection is not without something that "stands between".

    Concerning biblical theology, I think Eekhoff's dismissal of Challies is weak.  While I might agree that more could have been done with the Bible (much more) on mediation, Genesis 3 is a beginning, and Eekhoff's critique of Challies' use of this text is flimsy.  Never mind that Genesis 3:8 does occur after the first man and woman sinned, but before the pronunciation of the curse.  Never mind that in Genesis 2, the first man does seem to have some type of communion with God that is unimpeded, and that the woman is "bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh," that together they were "naked and not ashamed," and that prior to the moment the first man and woman ate of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, they were not engaged in the blame game.  If you are going to dismiss Challies' reference to Genesis 3:8, you cannot do so quite that easily.

    Final Words

    Eekhoff says this in closing concerning The Next Story:

    Challies has offered a timely book on a topic that many people are concerned about.  His chapters on distraction and informationism are especially helpful.  However, his generally negative view of technology and his lack of a robust theology of technology weakens many of his arguments.  What I missed the most from his theology was what is to be done about the fallen nature of technology.  He briefly mentioned our need to redeem technology but failed to follow through on what he meant by that.  Indeed, for Challies technology is fallen – like a nuclear bomb out of the sky – and we are forced to live in the landscape its explosion leaves behind.

    This is spot on.  It is a timely book.  More was needed on our calling to redeem technology (or, better, to pray and reflect on how Christ's redemptive work applies also to technology).  Eekhoff names a project that Challies, or perhaps someone else, like Eekhoff himself, could take up.

    One additional concern, as a final thought.  Challies' also discusses authority in his book, using the example of Wikipedia as reflective of our modern posture toward truth--truth by consensus rather than truth via established authority.  I found much of Challies' discussion ironic, for the very things that have made the Protestant tradition possible are the very things that, in their modern expression, Challies appears to denounce.  A priesthood of all people (Luther and his followers; Wikipedia and their mass of contributors), with access to previously restricted or unavailable information (the Bible; Google Books, internet searches, etc.), go about the business of interpreting that information and creating a world of meaning (tracts; blogs, other unoffical networks) that differ from what has come before, apart from established authority structures (the Pope and the Catholic Church; Brittanica).

    Challies would've done well at this point to filter his discussion of authority through his own approach to discernment and wisdom, or at least to have done so more thoroughly and more clearly.

    All in all, a good book, a good read, a needed resource, and worthy of discussion.



    Great work by Lee Judge of the KC Star.