Thursday, May 9, 2024

Journalism, Advocacy and Communicating the Gospel: Observations on NPR and Uri Berliner

I'll admit it publicly!  Several decades ago I found myself doing a lot more driving for work and it was not unusual for me to listen to both the Rush Limbaugh radio program and NPR's All Things Considered in the same afternoon.  Different persepectives for sure, but between them I felt like I could gather a few laughs and insights as I motored through my afternoon.

Around the turn of the century, my work situation had changed.  I also found myself listening less and less to Rush Limbaugh.  Too angry and vindictive.  Interestingly, the same thing began to play out with NPR over the past decade.  Now when I drive, it's classic rock, podcasts or whistling to myself.

Against that backdrop, I recently read "I've Been at NPR for 25 Years.  Here's How We Lost America's Trust by Uri Berliner."  Wow!  It is a bombshell that clarified my own experience.  You owe it to yourself to read it and ponder for yourself.  CLICK HERE

Berliner's post has started quite a public conversation and engulfed their new CEO - the one Berliner mentions in his post.  A few weeks after this post, Berliner resigned from NPR in a real "You can't quit me I'm fired!" sort of moment.

From his essay:

Back in 2011, although NPR’s audience tilted a bit to the left, it still bore a resemblance to America at large.  Twenty-six percent of listeners described hemselves as conservative, 23 percent as middle of the road, and 37 percent as liberal.

By 2023, the picture was completely different: only 11 percent described themselves as very or somewhat conservative, 21 percent as middle of the road, and 67 percent of listeners said they were very or somewhat liberal. We weren’t just losing conservatives; we were also losing moderates and traditional liberals.

An open-minded spirit no longer exists within NPR, and now, predictably, we don’t have an audience that reflects America.

Berliner then goes on for 3 pages to document three specific instances where NPR purposefully downplayed - even ignored - stories that turned out to be important.  Even when later identified as important stories or false reporting on their part, NPR moved on without learning, retracting or publicly acknowledging the miss.

He reviews his increasing resistance to the emerging culture of advocacy that he saw replacing the commitment to journalism.  Hmmmmmmm.  Advocacy or journalism?  Ponder that difference for a moment.

There’s an unspoken consensus about the stories we should pursue and how they should be framed. It’s frictionless—one story after another .  .  .  It’s almost like an assembly line.

Berliner's personal observations were multiplied and confirmed as he talked with people about his work at NPR:

Now the trajectory of the conversation is different. After the initial “I love NPR,"there’s a pause and a person will acknowledge, “I don’t listen as much as I used to.” Or, with some chagrin:“What’s happening there? Why is NPR telling me what to think?”

Finally he writes (on April 9, 2024):

A few weeks ago, NPR welcomed a new CEO, Katherine Maher, who’s been a leader in tech. She doesn’thave a news background, which could be an asset given where things stand. I’ll be rooting for her. It’s a tough job. Her first rule could be simple enough: don’t tell people how to think.

We now know that Brunner resigned from NPR six days after he shared his thoughts in this essay.  His resignation was accepted by the new CEO and, by my observation, she has led in NPR in damage control and avoidance.  There seems no change in direction or even the ability to breathe deep and invest time in organizational self-reflection.  

Two things have captured my attention through this sorry episode:

1) "Journalism replaced by advocacy."  When winning is more important than the truth, all sorts of things begin to grow dysfunctional.  This well describes the tsunami of information flooding our smartphones from all sides, don't you think?  Beware!

2) "Don't tell people how to think."  That approach makes me one advocacy voice lost in a massive chorus of advocacy singers.  Most are more creative, better funded and angrier than me.

So I have been reconsidering some things, not about message or content so much as delivery.  I'm willing to answer people's questions about the "what" and "why" of how I think on almost anything.  And with issues related to the Gospel, I will even hope to invite people to join me in that journey.

But there are multiple reasons to remember that I am not in a position tell people how they must think or what conclusions they must affirm in order to be respected by me or to get the entire story - which can include my own foibles and confusion.

CLICK HERE for my post of May 2021 entitled Both Content & Delivery Matter When The Church Answers Questions

Thursday, April 25, 2024

We Can See Where This Path Leads: Lessons From Other Denominations As the CRC Considers It's Own Human Sexuality Report

As I observe the ongoing interactions regarding the Christian Reformed Church's 2022 Human Sexuality Report,  I'm surprised how often I hear people in publications and social media, saying "the church is going to have to give on LGBTQ+ issues like gay marriage or we will loose all our young people."

No doubt, there is an observable generational difference regarding LGBTQ+ issues in the United States that gives this line of thought a certain common-sense sort of logic.  But looking at those who have taken this approach, I don't see evidence that this actually leads to the desired outcome.

Consider this succinct observation from Six Truth's About the Church's Future by Bob Thune.  

In 2005, the United Church of Christ (UCC) became the first mainline Protestant denomination to officially embrace gay marriage. They expected this progressive stance to result in a growth boom. In 2006, with great optimism, the UCC announced the ambition to plant more than 1,600 new congregations by 2021.

Over that 15-year period, however, the denomination’s membership declined by more than 40 percent; 60 percent of its congregations now have fewer than 50 people; and in 2021 it sold its national headquarters to pay bills.

This story shouldn’t surprise; it’s the story of mainline Protestantism over the past 60 years. In 1960, the seven mainline denominations boasted 30 million members. Now they have 13 million.  CLICK HERE for the full article

Likewise, in his post "UCC Shows Mainline Protestantism's Future: Unrelenting Decline," author John Lompris digs even further into the details and concludes "Whatever future the American church has, it’ll lie in the hands of those who embrace historic Christian orthodoxy."  CLICK HERE for full post.

The numbers and stories of this sort of decline are consistent and numerous in the United States.  They are playing out again even now with our United Methodist neighbors.  What leads people to think that the CRCNA would experience a different outcome?

It is my sense that the church of Jesus would do well to rethink what it means to do gospel-centered ministry both with and for our LGBTQ+ members and neighbors.  Faithfulness to Jesus and the Gospel of God's Grace has certainly altered my ministry in this regard.  Following Jesus more faithfully - especially when He calls me to repentance - is what discipleship is about.  Change over time is expected.  It should be change that better shows the world a reflection of Jesus.  (2 Corinthians 3:18)

But changing ministry and convictions as a strategy to avoid loosing loved members is not the path of faithfulness.  And seems be a proven path leading to decline.

Thursday, March 28, 2024

Beware of "My Truth" Demands

When someone makes a demand to express “My Truth,” I have learned to BEWARE!  It has been my experience that when a person has a "My Truth" starting point to a conversation, several unhelpful things will follow:

  • They will fight to protect “Their Truth.”  Both me and my perspective present a personal threat to them and “Their Truth” and indeed the very identity they have built on “Their Truth.”
  • They will be unable to imagine any other “Truth” that is not theirs alone, even if I agree with them.
  • They will be unable to even imagine a “Truth” that is big enough to speak both to their perspective and to mine.
And worst of all, those problems are "baked in" to their thinking.  The problems necessarily follow from the premise that "I have the truth" in my sole possesion.

A different starting point that leads to different conversations and better outcomes is realizing that everyone has their experience and/or perspective on "The Truth."

It is more helpful to say "I had this experience and it was true."  Great! is my response.  How does your experience connect with my own experience, even if different, and help us both get a clearer glimplse of "The Truth."

It is more helpful to say "This is my perspective on this matter."  Great! is my response.  Perhaps your persepective can enlarge or enlighten my perspective.  We are both better off to discover that.

It can be the case that your perspective might disagree with my perspective.  Fair enough.  But we can still be people who are pursuing "The Truth."  At this point, our perspectives simply disagree.  Neither of us need be a threat to the other person.

The "My Truth" orientation is exclusive and necessarily leads to conflict.  After all, if "My Truth" and is different that your "My Truth," then your "My Truth" is wrong and such a falsehood must be set right.  That is to say, surrendered to my "My Truth."

Better - and I would say closer to the reality of our world - to say that "The Truth" exists independently of me.  I certainly may have an experience of that "Truth" or a perspective on it.  But I do not own Truth.

When "The Truth" exists apart from either me or you, then it is easy for me to realize that I may have only a parital experience or perspective on "The Truth."  The next step is to realize that perhaps you have an experience or persepctive that would better inform my own.  Picture me moving from a 20% grasp of "The Truth" to a 22% of "The Truth" because of what I learn from your experience or perspective.

As you can see, such a starting point draws us to community and reconciliation rather than conflict.

In closing - and with a big grin as I type - if what I am saying is off base and and you need to let me hear "Your Truth" on this, give me a call through the church office and I will be happy to listen.  I am certain I can benefit from your perspective.

Thursday, March 21, 2024

CS Lewis On The Dilema Of A "Christian" Political Party

I meet regularly with a friend to talk through a chapter from CS Lewis' book "God in the Dock."  Hmmmm.  Lewis was a citizen of England, and an Oxford University Professor of Medieval literature who died November 22, 1963, the same day that President John Kennedy was assinated here in the United States.  When the reading was "Meditation on the Third Commandment," (The one about not "Taking the LORD's Name in Vain")  I was sure the chapter would be a snoozer.  Boy, was I surprised!

First paragraph:

We learn of the growing desire for a Christian ‘party’, a Christian ‘front’, or a Christian ‘platform’ in politics. Nothing is so earnestly to be wished as a real assault by Christianity on the politics of the world: nothing, at first sight, so fitted to deliver this assault as a Christian Party.  .  .  .

The Christian Party must either confine itself to stating what ends are desirable and what means are lawful, or else it must go further and select from among the lawful means those which it deems possible and efficacious and give to these its practical support. If it chooses the first alternative, it will not be a political party. Nearly all parties agree in professing ends which we admit to be desirable—security, a living wage, and the best adjustment between the claims of order and freedom. What distinguishes one party from another is the championship of means. We do not dispute whether the citizens are to be made happy, but whether an egalitarian or a hierarchical State, whether capitalism or socialism, whether despotism or democracy is most likely to make them so.

Lewis nexts illustrates with three hypothetical believers who all prefer different means - think policies - in pursuit of similar ends - public safety and equal opportunity for all citizens for example.  Division will follow, not based on the ends that all three would agree on, but based instead on the different means to achieving those ends.  One group might win the day based on their policies, but in doing that, they become only a part of the believing church, and not the whole. 

Lewis again:

It will be not simply a part of Christendom, but a part claiming to be the whole. By the mere act of calling itself the Christian Party it implicitly accuses all Christians who do not join it of apostasy and betrayal. It will be exposed, in an aggravated degree, to that temptation which the Devil spares none of us at any time—the temptation of claiming for our favourite opinions that kind and degree of certainty and authority which really belongs only to our Faith.

All this comes from pretending that God has spoken when He has not spoken. He will not settle the two brothers’ inheritance: ‘Who made Me a judge or a divider over you?’ (Luke 12:14) By the natural light He has shown us what means are lawful: to find out which one is efficacious He has given us brains. The rest He has left to us.

Lewis closes with sage advice that avoids the problem altogether:

There is a third way (to influence the country with Christian Faith) — by becoming a majority. He who converts his neighbour has performed the most practical Christian-political act of all.

Whoa?!?  He was writing this in 1941, right in the middle of the Nazi "Blitz Bombing" of London in World War II.  It's all of 4 pages, and worth digging in to.  You can purchase  the book from Amazon by CLICKING HERE.  It will include more than 45 MORE fascinating chapters.  Or listen to it read on YouTube by CLICKING HERE.  You will love the British accident for the 8 minutes it takes.

Wednesday, March 13, 2024

What Do You Mean By That Term: "Christian Nationalism"

During a recent conversation, I had a local elected official say to me "I am a Christian, and I love my country.  That makes me a Christian Naitonalist, right?"  For them, it was a rhetorical question with a self-evident answer of "Certainly!"  I was silent.

In truth, it all depends on how that term - Christian Nationalism - is defined.  That is the challenge in any conversation when someone uses it.  When one term represents different things as different people use it, nothing but confusion and false assumptions can follow.  Since I couldn't ask for some more detail on their definition, I wasn't going to add to the confusion.

Frankly, I think the better term for what my representive may have wanted to express would have been "patriotic Christian."  Grammar Geeks will tell you that it matters which is the adjective and which is the object.

Personally, I am happy to stand with respect when the VFW marches by with the American flag at the Tulip Time parade.  I have performed a Memorial Service at Arlington National Cemetery and been stirred by the sights and history of that setting.  I'm glad to stand for the National Anthem at events, and do my best to sing it.  The people of Celebration-Harderwyk hear me pray for those who govern our nation.  Gold star families have been part of the congregations that I have served.

I am thankful to be a citizen of the United States.  It has afforded me unimaginable blessings and I recognize that many people have sacrificed in a variety of ways to make those possible.  I am disheartened when my country has not lived up to it's dream and want to help pursue that dream for everyone.  I understand why many people yearn to join me in the freedoms, responsibilities and abundance that citizenship affords.  I want to pass it all on to my children, neighbors and any others that want to join me.

But I also know that many Nigerians love their homeland, like I do mine.  The same could be said for many Chinese, Germans, Salvadoreans and on and on and on.  Love of homeland is a good thing.  I would even say a "God thing."

But loving our homeland - or any homeland - more than God Himself is a different matter.  Such disordered love is a form of idolatry.  It blinds us to the shortcomings, sin and brokenness of our own homeland and the people and culture that make it feel like home to us.  Every homeland falls short, to paraphrase Paul in Romans 3.  Every homeland, or better, all the people in it need the Savior: Jesus.

At the end, people from every homeland will gather around the throne of the Lamb of God and give Him praise.  The words of Revelation are "from every tribe and tongue and nation."  But it is Jesus the Lamb that they will worship, not their homeland.

It appears to me that the term "Christian Natonalism" is a slippery one right now.  People use it as a slur for others they disagree with.  Or a point of separation to differentiate themselves from "those people."  Or for virtue signaling.  Or without thinking.  When I hear someone use the term, my first question is always, "What do you mean by that?" long before I say "me too" or "no way."  How do you define the term?  That makes all the difference.

That said, there is an emerging movement of self-identified "Christian Nationalists" I must resist and reject.  Their definition of the term lays out an idolatrous order of love for God and Country.  I'm writing to warn you of this emerging force.

The Case for Christian Nationalism by Stephen Wolfe is the most serious effort I know to make the best case for both "Christian" as well as "Nationalism."  It is nearly 500 pages and scholarly in tone, so I have not read it.  But this review on is enough to confirm my concerns.  CLICK HERE for that full review.  It is long and detailed.

Much more readable and helpful on this topic is Trevin Wax's reflections on the recent Rob Reiner "documentary" called "God & Country."  CLICK HERE for that post.  It would be good to read the review and watch the video together.

I've avoided my own definition of Christian Nationalism in this post. I am hoping to point out the existence of a line between patriotism and idolatry.  Getting specific about where to draw the actual line right now may need some conversation.  "What do you mean by that?"

Consider learning more and listening carefully in order to more clearly identify that line in your own life.  If you only take one thing away, may it be the encouragement to first ask, "What do you mean by that?" so you can pursue understanding.

As always, feel free to ask questions or pursue further conversations with me.  Stop me after a service and we can set up a time for conversation.  Call the Harderwyk office and they can help us connect.  Let's be aware and learning.

Thursday, February 15, 2024

You Need To Know Brad Wilcox and His New Book: "Get Married"

I have followed the work of Dr. Brad Wilcox for many years.  Professor of Sociology and Director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia, he is a prolific researcher and writer in the area of marriage and family who can write clearly - that is to say: real people can understand his findings, observations and applications. Don't let the PhD put you off.  Instead, check out any of several short posts on the Institute for Family Studies listed below.

But First: His New Book!

Get Married: Why Americans Must Defy the Elites, Forge Strong Families, and Save Civilization
was released this week.  CLICK HERE for Amazon link.  I've not yet read the book, but it is on my stack, and I'll add to this post when I complete it.  

Here are three of his research findings that I have taken from his blog: Six Reasons to Get and Stay Married - CLICK HERE  Let them whet your interest.

  • Nothing predicts happiness for Americans better than (a good) marriage.  Not money, education, work, or even sex.
  • Boys raised apart from an intact family are more likely to go to jail than graduate from college.  By contrast, young men raised in an intact family are about 4 times more likely to graduate from college than land in jail or prison.  (This insight has PROFOUND insight and motivation for Youth Ministry and discipling/support of single-parent families. - Bill)
  • Churchgoing.  Religious couples are happier, less divorce prone, and, surprisingly, even have more sex than secular couples.

Some Reviews of the Book

Christianity Today is a go-to source for me when I want thoughtful, honest and faithfully Christian perspectives on news and culture.  This review by Joseph Holmes - who is himself single - was helpful and would be a good first read.  CLICK HERE for "The Data-Backed Case for Marriage." featured a podcast conversation with Wilcox at the book's release entitled "Why Your Community Needs Healthy Marriages."  CLICK HERE for a link to their website, or search for "Gospel Coalition" wherever you get your podcasts.

Recent Brad Wilcox Posts With The Institute of Family Studies

  • 6 Reasons to Get and Stay Married - 2/13/24 - CLICK HERE
  • The Awfulness of Elite Hypocrisy on Marriage - 2/13/24 - CLICK HERE
  • Don't Buy the Soulmate Myth - 2/12/24 - CLICK HERE
  • We Can Make Chicago Safer By Prioritizing Stronger Families - 1/2/24 - CLICK HERE
  • How to Make Smartphones and Apps Safer for Kids - 12/21/23 - CLICK HERE
Each one of these has insight of their own worth pondering.  Consider reading one per day and letting them sink in.

Tuesday, February 6, 2024

Stopping to Breathe the Air of Eternity - An Excerpt From Emotionally Healthy Spirituality by Peter Scazzero

My wife Mary Lynn has been part of a group of pastor's wives meeting and talking through the book Emotionally Healthy Spirituality by Peter Scazzero.  She pointed out to me these opening paragraphs to the sixth chapter as a good picture of the need we are addressing in our current sermon series at Celebration-Harderwyk on Spiritual Practices.  I pass them along with recommendation of the book as well.

We live in a blizzard. And few of us have a rope.

In his book a Hidden Wholeness, Parker Palmer relates a story about farmers in the Midwest who would prepare for blizzards by tying a rope from the back door of their house out to the barn as a guide to ensure they would return safely home. These blizzards came quickly and fiercely and were highly dangerous.  When their full force was blowing, a farmer could not see the end of his or her hand. Many froze to death in those blizzards, disoriented by their inability to see. They wandered in circles, lost sometimes in their own backyards. If they lost their grip on the rope, it became impossible for them to find their way back home. Some froze within feet of their own front door, never realizing how close they were to safety.

To this day, in parts of Canada and the Great Plains, meteorologists counsel people that, to avoid getting lost in the blinding snow when they venture outside, they tie one end of a long rope to their house and grasp the other end firmly.

Many of us have lost our way, spiritually, in the white out of the Blizzard swirling around us. Blizzards begin when we say yes to too many things. Between demands from work and family, our lives fall somewhere between full and overflowing. We multitask, so much so that we are unaware we are doing three things at once. We admire people who are able to accomplish so much in so little time. They are our role models.

At the same time many of us are overscheduled, tense, addicted to hurry, frantic, preoccupied, fatigued, and starved for time. Cramming as much as possible into our to do lists, we battle life to make the best use of every spare minute we have.

Yet not much changes. Our productivity becomes counterproductive. We end our days exhausted from work and raising children. And then our “free time” on weekends becomes filled with more demands in an already overburdened life.

We listen to sermons and read books about slowing down and creating margin in our lives. We read about the need to rest and recharge our batteries. Our workplaces offer seminars on increased productivity through replenishing ourselves.

But we can't stop. And if we aren't busy, we feel guilty that we waste time and are not productive.

We go through the motions of doing so many things as if there is no alternative way of spending our days. It is like being addicted - only it is not to drugs or alcohol but to tasks, to work, to doing. Any sense of rhythm in our daily, weekly, and yearly lives has been swallowed up in the blizzard of our lives.

Add to this the storms and trials of life that blow into our lives unexpectedly and catch us off guard, and we wonder why so many of us are disoriented and confused.

We need a rope to lead us home.

God is offering us a rope to keep us from getting lost. This rope consistently leads us back home to him, to a place that is centered and rooted. This rope can be found in two ancient disciplines going back thousands of years - the Daily Office and Sabbath. When placed inside present-day Christianity, the Daily Office and Sabbath are groundbreaking, countercultural acts against western culture. They are powerful declarations about God, ourselves, our relationships, our beliefs, and our values.

Stopping for the Daily Office and Sabbath is not meant to add another to-do to our already busy schedules. It is the resetting of our entire lives toward a new destination- God. It is an entirely new way of being in the world.

The Daily Office and Sabbath are ropes that lead us back to God in the blizzards of life. They are anchors for living in the hurricane of demands. When done as a “want to” rather than a “have to,” they offer us a rhythm for our lives that binds us to the living God.

They are nothing short of revolutionary disciplines for Christians today.

Emotionally Healthy Spirituality by Peter Scazzero - Chapter 6 – pp. 139-141

CLICK HERE for Amazon Link.