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Watch the clip first.

I don’t know what is weirder:  1) the fact that Glenn Beck, in the face of a question he could not answer, screamed at a caller and called her a pinhead,  2) the fact that after the fact he watched the video and defended his actions repeatedly, essentially saying that in the face of the kind of stupidity displayed by the caller the only appropriate response is to do exactly what he did, or   3)  the fact that Bill O’Reilly was set up as being the voice of rational response, tempering Beck’s flair and calling him to account.

Beck’s rage-filled refusal to engage in rational discourse is, honestly, not really what disturbs me the most.  I don’t particularly care what Glenn Beck thinks–it doesn’t have a whole lot of meaning to me.  What does disturb me is that millions of people all over the country ardently believe that Glenn Beck can do no wrong and have seemingly given him a blank check; many have taken rank behind him and hail him as a prophetic leader.  Indeed, many people I know and love believe this.  I am disturbed by the celebration of vitriolic reactionism to dialogue, by the co-opting of historical movements based on informed and rational (and sometimes heated) dialogue (Samuel Adams and the objection to taxation without representation) to perpetuate a loose, disconnected, and largely irrational socio-political agenda.

Most significantly, I am deeply disturbed by the linking of Christianity with the political right.  While I understand that many Christians are conservatives, it is also true that many are not, and creating an identity of one’s political affiliation and one’s theological doctrine and praxis is something that I cannot abide.  I ardently deny that such an identity exists, except in the rhetoric of those who find it convenient to link the two.  I view this approach to politics as a way of using the Christian Church for a political purpose.  It is relegating the person of Christ as a means to accomplish a political end.  It is making the King of Kings a political pawn and having him serve our political agenda, instead of us serving Him and His agenda of the reclamation of the world from sin, death, and dysfunction.

Those who love and honor Jesus Christ must throw down any political idols, whether they might be the Republican party or Barack Obama.  We must put people and people’s institutions in their proper place: subservient to King Jesus.

Why are conservatives and many Christians so afraid?  We do not need to be.

15 Surely the nations are like a drop in a bucket;
they are regarded as dust on the scales;
he weighs the islands as though they were fine dust.

17 Before him all the nations are as nothing;
they are regarded by him as worthless
and less than nothing.

22 He sits enthroned above the circle of the earth,
and its people are like grasshoppers.
He stretches out the heavens like a canopy,
and spreads them out like a tent to live in.

23 He brings princes to naught
and reduces the rulers of this world to nothing.

24 No sooner are they planted,
no sooner are they sown,
no sooner do they take root in the ground,
than he blows on them and they wither,
and a whirlwind sweeps them away like chaff.

25 “To whom will you compare me?
Or who is my equal?” says the Holy One.

–Isaiah 40

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Every now and then I read an article in the news that is so disturbing to me that I find I can’t speak.  Let me preface this post by saying that I am extremely interested in technology.  I am completing a graduate degree in media studies.  I just finished an article on video gaming.  But I also am an unapologetic bibliophile.  I love books.  I love that they are filled with ideas of all kinds.  I love the way they smell and the feel of a heavy book in my hand. I like having them around me–on the shelves in my house and in my study.

It seems that a certain prep school called Cushing Academy in Ashburnham, Massachusetts, has decided that books are simply outdated and therefore, they have given away their 20,000 volume collection and are replacing it with a cafe, computer lab, and flat screen TVs.

I’m aghast and honestly, I can’t really communicate what I feel–sadness, outrage, and incredulity, are all there in varied proportions.  I’ll leave you the link to the full article  here and finally leave you with the very germane introduction to Neil Postman’s book Amusing Ourselves to Death (which I highly recommend).  I’ve included his entire introduction below:

hollow

“We were keeping our eye on 1984. When the year came and the prophecy didn’t, thoughtful Americans sang softly in praise of themselves. The roots of liberal democracy had held. Wherever else the terror had happened, we, at least, had not been visited by Orwellian nightmares.

But we had forgotten that alongside Orwell’s dark vision, there was another – slightly older, slightly less well known, equally chilling: Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. Contrary to common belief even among the educated, Huxley and Orwell did not prophesy the same thing. Orwell warns that we will be overcome by an externally imposed oppression. But in Huxley’s vision, no Big Brother is required to deprive people of their autonomy, maturity and history. As he saw it, people will come to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think.

What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumblepuppy. As Huxley remarked in Brave New World Revisited, the civil libertarians and rationalists who are ever on the alert to oppose tyranny “failed to take into account man’s almost infinite appetite for distractions”. In 1984, Huxley added, people are controlled by inflicting pain. In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure. In short, Orwell feared that what we hate will ruin us. Huxley feared that what we love will ruin us.

This book is about the possibility that Huxley, not Orwell, was right.”
— Neil Postman (Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business)

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In the spring of 2008, hordes of people descended on the city of San Francisco for a gathering that some might call a trade expo.  This term is slightly misleading, because the Web 2.0 Expo is not necessarily focused on a single trade or segment of the media industry like other media industry trade expos like Cinema Expo or ComicCon.  Instead, the Web 2.0 Expo is intended to bring people from all kinds of media together to form connections and to essentially try to approach the new web 2.0 with more strategy and thought for design than occurred in the design and implementation of the original Internet.  The 2008 San Francisco expo is the second expo that has happened, and although almost every kind of media is represented in the attendees, it is billed as a place for the “builders of the next generation web: designers, developers, entrepreneurs, marketers, business strategists, and venture capitalists, people who have experiences to share and a passion for learning” (Web 2.0 Expo 2008).  The language on the expo’s website is optimistic and vague, calling for attendees to come and “immerse yourself in the Web 2.0 experience.”  Although the bulk of the expo centers around connecting people in various media industries to each other in an effort to increase the connectivity of Internet industry and infrastructure designers and therefore usher in a new era of Internet design and function, the event also boasts many different speakers from various areas of industry.  It was in this context of trade show and not academic conference that Clay Shirky took the stage to speak. Shirky is a writer for both academic forums and industry trade magazines, as well as popular periodicals.  He also serves as a consultant with many world-class organizations and companies like the BBC, Library of Congress, and Nokia, working to help them understand how to make better use of decentralized technologies (like wireless networks, peer-to-peer, etc.).  He also teaches at NYU’s graduate Interactive Telecommunications Program.

Shirky’s address, which has now been transcribed and has blazed across the digital landscape through the viral means of blog comments and mail lists, was entitled “Gin, Television, and Social Surplus.”  Shirky began the speech by referring to the early industrial revolution and the opinion of an unnamed British historian that gin was a coping mechanism for the urban British who had been put together with so many other people due to the growth of the cities because of industrial growth.  This historian believed that because of the suddenness of this transformation from rural to urban life, one way society coped was to turn to gin for a generation. Only after this period of collective confusion and angst passed, he argues, did British society manage to come up with many of the institutions the industrial revolution is known for producing.  But Shirky makes a jump here to his first key observation: “that real development was dependant on people start[ing to think] of [people living together in such densities] as a vast civic surplus, one they could design for rather than dissipate.” The process that Shirky believes he has identified is that first the fundamental change to social and cultural structures that were comfortable and familiar left people feeling as if they were living in a crisis, and they found coping mechanisms to manage their discomfort with the unfamiliar.  Once society became more comfortable with the change to their cultural structures, they began to see possibilities for these new structures and for the change itself instead of seeing only liabilities.

This picture is certainly a quick and dirty cultural analysis of how cultural revolutions work, and although almost all of the nuanced meaning is lost in the simplification (he does not reference class at all, a tremendously influential factor in the industrial revolution), Shirky is content to oversimplify things so that his main point stands out: he is primarily concerned with describing and exploring the collective power of a society and how the society navigates cultural revolutions.  He is particularly interested in how society manages to do these things in new ways using new tools, and he uses a term to describe the collective cognitive potential of a society: cognitive surplus.  This is a term that attempts to identify and define any potential for doing things that lies beyond what we need to do in order to survive.  Going to work, making or finding food, cleaning the house, and caring for and educating children are not part of this idea of a cognitive surplus; rather, they are simply the meeting of needs.  The collective time, energy, and cognitive power that exists beyond the time given to meeting needs is called cognitive surplus.  Going to a movie, dropping off children to soccer lessons, writing a blog, and planning a gourmet meal or a date are all activities that we do to fill up our free time.  If we had a much longer work week and therefore less free time, then our cognitive surplus would be a good deal less.

Shirky not only identifies all leisure time (even if it is filled with activity) as something of cultural interest, he labels it a surplus of cognition.  This surplus language implies that we have a resource that is available to us, and this language invites questions like “what is being done now with the surplus?  How is it being used?  Are there more strategic ways to use it?  Who controls it?”  The language Shirky uses begs these questions in a way that merely using the term “leisure time” does not.  It assigns value to the time and mental potential of an individual or a collective of individuals, and the very nature of this phrasing hints at a responsibility people have to use time in constructive ways.

Although some of Shirky’s assumptions are simplistic, like his view of television viewing as merely passive, his concept of cognitive surplus is compelling and can be useful in describing and understanding how knowledge communities function and employ human energy to projects.  Calling this human energy labor is neither accurate nor helpful, for cognitive surplus is an altogether different thing than labor.  Labor carries much political and cultural context with it, but does not accurately describe the work and play being done by people on their computers after they get home from work and log on to their chat group or their wiki, or contribute to any number of projects that run across traditional boundary lines of class, gender, ethnicity, or politics.

Shirky implicitly argues that while cognitive surplus has been a constant in all societies, in the United States it really began to expand after World War II, when a growing GDP per capita and a more universal 5 day work week began an unprecedented growth of leisure time.  He argues that we began to fill that surplus, in large part, by watching television.  His obvious disdain for watching television is made abundantly clear in his article, and although his dismissiveness of television watching and his categorization of it as inherently passive is, at best, a gross oversimplification, it does not undermine the idea of cognitive surplus.  While Shirky categorizes television watching as a mechanism that has served, in part, to help society cope with extreme and unprecedented change in social structures, he also believes that society is starting to become used to these social structures and is attempting to see the cognitive surplus society possesses “as an asset rather than a crisis.”  This is, perhaps, an unfair categorization of the situation, since the tools society is using to begin to deploy this cognitive surplus in new and strategic ways has only recently been discovered in the Internet and the myriad new media like blogs, listservs, mailing lists, and wikis.  While we may have found and begun to deploy media that are inherently more active or political for the average user than network television, we need not criticize ourselves for not possessing the tools to do what we can now.  The question that needs to be asked is the question that Shirky eventually asks after the detour through his snarky complaint about the worthlessness of television: “If we carve out a little bit of the cognitive surplus and deploy it [in any place that a user or viewer has been served up a passive or canned experience], could we make good things happen?”  Indeed we can, and we are.  Media that includes the viewer and allows them to be part of the creative process is media that gives an expressive and constructive use to cognitive surplus.  Editing wikipedia, posting to a blog, creating a video response to a video game website, or contributing to a community discussion board conversation about neighborhood crime prevention are all various activities to utilize cognitive surplus in some creative or expressive way.

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It is an old and tired thing to say that new media and things like wikis are fundamentally changing our ideas about authority.  But when I read the article on Wikipedia by Stacy Shiff, I was interested.  When I read the editor’s note, I was struck.  I was struck by not only how, in any setting other than an electronic one (and only some at that), what this 24 year old Ryan Jordan, a community manager for Wikia, did would be considered not only deceitful, but would be considered gross misrepresentation for a political end–to give credibility to Wikipedia.  I think I was surprised by the fact that I simply trusted the information that was given without thinking–an amateur mistake, but also one that a lot of people make, including the author of the story, until it later came out that this was not true.

This has gotten me thinking about the nature of deception and artificiality in the online world.  There is a whole lot of scholarship about what “creative representations of the self” can do for people, or how various media are changed by it, but I started wondering about the damage that could be done, and has been done, because the web is a place where two non-complimentary things are happening at the same time: people lie all the time about their identity and activities, and the environment and mode of use online makes many people simply accept what they see or read as true, without using any critical analysis of it.  Sure, there are some that are critical of what they read, but I suppose my point comes home here: how can we get by if there is simply no agreement or adherence to honesty of any kind?  for a very long time, the world has had social rules in place that kept the whole populace from being able to do what they want to.  In short, there were ways, even if they weren’t perfect, to hold people to their word. There are much fewer, if any, of those things in place online.

A new branch of philosophy could emerge here: the ethics of the Internet.  Do ethical decisions or dilemmas change when they occur online?  Should we treat online things the same way as non-online things?  Why?  The shock of reading that someone so blatantly lied about his identity and authority shocks me, and maybe that’s an indicator of how I view authority, but I for one, am not ready to abandon authoritarian structures for a new paradigm.  I’m not a good little Cultural Studies student; I think hierarchical structures are vital for the health of society, though the people who inhabit them often go bad and need to be replaced.

For whatever reason, I had a very strong reaction to the editor’s note and to Mr. Ryan Jordan’s deception, as well as to the appalling comments by Jimmy Wales, which is worse than the offense itself.  “I regard it as a pseudonym and I don’t really have a problem with it.”

This reader has a problem with it.

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The week of September 28, 1987, the Star Trek franchise boldly took its next step into a new world when Star Trek: The Next Generation (TNG) premiered in the United States.  It was a television show set in the 24th century, approximately 70 years after the original Star Trek series took place.  It featured a new Enterprise ship, a new crew, and was phenomenally popular.  The show’s style and rhythm was shaped by the operation of two sets of binary themes present throughout the duration of the show.  The show puts a scientific approach to the world in opposition to another approach to the world—belief and emotion.  While belief and emotion are admittedly quite different, the show tends to use them in similar ways, often grouping them together as oppositional (though not necessarily incongruous) to science. TNG posits the known value system (science) with unknown value systems (belief/emotion), creating situations of conflict that must be resolved by the Enterprise crew, not through fighting their way through, but rather by making an attempt to understand otherness.

tngcrew5

Star Trek is, of course, science-fiction, and as such it is not surprising at all that one of the bedrock themes of TNG is the importance and prominence of science.  Computers and futuristic technology are so much a part of the show that they are not explained; rather, the fact that the setting is full of advanced technology and scientific situations is simply taken for granted.  The Enterprise itself is presented not as a warship but as a vessel of exploration.  Almost every episode begins with a voiceover of the log entry of one of the officers, usually the captain, explaining that they have been sent to some unknown area of space to do some kind of scientific mission.  Science pervades the entire series like dye does yarn.

While science has perhaps the largest role as a theme and is always presented positively, it is often present with an oppositional theme of emotion or belief.  Often a resolution must occur not through scientific tools, but rather through intuition, the grasp of an emotional truth, or the acceptance of a belief.  The relationship between the two binaries is very like the relationship between melody and harmony, the science theme serving as the base element or the setting of the series, and the belief/emotion theme serving as the harmonic which, through its contrast to science, contributes to the series’ style.

These two binaries exist on multiple levels through the film, from the characters themselves to the structures of each episode.  The show has an ensemble cast: the senior officers of the Enterprise, and these characters are representative of the range between the scientific and the emotion/belief binary.  The character that most emulates science is the android Data.  He serves, not surprisingly, as science officer of the vessel and is the exemplary scientific character—systematic, logical, and powerful, both mentally and physically.  Significantly, he is incapable of feeling emotion, a fact which plays a recurring part throughout the series.  Most of the characters are a mix of the two elements, like Will Riker, the first officer, who is a passionate man with a strong work ethic and one of the most reliable characters on the show.  Captain Jean-Luc Picard is a mix of both science and emotion/belief, serving as the voice of reason and command in many situations, but often also presented as a man of passion and strong beliefs.  Moving more towards the emotion/belief side is Worf, a Klingon with a wild, barely-contained vitality and a robust grasp of his Klingon beliefs.  Often he is put in oppositional situations with a more scientific character as he was in the seventh-season episode called “Gambit”.  In this episode, Data reprimands Worf for inappropriately verbalizing his frustration with Data’s command decisions, presenting yet another instance of the oppositional binary at work through the two characters themselves.  The character that is associated most strongly with the emotion/belief theme is Troi, the ship’s counselor.  Like Data, she has an innate characteristic that allows her to be representative of the theme: she is empathic and is almost always the one to represent emotion or belief.

This oppositional binary, as a structuring element, is present on multiple levels in the series, not merely in the characters themselves.  Almost every episode in the seven-season series, with few exceptions, puts science (the familiar value system) in opposition to any other unknown value system (emotion/belief).  This often occurs through the Enterprise exploring some unknown area of space and encountering unknown life forms with new and different value systems.  This forces the Enterprise’s crew to negotiate between two value and arrive at some kind of (often uneasy) compromise or understanding.  Another way the show puts an unknown value system in contrast to the known value system of science is through plots that focus not on contact with unknown aliens, but rather on the diversity of belief within the coalition of species and races that make up the United Federation of Planets, the organization that represents civilization in the series, and the institution to which the Enterprise and her crew belong.

In a first-season episode called “Heart of Glory,” the show explores Klingon beliefs and values.  The main source of conflict in the episode comes from the Enterprise crew being forced to interact with people who hold values very different to their own, and as the episode progresses, two Klingons who have come on board attempt to hijack the ship.  Worf serves as a focal point for the episode and as the primary point of translation between the known value system of the Federation, representing exploration and systematic, logical inquiry, and the outside value system of the Klingons that emphasizes violence, passion, and honor.  Through the course of the episode the two value systems are put in tension, finally finding an uneasy negotiation through the resolution of the primary conflict: the attempted (and failed) hijacking of the ship and the restoration of order.  Most episodes in the series have a similar pattern of encountering a new life form or a known life form with a different value system, and the episode develops around the attempt to negotiate one value system with the other.

Significantly, most of the time the resolution occurs not through the direct use of science, the application of the known value system, but rather through an empathic leap of understanding of “the other” and an attempt to find common ground between the two binaries.  The fourth season episode “First Contact” is representative of this pattern.  When the Enterprise makes the first contact with a planet called Malcor III on the verge of discovering interstellar warp travel, the planet struggles to negotiate two factions of their population: those who would welcome visitors from space and those who are afraid of them and wish to take a violent posture against them based on the fear of Malcorian civilization changing unalterably as a result of the visitors’ presence.  As captain Picard talks with the Malcorian chancellor, he explains the Enterprise’s purpose in visiting the planet and offers that if the Malcorians wish them to leave, they will leave.  Ultimately, the chancellor decides that the Malcorian civilization is not ready for contact with interstellar peoples, and asks the Enterprise to leave.  It is at this point when the empathic leap of understanding is required to negotiate “the other.”  This occurs in Picard’s acquiescence to the chancellor’s wishes, despite his disappointment.  The Enterprise leaves and does not pursue relations with the planet, and negotiation between the two value systems is achieved.

The thematic binary opposition found in TNG  was and continues to be a vehicle for the culture to process and investigate the values that it holds.  Ambiguous ethical situations, moral dilemmas, and difficult interactions with “the other” are dealt with each week in new episodes, and the success of the TNG series attests to the elemental significance of the themes explored throughout the show.  Star Trek as a franchise has always contained the thematic element of stretching humanity’s capacity for understanding, and TNG is certainly aware of its thematic lineage and responsibility to maintain the same thematic patterns of the television show that came before it.  This is most evident at the beginning of every episode, when the disembodied voice of Patrick Stewart (Picard) speaks the Star Trek philosophy over the opening montage of swirling galaxies and planets, perfectly blending emotional music and imagery with the scientific setting of the series: “These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise.  It’s continuing mission: to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no one has gone before.”

Enterprise

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Facebook Friending

danah boyd writes in an article entitled “Facebook’s Privacy Trainwreck: Exposure, Invasion, and Social Convergence”,

“In June 2006, a group of sociologists argued that Americans have fewer friends now than they did 20 years ago (McPherson et al., 2006). This made me wonder whether social media might be detrimental to friendship maintenance. If social information is easily available, it seems natural that people would tune in. Yet, if social information is the human equivalent of grooming, what happens when a computer provides that information asynchronously without demanding reciprocity? This conundrum pre-dates the internet. Over the last century, celebrity gossip rags have made it much easier to obsessively follow the details of celebrities’ lives, or at least those published for enquiring minds that want to know. Just because I can follow every detail of Angelina Jolie’s life does not mean that she knows that I exist. Furthermore, she has absolutely no reason to respond to me when I ask for her support.

Strangers and celebrities are one thing, but what about acquaintances and other weak ties? Studies of email have shown that the internet helps people maintain both strong and weak ties by making ongoing communication easy (Boase and Wellman,2006). Does the same argument hold when it comes to social media that allow people to follow in lieu of reciprocal communication? My hunch is that the stream of social information gives people a fake sense of intimacy with others that they do not really know that well. If this is true, it could be emotionally devastating.”

 

"If social information is the human equivalent of grooming, what happens when a computer provides that information asynchronously without demanding reciprocity?"
“If social information is the human equivalent of grooming, what happens when a computer provides that information asynchronously without demanding reciprocity?”

 

 

danah boyd is right on with this point, and I think it is a fundamental assumption made by many today that, with the advent of social networking as such a significant force in the lives of people in general and youth in particular, is very important for people to realize and deal with.  So many friendships are tended through some kind of social networking site, and these forms of media become the grid through which these relationships pass. 

As these relationships pass through this grid, the computer provides personal information about someone else (or a lot of someones) and feeds it to the user.  This can definitely have the effect of bringing a certain degree of emotional connection without any reciprocation: exactly the same effect as following a celebrity in the tabloids. 

I think that the implications of social networking on relationships is just beginning to be understood.  

Facebook 1

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A few days ago I received a forwarded email from a relative of mine. It was an email from an organization that was drawing attention to an editorial article in the Russian tabloid Pravda. This article, written by Stanislav Mishin, was entitled “American Capitalism Gone with a Whimper.” Its point was, frankly, rather alarmist and it was condemning the Obama administration’s policies and goals as Marxist and socialist. The subtext was something like, “America should listen to the Russian people who are, as one, warning the Americans to stop making socialist policy decisions. We’ve been through this and we know best, but the arrogant Americans think they can handle flirting with disaster.” That was the content of the email, but the way this forwarded piece of Russian tabloid writing was framed was more interesting to me. It was sent out by Timothy Plan, a financial institution based in Florida. It also had a note from Art Ally, President of The Timothy Plan. It reads, “Never in a million years would I have dreamed that we would have to go to an article in the Russian newspaper Pravda to get the truth about what is happening in America. It is a little long but well worth the read. Thanks to Don Wildmon, President, American Family Association.”

Then there was an attached note from Don Wildmon, President of the American Family Association. It reads: “For years I have refused to use words such as Marxism, socialism or similar words when describing our current situation. However, it is time to call a spade a spade, regardless of how those who oppose us label us. Rome is burning. The article below was written by Stanislav Mishin, a blogger and columnist for the Russian newspaper Pravda.” All of the above is the context. Now for the expression of my idea. I have been frustrated with the AFA for a while for a few reasons. Before I list them, I want to say that I respect the fact that they say they care about families. Families are good things and definitely worth striving for and even dying for. So I want to make sure that the criticism I have does not diminish the respect that I have for the cause of fortifying families.

That being said, I have two main criticisms of how the AFA has operated, and I say this as an evangelical Christian who is part of a local church and whose goal is to lead my family in a way that honors God. The first criticism is that I have noticed that the AFA sometimes blurs the truth (whether intentionally or unintentionally, I don’t know and can’t determine) or leaves facts out for their readers in order to generate the responses they want for the causes they support. The way they framed this Russian tabloid article is one small example of this. They (and Timothy Plan) framed it as a warning to America from Russia, but this is not the case at all. I wish the AFA would make more ardent attempts to be honest, and to frame issues as honestly, thoroughly, and objectively as possible. If they did this, I believe they would be a lot more successful in enacting real and lasting change. They must also stop working on a political strategy of using fear as their primary tool. It is reactive, which is never as effective as being proactive and creative, and it’s often downright untruthful. If they felt that they even needed to acknowledge this piece of tabloid editorial writing, they could have framed it as what it was: an editorial by a Russian writer. They could then pose the question to their readers, “Is this actually happening in the United States? Are Mishkin’s claims true?” This strategy invites a critical analysis of the ideas in the article, rather than the easier thing to do: a simple endorsement of an oversimplification and rationalism of the political agenda of a Russian writer with an apparently large chip on his shoulder.

The second criticism I have of AFA is even more elemental. I am confused how such an article like Mishkin’s is relevant at all to building stronger families. I believe that the agendas that the AFA chooses to struggle for are ultimately the wrong agendas. The vast majority of notices that I have seen from the AFA are political in nature, telling people of what Congress is doing or not doing, what new evil the courts are perpetrating, or decrying the Federal Communications Commission’s lack of enforcement of current decency laws.

I’m not arguing that there are times when political activism is necessary, but sitting in the middle of a secular culture crying because there are so many secular influences that can tear apart families is simply the wrong strategy. It will only breed frustration from the culture (“Who do they think they are, up on their high horse and condemning us?”), and the answer to keeping families strong is not to change the cultural climate through legislating it. Have we learned nothing from the oft-shameful history of the Church? From Prohibition? Why are we holding our culture to a standard that we, according to our own doctrinal statements, can never fulfill? Why impose a pharisaical rule on people who do not even believe in God? This is not protecting the family. This is declaring war on the culture, and lest anyone believe they are the same, they are divergent and even mutually exclusive.

Sure there may be a legal battle or two here or there, but the AFA should focus on some of the most significant threats to families and marriages, which in my opinion isn’t gay marriage or democratically-sponsored legislation. It is heterosexual divorce and the elements that cause it, like a lack of forgiveness, spousal abuse, and fathers not having the stones to be men and sacrificially care for and love their families. It is wives who care more about their image and their next fling than their kids. These things in heterosexual marriage are what I’d really love to see the AFA focus on. I would like to see them take a much more proactive stance through working with churches and other organizations to help train people how to be good parents. Instead of spending resources trying to get TV shows off the air because you don’t agree with the lifestyle that is portrayed (big shock since we live in a secular culture!), spend the resources training parents how to actually have family time without the TV on—Dads spending time with their kids in the evening—or encouraging parents to read books and learn what they believe and why so they can watch a show they may disagree with—with their children—and then have some good conversations about it with them.

The Timothy Plan is also an organization that I have some questions about. They say that they are offering “A biblical choice when it comes to investing. If you are concerned with the moral issues (abortion, pornography, anti-family entertainment, non-married lifestyles, alcohol, tobacco and gambling) that are destroying children and families you have come to the right place. The Timothy Plan® avoids investing in companies that are involved in practices contrary to Judeo-Christian principles. Our goal is to recapture traditional American values. We are America’s first pro-life, pro-family, biblically-based mutual fund group.”

My biggest question is how can you be FOR something by fundamentally defining yourself by what you DON’T do? TP asks its web page visitors if their personal finances would withstand a moral audit, and offers to do one for free. But the way they are defining moral is frighteningly similar to a political platform. I know this is shocking, but there are OTHER kinds of moral issues that are just as biblical, if not more so, than the ones listed above. When did eradicating tobacco use become a Christian cause? What about the much more important issue of paying workers fair wages? Fair wages is not mentioned in the moral statement of Timothy Plan to my knowledge, but it is very important to God. James writes a damning accusation of labor practices (think minimum wage issue or migrant worker/illegal immigrant labor practices) that went on in the first century: “You have hoarded wealth in the last days. Look! The wages you failed to pay the workmen who mowed your fields are crying out against you. The cries of the harvesters have reached the altars of the Lord Almighty. You have lived on earth in luxury and self-indulgence.” I know this is really going to pain a lot of Christians who pride themselves on what they don’t do (see Jesus’ account of the prayer of the Pharisee in Luke 18), but a lot of Christians simply love to quote CS Lewis, for good reason, and they study his books, use his quotes in sermons, and are quite reverential of him. It might surprise some people that Jack Lewis was a chain-smoker and got together once a week with his friends (in the morning, no less!) to drink beer, have good conversation, and comment on each others’ writing. For those of you whose toes are curling right now at the though of dear old Lewis with a cigarette in one hand and a beer in the other working on a draft of Chronicles of Narnia, perhaps it is time you rethought how you define yourself. Perhaps, Timothy Plan, it is time you explained to your investors what it means to be a Christian investor or a godly investor. It is not as simple as strict avoidance of traditional evils.

Hopefully you see the problem. As soon as we define ourselves as Christian investors by what we don’t do, we not only haven’t said much about ourselves except what we think is beneath us, but we have also painted ourselves into a corner. We haven’t said anything about what we are FOR—what our goals are. All we can do is keep chipping off pieces of our portfolio when we discover that this company did something we didn’t like once, or that company produced a product that some believe supported another religion. Where does this slippery slope stop?

I believe that we ought to be people of integrity, and I think part of having integrity is to think well. If those who are leading these movements refuse to submit their severely flawed rationales and policies to scrutiny, then they very well run the risk of falling into a ditch. We need Christians to be more relevant, not less, and that means that we must open our eyes and be obedient to scripture by living as lights, not expecting that our culture ought to be full of light already.

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