Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Education by E-mail

While I hear and even sympathize with my Republican friends’ complaints that Barack Obama is being given a nearly free ride in the press, I also have to question the impact of the media (and the quarter million Obama has spent introducing himself to the world) as well as the intellectual permeability of the average American when I keep running into people who don’t seem to have turned on a radio or TV, or picked up a newspaper or magazine in the last year.

If the media attention surrounding Barack Obama is so gushingly over-the-top, why does a recent Newsweek poll still find that 25 percent of people in this country mistakenly believe Obama was raised a Muslim? Why do 40 percent think he attended a Muslim school while growing up? And why, according to a recent Pew Research Center poll, do 12 percent think he is still a Muslim today?

Do these people eschew all legitimate media sources and get all their news from forwards found in their e-mail inboxes? Because that is where you can find the erroneous and completely distortive e-mail claiming Obama is a radical, subversive Muslim who took his oath of office on a copy of the Koran. (As if there is something inherently wrong with being a Muslim or taking the oath of office on the Koran.) For those who continue to forward such e-mails, the definition of erroneous is “containing or characterized by error.” That a fancy word for a lie. Surely you know that one.

These e-mails are where you can find openly racist buttons sold during a Republican convention in Texas reading, “If Obama were to win, could we still call it the White House?” or repugnant t-shirts emblazoned with the phrase “Obama / Osama – Only a One Letter Difference.” Really!? So that means that Bonnie Hiller and Melissa Starin, residents of Washington D.C. whom I randomly chose from my phone book, both want to butcher millions of helpless Jews and Russians like Hitler and Stalin, right? Yet, despite the overt ridiculousness of statements like these, we accept the “I’m not going to vote for Obama because he has a name which sounds like a terrorist so he must be a terrorist himself” defense as if it is a legitimate reason rather than the uninformed, ignorant, backward comment that it is.

These e-mails are where you can find stories insisting Obama hates America, declines to say the pledge of allegiance, refuses to wear a lapel flag pin (in this scenario, Donald Rumsfeld is an uber-patriot for wearing his flag pin while personally directing thousands of American soldiers to their deaths), and is not really a Christian. (Just for the record, there was a bit of a scandal with Obama’s pastor of 20 years a few months back. You may have heard something about it. It was sorta kinda a big deal with a lot of people who, admittedly, wouldn’t know a big deal if it fell in their laps.)

John McCain isn’t officially floating these ideas. After all, he can’t possibly get his information from e-mail forwards, because he doesn’t even have an e-mail account. Inspiring a globalized planet fundamentally transformed and flattened by the information revolution, the nearly 72-year-old McCain recently admitted that he had not mastered the Internet, relies on his wife and aides to surf the net for him and has “never felt the particular need to e-mail.”

But McCain is doing the next best thing to firing off scurrilous, inflammatory e-mails by impinging Obama’s American-ness instead. Unable to dent Obama on the issues, McCain has recently turned to blasting Obama’s character, patriotism and basic humanity.

Over the weekend, the McCain camp released a television advertisement in which the announcer says that, while on his overseas trip, Obama “made time to go to the gym, but canceled a visit with wounded troops” even though they know full well the Pentagon cancelled the visit (a trip which, by the way, the media was not invited to attend). Then again, it’s not all that surprising when you consider that McCain attacked and goaded Obama to visit the war zone in the first place and when Obama did, assailed him for leaving the United States in a time of such economic peril.

Hey McCain camp, Obama’s overseas visit was pretty successful, don’t you think!? Since returning, Obama is now beating your candidate by nearly 10 points in almost all nation-wide polls. Do you really want to goad him into hanging out with more soldiers? Cause last I checked your new ad bashes Obama for not visiting the troops by showing footage of Obama visiting the troops. That’s him, by the way, in the gym in question, playing basketball with the soldiers. Any more bright ideas!?

Worse still, McCain recently suggested that Obama cares more about winning an election than winning the war, saying regularly that, “It seems to me that Obama would rather lose a war in order to win a political campaign.” In the aforementioned commercial, the announcer says that “John McCain is always there for our troops,” concluding with the campaign’s new slogan: “McCain, country first.”

The implication is clear: Obama cares more about his own political ambitions than the national interest. While Rule One of the Republican Bible is paint your Democratic opponent as a liberal weenie who has no concept of the military or national security, McCain’s latest hit is unforgivable. To insinuate that a presidential contender would rather American soldiers die, would rather his own family be imperiled, and, if you believe the conservative machine, would rather invite further attacks on U.S. soil just so he can get a cushy job, is shameful, disgraceful, ignominious, despicable and unworthy of anyone seeking high office.

Not only that, they are the desperate actions of a man watching his dreams collide with the cataclysmic failure of his own ideals and the dawning of a leader for a new era.

Friday, July 25, 2008

The President is Flat

(with apologies to Thomas L. Friedman)

Technology has not only fundamentally altered information dispersal — a revolution greater than that of the printing press — but it has made it possible to instantaneously connect to and do business with any one of 6.1 billion people across the planet. The world is literally at our fingertips.

In so flat (i.e. connected) a world, what does it mean to be an American? How do you define nationalism when the lines between countries, especially in terms of trade, are nearly invisible? As foreign entities buy up American icons from beer dynasties to the Manhattan skyline (we own plenty of their stuff too, let’s not forget) it just goes to show how small the world has become. We couldn’t be isolationists now even if we wanted to be.

Our children or our children’s children will see the world very differently, I think. They will not view it through such obsessively possessive and slavishly, tight-fisted nationalistic ideology. I own something of yours and you own something of mine and that is the nature of things. Better yet, there will be no yours and mine. Just the world's. It is an undeniable paradigm shift, to be sure, and not one with which many people alive today are comfortable.

And it has started me thinking: has the presidency of the United States been flattened as well?

The presidency is regularly referred to as the most vital, powerful job in the world. The president’s policies affect not just this country, but the entire globe. His actions, or lack thereof, impact many around the world just as much as, if not more so in some cases, than their own country’s leaders. To a quantifiable degree, the leader of the world’s last remaining superpower is, at least partially, the president of the planet.

Yesterday, Barack Obama arrived in Berlin following his successful visit to Iraq, Afghanistan, Israel and other Middle Eastern states. So far, he has been greeted at every stop with throngs of rapturous praise and well-wishing. His inspiring speech at Berlin’s Tiergarten, the German capital’s equivalent of Central Park, drew a stunning 200,000 people. Many expect the same reaction in Paris and London, the final stops on his tour. Never before has Europe seen this kind of excitement for an American presidential contender.

Some Americans have reported that the larger the European crowds and the louder the accolades, the greater their distrust and apprehension of Barack Obama. I know many Americans would say that the Europeans can cheer (or boo) all they want — it doesn’t matter. What matters only is what Americans think. But does it?

American voters should elect Barack Obama, in part, precisely because the rest of the world wants to see him president. I realize this may strike many rugged, individualistic, isolationistic Americans as offensive, but in this shrunken, flat world, we would do well to at least listen to and consider the wishes of the world with whom we must work so closely.

Sure, the businessman from England, the farmer from France, or the machinist from Brazil can’t vote in our elections, but do their voices matter? Sure, the computer tech from India, the nurse from Israel, or the artist from Turkey don’t live here, aren’t citizens and aren’t invested in the American experiment, but do their voices matter?

I think they do and should. So long as our country’s policies and actions so significantly affect the rest of the planet, the planet’s many voices should be heard and weighed.

Don’t get me wrong, the world’s opinions shouldn’t dictate every aspect of your behavior at the ballot box. But our world is too small and our interactions too frequent, the line between us too tenuous to simply ignore the feelings of the rest of the world and, like arrogant cowboys, do our own thing, the rest of the world be damned. We Americans are already known, especially of late, for our narcissistic arrogance when it comes to foreign policy. We cannot afford to continue to snub the rest of the world and still expect it to respect or care for us. We cannot be the equivalent of the abusive husband who beats his wife and yet still demands and expects her love and admiration.

The world is keenly interested in this election. When I was in Germany a few months ago, I discovered that Obamamania was as potent in Berlin as it is in Boulder. Like us, the world is hungry for a sense of where America is going. After the abysmal unpopularity of the Bush Administration, perhaps the world is ready to love America again, to display the same sort of affection and respect that was so prevalent following 9/11 but was squandered immediately thereafter. Obama is seen as the symbol of American renewal. Europeans are elated by the idea that the United States can transform itself so suddenly from a pariah to a worldwide inspiration. And so should we be.

The world wants change too. And we should give it to them.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Yes, I'm One of THOSE People!

You know the type of parent. They flood your e-mail inbox with dozens of pictures of their children, saturate their blogs with funny stories about their kids that only they care about, perpetually send Christmas family portraits conspicuously missing adults, and generally make cutesy nuisances of themselves. You know the type.

I thought I knew the type, until the type became me.

No, there aren't any kids on the horizon for Stephanie and me. I’m talking about my niece, Aaliyah. Though she is already two years old, we'd not yet met. She lives with her mom, Shino and her dad, my brother Jonathan, in Okinawa, Japan. Stephanie and I haven’t had the opportunity to get out there yet and Jonathan and Shino hadn’t been Stateside in several years.

Then, two weeks ago, my entire family converged on Portland, Oregon, for a reunion. In addition to the Japanese Fibbs’, my sister Gabi came up from San Diego with her new wife Helen (whom we’d also not yet met).

We spent a wonderful week and a half together. Some of the days were packed (as when we rented a 15 passenger van, crowded in with all the cousins, and took a drive through the Hood River Valley as my grandfather described his family’s immigration there from South Dakota during the Great Depression)...

...and some were deliciously restful (just sitting around reveling in the sound of each others’ voices and the pleasure of seeing each other in the flesh). Though Stephanie and I would also find the time for some side trips to Mount St. Helens and Seattle, the real purpose of the trip was to spend time with family.

It was a wonderful time. Helen was a delight and we loved discovering exactly why Gabi is so in love with her.

But the star of the show had to be little Aaliyah. She was the one who stole everyone’s hearts. Even now, slightly more than a week later, I can still smell her hair, feel her soft skin, hear her giggles. Jonathan and Shino, I want her back!

If you're already sick of my post, then we'd better just move on to the pictures while we still have time. Many parents claim they have the cutest kids, but you and I know differently. However, with Jonathan and Shino, it simply happens to be true.

If you actually want more, click here, here, here and here.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

The Latest Offering From JibJab

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Lord Save Us From Your Followers!

This story originally appeared at Christianity Today Movies. To read this story at its original source, click here.

Dan Merchant has an agenda, and he doesn't care who knows it.

"I want us all to have a conversation," he said while weaving his car through traffic, sandwiched between events promoting his new film, Lord Save Us From Your Followers. "My agenda is for people outside the faith to come away with a more complete picture of who Christians are, or are at least are trying to be.

"My agenda is for Christians to understand how we sound to others and actually listen to those who disagree with us or who don't understand us, instead of being so quick to fight. I think that some of the basic fundamentals of the gospel—love your enemy as yourself, love one another—have somehow been lost."

Merchant's documentary turns on a deceptively simple question: Why is the gospel of love dividing America? Christianity, he contends, is far more interested in the "gospel of being right" than the gospel of Jesus Christ. Fed up with the strident language and angry rhetoric that have come to define modern Christendom, Merchant, a veteran of the entertainment industry, set out to explore the flashpoint of faith and culture in America.

Merchant is ready with a quick answer for what he sees as Christianity's principal failings. With a nonchalant manner that miraculously never comes across as judgmental, Merchant zeroes in on politicians who use God to win elections, Christian organizations who bait the world and then cry foul when the world fights back, religious leaders who set themselves up to interpret global events as God's wrath, and the church's attitude toward abortion and homosexuality as its pet sins.

"We're not good at living the truth," he says. "I just want us all to live up to it instead of making excuses for why we can't. What grieves me the most is our ability to judge, dismiss and separate from other people, whether because of race, denomination, sexual orientation, divorce. We do a really good job of saying God came to save everyone—except you and you and you. We need to take a page from Jesus' radical compassion. The Lord's bar is as high as you can get: Love your enemy as yourself. I would just love the church to be better known for what it is for rather than what it is against."

Talking to strangers
To get to the heart of the debate in his documentary, Merchant dons a white jumpsuit plastered with bumper stickers both for and against religion and wanders around Times Square seeking conversations with complete strangers.

Wherever he goes, Merchant runs into the same situation—non-believers who don't have a problem with Jesus, but vehemently dislike many who claim Him. For Merchant, their ability to separate faith from founder with such ease indicates a disastrous PR problem for Christianity.

"People say, 'Well, the truth divides,' and yeah, it does," he says. "But I think we've done most all the dividing already before anyone ever gets to any 'truth.'"

Merchant is quick to admit that his film is directed first and foremost at himself. And it is precisely this humility—Merchant's awareness of his own profound faults and a sly, self-deprecating humor—that separates Lord Save Us from other films like it.

"The film is as much about me as it is about anyone else," he says. "It wouldn't have been fair if I got into the midst of this thing without looking in the mirror first. When did someone being gay become worse than my pride and arrogance? My heart was broken over my own sin. I've got to get over myself and figure out what Jesus meant when he said, 'Love your neighbor as yourself.'"

'The church is a whore, but …'
If you were to walk out of Lord Save Us at the halfway mark, you might think the film is little more than a tirade against Christians behaving badly. As vital as that message may be, you'd only be half right. What makes the film so powerful is its intractable ability to embrace both the baby and the bathwater. This is a film made by a follower, and therein lies its unique musculature. Merchant never lets us forget the powerful words of St. Augustine: "The church is a whore, but she is my mother."

"If the first half of the film is showing how we're missing the mark," Merchant says, "the second half is really an examination of who we're trying to be. If (the world) wants to criticize (Christians) for the things we do wrong, we should accept it and apologize. But let's also be honest that that is not the whole picture."

From Bono discussing God's grace at the National Prayer Breakfast to youth groups swarming into Louisiana and Mississippi after Hurricane Katrina; from medical missionaries in the most remote parts of Africa to Pastor Rick Warren's outreach in Rwanda; from Portland churches gathering together to care for the poor to the thousands of Christ-like acts believers commit every day—Lord Save Us also reveals Christians acting in ways that bring honor to the God they serve, earning the respect of all those around them. Rather than using the Bible as a weapon, these believers use it as a salve, and the response is as simple as it is astonishing. Suddenly Christ and Christians are synonymous again.

Says Merchant, "Let's be so like Christ that others say, 'You can always count on the Christians when they come around.' I'd love for us to be that. That's how Jesus did it."

Fessing up to gays
Perhaps the most powerful moment of the film occurs when Merchant borrows a page from Donald Miller's book, Blue Like Jazz, and sets up a confession booth at Portland's gay pride parade. Rather than letting those who enter confess to him, however, Merchant instead begs their forgiveness for the ways in which Christians have harmed homosexuals. Many of the gays are stunned at Merchant's words of contrition, most are genuinely touched, and some are even moved to tears by his sincerity.

"You come out of the confession booth understanding how broken we all are," he says. "I began to understand positions I didn't agree with—still don't—but I understood where they were coming from and it completely changed how I related to them. If you demonstrate you are willing to listen to other people, they are willing to listen to you. The way we show Christ that we love him is by loving others. It's hard to do. It's a lot harder than standing on a parade route, shouting at people that you don't like their lifestyle."

Merchant's documentary is building steam through a word-of-mouth campaign fueled by church congregations and college campus screenings. At first, he was deeply concerned that the film would not be well received in all quarters. When my mother told me her church, in a leafy Portland suburb, was going to screen the film, I was apprehensive. While she and my grandparents belong to a terrific, vibrant congregation, I was unsure that the film would find a receptive audience within the older demographic. When my mom later told me my 84-year-old grandmother was the first to her feet for a standing ovation, I knew Merchant was onto something special.

"Our reception has been amazing!" he says. "We've been surprised at how widely accepted the film is. We expected it to do well in an Emergent church, but I did not expect it to play well at a secular, atheist college. But it 'killed,' to use the comedy term. It doesn't matter if it's a mainline, conservative, evangelical, mega-church or anything in between, to say nothing of those who are not in the faith, have left the faith or are of other faiths. All are finding the film to be a valuable conversation and an entertaining movie."

Great conversation starter
Church leaders agree. On the film's official website, Rick McKinley, founding pastor of Imago Dei Community church in Portland, says the film "may be one of the most important conversation starters the church has seen in a long time." And Jack Hayford, President of the International Church of the Foursquare Gospel, adds, "This is a stroke of genius in the film—people need to see that the world knows better how we think, than we know how they think. Learning about ourselves is humbling. They don't think we have an answer because they only see we have an argument."

Lord Save Us From Your Followers is incisive and fair, goofily funny and deeply moving. There is no watering down of the gospel. Merchant knows sin when he sees it. He simply finds the plank in his own eye of greater importance than the mite in his neighbor's.

"Love is stronger than hate," he says. "It conquers all. It is the most important command in Scripture. So why aren't we doing more of it? Loving the unlovable is what it's all about. We are not called to judge the moral worthiness of those we are commanded to adore. It's time for a conversation. The monologue isn't working. Let's be willing to respect each other and listen to each other. You might be surprised what happens."
Ut In Omnibus Glorificetur Deus