Tuesday, May 19, 2009

A world without newspapers?

Listen to an audio version of this post at http://media1.imbresources.org/files/73/7303/7303-41056.mp3

“Water, water, everywhere, nor any drop to drink.”

High school kids used to memorize that line from Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. In the poem, sailors go mad with thirst under a scorching sun as their cursed vessel sits, day after day, “idle as a painted ship upon a painted ocean.”

Thirsty in the midst of an ocean: Sounds like our relationship to the ever-increasing torrent of information flooding us from every direction. We can’t even begin to absorb it, much less use it effectively.

“Information workers, who comprise about 63 percent of the U.S. workforce, are each bombarded with 1.6 gigabytes of information on average every day through e-mails, reports, blogs, text messages, calls and more,” writes Andrea Coombes of The Wall Street Journal. “The average knowledge worker — from computer programmers and rocket scientists to administrative assistants and accounting clerks — spends about 25 percent of the day searching for needed information, getting back to work after an interruption and dealing with other effects of information overload.”

Drenched in this waterfall of data, we often remain dehydrated when it comes to the knowledge and insights we need to understand God’s world and how to respond to it.

Several pastors and mission ministers recently were asked what they read regularly. They cited multiple types of print and digital media, but said they needed more than information.

“I can get information online,” one pastor said. “Give me something I can use.”

Others in the room agreed. They want handles, context, practical tools they can use to get their families and churches involved in the wider world.

At the very moment when all kinds of media are multiplying, however, one of the best tools available for understanding the onslaught of information is on life support: journalism. For all their biases and shortcomings, good newspapers tell us what is happening, where and when it’s happening and, often, why it’s happening. They summarize the world and give us options for responding to onrushing events.
With a newspaper in one hand and a Bible in the other, we can cut through the clutter, get to the heart of the matter — and act.

A vital free press was important enough to the founders of our nation to appear in the Bill of Rights, right up top in the First Amendment, alongside freedom of religion, speech, assembly and petition. Ben Franklin understood its value: Among his many other talents, he was a dedicated newspaperman. Thomas Jefferson understood it as well.

“Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter,” Jefferson famously said.

Well, Mr. Jefferson, we are facing the real possibility of the former. American newspapers might disappear altogether a few years or decades from now — not from state oppression, but from public neglect.

You’ve heard about newspapers large and small closing up shop in one city after another. Perhaps you live in one of those cities. More than 22,000 U.S. newspaper jobs were lost in 2008; another 7,000 employees have been laid off so far in this year. One analyst predicts the last newspaper printing press will stop rolling by 2043. Others think the end will come much sooner than that amid a tough economy, generational declines in readership and the demand for free content (including news) online.

Religious media face all of those pressures — plus the decline of support for denominational institutions. Southern Baptist state newspapers, for instance: They have a long, noble tradition of informing the churches and holding Southern Baptist leaders and institutions accountable to the people. They’re still doing both, but they’re struggling to survive in the new multimedia environment.

Stop whining, respond new-media proponents. Journalism isn’t dying, they assert, it’s just being forced to change like everything else. More good news reporting than ever is available online at the touch of a keypad — sifted and sorted by personal interest. And it’s being greatly enriched by “citizen journalism,” blogs, social media and other new forms of digital interaction.

True enough, but is Google opening news bureaus overseas? Will Facebook send reporters to cover the next war or natural disaster, or investigate corruption in your local government?

The big Web portals still get most of the news they offer to you from major newspapers and international wire services. If those news organizations cease to exist, where will the Web portals get the news of the world that pops up on your homepage or mobile phone?

If you answered “foreign media,” keep in mind that freedom of the press doesn’t exist in many places. The majority of the world’s population lives in 125 countries where the press is “not free” or only “partly free,” according to a study just released by Freedom House, an organization that promotes democracy around the world. “Not free” may also describe the overseas personal blogs and social media you follow.

“Free content” without a free press is worth what you pay for it: not much.

So, I challenge you to buy a newspaper. That’s right, buy it — with cash money from your pocket. Read it. Put it into the hands of a young person in search of knowledge and understanding. Subscribe to a Baptist state paper.

You can’t make an impact on your mission field — which is the world, from your town to the ends of the earth — unless you understand it.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

An atheist praises Christian missions in Africa

(Listen to an audio version of this post at http://media1.imbresources.org/files/72/7268/7268-40896.mp3)

If you think evangelical Christianity is unfairly caricatured by American opinion makers, you might want to avoid Europe.

There, cultural commissars in some circles compare evangelicals with the Taliban — unfavorably. By their lights, we’re medieval, superstitious enemies of enlightenment and progress who should be silenced for good.

So it was noteworthy when an article praising Christian missions in Africa appeared in The Times of London a few months ago. Even more remarkable: It was written by Matthew Parris, a self-professed atheist (read it at

Parris, a Times columnist and former Member of Parliament, spent his boyhood in what is now Malawi. He returned there last year with a secular charity that assists villages lacking clean water.

“It inspired me, renewing my flagging faith in development charities,” Parris writes of the journey. “But traveling in Malawi refreshed another belief, too: one I’ve been trying to banish all my life, but an observation I’ve been unable to avoid since my African childhood. It confounds my ideological beliefs, stubbornly refuses to fit my worldview, and has embarrassed my growing belief that there is no God.

“Now a confirmed atheist, I’ve become convinced of the enormous contribution that Christian evangelism makes in Africa: sharply distinct from the work of secular NGOs, government projects and international aid efforts. These alone will not do. Education and training alone will not do. In Africa, Christianity changes people’s hearts. It brings a spiritual transformation. The rebirth is real. The change is good.”

Parris has applauded such efforts before, but he used to qualify the praise with a caveat:

“It’s a pity, I would say, that salvation is part of the package, but Christians black and white, working in Africa, do heal the sick, do teach people to read and write,” he acknowledges. “[O]nly the severest kind of secularist could see a mission hospital or school and say the world would be better without it. I would allow that if faith was needed to motivate missionaries to help, then, fine: but what counted was the help, not the faith.

“But this doesn’t fit the facts. Faith does more than support the missionary; it is also transferred to his flock. This is the effect that matters so immensely, and which I cannot help observing.”

African followers of Christ, Parris says, have a different look in their eyes. And they look you in the eye, not down or away. The “most impressive” African members of the secular aid agency he worked with in Malawi “were, privately, strong Christians.”

They worked diligently and optimistically, he believes, because they have a different view of the universe and their place in it. They and other African Christians he has encountered over the years don’t fear ancestors, evil spirits or spells. They are curious, engaged with the world. They take action, because they don’t believe they are victims of irresistible fate. They don’t buy into the traditional tribal pressure that keeps villages under the thumbs of chiefs and nations under the thumbs of “big man” gangsters.

Parris rejects the notion, fashionable among many academics, that tribal culture is off-limits to criticism just because it is indigenous to Africa. Tribal values have many strengths, but they tend to “grind down the individual spirit, stunting curiosity. People won’t take the initiative, won’t take things into their own hands or on their own shoulders.”

In stark contrast, “Christianity, post-Reformation and post-Luther, with its teaching of a direct, personal, two-way link between the individual and God, unmediated by the collective … smashes straight through the philosophical/spiritual framework I’ve just described. It offers something to hold onto to those anxious to cast off a crushing tribal groupthink. That is why and how it liberates.”

Contrarians will say Parris is a prisoner of his own culture, an intellectual imperialist trying to re-colonize Africa with a Western individualism that doesn’t work all that well in the West. If Christianity is so great, they may ask, why hasn’t Parris himself become a believer?

True, Parris is much more interested in the cultural benefits of Christian faith than the faith itself. But as a nonbeliever, he recognizes an undeniable fact: The Gospel changes hearts and minds, transforms societies and liberates people from the cultural chains that bind them. In African and Asian cultures that stifle the individual will, Christ shines the light of spiritual freedom. In Western cultures dying from individualism and materialism, He points toward a community — the church — where people love one another as He loves us. His Spirit works within every human culture, but He confronts and transcends cultures when they contradict His truth.

Africa — like the rest of the globe — hungers for such truth.

“Removing Christian evangelism from the African equation,” Parris says, would “leave the continent at the mercy of a malign fusion of Nike, the witch doctor, the mobile phone and the machete.”

(Gordon Fort, IMB vice president for global strategy, also grew up in Africa and served there for many years as a missionary. Read his reaction to Parris’ article in this Baptist Press story: “ATHEISM: Both agree, Africa needs God”)