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March 24th, 2015

A modest defense of the listicle

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If, as Umberto Eco tells it, “the list is the origin of culture,” then the Internet may be culture’s apotheosis. So much of the web comes to us in list form. Google searches render lists of results; we scroll all the livelong day (and night) through lists of updates on Twitter and Facebook; news sites like The New York Times and Vox highlight lists of their most popular stories. Blogs are lists of posts; Instagram is a list of images; Reddit is a hive-minded collection of conversations and digital artifacts presented as lists. Even the Bible, on the Internet, morphs into a list—the popular app YouVersion, which has been downloaded over 170 million times, essentially understands (as a matter of its coding) the Bible not as a book or series of books but as a list of 31,102 verses.

March 20th, 2015

Religion for commoners

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One of the essential early texts of the open source software movement was “The Cathedral and the Bazaar,” a 1999 essay by programmer Eric S. Raymond in which he juxtaposes two approaches to developing computer programs, each with an analogy to a fixture of the medieval city: from the top down, like a cathedral, and from the bottom up, like a street market. At the time, open source software development was still largely characterized by a command-and-control (top down) process; Raymond advocated a more bottom-up method. He understood the bazaar (contra Clifford Geertz) as representing a way of harnessing collective intelligence toward collective ends: share the code with the world, and the world will fix its bugs in no time. Partly as a result of Raymond’s essay, the code underlying Netscape went open source, and the community-maintained Firefox browser was born. Much of the Internet—from Linux servers to Android phones—now runs on bazaar-style software.

March 3rd, 2015

Give me that digital religion

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Every Sunday night in Omaha, Nebraska, a small group gathers in a United Church of Christ church lobby to watch and participate in a streaming video broadcast called Darkwood Brew. Both the project and the space—which has been transformed into a hip coffee shop—feel more of a piece with evangelical strategies to attract new members than with the trappings of Midwestern mainline Protestants. The crowd itself is relatively sparse, and much older than you might expect for such an experiment: a couple dozen people, most between 40 and 60 years of age.

I visited Countryside Community Church in fall 2011 as a Research Fellow for the New Media Project (housed at the Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis). Darkwood Brew was one of six case studies chosen for the first phase of the New Media Project’s research into how Christian communities in the United States are using, and theologically interpreting, new digital technologies. On its website, Darkwood Brew is described as “a groundbreaking interactive web television program and spiritual gathering that explores progressive/emerging Christian faith and values.” There is some debate among the participants themselves about whether or not the live stream counts as a church service; despite the fact that the weekly program features bible study, discussion, music, and concludes with the Christian rite of communion, most resist the language of “church” to describe what is happening.

February 24th, 2015

Anatomy of a tweet

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I fell in love with the Perfect Man at a young age. He was humble, compassionate, strong, disciplined, affectionate, and, in all this, pure and selfless. His climb reached the highest towers. He defended the world against the enemy and his girl from harm. Although defeated in the end, he became the quintessential martyr, the model of meekness.

The Perfect Man of Iranian Shia Sufism prepared me for precisely the qualities that made me fall for King Kong as a child. In my dream-like displacements of Amerika as the land of progress and technology, King Kong’s climb up the antenna-topped Empire State Building represented the Perfect Man’s direct line of access to an otherworldly realm.

February 17th, 2015

Values and violence: Thoughts on Charlie Hebdo

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Until last month’s attack, Charlie Hebdo was little known beyond France. In the wake of the massacre, however, it was quickly valorized as a symbol of freedom of expression and French secularism, and the hashtag #JesuisCharlie (“I am Charlie”) spread rapidly across social media. French Prime Minister Manuel Valls declared a “war against terrorism, against jihadism, against radical Islam, against everything that is aimed at breaking fraternity, freedom, solidarity.” On January 11, 2015, more than a million people, including 40 of the world’s political leaders—not all of whom are otherwise known for their support of free speech—marched together in Paris.

The week after the massacre, Charlie Hebdo’s “All is forgiven” issue featured a cover depicting the prophet Muhammad in tears, holding a sign that read “Je suis Charlie.”

The violence, and responses to it, have raised a slew of questions. Is it helpful, or even accurate, to characterize these killings as religiously motivated? How have the attack and responses to it helped to construct or entrench the identities said to be in conflict? Should the events be understood in the context of France’s history of satire or its history of colonialism? Can the two be separated in this case? What is the significance of the willingness of many not only to affirm free expression, but also to identify themselves with the magazine? Are there limits to the freedom of expression?

February 3rd, 2015

Comments don’t replace the news

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Pope Francis has called the Internet a “gift from God.” If that’s the case, one has to wonder what message the Almighty wanted to send with this kind of present. The Internet does many good things for religion, such as informing people about each other’s faiths and providing a forum for serious discussion about them. But the same medium that can foster understanding also spreads polarization and deepens existing prejudices. This divine gift sends some decidedly mixed messages.

For a reporter like me, feedback from the public used to consist of occasional letters to the editor, maybe a phone call or a discreet word from a source not completely satisfied with a report. Now, the publication of an online news story is often only the beginning of a long series of exchanges with readers. Some of these are enriching experiences—opportunities to learn more about the subject or to discover leads for further reporting. But many are, frankly, a nuisance and a waste of time.

January 26th, 2015

When readers respond

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Writing about religion in the digital age means that your readers respond. They have, of course, always responded; but in an age of stamps and paper, it required some effort. Now, it requires almost none. I still have the slender file of the paper letters people sent me after my first book came out in 1989. In 2012 I posted a short piece on CNN’s Belief Blog: “If you hear God speak audibly, you (usually) aren’t crazy.” There were more than 7000 comments. I couldn’t even read them.

Mind you, I didn’t want to. Readers can be unkind—perhaps because the swiftness of the digital writing process means that readers can blurt out the first vehement thoughts they might have edited away if they had to go to their typewriter and type out text on paper, or because the anonymity of posting means that the normal constraints on meanness disappear, or because people think they’re having a conversation just with other posters, and don’t really think of the writer as a fellow creature at all. Whatever the reason, people say horrible things in online posted comments. One gem from my Belief Blog essay: “This lady is (usually) crazy.”

January 22nd, 2015

Corporate veil or wall of separation?

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We stand unitedThe U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby raises a series of important questions for public debate. If for-profit corporations are entitled to exercise freedom of religion, then as a civil society we must consider certain questions that follow from this extension of the prerogatives traditionally granted to churches and other religious organizations, as well as to individuals acting in their private capacities. My analysis will focus on these larger questions of policy and attempt to provide some further context for the debate that should now occur.

Winnifred Fallers Sullivan, whose insights are always penetrating on these issues and worth pondering carefully, has missed the mark in her earlier reaction to the decision. She uses Hobby Lobby as an example of the reductio ad absurdum of the logic of freedom of religion, and argues that we (especially liberal exponents of toleration) are unable to reasonably deny freedom of religion in cases where the substantive rights guaranteed seem intolerable to many. I respectfully disagree.

January 21st, 2015

Twitter, scripture and practice: A twessay on #ttQuran

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In the name of God, the Most Compassionate, the Most Merciful #ttQuran

What is #ttQuran?
We will tell you what is #ttQuran.

What is #ttQuran?
Truly you do not know what is #ttQuran.
To know #ttQuran is beyond.
It is only my ability to tell you about #ttQuran.
#ttQuran is a revelation.

Again, #ttQuran is a revelation.

January 20th, 2015

Corporation as sect

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We stand unitedIt is easy to forget that religious freedom wasn’t an only child: she was a part of a family of counter-measures listed in the First Amendment. The naming of religion in the Constitution was, and is, a defensive move: whatever government does, it should not get in the way of its citizens trying to articulate their opinions—opinions articulated through speech, through the press, through assemblage, and through petition. Religion appears in the Establishment Clause as a reminder that religion has been one of the things that has kept people from being able to reply freely to their governments. Free from influences within government, and free from religions that compete with government in their authority.