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19 July . Comment

Interesting use of RSS newsfeeds

Here’s an interesting example of how to use RSS feeds to create a substantial focused newspaper to cover unfolding events. This one was done to cover what’s happening at the Lambeth meeting.

23 December . Comments Off on RSS feeds

RSS feeds

I’ve spent the last week playing with NetNewsWire, a MacOSX news aggregator, and I am completely converted! It makes reading weblogs an even more efficient process than ever before. I’ve known about RSS for a long time now, but hadn’t had the patience to figure out a newsreader. Thanks to Eric for helping me get started. There’s a lot of useful general information about RSS at Marnie Webb’s blog at the Digital Divide Network site.

23 January . Comment

In it for the long haul…

I am worried about the ways in which people are hyper ventilating over every tidbit of information that comes out of the White House these past few days. Trump at the CIA, Trump’s press secretary, etc. etc. Consider the possibility that Trump may be using — if not strategically, just intuitively — our news media to focus attention in ways that take us away from our core commitments. What may well have been the largest mass demonstration in US history took place on Saturday, and rather than dealing with the substance of that demonstration the tv media, in particular, are all atwitter about Trump’s spokesperson arguing about the size of crowds.
Please, friends, take a moment and pause. Focus on the energy and shared passion for moving forward that the marches evoked. Rather than reading the news all the time (or even, and I would highly recommend NOT doing this, watching the news), set aside a limited amount of time in your day for getting a sense of what is happening the world, and then focus your energy on what you can do.
Aside from bad weather or other such emergencies, there is no real reason to get news immediately. Yet the seductive nature of “getting it first” is driving our news media into terrible practices. We need to turn away from that temptation and turn instead to longer, more thoughtful reflection.
Attending to what matters is crucial, and this administration looks to be pulling our attention to all sorts of other things. We know Trump and his administration will lie. Hold to truth, focus on truth, and on what you can do. Instead of spending 30 minutes on “the news,” spend 10 reading journalists you trust, or at least respect, and spend the other 20 minutes emailing your legislators.
Then, do what you can to feed your soul. Cherish relationships — and extend them to embrace new communities. Cherish beauty — and look for it in unexpected places. Cherish music — and make it with others. We need to be in this struggle for the long haul, it’s a marathon, not a sprint.

7 April . Comment

Choosing our religion

To be honest, I receive a lot of books from colleagues – and even more from publishers – who are interested in my feedback or review of a specific text. Most of the time I glance at a book, get a basic sense of what it’s about, and then put it on one of a couple of piles in my office that are “books to be read soon,” “books to be read some day,” and “books I might want to give away.” Rarely does my initial skim of a book lead me to read it fully, let alone voraciously. But Elizabeth Drescher’s latest book – Choosing Our Religion: The Spiritual Lives of America’s Nones – grabbed my attention and kept me riveted.

I highly recommend this book.

Drescher set out to interview people who claim the label “none,” or in some cases “spiritual but not religious,” in our census-bureau way of speaking about such things. Her book is a complex presentation and interpretation of what she heard. First and foremost, she listened deeply and carefully.

People who know me well will be familiar with my frustration with the label “unchurched” which so often attends to people who are outside of religious institutions. I much prefer to talk about the “unheard” – the voices of people we refuse to listen to, or want to describe in caricatures. Drescher helps us to hear these voices, she gives us the opportunity to “lurk” behind her as she talks with people from across the country about how they understand themselves and their processes of meaning-making around this most contested of categories,  “spirituality.”

That alone would be a worthy endeavor – and the appendices to this book offer a rich treasure trove of her methodological choices and survey questions – but this book is a much more significant contribution. Ranging widely across a variety of literatures (anthropology, cultural studies, sociology, media studies, congregational studies, theology and so on) Drescher has put together a stunning reframing of the experiences of people who claim these labels. She recognizes – and names – the fears and concerns that people within religious institutions raise about people who find their spiritual grounding outside of religious institutions, but she refuses to be captured by those explanations.  Instead she invites her respondents to share how they understand what they are experiencing and doing. She notes that rather than using the traditional modes of “believing, belonging and behaving that have fueled much recent discussion” …. These are “narratives that emphasized experiences of being and becoming” (14).

Her discussion requires her to explore issues of identity, community, spirituality, ethics, and parenting. These are everyday, ordinary, but profoundly important matters for all of us – and it just may be that those who define themselves as “nones” – far from the radical margins religious institutions want to claim for them – are actually at the center of the shifting religious dynamics we are experiencing. Drescher is keenly aware of current media studies scholarship, and she brings that to bear in her interpretations, offering me, at least, a lot of hope for what is emerging. She writes, for instance:

In the new media age, difference is less a distinguishing barrier between groups of individuals than it is an invitation to engage and explore the lives of diverse others. (60)

Rather, new media practices of seeing others, seeing difference, expressing difference, and being in variously distributed relationships with religiously diverse others have an effect on how people regard religious difference in increasingly overlapping zones of private and public life. (61)

But the logic of digitally integrated social practice encourages self-representations in which affiliational commitments are muted, expressing religious and spiritual perspectives in ways that signal a lack or a loosening of institutional, doctrinal, and ritual rigidity that might undermine social harmony and stability. (62)

She asks about resources that people bring to the task for sustaining themselves outside of institutional supports, and notes a wide variety of music, books, films, and other resources:

…resources set those who use them within configurations of community in at least three ways: (1) they provide common interpretive lenses; (2) they structure social relationships as resources are created, accessed, interpreted, and shared across loosely configured, often widely distributed, networks of people with similar interests and sensibilities; (3) they invite the imagining of a collective similar to oneself in most dimensions because of sharing one or perhaps a few dimensions (Spiritual-But-Not-Religious, Secular Humanist, Atheist, etc.) This collective can never be verified, but it nonetheless is understood and experienced as “real,” as “people like me.” (98)

It is clear from her study that far from being the “individualistic” or “isolated” persons so many religious communities fear the “Nones” are becoming, these respondents are instead deeply relational in their practices. She writes, for instance:

Mostly absent formally defined public spaces within which to practice their spirituality, the unaffiliated have gathered across various imagined communities of spiritual practice. (99)

… for many Nones, broader spiritual networks, the relationships that sustain them, and the content they share often take on the aura of the sacred. (99)

… the experience of community moves into more regular personal engagement, precisely because it is significantly enacted online. (101)

I was fascinated by her descriptions of the qualities that tend to “distinguish practices understood as “spiritual” or “spiritually meaningful” described by Nones:

• They are primarily relational, rather than either individualistic or institutional, highlighting interpersonal intimacy and connectedness.
• They are most often embedded in the experiences, locales, and temporalities of everyday life rather than separated in time and space.
• They are embodied, sensate, and social, more than cognitive, private, and interiorized.
• They are provisional and practical, changing on the basis of new experiences, resources, and life stages and drawing on diverse resources across religious, philosophical and other wisdom traditions.
• They are dynamic over time while remaining coherent within identity narratives.
• They are often understood as transformational, highlighting personal growth and communal and social change.
• They tend to highlight experiences of authenticity and connectedness in the present moment, rather than future-oriented expectations traditionally associated with “salvation” or various other afterlife schemas. (119)

Frankly, these are practices that I am seeing more and more often within religious institutions as well. They are the challenges set before those of us – like me – who claim the label of “religious educator” and want to help people connect their personal narratives with the narratives of religious peoples through time.

There is so much more I could say about this book. Drescher’s exploration of the ways in which prayer is experienced, or her discussion of how an ethics of care emerges, will both be sections I will draw upon in my classes. I’m also certain that her “four Fs of contemporary American spirituality – Family, Fido, Friends and Food (44)” will prove to be an enduring meme within my classes.

In any case, if you can only afford the time to read one book that will impact your leadership in the next couple of months, make it this one.

3 November . Comment

Tweets of the week

7 September . Comment

How do we create learning community?

Powerful essay in the Atlantic this month pondering “building better teachers.” I was not a fan of the title of the piece, and almost didn’t read it, given my preconception of that rhetoric. But there is data in the article that we need to attend to:

On the scale of time devoted by teachers to in-class instruction annually, the US is off the charts. We spend far more hours in the classroom, on average, twice and nearly three times more in some cases, than teachers in any other OECD country save Chile. Finnish high-school teachers, for example, clock 553 hours in the classroom each year. In Japan… that number is 500. In the US it’s 1,051. … In practice this means that most teachers in this country have zero time to work together on new pedagogical approaches and where feedback in the way Green advocates in her book.

But of course we get far worse results — why? That’s part of the articles’s argument, having to do with what it means to create real learning communities, where teachers and students have real agency in the learning process, and there is time and space to collaborate with each other.

20 April . Comment

Finding useful information in a crisis

Yesterday was an interesting exercise for me in finding useful information in a crisis. I lived for years in the neighborhood where the Boston marathon suspect manhunt was taking place, so I was urgently interested in what was going on. I’m not a tv news watcher, so I turned, first, to the radio and listened to WBUR streaming on the net (that’s the Boston public radio station). Their coverage was ok, but it kept returning to the same people asking the same questions, without providing the kind of detail — or ongoing context — I was looking for.

My Facebook news stream had some useful tidbits in it, but most of my friends were not in a position to contribute much that was information. They did offer prayers and encouragement!

Wikipedia’s page was a useful collection of sources, even given its “this is a current situation” caveat, because it compiled — as the day wore on — a useful timeline and whatever information there seemed to be consensus about. But again, it was not always as speedy as even what was on the radio.

Twitter was NOT useful. There was too much garbage to sort through, and of course lots of people creating fake accounts purporting to be from the suspects.

Nate suggested I look at reddit, and that turned into the place I used as my central source. Reddit is a site that anyone can create an account on and post information to, so you have to take it with a huge grain of salt. But by keeping WBUR running in the background, and glancing at reddit every so often, I was able to feed my desire for information, without getting sucked into the problematic coverage happening in other media.

I also would glance, in between meetings and so on, at a couple of news bloggers (mostly dailykos and Andrew Sullivan). Here I “fell down” a bit in my standard practice, because I didn’t take the time to look at the “disconfirming” blog sources I keep in my news reader. I suspect that that was because I wasn’t really reading the blogs yesterday for information, so as much as for shared community.

Still, I mostly felt that I was able to keep abreast of what was going on, without spending too much time sorting through useless or peripheral information.

TV news, on the other hand, was not very helpful. Here, for example, is an analysis of the tv coverage from Entertainment Weekly.

We’ve been talking about “crap detection” in my class recently. Where do you turn to for useful information in a crisis? And what crap detection methods do you employ?

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