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RCCongress communicators embrace change Robin Russell, Apr 16, 2010
UMR PHOTO BY ROBIN RUSSELL
Kevin Eckstrom and Barbara Bradley Hagerty were among participants in a panel discussion at RCCongress 2010.
By Robin Russell Managing Editor
CHICAGO—No one wondered in 2000 what the Qu’ran says about radical terrorist acts. Journalists back then were gatekeepers who decided what their readers would know and when. And tweets? Well, that was just for the birds.
At the RCCongress 2010, a once-a-decade event sponsored by the Religion Communicators Council, attendees from multiple faith traditions gathered to “embrace change” that affects their task of helping people connect across interfaith lines.
Even in a world where mosques now arise out of cornfields in Ohio, Buddhist temples thrive in L.A. and Hindu temples are seen in greater Chicago, it’s an ongoing challenge, said Diana Eck, director of The Pluralism Project at Harvard University.
Dr. Eck, whose work documents change in the American religious landscape, was among the academic experts April 7-10. “Embracing Change: Communicating Faith in Today’s World” included plenary sessions, panels of experts and workshops on social, religious and technological change. Not to mention a team of Baptist, Jewish and Muslim comedians.
“Our challenge is not just living side by side, but connecting,” Dr. Eck said. “We need to know far more about the religious energies of our world than most of us do.”
She pointed out recent religious landmarks in the United States: the first Sikh commissioned in the U.S. Army and allowed religious dignity, the first Muslim elected to Congress, and a bill in Portland, Ore., giving teachers the right to wear religiously mandated clothing on the job.
Trying to understand the faith of another is one of the great human challenges,” she said. “Much of the hard work is local.”
Best-selling author Mitch Albom shared stories from his latest book, Have a Little Faith, that describes two faith journeys: his own rabbi and a convicted felon-turned-pastor.
Ingrid Mattson, the first convert and first woman to head the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA), said religious authority in Islam is highly decentralized, so Muslims have always been able to “religion shop.” Today, she added, Muslims have become more sophisticated about the need for separation of church and state. “That’s a great benefit in my mind.”
Some attendees got a first-hand glimpse at the religious diversity in Chicago’s Loop during a walking tour that included Christian Scientist, Islamic, Catholic and United Methodist sacred sites. Deirdre Colgan, executive director of Sacred Space International, provided architectural background while representatives of each faith tradition explained elements of worship.
Erik Nussbaum, director of music and the arts at First UMC at the Chicago Temple, said the Gothic Revivalist style church is the oldest congregation in Chicago, and includes 21 stories of commercial office space between the sanctuary and sky chapel.
He highlighted the similarity between the sanctuary altar, depicting Jesus weeping over Jerusalem, and the altar in the church’s “sky chapel,” showing Jesus overlooking Chicago.
“I think Jesus is still weeping over the city. That’s a great gospel message,” he said.
Kevin Eckstrom, editor of Religion News Service in Washington, D.C., admitted in a panel discussion that he feels pressed at times by the speed of today’s technology, describing social media as “a parasite that constantly needs to be fed.”
“The biggest challenge is how instantaneous it is. I can’t write as fast as what’s going on out there.”
With traditional boundaries being blurred, there’s often a “huge lack of credibility” in much of the new media, he added.
“Separating the wheat from the chaff gets annoying,” he said. “Many readers don’t separate what they see in blogs from The New York Times.”
Without the analysis and vetting of traditional media, “what you get are a bunch of people who are living off tweets rather than reading 400 words, much less 800,” Mr. Eckstrom said.
Yet studies by the Pew Research Center show that people are still hungry for religion stories, he added. Young adults 18-29 and bloggers rank religion news just behind science as their favorite topic.
“There is a terrific need for trusted aggregators—gatekeepers, if you will—to look at all this stuff and make sense of it for people,” Mr. Eckstrom said.
Barbara Bradley Hagerty, religion reporter for National Public Radio, agreed that trying to keep up with accelerated information today is “like drinking from a fire hydrant.”
“Our job is to look at it all, see patterns and figure out what’s important and tell you about it,” she said. “We are trained observers. There’s a market for it.”
She warned that getting information off the Internet can result in “thin stories” that depend on documents or rumors.
“The reporting can be shallow. I’ve never gotten a good story off the Internet. All of my good stories come from interaction with sources.”
Shift in culture
The Rev. Otis Moss III, pastor of Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago, said the disintegration of extended families and churches not keeping pace with the shift in youth culture has weakened positive influences on young people.
“I see dead ministries, but they don’t know it yet,” he said, paraphrasing a familiar line from The Sixth Sense. “They’re not aware of the fact that it’s 2010 instead of 1910.”
Urban poets, or rappers, he said, carry more weight with young people than pastors. The lack of connection to faith communities is a huge change: When the church was the epicenter of cultural activities in the black community, even Marvin Gaye and Aretha Franklin had to first sing in the church before making it big.
What’s needed is a “remix version” of Jesus’ message, Mr. Moss said.
“Moses is dead, but Joshua is alive. You cannot reach a Joshua generation with a Moses methodology,” Mr. Moss said. “Many of us have 8-track ministries in a CD world. We are married to a methodology.”
“Joshua could remix because Moses gave him the tools to remix. Be willing to do what Moses did. He laid hands on Joshua and got out of the way.”
.Jeffrey Cole, director of the Center for the Digital Future at the University of Southern California Annenberg School for Communication, described the work of The World Internet Project, a long-term study he founded that looks at the effects of computer technology in more than 30 countries.
Though new media has impacted the film, music and print industries, Dr. Cole said he believed all would survive, but on a smaller scale. For instance, fewer people go to the movies each week now than during Hollywood’s heyday of the 1940s, when 90 million per week paid for a ticket. Even though the population has doubled since then, only 22 million attended the movies each week in 2009. And fewer people will pay for an entire music album anymore.
“The business model of music is nothing short of extortion: If you love one or two songs on an album, you have to buy the whole CD,” Dr. Cole said. Today, however, most people buy individual songs online.
He predicted that niche print publications will survive—including women’s magazines and weekend newspapers, which are more like a magazine with sections.
Television, however, will explode but will escape the home, become even more mobile and be “our constant companion.” Where the average person in 1975 spent 16 hours a week in front of a TV screen, last year people spent 34 hours a week in front of a mobile phone or computer screen.
The U.S. still lags behind in mobile technology, he said. Of the world’s 6 billion people, 4.7 billion have mobile devices.
“We’re a Third World country where mobile phones are concerned. We can barely get our mobile phones to work for voice communication.”
Young people ages 12-24 will be communicating in ways their parents and grandparents wouldn’t recognize. They trust unknown peers more than experts; can’t imagine sitting down in front of a TV set at scheduled times; don’t care about the source of their information; will not read a newspaper, own a landline phone or even a watch; and will use mobile devices for everything.
Personal computer users will decline, “except for number crunchers, designers and heavy-duty authors,” he said. “Everything is moving mobile.”