We haven’t seen times like these in 500 years.
Oh, we’ve lived through wars and rumors of wars for centuries, but the only era in Western history that approaches the tossing and turning of our current cultural revolution happened half a millennium ago in the heart of Europe. The spark was an innovation by an otherwise obscure craftsman who figured out how to form durable chunks of moveable metal type.
Today, we casually recall that history as if Johannes Gutenberg immediately used that metal type to roll out a few Bibles and, the next day, the light of new media dawned over a disgruntled monk named Martin Luther, prompting him to nail his world-changing 95 Theses onto a local church door.
No, that’s not how it happened. Not by a longshot!
It’s easy to compress what happened and miss the powerful truth. Read Alister Mcgrath’s delightfully provocative new book, “Christianity’s Dangerous Idea”. Mcgrath makes this point in broad-brush fashion: “Without the advent of printing, there would have been no Reformation.” And, by extension, no splintering of Western spirituality, no American separation of church and state, no Billy Graham or Martin Luther King Jr. or Desmond Tutu, no Alcoholics Anonymous or celebrations of religious diversity. If you really want to do your homework on this era, dig into Diarmaid MacCulloch’s more substantial history, “The Reformation”—and as a bonus, you’ll find yourself charmed by MacCulloch’s dry British wit throughout the book.
But, here’s the News we need to know today: Nearly a century passed—about 77 years—between the year that Gutenberg proudly rolled the first sharp-edged bits of metal type in the palm of his hand and the year, 1517, when Luther touched off the global spiritual revolution that we’ve inherited in 2007.
Here’s what’s so critical about that tiny historical detail: Scholars still debate whether Luther ever actually nailed his theses to a door. What they agree upon is that the Reformation was spread by pamphleteering, a powerful cultural strategy repeated by countless reformers and revolutionaries to this day. Half a millennium ago, it took most of a century for Gutenberg’s little metal seeds to blossom into the Renaissance equivalent of Kinko’s—small shops that could produce pamphlets.
Right now, we’re living in the dawn of an entirely new age of media: the digital age. For most people across the U.S., the Web is only a child a little over a decade old. But already it’s obvious that these virtual children are revolutionaries.
Let’s face it: Newspapers are imploding. That’s why I’ve taken a leave from newspapers after more than 30 years in this proud profession. Sure, newspapers still own big buildings and printing presses, but they’re no longer titans of media. The titans are YouTube, web aggregators like Google-News—and all the other virtual children of this new age.
This fall, evidence is becoming as obvious as the top of
this morning’s New York Times front page: “NBC to Offer Downloads of
Its Shows.” Times writer Bill Carter says exactly what we’re saying
here: “NBC’s move comes as companies throughout the television business
search for new economic models in the face of enormous changes in the
business. Networks continue to lose audience share — and viewers …
are increasingly demanding control of their program choices, insisting
on being able to watch shows when, where and how they want.”
Who’s trembling right behind newspaper and network executives?
Book publishers built on big-business models. They’re warily eying
these troubling waters and either they are aggregating into bigger
publishing firms to buy time and summon resources to face this new age
— or, if they remain independent, book publishers are waking up in the
middle of the night, worrying about their future.
That’s a tragic situation, especially for religious media. Why? Because these are the times in which spiritual voices can thrive!
Any way you slice the sociological data, there’s an overwhelming
desire for spiritual solace around the world, especially in the U.S.
Before we launched this vast ReadTheSpirit project that will take us a
year to fully unfold, we spent the past year examining that data under
The enormous challenge facing all of us in media –
and in religious leadership – is discerning where this revolution is
The children piloting our ship these days are not experienced navigators, but they have boundless energy and creativity. They’re carrying us into new realms.
We have seen it with our own eyes. We’ve formed a community of
writers, editors, artists, filmmakers, digital professionals, scholars
and clergy around us – professionals from a broad array of backgrounds
– and we are determined at ReadTheSpirit to be pilots in this new
Take a good look at that exotic-looking temple you see
here (pictured above and at left) with its ornate wooden decorations
soaring 60 feet above the Black Rock Desert in Nevada at the Burning
Man festival earlier this month. We were there. These enormous, wooden
“temples of remembrance” at Burning Man, designed each year by artist
David Best, are among the crowning examples of this new age in
Hundreds of unpaid volunteers from across the U.S. spent weeks in
extreme heat and blowing desert dust to help Best build these temple
complexes. This year’s temple opened for the 50,000 temporary residents
of Burning Man for exactly one week – before the elaborate shrine was
burned and its ashes carefully removed, consuming like a Viking ship
all the memorial keepsakes that thousands of visitors had tucked inside
If you care to read more about this cutting-edge cultural phenomenon, click on the title of “This Is Burning Man,” by
Brian Doherty, and buy a copy. Doherty’s book is the best available
overview of this creative force of nature that grew out of a small
circle of friends in California to embrace thousands from around the
world in the Nevada desert each year.
But we’re not limiting ourselves to the outer edges of spirituality. There’s enormous, often untapped, energy in traditional denominations.
Our initial reporting trip took us to Salt Lake City, as well, where
I reported a story on the cultural influence of the Mormon Tabernacle
Choir, a story that drew reader praise from across the country when it
appeared earlier this month in the pages of the Detroit Free Press and
moved across the wires.
Most Americans know about this choir, of course.
What they’ve probably missed about the denomination that sponsors the
choir is that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is
shepherding one of the most ambitious urban-renewal projects ever
attempted outside of Rome. The Saints are rebuilding the equivalent of
18 city blocks of downtown Salt Lake City almost from scratch. Along
the way, they’re actually bringing a long-extinct river back to life
and reviving a major downtown hub for commerce and neighborhoods.
If you want to read more about the inner core of this religious movement, I strongly urge you to pick up Coke Newell’s “Latter Days” or the Ostlings’ “Mormon America,” again by clicking on the titles here.
There is great urgency in what we are doing here.
Consider: This revolution is so new that the first-ever national conference on
this kind of digital publishing, hosted by the heavy-weights in this
emerging field, was held only three months ago in California. And we
were there. ReadTheSpirit co-founder, photographer and software guru
John Hile spent that week in June in California with a Who’s Who of top
minds in digital media.
What’s burning in our hearts and minds
this autumn? It’s this: There’s a sad irony in the implosion of
traditional news media in the U.S. As news and even TV news operations
shrink, they’re redefining themselves in hyper-local terms. The vast
majority of journalists now are unable to actually head out, crisscross
the U.S. and report on what’s unfolding. There’s a good chance that
most writers may miss what’s shaping up as the greatest news story of
this new century, perhaps this new millennium.
At ReadTheSpirit, we’ve vowed that we’re not going to let that happen.
So, Stay Tuned!
NEXT WEEK: Our Monday-through-Friday coverage begins!
MONDAY: “002: Media Is Sacred Space …”
TUESDAY: “003: Here Are 4 Great Holiday Gifts …”
WEDNESDAY: “004: A Conversation with Tony Campolo …”
THURSDAY: “005: The Spiritual Lives of Animals …”
FRIDAY: “006: A Major New Voice Is Rising in Islam …”
Late October: We’ll unveil Top-10 awards in 6 categories of religious publishing.
AND: Watch for our other projects – all headquartered at ReadTheSpirit – as they unfold in coming months.
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