102: Marco Polo on the road for you … Reporting Live from New York, Mars Hill

    OurLent inspirational stories are over here.
you’ll find our daily ReadTheSpirit stories.
    This week, we’ve been reporting Live from New York. Here are links to: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3.

Here’s the 3rd and final story …
    I feel like Marco Polo.
    I’m not sure whether I LOOK like Marco Polo. You can make your own judgment about that. The photo at right is a huge, centuries-old statue of Marco Polo from a temple complex in Bangkok, Thailand. The other photo (below at left) shows me, as I traveled with a group of American journalists through these Buddhist temples in Bangkok recently.

    I’m not kidding about this Marco Polo stuff.
    I’m pointing toward an important idea that affects all of us — you and me. As people of faith, our calling is connection — and global forms of connection, loosely called “media,” are changing rapidly.
    In less than a year, I’ve been roving across the U.S., to Europe, to Asia — attending a first-ever Asia-Pacific conference on emerging media last month and, this week, I’m at the second U.S. conference on Tools of Change in media. (Last year,  ReadTheSpirit publisher John Hile attended the first-ever Tools of Change conference, so — here at ReadTheSpirit — we’re fully committed to this Marco Polo role.)

    “Yeah, OK, you’ve been logging some miles,” you may be saying to yourself. “But why does this matter to me as a person of faith?”
    Well, one dramatic way to answer that question, about the significance of this Marco Polo mission, is to flip this question around 180 degrees: Who is NOT at these historic global gatherings?

    FIRST: Unless I’m mistaken (and email me, please, if I am mistaken) — John and I have not run across any member of the Religion Newswriters Association at these gatherings. I have enormous respect and many friends among RNA members. But, given the implosion of newspapers, the truth is that most RNA members aren’t able to travel widely, anymore.
    That’s unfortunate, because these changes in media that we’re tracking at ReadTheSpirit are profoundly changing spiritual connections around the world. This is one of the biggest religion news stories of this new century — and, unless I’m mistaken, there’s no RNA coverage of these particular hubs of change, where I’ve been reporting to you. Essentially, unless I’m mistaken, I was THE religion-themed journalist covering the Asian-Pacific and the current Tools of Change gatherings.

   SECOND: Unless I’m mistaken (and email me, please, if I am mistaken) — there’s nobody from the leadership of organized religion making a pilgrimage to these emerging global hubs.
    That’s unfortunate, because in our era of history these are the new Mars Hills. For our non-Christian readers, Mars Hill (photo at right) is the famous spot in ancient Athens where the New Testament says Paul historically began to engage the larger cosmopolitan world of his era.
    Yes, it still is important today to stage our own, separate religious events and draw big crowds for an immersion in our individual faiths — as many of our religious leaders keep doing. But — even more important is climbing the Mars Hills of our day.
    However, from the realm of organized religion, nobody’s climbing these hills I’ve been visiting. (Obviously, there are Mars Hill pioneers in this era — most famously Rob Bell — and it is precisely because Rob is climbing Mars Hills all the time that he’s rocketing into the heart of a new kind of nationwide religious community.)
    Another exception: An important figure from organized religion who we’ve virtually welcomed along for this cutting-edge pilgrimage this week is Peter Wallace of “Day1.” Click here to jump back one day, if you missed it, and read more about Peter’s important Mars Hill-like work in media through “Day1.”

    THIRD: Most religious publishers are missing in action in these essential emerging circles.
    Yes, I know, religious publishers have their own annual cycles of trade shows in the U.S. and around the world — but too many of our extremely important religious publishing houses are struggling these days. Budgets are slim, especially budgets for professional travel. Like ordained religious leaders, who are mainly moving in their own traditional cycles of conferences and gatherings — most religious publishers are tracking along in their traditional cycles of trade shows and professional circles.
    SOME NOTABLE EXCEPTIONS: So far here in New York, John Hile and I have crossed paths with a number of religious publishing professionals. Jack Countryman, noted for years as a religious-publishing innovator, is here on behalf of Thomas Nelson. Zondervan has folks here, as well. We also had a long talk over lunch yesterday with Stephen Connor, who directs New Product Development for Loyola Press. One of the exciting new book projects Loyola is developing for autumn is a new book focused on Father John Dear, the Jesuit peace activist and spiritual-retreat leader. (So, local group-discussion leaders out there who are reading this story today — take note that this Dear book is coming for possible use in your autumn discussion groups!)
    And — please — if you were here in New York from a religious publishing house and we didn’t encounter you in the crowd of 600 people — email me and share your impressions of this gathering. I’m happy to share your impressions with readers.

    But, hopefully, you’re catching my point. We’re climbing the Mars Hills of our day. We’re setting out as modern Marco Polos to explore and encourage new spiritual connections in media. So …

    What was the biggest news at this particular Mars Hill in New York?
    In 1 sentence: Media are merging with social networks.

    That means that the most powerful, most rapidly growing “new media” are networks like Facebook — which is THE social network for millions of college-age Americans at the moment. In fact, Facebook is even eclipsing email itself for these millions of smart young people. In other words, they have formed their own virtual world online — and their social connections move daily through Facebook (and a blossoming network of other social sites as well).
    Existing media — newspapers, magazines, TV networks, book publishers — are falling over themselves trying to dive into these new social networks. That’s why these 600 professionals paid to climb this Mars Hill in New York this week. And, frankly, there’s an air of desperation in many of these firms. Traditional media giants are scrambling to survive into the next decade — which is just 2 years away! The jury’s still out on whether that is even possible for many current giants, given the gigantic scale of the traditional infrastructure these older media titans have to underwrite each month.

    Meanwhile, a whole wave of new voices, new fledgling groups, new artists and evangelists (like Rob Bell) are turning social-networking mustard seeds into enormous trees.
    That’s a little intimidating to read, I know. But its true.

    It’s also this simple: If you ever thought of media as a monstrous enemy of spirituality — this emerging world is proof that media actually are spiritual connections. Yes, there are spiritual monsters swimming in the seas of media these days — but fundamentally the whole media ocean, as Rob Bell argues repeatedly, is a spiritual sea. Among the waves out here? Good spirituality. Bad spirituality. Life-giving spirituality. Deadly spirituality.
    Media are a spiritual sea.
    This is not just Rob Bell or David “Marco Polo” Crumm theorizing. This fundamental truth is as basic as the late Pope John Paul II’s powerful meditation on the nature of media, which he delivered just a short time before his death.

    To close today’s story on a lighter and brighter note — it’s ALSO as simple as this:
    In New York, one expert after another urged the 600 media professionals here to jump into these new social networks. Even during the sessions themselves — since most people had their laptops open — various cutting-edge media experts urged us to explore these new realms.

    One that I logged into for the first time this week, which came highly recommended in a session on social networks for existing book readers, is www.goodreads.com.
    It’s a cool site that’s free to use and invites registered users to share short book reviews, track their own reading habits — and, over time, share ideas for great reading with “friends.” It’s another form of social networking, designed for book lovers.

    If you’ve been following ReadTheSpirit for a while, you know that our main focus is connecting people with great books and films on spirituality. But, the moment I logged into GoodReads, I suddenly discovered that John Hile’s brother — Dick Hile — has been recommending great spiritual books through GoodReads for weeks now. In social-network terms, he’s only 1-degree separated from our ReadTheSpirit core — yet we didn’t even discover that Dick has a passion for networking through books, until I logged into this growing network.
    Dick is a software expert by day, but he’s also one of the best-read people I’ve ever met, especially in the realm that’s closest to his life’s passion: his Christian faith. I think Dick’s reviews are great, and many others will enjoy them as well — especially if you share his evangelical and Reformed-church approaches to Christianity. Like many of our regular readers, Dick’s an eclectic reader and finds spiritual wisdom in many corners of a bookstore. His mustard seed is already a shrub — heading toward a tree.
    But, my point here is that — without social networking — I never would have discovered that a fellow just 1 degree away from our core here is passionately interested in good spiritual reading. Imagine what can happen as we connect with people in communities half a world away?
    Want to read some of Dick’s reviews? Click on “Wisdom of the Fathers” or the book cover (above) and you’ll jump to a sample review. Or, log into GoodReads and meet him yourself — and me, too.
    I’m the GoodReads community, now, myself.
    I think Marco Polo would smile.

    Got a good suggestion of where I should be heading next in this Marco Polo mission? Or, got a great emerging social-networking site, especially in the realms of spirituality and media?
    We are eager to hear from you! Click on the “Comment” link at the end of the online version of this story. OR, email David Crumm directly.

    OR, click on the “Digg” link below and add a very brief “digg” comment — even a phrase — to this story’s listing on Digg-It, which will tell even more folks worldwide that it’s worth reading:

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