What might come next?

Current Affairs

How Will the Coronavirus Change Us? – The Atlantic:

When AIDS came into the world, disease researchers reconsidered, loudly warning of new pandemics. Journalists wrote books with titles such as The Coming Plague and Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic. But not many nonscientists took these warnings to heart. The American public has not enjoyed its surprise reentry into the world of contagion and quarantine—and this unhappiness seems likely to have consequences.

Scholars have long posited that the shattering of norms by the Black Death was the first step on the path that led to the Renaissance and the Reformation. Neither government nor Church could explain the plague or provide a cure, the theory goes, leading to a crisis in belief. Secular and religious leaders died just like common people—the Black Death killed the archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Bradwardine, a mere 40 days after he assumed office. People sought new sources of authority, finding them through direct personal experience with the world and with God.

Worth reading the whole article.

I’d always wondered about what caused the specific intellectual scaffolding of the Peasant’s Revolt and its children, the Levellers and the Diggers. (Interestingly, the Levellers and Diggers were part of the English Civil War. Roger Williams, the founder of Rhode Island was a contemporary of Oliver Cromwell, and it’s said that Harvard University almost closed because so many of the students returned to England to fight for the Round-Heads.) It’s striking how much of our own intellectual scaffolding in the early United States was laid as a consequence of the plague and its impact in Europe.

Preachers, writers, public voices will all do well to be thinking about what will be coming in the next decades following the present pandemic. Look at how the 1920’s in the US and Europe shaped the 1930’s and the rise of fascism. Hear the voices of the Diggers and their complaints about the taking of the birthright of the Saxon people by foreigns and strangers during the Norman Conquest, and you can start to make sense of much of the identity populism and the return of “crusader” language to the public sphere.

A Prayer As We Reopen Our Communities

Current Affairs

God of pilgrims and all who journey, walk beside us as we begin down the path of restoration and recovery in our communities. Help us as we transition to a new way of being your people. Let us encounter you in friend and stranger. Help us to care for our neighbor and the outcast. May all be safe and may our new life right the wrongs of the old. This we ask in the name of Resurrected One, our Lord Jesus the Christ.

AMEN.

Information Algorithms Are Proving Deadly in this Pandemic

Current Affairs / Science

The Internet and its communications technologies are allowing us to work from home in the midst of this pandemic, to stay in touch with each other and “shelter in place” in ways that simply wouldn’t have been possible even 10 years ago.

But like most technological advances, it’s become a veritable Sword of Damocles. It has developed so quickly that we simply haven’t had time to adapt completely to what it makes possible. That’s particularly true, perhaps generationally, in the way authoritative voices communicate accurate and actionable information. And that’s causing all sorts of stupid behavior right now.

Renée DiResta writes about what is happening and the implications:

Health Experts Don’t Understand How Information Moves – The Atlantic:

All too often, the people responsible for protecting the public do not appear to understand how information moves in the internet era. Meanwhile, people who best understand what content is likely to go viral are using that knowledge to mislead.

[…]The feed abhors a vacuum. But in many cases, algorithms have little or no authoritative content to push to users—because experts haven’t bothered to produce any, or because what they have produced simply isn’t compelling to the average social-media user. Their work is locked in journals, while bloggers produce search-engine-optimized, Pinterest-ready posts offering up their personal viewpoint as medical fact. And with COVID-19, as in past outbreaks, anti-vaxxers and related influencers with a tenuous hold on reality jumped on the emerging topic early, posting repeatedly about synthetic-virus and mass-vaccination plots ostensibly hatched by Bill Gates and Big Pharma.

My doctor has a coffee mug prominently displayed in his office – in such a way that patients see it right in front of their face when the sit down to talk with him. It says “Please Do Not Confuse Your Google Search With My Medical Degree”. You can buy your own on Google. I’m guessing it’s kinda popular. And as a person who often looks up things on the web when I have a medical question – because it’s easier and cheaper than speaking with a doctor – I take the point.

Over the years this will sort itself out. Probably. Younger researchers are putting their work online right away now on pre-pub servers like ArXiv or bioRxiv. And that’s great because it gets the work out where people can see it. But it’s a challenge as well because those papers haven’t been reviewed yet, they are on occasion withdrawn because they are wrong, or occasionally, someone is doing mischief. (Like posting falsified data that claims a particular drug is more effective than it is – and thus causing investors to buy stock in a company…) Once the papers have been properly vetted by peer review, they are published in very-expensive-to-access journals that most of us can’t access. And so we see the new and the novel, not the vetted and accurate information.

See the issue?

DiResta’s article lays out the particular challenges that this liminal moment in publishing is causing as we respond to a once in a century global health challenge – and points out how the adolescent mindset of Twitter (which can’t abide error or a scent of hypocrisy) is throwing gas on the fire.

Media literacy is incredibly important right now. Honest to God Journalists are critical to our survival right now. (Because they’re trained to verify and contextualize information before they share it.) Maybe we all need to step away from getting our news from random voices on Social Media and go back to people who have the training and the access to properly vet things. 

It would keep people from showing up in Pizza Shops with rifles in the midst of an election somehow thinking that the candidates were “lizard people” running a child sex ring… Or keep people from drinking bleach to cure a virus. Or stop people from lighting 5G cell towers on fire thinking that will stop the virus from spreading. Or…

Seriously. Listen to people who are trained to ignore the nonsense that the algorithms are throwing in our faces. It will be deadly to us and others if we don’t.

Pandemic: Turning the system volume to 11

Current Affairs

Every week in this pandemic, the Episcopal Church’s bishops and their senior staff have a thirty minute briefing from leaders around the wider church. Most of us tune in for it.

For me the most useful bits have come from hearing observations from a woman who coordinates ERD’s disaster response teams. (ERD=Episcopal Relief and Development) What she shares comes from hard won experience responding to epidemics, earthquakes, fires, famine and storms around the world. There’s a common arc in the emotional response to disasters and in the recovery efforts. Her insights have often helped me anticipate weeks in advance what will be coming next for the community.

So this week she pointed something out that’s worth sharing here and more broadly. During a crisis, in addition to the added stress of responding to the specific consequences of the crisis, it’s important to remember that pre-existing stressors don’t disappear. If your relationships were in trouble before, well, they’re still in trouble now. If your finances were precarious before, they’re precarious now too. Etc.

But the thing is, because of the stress of the crisis, the pre-existing worries become bigger and more intense. It’s as if the pandemic has turned the volume up on the entire system. What used to be playing at a 7, is now playing at 11.

Upon reflection, I say “yep”. That’s what I’m seeing too. People and congregations who were struggling are still struggling. Conflict between staff and leadership – yep. Still there, but now with more oomph behind the words and feelings. Broken relationships in the community? Check – and more starkly apparent now.

There’s probably very little you can do right now to turn down the volume. But keeping in mind that things are somewhat artificially more dramatic given the circumstances, perhaps you can lower your worry about the drama a bit.

And every little bit helps – so I hope this observation/warning helps you too.

A Prayer in a time of Pandemic

Religion

Healer of souls and stiller of storms; calm the tempests of our hearts in this time of turmoil and fear. Grant us a share of your spirit of Wisdom and Peace that we might proclaim and model your new and redeemed life among the people we serve and in our own families. We ask this in power of your name and placing our trust in your transforming love Lord Jesus.

Amen.

What will church look like as we return to the buildings?

Current Affairs / Rhode Island / Weblogs

My colleague (and friend) Jim Hazelwood, the Lutheran bishop of New England, posted a letter about the first steps in the COVID-19 recovery process. He’s been a key conversation partner with the Episcopal bishops in New England and what he shares here both represents a large part of my thinking and includes some helpful suggestions I hadn’t thought of.

He writes particularly of the immediate stages of returning to the buildings as the state governments relax restrictions on gathering:

It’s not the Same Church we had in January — James Hazelwood:

…Recognize that a phased re-opening is probably your best scenario. As an example, Rhode Island has a current limit of 5 persons gathering and anticipates a process that will increase to 10, then to 15, then to 50. How will your congregation adapt to this type of model? I think a phased re-opening might look like this:

  • Phase 1 – When your state indicates a likely date for relaxing the quarantine, ask yourselves, “What’s most in need of attention?” One way to answer this question is to consider the most vulnerable and those who are grieving. Maybe it’s best to look at some social ministry that has been curtailed, such as a food pantry, before considering worship. In addition, if your congregation has had multiple deaths, perhaps attending to grief via memorial services is an appropriate first priority. The larger point is, don’t try to do everything all at once.
  • Phase 2 – As the next level of quarantine is relaxed in your state, begin conversations about how your congregation might be able to come together in smaller configurations. Not everyone will want to nor should they want to gather publicly, but some people are eager to have some in-person contact. One congregation might consider a gathering of its shepherding groups where six or so people meet. If you have the capability, perhaps that first meeting could be outside. In other words, think of Phase 2 as an intermediary step, think small. Also, think of those not able or desirous of an in-person gathering, how will you continue to attend to them?
  • Phase 3 – If your state officials relax restrictions to larger group gatherings, ask yourself how this might be done. A favorite question of mine these days is: What’s doable? Following the Rhode Island guidance, this means groups of 50 could gather together. If you have a smaller congregation this might work. But if you are in a larger congregation, does that mean you need to have multiple worship services or staggered attendance plans? In this phase, you’ll also need to consider ways you will attend to the expectations of sanitizing your building. Additionally, are you continuing an online presence as well? How will you do this simultaneously? One church is considering plans for an in-person gathering on Sundays, but then an online gathering on Wednesdays. Are you now asking your pastor, administrator, musicians, and others to do twice as much work? Have you considered partnering with another church to share these responsibilities and more evenly distribute the workload?

There’s more at the link above. Go check it out, particularly if you’re in parish or congregational leadership (either lay or ordained).

He goes on to lay out a process that he and his regional leadership will be using to think through what comes next in congregational life – in light of the months of experience we’ve all had in virtual worship. As he notes, and as we’ve experienced in the Episcopal Church, there are some real gifts coming from virtual worship and community life. There are obvious significant challenges (the shared Eucharistic meal being foremost in all our minds).

How we keep the good that is new, and the good that is old, is going to be a question for the next age of the Church to sort through. We’re being forced by events to deal with an increasingly networked and virtualized social existence. I’m both gratified to see how well and generously we’ve all responded, and I’m worried that so far we’ve only done the easy and obvious things. I don’t know what comes next. I know that God is with us, and that the Holy Spirit will lead us and correct our mistakes, but what that process will look like in the Episcopal Church will need some intentional conversation in the coming years.

The Seven Gifts of Aslan: Sacraments in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader | Tor.com

Books / Religion

I just came across a lovely article by Matt Mikalatos that’s part of series he’s writing on the children’s series of Narnia books. The books were written by C.S. Lewis back in the middle of the last century. They were written at roughly the same time as Lewis was working on his popular presentation of Christianity: “Mere Christianity” and there are some obvious connections between Lewis work on Christianity and his Narnia books.

I remember the moment I “broke the code” and saw that much of the Narnia narrative was an allegorical presentation of the Church and New Testament’s account of Jesus. (I was on my paper route and putting a newspaper into a mailbox when I suddenly realized that Aslan was an allegory of Jesus. Stopped me dead on my bike for a bit that one did…)

At any rate, Mikalatos finds that Lewis has included all seven of the traditional Anglican sacraments and sacramental rites in the third book of the Narnia series:

The Seven Gifts of Aslan: Sacraments in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader | Tor.com:

Did you ever wish that Father Christmas would show up in the middle of an adventure and give you the exact gifts you needed for the road ahead, just like he did in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe? That pretty much exactly aligns with the Christian concept of the sacraments—there are seven sacraments in the teaching of the Anglican church (the church C.S. Lewis attended), and all seven appear in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader.

Lewis told us that The Voyage of the Dawn Treader is about spiritual journeys. At the core, it’s a book about how human beings grow. How do we become better people? There are places where Aslan shows up and helps the characters to progress (we’ll look at these in two weeks), and there are gifts that Aslan has given us that help along the way, too.

Mikalatos goes on to list how each of the sacraments appears in the story of the Dawn Treader. Two were so obvious (baptism and holy communion) that I remember noting the parallels back when I still doing my roughly annual re-reading of the Narnia books in High School. 

Go follow the link and see how many you recognize. (I think it’s clear that Mikalatos is reaching pretty hard on the last of the rites… but you hate to let a good organizing principle flounder on the rocks if you can avoid it. Grin.)