Saturday, April 24, 2010

Sleepless in Stockholm

On April 14th I left Chicago bound for Barcelona with a layover in, of all places, Stockholm, Sweden. I was bound for a meeting of the executive committee of the International Federation of Free Evangelical Churches—a big name for a rather small organization. I am the chair of the theology committee and had a report to make. We were late arriving in Stockholm and only as we approached the city were we told the reason. A volcano had erupted in Iceland and forced our plane south to avoid the ash. A few hours later my fight to Barcelona was cancelled along with every other flight out of Arlanda Airport. Across Europe airports fell like dominoes. The skies above Stockholm were eerily silent and no one knew how long they would remain that way. I was able to find a hotel room and let my friends Doug and Jodi Fondell know that I would be around for awhile.

As many of my friends reminded me, one could be stuck in worse places than Stockholm—a fact I readily acknowledge. I have been to Stockholm every year for the last fourteen years. I have many friends and colleagues in the city and have spent many pleasant hours wandering its streets. No, it was not hard to be stuck in Stockholm. But I had no idea when I could be able to go home. As every traveler knows, when your flight is cancelled you go to the end of the line, not the beginning. When my second flight home was cancelled SAS told me the next open seat for a return to Chicago was a full week away. Europeans were enduring long train rides and miserable bus rides to get home. But for the thousands of North Americans in Europe there was no option but to wait and worry.

Over the course of my stay several things became apparent to me. First, our dependence on airplanes to deliver people and materials makes us more vulnerable than we may be willing to acknowledge. Getting people from Europe to America is one thing. Delivering perishable foods, medical material, military personnel, and sick people are another. Fruit and vegetables meant for markets in Europe rotted in Africa waiting for transport. Both the Africans and the Europeans have made themselves vulnerable to a fragile transportation system that can be crippled for long periods of time by entirely natural forces. In the United States we depend on long distance transport of foods from within and without the country. We have not developed the capacity to feed ourselves from locally grown produce. We are foolish if we imagine we are not also vulnerable.

The second thing that became apparent to me was that I was very frustrated at not being in control of the situation. It is an American trait to go out of the window if the door is closed. We love to work the angles. We are confident we can “figure things out.” In this case, however, there were no angles to work. Not only could I not control the volcano or the policies of the regulatory agencies, I was helpless to get over the ocean without a plane. I had to wait, with growing impatience, for a solution to an intractable problem. A trip home on the Queen Mary was not an option! And I didn’t know how long the volcano would erupt and how much ash would clog the skies. It was sobering to be helpless and dependent. But it was also sobering to confront my assumptions and limitations!

The third lesson was a much more positive one. I was reminded again of the importance of the generosity of friends and the kindness of strangers. Doug and Jodi took me in and allowed me to disrupt their schedule for several days. They opened their home and made me feel welcomed and cared for. Friends in the Swedish Mission Church offered encouragement and logistical support both in Stockholm and in Jonkoping. Friends in the US prayed, offered help, and gave encouragement. I found myself very thankful for Facebook! I was reminded of the value of the community called Church.

Finally, I discovered the value of slowing down and paying attention to God. More than one person remarked that being forced to wait in Stockholm with a stack of books sounded appealing. And I was able to get a good deal of reading, writing, and praying done. I had meals with colleagues and long conversations with my hosts. My pace at home is so frenetic that I don’t even notice it. Being forced by circumstances to slow down, be patient and wait, was a good thing. I am very glad to be home. But I am also glad for the experience and blessed by the memory of those days. However, the next time I am getting ready to board a plane for Europe I will check on volcanic activity in Iceland!

Monday, April 5, 2010

Echo Chamber

Historian Tony Judt’s stunning new book Ill Fares the Land presents a savage critique of our culture’s “nihilistic individualism.” He argues that the rise of the internet not only contributed to this individualism but crippled our ability to communicate our differences and sustain our communities. Such a judgment is, to say the least, counter-intuitive. Defenders of the internet are swift to assert that the internet has made more and more information available to larger and larger group of people. Furthermore, it has enhanced our ability to communicate our ideas around the world and to varieties of constituencies. The problem with the internet, however, is not the availability of information or the speed of its dissemination. The problem is that users of the internet select what is important or interesting to them and avoid exposure to what is disagreeable to them.

Judt says of his students, “Some may read of environmental catastrophes and climate change. Others are taken up by national political debates but quite ignorant of foreign developments.” They may read informed and thoughtful blogs. They may also read dishonest and bigoted blogs. In either case they may not distinguish an “opinion piece”, like a blog, form a sober news story or scholarly article. They accumulate fan pages on Facebook and seek for persons who share the same tastes in music, art, movies, novels, politics, religion, or sex. “In the past,” Judt writes, “thanks to the newspaper they browsed or the television reports they took in over dinner they would at least have been ‘exposed’ to other matters. Today, such extraneous concerns are kept at bay.”

This, Judt worries, is a serious challenge for democracy. The problem with our social discourse today is not that we disagree with each other. “The disposition to disagree, to reject and dissent,” Judt argues, “however irritating it may be when taken to extremes—is the very lifeblood of an open society.” Our problem is that our dissent is frequently so ill informed. We attack from a position of gleefully sustained ignorance and freely chosen isolation. We do not listen to each other, because we do not need to. Comfortable in our circle of agreeable friends, we demonize all who differ with us using our most extreme and abusive language. Obama is not just wrong, he is a Marxist. Bush is not simply mistaken, he is a Fascist. We solicit electronic pats on the back from our friend and “hide” the status reports of those we disagree with.

We are living in intellectual “gated communities”. We intend to keep the “tea party riff raff” outside. We bar the way to the “liberal loonies”. This problem extends to the religious world. The church in the United States is on its way to experiencing a similar “atomization.” In the mainline church people who disagree on human sexuality are dividing up the ecclesiastical spoils. Advocates of differing positions on homosexuality are well on their way to establishing separate denominations where they won’t have to put up with people who interpret the Bible differently than they do. In the Evangelical world the “really Reformed” want nothing to do with the “pragmatists”. The Southern Baptists want nothing to do with “emergent”. And to “enlightened” Evangelicals everyone to the right of themselves is a “fundamentalist.” When people are labeled, they are silenced.

We need to learn new, kind, and generous ways to listen to each other. We need to learn to grit our teeth and attend to those who differ with us. Otherwise our democracy and our religious communities are doomed.