Using Online Media During Covid-19

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Staying home, modeling my homemade, no-sew mask. Bob Trube © 2020

Amid sheltering in place during Covid-19, I’ve had to think through my use of online media in this time, in both professional and personal life. I’m still in process, particularly as I observe the various controversies, rumors, information, and dire news reports coming from every country on the planet. I’m sobered by what our first responders and frontline healthcare personnel must face, by news of friends and friends of friends who are fighting infections, and the growing death tolls. In addition to newscasts, much of this information comes over online media. Like most of you, I’m trying to figure out how to walk the line between denial and obsession, of staying informed without being overwhelmed. Here are some thoughts in how I’m thinking about and dealing with this. I’m still figuring it out, and what I say may not fit your situation, so, for what it’s worth, here are a few thoughts:

  1. I’m trying to take steps to limit how much I read online. It’s a real temptation for me. I love to learn about things, which probably accounts for the shelves and shelves and piles of books in my home. I’m learning to take times of the day to check the news, and other times where I put the phone in another room, particularly when I want to give uninterrupted time to work projects or reading. If I don’t, there is always another story, and in time, even though I’m pretty even keel, I get weighed down.
  2. When I read about things that heighten my anxiety, or news about friends getting infected, or facing other struggles, I stop and pray. Often, it is just a breath prayer, “Lord, have mercy.” I try to jot a note to express care. I use messaging or emails to check in with others who I care about. I often feel helpless, but I believe God can take the little I can offer and multiply it.
  3. Much of my online presence is about books and reading, and I will stick to that. I’ve been reading Molly Guptill Manning’s When Books Went to War right now. It is a wonderful account of how important books were to those in service during World War 2. We’re in a war, facing both dire prospects and extended time at home, books can inspire and divert us. So I’ll keep reading and reviewing and posting articles about books on my Facebook page, as well as “questions of the day,” quotes, and humor. To laugh, to share about books we’ve loved, and talk about books we might read next is an act of hope, and an affirmation of life.
  4. I sense that some of those I work with are already burning out on Zoom. It’s unavoidable for faculty and students I work with. But it is also tiring, because we “see” others, but have to work harder to connect. I’m learning to break these sessions up into smaller doses. I’m also wondering if sometimes, a phone call, or even an old-fashioned handwritten note or letter may be better. Zoom is a great tool, but I’m starting to rummage around and ask if there are other tools in the toolbox I should be using.
  5. I am not going to amplify the dire news, rumors, and controversy. Other than one instance of advocating around an issue that personally affected friends I care about, I try to keep it positive. I love to give shout-outs to our governor and state health director (a fellow Youngstowner and Youngstown State alumnus!) who are giving great leadership to our state. Otherwise, I try to post humor, encouraging stories like the technology developed locally to sterilize the critical N95 masks up to 20 times, and other things, like a video showing how you can make a no-sew mask, along with a selfie of me with one of those masks. There are news outlets and plenty of others bringing dire news, conflicting stories, and controversies. I’ll leave it to them. As for politics, I say the one referendum that counts is the first Tuesday of this November.

There is a scripture I was reminded of again today that shapes my approach:

Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. (Philippians 4:8, NIV).

Nearly seven years ago when I launched this blog, I wrote, “We live in an amazingly diverse mosaic of peoples and ideas which can either be the source of endless conflict or the opportunity for rich engagement with one another across our differences in pursuing together goodness, truth, and beauty in our world.” I think we need this now as much as ever. So I will keep writing about our common love of all things related to books. I will keep writing stories about Youngstown. And I will keep cherishing each day God gives for us to share on this media.

Stay safe dear friends.

Physical Distancing, Not Social Distancing

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Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

I live in Ohio, and have been quite grateful for the leadership of our governor, Mike Dewine, and the director of the Ohio Department of Health, Dr. Amy Acton (who grew up in Youngstown!) during this Covid-19 pandemic. During Dr. Acton’s briefing yesterday, she made a point that caught my attention. Quoting someone else who she did not name, she mentioned that it might be better to call what we need right now as physical distancing rather than social distancing.

Physical distancing is one of the critical measures we need to take to “flatten the curve” to avoid a surge of cases that overwhelm our health system, as occurred in Wuhan, Iran, Italy and elsewhere. This could mean doctors would have to make decisions of who gets respirators and who will not. In the same briefing, we learned that 60 to 80 percent of our state’s respirators are already in use, without Covid-19 cases. In addition to staying six to ten feet away from others and avoiding all physical contact, it has meant, in our state and many others, closures of schools and universities, bans on gatherings of over 100, closure of bars and restaurants except for take out purchases, bans on visitors to nursing facilities and prisons, cancellations of sporting and other events attracting crowds. Most religious bodies have cancelled services and gone to online streaming. Physical distancing could protect you from infection, or protect you from infecting someone who is vulnerable.

Social distancing. What we need to think about at this time is not becoming distant socially from one another, but rather finding new ways maintain and strengthen our social ties during an extraordinarily stressful time. On Meet the Press yesterday, David Brooks made this observation:

I looked back and read about all the different pandemics over centuries. And you think people come together in a crisis? They do in some kind of crisis. But in pandemic, they fall apart. The reporting from every crisis for the last thousand years of this sort is that neighbors withdraw from neighbors. You get widened class divisions. Out of fear you get a spirit of callousness.

The other day, I was talking to someone about the crazy hoarding of toilet paper, and he commented, “I’m stocking up on ammo.” His remark brought home to me that we face a question of what kind of society will we become in the next several months. We may choose a survival of the fittest ethic, fighting each other for toilet paper, food, or even a place in the line to get tested. Or we can choose to be a society seeking to recognize our connectedness. While we physical distance, we can reach out in other ways.

  • We can check in on the health and welfare of neighbors and those in our faith community.
  • We can use Nextdoor to learn of needs in our neighborhood. If you have a stash of toilet paper and learn of others with a need, you might consider helping.
  • Someone on quarantine or isolation (which can happen suddenly) legally cannot leave their home. Food, books, games, videos on their doorstep (let them keep them) might lift spirits in important ways.
  • We can particularly be aware of those who are alone, especially the elderly, and stay in contact.
  • We can pay attention to ways we may volunteer as appropriate to our health and age. In our area, voting is taking place. Most poll workers are over 65, putting them in a high risk group. If you have been laid off or work from home and are younger and in good health, you might help in their place.
  • One of the things that did not exist in the earlier pandemics is online technology. We can phone, text, message, Skype, FaceTime, Zoom, email, WhatsApp and more. In the last days I’ve been reached out to and reached out to others on many of these media. Religious communities can meet online. People can collaborate in all sorts of ways. Instead of using social media to engage in endless barrages of argument and fingerpointing, we can use it to stay in touch with friends, even share a laugh.

None of our countries will be the same when this ends. David Brooks observed that after the 1918 flu pandemic, people avoided talking about it “because they were ashamed of how they behaved.” This pandemic could rend the fabric of our society even worse than it has been in recent years. Or it could re-focus us on what is important–the ways in which we are mutually dependent upon each other and every human being is of value. Are we going to hoard toilet paper and ammo, or invest in strengthening our social connections? While we practice physical distancing, will we focus on our social connectedness? You and I will make decisions in these next days and weeks that not only affect the health of millions but the fabric of our society. How will you choose?

I’d Settle for Modest

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Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

In a number of presidential campaigns the slogan of making or keeping America great has been a centerpiece. This fits a version of American history I grew up with that taught me what a great country the United States is–our democratic institutions, our Bill of Rights, our immense resources, our diverse population, and our influence in the world. I do think there is good in a number of these things, whether it be the presumption of innocence in criminal trials, the “first freedoms” of our First Amendment, our use of military power in some instances, particularly against Hitler. I think of the opportunity afforded so many like Michael Bloomberg, who came from very modest means, to work hard and smart to build a business, earn a fortune, and serve as Mayor of New York.

I love my country. But as a Christian I love a God who loves the world (John 3:16), and so I need to see my country within the world God loves. To share God’s heart is to share his love, and to love the United States alone is too small to share the heart of God. I love a God who is holy, just and true, and this requires me to look at my country through these lenses as well.

When I look at things this way, it leads me to far greater modesty about my country. While not denying the goods, there is another kind of history about which I’ve learned since I was in school. Much of it isn’t pretty. Some examples, that could be vastly expanded:

  • We didn’t “discover” America. There were Native peoples who called this home before we knew “America” was even here.
  • There were blacks forcibly brought as slaves to the United States even before the Mayflower landed in 1620.
  • Well into the early nineteenth century slavery was legal in the north as well as the south, and even when northern states abolished slavery, the economics of north and south made slavery a continuing necessity upheld by fugitive slave laws.
  • The subjection of Native peoples, Blacks, and women was written into our founding documents. Section 2, Article 3 of our Constitution reads: “Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned among the several States which may be included within this Union, according to their respective Numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole Number of free Persons, including those bound to Service for a Term of Years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three fifths of all other Persons.” In other words, Native peoples had no representation (or tax responsibilities, a mark of citizenship), slaves were considered three-fifths of a person (and considerably less in the eyes of many), and women are not even mentioned.
  • Women did not obtain the right to vote until 1920.
  • After the Civil War, blacks were free but subject to a reign of terror through lynching, denial of voting rights, and segregation, collectively known as Jim Crow. More recent policies of incarceration have been called the “New Jim Crow” because of their focus on black men.
  • Native peoples suffered a string of broken agreements, displacement from good lands, and obliteration of their population through disease, the “Trail of Tears,” and massacres like Wounded Knee.
  • Only in 2020, after over two hundred failed attempts, did Congress pass a law making lynching illegal on a national basis, fifty years after the horrible lynching of Emmitt Till.

I don’t want to get into arguments that call out the notable exceptions or arguments that discuss the injustices, tyranny, and genocide that have occurred in other countries. It is a sad fact of human societies that they (and we) are capable of unspeakable evil.

All I want to suggest is that a healthy dose of modesty might serve us well as a nation.

Modesty saves us from trying to maintain a pretense of greatness that many know just isn’t so. Pretending one is clothed in greatness when in fact one is naked is not great, it is indecent and foolish. Modesty says, “let’s address our lack of clothing.”

Modesty allows us to start listening to other stories of America that are not so great rather than closing our ears. That may allow us to learn how America might be good, if not great for those for whom it has been neither.

Modesty admits that we don’t have it all, that others who are different may enrich us. Modesty recognizes value in all and includes all.

Modesty is an antidote to the burden of greatness, particularly when the greatness of some requires subduing others. People don’t tend to cooperate with being subdued–they protest, engage in civil disorder, revolt, sometimes violently or go to war. All of this comes at great cost. Paul Kennedy’s The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers makes the argument that every great power in history has ultimately collapsed under the burden of the cost of sustaining its greatness.

Modesty saves us from the extremes of ideologues, and the over-emphasis on national power. Modesty recognizes the value of local structures, both governmental and non-governmental including families, religious bodies, businesses, social organizations, and educational institutions. I get scared of both conservative and liberal ideologues who are inviting me into a sacred quest which I believe is reserved for my faith alone. I far prefer those who are modest about what they are doing, who admit that it is “just politics” and hope they will pursue this in the best sense of seeking what is just for the polis or city as a whole.

One may wonder about the inclusion of “Lady Liberty” as the image of this blog. To me it is an image that is at once modest and great. Lady Liberty is clothed modestly. She raises not a sword but a light. The rays of her crown are seven, symbolizing the invitation and welcome to America from the seven seas. The tablet she holds in her left are is inscribed “JULY IV MDCCLXXVI” (July 4, 1776), associating it with the aspirations of the Declaration of Independence affirming that all [men] are equal and endowed with certain unalienable rights. The statue inspired many of our fathers going off to war and welcomed them home. Likewise, many with virtually nothing to their name on arrival as immigrants found hope in the statue’s welcome. Modesty can be great. Might this be the time when our country aspires to the greatness of modesty about itself?

Are You “Sharing” Truth or Falsehoods?

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Reporters with various forms of “fake news” from an 1894 illustration (cropped) by Frederick Burr Opper, Public Domain via Wikipedia

One of the more grievous things about social media is to see the number of posts and memes, many of a political nature, that, when fact-checked, are either half-truths or outright lies. The most unsettling are personal attacks on individuals, based on false information.

I am most disturbed when I see friends who I know as professing Christians engaged in this kind of activity. The apostle Paul in Ephesians calls us to “speak the truth in love” (Ephesians 4:15). What is disturbing is that much of this activity evidences neither truth nor love.

Sometimes, it may be that we see something that either incites our outrage, or reinforces an existing belief, and it is so easy to click “share” or “retweet.” The thing is that often, that is exactly what the originators of this content want us to do, whether they are partisans in this country or propagandists from foreign countries seeking to sow discord in the American system.

I think that if all professing Christians determined to not share and retweet political posts, without checking their truthfulness before passing them along, it would not stop this practice, but it might make a difference. If they went a step further and let the person who shared the information with them that it was inaccurate, this might give others pause (and might not).

This does raise the question of how we assess the truthfulness of posts and tweets. The Huffington Post recently published an article on “How to Recognize a Fake News Story” that reflects my own practices. They suggested nine practices:

  1. Read past the headline.
  2. Check what news outlet it is published on. (Google the site’s name.) I would add, be aware of the bias of all news outlets, even mainstream media.
  3. Check the publish date and time (sometimes old events are represented as current).
  4. Who is the author? (Search their past articles to see if they are reputable or have a reputation for hoaxes)
  5. Look at what links and sources are used.
  6. Look for questionable quotes and images. (The article suggests tools you can use).
  7. Beware of confirmation bias. (Don’t just share something because it agrees with your point of view–it could be false.)
  8. Search if other news outlets are reporting it. (Especially those with a different bias).
  9. Think before you share.

I also use sites like FactCheck.org, or Politifact.com to check posts, quotes, and memes. Often I end up finding the actual meme or post and then a detailed citation of reputable sources confirming the post or showing it partially true or false. Some people have accused these sites of bias, but I have found them willing to take to task posts across the political spectrum, and to provide reputable sources to back up their findings.

What is most challenging to me however is that I do not want to be found disobedient to the word of God. And I believe that anyone who really loves God and God’s word does not want to be found disobedient, either. Consider some of these scriptures and their implications for what we say and write online:

“You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor.” Exodus 20:16.

The Lord detests lying lips, but he delights in people who are trustworthy.” Proverbs 12:22.

Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth.” 1 Corinthians 13:6

“Therefore each of you must put off falsehood and speak truthfully to your neighbor, for we are all members of one body.” Ephesians 4:25

“Therefore, rid yourselves of all malice and all deceit, hypocrisy, envy, and slander of every kind.” 1 Peter 2:1

I spend a good deal of time online with this blog, and on different social media sites I curate. This is a challenging word that I consider:

“But I tell you that everyone will have to give account on the day of judgment for every empty word they have spoken.” Matthew 12:36 [All verses NIV]

I just added it up. I’ve written over 1.5 million words on this blog since I began it in 2013. I believe I will give account for every one. As well as my posts and comments on social media. All my emails. My words offline. Apart from grace, I know I’m in deep trouble. But even with grace, I’m sobered that my words, indeed my life, is an open book to God. I love God and I want to tell a story God loves.

If you love God, I think you do as well. We may not always agree, and I don’t think we need to mute our disagreements or our convictions about parties and issues. Can we agree to tell the truth to the best of our ability? Can we agree not to “gaslight” each other? Can we agree to believe the best of each other?

Jesus called his followers the salt of the earth and the light of the world. We may wonder whether what we do makes a difference. I would suggest that it does not take much salt to flavor something. Even a small light can pierce and dispel darkness. “Tipping points” happen when a number of small changes come together and have a cumulative effect. Imagine what would happen if the 65% of self-identifying Christians in the U.S. took truthfulness online seriously. It may not end our political disagreements, but I wonder if it would change the online world and the rancor and discord we encounter.

Will you take truthfulness seriously? Will you encourage this in your social media circles? Do you think I am speaking the truth? Will you share that truth?

Why I Remember Dr. King

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King at the Civil Rights March — Washington, DC, By Rowland Scherman – U.S. National Archives and Records Administration, Public Domain, via Wikimedia

I am spending half of my day today remembering the life and work of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. I suspect that there will be some who read this who will wonder why I would do this, particularly if it is a holiday and I can do anything I want.

To be honest, part of the reason is that I sing in a community choir has been invited to sing in both citywide and local celebrations–I’m spending a good part of the morning singing. Our director is an African-American man, a gifted musician steeped in the tradition of the music of the Black church, much of which became the music sung during the Civil Rights movement. The music is different from that of my church upbringing. It teaches me to exuberantly praise, to cry out in lament, to endure for the long haul, to hope and aspire.

As a white man, I will never fully understand what it is to be black. Days like this are part of a process of understanding more. The songs, as they sink into my being, put me in touch with the long struggle of a people and invite me to join in that struggle. The speakers invite me into a different set of stories from those I ordinarily hear. I admit that there is much more to understanding what it is to be black than joining in a one day celebration. It is one of many steps. I always learn something.

The day honors the life and work of Martin Luther King, Jr. He was this rare combination of Christian who was a prophet, a peacemaker, and a martyr.

  • Prophets not only foretell, they “forth tell.” They call people forth to God’s highest ideals and expose when we are less than that. King said “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” Injustice at the lunch counter, on the bus, or at the voting booth threatened our whole fabric of justice, our aspirations as a nation for “liberty and justice for all.”
  • He was a peacemaker. He said, “We must develop and maintain the capacity to forgive. He who is devoid of the power to forgive is devoid of the power to love. There is some good in the worst of us and some evil in the best of us. When we discover this, we are less prone to hate our enemies.” He taught church people to put these principles into practice with non-violent resistance. For the same reason, he opposed the Vietnam war.
  • He was a martyr, not merely for the sake of his own people. He understood the tremendous soul-burden racism placed upon whites as well as blacks. He said, “If physical death is the price that I must pay to free my white brothers and sisters from a permanent death of the spirit, then nothing can be more redemptive.”

His life and death are worth remembering for these and many other things. It always does me well to remember the noblest words and deeds of others, rather than the tawdry words and deeds that are so much a part of our news.

I can imagine someone at this point interjecting with the imperfections of King’s life. I’ve read the biographies and know them well. I won’t offer any justifications. But it seems that we only call up these things against those we don’t like, and overlook them in those we favor. Worse, we overlook them in ourselves. King admitted “the evil in the best of us.” Do we? Perhaps it is not a bad thing to engage in some self-examination on a day like this. What is the log in my own eye that needs removing?

I use this day to remind myself of the reason Dr. King is known to us, the log in our national eye, as it were. Our sins around how we displaced one people and forcibly enslaved another, and after Emancipation, have persisted for another 150 years in finding ways to oppress our Black fellow citizens have been called “America’s original sin.” Even a bloody Civil War failed to bring us to lasting repentance. Abraham Lincoln seemed to understand better than most how this war was a judgment of God upon the nation:

Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether (From Lincoln’s Second Inaugural address).

I tremble as I think of God’s judgment that we failed to heed the scourge of the Civil War and have perpetuated for another 150 years in different ways the oppression of slavery, and often nurtured racial hatred in our hearts. The lament songs that ask “how long” speak powerfully to me, calling me to persist in prayer for repentance from our national sin, and the healing of our racial divisions.

But I cannot stop there. Martin Luther King, Jr. was a man of hope. On the night before he died he said,

I just want to do God’s will. And he’s allowed me to go to the mountain. And I’ve looked over and I’ve seen the promised land! I may not get there with you, but I want you to know tonight that we as a people will get to the promised land.

If a man like King, who had faced so much opposition and evil and hate could continue to hope, why shouldn’t I? To gather with others across racial boundaries on this day is to remind ourselves of that hope, the “Dream,” and to strengthen our resolve to persist in that hope. It cannot be just another “kumbayah” moment, quickly forgotten. It means continuing to stand together to seek justice in our communities, in our prison systems, and in loving resistance against structures that try to perpetuate white supremacy in a country formed around the “unalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” of all of our people.

All this is why I remember Dr. King today.

 

Bob on Books in 2020

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Image by Mohamed Hassan from Pixabay

The year of 2019 was a banner year for Bob on Books, both the blog site and the Facebook page. Early in 2019, the blog topped an all-time total of a half million views. At the end of the year, the total was over 650,000 with over 162,000 views from nearly 113,000 viewers. We posted over 180 reviews of books, including a number of science-faith reviews from guest reviewer Paul Bruggink. On the Facebook page, we started the year with around 2,000 people who “liked” the page. By the end of the year, we had topped 5,500.

Numbers are only part of the story. Early on, I wrote on my “about” page:

While I am a person of faith as a follower of Christ, I hope the blog will be a meeting place for anyone who cares about good literature, who loves books and reading, and wants to talk about ideas that matter. We live in an amazingly diverse mosaic of peoples and ideas which can either be the source of endless conflict or the opportunity for rich engagement with one another across our differences in pursuing together goodness, truth, and beauty in our world. My hope is that this blog will contribute to the latter.

I am encouraged that by and large, both on the blog and the Facebook page, we have cultivated a meeting place that is a pretty good approximation of this description. It feels to me that this is a volatile time, especially around matters that have been part of our political debates and that volatility has occasionally flared up, especially over on Facebook–a medium that is most prone to this. A simple post of the text of Greta Thunberg’s United Nations speech (reading material!) brought out some of the most vicious comments I’ve seen.

Most of the time, we’ve just enjoyed discussing the books we are reading and the quirkiness of those of us who are bibliophiles. My awareness of the diversity of genres people are reading has grown, and I’ve picked up some great ideas of mysteries and science fiction to read from others. While I post a number of reviews of Christian works, others have written about different religious and philosophical texts that have been formative for them. At least we haven’t fought about religion, but rather learned from each other. I was most delighted when several on Facebook commented that our page was the main reason they hadn’t closed their accounts.

As for the coming year? I’m in a new job that also involves a blog, social media, and other web media to encourage and equip and network emerging Christian scholars, and much of my creative energies are invested in that project. I’m applying much of what I learned these past years to this job (it might have even helped me get the job!). But here are a few things I want to keep on doing and do better here:

  • I love reading and reviewing books, and if there is anything I want to do this year, I want to pay attention to great reviewers, and work at the craft of writing reviews that are both interesting to read, and help you decide whether the book in question is one you want to read.
  • I will keep writing about Youngstown. I haven’t run out of things to write about yet and love discovering more about the people and places and institutions of the place where I grew up. Just as our own lives are enriched by our family history, I believe our communal life is enriched by understanding our communal history–what has made us uniquely us!
  • I also enjoy learning and writing about everything bookish. I hope I get around to more bookstores this year. I also believe libraries play a critical role in fostering reading among both children and adults and an increasingly important role as a “third place” in our culture. I’ll continue to explore the quirky qualities that make us bibliophiles, and hopefully help us laugh at ourselves, something we all need.
  • I was warned recently about writing about religion and politics. I happen to think there is nothing more important than how we answer the “big questions” of life, whether they concern what we believe to be really real, or how we order our relations and priorities in society. I strive to be neither a proselytizer nor a partisan.  Whether in religion or in political discussion, I hope we can reclaim a civil public square from the trolls, the gaslighters, the echo chambers, and the partisans. I hope to moderate and write (when I do) toward that end! When we can’t engage civilly and substantively around the big questions and the common good, we surrender our culture to the demagogues and the power-mongers.

That’s it, as far as I can see, although you never know what comes along. Thanks for coming along with me this far. I’m looking forward to some great books in 2020 and I wish for you the same!

Bob on Books Best of the Rest

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The front page of one of the hometown newspapers I delivered.

Each year I post summaries of my best books of the year and my best Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown posts. Here is a list of the “best of the rest,” posts on reading, current events or observations about life. Hope you enjoy this sampler from Bob on Books.

  1. The Death of my Hometown Paper. On August 31, 2019, The Vindicator, under the ownership of the Maag and Brown families, ceased publication. Since then, the Warren Tribune Chronicle has picked up publication under The Vindicator name, but something died that day for me.
  2. It’s Not Hoarding If It’s Books. This received a good deal of reaction. Secretly, many of us bibliophiles use this rationalization, but I suspect we still feel uneasy about the amount of books around us.
  3. What Happens to Unsold Books? This arose out of some idle curiosity, but it appears that many worry about the fate of the unsold!
  4. Why I’ll be in Church This Sunday. Attendance at Sunday worship services has been dropping. I don’t try to answer why this is, but rather why I keep showing up.
  5. Getting Impeachment Right. Before impeachment proceedings began, I outlined the conditions I thought necessary for this to be done properly. I don’t think Congress has paid any attention! I wrote at the end of my post, “While we have survived past crises, that does not mean we will this one. All I can do is hope. And pray.” If anything I feel this more than when I wrote the post.
  6. Counterfeit Books on Amazon. A good friend’s book was counterfeited by third-party sellers using Amazon’s platform. In my outrage, I looked into this and wrote about it.
  7. Why Are Prisons Banning Used Book Donations? I learned that my own state, along with others to ban the donation of used books to prisons. When I looked into this, I became even more disturbed as I realized the commercial interests and the state’s financial interests involved in this decision, and the deleterious impact on those in our state’s prison system.
  8. Toxic Masculinity? Following a controversial commercial by Gillette last January, I wrote about my own reactions to this commercial. This was one I received a fair amount of pushback on as well.
  9. Do You Own Your E-books? Many people were surprised to discover that they do not and why this is.
  10. Memo: To the New CEO of Barnes & Noble. When James Daunt became the new CEO of Barnes & Noble, I asked those on my Bob on Books Facebook page what advice they would have for him. This post summarized their responses.

For my most faithful followers, this list will be a visit with old friends. For others, it might be an interesting read to discover what you might have missed on the blog in 2019. I so appreciate all of you who follow, read, and comment on the blog. Over 100,000 people (for the first time) visited the blog this year and made nearly 160,000 visits (so far). I appreciate all the interactions–not only those who agree but those who write with everything from grammar corrections to disagreements with what I’ve written. You force me to be a better and more accurate writer and thinker, and hopefully a better person. I hope what I write has some of that effect on others as well!

The Prince of Peace Comes to a Divided Church

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Prince of Peace” by GP 316, Public Domain CC0 1.0 Universal

I should preface this post by saying that what follows is a Christian reflection addressed to fellow Christians. Not all who follow me on social media share these convictions–not even all Christians! With that disclaimer, feel free to read on, tell me what you think if you differ, or pass, as you are inclined. Whatever the case, may the peace and joy of the holiday be yours.

I write this on Christmas Eve at the end of the season of waiting for the coming of the King. I wait not only to celebrate his first coming but also long for his return. Advent reminds me that I live between the times, between the kingdom already come, and the fulfillment of that in the return of the King. My Advent readings of this year remind me of the longing of those who witness the world’s turmoil and our longing for the Prince of Peace (Isaiah 9:6) who will set all things right.

But it is not merely in the world that he will set things to rights. It will also be in the church, his Body, his Bride. What is troubling is that if the King were to return right now, he would find his American church in deep turmoil, and split by allegiances penultimate to the King–political powers and parties, ideologies of race, disparities of wealth and poverty, deep differences around questions of gender and sexual orientation. The Christianity Today editorial calling for the president’s removal from office and the opposing fierce reactions that have filled my social media this past week are only the latest evidence of how deeply divided the American church is, and from what I can tell, how undisturbed we are with this state of affairs.

I wonder if we reflected on this last night as we gathered in our different churches for various forms of Christmas Eve celebrations, or this morning for Christmas Day services. How many of us considered that, in the midst of our war of words, we were celebrating, in common, if not together, the same Prince of Peace? This is the King who said, “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:35, NIV). It is little wonder to me that record numbers of Millenials are turning away from Christian churches when they see the disparity between the words we mouth, and the way we really treat each other, and how undisturbed we seem to be about the divisions among us, let alone in the world.

I, for one, am deeply troubled by all of this. One reason I have chose not to comment on the CT editorial is that online comment only furthers those divisions, in my mind. It is not that I am trying to sit on the fence. I’m more interested in tearing down those fences. I fear the judgment from the Lord whose return I long for if we persist in the things that divide us. Instead of a church split in its allegiances to earthly powers, I long for a church united by our common allegiance to the Prince of Peace who is our peace and has torn down every dividing wall of hostility (Ephesians 2:14). I’m troubled when the national political agenda of one party or another is more important to the followers of Jesus than his global agenda for the nations.

There are steps that I need to take personally that I would commend for (at least) your consideration:

  1. I want to be sure I am paying more attention to the Prince of Peace than to the human participants of our nation’s political drama. I’ve spoken far more about the latter than the former in the last years.
  2. I want to re-double my prayers for those who lead. The reason we are to do so, stated in 1 Timothy 2:2, is that we might lead peaceable and quiet lives. I believe there are spiritual powers at work in our national political drama that are fostering discord, both in the nation and in the church. Do we believe in seeking the One who is above all heavenly or earthly powers to act?
  3. I want to be sure that I am living in the story of the King rather than the stories spun in public media–whether on Twitter or Fox News or CNN. A test for me is whether I’m spending more time reading and meditating on and acting upon scripture than following the news and talking about it.
  4. I will pursue political conversations with other believers, even those who differ with me, where there is a prior commitment to relationship, to the seeking of truth and justice with humility, and to prayer for one another and for our nation and world. This means most of those conversations will not be online. If you really care what I think politically, and are willing to commit with me to these practices, I’m glad to find a way to talk.
  5. None of this means I will withdraw from seeking the common good in our society. What I want to do is to listen to God about where I should focus attention. I want to examine myself in whatever I pursue, that I seek peace, and as far as it is possible for me, to make friends, not enemies, even with those who disagree with me.
  6. Finally, I want to live a life defined by the Great Command and the Great Commission–one defined by love of God and neighbor, and a love of Christ and his gospel that in life and word commends the excellence of the Prince of Peace to others.

I wonder if our political allegiances, whatever they are, have become so important because we have lost a sense of the excellence of the Prince of Peace, who we celebrate this day. While not ignoring the world around me, I want to get caught up in the story of the Prince of Peace. I wonder what would happen if believers from disparate factions of the American church were also caught up in this story? What would happen if this were the leading topic of our discourse with each other? I doubt it would resolve all our differences, but at least we might be reminded of what is truly precious to us all, the “pearl of great price,” and, as we catch each others eyes, we might say, “so you love him, too.” And in that moment, we might have at least a taste of the Peaceable Kingdom to come.

Facebook, I’d Really Like To Be Transparent

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Screen capture of Page Transparency information for my non-business page.

To be a Facebook user means navigating a continually changing platform with regard to privacy settings, newsfeed preferences, and connections with other social media. Then there have been the privacy breaches, like that with Cambridge Analytics. I know some who have become so frustrated with Facebook that they have thrown in the towel.

That has not been my experience, but I’ve tried to keep up on the changes, recognizing that for me, this is a free service that has fostered good connections with friends and new connections with people who share common interests, as well as serving as a platform to promote events and other causes of interest. I’ve no plans to close my account any time soon.

That doesn’t mean I don’t have my bones to pick. Here is one I’ve become aware of lately: Facebook Page Ownership is only possible for verified businesses.

Here’s the deal. In the summer of 2018, those of us who have connected blogs to Facebook learned that we can no longer connect them to a profile. We must connect them to a page. So I created a Facebook page, Bob on Books, matching the name of my blog. That has been an unexpectedly delightful process. Just the other day, the page went over 5,000 “likes,” far more than my current number of friends. I post my blog, humor, and curate articles and images from across the web as well as a “question of the day,” and apart from a few controversial topics, we’ve had fascinating conversations about our common love of books.

I try to be diligent as a page admin, removing derogatory comments and profanity from the page, and watching for any sign of abusive treatment of other members. If one visits “Page Quality” for my page, you see this message: “Your Page has no restrictions or violations.” That’s kind of a negative way of putting it–it would be nice if there were positive statements like “this Page meets or exceeds Facebook community standards”–but I have a green rating.

Recently, Facebook has upped its efforts to foster “page transparency.” I’ve received messages about confirming business ownership for the page as part of the transparency information visitors can see. For actual businesses and political organizations, this is a good thing, so page visitors know who they are really doing business with, particularly if a product or a candidate is being promoted. We don’t want to get “faked” out, so this is a good step.

The problem for me is that Bob on Books is not a business. I don’t sell anything. I am not advocating for a politician or political position. All I’m doing is creating a space where people can talk about all things book-ish, and have fun doing it. No dues, no admission. Just show up. I cannot go through a business verification process, because there is no business to verify. There is just me. I’m listed as page admin and people can go to my Facebook profile and learn about me if they wish.

But on the Page Transparency information for Bob on Books, you see the message in the screen capture above: “A page owner hasn’t yet completed business verification process.” It makes it sound like the page is less than fully transparent. But there is no way I can do this short of creating a business that can be verified, which I have no interest in doing. This is a hobby, a labor of love. I already have a job, but all of this is separate from my work.

I’ve tried to communicate this to Facebook but have received no response. My only recourse at this point is to include the following in a “pinned post” on my page:

Page Disclaimer: I post material I think will be interesting for this page. No endorsement or agreement is implied. Nor does anything posted here reflect the views of any organization with which I am associated, including my employer. There is no Page Owner listed for this page because it is not connected with any business nor does it try to sell you anything. Bob Trube manages this page and curates all content and comments.

It feels to me that Facebook wants me to be a business so I will buy services from them including advertising. I wonder if Facebook sees my page as social media or business media. I feel like I’m kind of second class, because there is no comparable verification process for pages that are not businesses.

For now, it hasn’t seemed to matter. There is a good deal of traffic on the page, and a growing number of “likes” every day. It’s actually far more than I thought it might be. My only hope is that the page will not be “downgraded” because I cannot complete a business verification process. I suspect there are a number of others in a similar position. Many of us work hard to adhere to Facebook community standards and create good spaces. I’ve had people write that if it weren’t for Bob on Books, they would have closed their Facebook accounts. Facebook might be a better place if they positively recognized good pages and groups, rather than sending negatively framed compliance messages. At very least, I would advocate a comparable verification process for pages owned by individuals, not businesses.

Facebook, I “like” you. I hope you will “like” me as well.

“What Will Peace Among the Whites Bring?”

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Frederick Douglass, Public Domain via Wikimedia

“If war among the whites brought peace and liberty to the blacks, what will peace among the whites bring?” Frederick Douglass, July 5, 1875.

I came across this statement by Frederick Douglass in David W. Blight’s biography of Frederick Douglass. He was speaking at a July 5 picnic in the black section of Anacostia, called Hillsdale. Douglass, escaped slave and abolitionist had spent the ten years after the end of the Civil War working with Republicans, especially under Grant, in advocating for the full civil liberties of Blacks in the South under what is known as Reconstruction. One of the things that broke his heart was the tendency of Northern whites to reach accommodations with those in the South–accommodations that turned a blind eye to lynchings and the suppression of the vote and hindered black citizens in their efforts to get educated and make economic progress. These accommodations were the “peace” to which Douglass referred, and what Douglass foresaw were all the odious outcomes of Jim Crow.

I wonder if things have really changed. I would contend that whenever a white person points out evidence of the continued racialization of our country, and our unwillingness to truly face the original sin of racism that has passed from generation to generation in our country North and South, one can expect a smackdown. Whenever one speaks against abuses of civil rights of people of color, whether it is racially-profiled traffic stops, the shooting of unarmed “suspects,” or keeping refugee children in cages, one can expect pushback.

On social media, this often comes in the form of “trolling” and “gaslighting” comments that are broadsides interested neither in substantive discussion nor truth. I’ve had this happen when I’ve written on such things. The social pressure is to toe the line, and stick to posting cute pet videos.

One thing I notice when this happens. All of the people making these kinds of posts and applying this social pressure are whites as I am. Increasingly, this makes me wonder what they are afraid of losing or what injustices they are complicit in that they just do not want to face. I wonder why they are so bothered they feel the need to do this. Have I disturbed their peace?

I’m a middle child, and so peacemaking comes natural. But Douglass alerts me to a kind of peace we cannot make. We cannot make peace when it allows the exploitation or subjugation or unjust treatment of other human beings. Making this kind of peace, “toeing the line,” as it were means turning my back on the suffering of fellow human beings whose difference from me is something as superficial as skin pigment.

I’m not one of those who is constantly writing on issues. I prefer writing about books I’ve enjoyed or my beloved home town of Youngstown. But there are times when I realize that refusing to write to keep the peace (as well as engaging in other forms of advocacy and engagement) is to buy my peace at the expense of others.

Someone has said, “may the peace of Christ disturb you.” I think that is right. We should be disturbed when we see people Christ loves being excluded from the wholeness, the flourishing, that biblical peace involves.

So don’t be surprised if I don’t pay attention to your attempts to get me to keep the peace and toe the line. It’s not that I don’t like peace. I just like it for all human beings and not just “my kind.”