Saturday, September 11, 2010

Pastor Jones and Our Desperate Need

Far too much ink and bandwidth has been expended on the threat by Terry Jones to host a church event in which he intended to burn copies of the Koran. However, one question has not received much attention: why did so many people care?

In a nation of 300 million people, Mr. Jones has demonstrated sufficient charisma to gather a following of around 50. He lacks any discernible talent or notable intellect, and he does not come across as particularly articulate -- at his announcement on Friday, he could not even correctly pronounce the title of the man he was hoping to meet in New York. As the pastor of an independent congregation, he is essentially not accountable to anyone and is not a leader beyond his local fiefdom. His views are not consistent with either Christian verities or American values. Yet, he has managed for all intents and purposes to hold the nation hostage in his quixotic quest at self-immolation. His planned event has garnered the attention and approbation of everyone from the President of the United States to the commander of American forces in Afghanistan to politicians and pundits of every stripe to Muslims around the world threatening riots and violence because of his actions.

Why?

Modern communication technology provides everyone with a megaphone to the world. While that has many advantages -- it is now harder for hidden corruption to remain hidden, for example -- it has also presented our culture with a challenge that it has not yet answered. How do we decide what is important? A generation ago, a drunk spouting nonsense in a bar was heard by the 10 people within earshot. Today, his tweet might be heard by 10 million people around the world, and sometimes people decide that the rant requires a response.

Mr. Jones, who has the demonstrated capacity to spout nonsense while seemingly stone cold sober, got his response.

One suspects that it is asking too much to expect a culture in which journalists breathlessly gather at a courthouse in hopes of seeing Lindsay Lohan in handcuffs to discern what truly matters. Nonetheless, we desperately need to try.

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