Tuesday, December 05, 2006

maybe if we keep them separate but equal...

My recent post responding to the comment about Debbie Maken brought me on a brief internet safari (I looked at what else came up in the technorati search that lead to my site). I found a blog post on a site that is labeled "A Website of Focus on the Family." The post is one of the more blatant examples of heterosexism I have seen in a while. The post remarks on the story of a landscaping business that chose not to work with a gay couple and sent them an email explaining why with this email text:

I am appreciative of your time on the phone today and glad you contacted us. I need to tell you that we cannot meet with you because we choose not to work with homosexuals.

Best of luck in finding someone else to fill your landscaping needs.

All my best,


And it gets worse. The post then suggest that "However you feel about the decision they made, it's hard to criticize the way they handled it." I disagree. It is easy to criticize the way they handled it. What is wrong with this country when someone can express blatant discrimination without any reason besides "we choose not to work with homosexuals" and then be commended for their bravery? We used to do this to black people, but last I heard anyone who still behaves that way knows better than to do it so publicly for fear of backlash. I would be (slightly) more forgiving if the landscapers had expressed concern for their young sheltered laborers, or if the couple had been presenting their sexuality in a way that was offensive, but even then, there is no excuse for treating a person as inhuman. And encouragement of this behavior from organizations that claim to be christian makes me sick to my stomach.

Monday, December 04, 2006

more ranty on singleness

I wanted to draw attention to a comment I just received from the proprietor of a blog against singleness about my review of a Debbie Maken article a few months ago.

Here's the text of the comment, for context:

"Actually, the problem is not so much "singleness" per se, as protracted singleness.
If we continue down the road we are going, with so much faulty teaching about the ridiculous contemporary idea of a "gift" of singleness, then you may feel differently in - what? - 10 years time? 20 years time? Maybe if you end up facing the future as a single woman who has passed her child-bearing years, you may wish you hadn't disrespected Maken, but actually took her common sense, Biblical approach far more seriously.
God's will is not just a rubber stamp on our collective actions, meaning that all who experience lifelong singleness have been "gifted" for it, when quite plainly our faulty teaching is causing it."

Now, maybe this whole discourse is railing against another small discourse that says it is best for christians to all be unmarried, but I still find it intensely problematic. As though being 43 and childless would make me so miserable I would change my mind about the problems with gender essentialism and valorizing marriage to young people who then enter unwise marriages in their rush to couple-up and procreate because they so fear spinsterhood.

Why can't the church be the one place you don't feel bad about being single?

On a related but tangential note, I've been considering this hypothesis lately: all of Focus on the Family's cultural and political positions are based in gender essentialism.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006


Other blogs have posted this graphic and suggested that it is delurking week. Presumably as Turkey and Lurkey rhyme. As we all know, I really am a slave to trends, and I am often curious when I compulsively check my sitemeter and see unfamiliar locales pop up.

So I figure now is as good a time as any. I've been posting here for just over 2 years now. There are probably some people who read me from time to time that I don't know about. So, if you read my blog (even only occasionally), make yourself known! Who are you? where are you? don't you have anything better to do with your time? It will be fun!

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

letters to the president

my friend Claire teaches middle school in Roma TX, and writes fantastic blog posts all the time. Recently, she posted some letters her students wrote about Bush's plan to build a big fence. They are adorable and interesting, and I think you should read them too.

This might lead us to some interesting discussions about civic participation and voicelessness or, uh, immigration issues.

Friday, November 03, 2006

writing and waiting

As I was surfing the internet today (to stave off writing, ironically) I encountered this lovely blog post by my acquaintance Jessie on writing. Jessie is working on her dissertation right now, so writing is more central to her academic life than mine, but some of her thoughts resonated with me. At first I was thinking about writing and future in the sense that writing now guides my future – gets me into PhD programs, gets me jobs, gets me recognition. Also, especially if I publish the things I write now, I am committing to defend those ideas in the future, or at least continue to speak knowledgeably in that subject area.

Jessie’s reference to Habakkuk is really nice, though, and not just because it’s my favorite minor prophet. I was thinking about her suggestion that “writing and waiting have so much in common.” Jessie talks about active waiting, but I was thinking too about hope and trust. The upcoming season of Advent reminds us that we are in a constant state of waiting and hoping for the second coming and the new Jerusalem, but smaller bits of waiting also include hope and trust. Writing, for me, is often an exercise in hope and trust. I write in the hope that things I write will be useful and enlightening to me and others in the future. That my articulation of ideas will provide insight and possibility to others. Perhaps high hopes for an academic essay or a Friday afternoon blog post, and of course I don’t expect every word that crosses my keyboard to be brilliance for the future. I do, however, write in the hope that what I am writing is good and useful and will be good and useful in the future.

And I trust that God’s revelation will work through my academic muddling and make its way to me and others through me and my work. That is, I suppose, an outcome worth waiting for.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

"popular" online slang

I was pleased to see that Nathan did some work looking into the real popularity of those internet abbreviations often listed in publications on the subject. It has often been my experience that half of the slang terms, abbreviations, and emoticons listed in glossaries of the same have been terms I had never seen before reading the glossary and never saw after. I imagine some poor hapless reader of a feature on internet slang going into a chat room and looking foolish rather than savvy by reading terms from a list. I think many of these list-makers miss the important fact that internet culture is not monolithic - different slang, abbreviations and inside jokes exist in different communities. groups based on being fans of certain bands or tv-shows have slang or abbreviations for pertinent characters or albums. some straightforward symbols are common - :), lol, brb, ttyl. But most slang terms are so community-specific any purported guide to all the internets will be, well, misguiding.

Saturday, October 21, 2006

They'll Know We Are Christians By Our Teetotaling

This recent NYtimes article is troubling for many reasons besides those which appear to trouble Evangelical leaders. Evidently a poll suggests that only 4 percent of current young people will grow up to be “bible-believing christians” given a very restrictive definition. And even those Christian groups who suggest their numbers are larger present strange definitions of Christianity. (also interesting how they compare their audience to Paul McCartney’s – you know, he’s so popular with the kiddies these days…)

Apparently, these Christian teens feel the things that are keeping them from a godly life include Gilmore Girls, Ryan Seacrest, and Harry Potter. Although I understand that these things are not inherent goods, I suspect the one thing that needs to be excised from the lives of American teenagers to make them more godly is not Rory Gilmore. They express the belief that the markers of Christian living are “avoiding casual sex, risqué music and videos, Internet pornography, alcohol and drugs.”

Of course, I don’t believe that any of these ideas are bad, I’m obviously not going to encourage my 15-year-old sister (or anyone for that matter) to start doing any of those things. But is it a surprise that few people want to be part of this club? Their Christianity isn’t about love, grace, forgiveness or service. Their biblical values appear in the bible only by abstraction and certainly less than calls for social justice. If evangelical Christianity is about conservative social values, of COURSE it’s not popular among teenagers and of course they don’t want to talk about it. There’s no way to spin Puritanism as cool, no matter how much you brand it. But what really bothers me is the way they diminish the radical nature of Christianity to a set of conservative cultural values. How can “bible-believing” Christians fixate on such a small percentage of the actual biblical text?

Monday, October 09, 2006

quirk meme

I gave up my moratorium on memes to do the book one, and now I've been tagged by Shelly to talk about my quirks. Since Shelly constitutes a fair percentage of my small audience and I like talking about how quirky I am, here I go with 5 quirks:

1) I finally gave up on trying to learn to flip my pen like a debater this year after 7 years of trying intermittently.

2) I like to buy my stamps at the post office counter so that I can get the limited edition designs. Right now I have superheroes. I hope the recipients of my bills and letters notice.

3) Half of the time I'm looking at Facebook and Myspace I'm trying to figure out what other people do for hours on there.

4) I wanted to be a writer since I was 4 or 5 years old and started working on my first novel by typing on my parents' apple II. I never finished it.

5) When I was in High School my friends and I played a game called "word of the week" which was a contest to see who could use the designated word the most during the week. Some of those words showed up on the GRE, and I felt smug.

I'm sure my friends could think of quirkier things that I forgot are quirky, but there's some.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Capitalism's War?

Daniel linked to this propaganda video from world war II. I was floored by how much our wartime messages have changed in 60 years. Why are we being told the opposite now? What if we had war propaganda that said "every dollar you spend on something you don't need is a dollar helping the taliban"? What if more of us thought of the soldiers in Iraq as "our boys"?

for more on interesting wartime propoganda check out Dr Stahl's documentary.

Sunday, September 24, 2006

new word

inheranoid: the condition of being worried about extra about something because that person's parent does. (dirivitive: inheranoia)

examples: did we lock that? are you sure? can we just go back and check? Sorry, I'm inheranoid.
let's just throw it out, I have some inheranoia about food poisoning.

** Jim made up this word by accident, we worked together on the definition **

Monday, August 21, 2006

God and (non) dialogue

I’ve been reading Speaking into the Air by John Durham Peters, as it is assigned for my class this week. It’s interesting on a number of levels. Peters traces the history of the idea of communication, beginning (as many do) with Plato and Jesus. He challenges the assumption that dialogue is superior to dissemination, and suggests that both have advantages. He uses Plato’s Socrates in the Phaedrus as the advocate of dialogue. Socrates suggests that the ultimate love is the love of two souls connecting in dialogue (this is where we get the term Platonic love from). He is suspicious of writing, then, as a type of communication without a specific lover in mind – promiscuity of the soul.

Jesus, particularly in the parable of the sower, presents a different image of loving communication. Jesus message is nonspecific – he intentionally broadcasts it far and wide, and leaves the responsibility of interpretation to the listener, if he has ears to hear. God’s communication puts the responsibility of understanding on the receiver rather than the sender. As I thought about this standpoint, I realized this is not the only part of the bible where God seems disinterested in playing by the rules of dialogue. Jesus often answers questions in obscure ways, such as parables or bizarre turns. In the old testament, too, when God responds to human questions, the response is not what we expect. In Job and Habakkuk, for two salient examples, God responds, but does not answer their questions.

What are we to make of a God who does not engage in dialogue? How are we to understand a relationship with a God who does not create relationships in this primary mode? Peters seems to believe that dialogue isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, that the indifferent dissemination of grace is a great blessing. Perhaps. And perhaps a God whose logic goes beyond tit-for-tat is indeed required, when we cannot meet expectations. After all, the great joy of grace is that God gives when it is not deserved - God responds to us in a way that is entirely unexpected and over-abundant. The God of excess shows this part of divine nature even in the non-specific manner of communication. I am also reminded of Socrates’ own example of dialogue, which is perhaps more manipulative than a message disseminated. I have long been frustrated by God’s dodginess in the biblical text, but also inspired to wonder. It is unfair to characterize God as unwilling to interact entirely; after all, God emptied himself and became human, embodied, to show us love in a concrete and personal way. But even that embodied God confuses our social rules and rarely responds directly. How are we to understand the mysterious ways our God communicates?

Sunday, August 06, 2006

Book Meme

Kristen tagged me and I couldn't resist:

1: One book that changed your life: Changed in what way? Traveling Mercies by Anne Lamott. It's a book that is your friend, and it will always tell you you aren't crazy. Or Madeline L'engle Walking on Water, because it helped me develop my views on christians and culture as an adolescent.

2: One book you have read more than once: Traveling Mercies. Or most things we used a lot in Jazz Vespers.

3: One book you would want on a desert island: Something with lots of new material (like Kristen said). Maybe an anthology of contemporary liturature, or the complete works of shakespeare.

4: One book that made you laugh: Eats Shoots and Leaves by Lynne Truss. Sometimes in public. It was embarrassing but I didn't care.

5: One book you wish you had written: Girl Meets God by Lauren Winner. Because we're the same kind of nerd. Or Anything by Anne Lamott because she's incredible.

6: One book you wish had never had been written: I'm going to agree with Kristen and go with anything by Anne Coulter.

7: One book that made you cry: The Brothers K by David James Duncan

8: One book you are currently reading: Girlfriend in a Coma by Douglass Coupland

9: One book you have been meaning to read: everything. well, my pile has David Dark's The Gospel According to American and some Stanley Hauerwas. I don't know what is taking me so long with the rest of the Coupland catalogue.

10. One book you wish everyone would read, and why: Brave New World or 1984 (or any dystopia really) so you know what we're trying to avoid.

Now tag five people.

my dad
kristin (who is an english teacher)
matt(both because thorubos definately deserves the shoutout here.)
or whoever.

Friday, August 04, 2006


Yesterday was my first anniversary of living in Athens.  I moved here exactly a year ago.  As I am a big nostalgia-pot, this has got me thinking about the year, and my life here in Athens.  I also realized that a number of recent events have led me to reflect on how I have become at home in this place.

I got into a habit when Jim was here of meeting him after teaching my class in a coffee shop near my office.  After a few weeks of spending the late morning reading and caffeinating there we started to know the regulars, who shared the place with us most mornings.  We had friendly exchanges, mainly over plugging and unplugging laptops or looking after a person’s things when he put change in the meter.  One day the barrista predicted my small coffee order before I placed it.  This was an important moment – I had become a regular.  Even if it was only conspicuous consumption, I felt like I belonged.

Yesterday I got my hair cut and dyed at the local cosmetology school (photos on my xanga).  My stylist and I hit it off, I intend to visit the bar where she works so we can talk some more, that’s how much I like her.  I guess we were kind of noisy at the hair place too, because a man who was there yesterday saw me in Barnes and Noble today and asked if I still liked my new haircut.  It was strange but also oddly comforting.  It felt like the town was a community, not just a city.

I think, too, of the close friendships I’ve developed after only a year.  The friends in my department who I feel I can tell almost anything, who one year ago I was concerned about impressing and befriending.  I don’t think I could have expected then the conversations I’ve had over pizza or a drink or some untouched grading about a wide range of subjects.  These people make me smarter and more well-informed.  I can talk to them about news or frustrations or career or relationships.

Just driving around Athens seems so familiar and normal, when I remember a year ago going anywhere was a trial.  And in many ways Athens will be a special place to me because it’s the first place that I made my home all by myself, without my family or other people owning it first and bringing me in.  In fact, Athens could be the only place where I establish myself by myself.  I became an adult here in ways I didn’t in Grand Rapids because it was just too easy – too familiar and too automatic.

I’ve learned quite a bit over the last year, about myself, about others, about academics and life.  I learned that the seeds of community are everywhere, although in some places it is easier than others to find and nurture that community.  I learned to be more comfortable with solitude and silence (hours alone with your books will do that for you).  It’s been a good year.  Thanks be to God.

Monday, July 31, 2006

why The Messengers wouldn't get good grades in my class

Last night I watched the second episode of TLC’s The Messengers after reading about it in the NY Times.  I was intrigued, it’s like American Idol or Last Comic Standing, except it’s public speaking.  I teach that!

I told my students this morning that they do better than these contestants.  Or at least, by my standards; and this is why: the show focuses almost entirely on delivery.  We watched the contestants spend a long day working in fields and talking to immigrants about hard work.  They then each delivered impassioned, vacuous, generic two-minute speeches on the assigned topic of “struggles.”  I suppose they are trying to be “inspirational speakers” and that is what they tend to do – say a lot of stuff that sounds good, and makes people feel good, but doesn’t do much else.  But I was dying for someone to say something profound, or political, or at least something that wasn’t cliché.  Most of them didn’t even draw in the experience from the earlier portion of the show.  Many of them drew on their own struggles in a way that seemed self-righteous and lame.  

My other complaint is that the panelists on the show delivered warm-fuzzy feedback for the most part (they really need a Simon Cowell.  I’m sure there are a few seasoned rhetoric professors who could do the trick) and focused almost exclusively on delivery or figurative language.  As a teacher, I know these things are important, but saying nothing really well is still saying nothing.

Will this show improve the interest in the art of oratory?  Maybe, but it also will continue the misconception that good oratory is good delivery and charisma.  Although that’s part of it, it is certainly not all.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

blogger survey

Today I encountered a recent report from the Pew foundation on a phone survey of over 200 American bloggers.  It provided statistics that support the necessity of my types of blogs schema.  According to their survey, the majority of bloggers do so in the diary or Christmas card style.  52% of bloggers blog “for themselves” and an additional 14% said they blog for both themselves and an audience.  In addition, only 35% of bloggers believe their readership is mostly people they don’t know, meaning most bloggers believe that their primary audience is people they know, or a mixture of the two.  Most blogs have a small audience, with 90% claiming to receive less than 100 hits a day (I would be among that 90%, incidentally).  

The study puts my previous contention into stark relief: the political and popular blogs that get the most media and scholarly attention are a small percentage of the blogosphere; the majority of bloggers are kids and twenty-somethings talking about their lives on their livejournal.  What does this mean for the Public Sphere, and the ability of blogs to be a tool for citizen journalism and discussion?  For one thing, I think it points to the desire in our culture (and perhaps any) to assert the importance of the everyday and the personal.  I think it also underscores our cultural obsession with therapeutic forms – the confessional mode of diary blogs, reality tv, and art like postsecret seem to point to a desire to excise our interior lives, and to find others like us (or unlike us) to make us all feel better about ourselves.  This, perhaps, is also a function of blogs as public space that those who focus on news and political blogs overlook.

Saturday, July 22, 2006

About My Grandfather

My Grandpa VanderKooy passed away early Friday morning. I can't be home for the memorial service, so instead I am posting a poem on my blog.

About my Grandfather

In his last days he was like an Egyptian ruin.
We viewed him as archeologists
reconstructing what he was with our expert knowledge.

The playful jokes, winking catchphrases, stern opinions,
cigarettes and butter toffees had faded and rubbed away
leaving a few words and some nods.

I want to remember reading books on his lap
(he would say the words wrong on purpose)
and answering Bible questions right for a nickel
(not as lucrative as answering “who do you look like?”
with “my handsome grandpa” for a quarter).

There’s a more recent memory, sharper in my mind
from a day when his mind was only beginning to blur.
He asked my grandma to write a list
of his grandchildren’s names
that he studied before we arrived.
He called us by our names as we walked in the door
and I learned the story later.
I haven’t forgotten that small act:
Fiercely gripping his drifting memory
and quietly proving what was important to him.

Monday, July 17, 2006

Bringing God's Kingdom through Language

Today I finished the Grenz and Franke book I’ve been going on about, and have one more provocative idea to discuss.  I know I’ve been theology-heavy lately.  Deal with it.  Grenz and Franke follow the contention of Peter Berger and others that we construct our realities culturally and linguistically.  This is not to say that divine reality does not exist in some universal and ultimate way, but that human reality is interpreted through the lens of human discourse.  This brings them to this quotation, in the section on eschatological theology.

“As God’s image bearers we have a divinely given mandate to participate in God’s work of constructing a world in the present that reflects God’s own eschatological will for creation.  Because of the role of language in the world-constructing task, this mandate has a strongly linguistic dimension.  We participate with God, for through the constructive power of language we inhabit a present linguistic world that sees all reality from the perspective of the future, real world that God is bringing to pass.”  (Grenz and Franke, 272)

I agree with Grenz and Franke that it is our job as people of God to construct discourse that reflects the reality that God wants – a reality that looks forward to the eschaton when all things are made new.  They assign theologians the task of constructing this language for the church, but it leaves me wondering in what ways and in what spheres this should be accomplished?  I think that it is, first, a job for liturgy.  I’m reminded here of Lauren Winner’s discussion in her memoir of how the words of liturgy not only frame our worship, but give us words for our lives.  It also reminds me of my own work on Sabbath (which I am thinking I could also expand to sacrament and liturgy) that suggests that Christian practice can be a form of social action.  But I also think it should influence our creative work that is not inherently churchy, and I think this is where David Dark’s idea of apocalyptic art is particularly useful (he even uses the eschaton to speak of it).  Finally, I think this kind of discourse-construction needs to happen in our political rhetoric.  Here I think many Christian activists have the right idea (Jubilee 2000 is one salient example of framing our efforts toward justice in the language of God’s transforming the world).  This seems a bigger task than only for theologians.  I think Grenz and Franke present an important challenge, and I think they minimize it and hide it at the end of a book without much discussion.

Sunday, July 16, 2006

David Dark and Countercultural Christianity

David Dark is a smart guy and a good writer who should really get more attention in general.  He recently wrote a challenging and engaging article for Books and Culture about countercultural Christianity.  His ideas of countercultural go beyond what you usually hear from those committed to the left or the right and challenges all of us to judge less, listen more, and humbly love everyone with our rhetoric, our politics, our money, and our interpersonal relationships.  Dark suggests a kind of Christianity that is radical and diligent and impossible this side of the eschaton, but I think it’s an ideal that is consonant with the bible and worth remembering.  You should read the whole article, but here’s a quote to whet your appetite:

“What if we began to believe that we are the kind of people who have eyes and see not, ears and hear not, who swear on the Bible and hold it aloft as if it were delivered by angels while making a mockery of its witness by regarding some lives as expendable, acceptable human sacrifices to the way of world markets—what would happen then? We might cease to speak in conversation-stoppers and become servants (ministers, minstrels) of an evangel that is more than mere affirmation of what we already think we know. We might use our words with more modesty and greater precision and an appropriate fear of speaking unfaithfully of good news that transcends our understanding. We don't have to let uptight power brokers (news networks, political administrations, corporations, advertising schemes) set the tone in which we speak to each other. We get to be more pentecostal than that. We get to dream new dreams. Set new terms. We get to imagine the world differently.”

What if Christianity became a behavior instead of a catch phrase?  In some of my other reading recently I ran across an idea from John Milbank that the church is a reading of culture.  I want to find the entire book to flesh out that idea more deeply, but I think it’s related to what Dark is talking about here.  Why don’t we BE God’s word, instead of telling others what they are doing wrong?

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Culture, Hermeneutics, Tradition

I’ve been reading Beyond Foundationalism by Grenz and Franke (at the recommendation of Jim, I should credit him since I discussed this post with him before writing it).  They offer a useful view of biblical hermeneutics that makes more sense the more I think about it.  First, they emphasize the importance of approaching biblical text as text.  That is, we need to interact with a text rather than with the experience of the writer or with the psyche of the writer (as historicists often suggest).  Texts are slippery, shifty things.  Texts change when you read them in different contexts of your personal life.  Texts can be multi-layered and polysemic, and in some sense need to be approached on their own terms.

As such, Grenz and Franke emphasize the authority of the Bible as the Holy Spirit “appropriates” the text and speaks through it to a particular community.  The spirit speaks through the biblical text specifically to communities in their own context.  One interesting upshot of this idea is that this means the spirit can say different things to different communities through the same text.  Of course, we have all experienced a text, biblical or otherwise, that had a new or different meaning in a particular circumstance.  This idea makes sense with our experience.  Pushed a little further, though, it means that what qualifies as “biblical truth” to one community of believers may not be the same truth as in another community.  I think to some extent, this is true.  After all, God’s people are called to different tasks in different times and places, and culture has changed so drastically over time, God’s commands have to change to even make sense in different contexts.  For the most part I subscribe to this view.

In the next chapter Grenz and Franke write about tradition as another source through which the spirit speaks to the church (and as another source of biblical hermeneutics).  I don’t feel that they entirely resolve this question though: if the spirit speaks differently to different local communities, how are we to understand our membership in the church universal?  Can we learn from Christians in the past, and Christians in very different cultural situations, as we maintain that the spirit speaks to our local community through our reading of scripture, which may be different from the way the spirit speaks in other times and places?

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

one liner

(crossposted from my xanga, because I thought these readers might like it)

let's add a verse to proverbs 31. Just somewhere in the middle. And this is what it should say:

"when she's going to have a guest she cleans up the place in a hurry, so they don't think she lives in squalor."

Thursday, June 29, 2006

Faith, Politics, and Barak Obama

Yesterday Barak Obama gave a speech at a Sojourners event in DC.  The text and an mp3 of his address can be found on his website.  I’ve been looking into Obama’s speeches lately based on the recommendations of a few people, and I’m becoming more and more of a fan of him.  This speech in particular pleases me (as VandenBosch would say) in deep places.  Obama has a clear grasp of the position of the sojourners crowd, and what I understand as the big problem with American political discourse right now.  Obama points out how both conservatives and progressives poorly caricature each other.  Progressives paint religious people as brainless idiots who follow controlling ideologues.  Conservatives paint progressives as Godless heathens who want to take religion out of our culture as their highest priority.  Obama instead encourages real dialogue and generous understanding.  Something that is perhaps too much to ask of American politics in a sound-byte intense media age, but a hopeful image nonetheless.

Of course, one would expect to hear this sort of talk at a Sojourners event.  That’s what they do.  But it’s encouraging to hear a prominent democrat making these kinds of statements.  It’s hopeful to imagine an America where the religious vote involves more careful scrutiny than a few hot-button issues.  I am becoming a big Obama fan.

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

blogging for dialogue?

Alan Jacobs writes in Books and Culture about his disillusionment with the blog form as a source for intellectual dialogue.  He rightly suggests that the form that privileges new posts cuts off the potential for dialogue in comments – readers don’t check back for more discussion, and move on within a week.

Although this matches my experience, I think also that he overlooks the possibility of continued discussion between blogs.  Of invoking (with links) old posts of the initial poster and of others within a blog community.  And  maybe this can only work within a small community, and not on popular blogs like daily kos where the regular commenters number more than a dozen.  But I think Jacobs is a bit overly-dismissive.  Or perhaps I am overly zealous about the possibility of blogging for intellectual growth.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

CRC Synod 2006

If any of my readers are not already aware of some important discussions going on within the CRC circles about Children at the Lords Table and Women in the Church they may want to click my links and read about it from bloggers who have more gravitas on the respective topics than I.

I, like Mary and others, am frustrated with the Christian Reformed Church’s molasses-slow movement on women in leadership.  Part of me believes since I saw that restricting women was dumb when I was about 10, these educated older men should have figured it out by now.  They made some positive steps recently, but it appears I’ll be 30 by the time they even TALK about it again, since they put a seven-year gag order on the issue.  That’s a long time to wait.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the unique nature of my background, and growing up Christian Reformed is definitely part of that.  It is in situations like this, though, that I’m not sure how to relate to my background.  There are many things about dutch-american communities and CRC that is charming and beautiful and things that I’m thankful I inherited.  Since the dutch aren’t repressed, people don’t think of us as ethnic, but we share characteristics with other etho-religious communities.  And I love those things.  But when issues like this come up, or when a Christian reformed church seems so far from the things I really value about the reformed tradition, I am not sure how to relate that to my experience and my understanding.  How does one love a tradition and also see that it has problems?

Saturday, June 03, 2006

conservative rock anthems

Thanks to Jon for pointing me to this rather amusing list of the “Top 50 Conservative Rock Songs” from the National Review.  Now, some of their selections have defensible conservative themes.  But others are blatant misreadings.  I guess it’s a good example to support the idea that all texts are polysemic and that resistive readings are possible.  But seriously.  Calling U2’s “Gloria” reactionary because it has latin in it?  That’s outrageously ignorant of both church and Irish history.  I don’t think either party can really claim the catholic church, its issues fall on both sides.  And that’s their number six pick.  Also sketchy is their number 8 – The Sex Pistols “Bodies”.  Because the word abortion is used in a negative light.  That makes it a “searing anti-abortion anthem.”

I realize it’s hard to find conservative anthems.  I mean, really, what’s it gonna be? “dude, we should keep everything the same.  The man ROCKS!”  But apparently “the Rime of the Ancient Mariner” counts as conservative because it’s old.  Hey!  You know what else is old?  Karl Marx.  Just sayin’.

It’s also interesting to me that they chose a number of songs that have “conservative sexual mores.”  I think reducing conservatism to a position on sexual behavior is not necessarily productive.  Is abstinence political?  On the whole, this list does not help me believe that conservatives are not stupid.

Friday, June 02, 2006

Marketing Packaged in Religion

Does no one else find it disturbing that “christian” has become another niche to market, and another theme to exploit?  I ran across this NY Times article that details the ways sports teams are now marketing “Faith Night” to religious people.

Apparently a baseball game that has scripture references on player’s uniforms and Noah bobbleheads is a “spiritual” event.  Is this really what Christianity has become in our society?  A culture and not an ideology?  A set of products to buy, instead of a method for living?

I don’t even know what else to say.  But if anybody wants to buy some indulgences, I totally have a hookup.  Let me know.

Sunday, May 28, 2006

book recommendation

Congrats to my friend Deb Rienstra (the Rienstra’s blog is here) who’s book So Much More was given an award of merit in Christianity Today’s Book Awards.  She’s an excellent writer.  So go buy her book and then read it.  If you don’t trust CT, you can trust me.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Airport People

One thing I like about traveling is the sense of temporary camaraderie you get with other people.  The airport, I think is one of the best places to have brief, interesting conversations with strangers.  I’ve been to the airport several times recently.  While I was waiting for somebody to arrive I watched bags for an English woman who was waiting for her daughter to pick her up at Atlanta (she was from Manchester and had a fantastic accent) and took a photo for some joyous African people who must have been reuniting.  I didn’t understand what they were saying to each other, but their continuous abandoned laughter let me understand their joy.

Flying is when you get the real sense of community, though.  When I came home for Christmas, the people on my small flight from Milwaukee to Grand Rapids seemed to all be chatting and laughing and not sitting in our assigned seats.  Of course, other times your fellow passengers are less friendly, but I often get a little bit of airport wisdom in the security line, or find the person in the seat next to me telling me what they loved about their college public speaking class.  Once I talked the whole way back from Boston with an older man who was in the army during the cold war.  He told me about his late wife and their house in New Hampshire and a little bit about serving in Berlin.  He told me that Kennedy would have gone after an “attractive young girl” like me.  It was fantastic.

These little airplane relationships, to me, say something about the relational quality of humanity.  Lots of people want to feel like they are part of something.  They want to feel interesting, important, understood.  Sometimes a smile and a snarky comment goes a long way toward making a temporary friend.  I rarely even learn these people’s names, but it seems that there is something about the frenzy of travel and about time spent in the sky, away from the ring of cell phones and the pressures of being earth-bound, that makes a brief connection.  And I like to think that this connection, although brief, means something significant.


My quotes blog has been getting links and hits lately out of nowhere.  After toiling in the obscurest of obscurity for the last year or so, it is now… slightly less obscure.  I’ve even been getting submissions from my new readers!  So if you don’t already visit it from time to time and if you find punctuation-related snarkiness amusing, check it out.

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

My Sabbath Paper

I’m writing a paper right now that argues that sabbath-keeping and other forms of Christian practice (monasticism, prayer disciplines, even liturgy I suppose) are a form of resistance to the numbing, homogenizing, market-driven forces of what some cultural critics term “the culture industry” or “spectacle.”  I think this is interesting for a number of reasons: first it offers an interesting alternative to the kinds of resistance evidenced by subcultural avant-garde movements like dada or punk.  It does similar work – a resounding “no” to the cultural forces that tell us to buy our identities and force us into monotonous existence.  But it does it in a different way.  It is in some ways less radical – only one day a week, we choose to not participate.  In other ways it is better because it is a turn, not only away from consumerism and competition and unending labor, but TOWARD something.  Rather than leave us with the nihilism of Debord and others, Christian practice like Sabbath-keeping gives us something to affirm as well: communion with God, human community, our own health.  Of course, this argument is not without problems.  Punks and Situationists would reject this solution out of hand – isn’t the church just the Man we’re trying to stick it to?  Sabbath-keeping isn’t remotely as sexy as avant-garde art and rebellion.  Also, the affirmation of community that I see as a positive outcome of Christian practice runs counter to the extreme individualism and autonomy intended by these other resistant movements.

I posted about this Barbara Brown Taylor article that supports my argument nearly a year ago.  I’m now exploring the ways that this works and the problems with it, and for whom it works.  Those interested in reading a longer exploration can ask for the paper in a few weeks.  I just thought I’d throw the ideas out there for the benefit/discussion of my interested readers.

Thursday, April 20, 2006

Multifaceted Evangelicals in the News (for once)

A recent NY Times article talks about divisions among evangelical Christianity.  I was talking about it with Jim and we decided that these kinds of spectrum representations of Christianity are sometimes helpful, but most often problematic (my friend Kristy agrees).  One of the more obvious difficulties is that it is intensely focused on the white American church, to the exclusion of the significant African American tradition.  Which isn’t to say we shouldn’t talk about White American Evangelicalism, it is certainly a group that has a lot of cultural capital right now, not to mention political sway, but it certainly simplifies the landscape of the Christian Church.

Other interesting questions, though, arise from this piece, that have been part of the church dialogue for a while now.  How do we find public space for more nuanced views of religion and culture and politics, away from the fundamentalists who seem to get the most media facetime?  How do we engage culture without sacrificing Christian identity?  I think it’s unfair of the writer (even if he is presenting a majority opinion) to call emergent theology “watered down.”  I think it is a disservice to postmodern theologians to call their perspective less rigorous or serious.

I also think it is a testament to the media’s usual framing of Protestant Christians especially as only the Christian right, that the writer seems a bit awkward in framing evangelicals who are concerned more about typically progressive issues like global warming and AIDS.  The tendency of public debate in this country to polarize leaves little space for moderates, or highly nuanced views of anything, but good for the New York Times to at least observe that things in American Christianity are not just Dobson and Fallwell.  

Monday, April 10, 2006

religious expression

Kristen posted about this article today – Evangelical Christians (some at Georgia Tech) are suing for the right to protest anti-discrimination policies meant to protect homosexuals.  They claim speaking out against homosexuality is part of their religion and they should be allowed to do so.  Here’s the problem, though.  The constitution never said you had a right to enforce your religious views on other people.  In fact, that’s the whole POINT of religious freedom – the Christians who came here in the first place wanted to make sure they could practice Christianity without other people making them change.  So why, now, do Evangelicals think it is within their rights to harass, bully, and otherwise discredit homosexuals.  Even if I did agree that homosexuality was sinful (and I don’t) I don’t think it is biblically mandated or a constitutional right that these people should persecute homosexuals.  The Bible, and especially the new testament, lead me to believe that Gentiles are not under the law.  So I’m not sure where, exactly, these people get off thinking it is part of their religious practice – just like worship and prayer – to tell other people what they should or shouldn’t be.  I really think religious expression that makes other people miserable is a different thing from, say, public prayer.  And this quote was ridiculous:

"Think how marginalized racists are," said Baylor, who directs the Christian Legal Society's Center for Law and Religious Freedom. "If we don't address this now, it will only get worse."

That’s right.  Those poor racists.  Somehow I don’t feel bad about marginalizing people because they want to marginalize others because of who they are.  I think conservatives like to call that a “preemptive strike”…

Sunday, April 09, 2006

On Palm Sunday

Ever since WA training I’ve been a little uncomfortable with the way a lot of people sing “Blessed Be Your Name.”  It’s a song taken out of the book of Job, and it’s so happy-clappy, often, that it seems the congregation isn’t even aware of the words they are singing.  “you give and take away… Lord blessed be your name.”  I always wonder if we are really willing to say those things along with Job, even as we often do, bouncing up and down, eyes closed, hands raised.

It seemed appropriate for Palm Sunday though.  Palm Sunday, with the crucifixion looming less than a week away.  The people of Jerusalem waving palm branches and shouting hosanna!  Palm Sunday, like that song, has the same mix of impending horror and frantic joy.  It seems these people have no idea what’s to come, and worse, they are the cause of it.

And I wonder what other terrors we are ignoring as we bounce along with our praise songs.  Whose tragedies do we ignore as we shout out “blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

but I'm not oppressed...

So I’ve been thinking a lot about inequality, as one does in grad school.  And I can whine all I like about sexism.  I’ve felt the expectations that I act, interact, and perform in certain ways.  I’ve had experiences where men have said rude things about my ability, or I felt like I was considered less qualified than someone else because I’m a young woman.  But really, in the long run, I have things pretty good.  I’m white, heterosexual, educated, protestant, upper middle class (well, my parents are, I’m in grad school…).  So I’m left with this question: what do you do when you are on the other side of the injustice?  What am I to do as a young, relatively powerless, but clearly not as powerless as some people, intellectual?

I can’t speak for these underrepresented groups.  That’s condescending.  Not to mention that I have no expertise in what they want or need, or how to change things in a way that would make them happier.  But I don’t see doing nothing as an option.  I’m not in a position where I can really help the downtrodden move up in society, even on the individual level (at least not yet).  So, what DO we do?

I think one thing is to listen.  To stop talking all the time, but to ask good questions and to listen to people who don’t always get listened to.  Perhaps it is our job to find the smart voices and amplify them.  But I really think that people in powerful positions, or positions of privilege, never go wrong with listening more.  So I guess my next job is to figure out what exactly it is that I should be listening for.  But I think Barbara Ehrenreich has one good idea.  I think politics is another way – to pay attention to whose interests politicians are acting in, and vote for further justice.  Any ideas, oh faithful readers?

Monday, March 27, 2006

More Gender Essentialism from Conservative Christians

Oh man.  So I was looking at the website for the John Eldridge gender ridiculousness franchise today because I was talking about it with a friend.  And, of course, I started making fun of it.  So I thought I’d invite you along.

So they have retreats.  Retreats to discover together with others your gendered soul, primarily through watching movies, journaling, crying, etc.  If you’re a man you get dirty, if you’re a woman, it seems, you get pretty.  Check out the design on the site – it’s really polarizing.  Evidently women like flowers and men like D-day.  And here’s the funniest thing (well, in competition for it): the last paragraph on the women’s retreat description:

“Unfortunately this retreat is not designed to offer childcare and it is not able to provide for nursing moms. We do pray that God would supernaturally provide for your children while you are away and for nursing moms, we pray with all our heart that Jesus would make a way for you to participate in a future retreat.”

That’s right.  God is going to SUPERNATURALLY take care of your children!!!  Evidently their father will be too busy battling things or something.  Don’t worry.  Come discover your core desires for romance and to be a nurturer.  As your children get fed and washed by God’s hand.  Because, obviously, there’s no other way to deal with this problem.  Also, then men’s retreat says nothing about childcare at all.  It would be more funny if it wasn’t so sad.

Friday, March 17, 2006

Civil Religion

Kent’s post today about Christian America reminded me of some of the work I’m doing recently about civil religion in America.  Kent points to some rhetorical patterns in American Evangelicalism of talking about America as God’s Chosen people, a Christian nation that has been blessed because of our adherence to Christian moral principles etc, etc.  He rightly observes that saying America is “founded on Christian principles” is misleading.  However, there is a historical tradition of drawing on that idea rhetorically which makes many people continue to think that way.

American Rhetorical tradition, and American Civil religion, begins with the Puritans.  On the boat on the way to the Massachusetts Bay Colony, John Winthrop delivered his famous sermon “A model of Christian charity.”  In that sermon he talks about the new world and their new settlement as a City upon a Hill.  That was in 1630 and this kind of language continues in American oratory, in presidential address (all through history, and certainly in recent years) and patriotic sermons.  The idea of America as the chosen people and light to the world certainly lead to the idea that we must evangelize democracy, and to the idea that we could, like the ancient Israelites, exterminate the Native American people.  Kent is right in saying that this twisting of biblical allusion is not consonant with the real message of the Bible, or a gospel for all nations.

The reason I’ve been thinking about this is that I’m writing about a Martin Luther King Jr Speech – “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop.”  King’s rhetoric uses that same language of God’s chosen people and biblical allusion, but he casts African Americans as Israel escaping slavery, and himself and other activists as prophets like Amos, calling out for justice.  My argument is that his interaction with the biblical and American epic traditions is why he is so well respected and effective as a speaker.

All of this leads me to a few questions.  What do we do, as Christians and Americans, in this centuries old rhetorical tradition?  This centuries-old myth is not going to disappear.  I think that Dr King had the right idea, to twist the chosen people myth toward social justice.  But there is only so much we can accomplish in light of American arrogance.  Another, related problem, is differentiating Religion from Patriotism and Christianity from the agenda of the religious right.  These things seem even more complex.  Jim Wallis tends to call upon the prophetic tradition and the person of Jesus to get at this idea.  As does John Howard Yoder in the The Politics of Jesus (summary of our discussion then here).  How can we use our language in church and activism to change the harmful attitudes civil religion has left us with?

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Sexism in Scholarship

Since blog against sexism day is actually TODAY, I’d like to extend some of my thoughts from yesterday. Yesterday I talked about the lack of women leadership in the emergent church (and really the Christian church in general, although the situation is improving). That thinking led me to some related thinking about women in the academy.

The situation here has definitely improved drastically, and especially in the humanities. Women undergraduates outnumber men in most colleges. Representation in graduate programs and publications seems to be relatively equal. The place where things seem a little less even, though, is in the realm of theory. Even when we are discussing contemporary theory, it seems male authors dominate. Of course, we can expect older theory to be male-dominated – women didn’t have the access. But how come the 20th century theorists we use are also almost exclusively men. Well, one reason is that women theorists tend to focus their theorizing efforts toward gender and feminist theory. This is certainly a worthy persuit and one that needs to catch up. But I think it leads to the unfortunate consequence that feminist theorists are ghettoized to their own courses or one week in a general course, and that women scholars feel almost expected to have an interest in gender theory. Not that this is bad – gender effects all of us and it’s important to have bright scholars working on these things. The question I want to raise, however, is when will we be able to move beyond identity politics and have scholars bring their varied perspectives to other problems, working together instead of in their own genderized realms? I think this is already starting to happen, and many of the really great women scholars in my field are great examples. I don’t think we will ever need to stop talking about gender issues, but hopefully more other things will also make it onto the radar from time to time.

friends blogging against sexism: Kristen, Matt, Jon

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

sexism in church

It’s blog against sexism day tomorrow, and I got a little carried away, so here is something I’ve been thinking about recently.

I’ve been doing research for a paper about the rhetoric of the Emerging Church, so I’ve been doing a bit of emergent web-surfing as well (this is even more valid here, since much of the emergent rhetoric resides on the web). One of many things I encountered was the wikipedia page about the emergent church. What concerns me about the list of leaders (which seems consonant with my other reading) is that it is all men save one. Why are such an overwhelming number of the leading voices in this movement male? This is particularly troubling because it is a movement that often presents itself as a new reformation, a voice for change and renewal, especially in American Evangelicalism. This is great. But I wonder, what is keeping women from joining in? Or, if they are joining, why don’t we hear as much from them?

A few thoughts that have come to mind to explain this phenomena: evangelical seminaries continue to be male dominated. This is a change that will take several generations to occur, and it just isn’t done yet. The emergent movement is lead primarily by pastors who were dissatisfied with the state of evangelicalism. There just are more male pastors in general, so of course more of them are disaffected. Also, women pastors are still viewed with suspicion in many of the communities that emergent seeks to reform (some of the more liberal churches, and the more liturgical ones, are already doing some of the things emergent considers groundbreaking). Because of this suspicion, trying to purport a change in the church’s understanding of its mission might be a bit too much for the authority evangelical women pastors hold. These are, of course, structural problems. And just as the majority of postmodern philosophers are men, so are the majority of theologians. Also, many of the women doing work of philosophy, criticism and theology in the past few decades are working on gender-related issues that have been ignored for so long. They are otherwise occupied.

Although this explains the lack of women’s voices in emergent discourse, it doesn’t excuse it. Perhaps there are more women like Karen Ward who need to publish their participation. Perhaps we need to afford greater attention to women who are already publishing. The men in the emergent movement have some interesting things to say, and I certainly do not want to silence them in favor of women, but I am wondering if there are women being silenced who also have good things to say. How are we to go about listening to them?

Tuesday, February 28, 2006


For class this week I read an essay by Martin Heidegger called “Building Dwelling Thinking” and he offers some interesting thoughts on the nature of Dwelling.  Dwelling for Heidegger is the essential activity of humanity.  But it is about more than making a building (although that is part of it) and more than sleeping.  It is about uniting “the fourfold” – earth, sky, humans and the divine.  As he explains it “to preserve the fourfold, to save the earth, to receive the sky, to await divinities, to escort mortals – this fourfold preserving is the simple nature, the presencing, of dwelling.” (156)

This sort of existential peace of being-ness seems a heavy weight for a word like dwelling.  And it makes me wonder how much time we spend in places without dwelling there.  Without caring about the earth, without even noticing the sky.  How often are we in a place when we don’t even notice the other people there, not to mention await divinities.  This reminds me of a Lauren Winner article about cell phones that Matt posted about recently.  Which brings me to this question: does our technology keep us from dwelling?  Are we too busy with far-off people, and listening to ipods and watching international hit tv on tivo that we don’t dwell where we are?  It seems to me that the climate-controlled, individualized, homogenized, shallow parts of our culture lead us to a danger of forgetting the things that (according to Heidegger at least) make us human.  In between instant coffee and the Today Show, do we have time to await divinities?  Are we even aware enough of our specific place that we are capable of dwelling there?

Another thing I like about Heidegger’s discussion of dwelling is that it makes me think, again, about the significance of John’s Gospel saying that the Word dwelt among us.  And of the psalmist who says he will dwell in the house of the Lord.  Perhaps the house of the Lord is the best place for it.

Thursday, February 23, 2006

Rant on Singleness in Christianity

It’s no surprise that articles from Focus on the Family make me upset. One of my friends sent us one about “Rethinking the Gift of Singleness.” In her defense, she was reading it for a discussion group and thought we might like to join the discussion. So I assume she wasn’t all the way on board with the author either.

This article has so many things wrong with it, it is hard to know where to begin. And one problem is that the author says a few things that make sense. Let me come out of the box right here and say I am in favor of the following things: Love, marriage, commitment, sex, babies, parenthood, family. Some women who I know and respect choose to get married at a young age, and choose to stay home with their children, and I have no judgment for them, although I don’t think that I need to be like them. Debbie Makon makes some interesting points about our unique historic time and what that does to the institution of marriage, dating, and gender, and I appreciate the reminder about chronological snobbery. However, I also think that any story of history makes choices about what to include in the narrative. When Makon talks about historic marriage practices, she conveniently leaves out the monastic tradition of celibacy. She also fails to mention that women were not allowed to be educated, or to do really anything to contribute to society other than get married (unless they became nuns). So of COURSE “old maids” and “spinsters” were persons to be pitied. They didn’t have anything worthwhile to do! She also conveniently leaves out the many unhappy and abusive marriages that result from marriages of obligation.

I also have some problems with her quick and flawed detour into biblical backing. As far as I can tell, she is referencing biblical culture more than biblical mandates. They practiced polygamy then too, you know.

The root problem here, though, is essentializing women. Makon’s underlying view seems to be that women were created to be, and are only happy and fulfilled when they are, wives and mothers. Men, on the other hand, can do whatever they want. They need to be in a marriage because it is their obligation. Women, though, are mothers to the core. In a life of singleness, they are necessarily unhappy and outside the will of God. What can they do for God’s Kingdom if they can’t gestate and then raise the next generation of faithful?

I’m sure Makon would feel sorry for me. I have fallen victim to the system. (or perhaps my feminism has lead me to a well-deserved spinsterhood). I am far too involved in the “protracted education system that doesn’t really educate” for my own good. And I know my life is not perfect, and sure, I’d like to be married sometime. But I’d like for Debbie Makon to step into my life for a few weeks and tell me that I would honestly be serving God’s will better if I was home with a newborn instead of in graduate school. I’d like her to show me how my gifts would be better served taking care of my own children instead of learning things, meeting people, and teaching students. I know that homemaking is a gift and a good thing, but my papers are far better organized than my kitchen, and I am way better at explaining how to make a thesis statement than I am at dealing with toddlers. So is it so crazy to think that perhaps God has called me, in this time and in this place, to do exactly what I am doing? And that's not to say that I won't start being a mom and wife later and love it and value it. I'm just saying that Makon shouldn't devalue all the worthwhile things I'm doing now.

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

this post will soon be classified

Okay, evidently the federal government is re-classifying documents that are mundane, too old to be relevant, or embarrassing.  Why?  We’re not sure.  Since the reclassification program is… classified.  Now, of course I understand that secrets are sometimes necessary for the national security, but just seems a little contradictory that the same government that won’t tell us much about what they’re doing, or even what they did decades ago, thinks we should be perfectly fine with the patriot act and wiretapping etc etc.  I thought democracy was built on transparency and accountability to the citizens…

Sunday, February 19, 2006

posting our adolescence

I read an interesting NY Times article today about the ubiquity of photo self-portraits, especially among adolescents, on the internet. The article talks about how this functions developmentally for teenagers. And, indeed, most teenagers spend time posing in front of a mirror, trying on outfits, and writing soul-searching diary entries. I did. Ok, I still do. But the point here is that this is not a new development in adolescence. What has changed, though, is that this kind of behavior is taking place in a more public forum.

So, I guess, what is the difference between posing in front of the mirror for hours and snapping countless photos? Between volumes of paper journals, or kilobytes of online diaries? What changes when this kind of identity experimentation is moved from the private sphere to the public? In some ways, it seems that Harriet the Spy syndrome becomes almost expected. Instead of feeling betrayed because your peers have violated a diary, kids set up diaries in ways that invite readers. They beg for comments, troll for an audience. My adolescent diary has moments of acknowledging some future me or biographer that might read, but many teen blogs seem to cry out for acknowledgement on a regular basis, often by begging for comments or phone calls. It is my initial (perhaps old and grumpy) impulse to wonder if so much public performance somehow makes this search for identity less authentic, since the audience is potentially broader than oneself and a few friends or siblings. Suddenly girls are not posing in too much makeup in front of my own mirror asking their best friend if it looks good, but posting the photo on myspace (or worse, hotornot) to find out if people think they are beautiful.

Of course, this invites predators etc etc, but the sheer volume of it means that not everyone is going to get their own voyeur. But I think also teens want this kind of stuff out in public, because suddenly it’s not just your mom and your teacher telling you you’re normal, there’s a whole internet full of other self-conscious teenagers trying to figure out who they are by posting awkward photos and angsty blog entries.

Thursday, February 16, 2006

cultural critics and high art

I’ve been reading cultural critics for my Invention, Design and Mass Culture class.  And I have been thinking about a lot of things, but one thing lately is the role of high art as a participant or resistor to mass culture.  

Adorno lauds modernist music (especially Shoenberg’s 12-tone stuff) and theatre (Brecht) as resistant to the Culture Industry and its implicit ideologies.  Barthes, in a similar way, references modern poetry as language that is resistant to mythologization (if that is a word).  Adorno likes modern art (by art here I mean all the arts, not just visual) because it is resistant to understanding – it takes work – and he sees this as counter to the Culture Industry because it forces those who choose to interact with it to think, whereas products of the Culture Industry do not.  In fact, it is the very unthoughtfulness of the Culture Industry is the problem – it encourages us to believe in stereotypes and archetypes that are familiar and keep us apathetic.  It keeps us from thinking, criticizing, and perhaps creating a Marxist revolution.  Barthes, on the other hand, is not so explicit about the danger of Mythologies, but it works in much the same ways.  He says that mythologies are the implicit meanings, connotations, understandings that we connect with words, concepts and images.  These are highly culturalized and very tied up in the cultural values and ideologies that they represent.  He notes that poetry is perhaps the only language that mythology cannot appropriate as a signifier into its myths.  He says this is because modern poetry attempts to bypass conventional meaning and signification to get at deeper truth.  I’m not sure I buy this about modern poetry, but there you have it.  Both of these theorists don’t think that art is the primary mode of resistance.  For Adorno it is criticism, for Barthes it is counter-mythology.

Since the 1950s when these guys were writing, contemporary high art has moved away from that and become more accessible.  There are few people (at least not getting any attention) that are doing stuff like Schoenberg or Eliot, that is thick to the point of inpenetrability.  Some Adorno scholars suggest that the distinction between high art and the culture industry has become so blurred that it is no longer worth discussing.  It seems to me that a lot of contemporary high art uses the resources of the culture industry and cultural myths to create something new.  This might be Barthes’s idea of counter-myth or even the sort of parody the situationists practiced.  Do you think the movement toward more accessible high art is a result of realizing that difficult art does not necessarily resist in any effective way?  Maybe it’s a result of the laziness of the public: there is no audience for difficult art anymore.  This is the most pessimistic hypothesis, but I think some complex films might me to reject it.  I am inclined to think that artists have decided it is better to bring any kind of thoughtfulness to a larger public than work that is very difficult to very few.  Am I too optimistic about the state of contemporary art?

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

blogging and relationships

NPRs story of the day for today was about blogging and marriage.  You can listen to it at their website.  The commentator talks about how she and her husband have developed an etiquette of blogging – reader obligations, who has the rights to blog about a topic or event, etc.  She talks about the affirmation of comments and hits on her site counter.  And I know what she is talking about.  Not that I have a marriage that is either benefiting or hurting because of blogging.  But it lead me to think about what blogging does to my friendships (which I have discussed several times before).  

And I think it mostly is a benefit.  It allows me to write thoughts succinctly and to have long-term and even long-distance discussions of issues that matter.  Or issues that don’t.  And it opens up the discussion to people who wouldn’t be part of an interpersonal discussion because they are far away or too busy or I don’t really know them.  And I think that’s kind of cool too, although it does take away from the intimacy of the conversation.

I think, though, of silliness like the author emailing her husband to see where he is, or checking his blog to find out what’s going on.  And it reminds me a little bit of days in the WA office when our conversation would lead to independent blog posts, which were written, announced, and commented on (digitally and verbally) all in each other’s presence.  That was a little silly.  But, then, if we hadn’t had the blogging habit, we wouldn’t have the blog post as an artifact of the conversation, which would probably be long forgotten by now.  And if dad and I didn’t sometimes post as a result of our commute conversations, we wouldn’t be able to include other people in those conversations either.

Is digital communication inherently less beneficial to relationships?  I can understand that a marriage relationship has a physical element that the relationships I’m discussing doesn’t have, so maybe it needs to be discussed differently.  And I also think that there is something inherently good about in-person interaction, mediated only by language and nonverbals.  Like the NPR commentator, I am slow to pass judgment one way or another, but I am fascinated by it regardless.

Thursday, February 09, 2006

more brilliance from the administration

I read in the NY Times this morning that a federal higher education commission wants a measure to make sure the universities are doing their job.  Possibly through standardized testing.  Because we all know how well standardized tests taken in high school predict college performance, and how much they improve high school education.  The idea that a single test could measure what all kinds of different people in different programs at different schools get from their education is ludicrous.  Did these bureaucrats GO to college?  Hopefully this is one guy talking and won’t turn in to policy.

Thursday, January 26, 2006

sweaters in the news

I heard an NPR story recently and read this Chicago Trib article about Bolivian President Evo Morales and his much-discussed sweater. Evidently President Morales has been wearing this rather unremarkable looking sweater (some claim it is alpaca, others acrylic) to meet with dignitaries all over the world. He’s causing a fashion craze in La Paz, Bolivian radio songs about the sweater, and commentators examining the meaning of the sweater. The Bolivian business man interviewed on NPR suggested that it is a part of Morales’ every-person image.

I think this is interesting on two levels – first the significance of a clothing item as communication. Secondly, it is unusual that a male world leader is discussed for his fashion choices.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

being a technophile

The reading I’ve been doing for my invention/design/mass culture class has me thinking about the way I interact with media and new technologies.  The first thing I realized is that I am a technophile.  But not a cutting-edge kind of technophile, more like a moderately early adapter.  For example, I jumped on the cell phone craze real late in the game (and the digital camera craze, and the text message craze… these things cost money) but once I decide to use a new technology or software or whatever, I develop ways to fit the new thing into my extant lifestyle pretty quickly.  I started using text messages seriously late this fall, and soon became a text message junkie.  I just had to find situations that make it useful.  I found a lot of times where making a phone call was impractical or unnecessary or rude, but sending a text was perfectly subtle and acceptable.  But not only do I adapt to new technologies, I get really enthusiastic about them.  I am not just a text message user, I’m a text junkie.  And the same is true for facebook, blogging, etc.

And, as my readers may notice, the ways people change their habits to adapt to new technologies is really interesting to me, maybe particularly because I do it so enthusiastically.  I suppose the fact that I’m posting these musings to a blog is another good example of this behavior.  Adorno, who I’ve been reading, might be skeptical of my enthusiasm to find uses for these new media.  He probably would see my sending text messages to decode his allusions ironic.  He sees enthusiasm for the “culture industry” as our following a mandatory cultural code that we don’t even enjoy but have to participate in to be a part of society.  And maybe he’s right.  But I wonder if the creative impulse behind new medias – blogs in particular – might change his theory.  Or maybe we are just all enacting and repeating the culture we’ve been absorbing since he wrote.  Regardless, I am going to continue to believe that I actually enjoy posting things on my blog, and using my cell phone, and watching the Gilmore Girls until the rest of the book convinces me otherwise.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

epistemological musings

For my Rhetorical Criticism class this week I read, among other things, an article by Dr Bonnie Dow called “Response: Criticism and Authority in the Artistic Mode.” In it, Dow argues that we should conceive Rhetorical Criticism not with the language of Science (discovery, uncovering extant truth) as much as with the language of Art (creating, constructing or suggesting ideas). Her ideas appeal to me, especially as I come to analytic writing primarily from the perspective of a creative writer, not a scientist.

It also reminded me of a conversation I had over Christmas break with Kathryn, who studies both in the Sciences and Creative Writing at Hope College. We came to a realization together that the essential project of most academic writing (in most, perhaps all, disciplines) and in many of the arts is the same. The central message is this: here is something I have noticed about the world, and here is what I think it means. This is what I do when I write poems, this is what I do when I write rhetorical criticism, or blog posts, and even what scientists do, although the idiom of noticing, and verifying observations, and constructing meaning from that changes.

In some sense this comes out sounding rather relativistic – we all are constructing meaning from what we notice. On the other hand, I think it’s also empirical, it’s knowledge we construct based out of what we can experience and observe. Perhaps what I am arguing for, though, is that there is no inherent superiority in one form of expression, although perhaps different forms work better for particular kinds of observations.

Saturday, January 07, 2006

Thorubos Revival

I posted a review of the one book I managed to read cover to cover over the break (Eleanor Rigby by Douglas Coupland) over on the Thorubos blog. Matt has a double-review over there as well.