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."