Friday, May 30, 2008

Elitism and Popularity

I was interested in this New York Times article that mentions some of my concerns about the latest rash of anti-intellectualism in the public sphere.

Writer Susan Jacoby asks why “elitist” and “elite opinion” have become such negative terms in today’s political scene.  At its most absurd, Senator Hillary Clinton suggested that the unanimous opinion of economists was not to be trusted because it was “elite”.  I agree with Jacoby that there is a difference between populism that respects the abilities of all people and a rejection of expertise of achievement.  Indeed, the populism that I would encourage wants an educated population, where everyone can have an informed opinion about matters that affect us all.  Instead, it appears, “elitism” is any suggestion that people as citizens or as leaders should be expected to do or know more.

One interesting note, it seems that the opposite attitude is at work when it comes to issues of national security.  While it is “elitist” to trust economists on the subject of the economy, in the case of the war, we are expected to trust the judgment of the president and General Petraeus without question.  They are the experts; they have all the information.  Perhaps this attitude is deployed so effectively (at least until recently) by the Bush administration because the president is portrayed as so everyday in other situations.  

The cries against elitism are not necessarily a rejection of special knowledge, then, but against a certain segment of society – educated progressives who may have behaved too condescendingly throughout history, creating a negative reaction among others.  Perhaps to fix this problem, elites need better PR to consistently present themselves as relatable and trustworthy, instead of snobby and condescending.  I wonder if Al Gore’s public image today compared to in the  run-up to the 2000 election might be instructive in this respect.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

In Defense of The Girls Next Door

Jim makes fun of me for loving The Girls Next Door.  Actually, everyone does.  But I don’t mind, I’m a bit embarrassed about my love for the show, in fact.  But I’m going to explain why I love it.  I recently read this Elle article that has a similar perspective.

Allow me to explain. First of all, I understand that Playboy is all about women as sex objects, and celebrates a particular kind of beauty (blonde, huge fake boobs, tiny waist, etc – so Barbie).  The male gaze is how plaboy makes its money – a male fantasy of these idealized women who are always available.  That’s what the mansion and the clubs are all about.  But here’s the thing: in the show, the men never show up.  Hef is so old and, well, relational that you don’t feel that these women are objects to him.  You don’t even think of their relationship with him as sexual even though it likely is (although maybe not, the guy is OLD).

Instead, the world we see on the show is pure escapism.  It has so little to do with my real life, and that’s why I like to watch it.  I watch tv to escape.  Holly, Bridget and Kendra live this ridiculous life where they hang out with each other and with other women, they have little projects and trips and adventures, and they never worry about things like money or responsibilities.  It’s like girl’s night out, except it’s their whole life, and everyone is beautiful.  But you aren’t really invited to evaluate the women so much as it’s just taken for granted that everyone is that specific kind of beautiful.  Sure, now that I think about it, it’s troubling, but my point is it’s never foregrounded.  And isn’t all tv that way anyway?

There’s also some kind of old-femininity power in Holly – she gets her way by scheming and batting her eyes, but she does it in an unapologetic but also self-aware way.  It’s kind of endearing.  And they way that Bridget is always upbeat and happy and finds ways to advance her future entertainment career is quite savvy.  Not that I’m claiming it’s a feminist show, of course it isn’t.  But it’s good fun for some girls trying to unwind after a long day of thinking hard.  And I like it.  And now you know why.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Bakhtin for Worship Leaders: Ideological Becoming

I recently posted about Bakhtin’s idea of the living word as a useful concept for worship leaders.  Another concept that I think is helpful for understanding the Bible as both flexible and unchanging is Ideological becoming.

The idea of ideological becoming has to do with the ways a person combines available discourses to determine the ideologies they identify with.  Bakhtin is similar to other theorists, who assume that individuals assemble pieces of various discourses to construct their own identity.  To help understand this concept, Bakhtin talks about two different kinds of discourses: authoritative and internally persuasive.

Authoritative discourse refers to reified texts that carry with them the weight of history and authority. “The authoritative word is located in a distanced zone, organically connected with a past that is felt to be hierarchically higher.  It is, so to speak, the word of the fathers” (Discourses p. 342).  This is especially applicable to religious texts like the Bible, whose authority is especially unquestioned in the context of the church.  While this authority gives a text advantages, it also creates a desire for rebellion.  Authoritative texts feel distant and irrelevant, or heavy-handed.  This poses a significant challenge for those hoping to breathe life into authoritative texts.

Internally persuasive discourse is one that an individual accepts into the play of their own identity and with other texts; they become a part of the becoming of a person.  Bakhtin writes, “Its creativity and productiveness consist precisely in the fact that such a word awakens new and independent words, that it organizes masses of our words from within, and does not remain in an isolated and static condition” (Discourses p. 345).  This kind of engagement might release a biblical text or old liturgy from interaction with it as a stagnant, static authoritative text.  What makes a text internally persuasive is its ability to invoke a response (“new and independent words”) and engage with other words.

This is where it becomes important that Bakhtin doesn’t think of these categories as mutually exclusive.  “Both the authority and the internal persuasiveness of discourse may be united in a single word – one that is simultaneously authoritative and internally persuasive” (Discourses, p. 342).  How do we make our worship one that is simultaneously authoritative and internally persuasive?

I think one way is by offering an opportunity for individuals to produce “independent words” in response to the older, authoritative words that might be presented.  For example, churches offer opportunities for congregation members to present their own art or writing in church, or to create art or writing during the service itself.  These active responses allow the words of scripture to become part of us, in dialogue with our own words, and becoming our own words.  As part of our ideological becoming.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Bakhtin for Worship Leaders: The Living Word

This semester I took a course in the language theory of Mikhail Bakhtin.  It was a great class, and there were several points in the class when I thought the things I was reading would work beautifully with theology.  Of course, Bakhtin was living in Soviet Russia, so he rarely references Christianity explicitly, except to talk about the authoritative voice or about “mythical Adam”.  However, I find his theory of language really compelling, and useful for thinking about the ways we interact with the biblical text as an utterance or set of utterances.

I didn’t have time in the semester to reflect on this blog, but now that I have a little space, I want to start articulating and sharing some of those ideas.  So this first post is about Bakhtin’s concept of the Word as a Living thing.

I find this concept especially easy to translate, since we are already accustomed to talking about the Bible as the Living Word of God.  Reading the term in Bakhtin, though, forced me to think about what it gets us to think about a word as alive.

First, for Bakhtin, a living word has its own character and history.  In his words, language cannot be understood as unitary unless it is isolated “from the uninterrupted process of historical becoming that is a characteristic of all living language” (The Dialogic Imagination, p. 288).  This means not only that the meaning of language changes over time, but also that the history of a word matters for its meaning today – that the meanings it has had in the past colors its present meaning.

When this concept is applied to the words at work in the church, it seems especially relevant, as the biblical text is thousands of years old, and many liturgical elements have been used for hundreds of years or more.  The historical and geographical reach of these texts means that there are a wide range of meanings that the stories and words have gathered over those various contexts.  These words carry a weight of meanings that give them richness, but also threaten to hold us down.

Second, a living word is not just a conduit in communication, but an actor.  Words impose their own meanings, histories and intents on a situation.  Bakhtin writes “the strong point of any concrete listener becomes a self-sufficient focus of attention, and one that interferes with the word’s creative work on its referent” (The Dialogic Imagination, p. 282).  In this passage not only does the word do work, but that work is interfered with on the part of a listener – the word is an interloper between speaker and listener, imposing it’s own will on meaning (or referent) that must be compensated for by a strong listener. This then requires extra vigilance on the part of a reader, both to read a text with good intentions, and to listen to others with a spirit of cooperation.

What does it mean if we take the idea of the biblical text as a Living Word seriously?  If we assume that it has actions and intentions separate from and sometimes at odds with those of a writer or reader.  Should we be concerned with the desires of the Word, or of its divine inspirer?  What would it mean to see our reading of the bible as the Word’s creative work?  How is our understanding constrained and enhanced by the history of the words in our translations?

Sunday, May 11, 2008

movie families

Sometimes to unwind, Jamie and I watch of movies of varying quality.  Don't judge; most of them are on TV, so we don't pay for them.  However, we have observed some disturbing trends.  The following movies that we have seen recently contain a family game of touch/tackle football:

Dan in Real Life

The Wedding Crashers

Just Married

The following movies that we have seen recently contain a scene where a family bursts into spontaneous song with piano accompaniment:

Must Love Dogs

Dan in Real Life

And more we can’t remember.

Ok, Jamie’s family is athletic, and they never play family football.  They occasionally go sledding and take walks.  My family is musical, but we do not hold spontaneous sing-alongs.  Sure, people burst into song frequently, but we don’t ALL join in.  Occasionally a rehearsal for a church song will end with a jam session.

So the question at hand is this: whose families do these things, and why are they always in movies?  The football thing mostly seems to be a useful plot device to play out sexual tension or a character’s unathleticism.  The music thing is a good chance to demonstrate how good of singers the cast are.  But seriously.  Who does these things?

Also, readers are encouraged to beef up these lists to improve the "trend" argument.

Thursday, May 08, 2008

Inequity in Michigan

I was really upset when Jim alerted me to a recent ruling by the Michigan Supreme Court. The ruling interpreted the gay marriage ban that passed in 2004 (which I voted against) to also mean that benefits for gay partners in state-run institutions is also illegal. This is especially hurtful to state universities, who will likely lose top scholars who can get partner benefits in other states.

Regardless of how you feel about the sin-status of gay sex, I think we can all agree that humans deserve to be treated as such. It would be absurd if we ostracized and financially punished individuals in our society for other activites that are prohibited more explicitly and strongly in the Bible. But instead we often have usurers, gluttons and adulterers in civic and religious leadership roles. This is a clear case of discrimination that in the future we will see as repugnant as Jim Crow.

This is an issue of human rights and fairness, and it's embarrassing that in 2008 our society is moving backward instead of toward equality. I urge readers of this blog who still reside in Michigan to take a stand against this injustice.

edit: more discussion on feministing.

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Desert Island Discs: 1000 Kisses

I’m done writing for the semester, and just in time. The Desert Island thing is coming back into style. Matt just posted a bunch all at once, and Blake has been talking a big game like he’s going to join in. (Speaking of people who talk a big game, I think Morgan should post another one soon too.)

I came a little late to the Patty Griffin party. Some of my friends were totally pumped to see her play Calvin my first year (I was pumped for the opener: Over the Rhine) but she blew me away, and I bought her then new album 1000 Kisses. It’s ten tracks of beautiful, kids. I’ve been variously obsessed with “Mil Besos,” “Tomorrow Night,” “Rain” and “Making Pies” but to be honest, whenever any of the tracks comes up in Party Shuffle I’m likely to go “I love this song!” And it will be true

Here are some reasons why Patty, and this album, are awesome: Patty’s voice is wrenching, warm and honest. The instrumentation is rootsy, warm and spacious. The writing is lovely – emotional and evocative, but broad enough that you can feel like you relate to it in a variety of situations. For example, “I'm not looking for the rest of your life/ I just want another chance to live” or “I wish you could see the way I see me in my dreams/ the way I laugh there way up high/ the way I look when I fly/ the way I laugh the way I fly.” Other songs, like “Chief” and “Makin’ Pies” draw us into a character with a story. I didn’t know until recently that “Tomorrow Night” was a cover, and had been recorded by Elvis (I know, that’s probably heretical) but I just listened to Elvis’ version on YouTube and Patty’s is better.

This is a good album for a rainstorm, a car trip or an afternoon of reading. Or any other time, really. You should listen to it.

Past Reviews:

Sixpence None the Richer
Neon Bible

Why Should the Fire Die

Achtung Baby


Thursday, May 01, 2008

bragging rights

This morning I was reading this New York Times article about Steve and Barry's. My favorite part is this quotation from Sarah Jessica Parker:

“What has changed,” Ms. Parker said, “is that now people have bragging rights about what they paid. I admired a woman’s pair of pants at a party recently and she said, ‘Fourteen dollars! H & M!’ It really is, among the people I know, part of what they do now.”

NOW? She obviously doesn't know any dutch people. I've been doing that... always.