Saturday, April 17, 2010

You Say You Don't Believe In Resurrection . . .

Then read this story. When a church meets a new pastor, both with baggage and issues, they help one another to stay alive, and even thrive.

New life isn't about resuscitation. It's about real new life. Now, maybe to some a church growing from an average attendance of 6 to 25 may not seem like much. Under the conditions in question, however, it is marvelous.

My guess is Marilyn Neal has a bright future ahead of her. Thankfully, so does Sedgewick UMC.

Different Opinions

I love this post. I have linked to the Taibbi piece on Friedman (one of the all-time great critical beatdowns), but it is nice to see that there are those out there who are willing to be honest enough to swim against the current.

The only thing that would have made this complete is a seriously funny critical takedown of Jonathan Franzen. Maybe there just wasn't time. . .

Friday, April 16, 2010

Don't Know Nothin' 'Bout 'Nothin' At All

First, yes, I have been lurking. Much as I know I should steer clear, I just can't.

Yet, this post smacked me between the eyes. Specifically, the following section from this comment:
This is just your own arrogance. You dishonor God by your flippant comment, just as if you took His name in vain. By saying He will remember (to Noah) is to suggest that Noah remember as well.

As for the creation stories, I don't need to change anything to make it agree since it doesn't contradict each other.

Quite apart from the pronoun not agreeing with the previous noun (a singular pronoun referring to a plural noun), he actually wrote that. Marshall Art, who insists we liberals aren't Christian, don't read the Bible, and don't know what we're talking about when we talk about the Bible actually wrote the two creation stories don't contradict one another.

Please give me one reason why I should take seriously anything this man writes. Ever. Again. Or, perhaps, better yet - don't. This single passage is enough proof he is really and truly not to be regarded with any seriousness whatsoever.

Going Gaga

I have been kicking these ideas around for a while, and then this appeared. Beaten to the punch, and in a far better way, I have now been given permission to put my ideas out there. So, here it is for whatever it might be worth.

My biggest impression of the very first MTV Music Awards was a very drunk/stoned Ron Wood, giving an award with Rod Stewart, dropping what is now called "the f-blomb". Yet, Madonna writhing on stage as she lip-synched "Like a Virgin" is also pretty clear in my memory. What struck me most was her willingness to put herself out there. It was all about the visuals: the wedding dress, the juxtaposition of wantonness and the lyrical insistence on virginity. In the quarter century since then, Madonna has released mediocre music that have become huge hits because of her dedication to a visual display that was far more powerful than the music itself.

The paeans to Madonna's debt to and use of Music Television are legion. Even more than Michael Jackson (whose monster hit Thriller was certainly aided by the video music channel, yet I think it probably would have done quite well anyway), Madonna was the first, and probably greatest and longest-lived performer for whom the imagery became something greater than the music.

With the ascension of Lady Gaga, we are witnessing, I think, a weird convergence of a sort, of multiple cultural, economic, and technological trends that are blaring from speakers and headphones and laptops. While I certainly agree that Gagaism is as much about the supremacy of Web 2.0, her songs, unlike those of Madonna's, stand up on their own. Her style, in many ways linked to Madonna simply because it seems like outrageousness for its own sake, in fact tells us far more about her attitude to her understanding of herself as a performer than one might think. Finally, that her CD is breaking big even as the economic model of the music industry is tanking reminds me of another time the music industry fought back against a current that seemed bent on its destruction. Let's take these in reverse order.

In 1979, Disco was queen. It was everywhere - on pop radio, in movies and soundtracks, influencing the nightlife of the rich and famous - and seemed ascendant. Since the first half of the decade had been dominated by white rock bands, heavily influenced by the blues, the danceable, r&b-tinged Disco seemed the antithesis of everything rock stood for. In the midst of this unstoppable musical and cultural phenomenon* the Knack dropped a little song, "My Sharona", that took over radio, the music charts, and helped spur on a kind of rock-revanchism that gave birth, in just a few years, to a rule of mediocrities - Loverboy, REO Speedwagon, Journey - that managed to keep the forces of darkness, personified by disco, at bay. In many ways, the relentless marketing of Lady Gaga, and her economic and sales success seems like much the same phenomenon. The industry, which for decades has floundered under a business model no longer relevant, seems to be attempting to reclaim some kind of cultural capital with Gaga's success.

Her public appearances seem so scripted they must be. Her appearances guarantee a pack of photographers. She often appears in masks, hooded (as in the above veil), or with makeup that alters her facial features. While there seems to be little doubt these are carefully calculated incidents, I find her willingness to keep her face hidden interesting. It almost smacks of a kind of statement. It looks like she is telling the photographers that she is in control of her image, to the point of refusing to reveal her face. Others will make of her what they will, but who she is is up to her.

If you consider her music in and of itself, it actually betrays a depth, and an interest in music for its own sake, that just isn't there in Madonna's output. Her biggest hits - "Like A Virgin", "Like A Prayer", "Vogue" - all seem to have been recorded in service of an image. Gaga's songs, on the other hand, are far more clever, far more musical, than Madonna's. That Gaga was a songwriter before releasing her own material shouldn't surprise after actually listening to her singles. While it seems obvious to the point of cliche that Gaga is piggybacking on Madonna, just as she piggybacked on Marilyn Monroe, I think the difference between her and her older musical colleague is Gaga is far more musical. She certainly owes her rise to Web 2.0. Yet, I think that her phenomenal success owes as much not only to a native intelligence in using the new media to her advantage (like Madonna); it also displays better musical instincts. Finally, her success and her musical and songwriting abilities have, for one brief, shining moment, allowed her record label to set aside their worries. I do not think, like the aftermath of the Knack's success, that the record companies will be making a comeback. Her success will breed all sorts of imitators; thankfully, precisely because of Web 2.0, we won't have to deal with them for very long.

In sum, then, Lady Gaga represents both continuity and change. I do not see this as vindicating a McLuhanesque understanding; rather, we merely have an example of a smart, talented song-writer and performer who uses the new media to her advantage, even as she sets boundaries with her image and style.

*Unlike a lot of commentators who write about punk, the simple fact is it had little impact in the US, except perhaps among some musicians who understood it. It was a British phenomenon. The same year the Sex Pistols released Never Mind the Bollocks saw the release of Saturday Night Fever and came the same year as Peter Frampton's live album raised a struggling British blues-based guitarist to super-stardom.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

American Not Thinker

Marshall Art (no link) is always claiming that American Thinker is a wonderful publication. Apparently, however, it isn't.

I love this kind of thing. Really. Once again, folks show they are beyond parody. If I made up a story like this, no one would believe it.

Heads A-Poppin'

As I do not listen to Contemporary Christian Music (CCM; I consider this something necessary for my aesthetic health) I have never heard of Jennifer Knapp. So, it is with great surprise that I read this:
Another prominent Christian music artist has come out of the closet.

In interviews this week with Reuters, Christianity Today, and a prominent homosexual publication, Dove Award-winning and Grammy-nominated musician Jennifer Knapp made public that she is a lesbian who has been in a relationship with a woman for eight years. The announcement comes roughly one month before the release of her new album titled "Letting Go" and after several years' hiatus from the music scene.

Reuters alludes to "rumors about her sexuality" over the past several years -- rumors her Christian fans "faithfully shot down" -- but quotes her saying about her concerts: "I'm definitely getting a lot more friendly winks from the girls than I have in the past." And she told Christianity Today that she is not a "pro-gay activist" but "just a normal human being who's dealing with normal everyday life scenarios. As a Christian, I'm doing that as best as I can."

My guess is hundreds of thousands of CDs are being burned even as we speak, iTunes playlists are being shortened, and denouncements of her are probably pouring in.

Yet, I have to congratulate her, even though I cannot for the life of me picture myself listening to her music. She's got guts.

(h/t - Rick Perlstein via Facebook)

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

An Interesting Intersection Of Fiction And Life?

It occurred to me as I mulled Stanley Fish's review of a symposium of Jurgen Habermas on religion in public life that one way to explain why I find Habermas' approach so misguided would be to relate my own almost-finished reading of Susanna Clarke's marvelous novel Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell. Two magicians appear to revive English magic. It is the desire of the first to steer clear of anything having to do with Fairies, Faerie, or the mysterious medieval king of northern England, John Uskglass, known as the Raven King. Yet, in pursuit of his quest for reviving English magic, Mr. Norrell, of Hurtfew Abby, Yorkshire, bargains with a Fairy, trading the life and sanity of a woman for the goal of establishing magic.

The end result of the struggle to establish magic upon sound, rational principles, purged of what Norrell considers "mysticism", is the realization that that which Norrell claims to despise the most - the Raven King, Fairies, the "mystical" notiont that England is as much founded upon magic as upon anything - is at the very heart of his attempted project. Strange understands this all too well, and he pays dearly as well, but is willing to bear the cost (although he does free Lady Pole and others from their enchantment at the hands of the Fairy).

The gist of this review is simple: the attempt to make something "rational", by some random definition, of a pursuit that at its heart is not wholly rational is doomed to failure. Habermas' attempt to lasso religion in service of some greater social good - what I called an Erastian bargain - works well enough where it is employed as some kind of official doctrine of a state. As a way of understanding the heart of the Gospel message, however, it is doomed to failure. The message of the Church - the Good News of God's prodigal love for all creation - cannot know any limit or boundary. In Herbert Marcuse's definition, it is indeed a totalitarian ideology; that is to say, there can be no aspect of one's life or thought that it does not penetrate. This is not a criticism of it, by any means.

Setting artificial, arbitrary boundaries to the expression of religious belief - no fundamentalism! no metaphysical nonsense! - strips Christianity of its very heart. While it may work as a social ameliorative (Habermas' decision to use a funeral as an example is a marvelous instance of this way of thinking), it makes of religious belief something other than "Christian".

Habermas As Erastian Philosopher Of Religion

I was given a tipoff (thanks, Feodor) to this article in the New York Times and think there are a couple comment-posts inside there. The first thing that struck, me, however, was the description offered by an interlocutor of Habermas.
Religions, explains Reder, are brought in only “to help to prevent or overcome social disruptions.” Once they have performed this service they go back in their box and don’t trouble us with uncomfortable cosmic demands. At best (and at most), according to Habermas, “the encounter with theology,” like an encounter at a cocktail party, “can remind a self-forgetful secular reason of its origins” in the same “revolutions in worldviews” that gave us monotheism. (One God and one reason stem from the same historical source.)

This sounds remarkably like the evolution of the Erastian bargain in Great Britain. While officially religious, with the Queen both head of state and head of the Church of England, in fact, religion in Britain - outside pockets of nonconformity including Methodists, Baptists, Rastas, Roman Catholics, and Jews who are observant - exists mostly as the conductor of certain life-rituals: baptism, marriage, and funeral services. For the most part, the C of E and the British public rarely encounter one another. In order to maintain a certain social peace, the established Church accepts its position in society while never demanding of its members more than titular adherence to that membership.

Overall, this seems to me to be akin to Habermas' understanding of the role in what he calls a "post-secular" society. In fact, that hyphenated phrase is quite meaningless, because I can't even imagine what it might mean. His explanation seems to me to reflect a kind of European acceptance of post-Christian Erastianism.

Unless, of course, I'm missing something, or Fish left something out. . .

Monday, April 12, 2010

On Notebooks, Journals, And Embarrassing Stuff

As we pack to move, I discovered some of my old journals. Written in old spiral notebooks, my earliest journals were written starting the summer after my freshman year in college. I have been sporadic in keeping up with them; this site actually serves much the same purposes as those journals, albeit in a far more limited way.

As I flipped through the pages - the dates on them seem impossibly far in the past, a different age - I was put in mind of some reflections on keeping a notebook. Some of the things Didion writes are actually spot on - why does this or that comment appear, and about whom? One thing, however, I have to admit. Despite the other things I will write in what follows, these journals were very much memory aids. As I read through them, I was both amused and pleasantly surprised to find that they helped shape my memory of some events, keep others in mind at all long after one would have thought they would have been forgotten; and kept names and faces in my mind I might otherwise have let slip. The question, then, is whether or not the recollections included reflect events accurately or not; I cannot even begin to answer that question with any equanimity. Discovering that my memories have been shaped to a very large degree by my own attempt to record those memories makes it impossible for me to get behind that process and figure out whether or not they bear any resemblance to what actually happened. Indeed, the question becomes meaningless.

I cannot help but note how juvenile my earliest entries are. They are full of earnestness, which is, I suppose, excusable. They are also terribly embarrassing precisely because of that. I would far prefer to have been mature at 18, to be far less convinced of my own understanding, knowledge, insight, and prospects. Alas, a theme that runs through the earliest entries is the conviction, the certitude of my beliefs.

One theme that runs through my journals of which I was really unaware until I read through them - my dating life! My very first journal entry, dated August 17, 1984, was the afternoon of a date with a young woman; we went to see Ghostbusters at a theater in Elmira. One journal, comparatively small, begins with the date September 8, 1991, and is almost completely dedicated to recording my reflections (some of them a bit taxing even to me in the way the spiral of reflection soon enters the territory of the absurd) during the last love affair I had before I met the woman who would become my wife. This last is important for any number of reasons, but most of all because I was convinced then, and am satisfied now, that this was the first time I was really, truly in love. Nothing in any previous relationship - not various young women I dated occasionally, or to whom that word might refer - prepared me for the depth of feeling, the honest surrender and vulnerability I allowed myself. As I read through my thoughts from that autumn of 1991, I have to smile at the way it all sneaked up on me. Even though we broke up, and badly, I have nothing but good thoughts and memories of our time together. Reading through the journal entries reinforces this particular view.

Some moments are recorded that help me anchor certain world events - the Challenger explosion; the fall of the Duvalier dictatorship in Haiti and Marcos dictatorship in the Philippines; the bombing of Libya; Chernobyl; the events of the spring, summer, and fall of 1989 during which the Warsaw Pact and Communist bloc collapsed. It's nice that I managed to pay attention enough during these times, when I was remarkably self-involved, to not only note their passing as events, but to reflect upon them.

Part of me wonders why I keep them, but then I realize I cannot get rid of them. For all they are quite nonsensical in many ways, they are also accurate reflections of who I was at one time. I would be getting rid of evidence of my own existence, in some way, if I discarded them.

And, no, I will not share them. For one thing, they contain names, and my guess is the people attached to those names might object. For another, it is enough that they are embarrassing; take my word for it, and leave it at that, OK?

More Things That Make Me Go WTF

So I was perusing the Pulitzer winners and was gobsmacked to discover Kathleen Parker won for commentary.

Kathleen Parker?

Sunday, April 11, 2010

The Luminferous Ether And Phlogiston Of Social Theories

I've been thinking something for a few weeks, and keep putting off organizing the thoughts because of the press of other business. Today, though, comes something at Crooked Timber that presents the issue directly.
If the 20th Century was the Road To Serfdom, it can hardly have been a long march to increased freedom. If progressives and liberals are the authoritarian enemy, it can hardly be that their victories have, on the whole, made us more free. Since the 20th Century was when the bad stuff really got going, how can it NOT be appropriate to be thoroughly nostalgic for the 1880’s as a Lost Golden Age?

While left unsaid, it seems pretty clear to me that the corollary of this particular observation is this - since the "evidence" libertarians use to defend their position is faulty, their theory is falsified.

Since the Republican Party lost control of Congress in 2006, then the White House in 2008, conservative ideologues have argued that, in fact, the Republicans in Congressional leadership positions, and the Bush Administration, were not, in fact, conservative. To the extent that, in fact, they didn't act in accordance with certain conservative principles - shrinking the size and scope of the federal government, introducing balanced budgets - then, indeed that is true. It seems to me, however, that Dennis Hastert, Tom DeLay, Bill Frist, and George W. Bush were, indeed, conservatism personified up until the moment they lost power; they certainly believed so and argued forcefully for this position. There are two conclusions one can draw from this (if one is sane). Either, a) they were lying and not, in fact, conservative (and all the conservatives who supported them were dupes; which would be a corollary of that particular conclusion); or, b), conservativism is not what its supporters and "theorists" suppose it to be. In either case, it seems to me, the dismal record of failure across the board of the Bush Administration, and its support among conservative elites through most of its duration pretty much falsifies conservative political thought as a socio-political theory.

For some odd reason, as much as we would like to pretend we are all scientific in our approach to the world, the fact is our social and political theories continue to live on even long after they have been falsified by events. Libertarianism and conservatism, for all intents and purposes, are failures as social and political theories for one simple reason - they are contrary to fact. This does not necessarily leave us with only liberalism (in its American variety, at least) as the only viable alternative. What it does mean, at least to me, is that those who argue at some level of vigor so conservative or libertarian social and political principles are supporting discredited theories. Like biologists who continued to deny the efficacy of evolution and genetics in the early 20th century; geologists who supported catastrophism; or physicists who attempted to discover, via experiment, the luminiferous ether after Einstein, these folks are supporting theories that are no longer have any explanatory power.

Mediocrity & Stupidity, Not Bias

In the past twelve hours, I have read two marvelous articles by Matt Taibbi, and two posts by Matt Yglesias that have me thinking about a particular bit of frustration I have. For years, decades even, the right has complained of "liberal media bias"; Bernard Goldberg has made a cottage industry out of this particular bit of nonsense, enriching himself and flattering the bloated ego of Bill O'Reilly even though all he is really doing is carrying out a years-long vendetta against Dan Rather because Rather made Goldberg look like a tool at CBS and then, because Rather had integrity, forced Goldberg out. FOXNews is predicated on the false idea of "liberal bias". Eric Alterman, an otherwise intelligent and thoughtful commentator, mistitled a book What Liberal Media?, that actually presented an argument concerning a lack of factual integrity and evidence of partisan rather than ideological bias among a small cohort of commentators rather than actual journalists.

The relationships among these fours pieces I have read is this - the two articles by Taibbi are thorough critical coal-rakings of Thomas Friedman and David Brooks; Matt insists the issue of "bias" is unprovable, and that the criticisms of Media Matters and other Media Watchdog sites concern themselves with issues of facts. The link here is the question of quality, if one considers that a news organization should be judged on its adherence to reporting factual material to its audience, and relating that factual material to their lives.

My own take on talk radio; on FOXNews; on right-wing websites; even on pundits is quite simple - for the most part, they are not factually accurate in their analysis. It is easy enough to call out Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter for their lack of facts. There is a whole industry devoted to each of these folks. Yet, more established pundits like David Broder, George Will, David Brooks, Gail Collins, Maureen Dowd, Thomas Friedman, and Eugene Robinson suffer not only from fact-free doodling. For the most part, these writers are also quite mediocre. There are commentators out there who do good work (Taibbi is one of the best, but he's just not ready for prime-time, if you know what I mean; Matt Yglesias would be far too dull because he would go off on tangents concerning philosophy and mathematical economics that would glaze the eyes of whoever hosts his appearance). Mediocrity in itself isn't a horrible failing; I am a mediocre writer (at best). Sprinkled within their mediocrity, however, is a tendency toward leaving the boring confines of fact, spiraling off in to the air to construct castles of sublime idiocy untethered to anything at all.

Our discourse is damaged by this convergence of fact-free revery and mediocrity. Matt Yglesias is quite correct that there are almost no incentives for accuracy in either journalism or commentary. Time and again, it seems those who have neither the desire nor innate ability to remain anchored in the mundane are those most rewarded (again, consider the contract Limbaugh has, or the publishing deal Coulter has managed to finagle, or the ubiquity of Sean Hannity). This reality in and of itself pushes further to the side any incentive for accuracy and superior competence.

For some liberals and leftists, however, this isn't enough. They make the same claim, only giving the actors an opposite bias. It seems to me this is just as wrong, and on this point at least, Matt Yglesias, Media Matters for America, Duncan Black at Eschaton, and other media critics are exactly right - the question is not one of bias, which involves mind reading; rather, it involves accuracy. Liberals who complain about conservative "bias" are as wrong as their opposite number because they mistake "error" for "bias". While it is true, say, that Taibbi is a pretty liberal guy, his complaint about David Brooks' column on the NCAA Basketball Championship Game isn't that Brooks is a conservative; rather, his complaint is that it is stupid, quite literally. His review of Thomas Friedman's The World is Flat considers Friedman's many sins as a writer, and how his metaphor-mangling, shallow pseudo-thought actually makes his usually mediocre writing truly awful.

I couldn't care less who different columnists or journalists vote for. I am uninterested in whether or not the White House Press Corps is staffed by liberals or conservatives. FOXNews wouldn't draw the ire of liberals if its news division weren't dedicated to peddling factually inaccurate material. If conservatives are truly dedicated to quality, as they claim, they have an interesting, if somewhat stupid, what of showing it. Their favored sources of information are riddled with error, lazy and shoddy reporting, and a kind of kindergarten analysis that leaves many people stunned by its stupidity.

It would be nice if conservative critics understood this. Apparently, a steady diet of really bad, factually inaccurate nonsense year after year has left their critical faculties dulled to this simple reality - it isn't about bias. It's about stupidity.

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