Here is a small poem I wrote. I am pretty proud of it as I think it might be my first good poem.
A roughness of right
A foggy glass besmeared.
Oh what a bar set,
To miss the rung.
The Actual beyond reach.
I think it is important to recognize how aesthetic experiences, like listening to well crafted music, can intersect with our intellectual life. So when these spheres happen to intersect nicely in my life, I feel I should share them with you! After all, if we only pursued intellectual endeavors, life would get pretty boring.
As I was listening to the Avett Brothers the other day, this song really gripped me. Partly because it ties in really well with some of the literature I am currently reading and also with some writing I did last spring for my Ethics class in Philosophy. Give it a good listen here.
The Weight of Lies:
In my philosophy class in Ethics last semester, I wrote a paper on a chapter of a book called Monk Habits for Everyday People, by Dennis Okholm. The book is a study of some of the practices of the Benedictine monks and attempts to show how these practices might be needed and useful tools for the church at large. In this chapter, Okholm is concerned with a rather interesting vow that the Benedictine monks take–a vow of stability. For Benedictine monks, this means that they commit to stay with the same community for the rest of their lives.
Yep. Your whole life. On the surface this seems like a rather strange and unnecessary commitment. How might a commitment to remain around the same people for one’s entire life be beneficial in growing closer to God?
The Benedictine vow is rooted in the insight that Christian character is formed in a large part by the community that one is surrounded by. Further, this formation process is not something that is immediate or happens quickly. To explain how community can work in this way, Okholm quotes Michael Casey:
When God sets about purifying a human being, the process is accomplished in large measure by human agents. This is because the components of our being which block our receptivity to grace are the very blemishes which other people find ugly. The negative reactions of others serve as a mirror in which we can see reflected those deformations of character against which we need to struggle.1
Thus, the purpose of this vow of stability is that it ensures that the Christian community that one has placed oneself in is effective in improving and cultivating one’s moral character. In order for any community to work this way, we actually have to stick around for a while in one place. The process of sanctification is one that takes place not in terms of months or years, but in terms of decades and over lifetimes. Given this, a commitment to stability in regards to one’s Christian community (primarily one’s church, but a circle of friends can also fill this role) is hugely beneficial because only when one is integrally connected with one’s community can that community serve as a means towards sanctification. Put more bluntly: if we don’t hang around long enough, it is unlikely that anyone will notice all the ugly things about us because we are really good at hiding them. Further, if we are consistently moving around it is almost impossible for a community to shape our character.
Here the song from the Avett Brothers ties in almost too perfectly. The subject of the song is a man who is a great example of someone who is living a life that is in direct opposition to what a commitment to stability would look like. Consider the first few verses:
Disappear from your hometown
Go and find the people that you know
Show them all of your good parts
Leave town when the bad ones start to show
Go and wed a woman
A pretty girl that you have never met
Make sure she knows you love her well
But don’t make any other promises
The weight of lies will bring you down and follow you to every town ’cause nothing happens here that doesn’t happen there
So when you run make sure you run to something and not away from ’cause lies don’t need an aeroplane to chase you down.
Here, the subject of the song is a drifter. Someone who is not satisfied with his current community (his hometown) and so he uproots himself and tries to plant himself somewhere else. But instead of remaining there, he leaves once his flaws of character become evident to others.
His act of running represents not only a lack of courage, but also an unwillingness to engage in the sanctification project that God has intended for us. He fears commitment because it is painful to have others expose one’s flaws and also demanding to have the strength to confront the defects and short-comings in one’s life.
In many ways, this character portrait we have in this song is very similar to Rabbit, the main character in John Updike’s novel Rabbit, Run. Rabbit is a twenty-six year old male whose life peaked in high school when he was the star of the basket ball team. Now, he is a salesman demonstrating the MagiPeel Peeler in five and dime stores. His job is obviously not fufilling, and his marriage is less that pretty. By his account, his wife is inapt and stupid, along with being an alcoholic. So he takes off, leaving his wife and small son to fend for themselves. He begins driving aimlessly through the countryside, attempting to go south, but ending up going west. On the way he stops for gas and asks the farmer tending the gas pump some questions about where the roads lead. After a bit, the farmer asks Rabbit, “Son, where do you want to go?” Rabbit replies, “Huh? I don’t know exactly.” The farmer goes to grab a map for Rabbit and when he returns says, “The only way to get somewhere, you know, is to figure out where you’re going before you go there.”2
Rabbit is just like the individual in the song. He is not running “to something” but “away from” something.
This difficulty of Rabbit pervades the novel; he never really can figure out where he is running to. He flees the relationships he is involved in whenever they become difficult, tedious, or unattractive. Rabbit runs, in part, because it offers a way out of his problems; it gives him a sense of freedom. By running, Rabbit becomes blind to his own self-centeredness and failures in his relationships.
In a certain way, Updike seems to present Rabbit as the result of the meme of unbridled freedom that is exalted in America. Freedom understood in this sense is the ability to fulfill any and all of the possibilities one chooses to pursue; to have nothing restraining one’s will. Anything that might get in the way of this individual will is suspicious and should be dispensed of.
Rabbit, Run and “The Weight of Lies” both offer a well needed counter narrative to this problematic idea of unbridled freedom. At the end of the novel, Rabbit turns out to be a tragic character; his flaws of character cause severe harm to everyone around him. In “The Weight of Lies,” the subject of the song is not a happy individual. Perpetually running away from his character flaws, always attempting to look forward and never back, he can never find peace because his past lies and mistakes show up in front of him again and trip him up.
Okholm summarizes what is going on here quite nicely. He notes that we tend to think that
“the grass is greener in another marriage, another church, another house, another job. The trouble is, once we wanter over to the other pasture we usually find out the hue is about the same. But it’s not just the hue that remains the same; we remain the same. Conversion and growth in character happen when we remain, not when we run.”3
So what should we take away from Okholm, Updike and the Avett Brothers? First, our strong near absolute concept of freedom that has been handed down to us because we live in the United States is a rather poor guide to use when we are considering sanctification and other aspects of morality. In many cases it will be wholly incompatible. Second, we should place more value upon remaining in one place and around the same people than we currently do. Given the way our global world is set up, it may impossible to fully realize the ideal of stability in community that Okholm is advocating. But to recognize stability in community as the ideal and to aim for it would be a good first step.
If you’re interested in a more detailed account of what a commitment to stability might look like, take a look at the paper I wrote.
1. Dennis Okholm, Monk Habits for Everyday People, (N.p.: Brazos, 2007), 95.
2. John Updike, Rabbit Run, (New York: Fawcett, 1996)
Joel Spolsky over at Joel on Software gives a bit of detail about how New York City is opening a new high school that will attempt to both prepare students academically for a four year college environment and teach them how to engineer computer software.
I think that this is a fantastic idea, and I think that this sort of project, and projects similar to it (if they can be shown to be successful) will flourish given the current educational environment in the United States. A bit of the context surrounding the current educational environment is necessary though to realize the potential of such a project.
A number of problems face the education system in America at the moment. Apart from the budgetary problems looming over administrators and school boards due to the immediate recession, there is a more fundamental, more concerning problem. More and more, the United States economy is moving from a production based economy to a services based economy. This trend has been progressing for quite some time, and by now the transition is all but complete. This means that more and more of the jobs available will be those jobs that “require” some form of education past high school. An in-depth 2010 study published by Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce confirms this, and adds that the recent recession is actually part of what is accelerating this trend. As the report states, it is the unfortunate truth that post-secondary education has now become effectively “the threshold requirement for a middle class income” (2).
No longer can one simply graduate from high school and expect to be able to pick up a lower skills laboring job and have a middle class wage with respectable benefits.
To make matters worse, this shift in the U.S. economy is occurring at a time where the costs of higher education are increasing dramatically. In order to obtain higher education, students are increasingly going into higher and higher debt, hoping it will pay off. The average debt upon graduating college is now 25,000 dollars, with many students obviously carrying larger loads than that.
More and more with the exorbitant price of higher education, many are questioning the need for it at all.
They question the need for the largess curriculum that comes with the liberal arts education. Does one really need to be able to dissect the allegories in Spencer’s Faerie Queene or understand the form and structure of the Petrarchan sonnet and how it differs from the Shakespearean sonnet? To put the worry more generally: how does a broad liberal arts vision (that is properly the realm of the four year college) relate to a future career, critics ask.
This is a legitimate concern. I would maintain that the liberal arts education is a wholly worthwhile endeavor. But it certainly is not for everyone. And thus everyone should not need to go through an education modeled more or less after a liberal arts education.
Perhaps the real question that needs to be asked is what do we really expect out of our education system? What is supposed to be the purpose and function of high school. What is the purpose and function of the 4 year college? It is just not realistic to assume that the same systematic structure that has served the United States’ educational purposes for so long is still the correct way of approaching education and preparing the future workforce. Should the high school education we provide students be allowed to take the back seat and continue to become, as it largely is now, merely a stepping stone to college?
I think that there might be something valuable to be gained by altering the current societal expectations for education that employers and educators hold generally. Equality of opportunity will be severely diminished if post-secondary education becomes the sole path for a well paying job. Given this concern, I think that high schools should try to regain their status as the final degree that one should need in order to be confident to enter the work force.
For this goal to be accomplished, secondary education as we know it will have to change radically. Minimally, it should become a place where one can begin to pick up some important work-related life skills. Ideally, upon the completion of such a secondary education, graduates will have a wide enough toolkit of skills to instill confidence in hiring employers–who are often wary of investing the time and energy required to train an employee at a new job.
New York City’s new school offers the possibility of getting the conversation started about what we really want to accomplish in secondary education. If the school turns out to be successful, I can envision other schools following its lead and incorporating other sorts of specific job related skills into their curriculum.
The different sorts of skills that students could learn in high school could range from, certain types of construction related skills–such as electrician training, carpentry, etc. Or it could also incorporate other very valuable skills such as Desktop publishing, and graphic design.
Ideally these programs should try to be as rigorous and as excellent as any other sort of certification program that you could receive, and upon graduation students would receive some sort of certification in addition to their normal high school diploma.
If this sort of initiative is to be possible, collaboration, input, and cooperation is required on the part of local businesses by partnering with high schools. Local businesses should be a part of the conversation and have a valuable voice and can give information in terms of what sorts of skills that they and other employers might be looking for. Partnerships between high schools and local businesses, in terms of both employment and skill training could be very beneficial to both parties.
If this school in NYC is successful in providing both the basic competence expected from high school students and an additional set of skills, they will have done a great service to their students by providing them with at least one career path to venture down.
Some things are just odd about the technological wonder world that we inhabit. I am inclined to think that whatever contributions technology has made to society, those contributions don’t include assisting us become better people. For that hope, we must turn elsewhere. Instead, technology just seems to exacerbate many of the problems that were already a part of the nature of modernity
Our lives are littered with technology. It makes modern life, convenient, efficient, and glamorous. We all are dazzled by it, myself included. I am just as eager to get my hands on the latest Apple product as the next guy. In addition, technology frees us from some of the annoyances of life, giving us more time to do as we please. And with that free time that technology has so graciously afforded us, we pour a good bit of it right back into the same technology that given us such leisure time in the first place. Does this not strike you as, at the very least, a bit strange?
Historically, when societies have been peaceful and prosperous, creativity, knowledge and the arts have abounded, since people were able to focus their attention to things other than fighting off neighboring countries or struggling to subsist off the land.
One might think that the proliferation of technology might produce a similar result–an explosion of knowledge, creativity, etc. But have we really seen such an improvement?
Is technology simply a means, that when used appropriately can lead to human flourishing and when used inappropriately leads to isolation and disillusionment?
Or is there something about the current state of technology that fundamentally changes the way society is structured such that we are left with a framework that by its very nature encourages isolation and disillusionment?
These are open questions and are intended to merely promote reflection on the strange situation that my generation finds itself in. Certainly, technology is not going away any time soon, but some reflection might still be helpful to understand our own context and how we might better approach the ways we interact with technology.
It is hard to deny that technology has made us more productive, increasing economic output and further advancing globalization. This is good. But is increased economic output and a healthy and growing GDP the utmost concern when we consider the manner in which the structure of society shapes individuals? Does a society whose main end is producing wealth generate virtuous flourishing people?
Technology has enabled communication and organization in astounding ways. Yet, somehow all of this communication and structure has not seemed to help us feel less alienated from the world.True personal connections become difficult; minimalistic exchanges become the norm. I worry that these ways of communication distort our conceptions of humans as people, and in turn negatively effect the way we treat people. Consider how it is now possible to break off a romantic relationship via text message. If we consider technological communication to be an advancement or an improvement or at the least equivalent to face to face communication, then why does breaking off such a relationship via text message seem to denigrate the people involved? Such an action seems almost cruel and inhumane.
In the interest of efficiency, our technological means of communicating have increasingly abstracted us from true interpersonal communication, such that the entirety of the other person is not available to us when communicating. This in turn also abstracts the dignity and courtesy that we normally attribute to people–distorting, in some cases, our conception of person-hood.
To more fully grasp how such an abstraction might happen consider, by way of analogy, how money has the possibility of abstracting and distorting our understanding of people. Unless a CEO makes willed effort to relate to the workers in his company, one could see how easily it might be for him to treat the employees as merely means to increasing the wealth of his company, each person’s worth being contingent on her monetary value to the company.
So what might be an appropriate response to this situation? Are social norms regarding the use of technology to communicate sufficient to prevent a distortion of our concept of person? Or do we need to structure our lives in such a way to counteract the danger of abstraction from other persons? Again, these are open questions, but they are questions that require coherent answers if we are interested in promoting a society that treats people and their capacity for communication appropriately.
Brothers, do not be afraid of men’s sin, love man also in his sin, for this likeness of God’s love is the height of love on earth. Love all of God’s creation, both the whole of it and every grain of sand. Love very leaf, every ray of God’s light. Love animals, love plants, love each thing. If you love each thing, you will perceive the mystery of God in things. –Elder Zosima, The Brothers Karamazov1
Currently, I am in the middle of reading The Brothers Karamazov by Dostoevsky. It is quite a large work, but so far it has been utterly satisfying. The previous quote is an excerpt of one of the Elder’s sermons that the main character Alyosha has recorded. To be blunt, it took my breath away when I first read it.
This single quote succinctly captures what I hope to be the aim and purpose of this blog. Expounding on what Dostoevsky really means here, I think, is unnecessary. The prose is beautiful and elegant enough without any of my efforts mucking it up. That said, I don’t think I can resist saying something about it here.
God is willing to come down and engage with sinful humanity, at significant cost to himself. It is only right for us to mirror that precise sort of love. We must be willing to set aside our perceived piety or inflated sense of superiority that we derive from “having it all together” so that we can love others who are sinful and whom in our prideful minds “don’t have it all together.” Just whom might these people be? The homeless, the unemployed, the divorced, the abused, the poor, the addicted; the list could go on.
Further, when we try to love these people we must not distinguish between people who we think are somehow responsible for their situation and those who we deem victims. Often, this is an excuse that we use to justify disconnecting with those in need.
For example, I have often heard from friends and others I know that they will not give homeless people on the streets money because either 1) They are responsible for their own situation and I am not responsible for helping them get out of it. Or 2) They would probably use the money to feed their addiction to drugs or alcohol.
While these things might indeed be true, refusing to interact with these people based upon these two reasons reflects poorly upon the love that Christ has showed the Church. Might the few dollars that you give the homeless man go towards his addiction? Yes. It might. But the act of giving the man a few dollars, finding out what his name is, showing him that you care about him as a person not just as a nagging inconvenience trying to instill guilt in you, will go miles to reflect the love that God has bestowed upon humanity through Christ.
Embedded in this quote is also a rejection of the dualist2 separation between the Creator and the creation. The elder entreats us to love creation, the part and the whole. The last sentence suggests that the mystery of God is somehow infused in the each and every aspect of creation. By developing this love of “each thing,” we become more and more acutely attuned to the wonder of creation and thereby experience God.
If the words of Dostoevsky don’t fully hit home for you here, consider watching The Thin Red Line by Terrence Malick. Malick does something very unusual with the The Thin Red Line. One would expect a movie about one of the bloodiest battles in World War II to present the harsh realities of war, and Malick does not shy away from the horror and insanity that war brings. What is unexpected is how Malick goes out of his way to portray the beauty and goodness present in creation. It seems that he is trying to show that even in the midst of the horror of war, there is something about the beauty of creation that cannot be silenced. Some of Private Witt’s voice-over deals directly with this sort of question: “One man looks at a dying bird and thinks there’s nothing but unanswered pain. That death’s got the final word, it’s laughing at him. Another man sees that same bird, feels the glory, feels something smiling through it.” Without sounding clumsy, this is about as close as a director can come to endorsing some type of knowing God through general revelation. It also sounds strikingly similar to the “[perceiving] the mystery of God in things” that the elder speaks to in The Brothers Karamazov.
1Dostoevsky, Fyodor. The Brothers Karamazov, Translated by Richard Pevear, N.p.: Everyman’s Library, 1992.
2When I speak of dualism in this sense, I mean not only the belief in an immaterial and a material world, but also that somehow the material world and material existence is somehow a significantly lesser mode of being, such that we human beings (who are essentially immaterial under this account) should shun the material and strive for that which is spiritual, holy, and immaterial. Let it suffice to say that the word ‘dualism’ does not always entail both claims. One can have a dualistic view of the human person and not endorse any denigration of the physical. One danger with this view, however, is that if the value of the created, material world is not spelled out explicitly, one easily falls into a denigration of the body and all other things material.
Over this past school semester, and through these beginning summer months, I have been reflecting frequently about my own upbringing in the Christian faith, and some of the strengths and weaknesses in the general message that I perceive is being communicated to Protestant Christians.
In this post, I will be making certain judgments and generalizations about the tone and attitude of mainstream evangelicals and Protestants. I can only hope that, the broad strokes that I use to describe the intellectual and theological landscape will capture some truthful kernels that bear upon the situation that the Christian finds herself in today.
In this post I will argue that because the message of God’s grace for the sinner is so closely tied historically to the identity of Protestantism, that this has resulted in the message of God’s grace being overemphasized, both in liturgy of the Protestant Church and in the message preached to the congregation. Specifically, this overemphasis has caused the necessity of personal effort and participation in the sanctification process to dwindle in the mind of the typical protestant or evangelical Christian.
Before I get too far, let me make an important clarification:
I have been brought up in and hold to the Reformed Tradition which maintains that our salvation is through God’s grace alone and that the works that we do cannot contribute to our salvation.
Put in other words, the Christian cannot and should not attempt to earn her salvation. This is most certainly true, and I do not intend to question it.
What I would like to suggest is that, at the level of the lay Christian (one without seminary/further theological training), because of the widespread trumpeting of the wonders of God’s grace (it is truly wonderful btw; no sarcastic tone here), the pulpit has failed to show where exactly good works fit in to the picture.
To be even more specific, it is really the demonization of one’s personal efforts in relation to one’s whole Christian life that I find to be very problematic. One’s personal efforts have been rightly excluded from the salvation of the Christian in Protestant thinking, but they have been wrongly excluded from the sanctification process.
To me at least, it seems that ANY suggestion that good works might play a large, significant, and essential role in some part of the Christian life is often dismissed on grounds that it might get people confused that their salvation is somehow tied to their works. And after all, we wouldn’t want to be guilty of believing in a Works-Righteousness gospel, would we?
I strongly disagree and would like propose the following:
God’s Grace through the work of Christ functions to fully and completely atone us from sin—meaning that God, instead of condemning us as the sinful human beings that we are, credits to us Christ’s Righteousness. In this, our own strivings and efforts to do good are to no avail! We must rely on God’s grace alone for our atonement.
Our sanctification is different; it does not function the same way. Once we have been saved, and our sins have been atoned by Christ’s complete work on the cross, God begins the long and difficult process of sanctifying us.
I am simply asserting that this sanctification cannot be a passive process on the part of the Christian. It should be understood as a participatory effort that requires hard work on the part of both the individual Christian and the Holy Spirit and also the larger church community (the body of Christ).
Further, when a Christian does good, in the right spirit and manner, this action should be understood as bringing them closer in relationship to God, and also furthering them on their path of sanctification.
Conversely, even though our own sin has been covered by the grace of God and is fully atoned for through Christ’s blood, we still struggle with sin in our lives. This sin, especially if held close to our heart, hinders the process of sanctification and prevents us from living a flourishing life.
Hopefully if I have been sufficiently convincing, you will take the following away from this post:
If you are a pastor, minister, or other member of the clergy (especially in the Protestant tradition), please be careful to make these distinctions clear to your congregation the next time you plan to preach on Paul’s epistles (If you agree of course). It never hurts to take a look through the book of James either
For everyone else,
Your deeds and actions (good works) are meaningful in relation to your Christian life, and they are more than just evidence that you have a flourishing one; they are one of the primary tools that we can grow closer to God with.
Disclaimer: This post may come off as snobbish, inconsiderate, and perhaps a bit elitist. Also I will be making wide-sweeping generalizations in this piece. Don’t be alarmed–I know they might not hold as true as I claim.
With that out-of-the-way, I just thought that I would express my dislike for the suburbs. I really don’t like much about these places in America. Unfortunately this type of living has become nearly ubiquitous
When I say suburb, I have a particular strain of suburb in mind that I find appalling. I struggle to understand why people would want to move into a neighborhood where almost all of the houses are cut from the same sort of architectural plan, and every house looks eerily similar (though I am assured by the residents in these houses that their house is somehow unique and different from the others). Regardless, the lack of variation and creativity that is found in your typical cookie cutter suburb makes me gag.
If people had no choice, I would understand. It would be difficult to blame people who had limited means and chose such living arrangements because they had few options.
But these are fairly well off, affluent people who really want to live in these homes. They could choose to live elsewhere, in a neighborhood that actually had some character perhaps.
Aside from the complete lack of aesthetics, suburbs are not designed to foster community in a neighborhood. Houses are spaced just enough so they will give the illusion of neighbors and a community but are set apart far enough so that if you really don’t want to interact with your neighbors, you will never have to.
Even the winding subdivisions contribute to the aura of isolation that permeates suburban life. Instead of designing a street system that is useful, practical and inviting for people to drive down, the planner of the subdivision has created a maze, which has only a few entrances and exits. This discourages any sort of outsider interaction with the neighborhood in an attempt to shelter the inhabitants and provide them with an illusion of security within their gated community.
Instead of an atmosphere that cultivates normal communal relationships, the suburbs encourages people to live in isolation from each other without giving them the jarring feeling that they are completely alone and secluded. This is the reason that these neighborhoods are alluring to people.
Well, what is the alternative, one might ask.
Instead of creating the suburb to confuse and disorient newcomers and make navigating the neighborhood difficult, the neighborhood should utilize a grid. If the neighborhood is a new housing development, it should try as best as it can to assimilate the surrounding street names and general layout of the surrounding neighborhood all ready in place. First, this makes driving anywhere much more pleasant–one does not need an extensive knowledge of the entrances, exits, and winding turns of the suburb in order to get to one’s destination. And second, this creates an open and inviting environment for people outside the neighborhood to explore and enjoy it. No one will get the impression that the neighborhood is intended to keep others (of a different race, nationality, education) out and away from the neighborhood.
In order to make the neighborhood more aesthetically pleasing, the developers should hire multiple architects with a broad range of styles (or just one architect who understands and is comfortable with all sorts of styles of homes). This will hopefully will help to give variety to the neighborhood and avoid the dreaded cookie cutter home phenomena that plagues suburban sprawl.
How do you get your news? Do you even pay attention to the news at all?
Well, you should pay attention. No, not just so that you can engage in small talk that has a bit more substance than just talking about the weather. Pay attention to the news because this entails paying attention to the world around you, the greater community. Hopefully, paying attention to the greater community around us will in some way instill care and concern for things and events that are not directly related to the increasingly egocentric lives that many of us live today.
How can one feel the horror of the earthquake and the devastation of the tsunami that followed it in Japan, if one does not pay any attention to the news? Yes, you will probably eventually find out about the big catastrophes from those other people who read the news, but the events will not be real to you in the same way. Also, how is it possible to maintain a respectable opinion on politics and to make informed decisions about the leadership in a democracy, if one does not keep some sort of tabs on what is going on in the world.
This leads into my next topic of discussion: What is the most appropriate and helpful method for consuming this information? I want to suggest that, in general, the medium of print has some significant advantages over both the medium of radio and television. These advantages arise primarily out of the innate differences in the way each medium is consumed.
Consider the television and the radio in comparison to print media (this includes online media outlets). Both the viewer of the television and the listener of the radio are passively consuming the information whereas the reader of the newspaper or other source of print media is actively engaging with the medium. The process of digesting information through print gives the reader the opportunity to evaluate the arguments and positions of the author in a measured manner.
The fast paced nature of television and radio does not give viewers the amount of time necessary for measured evaluation or deeper reflection on the issues. Because the television or radio station is always at risk of the viewer flipping the channel to find something more interesting, they must keep the viewers attention by finding the latest controversies and scandals. Unfortunately, this means that there is much more material that is superfluous than there is material that is substantive. Because of this and other factors, television and radio are very poor mediums for any real discussion or dialogue between people of diverse and differing opinions.
Television and radio function in a way that encourages a focus on both eye-catching visuals (for television) and controversial sound clips. For the producers of such media, it is not to their advantage to present the broad spectrum of events in the world objectively. If the events do not have enough visual appeal, then they most likely will not be the focus of the news on television.
Also, visual media can be manipulated much more easily to skew the perceptions of different events. There is a reason that Glen Beck hosts a television program and doesn’t just write op-ed pieces for the Wall Street Journal. By a clever crafting of a narrative in his show, Beck gives the illusion that all of the ‘facts’ that he cites actually do come together cohesively to support whatever outrageous argument he might be making. If Beck was forced to write a peer-reviewed academic paper in a journal or even just a op-ed piece in a newspaper, some of the conclusions that he so readily jumps to in his show would become clearly laughable (if they were not already ridiculous enough).
My point is not necessarily to rip on Beck (I might do that at length in another post… it is sorta fun). Whether you are conservative, or liberal, or somewhere in between, I encourage you to form your opinions by reading print media. Wall Street Journal, New York Times; take your pick (preferably both… to get a nice wide range of opinions). By reading, you give yourself more time to consider and reflect on the issues and arguments at hand. You also will be exposed to a broad scope of events, not just the ones that fit into the 5 o’clock news hour. Then your opinions will be formed not only by what you have read, but also by your own reflection and engagement with what you have read.
Lately I have been reading Surprised by Hope by N.T. Wright. Though the main topic of the book is Christ’s resurrection and the implications that it has for how we live and what we believe about what happens when we die, Wright has some very interesting thoughts about beauty and art, which I thought might be relevant to this blog. He notes that a feature of many of the communities that we live in, typically poorer ones, is ugliness.
This rings true in a real way. The only shadow of beauty that people often have in these communities is the glitz and glamor of whatever new-fangled product the television is trying to sell them–or the shallow, sensualized, one-sided version of beauty that is showcased in our culture’s fascination with celebrities. Just drive through your local impoverished neighborhood and you can just feel an overwhelming grayness, often accentuated by some of the run down homes.
This brings us to Wright’s assertion:
“When people cease to be surrounded by beauty, they cease to hope. They internalize the message of their eyes and ears, the message that whispers that they are not worth very much, that they are in effect less than fully human.” (231)
This insight is worth reflecting on. What is the real, tangible effect on the human person from inhabiting a place that is not beautiful? When effort and care is not put into the space that people inhabit (often through no large fault of the people who live there…survival often occupies much of their time). Ugliness has the power to zap our motivational power and discourage us.
I believe that we are made in God’s image, in his likeness. For many this means that humans have a certain intrinsic worth and are different than other creatures in an important way. I would also like to suggest that one of the capabilities that comes along with being made in God’s image is that humans have the unique ability, distinct from all others in the animal kingdom, to create artifice–art! We are the only creatures who can actually create and add new things to the ontology of the world–other than what God has originally placed in it. When I speak of art in this sense, I speak in a broad, encompassing sense that is meant to include not just works of art–such as paintings and the like–but buildings, cities, parks, technology, institutions, etc.
If we view artifice this way, it seems that along with this unique capacity, comes an important responsibility. We have a responsibility to infuse beauty into the things we create. Human beings are capable of creating wonderful things. But we are also capable of authoring some very twisted and corrupt things as well. When we create one thing that is corrupt, it often spills over into the things adjacent to it.
A good example of this is the aesthetic difference between West Germany and East Germany before the wall fell. Though I was not alive then, my mother has described it to me, and when I visited some of the effects still remained. The Deutsche Demokratische Republik (East German Government) was a corrupt, hideous, and malicious organization–a piece of human artifice that was clearly twisted. The ugliness of this government spilled over into the architecture and other sphere’s of human creation as oppression stifled the human will to create things that are beautiful. Traveling from West Berlin to East Berlin has been described to me as abruptly transitioning from a film richly in color, to a dull black and white film with poor contrast so that everything around you feels gray.
So, I urge you: when you add a new thing to the ontological framework of this universe by creating: take the time to ensure that the thing you are creating has aesthetic value. If you live in a neighborhood that on most accounts looks pretty ugly: do something. Tend a garden, mow your lawn, pick up the trash from the abandoned lot across the street, plant a row of trees. In doing this you will have added to the value of your own community and you are also hopefully sending the message to your fellow human beings through what you have created that they do have intrinsic value. Simultaneously, you are also reflecting the glory of your maker in what you do.
If this sort of thinking is not a part of what we do, it is all to0 easy to let the ugliness of decay, dishevelment , and discord slip into what we create. And when we are surrounded by things that are not beautiful, or that do not in some way attempt to point back to the ultimate creator, our everyday lives become gray and dull and our psyches begin to mirror the hopelessness of the artifice around us.