Category Archives: Society

Being contrarian-contrarian

I am among those convinced that every media shapes its message; further, when employed extensively, the media shapes the messenger.

For the first claim: when you choose to blog, or tweet, or make a phone call, or put up a billboard, the medium that you employ constrains your message; if constrain is too strong a term, the medium at least presses your message to fit certain parameters. Thus, you could tweet the next great American novel, 140 characters at a time. But you’d be fighting the medium. Or you could put up a billboard with a 10,000 word refutation of Harold Camping; there’s certainly enough space on a billboard, right? But, again, you’d be fighting the medium.

This much oughtn’t be tremendously controversial. But taking this one step further, I believe that the medium of communication that we employ not only molds what we express, but, when such a medium becomes our primary mode of expression, it also pushes us to certain patterns of thought. Twitter is a great example here: if you’re an active user of Twitter, you start to become aware of items in your daily experience that would make great tweets. I assume photographers experience a similar phenomenon: they see pictures in their ordinary experience that the rest of us miss, because we are not accustomed to express ourselves in that medium.

All that to set up my point: I think that Christian blogging, tweeting, and Facebooking incline us to look at things a certain way, and I’m not convinced that this is good for us. Let me cite two examples.

First example: I must confess that I found the Facebook brouhaha that erupted after the killing of Osama bin Laden amusing. Essentially, the matter became an occasion for tossing verses back and forth; some favored the verses which speak of exulting when justice is done, others the verses which warn us against rejoicing in the misfortune of our enemies. It is not my intent to offer any evaluation of the merits of these positions; I’m merely observing the phenomenon.

Second example: I noted that, on Mother’s Day, several people (some notable Christian spokesmen) offered thoughts to this effect: “Let’s consider, on Mother’s Day, those without mothers, those barren, etc.” Again, I do not in any way wish to make light of this admonition; I’m drawing attention to it to make a broader point.

And that point is this: I believe that for many of us, social media tools press us (especially those believers who have some influence) to publish an insightful angle our topics, preferably before anyone beats us to it. And as Christians, that “insightful angle” tends to be accompanied with a (variably) subtle message: “you really should have thought of this, if you were really spiritual/gospel-centered/etc.,” and “aren’t you glad I noticed it?”

The upshot of this is not that we should refrain from posting insightful, contrarian bits of wisdom. The point is that we must be aware of the truly egomaniacal tendencies that these media foster.

And I must add the obvious disclaimer: I’m well aware of the self-refuting nature of a post like this, delivered by this medium.

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Posted by on May 25, 2011 in Society


Learning from Radiohead

About a month ago now, Mike Cosper wrote a post for the Gospel Coalition blog asking us to consider what we can learn from the band Radiohead. In particular, he highlights the increased electronic element in their sound, drowning out anything human. Cosper informs us that Thom Yorke’s lyrics point out the bleakness and despair of world increasingly dominated by the machine, by the computer. Understood in this way, Radiohead’s music is an exercise in irony.

Such a message, no matter how insightful, seems fatally undermined when we consider the degree to which Radiohead has profited by their contribution to the very problem they lament. To offer a parallel: there is no small element of irony in Neil Postman’s appearing on a television interview to discuss the ways in which television undermines serious discourse. But who could take Postman seriously if he had a nightly television program dedicated to that topic, if he were a celebrity for being exactly the sort of talking head he impugns? This, to me, seems to be Radiohead’s position, and for that reason, to attribute to them some kind of knowing social critique is far more generous than they merit.

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Posted by on May 2, 2011 in Music, Random links, Society


A Homer surnamed Simpson

Consider the following statement explaining the presumed alienation of pre-multiculturalism black students from the masterpieces of Western culture, an alienation she implies was corrected by ethnic-studies courses: “In short, for a black student being asked to study the great books was not like being asked to do so for a white student. For the latter, it was an initiation into the elite stratum of one’s own world (159)….” [By contrast,] the “price of admittance” to the great tradition required black students to “repudiate their origins and to avow the superior value of European civilization” (151).

These statements make sense only in terms of a simplistic racialist view of culture that sees it as somehow biologically linked to race. Consider all the identity-politics assumptions in Nussbaum’s statement, leaving aside the marvelous variety ignored by the catch-all phrase “great books,” and the implication that they are mere hosts for uniform totalizing ideologies. The first is that if you are white you immediately feel some mystic kinship with Homer and Shakespeare. Presumably, Caucasians have a “great books” gene that can overcome the limitations of economic class and ignorance. Maybe in Nussbaum’s privileged “elite stratum” reading Homer is an initiation into a world recognizable because one’s upbringing has been surrounded by the art and literature of high culture, but for many so-called “white” people who lack such cultural advantages, the only Homer they know is surnamed Simpson. Or does Nussbaum believe that a poor-white Appalachian by nature has some racial affinity with a Mediterranean Greek?

Bruce S. Thorton, “Cultivating Sophistry,” in Bonfire of the Humanities: Rescuing the Classics in an Impoverished Age (Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 2001), pp. 8-9.

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Posted by on March 31, 2011 in Society


Cultural critique and racism

It is impossible, I suppose, to discuss issues of race calmly. Nonetheless, that is my intent. Furthermore, I want to add this preface: racism is real, and I would not claim for a moment to really understand what it’s like to be discriminated against based on skin color. In addition, we all have blind spots to sin; the proper response, when someone draws attention to that blind spot (in this case, inadvertent racism) is repentance.

Now, I am on record in any number of places as being quite critical of the culture of fundamentalism. Fundamentalist culture is shot through with sentimentality and brutality, materialism, gluttony, and misguided individualism, among many other sins; in short, I believe that fundamentalists have absorbed much of the broader American, democratic ideals and attempted to synchronize them with the Christian faith.

Fundamentalists are also, overwhelmingly, overwhelmingly, almost unexceptionally white.

So my question: does criticism of the culture of fundamentalism imply anything about my opinion of white people as white people? If so, how? If not, why then is an accusation of racism an almost automatic response to the critique of other cultures?


Posted by on March 30, 2011 in Music, Society


On the general intelligence of folks

Once upon a time, on some discussion website, I saw a commenter’s signature that included this gem:

Consider how dumb the average person is. And now consider that half of the people are dumber than that.

Now, in all honesty, I find this quite funny; I also recognize that it’s supposed to be funny, and that it’s not intended to be subjected to analysis. But analysis is what I do, so let’s consider why it’s funny.

It seems to me that this quip works only because of the Lake Wobegon effect: many people tend to think that “most folks” (a category from which we exclude ourselves, naturally) ain’t too bright.

Making a quick application, it seems to me that this (mis)perception diminishes expectations for our congregations. I have heard, on many occasions, that some hymn or teaching or book or whatnot ought not be thrust upon a congregation, because, after all, “Most people just wouldn’t get it.” Our helpful advisor nearly always exempts himself from great unlearned hoard; he would understand, of course, but they wouldn’t.

I’m certainly not prepared to base an entire philosophy of ministry on this observation: I’m merely contending that too many ministries have built their philosophies of ministry on the assumption that average people are below average.


Posted by on August 24, 2010 in Society


A link, posted with envy

I don’t own a real smartphone, but that doesn’t stop me from being jealous of this writer, who managed to turn off his phone. Some thoughts worthy of consideration there.


Posted by on August 15, 2010 in Random links, Society


Online education

Unfortunately, I don’t have access to the paper referenced here, but the conclusions of a recent study are heavily against internet-based education.

The medium is the metaphor.


Posted by on June 24, 2010 in Random links, Society