Sep 30, 2011

A thought experiment

There are several maneuvers of thinking I learned from philosophy that have proved to be quite useful. These are tools of thorough thought that have been critical for me. Others may have learned them other places. I don't know that they're unique to philosophy, though they are substantive of philosophy for me, and part of how philosophy continues to have a presence in my life.

One is the inversion. (I don't know what the official name is, though presumably there is one). Thinking things backwards, or in reverse, or upside down. Mutatis mutandis. Slovoj Žižek, for everything that's problematic with him, demonstrates the power of this move all the time.

The second is the thought experiment. My philosophy profs could do these all the time, off the top of their heads, and I aspire to that. One used to sit on the table, swing his legs and say "suppose...."

Happy

Sep 29, 2011

'Buying it':
The possible usefulness of commodified authenticity

There are something like a million ways that authenticity has been commodified. From Johnny Cash and Che Guevara to ethnic fiction, from jeans to skateboards to tours of historic recreations, from craft fairs to Christmas tree farms to photographs to concerts, there's the selling and buying of constructions of "the real thing."

Even some of the most artificially constructed things in America -- the most fake fakes out there -- are marketed as authentic. And consumed as authentic. As "real." This has been noted by more than one cultural critic and by many, many college students with an introduction to postmodern theory on their transcripts.

Think Disney's Main Street, vacations in national parks, the news, suburban lawns.

It's almost as if every cultural product was just this packaging of an experience of something real.

Critics of packaged authenticity almost always focus on how the packaging is inauthentic. The proof is evidence of infidelities, misrepresentations, etc., arguments that that which is constructed really is constructed, that which is mediated, mediated, and so on.

In the process, there's an implication that consumers are idiots.

There's the idea that though those who purchase packaged "authenticity" apparently long after this realness, wanting it more than anything else, they are just too stupid to know they're not buying the real thing when they buy "the real thing."

Is it just credulity though?

What to do w/ your hands

I am reminded, every so often in life, how much is really muddling through. Doing the next thing. Doing what seems right, but who knows.

How much of the day-to-day is captured in that brilliant bit from Tolstoy:
"Peter Ivanovich, like everyone else on such occasions, entered feeling uncertain what he would have to do. All he knew was that at such times it is always safe to cross oneself."
That seems to me to be a core religious experience, right there. The awkwardness.

The moral of this is probably that I should read more Tolstoy.

Or old dead Russians in general.

Sep 27, 2011

Accounting for the dominance of contemporary worship music

From the mid '80s to the mid '90s, roughly, there was a struggle in many American evangelical churches over worship music. In some places, it was the most controversial issue. The "worship wars."

It seems like for the most part contemporary music won out. Where there was a struggle, new music won. Choruses and worship bands pretty much predominate evangelical churches, and quite a few mainline churches too. It's not like you can't find traditional Christian church music in an evangelical church, can't find a piano and a hymn book somewhere (or even, on very rare occasions, an organ), but, for the most part, that's not what happens in evangelical churches on Sunday mornings.

The new classics of Christian worship -- the songs that everyone knows -- are "Mighty to Save", "Lord I Lift Your Name on High", and "Shout to the Lord".

What I haven't seen, though, is a good account of why contemporary music won. The sense, at least for those who still sometimes pine for older songs and so still talk about those days of hymns of yore, seems to be that the change was inevitable and inexorable. That it had to happen.

I don't find the Hegelian idea of telologically-determined history satisfying, though, so I'd like to know why contemporary music, which was so controversial for so many, has come to be so broadly accepted.

Some guesses:

Sep 24, 2011

The separation of church and taxes

It is not the case that churches are not allowed to support political candidates. They can. There's nothing about the separation of church and state or the First Amendment that forbids it, though these stories always get put under that church-state-separation-fight rubric. Legally, churches can get political and make strong statements of support. Churches are entirely free to endorse candidates.

They just have to give up their tax-exempt status.

Sep 22, 2011

Flowers by the pallet
"Barefoot conducts his seminars on his houseboat in Sausalito. It costs a hundred dollars to find out why we are on Earth. You also get a sandwich, but I wasn't hungry that day."

-- Philip K. Dick, The Transmigration of Timothy Archer

Sep 21, 2011

The two unexplained ideas central to 'dominionism'

In the great dominionist kerfuffle of last month, two important, inter-related explanations kind of got missed.

One, there wasn't a good, solid definition of "dominionism" that domininionists would recognize.

Two, there wasn't a good explanation of why an actual dominionist, who owns and claims the term, would be a dominionist.

Sep 19, 2011

Prayers against meth, cont.

A follow-up detail to add context to the story about the East Tennessee sheriff and community praying against meth: A new report says that nationwide, the number of meth users decreased by about half in the last four years.

Meth use -- so often called "epidemic" -- appears to be on the wane.

Turning upside down the upside down

Inverting the symbols of Christianity is harder than in looks.

A student of mine just wrote a really good paper on the subject of satanic imagery in Death Metal (a genre that, despite finding interesting, still seems unlistenable to me). In his paper, he looked at the band Deicide, which goes beyond marketing provocations in their use and embrace of anti-Christian imagery and themes. In their 2011 album, To Hell With God, they, according to my student, included album art showing Jesus in contorted, torturous poses. One of the band members has an upside-down crucifix branded into his forehead.

It's possible, though, to read all of these blasphemies as expressions of Christian faith. These three "inversions" -- God in hell instead of heaven, a cross upside down, the savior of the world being tortured -- are all already present in Christianity.

Sep 15, 2011

Troy Davis & bad agruments against the death penalty

Troy Davis is scheduled to die next week, and probably will.

The board that could grant him clemency has denied it before, and this is Davis' fourth time facing execution by the state of Georgia.

The Supreme Court declined to hear his case in March. In August, a federal judge rejected Davis' claims of innocence, ruling he hadn't proved that he didn't kill Mark Allen MacPhail, off-duty officer shot to death in Savannah in 1989. There have been several stays of execution, but now it looks like the state really will kill Davis, and last-minute, final-days efforts to save him are mounting up, apparently futilely.

More than 3,000 religious leaders have signed a petition on his behalf, for example. This is a lot more than normal in a death penalty case. It doesn't seem like it will matter.

I'm more familiar with Davis' case than I am with others like it,* and I hope they don't kill him next week. I hope he gets clemency, that someone on the board has last-minute second thoughts. Maybe one of the names of the 3,000 clergy opposing the execution will give a board member pause.

I'm opposed to the execution but have actually been really uncomfortable with the movement pushing for clemency.

Sep 13, 2011

It's not about size

Juxtaposing two moments of audience participation from the last two Republican primary debates shows pretty clearly that the struggles of contemporary American politics are not about the size of government. The political scene can't be accurately described as small government supporters arrayed against in big government supporters. It's nonsense to talk about less government vs. more, and think that explains anything about the choices faced.

I, for example, would like the government to be big enough to help keep alive someone who made a bad decision. In contrast to those in Florida last night who would rather someone die that get "welfarism."

I would also, though, like the government to be so small that it can't kill people. A position not shared by the "small government" supporters at last week's Republican debate at the Reagan library.

So do I believe in big or little government?

Well, I support people not dying through the omissions or commissions of the state, and would like government to be that size.

Sep 11, 2011

It wasn't our good war

I met the man who built the prisons at Guantanamo Bay.

I didn't plan to meet him and didn't know who he was when I did. It was in the Atlanta airport. I was with a group of WWII veterans -- old men, grandpas with medals, memorabilia hats and hearing aids. They were flying to see the monument built to them after all these years in Washington. Marine Brig. Gen. Michael Lehnert was passing through and saw me with a notebook and camera and stopped to ask me where all the old soldiers were going. I interviewed him, a one-star general in the "War on Terror," about how he felt seeing the vets of that earlier era.

Later I looked him up. Realized who he was.

Lehnert didn't build the Guantanamo Bay you think of when you hear "Guantanamo Bay." He actually tried to follow the Geneva Convention. He thought he was being sent prisoners of war, who were to be treated as such.

Cluny abby

Sep 10, 2011

9/11 relics

Religion, Peter Berger once said, is the audacious proposal that human activities are cosmically meaningful.

In this sense, some of the remembrances and relics of 9/11 are deeply religious. Curiously so.

Consider "What We Kept," Dan Barry's New York Times piece on the "mundane items" people who survived 9/11 kept from that day. He writes:
In the aftermath of Sept. 11, people everywhere did what people do in disaster’s fresh wake: We wept, prayed, raged, cowered, gathered, hid, drank, questioned, comforted and sought comfort. We also saved things, often little things, and often for reasons just beyond the full grasp of articulation.
Some of the items he features, saved for a decade now, are obvious. It makes sense that they're meaningful. The reasons one would make a relic out of a wedding ring are pretty apparent.

Other objects are more mysterious. Like a mostly-burned piece of paper, an application form never filled out, an application that had nothing at all to do with the person for whom it became a relic.

Sep 9, 2011

Prescribing Describing "evangelical"

C.S. Lewis once complained the word "gentleman" was meaningless now that it couldn't be used in association with an insult. A "gentleman and a scoundrel" was perfectly sensible when "gentleman" designated some member of a specific class, but now the word was vague, an empty compliment. It just meant, "I agree with you, nice person."

Don't let the same thing happen, was his point, to the word "Christian."

The same could be said of "evangelical."

Sep 7, 2011

Conversion as realization

If you stop at a stoplight on parts of Atlanta's MLK Blvd. -- say you come off of 20 and go up Joseph E. Lowery, looking for parking near one of the campuses of the trinity of historic black colleges, Moorehouse, Spellman, and Clark -- you might see one of the proselytizers of the Nation of Islam. They wear dark suits and spotless shirts and bow ties, stationed at the corners of the streets named for Civil Rights ministers, passing out bags of fresh fruit and literature.

If you stop at a stop light they'll walk up the street, looking into the cars, looking for their people.

If you're white, like I am, they pass you by. They don't sustain eye contact or return a smile, don't say anything into the open window of the idling car, but keep on going. Instead a minister stops at the car behind you, giving fruit to the woman in the bondo-colored Chevy Caprice with the muffler and the kids in back. A woman who is black. Another passes pamphlets into the window of and SUV in the next lane. And maybe you can't see who the man is talking to. It's not a white guy, though. It's not an Asian or a Hispanic. The ministers are proselytizing and won't talk to just anyone. They use the time -- just the length of a red light -- to try to convert those who can convert. They look, in a sense, for those who already have, dormant within them, that which the Nation of Islam brothers would wish them to be.

They look for those who are in some way already within the circle, already a part of the thing, to make them aware of what they believe is already the case. It's not a conversion they're after, in the sense of a conversion as a change. They don't want a move, but an awakening, a conversion in the sense of a realization. They want people -- certain people -- to become what they already are, to stop, as they see it, denying the truth, and come into the knowledge of what they already know, but suppress within themselves.

American culture tends to be dominated by a universalist rhetoric. All are created equal, and so forth. Most evangelizing takes the same form as voter registration drives, attempting to get everyone signed up. Universal suffrage. The truth available to everyone. The Jehovah's Witnesses hit every door, e.g. The Bible church invites everyone to the hell house. That's pretty much the model.

There are these other types of proselytization, though, which might provide side way into thinking about conversions aren't experienced as being a choice.

Sep 5, 2011

Taize prayers, Taize silence More photos here, featuring a good group of the beautiful people from Unterwegs.