Jan 31, 2012

Interpreting purchases & the problem of ebooks

One of my favorite explanations for why people buy Christian fiction is slowly withering away. It's slowly, increasingly become less plausible as -- before our eyes! -- the Christian fiction market is changing.

This is what's great about data, and what's challenging about scholarship.

The theory is that at least some of religious fiction's sales can be attributed to conspicuous consumption. I.e., that it's purchased as an act of identity. This is interesting because it takes the purchase as semiotically meaningful, and assumes the act of buying a book has to be interpreted before one can even get to questions about reading.

This theory takes two forms:

Jan 30, 2012

Francis Schaeffer at 100

Today, on his 100th birthday, Francis Schaeffer's influence can be seen in the shape of the landscape of American culture. His affect can be traced in almost every evangelical engagement with art and media and philosophy, science, law, and politics, and in Christian engagements with culture everywhere. It's seen especially in American Christians' need -- their feeling of a pressing, urgent need -- to articulate and demonstrate, defend and perpetuate a coherent and uniquely Christian worldview.

It's in, especially, the evangelical need to have and belief there must be a biblical answer to everything and a Christian version of everything.

The affect of Schaeffer's presence is discernible, 100 years after he was born, though often it's only an unacknowledged specter.

The weight of his influence has a gravitational pull to it. But it's often -- too often -- overlooked. General histories of the 20th century and of conservative Protestants on the contemporary scene tend to note and mark more public (but less consequential) figures, from Pat Robertson to Jerry Falwell to Tim LaHaye, and to not see Schaeffer's influence at all.

It is there, though.

It's not really possible to understand most of goes on in evangelical culture today without understanding how it's building off of and working out of Schaeffer's basic thesis. His work is key to a turn in the 20th century.

Jan 28, 2012

Jan 25, 2012

Battle of Jonesboro

Jan 24, 2012

The experience of conversion as always-already having been

However radical a conversion, however different the new-found faith is from what came before, there's a sense in which it's understood by the converted as not radical at all. It's understood as an adjustment, as an alignment with what was always the case. The converted give an account of their conversions -- not always, but much of the time -- as if it were nothing more than a recognition of what was already true.

This can be seen with Michael Sudduth, a philosopher of religion, who recently announced his conversion from Reformed Christianity to the bhakti tradition of Vaishnavism, which is known in the U.S. mostly via Hare Krishna.

These faiths are not normally understood as in proximity to each other.

The Reformed response to Sudduth's announcement reflects this: he's been called an apostate, and his conversion a "deconversion." It's been said his news re-raises awareness about the "dangers of Eastern religions." The harshest analysis claims Sudduth must be mentally impaired, for either physical reasons ("As I recall, Michael has been on antidepressants. I don’t say that as a criticism.") or spiritual ones("I trace Michael’s problems back to when, as a teenager, he and some friends toyed with a ouija board .... I think dabbling in the occult opened a door which he was never able to close.")

For the Reformed, then, the change marked by Sudduth's announcement is a huge, dramatic change. The difference they see in this conversion is the difference between heaven and hell.

For Sudduth himself, what happened to him can barely be described as a change. Certainly not as a sharp turning. It's more like a gradual growth, a continuation, a more complete, more full discovery of what, in fact, already was.

He writes: "I began to see my former 'God conceptions' as limited expressions of a fuller, richer, and more experientially meaningful view of God that was now present in Lord Krishna himself."

Jan 23, 2012

How could one measure anti-Mormonism?

So, is Mitt Romney's Mormonism a problem with the Republican electorate?

It's long been speculated that evangelicals wouldn't vote for a Latter-day Saint. Speculated and speculated and speculated. With his loss in South Carolina, his religion has come up again as a reason for his unpopularity. For some, it's apparently obvious that his faith is his problem.

Mark Silk writes, for example, "What happened in South Carolina is really pretty simple. The Mormon Gap killed Mitt Romney."

A Romney supporter interviewed on NPR this morning said essentially the same thing. His Mormonism, she said, is "gonna hurt him all kinds of places. That exact part of his life is going to hurt him in many places."

I'm not so sure, though.

It's easy to attribute bias to other people. It's harder to determine if it's actually true.

Robert Wright's rather weightless ideas

A materialist account of ideas shouldn't have to deny that those ideas have any power or affect. But in practice, this happens.

A materialist account of an idea explains the emergence of that idea in terms of the material conditions out of which it came. It contextualizes ideas, places them in the conditions of their historical moment, and turns attention towards the economics, the cultural situation, the practical realities that were the environment in which the thought thrived. It denies that ideas are free-floating. It denies that they "just were," independent of how people lived.

This is useful and important.

Yet, it's a weird misrepresentation of things to take that account of environment and emergence and end there, not noting, not allowing, not considering how those ideas had a gravity of their own, in turn shaping and changing and affecting the material conditions out of which they came.

There's really no necessary connection between denying an idea is free-floating and denying the efficacy of ideas. Yet, sometimes people take the two together, as somehow inextricably together.

This is my big problem with Robert Wright's bestselling and well-reviewed The Evolution of God.

Jan 20, 2012

On the shittiness of religious liberty

There've been more than a few hallelujahs in response to last week's Supreme Court decision in Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. EEOC.

Even those taking a more objective position have called the 9-0 vote in favor of the Lutheran Christian school a win for "religious liberty," even a "most significant" one. For those who feel their religious liberty is under sustained assault in America -- and that narrative has really taken hold, in some circles, a story being told and retold-- the ruling is a real victory.

A reason for jubilation.

At Public Discourse, the decision was described as the court "getting something absolutely, completely right." More: "The decision in Hosanna-Tabor is an occasion for celebration, for dancing in the streets (or, for some Baptists, simply praising the Lord)."

Jan 17, 2012

Dog walk

Jan 15, 2012

The almost magic Bible in a 30-second ad

"Conservatives," Steve Bruce once wrote, meaning, specifically, Christians who hold to the literal interpretation of the Bible, "have an almost magic view of the ability of scripture*."

Understanding how this view is "almost magic" explains two things about the 30-second ad spot of scripture aired during yesterday's Bronco-Patriots football game.

First, it explains why it made sense to Focus on the Family to make and run the ad even though it's not an ad for anything. It doesn't ask anything of the viewer or push the viewer to do anything, and Focus on the Family really has no possible way or measuring or judging the affect of the ad. If there is any. But they ran it anyway.

Second, it explains why, beyond the obvious reason, the ad featured children even though though it was inspired by the actions of the Denver Bronco's quarterback, and shown during a game watched mostly by adult men. There's a reason beyond that kids are cute and watchable, one that actually connects to the theology of scripture that makes the ad make sense.

Jan 14, 2012

MAP illustrating the seige of ATLANTA, GA, by the U.S. Forces, under the Command of MAJ. GEN W.T. SHERMAN

Published 1864. One of the many rare maps available for viewing online at the University of Georgia's Hargrett Library.

The New York Times had a piece yesterday, "News of the Wired," on how technology -- the telegraph, in particular, but also that was associated with the use of maps like this one -- affected the way the Civil War was fought, and, more importantly, transformed the way the war was understood.

I've rearranged parts of my living room / but time is hard to kill

Jan 13, 2012

The Hasid kid is a genius!

Fundamentalists aren't particularly known for producing geniuses. Except Hasidic Jews.

Isolationist, anti-intellectual religious traditions distrustful of "knowledge" -- science, famously, literary theory, often more acutely -- are common enough. Generally, these are portrayed as producing children who are backwards and weirdly cut-off from the world, something like the banjo boy in Deliverance. Except maybe more sad than freakish, or just kind of awkward and odd, like kids at "Jesus camp" or a Bible bee.

Jan 12, 2012

On being welcomed to America

Jan 11, 2012

Belief by means of disavowal
Belief about 'belief' in the days of twitter & Beyoncé's baby's name

People are gullible, but gullible to the second degree. That is, gullible about how gullible other people are.

They are themselves incredulous. Or so imagine themselves to be. Skeptical and cynical. Except when it comes to the question of other people's credulity. People are actually very credulous about how credulous other people are.

Another way to put this: belief, when it happens today, especially when it just sort of bursts forth en masse, a mass phenomenon, seems to happen in third person statements -- "he believes," "they believe," "people believe," and "some people say."

Yet that is also belief: belief about belief, belief by means of disavowal.

Belief happens. But it's displaced onto others. We need belief, and strongly, strongly believe that believing is going on, but no one actually owns it. No one claims it. Except, of course, people do believe and proclaim their belief, but that belief is everywhere the belief that others believe.

The reflexivity makes it sound ridiculous, I know, but it's important if we want to get at what belief is often like vs. how belief is commonly conceived.

Slovoj Zizek explains it this way: "we don't now need to believe, we need another one ... [who is] supposed to believe."

That is, Zizek says, it has the structure of canned laughter: We can experience it, "it" being either laughter or belief, but only vicariously. We are once removed from the virtual, fictitious others actually laughing or believing, and this remove allows us, through that structured distance which alleviates the burden of the responsibility of committing belief or laughter, to have the experience of the same.

We get, in this way, the experience without the responsibility.

The way this structured distancing and disavowal works, though, belief is stronger, actually. One, in this way, can believe without doubting, because one believes without having to think about believing, or at any point actually declare oneself. It's less reflected upon. More credulous, more gullible. It's more what what we imagine belief to be than the believing we imagine to be attributable to other people actually even could be.

As Zizek has elsewhere said, "it's today we believe more than ever."

Literally today, and in the last few days, there's been an outburst, a gushing forth of this kind of believing "more than ever."

The subject, of all things, has been Jay-Z and Beyoncé's newborn baby daughter, Blue Ivy.

More specifically, there's been an outburst of credulity about credulity about Blue Ivy being Satan's daughter.

Jan 10, 2012

No good Catholics

There's been a lot of talk about Mormons in American politics, in the last year, and it seems there's always talk about evangelicals.

Catholics, not so much.

One would have been forgiven for thinking the question or questions of Catholics in American politics had been settled. Dealt with. Evangelicals' anti-Catholic bias ended with the coalition formed in opposition to abortion. Concerns that a Catholic politician would be a papal puppet were famously put to rest with John F. Kennedy's speech on the issue in 1960. Neither Democrats nor Republicans have problems supporting Catholics, and no one in recent memory has opposed a Catholic candidate on the grounds the candidate is Catholic.

No one seems to have a problem with Catholics in American politics.

Except other Catholics.

Jan 8, 2012

Goodbye, America.

Goodbye for now, America. Stay safe. Take care of yourself. And be OK.

Jan 7, 2012

"What makes an honest photograph? What makes a truthful photograph? ... Photographs are neither true nor false. Talking about the truth of falsity of a photograph is nonsense talk. Truth or falsity is vested in language, how we use words with respect to the world, not photographs.

"I also have this view that all photographs are posed."

-- Errol Morris

Jan 6, 2012

Jan 5, 2012

"Secularism" signifying nothing

But who actually is a secularist? & what do they say that means? What do they say secularism -- that alleged ideology -- actually is?

Secularism is decried, bemoaned, & railed against daily. The Pope regularly names "secularism" as the enemy. American politicians on the right make it their business to regularly oppose themselves to secularism: which is creeping over America, replacing Christianity, responsible for all the problems in America (just to mention one GOP presidential nomination contender).

In all that, though, "secularism" seems to be a empty signifier, not actually referring to anything out there in the world.

Jan 3, 2012

Books read in 2011

1 Nephilim, by L.A. Marzulli
2 The Last Battle, by CS Lewis
3 The Visitation, by Frank Peretti
4 The Desecularization of the World, ed. by Peter Berger
5 The Power of the Dog, by Don Winslow
6 Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant, Vol. 1, by Ulysses S. Grant
7 The Civil War as a Theological Crisis, by Mark A. Noll
8 The Pale King, by David Foster Wallace
9 Rapture Culture, by Amy Johnson Frykholm
10 Rapture Ready! by Daniel Radosh
Valerie and Valerie

Jan 2, 2012

David @ work