Monday, June 7, 2010

Almost 100 Worthwhile Reads

I found all of the following books worth my time. Books that come at the beginning are on my mind, and may be more significant. Series count as one. Plays count as well.

1. Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
2. The Brothers Karamozov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
3. War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy
4. The Cherry Orchard by Anton Chekov
5. Waiting for Godot by Samuel Becket
6. Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller
7. The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde
8. Ulysses by James Joyce
9. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce
10. Dubliners by James Joyce
11. The Rabbit Novels by John Updike
12. American Pastoral by Phillip Roth
13. White Noise by Don Delillo
14. The Crying of Lot 49 by Thomas Pynchon
15. The Pearl by John Steinbeck
16. The Chronicles of Prydain by Lloyd Alexander
17. Black Boy by Richard Wright
18. Native Son by Richard Wright
19. Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison
20. Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy
21. All the Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy
22. The Road by Cormac McCarthy
23. No Country for Old Men by Cormac McCarthy
24. Peace Like a River by Leif Enger
25. Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung by Lester Bangs
26. Mystery Train by Greil Marcus
27. Treasure Island by Robert Lewis Stephenson
28. Great Expectations by Charles Dickens
29. A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens
30. Roots by Alex Haley
31. This Side of Paradise by F. Scott Fitzgerald
32. Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets by David Simon
33. For the Sins of My Father by Albert DeMeo
34. Wiseguy by Nicholas Pileggi
35. The Tempting of America by Robert Bork
36. Right Turns by Michael Medved
37. Parliament of Whores by PJ O'Rourke
38. Confessions by Augustine of Hippo
39. Surprised by Joy by CS Lewis
40. The Screwtape Letters by CS Lewis
41. The Chronicles of Narnia by CS Lewis
42. The Space Trilogy by CS Lewis
43. The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings by JRR Tolkien
44. Basic Christianity by John Stott
45. The Cross of Christ by John Stott
46. Warranted Christian Belief by Alvin Plantinga
47. Studies in the Sermon on the Mount by D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones
48. The Collapse of the Fact-Value Dichotomy by Hilary Putnam
49. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
50. The Once and Future King by TH White
51. Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh
52. The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami
53. Silence by Shusaku Endo
54. Harry Potter series by JK Rowling
55. A Song of Fire and Ice series by George RR Martin
56. The Book of the Dun Cow by Walter Wangerin Jr.
57. The Illiad by Homer
58. The Odyssey by Homer
59. The Aeneid by Vergil
60. The Giver by Lois Lowry
61. The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury
62. His Dark Materials series by Phillip Pullman
63. Time series by Madeleine L'Engle
64. 'Salem's Lot by Stephen King
65. The Stand by Stephen King
66. 1984 by George Orwell
67. Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
68. I, Claudius by Robert Graves
69. Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut
70. Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad
71. Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card
72. The Amazing Adventures of Cavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon
73. Hamlet by William Shakespeare
74. King Lear by William Shakespeare
75. Othello by William Shakespeare
76. Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare
77. Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
78. The Bible by Various Contributors
79. My Name is Asher Lev by Chaim Potok
80. Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison
81. Flight to Canada by Ishmael Reed
82. Born Standing Up by Steve Martin
83. The Language of God by Francis Collins
84. The Greatest Show on Earth by Richard Dawkins
85. The Elegant Universe by Brian Greene
86. How to Read and Why by Harold Bloom
87. A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking
88. High Fidelity by Nick Hornby
89. Fear and Trembling by Soren Kierkegaard
90. Punished by Rewards by Alfie Kohn
91. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

...and without naming some books that I didn't like all that much or textbooks that are worthwhile only to chemists and mathematicians, that's as far as we're getting in one sitting. (Edit: Thought of a few more.) Add in all the books in series and we're well over one hundred. For a very depressing evening, head over to Harold Bloom's canon and see all the wonderful works that you may never have time for.

Friday, June 4, 2010

A Comprehensive Guide to Christian Behavior

This list is gleaned from years in the nondenominational (but actually denominational) Christian Churches/Churches of Christ. I have omitted Biblical citations for obvious reasons.

-go to bed early
-get up early
-be tidy
-marry as young as possible
-have children as soon as possible after marrying
-live in the place where you grew up
-if you choose to move, move to a smaller town than the one you grew up in
-eat lots of casseroles
-create pointless chores for your children
-say "No" for no reason
-make sure that your daughter has an extremely unfashionable hairstyle
-buy lots of knickknacks
-men - drive pickup trucks
-women - drive minivans
-do not talk to your children about sex until they are at least three years into puberty
-do not venture into densely populated areas
-vacation in Gatlinberg, TN

And if you do not stray from this path, my child, you shall earn salvation.

A Note on "Minimalism"

A fallback term for mediocre music critics, "minimalism" has come to mean "music that is simple and sparsely arranged." This use is extremely misleading. Historically, "minimalism" has referred to a style of American art music pioneered in the 1950s and 60s by composers such as Steve Reich, Terry Riley and Phillip Glass perhaps most strongly expressed in Glass's interminable "Einstein on the Beach." Minimalist music is characterized by the repetition of short, usually highly rhythmic phrases of music that vary gradually, often unnoticeably. It is difficult to overstate the impact of minimalism on popular music - virtually all hip hop and electronic dance music owes an enormous debt to the repetitions of minimalism, and sophisticated acts like LCD Soundsystem have recorded several gradualistic tracks. However, the records most often described as "minimalistic" are usually highly reliant on strong, varied melodies and and relaxed sense of time - qualities that minimalism deliberately avoids. Let's choose our words carefully.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

The Local Library and Ideological Purity

I'm a big patron of the Cincinnati Public Library. Their selection of books, films and sound recordings is exhaustive, their online catalogue is easy to browse, and best of all, it's almost free so long as I return materials on time. The library is also a great dividing line between pragmatic conservatives and ideological purists.

You see, the library is a publicly funded institution, and hard-line conservatives oppose all public institutions that provide services that a private market could supply. To a great extent, I recognize the inefficiency of public institutions and entitlements and the culture of dependency that they sometimes create. Moreover, it's obvious to me that the private sector could provide most of the services of a public library (see: Netflix). And yet, I still like the library.

Though it's publicly funded, it's still pretty cheap; last year's library levy increased local sales tax by a fraction of a cent. Moreover, it actually does what it was designed to do, providing wide access to books and media to patrons of all socio-economic backgrounds. It's also locally controlled; library funding is approved by the people who will actually use it.

What would be the advantages of a privately funded media co-op that would replace the library? Perhaps greater efficiency, more focus on new titles, the ability for local residents to opt out of the system. To the negative, the huge waste of media and space that would accompany a dismantling of the public library system and the limits placed on access by the membership fees that such a system would necessitate. These considerations weighed, I still favor the public option.

At the point, I hope that readers speak a collective "Duh." I am glad that you too like the library. What I am trying to illustrate is the need for a paradigm shift in conservative thinking, away from a priori opposition to all public institutions, and toward a weighing of the relative costs of addressing needs publicly or privately. As conservatives, we will still be skeptical toward public solutions and decide against them more often than not and will be very cautious about creating new institutions, but we will still consider problems on a case-by-case basis, and we will recognize that the serious costs associated with dismantling public institutions, even if we would have opposed their creation in some ideal original social position.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Addendum to Previous Post

For purposes of clarification, I provide the following summary of the points made in my previous post, along with a handful of new thoughts.

-We cannot evaluate songs chosen for corporate worship the same way we evaluate other songs, even Christian songs. The context of these songs demands that they express praise, thanksgiving, repentance, belief, etc. in ways that are common or ought to be common to all believers. Explicit description of specific personal experience renders a song inappropriate for corporate worship, no matter how good the song may be on its own.

-We must be careful about what our figurative language signifies. This is especially difficult because bad metaphors are the essence of pop lyricism. Worship songs, however, are trying to convey important truths and serious mysteries, not pleasant ambiguities. Figurative language should signify concrete truths to an audience. The most prevalent quality of hurricanes to most people is their overwhelming destructive power, and so "loves like a hurricane" is a bad lyric for a worship song, brilliantly ironic though it might be in some context. "The Lord is mighty like a hurricane" would be a better lyric.

-Worship songs should not require an inordinate amount of background knowledge to understand. A couple people have pointed me to the circumstances under which "How He Loves" was written, and these shed a bit of light on its meaning, but exacerbate some of the difficulties in it. But let's say for the sake of argument that the background story clarified everything in the song. It would enhance my appreciation of the song, but the song would still be a poor choice for corporate worship because few people know the background a be able to understand it; the worship leader would need to explain the story every time the song was played. It's one thing when a background story enhances our appreciation of a song (see "It is Well" by Phillip Bliss), another when that story is necessary to understand the song (see "American Skin (41 Shots)" by Bruce Springsteen).

-Biblical imagery provides a good basis for worship lyrics. We already know that its meaning is sound, and it calls congregants' minds to a wider body of truths. Inevitably, it brings us to think about God and not ourselves, as lines like "My heart beats violently inside of my chest" are wont to do. Moreover, song lyrics are marvelous teaching tools. They present the opportunity to ingrain in us the most important truths of our faith or meaningless pap.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Two Worship Songs Considered

Last summer, I wrote an extended criticism of Contemporary Christian Music, indicting the genre for its rigid formulas in song structure, instrumental arrangements, vocal styles and lyrical content. In that piece, I was primarily focused on the entertainment branch of the industry, the music that people listen to in private spaces. I tried as much as possible to avoid discussing congregational worship music, that is, music primarily intended to be sung in church services by all Christians in attendance. There were two main reasons for my avoidance. The first is that entertainment music and congregational worship music have very different goals and cannot be evaluated with the same standards. The second is that I was writing a deliberately negative essay, and I actually like a substantial number of popular worship songs as popular worship songs.

Still, I have some strong ideas about what worship music ought to be and lately I have been bothered by a handful of songs that deviate sharply from those ideas. Here I'm going to look at two songs that might be dubbed "worship songs", one good, one bad. I'm going to concern myself exclusively with lyrical content here, because musical standards and tastes in worship music are much more flexible than lyrical standards and tastes.

Edit: I originally wrote that this song was written by David Crowder and analyzed it under that assumption. A commenter has informed me that John Mark McMillan in fact wrote the song in the wake of a friend's death. Rereading the lyrics with this knowledge doesn't change my analysis at all.

I first consider "How He Loves", a worship song popularized by bandleader David Crowder. Summary opinion of Crowder: Somewhat more electronically adventurous than most of his peers, gifted leader in person, okay with other people's songs, mediocre melodicist, miserable lyricist.

Full lyrics of "How He Loves"

He is jealous for me,
Loves like a hurricane, I am a tree,
Bending beneath the weight of his wind and mercy.
When all of a sudden,
I am unaware of these afflictions eclipsed by glory,
And I realize just how beautiful You are,
And how great Your affections are for me.

And oh, how He loves us so,
Oh how He loves us,
How He loves us all

Yeah, He loves us,
Oh! how He loves us,
Oh! how He loves us,
Oh! how He loves.

We are His portion and He is our prize,
Drawn to redemption by the grace in His eyes,
If grace is an ocean, we’re all sinking.
And Heaven meets earth like an unforeseen kiss,
And my heart turns violently inside of my chest,
I don’t have time to maintain these regrets,
When I think about, the way-

Analysis: The first line is perhaps the most Biblical in the song. Throughout the Old Testament, the Lord proclaims himself "a jealous God," desiring an exclusive covenant relationship with Israel, opposing their worship of any other deity. The song's worthwhile content ends here. The simile "loves like a hurricane" is very bewildering, because hurricanes do not love, hurricanes destroy. The lyric continues, "I am a tree, bending beneath the weight of his wind and mercy," a confusing metaphor, both because wind is a natural phenomenon and mercy a moral quality, and because it implies an imprecise and involuntary response to this moral quality. The next lines are similarly vague. When? In the midst of the hurricane, or have we broken from figurative language? What afflictions? What glory?

The next line is more theologically problematic. It claims to realize "just how beautiful" the Lord is and how great his love. It is one thing to say that the Lord is beautiful and quite another to presume to know the degree of his beauty. In the Exodus 33, Moses, God's chosen leader of Israel, petitions, "Show me your glory." God allows Moses to see his back, but proclaims, "You cannot see my face, for no one may see me and live." Is David Crowder greater than Moses? In my opinion, to claim to know the extent of God's beauty indicates a failure to consider God's holiness and one's own sinfulness. So long as we do not enjoy the fullness of forgiveness from sin, we cannot claim to fully know a holy God. The lyric reeks of the "moralistic therapeutic deism" that is seeker-sensitivity taken too far.

The second verse begins much as the first, with a Biblically grounded lyric, and then again descends into meaningless figurative language. Again, "the grace in his eyes" is a cumbersome metaphor. In Christian theology, grace is a moral quality, not something clearly present in appearance, and in conventional language, when one attributes grace to something physical, it is to describe a person's or object's motion, and so "grace in his eyes" seems meaningless. We are drawn to redemption by the cross of Christ - at least nod to it. "If grace is an ocean, we're all sinking" implies that we are in fact drowning, and unless this is a very oblique allusion to the symbol of death in baptism, the image implies the exact opposite of the life-giving nature of grace. The kiss simile is crass and meaningless.

Now, there's nothing doctrinally problematic about "And my heart turns violently inside of my chest," but it's indicative of one of the worst tendencies of modern worship music. It's a worship lyric about the subject experience of singing worship lyrics. I've always found such lyrics to be very alienating, because I don't often have these responses to worship music. A congregational worship song should have lyrics that all believers can sing truthfully at any time, regardless of their dispositions. No matter how emotionally involved I am in a particular worship service, I can always affirm "What can wash away my sin? Nothing but the blood of Jesus." I can almost never affirm descriptions of the phenomenology of worship in song.

Nevertheless, I do not want to deny the worth of the intense emotional experiences that many people have during this kind of worship and I'm not opposed to constructing songs to draw out these emotions. The lyrics of the song's chorus are very simple variations on "He loves us". Were this chorus situated after a song describing the many acts that demonstrate God's love, it would be a fitting conclusion, an opportunity for personal reflection on these demonstrations and for personal expression of the emotions that come from reflection. Not all participants would respond emotionally, but all could affirm that "How he loves us" is greatly. Instead, I come to the chorus wondering "How does he love us?"

I now turn to what I believe is an exemplary worship song, "Awake My Soul", by the group Caedmon's Call. I have presented this song to several people in the past, and for whatever reason none of them have shared my enthusiasm for it. It will nevertheless serve to illustrate some important points.

The image of God invisible, the first born of all life
Before and within, he holds it all in
One name, one faith, one Christ

No one is good enough, to save himself
Awake my soul tonight, to boast nothing else

I trust no other source or name, nowhere else can I hide
This grace gives me fear, and this grace draws me near
And all that it asks it provides


No seam in this garment, all my rags to hide
No less than your love, for Jesus is mine

When I stand on the edges of Jordan
With the saints and the angels beside
When my body is healed, and the glory revealed
Still I can boast only Christ


On the whole, I think that the song's lyrics speak for themseleves, but I do want to point out some structural features. The first verse of the song alludes extensively to John 1, and proclaims Christian truths with an easy poetry. The first line of the chorus is also theological, and the second is an invocation. When Christians sing this song together, they affirm important beliefs that they hold in common, pray a prayer that they ought to pray, and have the opportunity to express their own emotions and needs through this prayer, an opportunity that will be appealing to many congregants because of the gravity of the truths they have just proclaimed.

The second verse maintains a grasp on both theology and personal need. "I trust no other source or name" is an aspirational rather than a factual statement, but it is one to which all Christians ought to aspire. In contrast, "My heart beats violently inside of my chest" is not a statement that all worshippers can affirm, nor is it one that anyone necessarily ought to affirm. There's nothing inherently immoral about having no emotional response to a worship song. The description of grace in this verse makes that of "How He Loves" seem laughable. Rather than a meaningless metaphor, we get a description of this startling gift of God - it calls us to become children of God and simultaneously provides the means to do so. The final verse again personalizes the song's theme of saving grace, drawing on Biblical imagery, which I always approve of, and with its eschatological bent, serving as a companion to the first verse's talk of creation.

At this point, some may argue that what they want in a worship song is a chance for expression of feeling, not a theology lesson. I counter that one has a great deal more to express when one has an emotional stimulus, and the great Christian doctrines are nothing if not emotional stimuli.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Grad School FAQ

People have been asking a lot of questions about my grad school plans. I've constructed this FAQ to answer some of the most common ones.

Q: Where will you be attending graduate school?

A: I will attend the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Q: So you're going to get a master's degree?

A: No. As is common in the natural sciences, I was accepted directly into a PhD program without any prior graduate study.

Q: And what exactly will you be getting a PhD in?

A: Chemistry, with an organic major, and potentially a chemical biology minor. Organic chemistry is the study of carbon-based compounds.

Q: How long will your program take to complete?

A: Most students complete the program in 5-6 years, depending on rate of research progress. The PhD is awarded upon submission of an acceptable dissertation documenting an original contribution to the discipline. This takes different people different amounts of time.

Q: Wow, won't you be totally sick of school by the time you're done?

A: I will not be attending school in the traditional sense. I will have a full schedule of coursework and teaching in my first year, and will move into full time laboratory research by my third year. Graduate school will be more like a full time job.

Q: But aren't you going to pile up a mountain of debt?

A: No. My tuition is paid by my department and I will receive a livable salary.

Q: So what do you want to do when you finally get out?

A: The chemistry PhD is uniquely flexible in that a very high proportion of degree holders work in industry, often for pharmaceutical and oil companies. Others work in government labs or in academia. At this point, I am leaning toward an industrial career, but I have been told that I will not really have a good idea of my career goals until a couple of years into grad school.

Q: So you could be a professor when you get out?

A: Not quite. Most academic positions require postdoctoral experience. Postdocs are typically 1-2 year positions dedicated to full time research, and are usually conducted at another institution. Industrial positions do not usually require postdoctoral experience.

Q: When does your program begin?

A: Next August. Can't wait.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

A Brief Confession

A good bit of the time, when people announce their engagements, my first urge is not to congratulate them, but to ask, "What the hell are you smoking?"

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

America, I Love You...

But you're bloody retarded. I will not apologize for using that word. It means "slow," particularly with respect to mental processing. No one thinks in good faith that this is a good thing. Last night, Michael Lynche, epically talented soul troubadour, received the fewest votes of any American Idol contestant after an entirely original take on the Beatles' classic Eleanor Rigby. The contestants receiving more votes included prepubescent mike-swiveling balladeer orphan Aaron Kelly, sub-Nickelback constipator Lee DeWyze, and chops enough to land the role of Knight #2 in Millard Fillmore High School Presents Camelot Tim Urban, who needs an awkward lecture from his father on the facts of life before he ever attempts "Under My Thumb" again.

I confess that I'm old and I don't understand the music that kids like these days. Kids, what do you look for in a song? The expressive power of the vocalist? The wit of the lyrics? Hooky arrangements? The musical conversation of the ensemble? Agoodbeatandyoucandancetoit? Your music is strange and impenetrable to me. I cannot fathom the depths present in the music of a Tim Urban or a Justin Bieber. The fault is mine, not yours. Next week, regardless of my feelings, I too will vote for Tim Urban in the hopes that one day, enlightenment shall come.

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Harvard Attains 0% Acceptance Rate

On March 31, 2010, the traditional announcement day for selective college admissions decisions, Harvard University gave the expected report that this year saw a record number of applicants and a record low rate of acceptance. Just how low came as a bit of a shock.

"Considering the relative strength of the applicant pool, the university's endowment, and the importance of maintaining our place at the top of the US News Rankings, we decided not to admit anyone this year," says Barrington Forsyth, director of undergraduate admissions for the university. "We believe that this decision is in the best interest of faculty, staff, current students and rejected applicants, who are welcome to reapply next year."

When asked if this policy would continue into the future, Forsyth was ambiguous, "Well, the faculty are thrilled. They hate teaching those [expletive] undergrads. Current students and alumni are happy; this just enhances the prestige of their degrees. And the endowment makes enough on its own that the revenue from tuition is barely relevant. We won't determine future policy until next January, but again, I invite all rejected applicants to reapply next year."

Public outcry has already begun. Anticipating the worst from disappointed students, Walnut Hills High School principal JBro has called in extra police officers and psychiatric nurses, and has erected temporary 12 foot fences around many of the school's higher ledges. His students however, seem less than concerned. "Eh, no big deal," said one young man who had been rejected. "I've heard that the chicks at Brown put out more anyway."

Former Vice Presidential candidate Sarah Palin had her own take on the matter. "This just proves once again that academic elites can't be trusted to do anything right here in America, and we give people what they deserve based on their accomplishments and character because if my daughter Bristol had gotten in, I wouldn't have let her consider it where I know that the sexual values are not ours."

Also today, the Harvard alumni office reported a 75% unemployment rate among 2009 graduates.

Monday, March 29, 2010

The 5 or 6 Year Plan

Well folks, it's been awhile. In case you haven't learned from one of many emails or facebook posts, I'm headed to Madison, WI for grad school. The department is great and even seems great, the town specializes in food, microbreweries, cycling and ultimate, and the stipend is enough for me to establish complete financial independence. East Coast, I love you, and you will still be there when I have letters after my name. Orientation begins August 18th, so I have a worst-case move-out date of August 17th. The goal is to make enough money in the next few months to: pay off the rest of my car, continue paying student loans, purchase a new laptop and furnish an apartment, and to make it quickly enough that I can do some low-expense domestic traveling mid-summer.

Purgatory sucks. I'm planning a screed about my employer when my time is finished.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Does Sarah Palin Embody Republican Values?

An unfortunate mark of our political time is the narrowing of "social issues" to mean "issues involving sex" and the corollary that having the proper attitudes on these issues is equivalent to having good values. By these standards, Sarah Palin is a fine Republican. She's anti-abortion, a supporter of abstinence-only sex education, an opponent of gay marriage. The trouble is that good values extend far beyond one's attitudes toward government regulation of sexual behavior, and that these attitudes seem to be a poor predictor of broader values.

I sometimes put on libertarian airs, but at heart, I'm a social conservative. I think that there are certain activities and character traits that mark a good life, and that the government, insofar as it is able, ought to exemplify and encourage these traits among its citizens. I arrive at these traits by induction, by considering the people I admire most and what it is I admire about them. And when I consider these people, I find that their sexual behavior and attitudes are only a small component of their characters. The people that I admire tell the truth, even when it is unpleasant. They honor their commitments, even when they obligate themselves to stress and boredom. They have an insatiable curiosity. They are humble, and they are willing to admit mistakes and to ask forgiveness of those they have wronged. They care for those who are closest to them.

And by this measure, I believe that Sarah Palin fares poorly. She has misrepresented her accomplishments as governor of Alaska, most notably in suggesting that her response to the "bridge to nowhere" was a bold stance against, rather than an indulgence in, government earmarks. She resigned her office as governor of Alaska with nearly half a term remaining in order to expedite what is becoming a perpetual presidential campaign. She has shown unapologetic ignorance in debates, interviews and speeches. She has displayed extreme scorn for the McCain campaign staff, blaming them for their 2008 loss, and maintains a reputation for being extremely vindictive. And she has repeatedly shoved her children into the public's eye, consenting to interviews, video shoots and magazine covers with her young daughters, outfitted and posed to sexualize her image, and then denounced her family's lack of privacy and her own sexualization.

These are difficult values and high standards, and in all probability, no politician would measure very well against them. We choose politicians from a body of fallen people, but we necessarily judge people to be more or less fit for public service based on their ideas, their accomplishments and their characters. My audience here is primarily the Christian conservatives who have been so eager to claim Sarah Palin as one of their own. The values that I describe here are your values. Are they Sarah Palin's?

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

How to Play Awkward Table

The rules for one of my favorite travel games, best played among people who already know each other a bit:

You are planning a dinner for yourself and five guests. Your goal is to determine which five guests would make the meal most awkward for you. Players spend a few minutes selecting guests, then, in whatever order is most convenient, reveal their selections and reasons. You must already know all of your guests personally, and their presence must be uniquely awkward for you. For example, you cannot simply choose a coworker who is universally disliked, and who could be the guest of any person in her workplace. You could choose a universally disliked coworker who has been especially antagonistic toward you. Similarly, while you are encouraged to select guests with awkward relationships amongst themselves, their individual relationships toward you must also be awkward. For example, your best friend and his ex might hate one another, but he, being your best friend, is not welcome at the awkward table. Finally, it is best to keep explanations under 3 minutes per guest.

I have always ended this game knowing quite a bit more about my friends.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Christians and the Movies

Like most Christians, I enjoy movies. Unlike most Christians, I have essentially no moral standards with respect to the movies I will watch, enjoy and recommend to friends. This is a statement of fact, not a call to imitation. If pressed, I will argue that to deny viewing the best works in the most accessible and popular art medium in American society because of some arbitrary regulations about how much pleasuring and dismemberment of flesh it is permissible to view. But really, I just watch whatever I feel like watching.

It is interesting to me that, in general, Christians are much more accepting of mainstream movies than they are of mainstream* music. I know Christians whose mp3 collections consist entirely of praise and worship music, but who boast considerable libraries of Hollywood films. Again, a statement of fact, not a moral judgment. Similarly, ministers and Christian authors seem almost obligated to include laudatory film allusions and illustrations in their sermons and books, but only to reference mainstream music in order to disparage it. But that's not really what interests me here. What I'm interested in are the handful of films that come up over and over again in books, sermon illustrations and Christians' lists of favorite movies, what they have in common and why they are so popular. I write, of course, from person experience, not scientific data collection.

Christians' favorite films seem to include: Braveheart, Gladiator, The Patriot, The Matrix, The Lord of the Rings, The Princess Bride, Star Wars, the new Chronicles of Narnia films, and many superhero films, especially Spiderman. A few common elements link these films: a fantastical or romanticized historical setting, a clearly defined conflict between good and evil, and a strong male protagonist who solves this conflict through violence. This last element is less pronounced in a couple of these films, and I will discuss these exceptions later.

I think that these elements point to a certain line of reasoning, probably unconscious, in the way that Christians view film in general, the starting point of which is the idea that a narrative is as moral as its most moral character. (A common corollary of this idea is that the most immoral narratives are those with the most immoral characters.) The most moral characters, the Christian filmgoer thinks, are those that champion the most important causes in the face of greatest opposition. The most important moral causes are one's own freedom and the freedom of others. The greatest opposition one can face is violent opposition. Usually, the best way to overcome violent opposition is through violence. Therefore, the most moral films are those that depict a protagonist who champions freedom in the face of evil, violent opposition, usually by being violent himself. The fantastical or historical settings allow these conflicts to be starkly drawn, and the protagonists tend to be male, because, well, females don't usually fight battles. In my experience, ministers and authors use these films for one of the following: to provide an illustration of courage, to depict the price of freedom, to show the scope of the conflict between God and Satan.

Of course, I take issue with multiple premises in this reasoning. The first is the idea that a movie or any kind of narrative is as moral as its most moral character. To begin with, I have no idea how to measure, even approximately, how moral a narrative is. I do know that a film may contain a very moral character and depict morality as the product of great foolishness or the producer of great unhappiness, and that I would not call such a film moral. Moreover, I know of films that contain only immoral characters, but that seem to me to teach profound moral lessons, and I would call such films moral. Most good films, I think, depict characters who are neither thoroughly good nor bad, and in these characters we see ourselves. So this reasoning is flawed from the start.

Still, one of the many functions narratives can serve is to provide examples of moral heroes, and I mentioned above, this is often what ministers and authors are after. Why, then, do they choose these heroes? In this regard, I think that Christian author John Eldredge has been very influential. Eldredge has garnered considerable fame claiming that the church's recent ideal of the docile, deferential, girly man is at odds with the true, God-given desire of a man's heart, to be a fearsome warrior with a full beard and an enormous penis. His two favorite examples of manhood come from film: Maximus from Gladiator, and William Wallace, who according to Eldredge, is a lot like Jesus. Like many blowhards, Eldredge makes some decent points in diagnosing the problem, and offers a solution that is even worse. But he's popular and I think that people are following his lead in setting up violent figures as Christian ideals.

I object to this idealization for several reasons. Jesus, whom Christians believe to be morally perfect, does not share the fundamental trait of these characters, their violence. This is not to say that it may never be a Christian's moral duty to carry out violence, only that it is at best inessential. Even then, we live in a time when even soldiers rarely see combat and violence is a duty for the very few. Moreover, characters like Maximus, The Matrix's Neo and comic book heroes are superhuman in their physical abilities and superhumanly stoic in responding to their situations and actions. We cannot empathize with them and so they make poor ideals.

It is worth drawing attention to two of the film franchises mentioned above, The Chronicles of Narnia and The Lord of the Rings, which are adaptations of stories written by Christians. Both contain clashes between great armies and many other instances of violence, but neither has a protagonist defined by violence. The real victory in Narnia are won by the willing sacrifice of the Lion Aslan, and by humans when they obey him. For this reason, the battles in the recent adaptations of these stories are anticlimactic, and barely consume any space in Lewis' works. Peter and the Narnians go to war in obedience, but the outcome is known in advance. In Lord of the Rings, the protagonist Frodo is stout-hearted but useless in battle - it is only because the ring's corruption sets in slowly, and ultimately due to another character's fortunate malice that Middle Earth is saved. These characters, I think, present better moral examples than William Wallace or Spiderman.

But again, I see no inherent reason to avoid films full of morally bankrupt characters, even if these films make points that we disagree with, or make no point at all. It is my opinion that human experience is enriched by encountering and weighing foreign ideas, even if these ideas do not become our own, and so long as we do not unquestioningly accept what we are told, these encounters do not endanger us.

*Here and everywhere, I use the term "mainstream" broadly. If a movie is advertised on network TV or shows at a multiplex, it's mainstream. If an album has a metacritic rating, it's mainstream.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Worst Music of the 2000s

Originally I was going to compose a list ranking the ten or twenty worst songs of the 2000s, but I soon realized the futility of this exercise. "My Humps" is the worst hit of the decade and probably the worst of all time, Stacey Ferguson, with or without her Black Eyed cohorts is a serious contender for the worst successful recording artist of all time and I have a hard time imagining a compelling case being made for anything else. After that certainty, such a list becomes completely overwhelming and forces arbitrary choices among essentially identical candidates ("Which Nickelback song is really the worst?"). So I've instead decided to consolidate hundreds of bad songs and artists into a few broad categories that represent the worst musical trends of the decade.

The question inevitably arises of how this decade's bad music stacks up against its forerunners. A quick glance at the pop charts of decades past rather than at oldies station playlists shows that this decade's mainstream was, I think, pretty average. We had some consistently good hitmakers (Justin Timberlake, Kanye West, Beyonce), a mainstream rock scene that hasn't changed since 1995, a lot of awful chartbusters (see below), and a cornucopia of solid indie artists that every major music publication covers. It was easier than it had ever been to find good music, it required more discernment than ever before to avoid the garbage, and I couldn't make the case that our worst is worse than schmaltz, disco, hair metal, teen pop or post-grunge. That said, the decade still sucked because of:

5. Wimpy White Dudes: Jeff Buckley, probably the best white vocalist of the rock era, once said "Sensitivity isn't being wimpy, it's about being so painfully aware that a flea landing on a dog is like a sonic boom." His proclamation was entirely lost on the following: Coldplay, Snow Patrol, Jason Mraz, Jack Johnson, Keane, Hoobastank, James Blunt, Daniel Powter, The Fray. I've nothing against male sensitivity when it's expressed with some instrumental prowess, lyrical nuance or genuine passion. I do when its purveyors' only tactic is to jackhammer boneheaded hooks into my cranium in support of guileless wimpers of remorse and loneliness.
Low point: Hoobastank, "The Reason"

4. Female "Empowerment" - Beyonce isn't exactly a feminist, but she's gotten good mileage out of sticking up for herself and not taking crap from her men. Compare her moxie to the oversexed poutiness of Gwen Stefani, Fergie's crass come-ons or Natasha Bedingfield's insatiable avarice for inspirational cliche. It's hardly fair that she's also the best looking.
Low Point: Pussy Cat Dolls, "Don't Cha"

3. Rock and Roll Stagnation Nirvana's sudden popularization of grunge is probably the most repeated rock and roll story of the past two decades, and I think it probably represents the most dramatic shift in taste since rock's inception. And then all shifting ceased. Post-grunge bands were allowed to express at most two states of mind, alienation and ennui, and only in the vaguest terms possible. They played down-tuned guitars, they growled and they connected with a whole lot of male adolescents, to the extent that they have not needed to alter these elements in 15 years, except to add some sub-Spinal Tap sexuality. And while this is not quite the worst music on the list, it is the music enjoyed by the worst people.
Low Point: Nickelback, "Figured You Out" (yes, this really is their worst)

2. Auto-Tune A couple of months ago I accidentally heard my first Miley Cyrus song, "Party in the USA". What I found remarkable about it was that a song with a vocal range of, oh a perfect fifth, required the use of a pitch-correction program that gives an unmistakable processed whine. An entire subgenre of hip hop, not the most pitch-dependent music in world, has grown out of copious Auto-Tune deployment, giving us ubiquitous no-talents Akon and T-Pain among many many others whose names I haven't bothered to learn.
Low point, T-Pain, "Buy U A Drank"

1. Chant As Song My appreciation for hip hop has only grown in the past few years, particularly as I've recognized the richness of the arrangements - they're so much more than beats - that clothe the rhymes of the great MCs, and they themselves boast a deep sense of rhythm, cadence and melody. Of course, chart pop steals the shallowest aspect of hip hop and we get "Fergalicious," "Hollaback Girl" and Soulja Boy, tracks whose ad infinitum repetitions of short phrases sell massive quantities of ring tones and simultaneously destroy a generation's understanding of what music is.
Low Point, The Black Eyed Peas, "My Humps"

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Why I Hate Facebook

In large part, it's the faces themselves. You see, I hate ugly people and I have a lot of ugly friends. Most of the time, I keep my hatred in check by avoiding socializing and spend my time watching movies featuring gorgeous stars, then reading about these stars on the internet. This worked quite well until one day a stray click took me from Selma Hayek to Jane McFugly. Every time I log on to the site, I'm bombarded by the imperfect visages of regular everyday people. Now, some puritanical wiseacres are going to accuse me of pride here, but I'm eat their Calvinist hats and say that this total depravity of the countenance is universal. I'm not an especially good-looking dude, and thanks to limited facial atonement, I have no choice but to remain outside those elected to photogenicism. My own mug is as ugly as all the others.

Secondly, there's the updates. As Samuel Beckett once said, "As a display of human boredom, there is no measuring stick so accurate as Facebook." You had chicken for dinner? You better have forgotten to include the word "zombie" before "chicken". Your one-year-old needs a diaper changed? Tell me after you install that upgrade that allows olfactory enhancements. You've played "I Bleed Freely When I Love" by The Narcissist Brigade 2359 times since she left you? Have the hairdresser cut both sides of your hair to the same length and maybe your life will suddenly get a whole lot better.

Finally, there are the ridiculous expectations that Facebook gives people. You ask me point blank whether or not I'm willing to be your friend. You expect me to remember your birthday and post a greeting. You see me in person and expect me to know that you ate zombie chicken for dinner last night and to realize that you're just forgetful and not boring as all get out. And there are the major life decisions and heinous crimes you expect me to undertake with the click of a mouse button. Set up my farm next to yours? Join your mafia family? At least send me a personalized message and not the same generic two-sentence email that 50 other potential goons received. Perhaps worst of all are the relationship requests. I lost count somewhere, but I believe that over 40 different females have requested my consent to relational statuses ranging from "in an open relationship" to "married". There's only so much of me to go around, and right now, it's not going around at all, especially to ugly, hateful website using cretins like you.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Life Things

1. After a bit of limbo, I have a new job, still at the Big N, filling web orders. After one day, it's fun and it keeps me in motion, always a good thing. Better pay, better hours and all that jazz.

2. Got into Michigan's chemistry PhD program today. I received a voicemail that stated "We were incredibly impressed with your application." I thought very seriously about attending as an undergrad, while their program doesn't have the history of the some of others I applied to, they've got a reputation as a department on the rise. The stipend is good, and I could start this June. I now have two acceptances, hopefully with more to come. I will continue to think on this through March.

3. Just finished reading John Updike's short story "The Christian Roommates," which bore startling resemblance to my first year of college. Also contains the phrase that I think best summarizes Updike's approach to charcterization, "a kind of scar he carries without pain and without any clear memory of the amputation," because Updike never crafts characters through start dramatic junctures and moments of moral decision. An excellent story.