Saturday, February 26, 2011

Culture Shift: Chiasson on Mass Availability

I sometimes tease my wife that we're from completely different generations because she was born before man walked on the moon, while I was born after that paradigm-shifting event (we're only 18 months apart). She emerged into this world in the 60s, whereas I was born in a different decade. (I should note she's not always amused by this line of teasing.) Of course, it's ridiculous to think that a year and a half could mean that we're from different epochs. And yet surely one of the features of late modernity is a compression of generations where cultural paradigms shift at now breakneck speed.

Dan Chiasson gets at this as a bit of an aside in his ranging review of Keith Richards' Life. Chiasson does a nice job of situating Richards' offering in the wider genre of memoir, but in the course of this he also considers just how and why the Stones were game-changers in the very shape of cultural offering. As he puts it:

Anyone reading this review can go to YouTube now and experience Muddy Waters, or Chuck Berry, or Buddy Holly, or the first Stones recordings, or anything else they want to see, instantly: ads for Freshen-up gum from the Eighties; a spot George Plimpton did for Intellivision, an early video game. Anything. I am not making an original point, but it cannot be reiterated enough: the experience of making and taking in culture is now, for the first time in human history, a condition of almost paralyzing overabundance. For millennia it was a condition of scarcity; and all the ways we regard things we want but cannot have, in those faraway days, stood between people and the art or music they needed to have: yearning, craving, imagining the absent object so fully that when the real thing appears in your hands, it almost doesn’t match up. Nobody will ever again experience what Keith Richards and Mick Jagger experienced in Dartford, scrounging for blues records. The Rolling Stones do not happen in any other context: they were a band based on craving, impersonation, tribute: white guys from England who worshiped black blues and later, to a lesser extent, country, reggae, disco, and rap.

When the situation changed in part because the Stones changed it, and suddenly you could hear (and even meet and play with) Chuck Berry or Bo Diddley, the band lost its way. They depended, for their force, on a body-memory of those early cravings for music they knew only by rumor and innuendo. Other cravings, for drugs and fame, were not sufficient, and had much more dire downsides. The early Stones were in a constant huddle, dissecting blues songs in front of the speakers and playing them back for each other and then for their few fans. They thought of themselves, not even as a band, really, but as a way of distributing music the radio never played.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

The Spirit of Knowledge: Lecture Video

A few weeks ago I spent time with the Society of Vineyard Scholars when they met in Seattle. One of the many things they did well was commit to some quality audio and video recording of various sessions. I'm happy to share this production of my evening plenary talk, "The Spirit of Knowledge: Outline of a Charismatic Epistemology," which samples and expands on some themes from Thinking in Tongues: Pentecostal Contributions to Christian Philosophy.

SVS 2011 Plenary #3: James K. A. Smith from Society of Vineyard Scholars on Vimeo.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Interview @ the Evangelical Philosophical Society Blog

FYI: The first part of a multi-part interview about my new book, Thinking in Tongues: Pentecostal Contributions to Christian Philosophy, has just been posted at the blog of the Evangelical Philosophical Society.

Joe Gorra, who I met last week at the Society of Vineyard Scholars conference, asks some helpful questions about the connections between and Thinking in Tongues and Desiring the Kingdom, and helps get at some of the background to this project.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Architectural Criticism: On Gehry's Manhattan Tower

Frank Gehry is an architect that people love to hate, mainly because he is one of the few contemporary American architects who has become a "brand"--to the point that you keep waiting for a Gehry design line to start showing up in a Target store near you (a la Michael Graves). Associating your name with Disney certainly doesn't help.

But I was doubly impressed by Nicolai Ouroussoff's NYT piece about Gehry's new Manhattan tower. "Doubly" impressed because, on the one hand, I think Ouroussoff's article is an excellent little work of architectural criticism and because, on the other hand, he made me sympathetic to Gehry in a way I haven't been before. While he notes that Gehry's residential tower seems "to epitomize the skyline’s transformation from a symbol of American commerce to a display of individual wealth," he goes on to note:

The building is particularly mesmerizing from the Brooklyn waterfront, where it’s possible to make out one of the deep setbacks that give the building its reassuringly old-fashioned feel. In daylight the furrowed surfaces of the facades look as if they’ve been etched by rivulets of water, an effect that is all the more dramatic next to the clunky 1980s glass towers just to the south. Closer up, from City Hall Park, the same ripples look softer, like crumpled fabric.

(The flat south facade is comparatively conventional, and some may find perverse enjoyment in the fact that the building presents its backside to Wall Street.)

The power of the design only deepens when it is looked at in relation to Gilbert’s Woolworth building. A steel frame building clad in neo-Gothic terra-cotta panels, Gilbert’s masterpiece is a triumphant marriage between the technological innovations that gave rise to the skyscraper and the handcrafted ethos of an earlier era.

While the undulating exterior immediately brought to mind Chicago's Aqua Tower, more pointedly Ouroussoff sees a "statement" in Gehry's design:

The building’s endlessly shifting surfaces are an attack against the kind of corporate standardization so evident in the buildings to the south and the conformity that it embodied. He aims, as he has throughout his career, to replace the anonymity of the assembly line with an architecture that can convey the infinite variety of urban life. The computer, in his mind, is just a tool for reasserting that variety.

I've added the building to my hoped-for architectural tour when I visit Manhattan in May.

Monday, February 07, 2011

A Secular Age: The Seminar

This semester I have the privilege of leading what is informally known in my department as "senior seminar": a capstone course for our majors that gives us freedom to design a one-off course, usually focused on some aspect of our current research. In the fall semester this is focused on a topic; in the spring on a figure. I've been waiting 9 years for the opportunity and this spring I'm teaching PHIL 396: Charles Taylor's A Secular Age. Those who are interested can take a peek at the syllabus.

As part of the seminar, I've created a course blog: My hope is that this will be a space for us to continue our conversations about the book. It will also be a venue for students to share the fruits of independent research on how the rest of Taylor's corpus is reflected in this magnum opus.

Since we'll be posting some summaries and engagements with the text as we go along, others might find the site of interest. If everything goes well (no guarantees!), the blog could function as a bit of a reader's guide to A Secular Age. Comments are open on the blog, so if you're interested, feel free to join the conversation: it could be a little way for students to have interaction beyond their professor and peers.

Saturday, February 05, 2011

Cultural Liturgies, Vol. 1.5

I'm just returning from a few days at the Society of Vineyard Scholars conference, which was exhausting but also a blessing. Good people with an exciting vision of how reflection can serve the church's mission: sign me up for more of that. I've also never had a speaking engagement in which I've felt more cared for, buoyed by prayer. I return tired but grateful.

When I was invited to be one of the keynote speakers for the conference, they asked me to do some talks that would draw on themes from both Desiring the Kingdom and Thinking in Tongues because both books were addressing themes of interest to Vineyard folk: DTK picks up on "kingdom" themes that are important to Vineyard theology (tracing back to the influence of George Eldon Ladd's eschatology on John Wimber); and Thinking in Tongues intersects with Vineyard's emphases on the gifts of the Spirit and charismatic experience.

But not until I was putting these things together did I realize something. While I'm at work on volume 2 of the Cultural Liturgies trilogy (of which Desiring the Kingdom is the first), in an important way Thinking in Tongues is already a kind of sequel to DTK insofar as it further develops some of the epistemological implications of the anthropology sketched in DTK--particularly a "narrative" epistemology which makes sense of the centrality of affect and emotion in our construal of the world. I also undertake some methodological experiments in the book that resonate with my claims about the imagination in Desiring the Kingdom.

But unfortunately, a lot of folks who've read Desiring the Kingdom wouldn't necessarily read Thinking in Tongues. So I'm going to start describing Thinking in Tongues as volume 1.5 of the Cultural Liturgies project!

Wednesday, February 02, 2011

Letters to the Young

I was both honored and intrigued when my friends at Comment approached me with an invitation to guest edit a special issue of the magazine. Their idea was to produce an entire issue inspired by the genre of Letters to a Young Calvinist. And so we came up with "Letters to a Young," the March 2011 issue of Comment. I'm really pleased with the results.

On the inside, this issue features letters written to young people across an array of vocations. You'll find
  • a letter to a young farmer by Norman Wirzba,
  • a letter to a young philosopher by Alvin Plantinga,
  • a letter to a young musician by Charlie Peacock,
  • a letter to a young film critic by Jeffrey Overstreet,
  • a letter to a young pastor by Jim Belcher,
and many more. Check out the full table of contents to get a sense of the range of vocations and writers.

I'm also really pleased with the outside of the issue--the cover. I was able to recruit a local illustrator, Rebecca Green, to do an original piece for this issue. Deanna and I have long been a fan of Rebecca's work: two small pieces entitled "Keep the Love Alive" hang in our living room. So it's a treat to introduce her work to a new audience.

Single copies are available for purchase; but better yet, subscribe to Comment now and receive "Letters to the Young" as your first issue.