Thursday, June 30, 2011

Unconscious Writing

My summer-evening, front-porch reading for the past few days has been the Selected Letters of Thomas Wolfe, edited by his former agent, Elizabeth Nowell. They are charged with the same frenetic energy as his fiction. And given the range from his youth until just a couple of days before his untimely death, they also function as an ersatz autobiography.

Wolfe's candor and sincerity go a long ways toward making up for his narcissism and insecurity. His account of critics and reviewers will surely resonate with anyone who has taken the risk of putting their thoughts in print (noting "that one of the pleasantest occupations of a great many people in this world is to shoot down a whole regiment of wooden soldiers, and then return triumphant from the wars, saying, 'we have met the enemy and they are ours'").

But most interesting are the glimpses into the creative process, the sheer labor of writing, the manic highs and deep lows that attend the process. Wolfe's work ethic was impeccable--none of this "waiting for the muse" mythology, sitting around waiting for inspiration. Wolfe was a workhouse of a writer, a lunchbox creator who punched the clock of discipline. But he also notes an aspect of creation that eludes our control, which amounts to a note of hope for writers:

"And although my conscious mind was busy with all the things and places I was seeing and the people I was meeting, I think my unconscious mind must have been busy at my book, because now that I am back, the whole plan, from first to last, has become clear to me, and I think I know exactly what I want to do."

Monday, June 27, 2011

The Fall of Interpretation, 2nd edition

On Pentecost Sunday, from my temporary rooms at Trinity College of the University of Toronto, I dispatched the manuscript for a second, revised edition of my first book, The Fall of Interpretation: Philosophical Foundations for a Creational Hermeneutic, which will be published by Baker Academic. As I note in the new Preface to the book, that temporal and spatial nexus was a little treat of providence for me, since The Fall of Interpretation was first conceived as my master's thesis at the Institute for Christian Studies in Toronto, and the book advanced a "creational-pneumatic hermeneutic" that owed a Pentecostal debt.

I'm grateful for the opportunity this new edition provides to reframe and recontextualize my argument, to address some criticisms, and to indicate how the argument of Fall connects with (and is expanded) in the trajectory of my later work. In addition to beefing up and updating the footnotes, the new edition includes an entirely new Introduction ("Reconsiderations") and adds a final chapter ("Limited Inc/arnation: From Creation to Ecclesia") that, I believe, clarifies what was a fundamental ambiguity in the first edition.

A release date of spring 2012 is projected for this project.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

The Downside of "Professional Competence": Adam Gopnik

While it's a throwaway comment within his new essay, "Life Studies: What I Learned When I Learned to Draw," I paused for a while over this observation from Adam Gopnik:

Whatever sense of professional competence we feel in adult life is less the sum of accomplishment than the absence of impossibility: it's really our relief at no longer having to do things we were never any good at doing in the first place--relief at never again having to dissect a frog or memorize the periodic table (p. 58).

Yes. That sounds right. To achieve "success" is often just the privilege of being able to insulate oneself from failure. The reward for competence becomes monotony and one becomes enslaved to one's expertise. We become more and more failure-averse and instead carve out worlds without surprises, without tests, without risk. We polish all our shiny new trophies, but they're all from the same sport, so to speak.

It's particularly bothersome that this phenomenon seems to be inching its way back from the life stage of adult, professional success and creeping back into adolescence, even childhood. Something is afoot that has young people absorbing this failure-averse stance early on, shrinking from the possibility of being stretched in order to settle on a space for the early display of mastery. (This could be seen as a feature of what Charles Taylor calls the dynamics of "mutual self-display" in our age of authenticity.)

What's lost in this "security" is precisely the virtue of failure--the strange thrill of trying and not succeeding (the first time, the third time, the 27th time). Indeed, I think even many of those who have achieved the "professional competence" that Gopnik describes have secret, buried desires to fail, to have the courage and opportunity to venture beyond the bounds of competence. To remember once again that peculiar high that comes from the attempt, the adrenaline rush triggered by working without a net--not to mention the cliched virtue of "try, try again."

That, of course, is why Calvinists invented golf.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Later Wittgenstein on Philosophy

Dipping into Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations yet again, I was reminded of this little barb about philosophy. It's a typical Wittgensteinian aphorism, koan-like, that has to sink in a bit, particularly since the analogy is an inversion of precisely the sorts of philosophical assumptions Wittgenstein is calling into question:

"When we do philosophy we are like savages, primitive people, who hear the expressions of civilized men, put a false interpretation on them, and then draw the queerest conclusions from it" (§194).

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Saunders, "Home"

I'm always glad to see a new short story from George Saunders. This month's New Yorker features his story, "Home," as part of their summer fiction issue. The story of a vet trying to re-enter his life after service in Afghanistan or Iraq (we're never sure which), it is vintage Saunders: uproariously funny in parts, then sliding into probing psychological insight, with a hint of horror hanging over the entire story.

Consider just this snippet of brilliance, from a scene where the narrator loses himself in a kind of revelry of violence and threat with his mother and her boyfriend:

They were both so scared they weren’t talking at all, which made me feel the kind of shame you know you’re not going to cure by saying sorry, and where the only thing to do is: go out, get more shame.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Word Guild Awards 2011

I was honored (sorry: "honoured") to learn that my book, Thinking in Tongues: Pentecostal Contributions to Christian Philosophy, has received the 2011 Word Guild Award in the Academic category. (The Word Guild hosts the annual Canadian Christian Writing Awards.)

I was quite surprised since the other finalists in this category--Deborah C. Bowen's Stories of the Middle Space: Reading the Ethics of Postmodern Realisms and James R. Payton's Getting the Reformation Wrong--are both books I've noted and are well-deserving of recognition, thus I was very much expecting them to spread the wealth, so to speak. So I'm particularly grateful for the honour [sic] and continue to be encouraged by the community of Christian writers in my home and native land--though I don't expect to be overtaking Janette Oke anytime soon!

Saturday, June 18, 2011

A Liturgical Turn in Cultural Theory

Just one more prompt from the CICW Summer Seminars: I've put up a first post describing the focus of my seminar, "From Worldview to Worship: The Liturgical Turn in Cultural Theory," which includes a description and link to the syllabus. Those interested in this conversation will be able to hear from several seminar participants who'll be blogging throughout the seminar--and able to join the conversation through the comments. Watch for updates.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Blogging from the Calvin Summer Seminars

One of the hats I wear is "Research Fellow and Academic Programs Coordinator for the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship" (catchy, eh?). In that role, one of the initiatives I've launched this summer is a team of bloggers who will be posting from our three seminars that will be happening over the next month. Over at you'll be able to listen in on conversations about liturgy, culture, pedagogy, and cultural change through posts from scholars, pastors, teachers, and others practitioners.

As I noted in a first post, this year's seminars include:

So add to your RSS feed and follow the conversations as they unfold over the next month.

Tuesday, June 07, 2011

3-D Icons: A Short Film on Mannequins

In Desiring the Kingdom I offer an opening phenomenology of the mall as a temple--a religious, liturgical space whose labyrinthine corridors are lined by tiny chapels devoted to various saints. And those saints, I suggest, are "pictured" not in the flat renditions of stained-glass but in the 3-D icons of mannequins draped in the au courant vision of "the good life."

Well, in that vein, my former student Bryan Kibbe recently pointed me to an almost incredible short film that documents the work and vision of a mannequin factory. Titled "34 x 25 x 36" (you can guess why), the documentary unveils the unapologetic industry of female "perfection," eliciting from the owners and designers a shameless articulation of their goals. This is a must-see for those working in gender studies.

But halfway through the film (at about the 3:30 mark), one of the owner/designers begins to rhapsodize about their work as a deliberate extension of religious devotion to the saints--embodying the now secular, materialist ideal for women to emulate, yea, "worship."

Saturday, June 04, 2011

Bookish Fate and Bibliographical Providence

In Letter XXII of my Letters to a Young Calvinist, I playfully but seriously testify to a conviction regarding bibliographical providence: that some books that I just "happen" to bump into, or have passed on to me, were divine appointments of a sort. There are volumes that have fallen into my lap, and captured my attention, which one couldn't have plotted from a previous bibliographical trajectory. And looking back on their role in my formation, I can't help but see them as instances of illumination along a path--a journey in which I was being led rather than charting my own course.

So it was with some interest that I read Michael Chabon's introduction to a new edition of Norton Juster's The Phantom Tollbooth, recently excerpted in the New York Review of Books. While Chabon can't avail himself of a notion of providence, and is pressed into the language of gifts without a giver, one can nonetheless hear an analogous conviction:

The book appeared in my life as mysteriously as the titular tollbooth itself, brought to our house one night as a gift for me by some old friend of my father’s whom I had never met before, and never saw again. Maybe all wondrous books appear in our lives the way Milo’s tollbooth appears, an inexplicable gift, cast up by some curious chance that comes to feel, after we have finished and fallen in love with the book, like the workings of a secret purpose. Of all the enchantments of beloved books the most mysterious—the most phantasmal—is the way they always seem to come our way precisely when we need them.

Friday, June 03, 2011

This is Your Brain on Marketing

Friends and readers now regularly float me tidbits that sort of serve as confirmations and illustrations--or at least case studies--of some of the kinds of claims I made in Desiring the Kingdom regarding cultural formation (like the recent study on the cult-status of Apple for devotees). So I'm going to crowd-source here and feature them in an occasional series of "DTK Case Studies," with thanks for the tips and suggestions.

Mark Roeda (who's provided tips before) pointed me to Jonah Lehrer's recent observations about the formation of memory by marketers, and the brain science that underlies this. (Lehrer makes regular cameos in David Brooks' new book, The Social Animal.)

Here's the tease:
How could a stupid commercial trick me into believing that I loved a product I’d never actually tasted? Or that I drank Coke out of glass bottles?
And here's the upshot:
This idea, simple as it seems, requires us to completely re-imagine our assumptions about memory. It reveals memory as a ceaseless process, not a repository of inert information. The recall is altered in the absence of the original stimulus, becoming less about what we actually remember and more about what we’d like to remember. It’s the difference between a “Save” and the “Save As” function. Our memories are a “Save As”: They are files that get rewritten every time we remember them, which is why the more we remember something, the less accurate the memory becomes. And so that pretty picture of popcorn becomes a taste we definitely remember, and that alluring soda commercial becomes a scene from my own life. We steal our stories from everywhere. Marketers, it turns out, are just really good at giving us stories we want to steal.

Now go read the whole article.