MARS HILL AUDIO Journal
Guests on Volume 111: Siva Vaidhyanathan, on why trusting Google to organize the world's knowledge is an odd (and dangerous) thing to do; John Fea, on the history of the idea of America as a Christian nation and on how the Founders were—as statesmen—less interested in the truth of religion than in its political utility; Ross Douthat, on how commitment to historical Christian orthodoxy has eroded among American religious institutions since the 1960s; Ian Ker, on why G. K. Chesterton deserves wider recognition as a significant literary critic; Larry Woiwode, on how his decision to become a writer grew out of a desire to make connections with other people; and Dana Gioia, on the remarkable life of poet John Donne and how his spiritual and intellectual struggles created the conditions for his unique poetic voice.
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Siva Vaidhyanathan on why trusting Google to organize the world’s knowledge is an odd (and dangerous) thing to do
“[Google’s] mission statement of the company itself is: to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible. And it struck me, when I first read that, my first reaction is, ‘who asked you guys? Who granted you the authority to take on that grand mission?’ Oxford University doesn’t even have that grand a mission. . . .The fact is, we are Google’s product. We are what Google sells. Google sells all of our attention. And it decides to whom our attention will be sold, based on the data it collects about us, based on our history of interaction with the web. That’s a tremendous amount of power.” —Siva Vaidhyanathan
Siva Vaidhyanathan joins us to talk about the growing influence of Google and what that means for the world. His 2011 book The Googlization of Everything (And Why We Should Worry) points out how great Google's cultural power is, and how our assumptions about efficiency and convenience have contributed to this power. The unspoken assumption is that the most accessible information is therefore the best information. He discusses the differences between what search engine technologies do and what librarians do as an entry point into a conversation about the public acqueiscence to Google's ambitions, and how shallow a search engine’s ability is to comprehend the complexities of knowledge-seeking. Vaidhyanathan believes the history of Google and its interactions with social and political institutions raise questions about the role of public institutions and society’s tremendous faith in information technology. This young company is involved in both judging and creating the terms of access to collections of knowledge and information. But knowledge is more than sheer data; there are many ways to interact with it, and Vaidhyanathan encourages us to resist technological determinism in the shaping of our culture. He wonders whether we are even aware of the need to ask questions about the nature of particular technologies or whether we are being so overwhelmed by the power and benefits of technology that we miss subtly dehumanizing effects like the displacement of significance from human persons to technologies. Lastly, Vaidhyanathan emphasizes the need for wisdom more than the quantified approximations of wisdom so convenient and tempting to a certain mindset.
John Fea on the history of the idea of America as a Christian nation and on how the Founders were—as statesmen—less interested in the truth of religion than in its political utility
“The name of God is never mentioned in the US Constitution, with the exception of ‘in the year of our Lord’ which was of course the common way of listing the date. And actually, there’s probably good evidence to suggest that that was added after the members left Philadelphia. Now how can you have a secular constitution and say God’s on your side?” —John Fea
This segment features John Fea on the idea of America as a Christian nation. He traces the idea’s acceptance in most of the past four centuries through America’s founding, manifest destiny, the Civil War, nineteenth- and twentieth-century liberal Protestantism, the civil rights movement, fundamentalism, and the Religious Right. His 2011 book Was America Founded As a Christian Nation?: A Historical Introduction deals with the complicated historical puzzle this question addresses. Many Christians make a constant reference to the need to “reclaim our Judeo-Christian heritage.” The idea has always been pervasive and influential, though what is meant by the term in the particulars has changed over time depending on which groups were using the rhetoric. Each side of the Civil War, for example, invoked God and the Christian nature of the nation to buttress their arguments. America’s founders, whatever else, saw religion in the Greco-Roman tradition: as necessary for the moral and civic formation of citizens. Liberal Protestants in the immense Social Gospel movement saw their politics as establishing the principles of the kingdom of God. Americans throughout history understood their nation as a sacred and providential trust from a God who was working through America for the sake of progress in the world. Host Ken Myers discusses with Fea the implications of what it would mean to be a truly Christian Nation, and whether assumptions about our heritage are in line with historical realities.
Ross Douthat on how commitment to historical Christian orthodoxy has eroded among American religious institutions since the 1960s
“You have the drama of decolonization happening around the world which is obviously a drama that Americans because of our own history would have a lot of instinctive sympathy for, and so you’re watching all this unfold as Westerners, as members of this dominant culture whose dominance is now being called into question.” —Ross Douthat
Journalist Ross Douthat’s 2012 book is called Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics. In discussing the heresies that dominate American Christianity, he lists four heresies whose widespread acceptance in America makes it a nation of heretics: historical revisionism concerning Jesus, therapeutic Christianity, the prosperity Gospel, and America and the new Israel. Douthat wants to point out these heresies so that Americans might repent and return to orthodox forms of Christianity, and he sees great potential in the uncertainty of the present for reflection making a way for revival. He sees an example of this in how figures in the civil rights movement were able to appeal to the Christianity of their opponents to bridge the divide. Douthat continues his observations concerning some of the major cultural changes that reinforced and dovetailed with particular American tendencies to change the way we think about and live out religion.
Ian Ker on why G. K. Chesterton deserves wider recognition as a significant literary critic
“Mostly the famous literary critics have devoted themselves to tragedy rather than to comedy. But Chesterton thought that comedy was extremely important, and that it was as important as tragedy in understanding life.” —Ian Ker
Ian Ker’s 700 page book G.K. Chesterton: A Biography is a thorough exploration of Chesterton’s importance as an early 20th century literary figure. In this segment, Ker explains that Chesterton was until recently considered out of fashion, and is still almost totally neglected by current scholarship. Ker argues against critics of his biography who say that Chesterton is a minor figure, merely a fun character who should not be treated seriously. Urging his readers not to discount the man because of his larger-than-life persona, Ker discusses the seriousness with which Chesterton treated humor, and the extent to which he saw it as a path to the Christian virtue of humility. Chesterton also had a great ability to appreciate people apart from their intellectual flaws: he stood alone against the terrible views held by many of his contemporaries. A central idea of Chesterton’s work was the importance of limits. He saw natural limitations as central to the Christian idea of human life and as enabler of imagination and specificity. Chesterton opposed modern art because the idea of limitation was discarded, whereas he valued children highly for their natural delight in dealing with limitations. Ker concludes that the freshness of Chesterton’s imagination encourages Christians to constantly refresh their understanding of the faith.
Larry Woiwode on how his decision to become a writer grew out of a desire to make connections with other people
“I like to be busy with my hands, because the more I am in contact and in touch with reality, especially with the reality of animals dependent on me, the more the inner connections of reality seem to strike me.” —Larry Woiwode
In this segment, Larry Woiwode describes his own method of writing. He begins by arguing out that good writing ultimately requires connecting with space and time. Thus, the body is the ultimate reference point and Woiwode concludes that connecting with other people through an attentiveness to the concrete aspects of life is at the root of all great writing. He describes the realization he had as a young man that communication with people was a central purpose of his life and calling as a writer. Woiwode describes the deeper spiritual desire, or communion, that is behind this desire to communicate.
Dana Gioia on the remarkable life of poet John Donne and how his spiritual and intellectual struggles created the conditions for his unique poetic voice
“Donne himself is astonished by his spiritual journey. And this is what animates the poetry. . . . This is the poetry of a man undergoing a spiritual crisis in which every aspect of his humanity [is] being torn asunder. And that’s what makes it magnificent.” —Dana Gioia
In this segment, Dana Gioia begins his discussion of John Donne’s poetic achievement with a biographical outline of the poet’s life, which was atypical in many ways. Rejecting his family’s Catholic faith, he pursued worldly acclaim for most of his life. Only after 22 years of unsuccessful public life, Donne finally took orders at age 43 (and only then because he was basically forced to it by the king). Coming through a great spiritual crisis after the death of his wife, he became profoundly religious and very quickly the most famous preacher in England. Gioia describes the magnificence of his sermons and the darkness of his sonnets as the direct outcome of this surprising spiritual journey. Gioia argues that Donne’s physical, passionate, “blood-and-guts” poetry provides a refreshing counter to the ennervated type of bad religious poetry so common in the history of Christian writing. He also explains how technically experimental the poetry is, and reminds us that it wasn’t until the twentieth century that poets such as T. S. Eliot began rediscovering and popularizing Donne’s poetry. Now, he is the most widely anthologized poet in English. Gioia concludes by commenting on Donne’s particular ability to resonate with the modern vantage point.