Guests on Volume 151
• Richard Stivers on lessons from Jacques Ellul about media technologies and society
• Holly Ordway on the surprising reading habit of J. R. R. Tolkien
• Robin Phillips on the challenge of sustaining a posture of gratitude in the midst of suffering
• Scott Newstok on why William Shakespeare offers valuable perspectives on the means and ends of education
• Junius Johnson on why the experience of beauty is dangerous, but necessary
• Peter Mercer-Taylor on how early 19th-century hymnody introduced many Americans to a repertoire of classical music
“When you’re in real dialogue with a person, when you see this other person as independent, you make yourself vulnerable. So, basically, I think wanting to stay in control, not wanting to be vulnerable, people don’t want to be hurt. They want every relationship to be pleasant and to go their way. And so, I guess this is the great danger: that the more we use social media in particular, and every other type of anonymous/almost anonymous discourse, the less human we become. To be human is to be vulnerable, to try to understand another person, to not try to impose one’s will on a person, to listen to the other person, and these are clearly in short supply today.”
— Richard Stivers
Sociologist Richard Stivers argues that the destructive tendencies blamed on new technologies are actually the fulfilment of much older dynamics and priorities. In his book, The Media Creates Us in Its Image and Other Essays on Technology and Culture, Stivers continues to build on the work of philosopher Jacques Ellul, unpacking how the race for efficiency — what Max Weber called the “religion of the modern world” — shapes all of life in our technological society. One area in which we see this is in the increasing abstraction of human relationships. When efficiency is prioritized over meaning, the skills to navigate real human relationships atrophy. We lose the ability to disagree or to handle awkward realities of true relationships. As Stivers warns, “The more abstract human relationships become, the more the entire human being disappears.”
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“A lot of the criticism, a lot of the scholarship, and indeed most of the popular view of Tolkien has been that he simply ignored all things modern, whether that’s theological, or philosophical, or simply chronological modernity, that he just shut himself off from it. That he wasn’t interested — at all — and he just kind of hid himself away in the Middle Ages and engaged there. And that’s completely not the case. And he actually engages quite significantly with modernity in all sorts of interesting ways.”
— Holly Ordway
Professor Holly Ordway counters the assumption that J. R. R. Tolkien was stuck in the past in her book Tolkien’s Modern Reading: Middle-earth Beyond the Middle Ages. Ordway claims that we don’t even recognize the stereotype that Tolkien was hopelessly nostalgic. But in fact, as she demonstrates, Tolkien engaged widely and profoundly with modern literature, philosophy, and theology. Even in terms of technology, Tolkien was no Luddite, embracing in a nuanced way many of the most up-to-date technologies of his day. One of his students called Tolkien a “translator,” a “bridge” between the Middle Ages and the modern world. Ordway argues that to be an effective translator, one must be equally comfortable in both worlds. And she claims that because Tolkien was at home in both the Modern and the Medieval, his work continues to possess deep resonance today.
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“Gratitude can’t be developed in isolation. Gratitude grows in an ecosystem of other virtues. And that’s another area where I think the self-help literature on gratitude goes wrong. They’ve recognized something important, which is that gratitude helps with health and well being and with joy. But it’s impossible to develop true spiritual gratitude outside of this larger ecosystem of virtues.”
— Robin Phillips
Robin Phillips writes about his experience moving from a pop-culture to sacramental understanding of gratitude in his book Gratitude in Life’s Trenches: How to Experience the Good Life Even When Everything is Going Wrong. Influenced heavily by G. K. Chesterton and Alexander Schmemann, Phillips conveys how “embracing the dark side of life” and accepting its inherent difficulty helped him discover a more profound experience of gratitude, even in suffering. Phillips believes that gratitude requires vulnerability — it’s not a matter of either stoicism or a trivializing optimism. Gratitude also requires an “ecosystem of virtues.” It can’t be developed in isolation either from other people or from the virtues that support it. Ultimately, the church institutionalizes the practices and virtues that cultivate and sustain gratitude.
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“I'm trying to offer a number of analogues, and models, and patterns for inspiration, but I am actually not doing the more conventional ‘how to do X’ book or self-help book where you lay out the seven habits of highly successful people or whatever the model might be. In some ways, the . . . implicit point of the book is the way to think like Shakespeare is not to follow a set pattern of things, it’s to go through a number of habit inducing practices; and, it means reading widely, and it means thinking imaginatively, and it means all kind of things, but it’s not really programmatic.”
— Scott Newstok
English Professor Scott Newstok sets forth Shakespeare as a guide for the craft of thought in his book How to Think Like Shakespeare. Citing Shakespeare's "sponge-like quality of mind," Newstok points to habits and practices that helped refine Shakespeare's native brilliance. One habit is keeping a commonplace book to collect quotations. He also highlights the pedagogical practice of imitation, a ubiquitous technique in the past. Newstok believes that while we accept unreservedly the importance of imitation in physical practices, moderns are more critical of the use of imitation in scholarly pursuits. But, while imitation can certainly be stunted into parrot-like practice, it also can help develop a rich idiosyncratic style. With all that said, Newstok is not offering a procedural account of how to think like Shakespeare, he is articulating patterns and "habit-inducing practices" that contain the possibility of intellectual growth.
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“The beautiful, Plato says, is difficult. The beautiful is very powerful. The beautiful is earth-shaking and heart-breaking. And I think that’s one of the main aspects of beauty in a broken world like we live in, is that it breaks our hearts. But the things of God, when they come to break our hearts, they do so because our hearts need to be broken. They do so because our hearts are hardened into forms that become these defenses against grace. Beauty is able to come in and fracture, and create these lines in our hearts that crack open — and these fissures — and through that, grace pours.”
— Junius Johnson
Junius Johnson warns that the pursuit of beauty is both perilous and unavoidable in his book The Father of Lights: A Theology of Beauty. The desire for beauty points to the desire for God. For unbelievers, that desire for beauty, Johnson says, is “the person’s heart witnessing against them,” because beauty is particularly capable of destroying modern defenses against God. Nonetheless, humans must be wary because we are experts in twisting good into evil, “mistaking the intermediary for the ultimate.” Johnson articulates Bonaventure’s idea of “contuition” as a way to rightly align recognition of the beautiful and recognition of God. He also brings in the concept of analogy, explaining how creation is a language God invented to speak about Himself and that, therefore, “things belong to a vocabulary of the divine.”
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“There were hundreds and hundreds of these adaptations published in the United States. And I have not looked at, for example, the English scene nearly as much as the American one, but my strong sense is that there wasn’t nearly that amount of this sort of thing going on in England. And at the same time, England had a more robust tradition of classical music performance, that in the United States, it was just much rarer as a general rule, to actually have exposure to the classical music that these [hymn tunes] were based on. And so, in that sense, it’s as though these hymn tune adaptations were serving a more . . . central cultural purpose in the American context than in the English.”
— Peter Mercer-Taylor
Musicologist Peter Mercer-Taylor tells the story of how 19th-century American musicians adapted classical repertoire into hymn tunes in his book Gems of Exquisite Beauty: How Hymnody Carried Classical Music to America. Mercer-Taylor’s research began as an extension of his Felix Mendelssohn scholarship, specifically when he began to uncover the story of Hark, the Herald Angels Sing. This led to his discovery of many hundreds of these adaptations, specifically in the American context. While classical hymn tunes were not uncommon in England, they were more prominent in America, serving a “central cultural purpose,” since the performance of classical music was a rarity. These hymn tunes gradually fell out of vogue, but we can still see traces of the adaptations in the hymnals used today.