Guests on Volume 69: John McWhorter, author of Doing Our Own Thing: The Degradation of Language and Music and Why We Should, Like, Care, on the death of formal speech; Douglas Koopman, on the mis-steps and misunderstandings that hampered the Bush administration’s implementation of Faith-Based Initiatives; Daniel Ritchie, on the survival of “Great Books” programs at religious colleges; Vincent Miller, on how the commodification of everything affects our sense of religious faith and practice (and on how we can resist); and Barrett Fisher, on the sources of humor in the two versions of The Ladykillers, and on the history of very serious thinking about what makes something funny.
Linguist John McWhorter has, for a number of years, been interested in the major change in the usage of language and speech that took place in the 1960s in America. In his book Doing Our Own Thing: The Degradation of Language and Music and Why We Should, Like, Care, he notes that before the change there were at least two languages that people learned: the casual language of everyday life (or, in McWhorter’s words, beer-drinking speech), and formal language, which was reserved for public speaking occasions and writing. To the post-1960s mind it may seem as if formal language was necessarily detached and distant, but McWhorter explains that, rather, it could be just as intimate as casual language. Since the 1960s, however, which ushered in an unprecedented and persisting rebellion against authority, Americans have largely abandoned formal usage of language. Now casual language dominates spheres of discourse, and people find formal language boring and insincere.
In Of Little Faith: The Politics of George W. Bush’s Faith-Based Initiatives, Professor Douglas Koopman and his co-authors Amy Black and David Ryden record the story of what happened when the President’s administration tried to make public assistance more readily available to faith-based aid agencies. Koopman discusses the difficulty of securing bi-partisan support for policies that would ensure such aid and the media coverage that helped to frustrate the administration's efforts. He states that, early on, the administration lost support from groups such as Sojourners because they perceived the White House’s attempts to be partisan and, in response, affirmed their own partisan affiliations. Media coverage did nothing to dissuade the perception, focusing on the political divisions over faith-based initiatives instead of working to explain the substantive issues behind the fledgling policy. In addition to neglecting those issues, the media also perpetuated misconceptions about how religion is defined and about why one with religious convictions would help those in need; misconceptions which, states Koopman, added to the lackluster development of charitable choice policy.
College and university curricula organized around the study of great books from Western civilization are thriving in many Christian colleges and universities even as they are deteriorating in secular schools, states professor Daniel Ritchie. Such programs are a relatively recent development in America, having their origins in the mid- to late-nineteenth century. They were employed to unify the disciplines taught in higher education once colleges and universities lost the theological foundation that had performed that task up until the early nineteenth century. Now great books programs, or humanities core curriculum, survive mainly in Christian institutions where theology — not only the study of God but also the study of man, creation, and the good life — still plays an important role in education. In attending to the great books of Western civilization, Ritchie explains, these colleges and universities hope to encourage students to enter into conversation with earlier eras, gleaning wisdom from them along the way.
In his book Consuming Religion: Christian Faith and Practice in a Consumer Culture, Professor Vincent Miller examines how habits assumed in a consumer culture help to explain the breakdown of organized religious communities. Miller states that religious believers do not understand themselves as members of a church community, or as preservers of a tradition, partly because they are used to thinking of themselves as individual consumers. The habits they have developed as consumers guided only by their desires include consuming commodities, which Miller defines as objects separated from their origin and history. This practice of consuming something while remaining ignorant about its origins is unwittingly transferred from the marketplace to the spheres of religion and culture, and it renders people happy to accept cultural and religious beliefs and customs without having any sense of what they meant in their original context, or how the beliefs and customs may or may not be compatible with each other. One result, says Miller, is an incoherent pastiche of beliefs and traditions that are, sometimes, incompatible.
Professor Barrett Fisher discusses the death, violence, and humor in the 1955 original and 2004 remake of the movie The Ladykillers. The movies, which belong to the genre of comedy, follow a band of criminals as they plan and pull off a heist and, consequently, try to off an elderly woman who witnessed their crime. Rife with (relatively tame) violence and death, the films get their humor from the criminals and how they undo their own success because of their — to quote a character from the earlier version — “human element.” It is the follies and fumbles of the group, which lead to the demise of the group, that spark laughter, says Fisher, not the violence members of the group perpetrate along the way. Fisher explains that even evil individuals can be comic when their human foolishness is caricatured, giving viewers something to identify with and at which to laugh; historically in comedy, he explains, it is those who can laugh at their foolishness who experience redemption.
Laughter, says professor Barrett Fisher, springs from various wells. Among the many he names is that of unmasked deception, or the revelation of the truth behind appearances. When people see the reality of situations they initially thought were otherwise, they laugh for joy and for how they were deceived. Take, for example, the scene at the end of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night when Sebastian and Viola — siblings who had each thought the other was dead — discover that the other is alive and well and affianced. It is a scene at which Fisher laughs heartily, and to which Fisher looks forward in anticipation, knowing that the laughter will be all the sweeter for the disaster the scene so narrowly avoids.