((released 2008-09-01) (handle mh-92-m) (supplement true))
Guests on Volume 92: Jake Halpern, on the ecosystem of celebrity and the complicated reasons why people seek to become famous; Stephen J. Nichols, on how the dynamics of American culture have shaped our understanding of who Jesus is; Richard M. Gamble, on resources for and the outlines of a theology of education; Peter J. Leithart, on how concerns from some postmodern thinkers echo the eschatological perspective of Solomon (as presented in the book of Ecclesiastes); Bill Vitek, on how wise living on the Earth requires the humble recognition of our ignorance as well as the application of knowledge; and Craig Holdrege, on lessons from Goethe about how we understand the rest of Creation as participants, not detached and potentially omniscient observers, and also on the “conversational” quality of our engagement with Creation.
“At some point you’re going to get tired or . . . unenthused with the accolades that you're getting simply from your teacher, who again and again is telling you how special you are — or your parents — and the next logical step is the embrace, the applause, the adulation of the world at large.”
Jake Halpern, a journalist whose first-hand investigations into the system of celebrity creation, brought him to convention centers and talent searches across the United States. His findings on the road, as well as psychological and sociological research, illustrate a wide-spread cultural fixation among the youth for the kind of fame and importance that celebrity brings. He links this fixation to an increase in a therapeutic ethic for building self-esteem that is prevalent in public schools, unintentionally resulting in adolescents infused with self-importance and narcissism. Parents, in Halpern’s experience, are often guilty of facilitating their children's narcissism in the name of success and well-being.
“Theology, confessions help us see the whole picture of Scripture…. But when we’re just a biblicist and we just take ‘Scripture only’ to what can be a negative extreme, then we end up getting awash in a sea of texts, and what happens is people just sort of land on a text they like, so they see Jesus as a friend or Jesus as loving with children, and they don’t pay attention to Jesus as judge…. That’s far from what the Reformers meant when they said sola Scriptura.”
—Stephen J. Nichols
Stephen Nichols talks about the tendency for American culture to shape who we understand Jesus to be. All cultures tend to affect theology and Christology, but Nichols suggests that in an American culture that is always shifting at a fast pace, and biased toward the new and against the old traditions, we stand particularly vulnerable to new movements and moods in Christianity. He adds that evangelical Christianity’s Reformation sola Scriptura heritage can be misinterpreted and abused in a way that allows evangelicals to pick and choose which biblical passages to emphasize for their conception of Jesus. “The Bible alone” can also facilitate negligence to the cultural baggage evangelicals bring into their study rooms along with their Bibles. Nichols then surveys a number of manifestations Jesus has taken over the course of American history.
“We are not brains in a vat. We are certainly not just bodies. But we are a complex [that includes] emotion, will, imagination . . . we are multi-dimensional human beings.” —Richard Gamble
Richard Gamble discusses what makes for a good education. Gamble explains how Christian thinkers such as Augustine understood classical knowledge and education as a kind of Egyptian gold that ought to be appropriated and turned to its proper use. In this way, educators ought to take the good that God has created wherever it may be found and put it to God-honoring use. Gamble discusses the coherence of oratory and logic, when they are at their best, in contrast to the opposition that many would put them in. He relates this to the tendency to divorce and then diminish the importance of either the mind or body to our humanity.
“Ecclesiastes is the book of the Bible that seems to me to speak most elaborately in what could be seen as a Postmodern kind of idiom. And yet it also departs in significant ways from that.”
—Peter J. Leithart
Peter J. Leithart discusses his book Solomon Among the Postmoderns, addressing both those who are suspicious and those who are unreservedly enthusiastic about Postmodernity, Leithart discusses how the Enlightenment and modernity regards the objective world as though we have arrived at the “beatific vision of the object.” Postmodernity rightly protests this, yet tends to have no eschatological consciousness whatsoever. Leithart maintains that New Testament eschatology contains a healthy sense of ‘already-not yet’ balance that avoids both extremes. Although its primary inspiration is not in being counter-cultural, Leithart concludes that the church will end up being counter-cultural if it maintains the truth.
“Knowledge is something that rarely is any more used for its own sake. It is something that must have a purpose. That purpose is almost always about control.”
Bill Vitek discusses the provocatively titled book, The Virtues of Ignorance: Complexity, Sustainability, and the Limits of Knowledge. Vitek explains his definition of the terms “knowledge” and “ignorance.” Our human knowledge, he argues, is always dwarfed by what we cannot (or should not) know. And in our culture, the purpose of knowledge is almost always about control. Vitek admits that knowledge is a useful tool, yet insists that it is not sufficient to run the world because of the great deal of harm it can cause. He concludes that ignorance describes a philosophical perspective that can wisely inform our lives.
“After [the 1960s] it became clearer and clearer that all of this is a complete oversimplification of biological reality, so that genes are interwoven within the living context of the cell and the whole organism . . . they are contextual.”
Scientist Craig Holdrege talks about Beyond Biotechnology: The Barren Promise of Genetic Engineering which he co-authored with Steve Talbott. The book has been praised by critics such as Michael Pollan for its insightful critique of the assumptions and unintended consequences of genetic engineering. The gene, Holdrege argues, is an abstract concept rather than a concrete thing — a common misunderstanding. Addressing philosophical questions, Holdrege and Myers discuss whether the world should be seen as a problem to be solved by mathematical means, or rather as a gift apprehended by reverent engagement. Turning then toward science’s approach to genetics, Holdrege argues that the reductionism of reality to the gene drives the technology of genetic engineering. This false picture of what the gene actually is leads to unintended consequences of genetic engineering, and Holdrege explains that the organism as a whole is affected in unintended ways.
“We can’t live without participating in nature: we draw from the rest of the world in order to live like every organism does. ... Some people would argue: you’re going to kill the cow. Is that respectful? I’m not saying there’s no tension in these things. There is no easy answer, and all you can do is to engage in the conversation and realize we’ve got to take the other seriously.”
Craig Holdrege cites as a central problem in our culture the reduction of human experience to the realm of plants and beasts. In this segment, he argues that the same conversational engagement we know is healthy in human relationships should be a picture of how we engage with the natural order of creation. Holdrege explains what he means by a healthy balance between the extremes of either mechanistic or overly humanistic view of animals and plants. Man is part of creation, yet transcendent over other creatures — a gardener over his garden. Only by fully engaging with nature can we be encouraged to take our own nature seriously. Holdrege concludes that a healthy development of technologies is possible: it should be defined by a sense of ongoing conversation that is engaged in and responsible for everything we do with and think about creation.