Elsewhere, November 5, 2010

Elsewhere: A collection of interesting links and articles that I’ve come across in the last week or so. Follow me on Twitter for more of the same.

Embracing Our Ghosts:

Let me be clear: I don’t really buy it. I don’t believe in the literal concept of ghosts. When people tell me of their personal experiences with ghosts, I usually assume that they’re either bending the truth or that they did not see what they thought they saw. And yet, as I rode the ghost tour trolley through the ruins, landmarks, and cemeteries of St. Augustine and heard the tales of tragedy, loneliness, injustices, and oppression I felt haunted myself.

Could it be that the stories shared about the self-proclaimed “oldest city in America” are in fact typical of the American way of life, and even the logical result of the American Dream? Are stories of the pain and suffering caused to others by others in fact ancient history, or are they our current way of life as well? Does our current culture deserve to be haunted by the stories of human beings who were snuffed out because of greed, selfishness, apathy and carelessness? It’s hard to argue otherwise.

These stories, and the feeling of being haunted by them, is a result of being a part of the human community. Because humans have been sinful since nearly the beginning of time, they have been doing awful things to one another for just as long.

How to explain the Internet to a 19th century British street urchin:

In this latest installment, the author of “Everything Explained Through Flowcharts” (out Tuesday) travels to 19th (and 31st) century London—braving the plague, Jack the Ripper, and countless robbery attempts—to explain the 20th century’s most life-changing tool.

You know, just in case you come across a time machine. Via Kottke

Caroline Langston considers the divisive issue of the role of women in the Church:

“Nothing’s ever going to get better in the Roman Catholic Church until they start ordaining women priests,” people say casually, pursing their lips. Telling them that I’m Orthodox generally gets the response that “Well, at least your priests can be married,” which seems to raise it, just slightly, in their estimation.

This is yet another way in which my life feels bifurcated, and in tension: An old friend of mine from Mississippi is married to a female priest, a generous, thoughtful, and wise woman whose value to the family of believers I’d never second-guess. Another good friend is an ordained minister in the Church of God. If I have learned from their witness, benefited from their prayers for me, then what is the problem?

But the truth is, I do not question the male priesthood in the Orthodox Church. I accept the Church’s teaching, and its Authority—that word that sounds so dirty to our contemporary American ears, trained instinctively to think hypocrisy in the same thought as leader.


No one better exemplifies that grief and longing, the holy uncertainty, than the Virgin Mary. Perhaps because Orthodoxy holds forth the Mother of God as the premiere model that all believers, female and male, must emulate, rather than that rag-tag band of activists-from-Acts that continues to motivate Protestants of both the evangelical and liberal varieties.

Even beyond the Theotokos, though, the body of female saints through the centuries offers a strikingly diverse portrait of feminine spiritual psychology—there are a multiplicity of images by which to be inspired, and examples to follow—as diverse as the body of women I know.

The Spiritual Discipline of Chilling the Hell Out:

Let me apply this politically for a moment, just to be controversial: no matter what our partisan (or non-partisan) loyalties happen to be, nothing can go wrong enough in the world that we have anything to be afraid of. So America becomes a dystopian socialist Big Brother state, or a fascist KKK-run gun store, or the poorest and most insignificant nation on the planet. So what? I know who the Superpower of the universe is, and my citizenship in His kingdom can’t change, whether the Oval Office is occupied by Hitler or a monkey.

If we are in Christ, Scripture teaches us, we have perfect love… the kind that leaves no room for our petty fears. To live in terror of something other than God is to implicitly give divine power to something other than Him, to be functionally polytheistic, to worship an idol. Fear for the outcome means that God really has competition for His throne, and that’s a fundamentally anti-Christian idea.

Filmwell’s Ron Reed discusses an interesting way of looking at movies:

The watching of films, the viewing of any kind of art, is an art in itself, a discipline as demanding as the creation of the work in the first place. If I fail to appreciate a film, it’s entirely possible that I have in fact failed, rather than the film. As much as I strive to bring my best game to every rehearsal, every performance of a show I’m acting in, humility and truthfulness require me to admit that not every kick at it is perfection. Not every trip to the plate yields a home run, or even a single. Not to own that as an athlete or an artist is to settle for mediocrity. I wonder if we don’t often settle for mediocrity in our movie-going?

Think about how a child drinks in a story. “Except you become as little children, you shall not enter the Kingdom of God.”

I suggest entering into a film like a child, hungry for a story, a dream, images, clues about how the world works, excitement, terror, experience, beauty—whatever the film is going to offer. And when the film ends, before beginning the critique, before weighing strengths and weaknesses, I suggest we begin by simply calling back to mind all the film’s details. What did you see, hear, experience? A plot reversal, the image of a beautiful face, recurring references to roses or food or The Hardy Boys, empathy with a character’s situation. Then move on to what you notice: the way the sea imagery seemed to coincide with moments when the character altered his course of action, or the way the story seems to be about the same sort of things that this screenwriter’s other movie is, or the fact that your attention was especially engaged when a particular character was onscreen. Then maybe move to what those things might add up to, what they might signify, how they might speak to you. Reserving for last all the weighing and assessing, the judgments of how the film may have fallen short or why it’s not as good as another film you’ve seen. In our know-it-all, “please me” consumerist culture of criticism, those dismissive, reductionist muscles are overdeveloped already, and jerk as readily as the muscles of the knee. How much wiser to exercise the under-utilized muscles of close observation, correlation, appreciation and contemplation before flexing your impressive critical pecs. And when you move into that final phase, maybe a spirit of discernment rather than judgment? Assessing, rather than criticizing?

Andy Whitman revisits Thomas Wolfe’s Look Homeward, Angel and is disturbed by what he sees now:

...this was the perfect book for a sixteen-year-old future English major; exquisitely written, acutely attuned to the anxieties and idealism of young Americans, and so emotionally charged that the pages were in peril of spontaneous combustion.

And, as I am now discovering in my first re-reading of the book in almost forty years, it was also a work whose racist views are matched only by its cruelty. And it raises the question: how did I miss this back in 1972? How did I manage to overlook and excuse a literary hero who was all too willing to spit on Jews and club “niggers” over the head?

This is an old, old dilemma, of course, and it extends from the violent thuggery of Caravaggio and the anti-Semitic polemics of Wagner to the countless contemporary writers and musicians who drank and/or drugged their way to untimely deaths.

What do you do with the supremely gifted artist who also happens to be a self-destructive or other-destructive jerk?

The End of Christianity in the Middle East?

Screaming “kill, kill, kill,” suicide bombers belonging to the Islamic State of Iraq, a militant organization connected to al Qaeda in Iraq, stormed a Chaldean church in Baghdad on Sunday. A spokesman for the group subsequently claimed they did so “to light the fuse of a campaign against Iraqi Christians.” The assailants’ more immediate grievance seems related to a demand that two Muslim women, allegedly held against their will in Egyptian Coptic monasteries, be released. When Iraqi government forces attempted to free approximately 120 parishioners who had been taken hostage, the terrorists—who had already shot dead some of the churchgoers—detonated their suicide vests and grenades, slaughtering at least half the congregation.

But the massacre in Baghdad is only the most spectacular example of mounting discrimination and persecution of the native Christian communities of Iraq and Iran, which are now in the middle of a massive exodus unprecedented in modern times as they confront a rising tide of Islamic militancy and religious chauvinism sweeping the region.

Via Internet Monk

Stanley Hauerwas asks “How real is America’s faith?”:

...I remain unconvinced that the difference between Britain and the US, when it comes to religion, can be determined by the faith or lack of it of those in public office. In fact, I am not convinced that the US is more religious than Britain. Even if more people go to church in America, I think the US is a much more secular country than Britain. In Britain, when someone says they do not believe in God, they stop going to church. In the US, many who may have doubts about Christian orthodoxy may continue to go to church. They do so because they assume that a vague god vaguely prayed to is the god that is needed to support family and nation.

Americans do not have to believe in God, because they believe that it is a good thing simply to believe: all they need is a general belief in belief. That is why we have never been able to produce interesting atheists in the US. The god most Americans say they believe in is not interesting enough to deny, because it is only the god that has given them a country that ensures that they have the right to choose to believe in the god of their choosing, Accordingly, the only kind of atheism that counts in the US is that which calls into question the proposition that everyone has a right to life, liberty, and happiness.

Via @DavidDark

Joe Queenan provides a handy guide to arthouse film clichés:

The ideal arthouse film is set in a part of the world few of us know and even fewer intend to visit. The steppes of Central Asia or a forlorn village in Central America are fine, but rural Slovakia will do in an emergency. The arthouse film should make us feel that we understand the world better than we do, even though we don’t. It should give us a sense of moral and intellectual superiority over people who go to see Tom Cruise movies. It should star Tilda Swinton, or seem like a film in which she would be likely to appear. It should be a bit grainy. Gypsies, often in distress, may be in the mix, but generally not the Amish. Ideally, a proper arthouse film should have mangled subtitles. Children should be abandoned, or on a long trip over the mountains, or trying to recover lost shoes, or sneaking scraps from the dinner table to a man they believe to be Frankenstein. Anything about Balzac is great. Ideally, the cast should include Parker Posey, Daniel Auteuil, Lili Taylor, Hope Davis, Steve Buscemi, the 2004 winner of Argentina’s Cesar for best supporting actor, and Joan Plowright.

Via @largeheartedboy

Digital design is dead… or is it?

It’s all too easy to be frustrated with Web design, especially when technology enables us to designate it as something completely distinct from content—fully detaching the medium from the message, as Tweney puts it. “To me, ‘design’ means a guy in confrontationally architectural eyewear either entertaining me visually or forcing me to pay attention to certain things,” one friend told me. If those who rabidly consume content on constantly morphing platforms see design as an exercise in either frivolity or tyranny, then why not call the whole thing off? If less is more, hell, none must be best.

“Just give me the content!” is the digital consumer’s cri de coeur, as if “content” were some pure, powerful substance to be consumed directly from the source, like unobtainium. Sadly, no such magical stuff exists—at least, not until Mozilla invents a browser extension that performs mind melds.

In reality, design and content always merge at some point in the stream. “Content can certainly be electronically distributed independently of design,” says Robert Stribley, an information architect at Razorfish, “but it can’t be presented effectively without design.” Those “undesigned” content-liberators like Instapaper, Readability, and Flipboard? All designed to a ‘T’ by some of the most innovative designers out there. (Spend five minutes with one of the Android Market’s terrible Instapaper knockoffs, and you’ll learn the hard way what “undesign” really looks like.)

Via @jonanderson