Monday, August 18, 2014

  "The short space of threescore years can never content the imagination of man; nor can the imperfect joys of this world satisfy his heart. . . .  Religion, then, is simply another form of hope, and it is no less natural to the human heart than hope itself.  Men cannot abandon their religious faith without a kind of aberration of intellect and a sort of violent distortion of their true nature; they are invincibly brought back to more pious sentiments.  Unbelief is an accident, and faith is the only permanent state of mankind."

Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America I (1835).I.XVII[.6] ("Principal causes which render religion powerful in America")

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

"The Dumbest Generation cares little for history books, civic principles, foreign affairs, comparative religions, and serious media and art, and know it less. Careening through their formative years, they don't catch the knowledge bug, and tradition might as well be a foreign word. Other things monopolize their attention--the allure of screens, peer absorption, career goals. They are latter-day Rip Van Winkles, sleeping through the movements of culture and events of history, preferring the company of peers to great books and powerful ideas and momentous happenings. From their ranks will emerge few minds knowledgeable and interested enough to study, explain, and dispute the place and meaning of our nation. Adolescence is always going to be more or less anti-intellectual, of course, and learning has ever struggled against immaturity, but the battle has never proven so uphill. Youth culture and youth society, fabulously autonomized by digital technology, swamp the intellectual pockets holding on against waves of pop culture and teen mores, and the Boomer mentors have lowered the bulwarks to surmountable heights."

Friday, August 8, 2014

Let's Pretend

Little children begin early with the need to pretend. "I am a princess." "I am a superhero." Watch me, Mommy. I am not me. 

In young kids, this play-acting can become almost incessant, even resulting in pretend friends. For the most part, the play-acting does not worry parents. We can see that the kids typically do not get lost in their roles, and we even take delight in their ingenuity at splicing various roles--a little  girl dressed up in a combination of ballerina tutu, princess crown, cowboy boots, and magic wand develops her individualized script hacked from Disney animations and story-books. We smile, and if we are good parents, we encourage such imaginativity. 

Nearly every culture has some form of theater, though, at various points, some societies reign in the business of theater because of the ancillary immorality it produces--such as the English Puritans shutting down the theaters partly because of the crime, prostitution, and job-skipping that the theater of that time tended to encourage on the side. Even in such circumstances, the deeply human need to act out narratives could not be erased. Humans must play act, and the theaters came roaring back, bigger than ever. 

Indonesian shadow puppetry, a highly developed art form

(Interestingly, in the context of worldwide theater, Islam has seemed to universally frown on theater throughout its history. There have been no great Muslim dramatists compared to, say, those found in  European Renaissance tragedy or classical Japanese Noh.) 

Humans have an in-built, at times obsessive, need to pretend, to act (just look at the thriving cosplay world). We imagine stories, and we act them out. For the vast majority of Americans, we see this ubiquitous need now played out in movies. Someone takes on a role, speaks an invented dialogue, creates the personality of someone else, usually fictitious. 

"I am not me." Drama, theatricality, play-acting, pretending--things become other than what they are, at least for a little while. This is both play and flight. It is Edenic and infernal. Pretending to be someone else or watching someone do it well can delight, but it can also allow us to escape from real life. We can watch a play (or a movie) and enter in the unreal reality of the story and become better for it (Aristotle was getting at something real with his theorizing about catharsis). But we can also become obsessive with irreality and prefer pretense over facing our fallible dailyness with all its unwelcome drabness and failures (some of what the Puritans and Plato objected to, and they were genuinely on to something). 

Humans were created in part to amplify, to unfold God's good creation. Would unfallen people have engaged in pretend, in theater? Probably, but without any of the perturbations that go with our fallen enchantments with pretending. 

"The play is the thing," said Shakespeare. Both play in an Edenic sense, an innocent game of pretend, reflected in children dressing up ("I'm not me!"); and play in a more negative sense--we only play at being ourselves most of our lives, play at being important in the eyes of others, at taking on roles that cover over our unshriven ugliness as the broken children of Eden ("I hate being me"). Jesus called the Pharisees hypocrites, invoking Greek theater in which actors put on masks. "I am Agamemnon." "I am Hercules." Or, in our daily dramas, we wear the masks of  "I am righteous, I'm a good man." 

Drama, acting out a story, reciting a script--this is a signal of transcendence, of our human condition. It is a God-given art to be cultivated to enhance, and it is simultaneously a strategy for avoiding life.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Box-checking vs. Reading Plato

Diane Ravitch is on the liberal-agnostic end of the spectrum regarding the place and function of education, but recently she has begun to criticize standard left-agnostic statist solutions (primarily Common Core) for fixing education. In this interview (YouTube video below), she identifies poverty as the single most compelling reason for failure in American education, though it is probably parental involvement, which is linked to poverty.  

Aside from the accuracy of her diagnosis about the etiology of failing American education, Ravitch is right on target in her criticism of testing in America. Standardized testing has become a kind of idolatrous goal for many bureaucrats, and standardized testing is now driving American education. 

The Center, in contrast to the narrow, surface-level, informational conception of education, values exploration of the big, beautiful ideas that shaped the Western tradition and values confrontation with a wide variety of perspectives on the meaning of life. This is real education, not box checking or learning to spit back the progressivist-flattering bromides that infest modern media and government. 

Ravitch knows something is wrong with American education, and she rightly says that more and more testing is not the answer. Creativity and exploration have been key features of American learning in the past, even when test scores were low. The Center wants to keep this part of the American, and Western, attitude toward learning alive.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Kierkegaard at the Opera

C. Stephen Evans, the Christian philosopher, summarizes one of the ways to "despair" according to Kierkegaard.( Despair in the way Kierkegaard uses the term basically means to sin by avoiding your identity as a sinner before God---by avoiding what you really are.) In his book on Soren Kierkegaard's Christian psychology. Evans writes of a certain kind of intellectual or artistic type: 

"The 'fantastic' knower is the person who somehow thinks that knowing a lot about astronomy, the Greek philosophers, or world history is sufficient to make him or her a genuine self. It is possible, though to know an encyclopedia's worth of facts and never have an inkling of what life is all about." 

In other words, one of the many ways of being a false self is to develop a knowledge of things for the purpose of being known as one who knows about those things. Got that? This is like the person who knows about art or history or theology in order to be known as someone who knows a lot about art or history or theology, not as someone who really loves those things and wants to know them deeply and personally. Lots of university professors are like that. Lots of people who get into "culture" are like that. (And lots of people who are into religion or "spirituality" are like that.)  

This is one of the things that puts off others from developing a love for things like novels or painting or opera. If you've met one of those insufferable prigs who blathers on about this or that mainly to demonstrate how much he or she knows about this or that, then you've encountered the "fantastic knower." Fantastic in this sense has more to do with fantasy--that is, I've built up a fantasy image of myself as a knower, rather than a true image of myself as a sinner before God, someone who loves the things of creation because of God the Maker. 

In the James Bond movie Quantum of Solace, a scene takes place at the opera. Some of Europe's ultra elite, ultra wealthy, are watching Puccini's  Tosca while the bad guys nefariously  plot their nefarious plots. Bond, of course, isn't there to watch a ridiculously overpriced production; he's there to stymie the wealthy crooks who want to get wealthier. But it is the opera goers, those who are unaware of the plotting around them, that I want to look at. They are portrayed, without the director realizing it, of course, as "fantastic knowers," as people who have bought their identities and support them by attending the right sort of thing in the right sort of way, not because they genuinely love Puccini.

Hey, isn't that the Princess of Monaco in seat 12B?

Rich people who love opera are o.k. I'm not criticizing them. The scene deliciously if briefly shows another kind of person, one whose very real existence is part of the reason lots of people don't want to do "culture"--the hyper-stuck ups for whom certain versions of art certify that they are the right kind of people. 

Why does one delight in music, whether Johnny Cash or Mozart? Why does one crave good story-telling, whether Stephen King or William Faulkner? Why does one enjoy good theater, whether Romanian marionettes or English Shakespearean blokes? These things matter, and they can be conduits for a rightly ordered love of the manifold aspects of God's good creation. Or they can be merely opportunities for constructing a self in defiance of God, a self that rests all too easily in a smug satisfaction of knowing the right kind of things so that the right kind of people will rub shoulders with them. 

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Shakespeare and the Rubes

One of the interesting--and highly problematic--aspects of art during  the past century and a half, or so, is the multiple fragmentations among "high" art, "low" art, "popular" art, "folk" art, and so on. Art forms like opera or theater, for instance, are now taken to be the purview only of the elites of society. Who goes to see a Shakespeare play willingly? If it isn't for a high school assignment, then who in his right mind would pay money for such boring stuff? Only geeky college educated, progressive, urban elites, right?   

Unfortunately, this has become all too real; the stereotype has arisen from growing aesthetic bifurcations between social groups, bifurcations that either didn't exist at one time or that were not nearly as  difficult to bridge then as they are now.  

Take Shakespeare, for example. On the American frontier (keeping in mind that this meant different things at different times--e.g., Illinois was once the Wild West), scenes from Shakespeare's plays were one of the most popular forms of entertainment--right up there with juggling, magic tricks, and stand-up comedy (as it was practiced then). 

This short article, "Shakespeare in America," gives a good overview of how popular Shakespeare was in various venues--from fully produced stage plays to reconfigured scenes  that were full of puns and comedy for the entertainment of ruffians in small mining towns. 

This longer and more footnoted article goes into much more depth about the way the Bard was played, often with purposefully hilarious results. But the point of both articles is the same--Shakespeare was massively popular at one time in America, regardless of urban or rural locations, or upper or lower class, ruling elites or workers, mayors, trappers, cowboys, ranch owners, factory workers, or factory owners.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

West in the East

One problem with Western culture today is its entrapment in contemporaneity. This is, in other words, chronological snobbery, to cite C. S. Lewis. We think that the past has little to say to us, and sometimes when it comes to pop culture, this seems to be true. Many movies from the 1980's, for instance, are now painful to watch, even if we might have enjoyed them then. Maybe a few stand out, and we regard them as classics of the medium, but this is fairly rare, and most people today--Christian included--certainly don't watch much film from the black and white or silent eras. This is too bad. Just like other forms of art, film has a history to it, a confluence of multiple traditions, styles, nationalities, and power. Take, for example, the films of Akira Kurosawa. 

His film Ikiru is one of the greatest, most powerful, movies ever made, and it ranks right up there with Tolstoy's The Death of Ivan Ilych or the Medieval play Everyman in its treatment of a man confronting his own death. Why is it so good? Partly because of the magnificent directing, partly because of the incredible acting, and partly because of the beautiful black and white photography. But also because of the theme. Kurosawa deals with life at its rawest--the failure of identity, the failure of love, the possibility of loving service, the hope for redemption from a wasted life that terminates in the death that is the ultimate affront to all our efforts at being human. 

In the history of cinema, Kurosawa is a genius. Many films he made rank among the best--Ran (a reworking of Shakespeare's King Lear in Medieval Japan), Hidden Forest (which George Lucas lovingly plagiarized), Yojimbo (one of the best Samurai movies ever made), and so on. Kurosawa made so many films that some of them ended up as clunkers, but so what? His artistic genius more than makes up for his mediocre efforts by the sheer number of his nearly perfect films (such as Seven Samurai, which influenced nearly every Western made after it). 

One reason why Kurosawa was so good rests in his appropriation of the Western literary tradition. He was deeply influenced by Shakespeare, Dostoevsky, and Maxim Gorky (his love of Russian culture is reflected in one of his last films, Dersu Uzala, which is set in pre-Soviet Russia). But this influence merely sharpens the artistic skill he already possessed and the deep insight into human nature he brought to his best work. 

Kurosawa's films comport with the Christian vision of things, and sometimes they verge on an overt connection to the major themes of Christian faith: the manifold weaknesses of ordinary people, the failure of love in families, and the hunger for a Love that redeems our failures and gives meaning to our suffering.  

Watching older movies--and foreign movies, at that--can turn into merely cultural posturing, such as watching opera not because you really like it but because you want to be liked by the sort of people who watch it. But in this case, don't worry about the cachet that might accrue to you by saying, "I watch classic Japanese cinema. Do  you?" Watch Ikiru. It is one of the best things you will ever see. 

Takashi Shimura , one of the greatest actors of all time.