Category Archives: Culture

Culture According to de Botton

The News: A User’s Manual by Alain de Botton (Pantheon Books, 2014) $26.95

NewsAlainEmbedFounder of the School of Life, Alain de Botton’s latest work The News: A User’s Manual aspires to be “the ultimate guide for our frenzied era” of news and is a good introduction to seeing news outlets as culture-making machines.

De Botton excels at presenting competing ideas and showing how both have equal merit. One of his recent works, How to Think More About Sex (2012), is an excellent summary of how culture presents ideas around sex and how individuals express that with each other. Surprisingly, he concludes that work by suggesting that Christian morality can “redeem,” even “save” pornography from it’s excess. That he is an avowed atheist of the loose French variety, and names Christian morality as the main suppressor of art, beauty, and sex further emphasizes this claim.

In reading his previous works, I have been impressed by how even-handed and fair he is. Which is why, knowing de Botton as a keen observer and precise writer, he disappoints with The News by creating hypothetical scenarios and broad cultural critiques rather than engaging with the world as it is. This may have served him well in the past while discussing religion and sex, but The News succumbs to it’s own grand vision of shaping a reader shaped by information informed by the reader. Think of the book as holding up a row of mirrors to one another. The reader walks through and, for a moment it is perhaps fun, perhaps disorienting, until higher functioning brain activity reminds them that this is a parlor trick. As a (sometimes) journalist, I found myself wishing he would have explained either more of how newsroom decisions are made or interviewed editors and journalists rather than focusing on his own pseudo-objectivity, inflating the reader’s sense of self, or congratulating the reader for looking down their nose at another. Case in point, in the middle of the book he discusses financial reporting and states:

It isn’t only the scale of the economic machine that can silence us, but also its complexity. On a miniscule percentage of the populations of developed economies have any solid understanding of the workings of the economic system they exist within. Most of us will struggle to grasp quite what might be going on within essential terms like arbitrage, Basel 1 and 2, cyclically adjusted current budgets, price/earnings ratios or quantitative easing. As we follow financial events in the news, we may ask, and not for the first time: ‘What is the growth rate of money?’ ‘How do hedge funds operate?’ ‘What does the LIBOR rate determine?’… Those kindly commentators occasionally employed by news organizations to help us with our confusions certainly try hard to offer us explanations, but perhaps because the concepts that dizzy us lack connection with anything in our day-to-day lives, their explanations have a habit of leaching from our minds just hours after we have heard them. (130-31)

In a chapter titled “Celebrity,” de Botton educates the reader on ancient hero-worship practices before naming the way that envy cripples individual expression. Then he makes a telling statement:

Too many random reminders of other people’s success may simply terrify us into inactivity and unwittingly prevent us from putting any single plan into practice. In order to achieve anything on our own, we need to be free for extended stretches from the psychological pressures exerted by news of others’ feats. We require periods of inner seclusion and calm if we are ever going to finish off something worthwhile: that is, something that we may ourselves one day be envied for. (173)

de Botton makes a case in each of the six areas of examination – politics, world news, economics, celebrity, disaster, and consumption – that it is insecurity which compels us to have our favorite 24-hour news source in the background, to constantly check social media to see what friends are up to, and to somehow form our own identity in light of the deluge. Some, like Noah, become despondent and retire to happy hour. Others, like the children of Noah, gradually forget What Happened and move out to their own entitlement.

Still, de Botton is true to form in that he raises incisive and implicit questions. Do we really want the news to tell the truth? Or would we prefer to self-medicate with distraction? These are good questions, and he excels at framing them in a digestible way. But as a former journalist, I can’t help notice that de Botton dwells on identity formation instead of “the hard news” of an event. In concluding the work, he notes that individuals select their news sources to assist in identity construction but does not really dwell on his initial inkling that news outlets actively seek to shape their audience. Notice the contrast between his initial thoughts and conclusion.

The news knows how to render its own mechanics almost invisible and therefore hard to question. It speaks to us in a natural unaccented voice, without reference to its own assumption-laden perspective. It fails to disclose that it does not merely report on the world, but is instead constantly at work crafting a new planet in our minds in line with its own often highly distinctive priorities. (11) 

Far from helping us develop a rich and complex individuality, ‘personalized news’ might end up aggravating out pathologies and condemning us to mediocrity. Imagine how personalization would have worked for, say, Marie Antoinette – someone temperamentally squeamish about distressing Political news and who would have been drawn to turning up the dial on Fashion and Entertainment… Personalization would be an improvement over the current editorial system if, and only if, users had a highly mature and complex sense of what sort of news they needed to hear. But this would require them, before they could be let anywhere near the dashboard used to program the news-stream, to get to know their own souls extremely well. (244-45).

One critiques the newswriter for failing to present their effort to shape an audience, the other critiques the audience for being incapable of properly choosing to know that which is best for them. In like kind, de Botton’s The News: A User’s Manual offers six poor case studies in areas of news which likely interest us but fails to explicitly disclose the kind of person it seeks to create – the self-knowing contemporary individual whose individual pursuits and preferences create a bubble of individualized self-actualization “ready” to take the world as it is… but who is entirely unprepared to notice others.

Randall Frederick is a freelance writer living in Los Angeles. He has just finished his second M.A. at Fuller Theological Seminary, writes for The Huffington Post, and does religious consulting.

Torn and Not Mended

Torn: Rescuing the Gospel from the Gays-vs.-Christians Debate, Justin Lee. (Jericho Books, 2012) $21.99

It all started with the kid in high school who called me “God Boy.”

Torn_Justin LeeJustin Lee, co-founder, director, and public face of the Gay Christian Network, has been building bridges between evangelical Christians and lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people since the late-1990s. Torn, his memoir, describes his work as a gay Christian to increase understanding between two communities that have clashed in churches, the media, and the courts.

As Justin explains, his goals for writing and advocacy are to elevate love, transcend too-common battles, and work with individual people. In part because of his focus on the individual—a natural focus for an evangelical whose religious tradition emphasizes personal piety—Justin doesn’t offer much comment on the systems of custom, culture, or law that nurture individuals, shape their beliefs, limit how they read their scriptures, and govern whether they feel free to accept people different from them.

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Walking Home

By Alan Roxburgh, cross-posted with permission from The Missional Network.

Walking Home: The Life and Lessons of a City Builder, Ken Greenberg (Vintage Canada) $21

At first glance this would appear to be a book that has little direct interest for a busy denominational executive or local church leader. But it’s worth the read. It is one of those books that crosses over genres and types. It surprises one with its insight into the art of cultivating the kind of imaginative change leaders are facing in the midst of deep, disruptive transformations.

Ken Greenberg is an architect addressing questions of how to make cities the creative, livable spaces of human thriving they were always meant to be. He learned his trade in the early seventies just as the oppressive modernism in city construction had reached its apex. Architects, urban planners and politicians were beginning to recognize that modernism, in all kinds of unanticipated ways, had created cities that weren’t contributing to the thriving of people in urban life. By that time a whole way of design, planning and construction had come to shape city life. Old, mixed-use neighborhoods had been bulldozed to make way for sparse, functional high rise towers separated from work, play and shopping in the conviction that this rationalization of efficiency would result in the urban utopia. Pathways through neighborhoods had been replaced by sleek highways and passovers that quickly moved people in cars through cities while also reducing the amount of face-to-face street-level engagements among people.

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Shaping the Journey of Emerging Adults

Shaping the Journey of Emerging Adults: Life-Giving Rhythms for Spiritual Formation, Richard R. Dunn & Jana L. Sundene (InterVarsity Press) $ 18.00

As someone who is passionate about helping young adults develop their faith and spirituality, I eagerly picked up this book, anticipating a rich learning experience from two individuals seasoned in the work young adult spiritual growth.  Richard Dunn is currently a megachurch lead pastor in Knoxville, Tennessee, but has and continues to invest significant time in mentoring young adults.  Jana Sundene is a Christian ministries professor and church leader who cherishes the opportunity for disciple-making relationships with young adult women.  This book flows out of their desire to help train others to join them in their ministry.

Drawing from the work of psychologist Jeffrey Jenson Arnett, the authors adopt his label “emerging adults” to explain the transitional time frame of post-adolescence to adult stability.  While having adult capabilities, emerging adults struggle to function as adults due to the following five factors:

  1. They are still engaged in identity exploration.
  2. They are in transition out of their family of origin into independence.
  3. Their lives (financially, vocationally, relationally, emotionally, etc.) are unstable.
  4. They see life as full of possibilities which they want to pursue and experience to the fullest.
  5. They, therefore, are very self-focused, while figuring out who they are and what they want to be.

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Reframing Missional

Missional: Joining God in the Neighborhood, Alan Roxburgh (Baker) $16.99

For the last decade and a half, Alan J. Roxburgh has been a leading thinker in the missional church movement. In his new book, Missional: Joining God in the Neighborhood, Roxburgh attempts to reframe a conversation which has become muddied  since the groundbreaking work of Darrell L. Guder’s Missional Church: A Vision for the Sending of the Church in North America (Eerdmans, 1998).

In Missional, Alan seeks to take us beyond our talk about church success, to deeper conversations about the church’s mission. These conversations begin by coming to terms with a world that is going through radical changes, while learning how to ask the right questions about these changes and how they influence the role of the church in the world.

Rather than asking what God is up to in our churches, Roxburgh contends we must ask what is God up to in our neighborhoods and communities. In contrast, most of our conversations among church practitioners involve questions regarding how to make church better, such as creating more attractive programs for the outsider, instead of learning to listen to God’s Spirit moving around us beyond our church walls.

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Year of Plenty

Year of Plenty (Sparkhouse Press) $12.95

With poignancy and wit, Craig Goodwin relates his family’s year of living locally in the new book, Year of Plenty: One Suburban Family, Four Rules, and 365 Days of Homegrown Adventure in Pursuit of Christian Living. Frustrated after one more Christmas of buying gifts that they didn’t like and didn’t need, Craig and his wife, Nancy, decide to do what seems so rare these days: they changed their way of life. Five rules, hatched hastily over dinner one night shaped the next year of their family’s consumption: local, used, homegrown, homemade and Thailand (you’ll just have to read the book to understand that last one).

In spite of a growing genre of books about families and individuals spending a year eating locally, this book, and the Goodwin family’s experiment, is not about jumping on a cultural bandwagon. Goodwin’s experience brings a fresh perspective to the growing conversation about environmentalism and sustainable living, which is captured in the subtitle. Theirs is an “adventure in pursuit of Christian living.” Arguing that Christian faith has been largely colonized by the modernist narrative of consumption and unlimited growth, the Goodwin family deliberate steps off the treadmill and dares to ask whether there is something deeply amiss about our “normal” way of life. In a play on Wendell Berry’s well-known phrase, “eating is an agricultural act,” Goodwin declares, “eating is a theological act” (195). He goes on to explain,

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Imagination in Place

Imagination in Place, Wendell Berry (Counterpoint) $24

Wendell Berry’s latest collection of essays entitled, Imagination in Place, is one part celebration of life on the family farm, which he has consistently tended for years in his native Kentucky, and one part homage to a community of writers that have nourished his own imagination.

Berry, as his frequent readers know, speaks in the tradition of the ancient prophets, cautioning his contemporaries of the dehumanizing consequences of our unbridled consumption and inattention to local environments. Like the prophets, he is tempting easy to ignore as crazy, out of touch with modern life.

Berry speaks often of the importance of place; in particular, in this volume, he is concerned with the relationship between local context and his fiction writing. He reflects on how he and other authors have been influenced by their rootedness in the agrarian South.

While it may seems at times that Berry indulges a romantic idealization of agrarian life, he is really more interested in people living in deep connection and awareness of the uniqueness of the place where they are. He is opposed to abstraction, which is so prevalent in our world today, whether in the world of literature, religion, or politics. It is the particularity of daily life that interests Berry and that has been a staple of his writing. This particularity lends itself not to the cult of simplicity, but rather to what he terms “complexification.”

When I am called, as to my astonishment I sometimes am, a devotee of “simplicity” (since I live supposedly as a “simple farmer”), I am obliged to reply that I gave up the simple life when I left New York City in 1964 and came here. In New York I lived as a passive consumer, supplying nearly all my needs by purchase, whereas here I supply many of my needs from this place by my work (and pleasure) and am responsible besides for the care of the place…. It is the complexity of the life of a place uncompromisingly itself, which is at the same time the life of the world, of all Creation (12).

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Climate Refugees

© The MIT Press

Climate Refugees, Collectif Argos (The MIT Press) $29.95

Collectif Argos brings together a team of ten journalist and photographers to capture the stories of communities engaged in losing battles with their local environments. They call these people—and have so entitled their book—climate refugees.  First hand accounts of sand storms in China and the increasing disappearance of Lake Chad (which authors tell us was once bordered by three countries and now by only two) are almost as riveting as accompanying photographs—brilliant both in their portrayal of human experience and in their artistry.

The authors claim that our experience with climate change varies vastly based on our location. And it’s true, for those of us who can afford safe, clean homes in cities where we can fulfill our basic needs, understanding and preventing global warming is ancillary. But for the Kigiqtaamuit of Shishmaref, Alaska the problem is much more immediate. Their homes are literally falling into the ocean as icy coastlines creep closer and closer to their front doorsteps. The thinning ice has also hindered their ability to hunt effectively for their traditional food, seals. They fear that, along with the loss of their land and livelihood, their traditional culture (which includes sharing food and other resources with the sick and elderly of the community) will soon sink into that of ever-seductive North American mainstream. They’ve seen it happen to other villages.

Climate Refugees presents a compelling portrait of the first to be affected by climate change, a call to action for those of us fortunate to not be affected—yet.

SS

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Baloney’s Not the Answer

Tunnel People, Teun Voeten (PM Press) $24.95

Teun Voeten is not the first to document the lives of the people living in the tunnel systems of New York City. His newly updated account, Tunnel People, is unique, however, because of Voeten’s commitment not only to his craft, but also to the people. Articles and books have been written about the tunnel people and Mark Singer’s award winning documentary, Dark Days, introduced the world to this underground society in what Voeten himself calls a “shockingly honest portrayal.” But Voeten went a step further, living in the Amtrak tunnel on Manhattan’s west side for five months over two years, digging beneath the surface of the tunnel people’s lives as well as their complex and diverse social environment. “To add something new to the earlier studies,” Voeten writes in the introduction to his book, “I decided to take the anthropological approach, using its favorite research method of participant observation” (3).

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