Category Archives: Politics

Rebuilding the Feltboard World of Childhood

The World of the New Testament: Cultural, Social, and Historical Contexts (Baker Academic, 2013) $35.61

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For those paying attention, Joel B. Green (newly appointed Dean of Fuller Seminary’s School of Theology) has become the preeminent name in collecting great scholars of New Testament studies under one cover. His previous titles are a compendium of established names or those destined to become “The” expert on any given subject. The World of the New Testament proudly joins Green’s previous works, offering profound yet digestible essays rivaling if not exceeding seminary offerings.

From chapter 25 & 26, “Jewish Identity, Beliefs, and Practices” by Archie T. Wright and “Jewish Education” by Kent L. Yinger

A strength of The World of the New Testament is the collection of essays on Judaism. This is, one imagines, thanks to the work of N.T. Wright’s energetic effort towards refocusing our understanding of Christianity’s indebtedness to Second-Temple Judaism. Archie Wright’s essays, however, fall short as he focuses on the tried-and-true summary of Jewish identity based on temple, purity rituals, and diet. This is a large and tragic flaw in the collection. An astute reader would have hoped for more attention to the ways that post-exilic prophetic writings constructed Jewish identity, rather than the strong whiff of Pharisaism present here. I’m sure there is a joke to be made about how Archie and N.T. are at opposite ends, but I’ll bypass that cheap shot. Moving on, Yinger’s essay on Jewish education is quite sharp (thought painfully brief), summarizing methodology, the role of the family, and the rabbinic anachronistic effort to find personal and national identity as a literate race.

From chapter 31, “Homer and the New Testament” by Thomas E. Philips

Philips focuses on the indirect influence of the Homeric epics on the New Testament period by first pointing out their prominence in constructing societal expectations, then the individual’s pursuit of “honor.” By illuminating these key points, Philips conclusively dismisses all efforts to write Homer back into biblical sources while also affirming a classical education which might be able to extract more from Homer as NT studies move forward.

From chapter 39, “Syria, Cilicia, and Cyprus” by Mark Wilson

While reading The World of the New Testament on geography, I found myself wishing that a book such as this had been available when I was much younger. Before attending seminary, the best I could find was a gap-filled pictorial of Paul’s missionary journeys with elementary sketches of what Jerusalem “may” have looked like. Wilson’s essay on Syria, Cilicia, and Cypus not only gave a great summary of where Paul went – what the cultures were like, the local trades and so on – but also explained why Paul was “led” to these “obscure” places. In reconstructing the culture, a wealth of new insight begins to flesh out what the challenges and strengths of the Early Church were so long ago.

All told, I can hardly imagine a greater supplement to introductory New Testament studies than Green, et al.’s The World of the New Testament. This truly has become one of my great summer reads, keeping me fresh on my theological studies while unpacking much of what I have already learned in seminary. While I am not a fan of Green in the classroom, finding him insulting and dismissive (why do the great minds of our time feel a need to beat those below them?), his expansive knowledge permeates this work in a way that makes the mind light up. In the last month, I have become inseparable from The World of the New Testament — it is what I have read when I lay down, and what accompanies me across the city during idle moments. Unlike other academic works which seem tedious or horribly dry, each of the essays here are entirely accessible and is a a treasure for those seeking to better understand Christian scripture.

Randall S. Frederick is a recent graduate of Fuller Theological Seminary. He writes for The Huffington PostState of Formation, and Theology & the City.

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.

The Poetry Drone: Prophecy for Our Time

The Poetry Drone (known lovingly as the “Po Dro”) is a creation of LA-based poet, David Shook. In a modern-day effort to “beat swords into plowshares” Shook is seeking to arm a drone with—not bombs—but anti-war poems printed on flower paper. The project’s received considerable media attention with write ups in publications such as the Los Angeles Times, New York Daily News, Vice, Huffington Post, and even a mention in The New Yorker. It is what Dave Harrity of Antler calls “a contemporary act of prophecy, though it professes no religious affiliation.” In his brief interview with Shook, Pedrito Ortiz finds out where Shook got the inspirationally “ludicrous” idea for this project, as well as his take on poetry and politics. To learn more, visit the Kickstarter page here.

—The Editors

Poetry-DronePedrito Ortiz
How did you come up with the idea for the poetry drone?

David Shook I had just translated an interview that Nathalie Handal did with the Chilean poet Raúl Zurita, who I admire a lot. In it he discusses his work with the Colectiva de Acciones de Arte, a collective he was a part of under Pinochet, which eventually led to two of his most inspiring projects: writing a poem with a plane in the sky over Queens, and bulldozing another into the Atacama desert in Northern Chile. The next day, I was meeting with a visual artist, my friend Laura Peters, to discuss an installation I had commissioned her to build for a festival, an enormous nose made of foam, about 2’ by 3’, to promote Mario Bellatin’s Shiki Nagaoka. We were discussing the nose, brainstorming other unconventional methods of promoting literature, when our waiter, another friend of mine, approached. He listened in for a second before offering his own seemingly ludicrous suggestion: a poetry drone. He might have been stoned. I left the meeting and immediately went home to google drones, to see if the idea was even possible, affordable, legal. A couple days later I launched my fundraising campaign.

PO Do you consider yourself a political poet? Continue reading

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To Change the World

To Change the World: the Irony, Tragedy and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World, James  Davison Hunter (Oxford) $27.95

This summer of group of friends, including Hillhurst Review co-editor Ryan Bell, responded to James Davison Hunter’s recent book, To Change the World, section by section. Bell’s piece is re-posted below, including links to all the responses.

Essay 1 – “Christianity and World-Changing”

Essay 2 – “Rethinking Power”

Essay 3 – “Toward a New City Commons”

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