Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Quote of the Day - Lewis Lehrman

As a follow-up for yesterday’s post:

Lewis Lehrman was once criticized by a woman for the apparent irresponsibility he exhibited in siring five children. They will consume “precious natural resources,” she protested. “But madam,” he retorted, “don’t you understand? Those children themselves are our most precious natural resources.” (quoted by Don DeMarco, in New Perspectives on Contraception, pg. 9)

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

The Voluntary Human Extinction Movement

Are these people serious? If not, they're remarkably straight-faced about it. If so, wow... I couldn't even parody this.

HT: Mark Shea, who offers this quote:

"...less than 0.4% of each day's heterosexual trysts result in the creation of new humans -- a statistically insignificant correlation for proving causation."

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Battlestar Galactica "Escape Velocity"

I never thought I’d say it, but the latest episode of Battlestar Galactica had too much religion. The funeral at the beginning was nice; it reminded me of the positive treatment of religion in the first couple seasons. It was polytheistic, of course, but a good reminder of how hope for the next life can offer comfort, but can sometimes feel hollow. I also continue to appreciate the portrayal of Admiral Adama and President Roslin’s relationship. In a show which places such an exaggerated emphasis on sex, it’s refreshing to see a caring relationship that is not sexual. But the rest of the episode was a mess. From the attack by the fringe sect the “Sons of Ares,” to Gaius Baltar’s spiritual horse-pucky in the final scene – God loves you because you’re perfect, just as you are! (from the man who is anything but perfect) – I’m longing for their old sense of balance. The only thing I enjoyed about the Baltar story-line was when the Six in his head physically lifted him up like rag-doll – humorous, and somewhat ominous as well. Perhaps she’s more than just his imagination after all?

I’m dearly hoping the show gets better, and fast, but today I’m feeling snarky. So rather than a more comprehensive review (try here), I give you a picture of how my twisted mind works:

Me: I just don’t feel the same spark anymore…

BSG: But isn’t this what you wanted? You’ve been saying all along that you loved the way I focused on religion, said it was my best quality!

Me: I know, I know, it’s just… well, it feels like you’re trying too hard.

BSG: Ooh, so that’s how it is, is it? I sacrifice to give you what you want, but it’s never good enough!

Me: I just miss the old days; you used to tell such good stories, and the religious component was just a part. Why’d you have to get so fundamentalistic on me?

BSG: I’m just being honest! I thought you appreciated that about me!

Me: You can be honest without having to be so depressing all the time. Where’s the love? Is there any light at the end of this tunnel?

BSG: Oh come now, have a little faith!

Me: Yeah well, it’s just…

BSG: Just what?

Me: Well, to tell the truth… I’m seeing someone else.

BSG: WHAT? You two-timing - who?

Me: No one, just this show about people on an island, I forget what it’s called.

BSG: Sure you do, and what’s it got that I don’t?

Me: Well for starters, it doesn’t beat me over the head every episode. And when it explores religion, it lets us see broken people, not just broken theologies. And it gives an idea of the real struggles and joys of community, like you used to do. Like this one episode, “The 23rd Psalm”…

BSG: Yeah, yeah, you’re just starry-eyed; you haven’t even finished their second season, have you?

Me: That’s not the point!

BSG: You just can’t handle commitment! The first sign of trouble and you run off for someone else. Well what happens when you get bored of them too. You’ll find some new tramp I suppose!

Me: What do you expect? I’ve always been promiscuous in my TV viewing; you knew that from the start! You can’t expect me to put up with Gaius frakkin Baltar forever!

BSG: But all I’m asking is a little patience. You can’t stay with me for one more season?

Me: Alright, alright, I’ll give you another chance, but we’ll have to negotiate a more open relationship.

BSG: And what’s that supposed to mean?

Me: You get Friday nights, but the rest of the week I’m free to watch what I want. Yes, even LOST reruns.

BSG: Fine!

Me: Fine!

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Single-Parenthood Costs $112 Billion A Year?

Various news agencies (e.g. here) are reporting a new study that claims divorce and out of wedlock childrearing costs our country at least $112 billion tax-dollars per year. I’m no statistician, so I wont attempt to judge the accuracy of the study, but if it is even relatively accurate, it’s startling. The study’s sponsors, rightly or wrongly, conclude that this should encourage greater government support for “marriage-strengthening programs,” but the more fundamental need is not for government programs but to reverse our society’s cavalier attitude towards sex and family. Our sexual choices are not, as we so like to believe, merely private and personal. They always have broader effects on the wider community.

On that point, perhaps the most shocking figures to me are not from the conclusions of the study, but from its presuppositions:

Over the last forty years, marriage has become less common and more fragile. Between 1970 and 2005, the proportion of children living with two married parents dropped from 85 percent to 68 percent, according to Census data.


More than a third of all U.S. children are now born outside of wedlock, including 25 percent of non-Hispanic white babies, 46 percent of Hispanic babies, and 69 percent of African American babies.
Leaving aside debatable financial costs, these figures represent a massive human tragedy. As a society, we are failing our children, and especially those of minority groups.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Bultmann on Faith and Proof

Super Churchlady recently linked to one of my posts, and her comments led to an exchange about the nature of faith. The discussion reminded me of an essay by Rudolf Bultmann called “Science and Existence;” here are a couple excerpts:

Consider a simple example. That my father is my father can apparently be objectively established and also perceived through observation. But that he is my father can finally be perceived only by a single person, namely, by me, not through disinterested observation but only in the personal encounter in which he is father to me and I allow him to be my father. Or, to take another example, were I to want to make certain of the friendship of a friend through observation, through psychological analysis, say, I would have already destroyed the relation of friendship, which can be grounded only in mutual trust. From the standpoint of objectifying seeing, such trust includes a risk. But without such a risk there cannot be any personal relation at all between one person and another. A young man who sought to learn about his (future) bride through the information provided by a detective bureau would learn nothing at all about her personal being, because it does not disclose itself to objectifying seeing but only to existential encounter....

God is not a reality that has a place within the cosmic continuum so that God could be thought of as necessary to this continuum, even if as the head thereof. God does not stand still and does not put up with being made an object of observation. One cannot see God; one can only hear God. God’s invisibility is not due to the inadequacy of our organs of perception but is God’s being removed in principle from the domain of objectifying thinking. God’s revelation is revelation only in actu and is never a matter of God’s having already been revealed. Those who believe God’s word have certitudo in the existential act of faith, but they have no securitas. For God is not to be held fast in faith in the sense that believers can look back on their faith as a decision made once and for all. God always remains beyond what has once been grasped, which means that the decision of faith is genuine only as actualized ever anew... this constant futurity of God is God’s transcendence. (pgs. 139-140, 144, in New Testament & Mythology and Other Basic Writings)

There is much about Bultmann’s thought with which I disagree, but in emphasizing the inescapably personal nature of faith as trust and decision, I think he is exactly right.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Wendell Berry on Christianity and Creation

Wendell Berry, "Christianity and the Survival of Creation":

I don't think it is enough appreciated how much an outdoor book the Bible is. It is a "hypaethral book," such as Thoreau talked about - a book open to the sky. It is best read and understood outdoors, and the farther outdoors the better. Or that has been my experience of it. Passages that within walls seem improbable or incredible, outdoors seem merely natural. This is because outdoors we are confronted everywhere with wonders; we see that the miraculous is not extraordinary but the common mode of existence. It is our daily bread. Whoever really has considered the lilies of the field or the birds of the air and pondered the improbability of their existence in this warm world within the cold and empty stellar distances will hardly balk at the turning of water into wine - which was, after all, a very small miracle. We forget the greater and still continuing miracle by which water (with soil and sunlight) is turned into grapes. (in Sex, Economy, Freedom and Community, pg. 103)

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Is Morality Relative, Absolute or Neither?

In an interesting post at Exploring Our Matrix, James McGrath offers his thoughts on a recent debate between a moral relativist and a moral absolutist. In particular, he raises several objections to the common Christian attempt to ground moral absolutes in the existence of God. First, he mentions the Euthyphro Dilemma, a very old argument which can be boiled down to the following conundrum: If right and wrong depend on God’s choice, then they seem to be arbitrary (and thus not absolute), whereas if they do not depend on God’s choice, then God’s existence does not seem to be necessary to morality. James notes that a frequent rebuttal is that moral absolutes correspond to God’s character, and responds:

That doesn't seem to me to solve the problem. In fact, it seems to create a problem akin to the "fine tuning" of the laws of physics: then we have a Creator of our universe whose morality is fine tuned to the cosmic moral absolutes...

I’m not sure this is a valid response. If morality is absolute, then it would be the “cosmic moral absolutes” that were fined tuned according to God’s character, not the other way around. But more fundamentally, I think we need to distinguish between moral “absolutism” and moral “objectivity.” To say that morality is “absolute” seems to mean that certain actions (like killing babies) are always wrong, no matter what the circumstances. But to say that morality is “objective” means only that for any given circumstance, there is always a right choice.

I think it is much more helpful to think of morality as objective than to think of it as absolute. In that case, God’s character can serve as the ultimate standard for right and wrong, not because it is “fine-tuned” to an ideal set of absolute moral principles (which could then be affirmed without God), but because what is right is determined by what choice God himself would make if he were in this situation. This assumes that moral truths are not primarily “facts” which “exist” in the usual sense, but rather inherent attributes of certain choices. In that case, no fine-tuning is necessary (of God or the cosmos) for morality to be objective, all that matters is that a correct choice is possible in each case.

The value of such an approach can be seen by considering James’ second objection, which draws on a scene from the old TV show M*A*S*H. In the series finale of that show, a woman is described who smothered her child to save the lives of a bus full of people. Since “killing babies is wrong” would seem to be about as uncontroversial a moral “absolute” as you could imagine, yet it is unclear that the woman’s action would be wrong in this case, the notion of moral absolutism seems rather problematic. Indeed, even if one responds that the woman was wrong to kill her child, would that not make Abraham’s intent to sacrifice Isaac (in Genesis 22) all the more immoral? Yet that case was commanded by God, according to the Bible.

Here I fully agree with James, but must insist that while such examples make the concept of moral absolutes difficult, they actually strengthen the viability of moral objectivity. For if there is any sense in which the woman can be said to have made the right or the wrong choice – even if different circumstances would certainly result in a different answer – then morality is objective, though it is not absolute. And if this is true of difficult cases like that, how much more of less contestable cases? If it can ever be said that “killing this baby would be evil,” then morality is objective, and it is worth asking how this can be so. If the world (including every baby) is the creation of God, then the character of that God does provide a sound basis for such a view.

The difficulty that remains is in determining what choice the character of God would demand in each circumstance. For James is right that we do not have unmediated access to God’s character, nor any consistent picture of it, even in the Bible. Indeed, it is ironic how often Christians seeking to defend absolute morality are forced to defend a form of relativism in dealing with the seemingly immoral divine commands in the Old Testament. This is a serious challenge and I’ve yet to see a truly satisfying answer to it, but again, it is a greater problem for moral absolutism than for moral objectivism. If the situation today is very different than that in which God was commanding, then his character and choices might be consistent, even if his commands vary with the circumstance. More fundamentally, the Bible itself need not be a perfect reflection of God’s will for God to have a perfect will.

For ultimately, the claim that morality is objective must not be seen as the end of the debate on the nature of morality, but rather its beginning: Only if we assume that there is a right answer, can we even discuss what that answer might be.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Blogging and Our Vicarious Culture

Blogging is a state of mind. When you're in it, everything gives you ideas for posts; when you're not, all your best thoughts seem worthless. Some days and weeks you find ideas everywhere and rattle off posts with ease, everything you watch, do or read seems important and you have no trouble putting your thoughts into words. You might even start to worry that you are posting too much, that perhaps you should save some of these ideas for a slower time, so that people don’t expect more frequent updates than you can maintain. You check your sitemeter twenty times a day.

But other days and weeks (hopefully not months!) you can’t find anything profound to say at all; you worry about every post – whether you’ve talked about this topic too much, whether your writing is any good, or whether you’ve linked that blog too often. You think you don’t have time to post, then spend four hours watching reruns on cable. But you still check your sitemeter twenty times a day…

I tend to go back and forth between these extremes, but it seems like no matter which side of the line I’m on, I keep running into the same problem: I start to see everything for its “blogworthiness.” I read a book or an article, and I don’t think, “what here is important to me?” but “what here could I blog about?” I find myself watching TV shows, not because I enjoy them, but looking for something worth posting about. Suddenly it doesn’t matter whether I enjoyed a show – whether it had a good twist at the end or revealed something intriguing about a character’s past – if nothing worth posting stood out, I feel cheated.

I’ve noticed that this isn’t just true of blogging. If my daughter does something cute or memorable and I fail to catch it on camera, it almost feels like a waste. And when I do catch something impressive or funny, my first thought is not gratefulness that I preserved the memory of it, but a wild dream of winning ten thousand dollars on America’s Funniest Home Videos, or becoming the most popular video on YouTube. I’ve never submitted anything to either one of those, but the thought always crosses my mind. I don’t know if I'm alone in this, but I seem to be very easily tempted by our culture’s focus on popularity. The value of a thing, it often seems, is judged primarily by how popular it is. Mundane events gain their value purely from what other people might think of them.

It’s a strange kind of vicarious existence, looking at one’s life for its “blogworthiness,” but it’s a trap I fall into rather often. Which, I think, is the main reason I shift in and out of the blogging state of mind. After a while, I just want to watch a show for the pure joy of it, or read a book without worrying whether anyone else wants to hear about it.

Friday, April 18, 2008

"School's Out For Summer..."

Whew! Sorry about disappearing for a week like that; my semester ended this week and I’ve been killing myself finishing a term paper (30 pages of textual criticism on the Great Isaiah Scroll). I should be back to regular posting again, but right now I’m gonna spend the day with my daughter (and humming Alice Cooper...)!

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Moltmann on Science and Theology

Jürgen Moltmann, Science and Wisdom:

A theological doctrine of creation is not a religious cosmology which enters into lists in competition with the cosmologies of physics. But it has to be compatible with physical cosmologies.

The theological account of experiences of God is different from the scientific account of experiences of nature. If we bring them into dialogue with each other, two things soon emerge. First, theologians have a predilection for the ‘great scientific narratives’, with their unique and unrepeatable histories, because these narratives correspond to God's histories.... Second, theologians have a particular interest in a natural phenomenon for which scientists have no great liking: ‘contingency’.... So in developing a theology of nature, we have to ask about God's presence in the history of nature and in the chance events that herald a future which cannot be extrapolated from the past and present of the cosmos. (pgs. 54-55)

Monday, April 7, 2008

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

I finally saw the fifth Harry Potter film yesterday. It wasn’t my favorite of the series (then again, neither was the book); but I still enjoyed it, especially the final battle at the Ministry of Magic. They actually did a pretty good job of cramming the excessively lengthy book into less than two and a half hours, though there were some odd points of bad acting and it felt a bit choppy at times. Even so, there was one scene that I particularly appreciated and wanted to highlight. I don’t remember it being in the book (though I don’t have it in front of me to check), but if not, it was a great addition.

About halfway through the film, Harry is with his godfather Sirius Black and confesses his fear about the close ties between himself and the evil Lord Voldemort. Sirius’ response is a concise but excellent statement of the view of human nature which underlies so much of J.K. Rowling’s series: that it isn’t our background, family or even our abilities which define us, but our choices. The line between good and evil cuts through each and every one of us, and we each must choose which side to embrace. It’s a nice scene between the two of them, and the message is just about perfect:

Harry: This connection between me and Voldemort, what if the reason for it is that I am becoming more like him? I just feel so angry, all the time, and what if after everything that I’ve been through, something’s gone wrong inside me? What if I’m becoming bad?

Sirius: I want you to listen to me very carefully, Harry. You’re not a bad person. You’re a very good person who bad things have happened to. You understand?

Harry nods.

Sirius: The world isn’t split into good people and death eaters, we’ve all got both light and dark inside us. What matters is the part we chose to act on, that’s who we really are.

I especially like the second half of Sirius' response, and the rest of the film plays on this tension well, both by showing the dire consequences of Harry's poor choices, and then by highlighting his final confrontation with the evil inside of him, at the climax of the movie. Order of the Phoenix isn't a perfect film, but it gets this part quite right.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

Quote - Faith, Skepticism and Miracles

Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov (cited by Philip Yancey, The Jesus I Never Knew):

The genuine realist, if he is an unbeliever, will always find strength and ability to disbelieve in the miraculous, and if he is confronted with a miracle as an irrefutable fact he would rather disbelieve his own senses than admit the fact. Even if he admits it, he admits it as a fact of nature till then unrecognized by him. Faith does not, in the realist, spring from the miracle but the miracle from faith.

Saturday, April 5, 2008

He That Believeth in Me - Battlestar Season Four Premier

Battlestar Galactica’s season premier last night was titled “He That Believeth in Me,” a quote from John 11:25. In fine style, the episode plays on the whole verse from which this quote is drawn, which reads (in the old King James): “Jesus said unto her, I am the resurrection, and the life: he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live.” This episode is all about death and resurrection, and sets an excellent beginning to the final season of this great show (eh hem, Spoiler warning!)

Season three was by no means my favorite (I still think the first season was the best), but towards the end they built up to a number of very interesting developments, most notably the apparent death of Kara Thrace (Starbuck), the trial and acquittal of arch-traitor and Cylon-sympathizer Gaius Baltar, and the climactic revelation of four of the final five Cylons paired with the sudden reappearance of Starbuck, all set to a rousing rendition of “All Along the Watchtower.” It was brilliant, and left us plenty to contemplate over the last thirteen months.

After the long wait, I was certainly hoping for something spectacular for the premier, but unfortunately I think there was a bit too much anticipation. It was a good episode, but not their best. Barbara Nicolosi complains that they tried to do too much too fast, and I think she is right. There was a lot there, but we had to fly past all of it. I’ve been dying for a good old-fashioned space battle, but the one that began this episode was over too quickly. It may have been climactic, but it didn’t feel at all heroic, and they certainly could have done more to play up Ander’s choice to throw himself into his first battle as a Cylon, before he was spared having to fight it. The moment when the raider scanned and recognized him was great though, raising all kinds of questions about the nature of Cylons’ ultimate “plan.” Cathode Tan suggests this proves the Cylons may not be pursuing humanity’s destruction at all, but rather see themselves as the (divine) instrument of humanity's purification:

There has been a lot of indication that the race sees themselves as essentially the hand of God. Here - it is practically the only explanation. It's not that they're out to exterminate the entire human race, they're playing their part in man's morality play. They're the flood to God's Noah.

I think this is a very interesting possibility, though (like everything on BSG) it raises difficult questions. After all, if we think their near annihilation of the twelve colonies is horrific even if it were the will of God, can we say anything different about the original Noah? After all, in both cases humanity is just as flawed after the flood as before. Still, I have to appreciate how they continue to build a genuinely interesting theistic worldview into the story, and that leads to the two most interesting features of the premier:

First is the return of Kara. Barbara is right that they raced through this much too quickly. Starbuck went from telling Admiral Adama that they were going the wrong way, to confronting President Roslin with a gun, in no time at all. It felt very rushed, but it does set up an excellent question for this season to explore. We still don’t know who the final Cylon is, but it seems to me that Kara and Roslin are the two best candidates for the job (Gaius is too obvious, it would be anticlimactic and would make nonsense of his relationship with Caprica Six), so it will be interesting to see how they draw out the question of which one of them is right about the path they should take. In short, this is the question highlighted by the episode’s title: is Kara’s return a true resurrection, or merely another Cylon reincarnation?

But the resurrection theme didn’t end with Kara. The most interesting aspect of the episode was its treatment of Gaius. I was glad to see them return to season one form by including a genuine miracle in the healing of the boy (even if it was clichéd and obvious), but what I really appreciated was how they insisted on combining their exploration of resurrection with its essential pair: self-sacrifice.

Gaius is a sleaze ball, and the cult that springs up around him is nearly incomprehensible, but he seemed to reach a definite turning point in praying that God would take his life in place of the boy’s. He seemed to finally recognize his own wickedness in admitting that he truly does deserve to die, and that made his subsequent near death experience all the more intriguing. It will be very interesting to see whether he lives up to this new-found selflessness, or if he quickly reverts to his old narcissism. As always, Gaius and Six are hardly the people I want representing Christianity, but this connection between sacrifice and resurrection is exactly right, and I can’t wait to see how they play it out in the rest of the season.

Friday, April 4, 2008

Battlestar Galactica Season Four Premier

In case you've been hiding under a rock, the fourth and final season of Battlestar Galactica premiers tonight (actually, you can watch it right now on Joe Carter offers his own take on why this is the Best Show on Television, perhaps ever (see also my review here). But it really needs to be watched from the beginning to make sense, so if you're late to the game, make sure to start with the Pilot (originally a mini-series). Remember though, it's not for kids.

UPDATE: My review of the season premier is here.

Review of Everything Bad Is Good For You - Part 3

In Part 2, I noted a few important omissions from Steven Johnson’s book Everything Bad Is Good For You, challenging especially his emphasis on structure over content. Yet to point out the importance of content is not to dismiss his argument as worthless (nor pop culture itself). Indeed, whether high-brow or low, written, filmed or sung, art doesn’t have to debase and distort, it can also uplift and illuminate, and Johnson is right that pop culture's dangers and drawbacks are too often wielded as a club to beat back any serious consideration of its benefits. To that end, he has identified some encouraging developments.

First, we need to put aside some dearly held illusions. Frequently, in judging popular media, we have an unrealistically romanticized view of the past. We remember the good ol’ days when television was innocent and uplifting, but forget that it was also simplistic and patronizing. We dream of the glory days before television, “when kids used their imaginations,” but fail to consider that they spent more time playing Kick the Can than reading Shakespeare. Compared to that, your typical ten-year-old computer wiz doesn’t seem so brain-dead after all.

Truly, Johnson has identified an important trend toward greater media complexity. Neil Postman did not anticipate this development, because it’s being driven primarily by the rise of newer “technologies of convenience,” from VHS to TiVo. The many ways these have pushed media producers away from the “Least Objectionable Programming” model of yesteryear, toward a “Most Repeatable Programming” model that rewards deeper concentration and long-term commitment, has not always been recognized by otherwise insightful cultural analysts.

When Postman was writing in 1985, television was essentially a “present tense medium,” and networks rightly feared the slightest confusion or offense might drive away their audience. In contrast, many of today’s popular programs--from 24 to LOST and Battlestar Galactica--absolutely depend on challenging their audiences to return again and again. Similarly, the most significant but often-overlooked feature of many recent video games is not the thumb exercise they provide, but how much intellectual work they demand. Anyone who has ever seriously attempted to succeed at SimCity or even Grand Theft Auto knows how blisteringly, frustratingly hard it is. Despite appearances, many of today’s most popular entertainments demand a remarkable degree of patient endurance, conscious interaction and long-term commitment.

Moreover, I wonder if simply restricting our indulgence in pop culture to rare and superficial engagement actually risks backing us into the very dangers we are trying to avoid. If the main thing making pop culture smarter is that producers can now expect us to pay better and longer attention (as Johnson helpfully notes: the separation between set-up and punch line on shows like Seinfeld can sometimes be measured in years rather than seconds), might it be that any proper response to modern society will have to leave room for the occasional obsession? Pop culture is here to stay, and Johnson is right that: “Out of obsession comes expertise, a confidence in your own powers of analysis – a sense that if you stick with the system long enough, you’ll truly figure out how it works.” (pg. 194) While learning the minutiae of Seinfeld lore might seem a waste of time, the skills necessary to discover such trivia probably do have wider applicability than is usually assumed.

If nothing else, the days of treating modern entertainment as a kind of degenerate second-best to the pristine realm of text should finally be put aside. There are clear and important differences between reading and gaming and television viewing, and the kinds of society they foster, but not all differences are bad. Writing is one art, not the only one. Truly, the “boob tube” is no substitute for literature, but it might just be that even great books are no substitute for good popular entertainment?

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Biblical Studies Carnival XXVIII

This month's Biblical Studies Carnival has been posted. Thanks to Thoughts on Antiquity for hosting! It includes my post on the removal of Easter from First Look's Sunday School curriculum, and lots of other good stuff. Enjoy!

Review of Everything Bad Is Good For You - Part 2

As mentioned in Part 1 of this review, there is much in Steven Johnson’s book that deserves consideration as we think about the potential and dangers of modern entertainment. Before getting there, however, we must first step back and examine the book’s presuppositions: Everything Bad is Good For You, regrettably, suffers from a kind of schizophrenia of purpose that deeply undermines its force.

As the provocative title implies, Johnson wants to be iconoclastic, but in the end he’s too smart for his own good. His book brims over with qualifiers and his conspicuous back-peddling strongly suggests that the thesis has been hyped to increase sales (a tactic which worked, by the way). Everything Bad is Good For You quickly becomes something like: Pop Culture Is Smarter Than It Used to Be – Though Maybe It Still Can’t Compare to High Art – and Can Be Part (But Only One Part) of a Healthy Media Diet. The latter statement is certainly closer to the truth, even if it makes for a lousy title. But in shifting towards this more nuanced stance, his point is nearly reduced to an empty shell aimed at a straw man. There is much worth pondering here, but it’s up to the reader to sort it out of the rubble.

The problem, it seems, is Johnson’s willingness to emphasize the positives while downplaying or ignoring the negative aspects of these “distractions.” For instance, you will search in vain for a discussion of the close connection between infant TV viewing and attention deficit disorder. Similarly, Neil Postman’s point that our overly visual culture has diminished our tolerance for sustained public discourse is all but dismissed as irrelevant (I wonder if Johnson learned his lesson promoting the book on various talk shows?). He elects to focus on how TV lets us see our politicians in more candid settings – providing “valuable” insight into their integrity – while completely ignoring the medium’s far broader implications on the political process.

But television's predisposition to replace substance with image must not be ignored: It’s no accident that flashy crime dramas like CSI – with their high tech gadgetry, attractive actors and tidy conclusions – far outperform true crime documentaries. Real life can’t live up to fiction in any form, but no previous medium provides a more convincing illusion that its truncated worldview is actually educational.

Finally, by focusing on structure rather than content, Johnson misses a great deal of what is most important in determining the potential benefits and dangers of these media. For instance, it’s hard to believe that anyone would try to judge the “cognitive value” of 24 based solely on the number of plotlines and significant relationships it juggles – yet this is precisely what Johnson does! Apparently, he hasn't considered that by this standard daytime soap operas would be the smartest thing on television. And when he starts praising Reality TV because it can teach “social IQ,” I’m tempted to respond: Sure, and you can learn risk-assessment betting on cock fights....

Despite all of this, however, Johnson is right to criticize those who appeal to poor content in dismissing television and gaming as media. Not all television, movies or games are mindless – far from it – and just because some popular choices are immoral or worthless, does not prove these media are irredeemable. One need only mention The Da Vinci Code to realize the same criteria would also eliminate reading as a waste of time. Indeed, doesn’t even the Bible include a rather large amount of immoral behavior? Clearly there is more to the value of a medium than whether all of its content is “family friendly,” and Johnson is right to insist upon this. In Part 3, then, we will consider the more positive aspects of his argument.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Review of Everything Bad Is Good For You - Part 1

The following is a review I wrote a couple years ago, but never published. I will post it in three parts over the next three days:

Have you noticed how cell phones have replaced lighters at concerts? Where once we lifted little flames, we now raise tribute to a new addiction: modern technology. Welcome to our digital world, where every 3rd grader has a computer, and we’re hooked on television before we can walk. Conventional wisdom (including mine) finds something particularly apt in this connection between addictive drugs and modern technology. According to Neil Postman in Amusing Ourselves to Death, the rise of television and its many offshoots has dulled our minds and undermined public discourse of the sort that previous, book-focused cultures supposedly maintained.

But what if this conventional wisdom is misleading? What if the attraction of these flickering screens derives less from their propensity for mindless distraction, and more from their participatory nature and underlying challenge? Addictive though they are, what if there are important aspects of the mind that such technologies actually nourish better than reading?

In his intriguing little book, Everything Bad Is Good For You: How Popular Culture Is Actually Making Us Smarter, Steven Johnson suggests that this may well be true. He argues that by focusing so exclusively on the immoral content and non-literary nature of modern entertainment, we have missed the benefits our society has gained from this addiction. He argues that we must balance pop culture’s perceived dangers with an even-handed assessment of its potential rewards if we are to make informed decisions about its role in our lives.

To that end, he offers an impressive catalogue of intellectual skills that modern media, especially video games, have been unconsciously teaching us. These include the abilities to probe and explore one’s environment, to problem-solve and hypothesize, to strategize and anticipate the future, to assess risks and make decisions, to overcome failure and pursue goals, and many more.

Johnson suggests that even the notoriously passive medium of television has been growing ever more interactive in recent decades. Increasingly demanding programming has been steadily abandoning the “flashing arrows” and predictable stories that Postman lamented, forcing its audience to “lean forward” and “fill in” to make sense of the complex plots and social situations depicted on screen.

He also provides some interesting (though controversial) reasons to connect this “Sleeper Curve” of quietly increasing complexity, with the rising IQ scores of the 20th century known as the Flynn Effect. For he notes that the types of IQ test which have shown the most improvement are precisely those which measure the pattern-recognition and problem-solving skills video games teach.

For all these reasons and more, this breezy but thought-provoking book deserves wide consideration to balance the derision of critics like Postman. While there is much to question in this volume, there is also much that is worth earnest reflection as we seek to make our way through this inescapably technological world.

Continued in Part 2.