Tag Archives: culture

Looney leaders in churches and corporations

Both churches and corporations can host looney leaders.

However, in corporations, looney leaders are ultimately accountable to the market and the shareholders, so they stand a chance of being removed.

In churches, if looney leaders persuade their congregations that God is on their side, nothing will remove those leaders.

Our stories, ourselves

Updated May 21, 2012

As part of his final exam assignment, a student reflected on something I had said in a creative writing class earlier this semester.

I had said, “We are the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves.”

I hadn’t spent much time elaborating, but I said it during an introduction to fiction. I said it as a way to get the class to think about the characters they create for their short stories. Where do the characters think they’ve been, where do they think they are now, and where are they going? Like real life, the facts themselves are only part of the picture. How we think about the facts matters just as much — interpretation and contextualization are subjective, individual, internal acts performed by everyone, often with little conscious awareness of the process.

In his final exam essay, the student seemed to misunderstand the context for what I had said, which led me to realize I hadn’t elaborated enough. He seemed to be saying — with handwriting that wasn’t the easiest to read — that “we are the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves” was a kind of self-deception or maybe an intentional social strategy or some kind of looney self-help slogan. But I meant it as something more basic and fundamental to our human nature, as I described above.

He was a friendly student and a good conversationalist, so I wrote him an email to clarify what I meant. I also thanked him for helping me realize I hadn’t been clear or specific enough.

The following is loosely based on the email I sent to that student, with some additions and revisions.

First, I should immediately point out (as I forgot to tell my student) that the sentence is not original. I don’t remember where I heard it first. However, cultural anthropologist Clifford Geertz defined culture as “stories we tell ourselves about ourselves.”

Whenever and wherever I first had heard that phrase, I had appropriated that clause in a personal, subjective sense.

I certainly don’t think my classroom comment means that we should attempt to deceive ourselves. I did not mean that we pretend to be someone we’re not. I did not mean that we construct artifices for others’ perceptions. I did not mean that we say, “I’m Superman — if I think it, I will become it.” No, no, not at all.

What I meant was this: each person has assumptions about who he is and where he’s going. When I was a college kid, I was a depressed, guilt-ridden cloud, but I also felt pretty righteous about myself, like there were certain things I would never, ever think about doing — I had assumptions about who I was. Also as a college kid, I had certain beliefs about what the future held for me — I had assumptions about where I was going. In many cases, I’ve been proven wrong.

However, accuracy is not the point here. Humans think of their lives as stories. Each real, living person has a past he comes from (remembered in particular and subjective ways, not necessarily remembered objectively), a place we hold now (with a subjective mental and emotional context attached to that place), and a combination of beliefs and intentions directed toward our futures (a subjectively constructed set of expectations that are somewhat unique to the individual).

These individual stories have varying degrees of accuracy, but the interesting thing is that we have them, and this has utility for fiction writing.

The above view dovetails with two important factors in characterization: characters have influences and desires, or pasts and futures.

But those influences and desires, for persons real and imagined, are subjectively constructed and appropriated in memory, imagination, and expectation. Rightly or wrongly, we interpret past events and we interpret our present — and many times, we apply those interpretations to the future.

Interpretation is usually a subjective act, at least on some level. Billions of people know the World Trade Center towers came down. I interpret that as horrible. In some parts of the world, people interpret that as a good thing and a long-time-coming.

So a well-rounded character indeed is the story he tells himself about himself — and every real person also is the story he tells himself about himself. These stories aren’t so much conscious movements along an intentional plot line. Instead, they are assumptions, beliefs, and expectations that may not even be consciously acknowledged.

In this sense, a person’s narrative view of his own life is not a self-help slogan and is not a social strategy but rather something more basic, more of a default mode, like sensory perception or simply memory.

Chances are, if I told you what your future was going to be like, and my narrative of your life greatly differed from your narrative of your life, you’d get angry or annoyed — or just think I’m crazy. You’d be well within your rights to feel any number of things, even insulted!

However, sometimes, a traumatic event, a book, a counselor, or a close friend will alter some of those subjective constructions, thus opening the individual’s life to a kind of mental-and-emotion rewrite of the story — seeing the past differently, reassessing future expectations — and perhaps opening new path.

In my current Strange Days column, I write about the large number of stories in the United States right now, and how they seem to be fragmenting social and cultural cohesion.

Here’s a relevant quotation I just found (several days after I posted this entry):

“Memoir must be written because each of us must have a created version of the past. Created: that is, real, tangbile, made of the stuff of a life in place and in history. And the down side of any created thing as well: we must live with a version that attaches us to our limitations, to the inevitable subjectivity, of our points of view. We must acquiesce to our experience and our gift to transform experience into meaning and value. You tell me your story, I’ll tell you my story.” — Patricia Hampl, in her essay “Memory and Imagination”

New study explains why Episcopalians have better analytical and problem-solving skills

At the University of Illinois in Chicago, researchers have made a stunning discovery:

They found that men with a couple beers under their belts were actually  better at solving brain-teasers than their sober counterparts.

To reach that surprising conclusion, the researchers devised a bar game in  which 40 men were given three words and told to come up with a fourth that fits  the pattern.

For example, the word “cheese” could fit with words like “blue” or “cottage” or “Swiss.”

Half the players were given two pints. The other half got nothing.

The result? Those who imbibed solved 40% more of the problems that their  sober counterparts.

Also, the drinkers finished their problems in 12 seconds while it took the  non-drinkers 15.5 seconds.

“We found at 0.07 blood alcohol, people were worse at working memory tasks,  but they were better at creative problem-solving tasks,” psychologist Jennifer Wiley  reported on the Federation of Associations in Behavioral and Brain Sciences  (FABBS) site.

Read the full article in the New York Daily News: http://www.nydailynews.com/life-style/health/beer-men-smarter-study-article-1.1059752#ixzz1sDzrEWkV

I still like U2’s ‘Pop’ — Part 1

Pop, released in 1997, might be U2’s smartest, edgiest album.

Behind the glitz and glam of the album’s packaging (and the accompanying tour), Pop goes uncompromisingly deeper than most pop music, taking on several religious themes in an indirect yet profound way.

On the band’s website, Bono said of Pop,  “We’ve had to get the brightly coloured wrapping paper right, because what’s underneath is not so sweet.”

Not so sweet, indeed — and you know that if you’ve given the album a serious listen.

Here’s an excerpt from the lyrics to “The Playboy Mansion.”

If O.J. is more than a drink

And a Big Mac bigger than you think

And perfume is an obsession

And talk shows – confession

What have we got to lose?

Another push and we’ll be through

The gates of that mansion.

I never bought a lotto ticket

I never parked in anyone’s space.

The banks they’re like cathedrals

I guess casinos took their place.

Love, come on down

Don’t wake her she’ll come around.

Chance is a kind of religion

Where you’re damned for plain hard luck.

I never did see that movie

I never did read that book.

Love, come on down

Let my numbers come around.

–“The Playboy Mansion,” U2

Cover of "Pop"

Cover of Pop


‘We aren’t the world’

… as I’ve watched the recent news from around the globe, I’ve come to an undeniable conclusion: We aren’t the world.

At least we in America aren’t much like the rest of the world, and that’s mostly a good thing.

While we argue about our need to reclaim something we’ve lost, or to add something we’ve never had, only 34 percent of us believe the U.S. is headed in the right direction.

Still, we’re going about the heated discussions in far better ways than other countries.

We have something other countries don’t. I’m not sure exactly what it is, but consider some contrasts….

Read “We aren’t the world.”

Seeking nuance and balance in Christian engagement with culture

As Brett McCracken (author of Hipster Christianity) announces his second book, he reflects on the need for nuance, balance, and moderation in Christian engagement with popular culture.

You might also like McCracken’s 2008 essay for LiturgicalCredo, entitled “Concealing Darkness: What Beijing had in common with The Dark Knight,” available here.

Announcing... Book No. 2 It’s been almost a year since Hipster Christianity, my first book, was released. Thank you to all those read it, responded to it, engaged it and supported me throughout the process of it. HC was a thrilling, humbling, once-in-a-lifetime experience. You only write your first book once, after all. I’m thrilled with the conversations it started, and I thank God for giving me the opportunity to contribute to such an important ongoing discussion, both … Read More

via The Search

Why the medium must change if the message is to remain the same

Cover of "The Courage to Be"

Cover of The Courage to Be

“It is not always personal doubt that undermines and empties a system of ideas and values. It can be the fact that they are no longer understood in their original power of expressing the human situation and of answering existential human questions. (This is largely the case with the doctrinal symbols of Christianity.) Or they lose their meaning because the actual conditions of the present period are so different from those in which the spiritual contents were created that the new creations are needed. (This was largely the case with artistic expression before the industrial revolution.) In such circumstances a slow process of waste of the spiritual content occurs, unnoticeable in the beginning, realized with a shock as it progresses, producing the anxiety of meaninglessness at its end.” — Paul Tillich, in The Courage to Be

I realize, of course, this could cut against everything from liturgical worship to Reformed systematics. The purpose of the cutting, however, is the central matter.

I find Tillich’s The Courage to Be to be very clear and resourceful in understanding non-rational aspects of human experience, especially anxiety and existential matters.

Searching for additional links for this post, I read something online that made me angry. I hate it when Tillich is labeled merely as “liberal theologian” by conservatives, as if that’s all there is to say about Tillich. Did John Calvin call Seneca a “hell-bound heathen”? Did Thomas Aquinas describe Aristotle as a “Yahweh-rejecting pagan”? Today’s reflexive conservative critics of “liberal theologian” Tillich eagerly mine Christ-denying, idolatrous contemporary culture for metaphors and illustrations. It’s almost like they’re saying, “Claim Christianity without our doctrinal point of view, and we’ll skewer you; but provide mass-market entertainment with a pseudo-religious redemption narrative, and we’ll gush about you in our sermons.” Wow — how do you define schizophrenia? Here’s the cure: Read Tillich. He doesn’t have to be  R I G H T  on all things to offer rich, insightful assessments of familiar human predicaments.

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