Tag Archives: reading

Stanley Fish Slashes the Tires of the Humanities

That’s an overly dramatic title, but it sounds like Bonfire of the Vanities.

I always appreciate Stanley Fish’s point of view, even when I don’t agree with him. I think he is on the wrong side of the free-speech debate, but his recent essay, “Stop Trying to Sell the Humanities,” in The Chronicle of Higher Education, has a lot to love and consider.

Wait a sec—in case you don’t know what “the humanities” are, I like a definition from the Stanford Humanities Center, which reads in part:

“The humanities can be described as the study of how people process and document the human experience. Since humans have been able, we have used philosophy, literature, religion, art, music, history and language to understand and record our world.”

So as much as I like Fish’s recent essay, it is a bit painful for me when he says:

I hate to be the one to tell you, but there is no generalizable benefit to having led a life centered on great texts. It is sometimes thought that those whose careers are spent engaging with beautiful and stringent works of literature and philosophy will become, perhaps by osmosis, better persons than they otherwise would have been. Anyone who believes that hasn’t spent much time in English and philosophy departments.

That last sentence is supposed to be funny, in a darkly humorous way, and it really is.

Fish also analogizes the age-old faith and reason debate with one of the predicaments faced by universities today, that is, whether to continue supporting the humanities at all while demand for science and technology training grows. After considering some of the justifications for the humanities, he writes:

This line of humanities justification has taken many forms, usually involving pointed distinctions between body and soul, letter and spirit, techne and art. A number of famous debates — between Thomas Huxley and Matthew Arnold, C.P. Snow and F.R. Leavis, Alan Sokal and the editors of Social Text — participate in a long conversation between those who believe that science and the scientific method provide the way both to knowledge and the betterment of mankind, and those who believe that without the informing spirit of the humanistic perspective, scientific knowledge is a dead letter. (One can see this opposition in all of its variety as a subset of the larger, perdurable opposition between reason and faith.)

Just for clarity, the parenthetical comment is his. Considering these broad tensions sometimes described as sciences versus humanities, take a look at theologian Jurgen Moltmann’s questioning of the tension between Athens and Jerusalem.

My excerpts here could be misleading, taken by themselves, because Fish believes in the humanities and loves them. The question is whether they can be defended from the outside, or only from within. (Sometimes people will say, for example, a religion is internally coherent, yet open to external critique.)

While I don’t want to “side” with Fish against anyone I know in the digital humanities (and while I didn’t previously quite understand “digital humanities” in the way Fish describes), I really loved this helpful, insightful, foundational humanistic perspective within his critique of the digital humanities:

Think of puffs of smoke seen on a distant ridge; they could be just puffs of smoke, they could be smoke signals. How do you know? Not by just looking at them; it is only when you are persuaded—not by the data but by extratextual information—that a particular someone has designed the sequence that you will ask what message that someone might have wanted to send. Interpretation can’t get started without the prior identification of an intentional agent, and brute data, no matter how it is sliced and diced, cannot produce that identification by itself. 

I take that to mean, humanities people understand or are persuaded—in numerous situations and through numerous media—someone is trying to send a message, and that message should be comprehended and evaluated. If you and I give time and effort to intentional messages, are we acting in mere faith?

Your fast-track to becoming Senior Pastor at thousands of American churches

Fast-track to Senior Pastor at thousands of American churches

And if a few people actually read The New Testament for themselves and ask hard questions, just kick them out for being unspiritual.

Sorry not sorry — I couldn’t resist. My previous post is still pretty much the case, although I had to snap this photo. I was at a bookstore Friday night so my wife and I could look at interior decorating books for our home remodel, and so we could pick out Bibles for two of our daughters who were confirmed yesterday (in a church that requires much, much more than Spark Notes to enter full-time ministry). I forebade the NIV and ESV. But it’s easier to be snarky about two translations than to take the heat for the translations we bought, so consider this entire post to be just silly — as silly as Spark Notes for The New Testament.

We’re Still Reading Print Books! Thank Pew For The Good News

Having recently moved hundreds of my books into storage during some serious work on my house, I have questioned my judgment and my affinity for book-hoarding.

But somehow, even with the back strain of carrying cartons and boxes and bins of dead trees and ink — back strain that wouldn’t have existed if I had just had a bunch of e-books on a Kindle or Nook — the below graphics warm my heart.

(And I can’t wait to get all my shelves and books back into my office. As long as the floor holds up.)

Be sure to read the entire Book Reading 2016 report from Pew Research Center.
Print books continue to be more popular than e-books or audio books
Just 6% of Americans are digital-only book consumers
College graduates are especially likely to read books in both print and digital formats

Confession Time

I recently wanted to read a book that I couldn’t afford to purchase at the time. I found it in e-book format through the university’s library and obtained a 14-day loan (yes, some e-books actually have a sort of timer on them). I read most of it on my phone, some of it on my tablet. Along those lines:
More Americans are reading books on tablets and cellphones, even as dedicated e-reader use has remained stable

My Politically Incorrect Guide to Confident Public Speaking (and Life)

When You Don’t Have A Prayer

They didn’t help.

Prayer and sound doctrine and even more prayer weren’t working.

I was sitting at the front of the church, dreading the duty I had signed up for, this occasion being just a few years ago.

I had come to expect prayer and right-thinking would allow God to take care of any personal problem, as long as I was sincere.

I was scared to death, and I had volunteered to read a read “Prayers of the People,” a sort of call-and-response type of prayer, albeit a rather reserved and formatted call-and-response favored by white people and Anglophiles.

I had to read the prayers from the center of the aisle in the church. When I’m that scared, I can’t get the force of breath to speak loudly. I was standing in a large sanctuary with high ceilings. Later, an elderly friend would complain he couldn’t hear me during the prayers. I’m sure he wasn’t the only one.

I remember being terrified at the front of the church on more than one occasion. In robes, with my throat nearly collapsed from fear, I pushed a near-whisper into the microphone through my part of a special series of readings. For a split second, I thought I was going to run out of the sanctuary (I probably would have tripped on the robe). The next man who came forward boomed his voice into the microphone, clear and confident, and in the moment, it certainly felt like a backhanded comment on my delivery.

Statistically speaking, humans are more afraid of public speaking than death or spiders. Pause on that for a sec. That’s pretty crazy. I’m no fan of spiders. “Let this tarantula crawl across your arm, or speak to this auditorium of 2,000 people.” I’ll decide as soon as you loan me your pistol; I’ll just need one bullet.

Whatever contrary impression I might give these days, I was having a very difficult time back then admitting to myself I would have to find something other than prayer and fine-tuned beliefs to tackle my problem.

That seemed like the end of faith itself.

Socially scary as well as metaphysically scary.

To this day, I don’t know what to make of the success of self-initiated action instead of faith, even though prayer and theologically good thoughts didn’t work and didn’t work some more. I didn’t “wait upon the Lord.” I failed at faith.

In the months that followed those church readings and prayers, I didn’t get better. I got much worse. The problem was expanding, and seemed to be going deeper.

Eventually, I bought When Panic Attacks by Dr. David Burns. I had benefited from Burns’ Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy in the past because it taught me how to think about my feelings. Burns is one of the pioneers in cognitive-behavioral therapy.

Unfortunately, years ago, I had feared something about Feeling Good was at odds with my Christian faith, like the book wasn’t ultimately accurate, just a temporary crutch until I got my faith right enough to be whole and healed. Worse yet, I was a terribly A.D.D. and slow reader, so getting through what I attempted to read was a challenge. I could only get so much of the good method of thinking into my head.

But in my more recent struggles, I had one basic complaint about When Panic Attacks, related strictly to that particular moment in my life: the book was, largely, a workbook. I had used Burns’ writing and worksheet techniques before with Feeling Good, and they were useful. So I still appreciate Burns’ methods, and for whatever my opinion is worth, I highly recommend them.

At the particular moment, however, I felt like I really needed to understand things in a broader context. So the idea of doing worksheets and writing down and sorting through momentary problems—none of that appealed to me at the time. I needed something more foundational. I needed more of an integrated worldview, not a technique for managing flares of panic and anxiety.

I had brought When Panic Attacks with me to London. My in-laws were working over there for about three years, and they generously invited us over. (I secretly suspect their granddaughters are more interesting than their son-in-law.) I was in a small downstairs bedroom in their two-level rented flat (not far from Waterloo Station) when I noticed one of the blurbs on the back of When Panic Attacks, a blurb by Dr. Albert Ellis, who was, as the back cover said, author of A Guide to Rational Living.

Rational living — that sounded more like a worldview.

The Books That Saved Me From Myself

A Guide to Rational Living is not a philosophical counterpoint to a religious worldview. It’s not about rationalism versus faith.

A better definition of this kind of rational living comes from Margaret R. Graver, who once told me in an interview about her book, Stoicism and Emotion:

“The fact that human beings respond with fear and sadness to what we see as bad, and with desire and delight to what we see as good, is just part of our nature, imparted to us by the intelligent design of the universe. So there’s nothing wrong with that. But those responses still need to be examined in light of a correct understanding of what kinds of things are truly good or bad for a person. The essential ethical principle of Stoic thought is that only those things that are under a person’s own control are properly considered good or bad for that person.”

We’re talking about that kind of rational living.

Understand what you can control. Think about how you can control those things. Realize how pointless it is to attempt control over others’ perceptions and thoughts. Don’t worry about the rest.

After my visit to London, I ordered and began reading A Guide to Rational Living by Ellis while also reading Of Human Freedom, a Penguin Great Ideas edition of works by the ancient Stoic philosopher Epictetus.

The two books complemented each other spectacularly, brilliantly, near-perfectly.

Oddly enough, while Ellis walked me through his psychological philosophy with examples for every kind of scenario, Epictetus illustrated the irrationality of a musician who is terrified of performing in front of an audience.

So I was hearing from an ancient philosopher and a contemporary psychologist, both of whom were attacking the same issues from different angles.

Meanwhile, I had also begun reading Roger Ailes’ book, You Are the Message.

Combine a corny, self-help title with the news media’s most controversial personality, and you’ve got the recipe for an instant turn-off, at least among most of the people I know.

In which case, I’m both sorry and happy to say: It’s a brilliant book.

You Are the Message was the third leg of the stool.

Maybe you have to chalk Ailes’ magic up to the same dark forces he summoned to make Fox News a financial and ratings success story.

Either way, here’s his magic: He made me feel genuinely more confident. I don’t even know how he did it. That’s why I’m talking magic here.

With the magic, he also brought reasonable, graspable techniques and insights.

And like any good book, he opened my eyes to elements I can research on my own. For example, last year, I listened to a podcast—possibly one by Scientific American (if memory serves), maybe “30-Second Mind” — about research on the speed of one’s speech and how that relates to persuasion. That’s just one of the things Ailes’ book prepared me to be aware of; he put the topic on my radar.

Politically Incorrect?

I’ve said two things here that will anger cultural warriors of two distinct stripes.

  1. Prayer didn’t help with emotional matters.
  2. Fox News mastermind Roger Ailes wrote a great book.

But instead of getting bent out of shape about either politically incorrect statement, just read those three books.

Go to the library and hide the Ailes book behind the latest edition of Southern Living if your friends are so ideologically thin-skinned as to shun you Puritan-style for what you read.

Read those three books, and you stand a good chance of becoming a confident public speaker with a confidence that’s thorough—philosophically, psychologically, and technically.

Anglicanism, Episcopalians, and gay rights

Food for thought, from an 8-year-old book entitled Anglican Communion in Crisis: How Episcopal Dissidents and Their African Allies Are Reshaping Anglicanism:

In their conflicting positions on homosexuality, both sides view their positions on this issue as part of their religious identities and faith commitments. Although conservatives sometimes describe the liberal position as an adoption of secular humanist values from the surrounding culture, proponents of both the conservative and the liberal positions ground their arguments in understandings of God, scripture, and the church….

Liberal Christians generally do not take a literalist view of Scripture and offer less condemning readings of the biblical passages that conservatives take as denouncing homosexuality. One example comes from the book What the Bible Really Says about Homosexuality, by Roman Catholic priest David Helminiak. Helminiak writes: “Somehow God must be behind the fact that some people are homosexual. Then why should God’s word in the Bible condemn homosexuality? . . . There must be another answer. The mistake must be in how the Bible is being read.”

Helminiak’s statement hints at a second liberal argument, based on humanistic ideas about the naturalness and goodness of human nature. This argument holds that since some people experience themselves as homosexual, and since presumably God made them that way, then expressing their sexual orientation cannot be inherently wrong. Such views also rest on an incarnational theology that sees Jesus Christ’s taking on human form as validating humanity in a fundamental way. Human nature is seen not as negative and inimical to faith and purity, but as God’s gift, sanctified by Christ’s sharing in it. An element of liberation theology is present here as well, in the conviction voiced by many liberal Episcopalians that the gospel’s central message concerns freedom from oppression. [emphasis added]

— Miranda K. Hassett, in Anglican Communion in Crisis : How Episcopal Dissidents and Their African Allies Are Reshaping Anglicanism, Princeton University Press, 2007

In both of the above-boldfaced cases, notice how sovereignty, that key term for Reformation theology, is implied in the liberal Christian perspective.

As with literary criticism, so with Biblical interpretation

“Further, if the [literary] work is indeed a stable object, about which careful readers can make objective statements, then why hasn’t there been an emerging consensus in criticism? Instead, the history of criticism seems to be one of diversity and change, as successive critics provide innovatively different readings of the same work. Even in the sciences, the idea of an objective point of view has been increasingly questioned. Facts, as Thomas Kuhn has argued, emerge because of a certain system of belief, or paradigm….in the wake of Einstein’s theory of relativity, Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, Gödel’s mathematics, and much else, it seems clear that the perceiver plays an active role in the making of any meaning and that literary works in particular have a subjective status.” — Steven Lynn, in a chapter on reader-response criticism, in his book Texts and Contexts 

Lynn’s quotation stands to reason, regardless of the genre in question.

This is not to drop myself, or to attempt to drop anyone else, into the false dilemma that says either we accept everything as relative or we hold to absolute truth. I’m merely agreeing with the premise that “the perceiver plays an active role in the making of any meaning.”

In ways that are more or less accurate to the situation in which a text was written, readers, especially readers of the Bible, apply their interpretations of Scriptural passages to their lives.

To make more sense of this, let’s flip the issue around and look at it from a different angle.

Let’s say, for the sake of argument, a major research university has an original letter written by Saint Paul of New Testament fame. They have the very manuscript over which Paul’s hand once moved. All scholars and clergy, internationally, are permitted to view it (as much as travel funds allow). The scholars have the best possible understanding of the ancient cultural and social milieu in which the letter was written. They understand the language. They understand the themes, which they cross-reference with other letters written by Paul. Let’s say, for the sake of argument, all conditions are set for a perfectly accurate interpretation of the God-inspired letter. The social, cultural, literary, historical, and theological contexts are all understood to the point that a broad consensus — on the letter’s meaning and function within its audience — has been established.

What impact does this perfect interpretative situation have on a man in Marion County, South Carolina, who awakens to read his King James Version of the Bible and applies a passage to his life — while removed more than 2,000 years and a language from its presumed source?


“A Conflicts of Beliefs” — a bad document for Orthodox Anglicans and differences with The Episcopal Church

“Dear Lord, if only I had a simple faith in the Bible…”

Robert Heinlein with the counterpoints

Bible-based cult leader sentenced today

How and why community plays a role in interpreting the Bible

If you take the Bible literally…

‘the problem of Lewis the storyteller’ in Text Patterns at The New Atlantis

“I don’t think Lewis was by any means a natural storyteller, and all of his fiction suffers to one degree or another from his shortcomings in this regard,” sayeth literary critic and distinguished humanities professor Alan Jacobs. “Every time he sat down to write a story he was moving outside the sphere of his strongest writerly gifts.” To get Jacobs’ full view on the matter, as well as a few words about storytelling differences between C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, read the entire post here: “the problem of Lewis the storyteller – Text Patterns – The New Atlantis”.