A combination of two of my favourite things--men's tailoring and skulls. Artist Hormazd Narielwalla creates a series of memento mori out of dead men's tailoring patterns. A unique take on a very familiar idea.
I have noticed a bit of a shift in the way people seem to be reading books. What I have to say is both anecdotal and not even fully thought-through, but I wanted to get some thoughts out as this is something I have been coming into contact with lately.
There is, of course, much debate about books--whether they are dead(like rock music,cds, cassettes, vinyl etc.), because new technologies are offering other ways of accessing information. There are those who bemoan the shift to digital and e-books of various incarnations--the debate is essentially not much different from the vinly versus mp3 conversation--each side arguing the benefit of their preference. personally I am an equal opportunity consumer--I enjoy the various mediums for different reasons and purchase books accordingly.
The conversation that interests me more, is the 'how we are reading' because I think that has changed quite dramatically. In my various professions I spend quite a lot of time in environments where books and their content are often a principle focus--classrooms, discussion groups etc. What I have noticed is a subtle shift in attitude towards books. I find many people, including lots of grad students, incapable of actually reading a book by its own limits--most academic books of any worth state the intentions up front and usuaslly sketch out the landscape and the criteria by which a particualr subject will be addressed. But is is amazing how little effect that seems to have on the interaction readers have with it. They apply their own criteria to it--and maybe that is the point I am trying to make--we read our own views onto the text and judge it based on our own preferecnes rather than engaging with its content and coming to conclusions afterwards--we like or dislike--based on our apriori views. It's another example of the judgment culture we live in (see Lauren Zalaznick's Ted Talk), and it doesn't promote learning in my opinion.
Perhaps it is just me, but I find it increasingly difficult to have a book discussion about a book and not have everything surrounding the book--the information not included in its pages, dominating and shaping the conversation. on one level i dont think this is completely new--but what is new I think is the way books and authors are approached now. We come at books aware that they are incomplete tomes--the wealth of information we can access about a particualr topic is so great that we know a book will only scratch at certain pieces of an issue or topic, but even though we know the limitations, there seems to be an unforgiveness, or perhaps an expectancy, that everything will be included anyway.
I may not be making sense or I might be saying something others have known for years. I can only say that in the past couple of years of teaching I am seeing this more and more. It seems to reflects a certain polarizing within the culture--we read what we want to read and avoid the contrary or converse opinion, or if we read it, we cannot get beyond what 'we think' to let the author present his or her argument before. I find it a frustrating exercise these days. It's not first a question of whether or not we 'like' a book, it is about whether or not there are ideas and things to interact with, whether the author has delivered on a particular promise, whether they actually wrote about what they said they were going to write about--there is too much preferential judgment and not enough engagement with a text if you ask me--whether it is in print or digital.
I have had a rugged time lately dealing with a number of situations and circumstances which are quite dire (it's partly the cause for my lack of blogging). These are not personal challenges, but situations that people in my various work lives are facing. Serious illness, family challenges etc. the stuff of life that can really level you and bring you to the end of yourself. Circumstances like this are the kind that you wouldn't wish on your worst enemy, that said, however, beyond the pain of these circumstances, what has been most troubling to me is the amount of magical thinking and conspiracy/urban legend ideas that combine to create almost hopeless scenarios from which it seems there can be no escape.
I find myself very troubled by a certain religiosity and a conceptual framework that emerges from it which some people seem to put a lot of trust in. Now I realize that we all deal with situations in life in our own ways, and our own unhealthful perspectives are probably just as bad as anyone elses way of dealing with life (and I make these criticisms with the full acknowledgement of my own tendencies to avoid, defer, delay, disconnect, sever and run from most of the difficult issues and situations of my life), but when life throws a major hurdle at someone and the response to it is built upon a combination of strange ideas about how god 'works,' old wives tales about health issues and a general sense of fear about and towards life, I find myself getting quite angry at those whose trade is religion and who in some ways perpetuate a lot of this.
I wouldn't perhaps be so frustrated by this, were it not for the fact, that I have heard this kind of stuff, in one form or another, over and over again in the almost thirty years I have been involved with church, religion and the like. I keep hearing it, at the seminary I teach at, on the television (there was loads of it expressed at the funeral for whitney houston that I stumbled across today--platitudes, making it all seem so simple to grasp), at the church I work at. This thinking is not limited to uneducated people, it is everywhere--it is not limited to religious people either--its seems perhaps to be a part of the makeup of what it means to be a human living at this end of human history I think--we carry concepts and ideas that are well past their sell-by-date and they hold profound sway upon the way we approach life. Though it may not be limited to religious people it certainly appears a lot in the religious environs I inhabit and it grows more and more troubling to be around it everyday.
Magical thinking is causal reasoning and it is easy to see how that connection can be made to circumstances when religion gets involved in the mix--at least I can say that from my engagement with judeo-christian views on cause and effect. For instance, "what you reap, you sow," still holds immense power for people, regardless of the fact that an honest look at life will tell you--"not always" some real bastards have escaped any sowing of what they reaped (hence the fabrication of heaven I suppose--where everybody eventually 'gets their due'). When causal thinking is sanctified and more shallow theological thinking and snippets of scare-tactic ideas are mixed in the combo is explosive.
I know that life is understood by more than rational thinking but every once in a while i want to shake a few people and demand that for once they take off their religiosity-smeared glasses and look at life with a different lens--the devil is not out to get them, they are not in a spiritual warfare battle because the doctor looked pensive while he was doing the biopsy, they haven't upset god, and if by some mad chance they had pissed off god enough to bring them to this place in their life, surely their own belief in grace and jesus would be enough to let them know that their sins are not accounted to them--Jesus!! I just want to scream right now. I completely get why all the detractors of religion are so militant--some of it is completely bloody nuts, and worse, it leads people into terrible places in their life.
Tomorrows lectionary gospel is Mark's account of the Transfiguration of Jesus--a strange tale for Mark to tell smack dab in the middle of his somewhat dark account of the life of Jesus-a resurrection story written back into the account to perhaps offer those early follower some comfort or guidance in the midst of the shitstorm of their existence. What struck me most about the story was the response of Peter, one of the disciples. It's his misplaced piety that sticks out--he is enthusiastic, ecstatic even, and wants to make shrines for Jesus and Moses and Elijah (if you don't know the story--it's in the Bible--Mark 9)--but he is completely off-base, that is the last thing that needs to happen. We are told by the writer that his response is simply fear-driven and that fear cuts him off from experiencing the very thing that might perhaps sustain in his moment of fear. We tend to locate our ideas of the sacred in a particular way, or in a specific location(my church/synagogue/mosque/temple etc)--but it is often fear that drives that choice and the transfiguration story is an invitation to experience something else, something more--in fact a 'sense of the more' is what permeates the story for me.
i realize that my views about sacredness, about religion, about god, are different than others, and i have no desire or need to convert anyone to my way of looking at it all, but I do strongly resist the way people speak and act for god when it is ultimately fear that is driving things. perhaps we need to deal with ourselves, our desires, our drives and our fears before we can start to think about god in meaningful ways.
I have begun reading Simon Critchley's book, The Faith of the Faithless: Experiments in Political Theology, in which he speaks of understanding the history of political forms as a series of metamorphoses of sacralization. I like that phrase. In my doctoral thesis I wrote about what i called rhyzomic sacralization-the idea that in the 21st century religion moves along the surface of the globe like a web, rather than on a horizontal/vertical axis--both comments point I think, to my larger intuition that religion, and how we understand it is shifting and changing, and not to shift and change with it, is to be left holding nothing much, when you really, really need to be holding something of substance and weight. We need symbols, icons, artifacts, be they religious or otherwise, to help us live in the chaos of our moments, but if and when those things begin to turn anchors they wont help much.
Sorry for the rambling, disconnected thoughts, just some of the stuff rumbling around my head and heart.