Friday, September 12, 2014

Talking about History without Sounding Like a Crazed Conspiracy-theorist




When Conservatives write books about problems with modern culture, they usually include a chapter on the unsavory, nefarious, or at least shockingly-misguided history of the particular ideas behind the problem that they are critiquing. Thus, a book about abortion talks about the eugenics movement, a book about the perils of public schooling talks about Dewey and social engineering, and a book about the sex education movement shreds Mr. Kinsey.

All of this is of course useful (I have known a few Conservatives who seem to think of history merely as a series of exposés, but I'm not talking about them). Yet the approach can easily sound like an addiction to conspiracy theories as a way to explain the evils in the world. How can one write about the perils of bad ideas without falling into a conspiracy trap? How can one understand the people in the past with whom one disagrees?

I think that most people who campaign to change the world are genuinely trying to do good. It is important to remember this.

Out of this mental process came an article which is in The Federalist today.



When Goodness Goes Bad
Belief in the goodness of man addicts people to change for change’s sake 
and causes social polarization.

Approximately a decade ago, I applied for a retail job. The application included questions such as, “Do you think people are: (a) basically good or (b) basically bad?” It also inquired whether I thought that, given the opportunity, (a) all people, (b) some people, or (c) very few people, would commit theft. I knew perfectly well the department store was relying on the fact that dishonest people tend to believe most people are dishonest. If I (acting upon the historic Christian claim that we humans are all sinners) clicked on “people are basically bad,” the application would declare that I was “not a good psychological fit” and the retail chain would not hire me, because they would have no way of knowing my theological beliefs would also prevent me from pocketing their merchandise whenever the supervisors weren’t looking. Their algorithm was not prepared to process an outlook that did not mesh with popular social psychology.

Read the whole article here.


Monday, September 8, 2014

Not Just the Pretty Babies



I'm in The Federalist today.

The Pro-life Movement is About Sacrifice, Not Sentimentality
Gentle lighting casts a glow across the perfect, healthy, Caucasian newborn who sleeps in a cocoon of white blanket. The photographer has captured the baby-ethos that tugs on the heartstrings of any member of the human race with half a heart, and it is hard to look at the picture without an inward, “Aww.” The text that is superimposed over the photo says, “Not a mistake. Not a problem. Not a burden. Not an inconvenience. Not a nuisance. Not an accident. Not a punishment.” Then, in larger font, “A miracle.” It is all very lovely. And yet when I see the meme in my facebook feed, it makes me, a pro-life advocate and an ardent fan of babies, a little uncomfortable. 
“Baby J” is one of the reasons. His picture has also been posted to my feed. In his photograph, he lays in a hospital bed, his little face partially obscured with tubes and tape. This six-week-old has already undergone heart surgery. He depends on a ventilator to keep his lungs open, is expected to spend life breathing through a tracheotomy tube, and has been rejected by his biological family. He currently has no relatives to visit him in the hospital. The adoption agency that has posted information about “Baby J” states he will do best with a family that can provide one-on-one, lifelong care. Unlike the baby in the pro-life meme, this little guy does not glow beneath the lens of a camera.

Read the article here.


***


I've also written semi-recently about modesty. "If the Skirt Fits, Wear It?"

“Your dresses should be tight enough to show you're a woman and loose enough to show you're a lady.” Edith Head (legendary costume designer of old Hollywood)

Read the article here.


Wednesday, September 3, 2014

The Unfinished Manuscript: a Jane-Austen-Themed Party Game


One of my sisters  got married this summer, so, as a "bachelorette" activity, I prepared a Jane Austen-themed game that we could play over breakfast in a cafe.

It's called "The Unfinished Manuscript," and the concept is that the participants are completing the plot of a novel that Miss Austen was unable to finish.

The players are introduced to four gentleman of varying fortune. They (the players) must accumulate points in four categories (beauty, amiability, accomplishments, and finance) in their quest to obtain a husband. Finance points are earned by correctly answering Jane Austen trivia questions, conveniently divided into three levels of difficulty ("Very clever, moderately clever, or very dull indeed"). Strategic thinking is involved, because only the correct combination of points will secure the husband that one most prefers. Some of the players will fail to obtain any husband at all.

Because I am a generous person who also likes to provide the world with blog posts, I am (drumroll) sharing the game with you all! You can all play it! Your friends and family can play it! It will be delightful!

The instructions and trivia questions that I wrote are to be found here.

You will probably wish to also provide portraits for the four gentlemen whose descriptions are found in the instructions. I pulled regency portraits off the web, cropped them into ovals, printed them at Staples in the size of regency miniatures, cut them out, and hung them on ribbons with "wedding bands" attached. These portraits functioned as prizes. Thus:





Here are the images that I used:








Feel free to link to this post, should you wish to share the game with others, but, of course, please don't steal it or distribute it without providing credit.



Wednesday, August 20, 2014

The Game of Kings (review)

by Dorothy Dunnett, 1961 
Lymond Chronicles, #1

Scotland, technically under the rule of a pre-school-aged Queen Mary, is ravaged by constant warfare. The regent of England hopes to carry off the Scottish Queen and eventually marry her to England’s own boy king, Edward VI. Nobles on both sides shift allegiance with the tide of battle (many Scotsman are even forced to request permission from their own side to offer insincere fealty to the English, and must then juggle their duel-status in hopes of preserving some shreds of their estates). Throughout these tides of warfare, an outlawed, dashing figure runs amok. His name is Culter of Lymond. Believed to be a traitor to Scotland, he is pursued with hatred by both sides, and appears to serve only himself while making fools of everyone else. He is an anti-hero with a vocabulary to rival any character in literature, and a gift of oratory that might silence Lord Peter Wimsey himself. In fact, he is in some ways what Lord Peter might have been, had his lordship been born in the age of the sword instead of that of the machine gun.

Mary eventually wed the 
prince of France,
not the king of England.
Word-lovers will revel in the language of this tale. It is definitely a swashbuckler: constant adventure, topsy-turvy shifts of fate, disguises, repartee, and intrigue, all staged among a wide cast of vivid individuals. I myself appreciate the author’s deft handling of her characters. Many of them could easily have been stereotypical, single-dimensional, and annoying; and yet they all manage to come across as eminently human and almost universally sympathetic. This is fortunate, since otherwise, the constant adventure might have been too much for me. As Edith Nesbit’s Oswald Bastable would say, this book is a ripping good yarn. 


Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Five Links: Literary Culture and Supporting Good Art


A vibrant, Christian culture is important. Stories and ideas are important. Art is important. Yet how do we craft good stories and real art from a Christian perspective, so as to build and define a vibrant culture? I think that these links are all helpful.

***

Katie Schuermann talks about the sorry state of Christian fiction, and delivers a call to do better.

“Weekend Fisher” blogs about how one of the things that art and literature can do is to capture, and communicate, what it is to have a religious experience.

Suzannah of Vintage Novels makes some fascinating points about the difference between being an imaginative and an introspective reader.  

I’ve already posted this, but in case you missed it, here is an explanation of why modern critics don’t like old books (and, by extension, why even good Christian fiction might not be considered “artistic” by the critics).


***

Also, on an almost entirely unrelated note, I got to experience my first (brief) for-the-radio interview today. It was about an article I wrote for Sister, Daughter, Mother, Wife. You can find the interview here.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

An Enticing Idea


I wrote a story this week in the style of a folk tale (I am still in the stage during which I think my story is very, very good indeed, purely out of authorly affection-- critical identification of its flaws will come later). My husband commented that the theme of the tale is actually quite Lutheran.

This gave me an idea.

Wouldn't it be delightful to write a book of original fairy tales from a Lutheran perspective, and see if CPH would publish it?

They would probably look with raised eyebrows at a query letter about fairy tales, but still!

Ha, if I ever write that story about the enchanted Book of Concord, it will of course take a place of honor in this volume.





Friday, July 25, 2014

Seven Literary Lectures of a Very Brief Nature (including, "How to Interpret Mansfield Park")


Watercolor by Diana Sperling (The family at dinner)


1. Let’s not be ridiculous

People call Mansfield Park a “controversial” book because Fanny is passive and quiet, and accuse Jane Austen of suggesting that passivity is the way to get a man. How silly. If we applied this logic to the other books, we should accuse Miss Austen of also teaching that the way to win a husband is to accuse his father of murder (Northanger Abbey), be overly gullible in the presence of flattering fellows who tell lies (Pride and Prejudice), or wait until your crush’s current date acquires a head-wound (Persuasion).


Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Rags-to-Riches, Political Correctness, and Andrew Carnegie’s Autobiography


I am currently reading THIS free edition of Andrew Carnegie’s autobiography. It offers a thought-provoking window into a particular time and place.* Carnegie was the son of poor but respectable parents (his beloved father was a weaver who, in his son’s words, “failed to anticipate” and adapt to new methods of mechanization, and therefore was slowly driven out of business). In hopes of raising their fortunes, the family emigrated from Scotland to Pittsburgh, and thirteen-year-old Carnegie immediately joined the workforce. His third job, that of a telegram delivery boy, put him into contact with the railroad industry that was to make his fortune. Carnegie worked for the Pennsylvania railroad for some time before becoming a rail manufacturer and businessman on his own. His rise to wealth is of course legendary, as is his delight in “giving back” by funding libraries and cultural institutions across the nation and abroad. I have to laugh at the American insularity that resulted in complaints about his generosity to "foreign places" like his native Scotland.

The events of Carnegie's life are illustrative of the business changes that were then remolding the face of America. The book is not overly self-congratulatory (so far-- I'm not finished yet), and freely acknowledges various mistakes that Carnegie made in his career as well as his debt to many partners and employees along the way. Yet it is the sort that P.G. Wodehouse sometimes makes fun of (see “The Man, the Maid, and the Miasma” in The Man Upstairs and Other Stories, available for free from project Gutenberg). Carnegie’s story is part of the narrative that was so popular in the late Nineteenth and early Twentieth Centuries—the idea that any truly bright, truly deserving boy, from any class, can (and perhaps will) become a millionaire. He need only guard and develop his moral character, cultivate knowledge by studying in his free time, and always go above and beyond in his job. Eventually, his employers will notice and promote him. Thus his chance will come.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

The Conflict Between "Art" and "Message" (or, Infiltrating the Arts, Part II)

If you are inclined to read Part II of this series, it is available at Sister, Daughter, Mother, Wife.

Here's a quote.
It is important to recognize that the most important thing is not to set about creating A Book That Will Convert Everyone or a movie That Tells It Right and Silences All Those Annoying Liberals. What we really need is to cultivate and support good art, and to teach and encourage good Christian thinkers. A thoughtful Christian who is writing, painting, composing, or directing will naturally portray truth as he sees it. He will be able to create material that is based on truth, rather than focused on combatting specific, narrow errors. However, if this Christian is shaped by mainstream values, his output will reflect Hollywood, Oprah, or whatever other source has shaped his view of life and truth.

It is perhaps especially difficult to create literature from a Christian perspective in a world that sees cynicism and despair as more true, and more artistic, than joy or goodness. THIS is a thought-provoking article about that very issue.

So-- what is the solution?


Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Infiltrating the Arts, Part I

Stories are powerful. Can the arts (broadly defined to include popular forms of storytelling) be used to shape people's beliefs? Can they be used a subtler form of apologetics?

Conflicts about ideas and beliefs tend to be messy. This is in part because, even if ideas themselves are logical, human allegiance to them is based on a chaos of feelings, assumptions, and preferences. Often we are not even aware of the presuppositions with which we approach an argument. Merely being right does not necessarily make a position convincing. When Christians try to engage in the interplay of ideas, we often find that our audience does not just disagree with us—instead, it actually cannot give us a fair hearing, and cannot truly understand what we say. This is observable in many different settings. Missionaries to unreached peoples cannot start with the story of Good Friday and Easter, but must first teach Genesis and the concepts of sin, God, and the soul. Missionary-citizens in the United States are also faced with a culture that is often a barrier to communication. Addressing these barriers is part of what we call apologetics.

Read the rest of the article HERE.



Wednesday, June 4, 2014

A Sort of Vacation Notice

Dear Readers,

If you happen to notice a lack of posts for a week or three, that is because I am engaging in the following pursuits.

I am:

Packing baby toys, baby food, extra baby diapers,
and etc., so as to prepare my child to . . . .

. . . . take a plane across the country. . . .


. . . . where we will enjoy many cups of tea
with relatives and old friends. . . . 



. . . . play a Jane Austen-inspired
bachelorette game. . . . 



. . . . hope that my son sleeps,
despite the time change, and does
not insist on getting up at 3 a.m. because
he thinks that it is 6 a.m. . . . 


. . . . get my dear sister married. . . . 


. . . . fly back home. . . .



. . . . where we will load up our belongings . . . .


. . . . transport them. . . .




. . . . move into our new house . . . .



. . . . and then, write more blog posts!

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Does Modern Respect for Artists Undermine Art?



People used to respond to art with strongly-worded judgment. They might declare a particular piece to be good, bad, dangerous, correct, incorrect, beautiful, or overwhelming. They put their fists were their words were, too. For instance, a calculated and bloody riot occurred over one of Victor Hugo’s new plays, and it included beating up critics who opposed his Romanticism. People would also incur financial losses for the sake of their artistic judgment. For example, Theodore Roosevelt refused to sell a large screen of Tiffany glass back to its creator and instead ordered that the “decadent” piece be smashed.* I am struck by how seriously people once took art. How many of us today would riot about an offensive painting or drama? How many of us would take a fist to the mouth for literature, or strain our throats heckling a playwright? Imagine the scandal if we did! Nowadays, simply criticizing the ideas behind a work of art can be enough to earn one the reputation of an uncouth, would-be censor.

I find it curious, as well, that so much great art was created by people who were viewed as craftsmen and, in a sense, merely well-trained laborers. Leonardo da Vinci worked during an era in which artists did not even sign their work, and when many pieces were the work of a studio instead of an individual. Johann Sebastian Bach was a mere church organist whose workaday compositions happened to be rather brilliant, but which were not seen as particularly artistic (he did not fit the mold of an Enlightenment musician). Nowadays we have elevated the status of artists. We tend to speak of art and artistic creativity as something romantic, high-brow, and rebellious. Artists must be uncensored and unfettered. They cannot be “wrong.” They should challenge prevailing notions. They must not follow any specifications but their own inner vision. They should wear their hair differently from everyone else. Their work is seen as different from workaday, useful, mechanical skills and endeavors. It is at once freed from the practical sphere and the moral sphere (this is a change from the day in which Roosevelt would smash a stained-glass screen because of its supposedly immoral effect).  

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