Whose Metanarrative?

I’ve been watching TED lectures during my breaks for the last couple of days, and just now at lunchtime I watched this talk by Alain de Botton.  The talk, if you don’t feel like watching it yourself, is about redefining success in modern culture.  de Botton says an awful lot of things that I agree with very deeply.

His most interesting point is that, no matter how much we like to pretend they are, our societies are not strict meritocracies but that there are many accidental factors that go into the making of the life of any given person.  This means that just because someone isn’t “successful” in the minds of the general public (rich, famous, blah blah), it does not follow that they are intrinsically unworthy.*  De Botton goes on to suggest that we should show much more something to people who are not “successful” in the popular sense.  I say something because he never really defines what he means.  It’s like being nicer to those people, but without the sense of patronizing them.  It’s like understanding those people and understanding that given a different set of circumstances you or I could be in that self-same situation, but with the additional burden of also loving them.  What he’s talking about, though he never uses the term, is grace.  Not ballet-dancer kind of grace, but the grace-of-our-Lord-Jesus-Christ kind of grace.

De Batton also talks about the importance of strong father/mother role models in the lives of men/women respectively, and how what we need in a father (or mother) is a combination of firm discipline to instill in us the sense that we are responsible creatures, and deeply compassionate love to remind us that we are also subject to the vicissitudes of life.  He is describing, whether he knows it or not, the Christian conception of God and also the Christian conception of good human parenting.

When I had this thought during his talk it struck me that, though de Batton explicitly characterizes himself as a secularist, I was listening to the Christian metanarrative (that is, the Christian story or worldview).  Note that when de Batton cherry-picks from another thinker he doesn’t go to Nieztche or Plato, he goes to St. Augustine of Hippo.  I was tangentially involved with a conversation on Jon’s blog a few months ago where the claim was put forward that Christianity is basically just a religiousy version of the culture in which it is found.  This is certainly true some of the time, but it is important to note that the waters run both ways on this issue.  Whether he would admit it or not de Botton is, in this talk, pinching a Christian idea and dressing it in a secular waistcoat.  The problem, I would contend, is that disassociating the idea of grace from God robs the concept of both its legitimate philosophical underpinnings and also of its ultimate power and authority.

*I freely grant the tension here between this and my recent post on personal responsibility.  The tension is important, but that’s not what I want to talk about here.  Perhaps in a future post.

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TED…

My father-in-law put me on to this great site called TED (Technology/Entertainment/Design…though they’ve branched out into other disciplines now). It has short presentations on all sorts of topics (from world poverty to physics) given by experts and public figures, some of whom are rather well known (e.g. Michelle Obama on education). The best part? They’re all absolutely free. I’ve only tapped bits and pieces so far, but what I’ve seen has been very interesting indeed. The catch-phrase for TED is “Ideas Worth Spreading.” Seems to me spreading interesting ideas is a practice worth pursuing.

Personally I’m going to start with this presentation by Alisa Miller on modern news-media, and then this presentation by Ken Robinson on creativity-centred education.

Update:

Well I’ve listened to both talks now. Miller’s was short and she clearly felt a little nervous, but her point was excellent and her visuals particularly drove it home. What she said, in a nutshell, is that the American news-media is almost entirely worthless if one wants to know anything apart from whether or not Britney Spears is sticking with her current diet. This is something I already knew, but it is always worth repeating.

Robinson’s talk was quite a bit longer, almost 20 mins, and was exceptional. His presentation was funny, engaging, and (most importantly) powerful and pursuasive. His point in a nutshell is that we need to radically rethink the way that we approach education. One of the most important and telling truths that he pointed out is that in the modern education system the “best” product that an education can produce is a college professor. Speaking as a doctoral student and somebody who someday wants to be a college professor, this is a very bad thing. It’s not that college professors are not valuable, it’s just that being good with (a very select and narrowly defined part of) your brain should not be the gold-standard for worth in young people (or any person). Performance in school is one of the primary ways that we evaluate a person’s worth in our culture, and with our school systems designed as they are we are doomed to underevaluate brilliance in children who are great at something other than mathematics or language. In any case, this lecture in particular is worth your time.

Learning…

Bryan Bibb has a link to this excellent essay on pedagogy and the concept of learning.  There are any number of striking and intriguing bits in the paper, and I strongly encourage you to read it whether you are a teacher, student, or anybody else for that matter.  Which parts jumped out at me most strongly?

“Intellectual growth has been characterized as the progression from ignorant certainty to intelligent confusion” (15).  I don’t think I know anybody with an advanced degree or similar expertise in their field who would disagree with that statement.  The whole section in which this quotation is found is about how our attitudes to knowledge and learning change and develop throughout the educational process.  Very interesting stuff.

The other bit that hit me really hard was a the point-by-point comparison of A and C students right at the end of the paper.  There are two tables on pgs. 24-25 that compare the skills, attitudes, and habits of successful and unsucessful students.  After reading these I would suggest that these tables aren’t just about students, but in many ways could be re-applied to a variety of other social situations (the workplace and the home for instance).  What struck me most about these comparisons is that C students generally see themselves as victims and tend to take on passive roles.  This is especially notable in the second table.  Passivity is a major component in every “unsuccessful” box on that table.  This drives home an important truth that I think a lot people generally, and not just students, need to reflect upon.  Your education, your job performance, your family life…you have the ability to affect all of these things.  I’m not so naive as to suggest that these social situations are totally within a person’s individual control, but it’s equally ridiculous to think that they are totally out of our control.  Your boredom with your classes, your complaints about your teachers, your whining about your boss or your co-workers, these are all things that you have the ability to affect.  They are, to some degree, your responsibility.  You will never find, in other words, an A student who doesn not take responsibility for her own education.  You just won’t.

In any case, read the whole article, particularly if you’re an educator in any capacity.

District 9…

Thanks to some generous friends we had chance for a night out this evening and went to see District 9, a new film produced by Peter Jackson and directed by Neill Blomkamp.  My thoughts in brief?  Go see this movie.  There, now if you like you can just skip the rest, which are my thoughts at length.

The basic plot is pretty simple.  An alien spaceship comes to halt in the sky above Johannesburg.  It doesn’t move for a long time so the government cuts into the ship and finds a whole host of aliens who appear to be starving.  They are ferried down to the surface where a refugee camp is set up.  When the story proper picks up the aliens have been in the camp, which has now taken on the form of one of the worlds worst ghettos, for some 20 years.  The government of South Africa has contracted a company called Multi-National United (a private paramilatary firm, a la Blackwater) to clear the aliens (derogatorily called Prawns) out of the current camp in Johannesburg to a concentration camp hundreds of kilometers away.  The main character is Wikas van de Merwe, an MNU employee who is heading up the team serving eviction notice to the Prawns.  Things obviously get more complicated from there, but I’ll let you go watch the actual film.

First of all the direction is superb, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen a better use of CG in a film.  Additionally, Sharlto Copley, who plays van de Merwe, is excellent and carries some very powerful scenes.  He also provides a performance that convincingly captures every moment along a pretty extended arc of character development.

Some of the “bad guys” are a little too typical, and there are elements of the plot that might have felt formulaic in another movie.  The thing is, those two issues are very easy to ignore in this film, because it is so conceptually original.  I can honestly say that I’ve never seen an alien movie, or a sci-fi movie, anything like this.  The whole thing just felt so completely real in a way that sci-fi and fantasy never quite do.

The one point of difficulty thematically is something that seems to afflict an awful lot of movies that explore otherness.  It’s the human being (read White Male) who saves the alien (read African, Asian, Woman, insert subaltern here).  I’m never quite sure what to do with this problem.  These kinds of films are trying to challenge oppression, and are particularly interested in creating a sense of filial love in the oppressor for the oppressed.  District 9 does this very well by humanizing characters who are, quite literally, not human.  And it’s also necessary to humanize van de Merwe, who represents the oppressor, in order that we the audience might identify with him.  And it’s even necessary for the oppressor to be the main character because that’s who we as the audience must identify with most closely.  We are the oppressors, so we must see our oppression.  But how can you encourage an audience, particularly in Western culture, to identify with a completely non-heroic character?

Even taking this issue into account District 9 is a brilliant piece of work that everyone should go see.  If this film doesn’t garner at least a whole host of award nominations, to say nothing of actual awards, it will just serve as further evidence that Hollywood is filled with dilettantes and tools.

Me Read Hebrew Good…

In my continual attempt to break myself of some of my bad Hebrew habits (over reliance on Logos being the worst) I’m working on Hebrew pretty extensively this month.  Currently this is taking the form of working through Ehud Ben Zvi’s excellent workbook, Readings in Biblical Hebrew.  One of the great things about this workbook is that it requires that you have an actual Hebrew text open as you work through because the readings are not provided for you.  I’m using my trusty hard-copy BHS (no Logos allowed, except for checking GKC and BHRG which I don’t have in print…yes, even BDB is hard-copy, we’re back in the stone age here), and I just committed one of the sillier, though probably not totally uncommon, mistakes that one makes when reading Hebrew.  I was trucking along in 1 Sam 1, reading v. 12 which ends the first left hand page of 1 Sam in my BHS, and when the page ended I did what I always do when I finish a left hand page…I looked up and over and the right hand page.  Then I spent a couple of minutes being very, very confused.  Why is there a 3mp pronomial suffix here?  What the hell is that ‘sr doing?  Huh?  What’s going on here?!?!

Then I stopped, scratched my head sheepishly, and flipped the left hand page over where I found a perfectly sensible clause that fit very nicely indeed with the first part of v. 12.  Yes Colin, Hebrew reads right to left.  My lesson for the day.  Sigh.

Uh-Huh…

John Hobbins has a great post over on Ancient Hebrew Poetry about comparing and contrasting texts from different cultures (Genesis and Atrahasis are his examples).  Anybody interested in the relationship between the Bible and other surrounding cultures should read and think through what he says there, particularly the bit about contrastive approaches.  And the dialogue with Angie Erisman (whose excellent blog seems to have gone the way of all flesh) is also very valuable.  I like John’s description of intertextuality as a cultural web.  This serves as a corrective to those who use the term “intertextuality” to refer to any and every kind of allusion or reference and who constantly ascribe authorial intention to such connections.  Sometimes allusions are intentional, but a lot of the time they are just a consequence of cultural (or inter-cultural) meta-data, and discussions of intention and ascription and dependence are illegitimate.*

Also John’s notes regarding cultural divisions are very important.  “Culture” is a tough concept.  Where does one culture begin and another end?  How do we know?  Are these divisions simply arbitrary?  Just heuristic devices we use to keep our questions and answers straight?  I think they are probably more than arbitrary but it’s hard to know where to draw those lines.  One significant corollary for me is the question of the relationship between various levels of social interaction (family, community, culture, etc) and various sub-divisions of language (register, idiolect, dialect, language, etc).  One of the papers I’ll be writing in the near future will explore the possibility of using linguistic markers in concert with literary form in order to help identify and delimit passages in the Latter Prophets.  I still haven’t the faintest clue if it will work, but the problems inherent in inter-cultural relationships that John identifies in his post are the same problems that I’ll be facing as I try to eke out my methodology in that paper (albeit my questions will probably be more intra-cultural).

The moral of the story?  Whether inter or intra-cultural, these kinds of questions are difficult and lend themselves to tendentious arguments.  Great care is required.

*As a brief side-note, there are notable post-modern authors (e.g. Umberto Eco) who do make intentional use of intertextual irony, but even here I think such authors (Eco for certain) would admit that there are significant and important instances of intertextuality that are not a product of conscious authorial intention.  To extend John’s web metaphor, some strands are woven on purpose, and some strands are not.

A Three Hour Tour…

Well we’re back from our visit to Saskatchewan.  It was wonderful to be home with our families, and to let Grandma and Grampa, and Oma and Opa, and all of the aunties and uncles, dote on and spoil Liam.  We had an early birthday party for the little man while we were home and needless to say the only grandchild/nephew in either of our families made out like a bandit.  The vacation as a whole was lovely and relaxing and lots of fun.  And the trip back to Hamilton was a gong show.

If one were to catch a direct flight from Saskatoon to Hamilton (an impossibility with Westjet, by the by), that flight would probably take about 3.5 hours.  With airport waits and such the whole trip would probably take less than 5 hours door to door.  But there aren’t any direct flights from Saskatoon to Hamilton.  Instead you have to fly to Calgary (an hour’s flight in exactly the wrong direction) and catch a connector.  So our initial itinerary for the trip home included the one hour flight to Calgary (that left at 6:10am, which meant we were at the airport at 5:10), a two hour layover, and then the 4 hour flight to Hamilton.  The first bit went fine.  The layover was going fine as well.  We were keeping Liam happy and busy with various toys, stroller rides, and some strategic use of the portable DVD player Jin’s parents gave us (thank you!).  Then, with about 30 mins to go, we heard an announcement over the PA system.  Our plane had been (no I’m not kidding) struck by lightning.  Needless to say our flight was cancelled.  So we trundled off to get our lugguage and then went to the Westjet counter to see what they were going to do with us.  After standing in line for over an hour (where I chatted with some nice folks from Abbotsford) we were informed that Westjet could get us on a flight to Pearson Airport in Toronto with the promise of some kind of transport to Hamilton once we got there.  They very kindly gave us some food vouchers good in any of the airport’s restaurants, and we went off to wait some more.

We finally boarded our flight to Toronto at 12:30 or so (we’d been in the Calgary airport since shortly after 7am), and took off just before 1pm.  Liam was great the whole time.  He played well in the airport, and ate and played well in the restaurant, and when the plane finally took off he fell asleep on Jin’s lap straight away.  He slept for almost the whole flight, only waking up in time for the descent into Toronto.

We picked up our lugguage (which took forever…I hate big airports) and climbed aboard the shuttle bus Westjet had wrangled for us for the hour drive from Toronto to Hamilton.  Traffic was mercifully light and we pulled in to the Hamilton airport at around 6 Central time (8 EST, which we were now on).  Our friend Connan was kind enough to come pick us up, so we loaded up his minivan in the pouring rain (Hamilton rain, not Saskatoon rain…which to say real rain, not wussy rain) and set off for home.  On the way home we got a flat tire.  No, I’m not joking.  Mercifully the rain had stopped, and Connan and I didn’t get any wetter as we changed the tire.  We finally arrived at home at around 7:30pm Central (9:30 EST), having been travelling since 5:10am Central time.

And the funny thing?  Though we were horribly tired and rather hungry by the time we got home, it hadn’t really been all that bad a trip.  Liam was a trooper, Jin and I were mostly laughing about it by the end (the tire was particularly funny), and everyone got home safe (with the exception of Connan’s tire).  Still, I think I would have preferred the direct flight from Saskatoon to Hamilton.