The Unimpressive Press Redux

Is it just me, or is the press at White House press conferences becoming increasingly less-than-cerebral with their questioning? Taking their cues from a press conference a year ago, the group on hand last night bordered on the silly at times. While last year’s questions dealt with whether or not President Bush felt sorry (for the war in Iraq), this year he was confronted with questions like this:

Mr. President, a majority of Americans disapprove of your handling of Social Security, rising gas prices and the economy. Are you frustrated by that and by the fact that you are having trouble getting attraction on your agenda in a Republican-controlled Congress?

This reporter was apparently deeply concerned whether or not the president felt frustrated. Has it really come to the point where a president’s feelings are the topic du jour for a press conference?

Does TV Make Us Smarter?

Steven Johnson argues in the New York Times Magazine that watching TV makes you smarter. Oddly enough, he chooses a magazine—a thoroughly word-based media—to make his point.

The article is long, but the crux of the Johnson’s point is that TV shows today have plot lines that are so complex, a person can’t help but grow more intelligent by watching them. He writes:

…To make sense of an episode of ”24,” you have to integrate far more information than you would have a few decades ago watching a comparable show. Beneath the violence and the ethnic stereotypes, another trend appears: to keep up with entertainment like ”24,” you have to pay attention, make inferences, track shifting social relationships. This is what I call the Sleeper Curve: the most debased forms of mass diversion — video games and violent television dramas and juvenile sitcoms — turn out to be nutritional after all.

Johnson burns a lot of words in the essay, but all he really ends up saying is that today’s shows are much more intricate than ones from television’s Golden Age. All this really proves is that television watching now is a more cognitive activity than television watching 50 years ago. In that sense, today’s TV may indeed make us smarter.

The problem is that Johnson fails to note that television remains a cognitively passive medium. This means that television has gained little ground on alternative means of spending one’s time—whether it be reading a book or walking in the forest. Activities that require constant active participation of the brain are much more conducive to learning. Viewers of “24” may indeed have to piece together several plot lines, but in the end, they’re still just sitting back watching a show.

A Few Thoughts on Reading

Those of you with children are probably aware that one’s habits of personal study tend to be affected upon the arrival of the little one(s). In my case, the birth of our son caused my rate of reading to take a drastic downturn, especially in the first month. Now that things are beginning to settle down a little (he’s almost 5 months old now), I’m reevaluating my reading habits in hopes of making them more effective.

Speed. In general, when it comes to books I’m a painfully slow reader. There are only a few genres in which I can speed-read with good comprehension. Technical works, theology, philosophy, and light fiction I can speed-read with much effort. When it comes to biography, history, serious fiction, and most monographs, I am a literary turtle.

Volume. For many years, I’ve had the habit of reading five to six books concurrently, thereby extending the time it takes to completely read a book by a factor of, well, five to six. No matter how many times I’ve tried to break this somewhat annoying habit, I always seem to pick up another book and start it in the midst of reading another. Case in point: the “Books I’m Reading” list on the sidebar of this blog currently lists two books—in reality there are at least four that I’m working on.

Perseverance. I find it very hard to put a book away once I’ve started it—no matter how bad, boring, or tedious the book may be. There’s just something in me that says I must finish. For the most part, this has been helpful, as it has forced me to look at things in which I wouldn’t ordinarily be interested. On the other hand, such a mentality could lead to great wastes of time.

Questions for the blogosphere. What are your reading habits? Do you read quickly, or turtle-esqe? How many books do you read at a time? Should you always finish a book you don’t like, or should you let it die its proper death on the shelf? Your thoughts are appreciated.

The Terrible Twos?

For those of you who were sleeping, yesterday marked the two-year “blogiversiary” of TruePravda. I celebrated by giving the editorial staff the day off. In return, they extended their contract for another year.

Wow. Two years. 595 posts. 575 comments. While it pales in comparison to others, its way more than I ever thought I’d be able to do. Which brings me to a resolution for year three: quality over quantity. In the past six months especially, I’ve been guilty far too often of putting up “filler posts” just so I’d have something to post. No more. From now on I’m going to try to be a bit more selective about what I post. There’s no need in contributing to the already vacuous noise we’re bombarded with each day.

Don’t get me wrong, there will still be plenty of “General Mischief” to go around, but I want to take even that category up a notch. So from now on, anything you read on this site that resembling filler material will be me at my best. A tall order!

Thanks to all of you < --INSERT OBLIGATORY "two or three readers" JOKE HERE--> who still stop here and take the time to read—you make this blog fun. Keep visiting.

Proverbs 18:4 says, ” The words of a man’s mouth are deep waters; the fountain of wisdom is a bubbling brook.” Here’s to a bubbling year!

The Strange Brew that is CCM

As I’ve noted before, much of Contemporary Christian Music (CCM) misses the point, but Jars of Clay’s Dan Haseltine seems to have the right idea:

There’s a lot of different things that don’t seem to be working that should in the music industry. It’s a hard thing—selling the Christian message [in pop music], because pop music is telling people what they want to hear and packaging it in a way that’s familiar to them.

The Gospel is the most offensive thing anybody would want to hear. It’s telling you that apart from God you are nothing, that you need God in order to exist, in order to have life. And pop music would say, “Yeah, you’re amazing.” It wants to build us up when the Gospel wants to tear us down in a way that says ‘You need God. With God you are everything, without God you are nothing.’ How do you marry that with pop music? It’s a contradiction in and of itself.

It’s rare that a musician will admit deficiencies in his own genre—then again, Jars of Clay has never fit quite well into any mold. If, as Marshall McLuhan posited, “the medium is the message,” then the merging of pop music and Christianity is indeed a strange brew.

As usual, Paul said it best,”Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.” (Romans 12:2, ESV) If CCM is ever to have any real effect outside of a Christian subculture, it will need to be more transformative and less imitative.

Bank of America Can’t Fool TruePravda

An urgent letter
An urgent letter.

As I am continually deluged with credit-card application junk mail, I am amazed at the lengths marketers will go to get you to open the mail. Aside from the standard notices—not to discard, to view immediately the enclosed time-sensitve material, and DO NOT FOLD (a warning sure to stop those envelope-folding mail carriers in their tracks!)—the credit card companies are getting pretty deceptive creative.

Take those crafty folks at Bank of America, for instance. As you can see in the photo above, I recently received a communique from the good folks at Bank of America. Being the important individual I am, there was enclosed important material for my immediate review. I was neither to discard this letter, nor fold it.

But wait! If these stern warnings didn’t get me to open it, perhaps the notion that an actual credit card was enclosed would. Did you miss it? Perhaps this view will refresh your memory:

Plastic rubbing

Yes indeed; it is the faint outline of a credit card, as if the heft of the card wore through the envelope (perhaps as the mailman was folding it?) and was about to reveal to the world my new card number. “Yes,” I thought, “I had better open it—I must open it—lest Donald Trump finds my card while rifling through the trash!”

As I commenced cutting into the envelope to retrieve my “card” for the shredder, I noticed something peculiar. There was no card behind the mysterious rubbing. I investigated further. It appeared now that the supposed “phantom card” was not a phantom at all.

Upon closer inspection, I determined that the fake “card” had not rubbed through the paper, but was printed upon the surface of the envelope. The dot pattern, when viewed at close range, reveals a 10-15% black screen that was undoubtedly printed upon the paper at the same time as the “DO NOT FOLD” and the mailing indicia.

Bank of America’s slogan is, after all, “Higher Standards.” Just what kind of impression this false impression will make is debatable, but it’s clear that this takes deception creativity to a higher standard indeed.

The Pot Calls the Kettle Black

‘Left Behind’ Authors Blast End-Times Mini-Series as ‘Unbiblical, Weird’

This quote from Tim LaHaye on the NBC miniseries is especially hilarious:

“This story is based on some writer’s imagination about the book of Revelation,” LaHaye said. “However, the writer clearly has not studied the book or maybe even read it. … This is a good example of someone who doesn’t know the message [of ‘The Passion’ or ‘Left Behind’] and doesn’t know that he doesn’t know.”

The nerve! A story based on some writer’s imagination about the book of Revelation. I’m glad we have somebody like Tim LaHaye to point out how unconscionable that is.

(Hat tip: Joe Carter)

Around the ‘Sphere

Just a few things I’m looking at in the blogosphere and elsewhere:

Colby Willen takes on church marketing strategies, observing a local church’s tagline (“Big Enough to Serve You, Small Enough to Care”) that matches at least four other business slogans found on the web. He writes:

Okay, even if you haven’t thought through what the church is supposed to be, surely some alarms go off in your head when a church is advertising with the same slogan as equipment, painting, and HR companies

I guess this blows my idea of incorporating the McDonald’s “I’m lovin’ it” campaign into our church’s missions strategy…

Joe Carter is resuming the Evangelical Outpost Blog Symposium for the 2nd quarter of the year. The deadline is April 15 (sounds familiar…), and the topic is broad—Judeo-Christian morality in an ethically pluralistic society. I’d best get to thinking and writing.

Even though Technorati says there are 8,635,175 weblogs, I can still count the number of bloggers I’ve met personally on one hand (I’ve got lots of fingers…). I met another one this weekend—blogger Nikki Tatom, who self describes her blog as “A Random Site About Random Stuff.” It’s random indeed, but good enough for me to add it to my “They Maketh Me Smile” category. Check it out.

Since is an integral resource of the blogosphere, here’s what’s in my latest order:

Can’t wait to jump into those. But alas: “of making many books there is no end…”

A Royal Yawn

So, Prince Charles and Camilla have finally tied the knot after 30 years of illegitimacy. Yawn. You know it’s bad when USA Today has a pre-wedding line like this:

It will not be the wedding of the century. But you can call the marriage of Prince Charles and Camilla a fairy tale for grown-ups. A triumph for middle-aged romantics everywhere. A testament to the conceit that true love justifies almost any behavior.

What’s more absurd than Charles cheating on Diana for Camilla is the way that the British cling to their pseudo-monarchy like it’s their favorite soap-opera. The problem is, the soap-opera has been cancelled long ago. While the monarchy’s role is largely ceremonial, it does have some limted reserve powers which are quite scary (declaring war, dissolving parliament) considering the fact that they can’t be voted out.

While the British do have tradition on their side, it’s apparent by the media brouhaha that many Americans have forgotten that we kissed the monarchy goodbye 229 years ago. It’s worked out pretty well for us, Great Britain—why not give it a try?

Tom Wolfe’s I Am Charlotte Simmons

One book that’s been in the news lately, aside from The DaVinci Code, is Tom Wolfe’s latest novel, I Am Charlotte Simmons—a novel about the culture and activities of campus life at an elite American university. The book has been reviewed widely in conservative circles, and even caused a mild media tizzy recently when it was discovered that President Bush had read the book, though it was not on his published reading list:

What the official list omits is Tom Wolfe’s racy new beer- and sex-soaked novel, “I Am Charlotte Simmons.” The president, a Wolfe fan, has not only read the book but is enthusiastically recommending it to friends.

Indeed, the novel is not for the faint of heart, but racy is hardly an appropriate term (Wolfe was awarded the “Bad Sex Writing” award for the book). The content of the novel, while frank, does not titillate as much as it sheds light upon the culture that is many an American college campus. Wolfe introduces us to a world where roommates are “sexiled”—banished from their dorm rooms while their roommates copulate with their “hookups.” Star athletes are surrounded by sexually–willing groupies, and have their homework done for them by their tutors while they play the latest video games. The few students concerned with learning are concerned only as far as what it will take to play the politics of academia in order to obtain a Rhodes scholarship or the prestige of a graduate degree.

Wolfe’s protagonist is Charlotte Simmons, a freshman from rural North Carolina who arrives at the fictional elite university to find a world far removed from her small, close-nit community where religion and family values reigned. The poor Appalachian country girl clashes with the snobbery of her wealthy blue-state classmates in morality, intellectual vigor (ironically it is Charlotte who thinks that the others are dunces), and priorities.

At first, when faced with adversity, Charlotte clings to the mantra given her by her mother: “I am Charlotte Simmons.” By reminding herself who she was and from whence she came, Charlotte hopes to ward off the encroaching evils.

It’s not long before Charlotte discovers that this vapid self-assertion does little to guard her moral innocence. Buttressed by a subplot that deals with biological determinism, the novel finds Charlotte unable to resist becoming the very type of person she detests. She falls fast and hard—her self-concept crashing down with her.

With Charlotte and three other main characters, the subplot of determinism gradually becomes the driving motif of the novel. The Jojo Johannsen, the proverbial “dumb jock,” realizes that his overly–tutored athletic education program has been a sham—is he capable of learning anything substantive? The frat-boy Hoyt Thorpe has glided through his college career, establishing an enormous reputation, along with an enormous academic deficit. Is there a way for him to “rig the system” so that he lands a comfortable job?

While certainly displaying the futility and dangers of modern campus mores, Wolfe is not preachy, and leaves judgment up to the reader. In fact, any adequate means of Charlotte’s holding to the morality of her upbringing are largely unexplored. As Ken Masugi of the Claremont Review of Books aptly notes:

For all his brilliance at portraying contemporary life, Wolfe approaches and then veers away from confronting the most important human questions, explored most profoundly by the Bible and Greek philosophy. May his next novel take the mean between Socrates and Stoicism and discover Aristotle. And may that be his opening to the Bible and an even greater flourishing of his mind.

While his exploration of life’s “ultimate questions” falls short, Wolfe does raise some piercing questions regarding our modern incarnation of the university. Just what, one wonders after reading the book, is the chief purpose of higher education today? Wolfe seems to propose that entertainment and reckless self-indulgence are at the very least part of the answer. Students lacking well-grounded beliefs and behavior risk having the prevailing campus zeitgeist dictate belief and behavior to them.

It’s not been that long since my own undergraduate days—eight or so years. I didn’t attend an elite private university like Wolfe’s fictional Dupont, but much of the behavior Wolfe reflects was present. People who relied solely upon their upbringing to combat moral chaos often fell, and when they fell, they fell hard. Only those who found their identities outside themelves (most notably in Christ) could withstand the tempest.

For a 74 year-old, Tom Wolfe has an exceptional grasp of the language, behavior, and mannerisms of the college set. I Am Charlotte Simmons is an engagingly written novel. If you’re sending a child or other loved one to college soon, you should read this book with trepidation. I will, however, warn the reader of the graphic dialogue and behavior in the novel would offend all but the most forlorn sailor. The tragedy is that such language is the current lingua franca of almost any university campus. Like I said, I Am Charlotte Simmons is not for the faint at heart, but perhaps its warning can help us in some way to strengthen the hearts of our youth.