Friday, August 28, 2009

No more Reading Rainbow (NPRKJ)

Today marked a very sad day in the history of television. While typing away at work, I heard that today the very last episode of Reading Rainbow aired.

Yes, after 26 years of continuous running, LeVar Burton will no longer be sharing the amazing stories of Abyoyo, If You Give a Mouse a Cookie, Hot-Air Henry, or Miss Nelson Is Back.

I have to honestly say that I was deeply saddened by the news. I was even more frustrated by the content of the report. Apparently, PBS has decided that teaching the mechanics of reading (phonics, and the like) is a more important topic and will be more beneficial to children. I can't even begin to express how vehemently I disagree with this position.

It actually reminds me of two different lectures I've listened to lately, both talking about the Christian ideas of the humanities in education and homeschooling. Each reasserts an idea which C.S. Lewis brought up in his own work "The Abolition of Man," which is to say, (putting it harshly) modern school systems with their excessive standards, systems, and assembly-line attitudes do not produce real humans. They produce men without chests, without hearts. To be more diplomatic, it's not the methods of how you process information that make you intelligent, but rather it is the grappling with the question of "why" that will make you wise.

Or, to quote a line from a very obscure musical that I enjoyed, "Don't give me songs. Give me something to sing about."

I can honestly say that LeVar Burton was one of my heroes. I know nothing about his celebrity life outside of Star Trek and Reading Rainbow (I'm too young to know about the "Roots" phenomenon) and I don't feel the need to. Who knows, maybe he has a skeleton in his closet, or something. It doesn't matter. Mr. Burton was someone who for more than 20 years really cared about the education of the person. He actively shared the imagination, the wonder, and the joy of reading to generations of children. That is the stuff of heroes.

That is what it's all about. They will never succeed in designing the perfect television show that will effectively teach children to read. And I know for a fact that if you generate in a child the desire to read, they can even teach themselves. They already had succeeded in desiging a near-perfect television show that witnessed to the power of reading.

So this is partly, an NPRKJ to express my disapointment in the show's disappearance. But on a deeper level I posted this because it's almost impossible to stress too deeply or say too many times just how important the drive behind literature, art, and the Story is.

Who cares about decoding letters on a page. Give me a story.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

NPRKJ on Raising Kids

It's official. Raising your kids properly isn't just for off-beat Luddites anymore.

This program was an entertaining shock for me. Just imagine, a media talk show exploring the incomprehensible idea of not giving your 10-year old a cell phone, moderating the TV and Internet content they view, and discouraging dating 'till maybe late high school... and the people all said, "That's crazy talk!"

Washington Times columnist Marybeth Hicks, in very straightforward language says, "hey, let's teach our kids how to behave and say 'no' to the junk." She even deftly avoided the rhetorical traps set for her, suggesting she was being elitist or judgmental. It was like a breath of fresh air. (Ironically, not the other NPR program of the same name, which while very civil, rarely brings up anything challenging.)

But the best part of it had to be that the host, who so often does a great job at moderating and bringing in some opposing perspective to even the most out-there ideas, seemed incredulous. Don't get me wrong, he wasn't being harsh or sarcastic, but his tone just kept saying "do you really think you can accomplish that?" I almost laughed in my chair.

But then again, this episode was a nice contrast to the frustrating other stories flying around these days about how marriage is an outdated and pointless habit.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Not above the influence... or, How I live my life by Harry Potter and why I'm not ashamed of it

Did I ever tell you who taught me how to foster a mix of analytic curiosity and wonder at how the world works? His name was Atrus. You probably haven't heard of him, he doesn't live on this world...

Or, how about the time Hermione Granger taught me how to better understand my morning prayers? It was in the middle of book seven, when they were on the run in the woods...

I could even tell you the number of times that Edmund Pevensie or Eustace Scrubb confronted me about the power of selfishness and the joy of repentance...

...I'm not even going to bring up why I secretly wish choral conductors used batons when leading ensembles...

I probably haven't mentioned any of this because I'd imagine you'd probably look at me rather funny. If you didn't cast a stare that said straight-up "you're a weirdo," then you'd at least probably heave a sigh and think "how immature." At least, that certainly seems to be the mentality I get from the general world these days. But does that really make a lot of sense?

I'm hardly going out on a limb to say that stories (books, films, video games) are a mirror of our own societies. Nor is anyone shocked when some argue against them because they're too violent or dark (think Quentin Tarantino or Grand Theft Auto). But you rarely get discussion about how the good stuff does its job. At that point, we generally tend to stop at sentimentalism.

Now, I'm not trying to make a point about violent movies, or the negative influence of video games. Although it's perfectly worthy to talk about, and closely related, that's a different discussion for another day... For now I'm hoping to strike something more positive. However, the one point I do have to establish before moving on is that we are affected/effected by what stories we see. [editorial note: I hate that semantic spelling issue, so from this point on, don't read into the implications of my word choice on that one.] You just can't get around the fact.

Think about this for a moment. We don't like movies that fail to affect us. Have you ever gone to a suspense film that flopped? It's a frustrating and embarrassing ordeal to go through. When you go to a thriller, you want to be scared. Likewise, when you go to a romantic comedy, you want to believe at the end that storybook-happy-ending-discovery-of-love-in-the-rain really can happen. (Which, I also assume, is why people generally take their significant other with them as well, in hopes that they'll get the same feeling, too.) So really, it's there.

And if you do a little historical digging, you'll see we're really one of the first societies to ignore the fact. Plato had all kinds of things to say about what Art is good for a society in The Republic. Despite being a prominent humanist and Enlightenment scholar, Jean Jacques-Rousseau petitioned the Swiss government to keep theater illegal in Geneva. Remember the entire tradition of banned books?

Now my question is why do we then brush it off so superficially today? Moreover, why is it that when the occasional person really admits this, that they're labeled obsessed or a freak if they show it?

Well I for one will come right out and say it: I read a lot of fiction, much of it fantasy and sci-fi, and those books have taught me a lot about how to live. Really. All those examples above are true, and I could give dozens more. Sometimes, I'm downright exhausted after listening to a piece of music or watching a movie, because I didn't just watch and hear what happened, I personally experienced it. As in, those things were added to my experiences, which I will draw on in the future to decide how to act and feel.

I am quite convinced I'm not extraordinary in this fact. Though I'll readily admit that perhaps I'm more self-aware or sensitive to it than others. But I'm not so sure that makes me the odd one.

There are many aspects to this that I haven't touched yet, such as the danger of escapism, or the complexity of exactly what it is we "experience," but I'll leave it at this point before going further. I'll just throw in one final challenging question.

What ways have stories taught you? You just might be surprised if you really look into it... you don't have to be a bookworm either, we've all watched far too many movies, video-games, books, an television shows to be except by lack of stories...

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Disapointing Fantasy

Here I'm going to introduce one type of regular entry I hope to regularly put onto this blog. I'm calling it the NPRKJ, or the "National Public Radio Knee-Jerk." Basically I'll present a story which I ran into while perusing the stories of the day, and share my knee-jerk reaction to it. It's not my fully formed and crafted position, it's just a quick (sometimes not so quick) response.


The story Morally Complex 'Magicians' Recasts Potter's World left me very frustrated and disappointed. It did so because it came so very close to addressing a fundamental aspect of good literature, but then went the exact opposite direction.

Here's a quick lowdown, the author Lev Grossman was heavily influenced by writers like J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, particularly Lewis, but disliking the moral clarity of such stories, decides to rewrite the same story only with "believable" characters who are more gritty at match his worldview. This means the college students do drugs, have sex with each other, and generally act like rebellious and selfish kids.

Now, on a bad day, I'd tend to take this personally and get really riled up against Grossman, but really it's not him, and it's not the "gritty realism" either, though generally you need to convince me why I should be interested in reading something with that kind of content. You really do have a world like that here, let's be honest, the moral caliber of most U.S. Universities isn't exactly stellar... But we're not talking about real life here, we're talking about fantasy. And it's this bigger fact that I'm trying to make. Grossman, like a few other authors these days, don't use the genre for its highest purpose. (In fact, as we go farther along, we'll see he's doing something worse, but we're not there yet.)

Here's a telling quote:
Grossman: Voldemort and anyone like that in a fantasy novel, any big, bad villain, has a kind of powerful organizing presence on the universe. You know who's good, you know who's evil and you know what magic is for. It's for fighting evil. Well, when you take that away, suddenly the universe gets a whole lot more complicated...

There's that word "complicated." The NPR headline said "Morally Complex" story... but the truth is, it's not morally complex. It's just morally ambiguous. You can't even say it's "misguided" because at this point, it's not even trying to teach something. This is precisely the opposite of what fantasy is about.

Fantasy is a creative writer's dream of a literary form, because it basically let's you do anything and the reader tends to go along with it. The sky is purple? Ok. People can shoot magic beams from sticks? Ok. The adventure happens in a rip of alternate-reality? Sure. But here's where the line between cheap entertainment and real literature is drawn. Because that's not all there is to a book.

At its very core, fantasy is a genre of moral allegory meant to inspire, it offers a vessel to "Be all you cannot be," in order to come away with something. And this is where I become be disappointed, and sometimes frustrated, when I find these kinds of books. Without resorting to quote Spider-man, not every author who writes a fantasy book uses rises to their level of power and responsibility. Some don't even still believe you can inspire people. And worse, since we live in a pretty ugly nihilistic society, sometimes you get people who want to deliberately inspire the wrong things. It's not the author's fault per se, but it still causes a knee-jerk reaction in me. And once you get to this point, that's when I have to start drawing a line in the sand and saying "this is bad."

I hit that point when in the interview Grossman described what he did with his own heavy critical allusions to C.S. Lewis' Narnia series and his intentions of re-interpreting it. This is what he says:
Grossman: I remember being very angry as a child and as an adult at Aslan. I always felt that here is a world that had a, you know, a proper god in it, a god who you could see, who would come down and change the course of events, but he didn't do it very much, and he would often let battles go on and events really spin out of control, and people would die before Aslan would step in. Why would a God not help people in every possible way that he could?

So basically he's admitting that he doesn't like "god" and therefore he's going to re-write the story where his characters get a chance to confront him and accuse him of doing it all wrong. Does this sound familiar?

It's always just so annoying when you get an author who has a great imagination and plenty of craftsmanship in creating a world, but they do it to spite God instead of glorify Him... it's even more annoying because I've recently found myself more of the opinion that you really can't justify that kind of literature and say "but it's just so well written" and writ- off the anti-God message. That suggests you're not reading properly, either being ignorant of the power of themes in a book, or deliberately ignoring them. In each case, the book isn't being used properly.


Now, to close up, with all NPR KJs, I'd like to give a list of links to further consider some of the icebergs I smash into above. Here ya go:

Fortunately, this was not the only story out this week. For a great list of books to read that are wonderfully positive examples worth reading and celebrating, listen to author Leslie Blume's summer reading list.

If you ever feel like really getting into the Theodicy debate, where you really ask "What if God really did come and help us all the time like we ask," listen or read this essay by Frederica Matthewes-Green.

Also, I can't close this out without leaving a link and recommendation for a great interview discussing the purpose of stories and fantasy as moral tools. The second half of this podcast hits the nail right on the head summarizing why we need literature, and what it's good for. (Click here for the mp3 directly, otherwise here for a pop-up viewer.)

Friday, August 7, 2009

Conviction and Authority

Typography from Ronnie Bruce on Vimeo.

This video is something I ran into on my way to setting up the links and logistics of this blog on day-one, its message lines up nicely with some of what I brought up earlier so I thought I'd bring it into the discussion.

When I was in high school, my good friend Ian and I had a rule. The phrase "but I dunno" was disallowed. While exceptions could be made for designating an uncertain level of precision if the question was on the level of "What time of day did you leave the house?", we realized that we would frequently expound for minutes (and occasionally hours) on deep matters of politics, philosophy, social commentary and belief only to shoot ourselves in the foot at the last moment by undermining the authority of our statements and give ourselves a cowardly loophole to not defend ourselves if proven wrong forced us to take a stand.

If you think about it, it's rather pathetic. It's not that we don't have opinions anymore. No, one only has to turn on the radio to hear a whole host of pundits and talk-show hosts, to go online and find thousands of blogs similar to this one, and even go to coffee shops or wait in line at a theater to hear how one person is convinced that they could run the word better if only everyone else understood what they did. But there's something else missing, too. As we can see, it's not that we don't have opinions. It's that our opinions don't really matter.

To quote one writer that I respect, "Contrary to our popular self-conception, we are not a culture that values learning. We are a culture that values opinion, and opinion as entertainment..." Opinion in the dominant culture of public discourse is more an avenue of entertainment than it is of actual engagement. We have opinions for everything, but if were were to be honest with ourselves we'd have to admit that we so rarely act on them.

Talk, as they say, is cheap.

Now it's at this point I'd like to return to that video. I liked what the poem had to say at all points, except for the final couplet. This is a minor quibble, but I'd like to bring it up nonetheless. I would suggest that there is a difference between speaking with conviction and speaking with authority.

I am all for speaking with conviction as frequently as possible, but this does not make you authoritative. Remember, everyone has those opinions. The shame in it is not that we have them, it's that we don't hold ourselves to any standard in sharing them with consequences. It is therefore so easy to whine about how the system (any system) is broken, but we so rarely hold ourselves responsible for attempting to fix it. Authority, on the other hand, would be to correctly identify the problem and possibly to demonstrate the power to fix it, or at least address it.

Opinions are intrinsically selfish, limited in scope, and very subjective if not outright relative. Convictions are perhaps the elevation of those opinions to the point where we are willing to take a stand for them, and defend them as applying to more than just our own perceptions, but to something larger.
Authority is that circumstance where the conviction is proven true and is shown to be applicable to all of us, and most importantly, that we must face it and conform it in one way or another.

One final point. As one engages with these ideas, as one attempts to scale further along the spectrum from superficial opinion to appeal to authority, the public disdain and unpopularity of such a move is justly earned if they approached without humility. I do not think that it is the assertion that something is true that offends people so much, I think it's when people try to use that "truth" as a weapon to elevate themselves. However, the true appeal to authority should be one which is paradoxically self-less, as it ought to admit to ourselves and others that we have very little influence over the reality of the situation. We are admitting to something larger than ourselves. And that should humble us, not puff us up.

And so I would draw this conclusion: we all ought to speak with conviction, bravely and definitively to the best of our ability, but always do so humbly, realizing that by doing so we are also acknowledging an authority to which we will all be measured.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009


As a way of introducing things, I thought I would take a few moments to offer some definitions, a few literary references, and explain what this blog ought to be, and hopefully won't become.

Why not begin with the title? Discipulus Artius. Latin for "Student of the Arts." Sounds pretentious? Probably. Odds are I will come off sounding pretentious a lot. That's more the fault of my love for formal language than it is my attitude (I sincerely hope). But I assure you that I actually mean quite the opposite. I chose those two words very intentionally, because there is some nuance to them. (Ok, and in the interest of full disclosure: It's also a fact that almost everything sounds more profound in Latin...)

Discipulus - student. But more than that, it has connotations of being a follower, or in the most direct translation "disciple," complete with religious overtones. I chose this more than anything else because in this blog I may explore a great deal of topics, but at no point will I presume to speak with authority except in the rarest instances. This is not because I won't have strongly held views, or that I won't make assertions about the Truth. But it is precisely to avoid the biggest danger of blogging, that is, the prideful assumption that we are the authority and are here to teach all your ignorant others how things really are. The day I do that, I will have failed myself and everyone else. In the words of St. James:
Let not many of you become teachers, my brethren, for you know that we who teach shall be judged with greater strictness. (3:1)
Honestly, I love to speak of things greater than myself. However, it is because of that that I fear my own enthusiasm. And thus, I am merely a student. But, to be a student, you also must have a subject. Or, better yet, to be a disciple, you must have someone you are following. Which brings me to part two...

Artius - art-full. It is not a direct translation of the word "art" or "the Arts." It's actually an adjective meaning "complete" or "sound in mind and body." The implications of that definition means "skilled in the Arts." This too has very important significance to me. Firstly and superficially, I will most likely tackle subjects of the Arts in this blog. This is because I am very much a Romantic-minded person, a musician, an avid reader, and an actor. I will likely branch off onto many other subjects of general philosophy, and especially social commentary, but the Arts are generally where I'm coming from.

Secondly and more deeply, as an Orthodox Christian, everything I aim for and do ought to be towards repairing the broken state of my own soul. There is no line between the sacred and the secular. I am (slowly and with great difficulty) learning that I am a broken being, whose mind and heart are tragically out of synch, but have been given the means to become a true person again. Or, to quote St. Irenaeus of Lyons to become, by the Grace of God, "a man fully alive." And so I hope to engage in many ideas here, but I want to do so with the end goal of being a better and truer person for it. Which means, there may be topics I will not touch because not everything permissible is edifying (1 Cor. 10:23). It also means that nothing is too small nor too big to matter.

Alright, so the title is taken care of. Some of the subject matter is prefaced, at least to start. Expect lots of discussions of what is good and bad Art, theology, and social commentary. Now a few words about form and etiquette.
  1. While I may vary in the formality of my writing, this will not be a venue for simply documenting my own daily activities or feelings.
  2. Most of the entries I hope to be, more or less, expository essays or responses to the subjects at hand.
  3. I would love feedback at any time.
  4. I will gladly accept submissions for topics at any time.
  5. I will not be apologetic in my writing. Knowing that I (might end up with) a broad audience, I will not go out of my way to be polemical nor offensive, but I will be speaking honestly, which will mean that I likewise will not seek to couch my words in overly diplomatic terms. This is just how I process ideas. If this makes you uncomfortable, take this caveat: "Speak what you think today in hard words and tomorrow speak what tomorrow thinks in hard words again, though it contradict every thing you said today." -R. W. Emerson (1841)
  6. I will also likely fall into hyperbole. This is a literary device and occasionally a character flaw of mine. Get over it :-)
  7. I will hopefully cite my quotations and sources as best I can, in keeping with my title.
  8. All this serious prefaces aside, it doesn't mean I won't let my wit come into play...