Two Approaches to Unity

January 6, 2009

The Christian Chronicle–long the flagship publication of Churches of Christ, the denomination of Christianity in which I grew up–has an interesting review up of a collection of essays on unity and the Stone-Campbell Movement.

Long story short, the Church of Christ grew out of the Restoration or Stone-Campbell movement, a movement early 19th century American Christianity to “restore the first century church”. One hallmark of the Church of Christ (that in some places has faded as parts of the CoC veer closer to ‘mainstream evangelicals’) has been that believers see their body as the Church. They don’t think there should be division in the church, so calling them a “denomination” is considered an insult. And they often self-identify only as “Christians” and would never start off by saying they’re members of the Church of Christ. Likewise, a publication like the Christian Chronicle is called just that, and not the Church of Christ Chronicle.

This theological identification has frequently been accompanied by a condemnation to hell of anyone outside this fairly narrow (a few million people worldwide) Church of Christ. That (blessedly) is one common tenet of belief that has faded somewhat for many members of the CoC, at least in the US.

Anyway, here’s an excerpt of the Christian Chronicle review of One Church: A Bicentennial Celebration of Thomas Campbell’s ‘Declaration and Address’:

The variety of the essays and meditations in the collection will attract some readers and trouble others. The contributors write out of their separate Stone-Campbell contexts, with the authors from each stream speaking in a way that suggests the concerns of their particular tradition. Readers among Churches of Christ — and in a similar way, Christian Churches — may bristle at how widely Session throws open the door to the kingdom.

There are basically two ways to achieve “unity” in an organization where people of differing consciences disagree. The first is to exclude all those with even moderately different views, condemning them as hell-bound outsiders. We could call this the judgmental approach. The other, tolerant approach, is to accept that, faced with imperfect information, people will disagree.


I Don’t Heart Lee Strobel

January 5, 2009

Largely because I don’t understand why someone would continue to stand behind a book that’s so atrociously bad that it’s been demolished again and again.

But props where they’re due: Strobel is engaging with Hemant Mehta and his readers at the Friendly Atheist.


The Varsity Sport of the Mind

April 11, 2008

I’m in St. Louis right now, where me and the other members of CU’s “College Bowl” team just checked into our hotel. Next we’ll be heading out to register for the NAQT quiz bowl national tournament. The questions are brutally hard, and the competition is brutally nerdy, so wish us luck.

Reading note: Today I had the pleasure of finishing Woodward and Bernstein’s All the President’s Men, which I’d been meaning to read to learn more about Nixon’s lovely Watergate antics (such a sweet, cuddly man) and now I’m starting in on Eggers’ A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. I like having travel time, as its about the only time I’ve been getting to read lately.


Jonah Lehrer, Kanye West, and John Mayer

March 20, 2008

lehrerkanyemayer

Jonah Lehrer of The Frontal Cortex spoke at the Clinton School last night, and it was great. I just reviewed Lehrer’s first book Proust was a Neuroscientist and was excited to hear him speak on the purposefully outrageous title “Kanye West Was a Neuroscientist.” I also had the privilege of introducing him. I had written out the introduction, but then cut it down quite a bit, so here’s the longer version I didn’t actually get to give:

I am a student of science. Science appeals to my practical side; it took us to the Moon and back, it let us map the human genome, and science helped us eradicate smallpox, all within my parents’ life spans. Science appeals to me because the reductionist technique is an incredible tool for fighting disease and gaining knowledge about the world we inhabit.

I started my day this morning with a lab for Advanced Genetics, where we’re studying Arabidopsis thaliana, a plant species so important that only genetics students have ever heard of it. This semester we undergrads have been using the elegant techniques of science to create new, if extremely specialized, knowledge about the world. The techniques of science and the philosophy of reductionism are so powerful that it’s tempting to apply them to every field of knowledge. But we need balance.

After my genetics lab I go to the daily Chorus rehearsal. Walking into the music building for Chorus is like crossing an invisible but impenetrable barrier between entire realms of knowledge and ways of knowing. Few of my friends in the science building are active in the arts, so I have a hard time explaining the irreducible experience of singing Brahms’ German Requiem with a group of talented musicians. And hardly anyone in Chorus would stay awake if I started talking about the routine glory I see in the polymerase chain reaction.

Jonah Lehrer’s first book, Proust Was a Neuroscientist is an exuberant demonstration that these barriers between science and art can and should be broken down. By taking test cases of artists, authors, musicians, and cooks who anticipated the discoveries of today’s neuroscience, Lehrer makes a strong case for the importance of the arts. And when Lehrer writes about the limitations of science, it is all the more convincing because he also writes knowledgeably about its groundbreaking successes.

Lehrer studied neuroscience at Columbia University, where he worked in the lab of Nobel Prize-winning neuroscientist Eric Kandel. Lehrer was a writer for the Columbia Spectator, a Gospel music DJ for Columbia’s radio station, and Editor-in-Chief of The Columbia Review, the university poetry magazine. He also worked as a line cook at Le Cirque 2000 and Le Bernardin.

Lehrer then studied at Oxford University as a Rhodes Scholar, where he did much of the research that would become his first book. Today he is Editor at Large for Seed, a magazine about science and culture. He has written for the Boston Globe, Nature, and NPR, and writes a blog about neuroscience called the Frontal Cortex. Join me in welcoming Jonah Lehrer.

Lehrer’s talk was largely based on content from his book. He talked about Escoffier and Stravinsky, and how our love of music is rooted in our ability to recognize patterns. Great artists make good music by setting up a pattern and intentionally withholding it from us. Because we want the pattern again and don’t quite get what we want, our ears and our brain stay fascinated. This, Lehrer argued, is a key similarity between Beethoven and Kanye West. It’s almost like Stravinsky and Kanye West are evolutionarily conserved hox developmental genes in fruit flies and mammals (I’ll let you pick which is which) that have been recently discovered to be homologous. From the outside they look completely different, but what makes them tick is basically the same.

Lehrer’s speech also reminded me of the new John Mayer song I heard for the first time last week. “Say” is pretty simple–it’s the high guitar (or ukulele?) hook at the beginning that first caught my ear. But listen to the chorus too; it’s one six-word phrase repeated over and over:

This simple pattern is very catchy–it sticks in your head. I heard it once on the radio, and then once on the PA system before Bill Clinton spoke (random mix of music I’m sure) and then I had it stuck in my head the whole drive back from New Orleans. I literally flipped through stations hoping to hear the song. I thought about stopping to buy it, but never passed any music stores. At that point I didn’t know who it was or the name of the song, but I was hooked.

So I got home, found out what the song was, and bought in on iTunes. I must say, I’m already kind of tired of it. The Chorus is just too repetitive. While Mayer has some excellent other music, his singles tend to be of lower quality. The difference between a good song and an ok song, or between mere pop music and real music seems to be in these patterns. “Say” is simply too predictable. You know exactly what Mayer will say before he says it, because it’s the same thing over and over again. Really great music flirts with that repetition but never quite gives you satisfaction. And that’s why Brahms takes more effort to listen to, but will likely stand the test of time longer than John Mayer. Or at least his radio singles.


Proust Really Was a Neuroscientist

March 9, 2008

I just finished Jonah Lehrer’s first book, Proust Was a Neuroscientist. Lehrer is an editor for Seed magazine, blogs at the Frontal Cortex, and did a lot of the research for his book while on a Rhodes Scholarship at Oxford. Proust Was a Neuroscientist was just published last November, and one of the most impressive things about it is that Lehrer is only 25.

Proust was a neuroscientist Sandwiched between an introduction called “Prelude” and a postcript titled “Coda,” Proust presents eight chapters on 19th century figures who anticipated a discovery of modern neuroscience in their art. Authors Walt Whitman, George Eliot, Marcel Proust, Gertrude Stein, and Virginia Woolf are profiled along with chef Auguste Escoffier, painter Paul Cezanne, and composer Igor Stravinsky.

Proust is an intellectual tour de force; you get excellent descriptions of the techniques and discoveries of neuroscience alongside biography of fascinating cultural figures and accessible criticism of their works. Given my background studying biochemistry, the science wasn’t that in-depth, but the literary history is something I really needed. My dad is an art professor, so I’m generally more familiar with the great art of history than great literature.

And that’s exactly the point. My friend Jimmy recommend CP Snow’s The Two Cultures a couple years ago. Snow’s classic little text is a call for more communication between the humanities and the sciences. Lehrer summarizes the philosophy behind his book in its Coda by beginning with Snow’s argument for a Third Culture of artists and scientists enjoying knowledge from both spheres. Lehrer’s critique:

Snow turned out to be prophetic, at least in part. The third culture is a now a genuine cultural movement. However, while this new third culture borrows Snow’s phrase, it strays from his project… The third culture today refers to scientists who communicate directly with the general public. They are translating their truths for the masses… From Richard Dawkins to Brian Greene, from Steven Pinker to E.O. Wilson, these scientists do important scientific research and write in elegant prose. Because of their work, black holes, memes, and selfish genes are now part of our cultural lexicon.

He then summarizes the theme of Wilson’s Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge–a book I enjoyed immensely but felt ultimately fell short–with this quote from Consilience:

The central idea of the consilience world view is that all tangible phenomena, from the birth of stars to the workings of social institutions, are based on material processes that are ultimately reducible, however long and tortuous the sequences, to the laws of physics.

This is a statement with which I can’t argue, but also find dissatisfying. Jonah’s response?

Wilson’s ideology is technically true but, in the end, rather meaningless…When some things are broken apart, they are just broken. What the artists in this book reveal is that there are many different ways of describing reality, each of which is capable of generating truth.

And on a derogatory reference to Virginia Woolf by Steven Pinker:

But if Pinker is wrong to thoguhtless attack Virginia Woolf (seeing an enemy when he should see an ally), he is right to admonish what he calls “the priests of postmodernism.” Too often, postmodernism…indulges in cheap disavowals of science and the scientific method. There is no truth, postmodernists say, only differing descriptions, all of which are equally invalid. Obviously, this idea very quickly exhausts itself. No truth is perfect, but that doesn’t mean all truths are equally imperfect. We will always need some way to distinguish among our claims.

The reception for Lehrer’s first offering hasn’t been completely positive (see a rather critical review at Slate) but it seems that most of the complaints I’ve read center around small quibbles with Lehrer’s points or a misunderstanding of the overall thesis. To be sure, I was skeptical going in; it seems that every critique of the epistemology of the likes of Wilson I’ve read has been cover to a religious or postmodern agenda (or both).

Proust Was a Neuroscientist was so refreshing because it was written by someone with an obvious knowledge of and respect for science on a level commensurate with its accomplishments. Because Lehrer can write compelling prose about neuroscience while admitting that our mind really is just the machine and not the ghost, he can also write convincingly about the value of art in giving us knowledge about our human experience.


Srebrenica

July 11, 2007

CNN has a piece on the re-burial of victims of the massacre in Srebrenica in Bosnia in 1995, worth reading. If you haven’t already, you should check out Sheri Fink’s War Hospital, an excellent account of the siege from the perspective of national and international medical doctors trapped in the Muslim enclave.


I’m an Addict (II)

July 9, 2007

A trip to a thrift store looking for used dress clothes (for an internship in DC later this summer) turned into another back-alley deal to feed my potentially fatal addiction.

The goods:
War of the Worlds, by H.G. Wells
The Restaurant at the End of the Universe by Douglas Adams
The Aeneid by Virgil (translated by Robert Fitzgerald)
As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner

The damage: only $2.00

I don’t have a problem. I don’t have a problem. I don’t have a problem.