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TV (the Book): Two Experts Pick the Greatest American Shows of All Time by Alan Sepinwall My rating: 3 of 5 stars Of course with any book like this you are going to disagree, sometimes heartily. And I do. But, overall, I enjoyed reading it and engaging the perspective of these critics, who have an amazing breadth of knowledge and experience. I particularly recommend the essays on Roots and the Cosby Show. The latter is a deep examination of the legacy of the show in light of Cosby's later reputation. They ultimately decide that the series, for all of its... Continue reading
What justifies our claim that all humans are entitled to certain rights? Especially, in a secular culture, what justifies that claim? Religious folk might say God does, but that isn't a workable answer for a secular, pluralistic culture. Yet, if the basis is just human convention, then we have a deep problem--rights are merely constructs and could be eliminated if society was overcome by new attitudes of fear and exclusion. These are the dangers. This article from Aeon discusses the issue. For example: But is it enough to rely on the supposed fact that human rights are embedded in a... Continue reading
"It’s surprising to think of racial bias as not just a state or habit of mind, nor even a widespread cultural norm, but as a process that’s also part of the ebbs and flows of the body’s physiology." This startling article from Aeon reveals how racial prejudice is connected to biological functions, and thus is more difficult to overcome than our Enlightenment-based rational hopes imagined. Please read the article. Here is the conclusion: On the one hand, this is a reason for optimism: if we can better understand the neurological mechanisms behind racial bias, then perhaps we’ll be in a... Continue reading
Catching upon blogging, I want to share this interesting article from the NY Times on the evangelical roots of the post-truth society. If anything, I think this article needs to be longer, with more in-depth exploration of the topic. The author discusses how conservative and fundamentalist evangelical Christians embrace a worldview of biblical inerrancy which compels them to reject aspects of science, philosophy, and history which they find incompatible. They are taught to view those things and their purveyors as false or fake. This was something of my experience, growing up, though I grew up in an era when the... Continue reading
Well-Being: Happiness in a Worthwhile Life by Neera Kapur Badhwar My rating: 5 of 5 stars Well-Being is a deeply admirable book. I feel better for having read it. The philosophical arguments are strong. The writing is engaging. The conclusions are profound and common-sensical, cutting through the bullshit. I learned virtue theory from Neera, in her graduate seminar twenty years ago. I also served as her TA for an undergraduate ethics class where we read the great classic works. Reading the book I realize how questions and conversations she was having two decades ago were working themselves into this comprehensive... Continue reading
A fascinating look at the science of racism. Two excerpts: It’s surprising to think of racial bias as not just a state or habit of mind, nor even a widespread cultural norm, but as a process that’s also part of the ebbs and flows of the body’s physiology. *** Racism might not be something that societies can simply overcome with fresh narratives and progressive political messages. It might require a more radical form of physiological retraining, to bring our embodied realities into line with our stated beliefs. Continue reading
What's New? Romans 6:1-14 by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones First Central Congregational UCC 16 April 2017 In sixth grade I discovered The Chronicles of Narnia by C. S. Lewis, and suddenly a new and wider world of the imagination was opened to me. These weren't just great stories, they were also richly theological stories, helping to shape my ethics and my concepts of God and salvation. I vividly remember the first time I read the final novel, The Last Battle. I read the chapter "Further Up and Further In" just before recess one day. In that chapter the... Continue reading
Turn and Live Ezekiel 18:30-32 by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones First Central Congregational UCC 9 April 2017 "We live in a society that encourages us to think about how to have a great career but leaves many of us inarticulate about how to cultivate the inner life," writes David Brooks in The Road to Character. To develop moral character we must acknowledge our own failures and weaknesses and struggle to overcome them. A culture built on ambition and success is unlikely to train people to acknowledge their failures. We also live in a competitive culture, and the development... Continue reading
Democracy and Social Ethics by Jane Addams My rating: 3 of 5 stars After reading more about Jane Addams in Amy Kittelstrom's The Religion of Democracy (see that post here), I was determined to read her writing. She's a good and perceptive writer. I'm puzzled why this work is not more seriously part of the canon. Though the contemporary issues she grapples with are dated (aren't they in most of the great ethical works?) they contain universal ideas applicable to current problems. And what I most admired was her vision of democracy requiring a social ethic (instead of an individual... Continue reading
The Norse Myths by Kevin Crossley-Holland My rating: 4 of 5 stars What struck me most about these Norse myths was their darkness. There is a lightness to the fantasies of the Greeks and Romans and an enjoyable humor in the tales of Native Americans. But these myths contain a heaviness. For example, in the description of Yggdrasill, the great tree which is the axis of the world. It is constantly being gnawed at by the dragon Nidhogg "trying to loosen what was firm and put an end to the eternal." We are told that "Parts of the huge trunk... Continue reading
I recently read Lao She's classic Chinese novel Rickshaw Boy. Here's my review of the book. One thing I enjoyed was his description. Eloquent and beautiful descriptions of the weather and scene, but also vivid psychological detail that conveyed a certain existentialism. Two samples: The best he could come up with was self-pity, but even that seemed impossible, since his head was empty; he no sooner had thoughts about himself than he forgot them, like a dying candle that won't light. Enveloped by darkness, he felt as if he were floating inside a black cloud. Though he was aware of... Continue reading
An informative overview of the current state of the North Korea situation from Modern War Institute. Continue reading
The second essay in the LA Times series on Trump is a defense of truth and the methods of verification in the face of a President who threatens both. Trump’s easy embrace of untruth can sometimes be entertaining, in the vein of a Moammar Kadafi speech to the United Nations or the self-serving blathering of a 6-year-old. But he is not merely amusing. He is dangerous. His choice of falsehoods and his method of spewing them — often in tweets, as if he spent his days and nights glued to his bedside radio and was periodically set off by some... Continue reading
The LA Times is running a powerful series this week exploring the vices of Trump. Here is the first post, "Our Dishonest President." An excerpt: What is most worrisome about Trump is Trump himself. He is a man so unpredictable, so reckless, so petulant, so full of blind self-regard, so untethered to reality that it is impossible to know where his presidency will lead or how much damage he will do to our nation. His obsession with his own fame, wealth and success, his determination to vanquish enemies real and imagined, his craving for adulation — these traits were, of... Continue reading
Here, on the Poetry Foundation website, is an excellent interpretation of The Road Not Taken, one of the most misunderstood of poems. An excerpt: Through its progression, the poem suggests that our power to shape events comes not from choices made in the material world—in an autumn stand of birches—but from the mind’s ability to mold the past into a particular story. The roads were about the same, and the speaker’s decision was based on a vague impulse. The act of assigning meanings—more than the inherent significance of events themselves—defines our experience of the past. Also, this: In a letter,... Continue reading
On Liberty, Utilitarianism and Other Essays by John Stuart Mill My rating: 3 of 5 stars I was reading On Liberty from this collection, the first time I've read this classic work. I'm surprised I didn't read it in high school or college, when it's message about individualism would have been more inspiring. At my current phase in life, I have a more community-based approach to ethics. Mill's views seem naive in retrospect. His ideal of individual liberty does not address systemic problems of poverty, racism, etc. So many of his ideas, on the left when written, would resonate with... Continue reading
In this essay for NPR's Cosmos & Culture blog David George Haskell writes about how life is a network. Nice to see biology confirming Whitehead; of course Whitehead's notions were derived from biology (and Jamesian psychology, Wordsworthian experience, and Einsteinian relativity). An excerpt: The fundamental unit of biology is therefore not the "self," but the network. A maple tree is a plurality, its individuality a temporary manifestation of relationship. Continue reading
You Shall Live Ezekiel 37:1-14 by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones First Central Congregational UCC 2 April 2017 "Ezekiel speaks to us as a person acquainted with grief. . . It is the depth of Ezekiel's suffering and grief that gives him the credibility to talk about resurrection," wrote the Rev. Jim Mitulski in his essay "Ezekiel Understands AIDS." Jim was the pastor of the Metropolitan Community Church of San Francisco during the height of the AIDS crisis, when he performed over 500 funerals some years, a statistic so staggering I wonder how Jim survived as a sane person.... Continue reading
Rickshaw Boy by Lao She My rating: 4 of 5 stars ***Spoiler alert*** One man tries to succeed in life using the only skill he has, only to be thwarted at every turn by circumstances or his own poor choices. This could be a despairing, cynical story, yet it isn't. Partially because of the writing--beautiful descriptions of winter scenes and rainstorms, for instance--and partially because you keep hoping that he'll do better. At the very conclusion the narrator says that this story proves that individualism doesn't work. It felt a little like propaganda, while also revealing a truth. View all... Continue reading