What I’m Reading: Teens, Happiness, Theology, Music, Violence, Death (the usual)

Assorted reading:

1. What teen girls are made of, in Salon: “In their own dark and funny words, four teenage girls tell us everything we need to know about sex, parents and gym class.” Excerpted from Red: The Next Generation of American Writers — Teenage Girls — on What Fires Up Their Lives Today, edited by Amy Goldwasser (2007). Better than you think it’s going to be. (If you’re not a Salon subscriber, you may be asked to watch an ad or two.)

2.  Two from Gretchen at The Happiness Project:

Four tips for surmounting boredom or irritation. I’m rarely bored but frequently irritated. The one that almost always works for me is: “Take the perspective of a journalist or scientist. Really study what’s around you. What are people wearing, what do the interiors of buildings look like, what noises do you hear? If you bring your analytical powers to bear, you can make almost anything interesting.”

What’s making you ‘feel bad’? I don’t think I agree with all she says here, but it seems worth thinking about: The premise is that “removing sources of bad feelings will protect your good feelings from being swamped by guilt, anger, remorse, irritation, envy, fear, anxiety, boredom, and all the rest of that awful family. … These emotions are unpleasant, but they’re VERY valuable. They’re showing you what you need to change or accept. These feelings are so unpleasant, however, that we often pretend that we aren’t experiencing them, or we try to ignore them. In some situations, this attitude is useful. But for this exercise, really concentrate on your negative moments.”

3. What We Learn from the Dying by T.E. Holt, M.D.: A doctor shares what his patients’ last moments have taught him, in Men’s Health. The incidents are well-selected and well-written (i.e., made me cry).

4. Curing the Religious Disease, Part 4: A/theism by Richard Beck at Experimental Theology. Quoting from Peter Rollins in How (Not) to Speak of God: “We ought to affirm our view of God while at the same time realizing that that view is inadequate. Hence we act as both theist and atheist. This a/theistic approach is deeply deconstructive since it always prevents our ideas from scaling the throne of God. Yet it is important to bear in mind that this deconstruction is not destruction, for the questioning it engages in is not designed to undermine God but to affirm God.” … This approach is “a recognition that negation is embedded within, and permeates, all religious affirmation. It is an acknowledgment that a desert of ignorance exist in the midst of every oasis of understanding.”  Lots more at ET, including comparison to theologians Tillich and Barth.

5. Violence: A Micro-sociological Theory by Tyler Cowen at Marginal Revolution. Cowen talks about Randall Collins’ new book with this title: “The main argument is that people are not as predisposed to violence as we might think. Collins cites a wide array of evidence, from military behavior in the field to, most intriguingly, video studies of the micro-expressions of violent perpetrators.  People are more naturally tense and fearful, sometimes full of bluster but usually looking to avoid confrontation unless they have vastly superior numbers on their side. The prospect of violence makes people feel weak and scared. The greatest dangers of violence arises from atrocities against the weak under overwhelming conditions, ritualized violence enacted in front of supportive audiences, or clandestine terrorism or murder. … ‘Violence is not primordial, and civilization does not tame it; the opposite is much nearer the truth.'”

The last line and the bit on ritualized violence in particular could be read as consistent with Girardian thought, but the idea that violence is synonymous with physical confrontation seems plain wrong. People who are fearful of confrontation may act from and cause great violence all the same, and their actions (or inactions) may even lead to physical violence down the line, where it can’t be traced back to them. Think about gossip, numerous kinds of passive-aggressive behaviour, actions that derive from envy and jealousy, cruel acts disguised as kind ones, and so on.

Some of the topics sound fascinating: discussions on “the micro-dynamics of the Rape of Nanjing, how British soccer stadium designs were (but now less) conducive to violence, how demonstrations can turn into violent confrontations with the police (lines break down and micro-situations of overwhelming power arise), which children and schools are most conducive to bullying, why basketball has fewer fights than football or hockey (no padding), the dynamics of a mosh pit, and how hired assassins motivate themselves.”

6.  Looking for a good book? Fall Books: Slate’s take on this season’s books. Fiction and non-.

This one sounds promising to me: A Secular Age by Charles Taylor: “In medieval times virtually everyone in the Western world believed in God; disbelief was hard since magic appeared to be everywhere. Charles Taylor describes this earlier time as having ‘the social grounded in the sacred‘ and “human drama unfolded within a cosmos.” Today belief in God is often seen as ‘optional,’ most of all in Western Europe. The modern world, Taylor argues, creates an open space where people can wander spiritually. Reason has been exalted as the best road to knowledge, and thus many people choose uncertain detachment rather than commit to one particular religious worldview. Taylor’s masterful integration of history, sociology, philosophy, and theology demands much of the reader.”

And an engaging review of three short non-fiction titles about classical music“The Musical Mystique: Defending classical music against its devotees,” by Richard Taruskin, in The New Republic (22 October 2007). The books reviewed are Who Needs Classical Music? Cultural Choice and Musical Value by Julian Johnson; Classical Music, Why Bother? Hearing the World of Contemporary Culture Through a Composer’s Ears by Joshua Fineberg; and Why Classical Music Still Matters by Lawrence Kramer.


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