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With discernment, charity, and dialogue, Christians can participate in stories in disruptive ways that challenge the distracted, secular age.

In concrete terms, this participation might involve going to a movie theater with a friend and talking about the film afterward, book clubs, discussing the latest episode of a TV show with a coworker, hosting parties for watching a TV show that intentionally include time for dialogue, hosting movie nights, or making time to talk about an album with a group of friends. Again, virtually all of us in America do this sort of thing to some extent. Stories of one kind or another are at the heart of our culture, and we relate to one another by sharing them and interpreting them together. I’m recommending that we be more intentional about our participation in stories in specific ways, in order to make the immanent frame more visible and to interpret intimations of transcendence toward the more satisfying and fulfilling account of existence found in Christ.

Practically, this means choosing aesthetically excellent stories, whether or not they are the most popular. These stories will tend to be darker or more depressing or heavy, which sounds unpleasant. But Christians should be known for their appreciation of tragedies, because in good tragedies we must reckon with our place in the world, the problem of evil, and the struggle for meaning. (In the classical sense of the term, comedies can also make us face these difficult realities, but in the contemporary world, this is less true.) All those questions and concerns our distracted age is good at helping us ignore come to the fore in stories that deal with the tragic element of life. I am not asking Christians to stop seeing superhero movies or listening to pop music, but we need to be mindful of how we use our time. Many of the popular stories in our culture leave us worse off. Instead of haunting us, they glorify vice, distract us from ourselves, lift our mood without lifting our spirits, and make us envious and covetous of fame, sexual conquests, and material possessions.

When a story haunts us, it troubles our buffered self; it intrudes on our thought life, makes connections to other stories and experiences and ideas, and compels us to contemplation.

… We do not need to only participate in dark or troubling stories, but we do need to give priority to stories that haunt us, unsettle us, and expand us, whether through beauty and delight or tragedy.

— Alan Noble, Disruptive Witness

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I have so much respect for people who dress interestingly every day—who perform that public service, improving the space we all share. (I am not one of those people.) (Yet?)

This is very different from, say, the Hollywood schlub who wears sweatpants to the coffee shop every morning, then finds a perfectly-tailored tux for the Golden Globes and is lauded for it. I am entirely unmoved by special-occasion style.

— Robin Sloan (from his “Year of the Meteor” newsletter)

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In his book Mediated: How the Media Shapes Your World and the Way You Live in It, de Zengotita argues that we experience our world with a hyperawareness of representation. So, for example, when we go for a walk in the woods alone, we are never merely going for a walk in the woods alone; our experience of nature is filtered through the Instagram pictures we take and our awareness of how our friends will experience those pictures, and how they will think about us in light of those pictures. Or we might mediate the walk through an outdoors hipster aesthetic that we’ve pieced together from indie folk band album covers. Or we might mediate the walk through an awareness of global warming and its effects on the environment. However we conceive of the walk, it is never simply a walk in the woods. Of course, to some extent, this has always been our human experience; we’ve always experienced life as an interconnected web. But with the tremendous growth of technology and the media, of life as public performance, our ability to resist mediation has declined. In our world, we have to fight harder to experience the present shorn of stultifying mediation.

— Alan Noble, Disruptive Witness

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[H]ere is the storyline I suggest: The Renaissance saw that life was vapor, and it either rejoiced or despaired, but in the main considered vapor to be an unavoidable feature of human existence. Renaissance humanists had a high tolerance for uncertainty, probable knowledge, political tumult, social mobility. Following the Reformation, however, Europe was decimated by a century of war. Modernity began not from the Renaissance but in the wake of religious war, and modern thinkers, politicians, and scientists set out on a centuries-long project of controlling the vapor and roil of the world, so as to ensure that the world would never again be thrown into the tumult of what they described as religious conflict. Modernity’s control has been so effective that some believed it had been achieved, until mist leaked out under the laboratory door. As an economic and social system, postmodernity is a historical demonstration that modernity’s control was illusory in important respects, and postmodern theory is the intellectual reflection on this historical demonstration.

So: Modernity builds a glass and steel office box-building, a housing project that looks like and is intended to be a “machine for living”; postmodernity’s buildings are ironically decorated with symbols from a half-dozen architectural styles. Modernity zones the city into commercial, residential, educational, and other areas; postmodernity integrates life, work, and leisure in a local neighborhood. Modernity mechanizes the universe and the human person; postmodernity disperses the self and the universe in a fluid organism. Modernity is a Newtonian universe, a machine operating by mathematically expressible laws; postmodernity is an expanding universe, which is perhaps alive, and postmoderns are convinced that scientific laws are less discovered than invented. Modernity says bigger is better; postmodernity says, Not necessarily, and Who says? Modernity unifies diverse groups into a nation-state, an ethnically and culturally homogenous national community, organized by a central bureaucracy, perpetuated by universal public education; postmodernity diffuses into a multiethnic nation that threatens to fragment into a loose confederation. Modernity drums out regular rhythm, like a piston; postmodernity is syncopated. Modernity manages the economy, whether through a centralized party bureaucracy or through a central bank’s manipulation of credit; postmodernity thrives on a flexible global economy that escapes the management and control of any single government. Modernity reduces the world to hard particles; postmodernity reduces the particles until matter dissolves into energy. Modernity tracks GNP, GDP, and the trade deficit, convinced that a change in policy can improve them; postmodernity is more interested in quality of life and sustainable growth, with attention to the ecological impact of economic activity. Modernity marches; postmodernity flows. Modernity is statistical analysis; postmodernity is outcomes-based and qualitative. Modernity shops for goods in a one-stop department store; postmodernity shops for pleasure in a megamall of specialty shops. Modernity systematizes theology and declares popes infallible; postmodernity says theology is more like poetry, turns the priest around to face the congregation, and gives him a banjo. Modernity neatly divides human life into zones of activity and interest— separating home and workplace, work and leisure, business and high culture, religion and politics; postmodernity breaches those boundaries by returning work to the home, by making work fun, by selling elegantly styled cultural products, by mixing religion and politics, by displaying a urinal in an art museum. Modernity gets down to business, testing hypotheses with well-designed experiments and diligent library research; postmodernity frets aloud about whether research is even possible, grumbles about the difficulties of knowing anything about the world or the past, and hedges all conclusions with a fifty-page theoretical introduction to every book. Modernity hopes that high culture will seep down and raise the stinking masses from their slough; postmodernity destroys the boundaries of highbrow and lowbrow and swallows everything up in a mass of commercialized pop culture. Modernity wears a suit to the office and slippers at home; postmodernity works at home in a bathrobe and wears jeans to the office. Modernity is a city under smog, its buildings blackened by factory smoke; postmodernity is the green belt around London. Modernity is a clock; postmodernity is a turbulent stream, a swiftly moving weather system. Modernity is checkerboard; postmodernity is fractal.

In a word, modernity is mid-twentieth-century Detroit; post-modernity is Vegas.

— Peter Leithart, Solomon among the Postmoderns

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Descartes, generally credited with inaugurating the scientific revolution, begins from radical doubt about the very existence of an external world, and builds up the principles of scientific inquiry from the foundation of a radically self-contained subject.

Yet this solipsistic ideal doesn’t gibe perfectly with the history of science. For in fact, in areas of well-developed craft practices, technological developments typically preceded and gave rise to advances in scientific understanding, not vice versa. The steam engine is a good example. It was developed by mechanics who observed the relations between volume, pressure, and temperature. This was at a time when theoretical scientists were tied to the caloric theory of heat, which later turned out to be a conceptual dead end. The success of the steam engine contributed to the development of what we now call classical thermodynamics. This history provides a nice illustration of a point made by Aristotle:

Lack of experience diminishes our power of taking a comprehensive view of the admitted facts. Hence those who dwell in intimate association with nature and its phenomena are more able to lay down principles such as to admit of a wide and coherent development; while those whom devotion to abstract discussions has rendered unobservant of facts are too ready to dogmatize on the basis of a few observations.

— Matthew Crawford, Shopclass as Soulcraft

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Both ideals [of “meaningful work” and “self-reliance”] are tied to a struggle for individual agency, which I find to be at the very center of modern life. When we view our lives through the lens of this struggle, it brings certain experiences into sharper focus. Both as workers and as consumers, we feel we move in channels that have been projected from afar by vast impersonal forces. We worry that we are becoming stupider, and begin to wonder if getting an adequate grasp on the world, intellectually, depends on getting a handle on it in some literal and active sense.

Some people respond by learning to grow their own vegetables. There are even reports of people raising chickens on the rooftops of apartment buildings in New York City. These new agrarians say they get a deep satisfaction from recovering a more direct relationship to the food they eat. Others take up knitting, and find pride in wearing clothes they have made themselves. The home economics of our grandmothers is suddenly cutting-edge chic–why should this be? In hard economic times, we want to be frugal. Frugality requires some measure of self-reliance–the ability to take care of your own stuff. But the new interest in self-reliance seems to have arisen before the specter of hard times. Frugality may be only a thin economic rationalization for a movement that really answers to a deeper need: we want to feel that our world is intelligible, so we can be responsible for it. This seems to require that the provenance of our things be brought closer to home. Many people are trying to recover a field of vision that is basically human in scale, and extricate themselves from dependence on the obscure forces of a global economy.

— Matthew Crawford, Shopclass as Soulcraft

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Further, such squeamishness [engendered by subjectivism] creates a certain normative vacuum in our public spaces. In walking off the field of our shared moral and aesthetic life, we cede that field to corporate forces, which are not at all shy about offering up a shared experience: the emo coming out of the sound system. That’s what we end up with. The way anonymous others leap in on our behalf and install these systems, without anyone taking responsibility for them, makes the shared experience unavailable for discussion. It can’t be subject to disputation, and this is why it feels suffocating.

The taken-for-granted presence of the Muzak system spares us the exposure that comes from bringing forward one’s own taste for others to respond to…. And this process is self-reinforcing: the saturation of public space by the inevitably lame manufactured experience spurs us to plug in our earbuds, reinforcing our self-enclosure.

— Matthew Crawford, The World Beyond Your Head: On Becoming and Individual in an Age of Distraction

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