Saturday, November 24, 2007

Quickie Comment - The Canon

Author: Natalie Angier
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin
ISBN: 10: 0618242953; 13: 978-0618242955

I've finally finished plowing my way through The Canon. I purchased it a couple of weeks ago because I wanted to get a nice lay person’s overview of the current state of scientific research. Angier more or less provided that, but there were many points at which cutting through her dense verbiage to get to the substance of her material was akin to hacking through Amazonian jungle with a butter knife. Throughout the book, Angier seemed to pay more attention to being clever than to being clear.

To be fair, several sections of the book were very well done. Her chapters on thinking scientifically, probability and statistics, and evolutionary biology were engaging. If these are the only chapters you read, you will come away satisfied. When Angier forgoes verbal gymnastics and actually explains complex concepts in accessible ways, as she does most consistently in these sections, she excels. Unfortunately, throughout much of the rest of the book, she frequently forgoes accessible explanation in favor of witty wordplay. By the time I got to the final two chapters on geology and astronomy, my eyes were glazing over and my attention was fading quickly. I was tired of her cute metaphors. I was tired of her rude jabs at religion, jabs that neither enhanced nor advanced her arguments. And I was tired of the verbosity by which she relentlessly insisted on using a dozen multi-syllabic terms to express things that could have been stated in a half dozen short, plain words.

Natalie Angier is an intelligent science journalist who has a way with words. Unfortunately, as she demonstrates in The Canon, verbal skills and communicative skills are not necessarily equivalent or interchangeable. If you want to read an accessible book that covers much of the same ground as The Canon, do yourself a favor and buy Bill Bryson’s, A Short History of Nearly Everything instead of Angier’s book. Bryson’s book is nearly twice as long as Angier's, but you’ll only spend half as much time reading it. Bryson demonstrates, in a welcome contrast with Angier, that directness and clarity are always the trump cards in the communications game.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Book Review - Sinking the Ship of State

Author: Walter M. Brasch
Publisher: BookSurge Publishing
ISBN: 978-1-4196-6950-7

Walter M. Brasch, a professor of journalism at Bloomsburg University, has followed George W. Bush’s career from his first presidential campaign in 2000 until the present day. Brasch has listened to the president’s speeches, observed his policy formation and political appointment processes, and been dumbfounded by the press’s widespread refusal, until recently, to criticize the president, his policies and his politics. Unlike many of his journalistic peers, Brasch has asked tough questions about George W. Bush for nearly a decade. Sinking the Ship of State is the impressive (and, at 436 pages, bulky) compendium of Brasch’s news and journal articles about the Bush campaigns and subsequent administrations from February 2000 through April 2007. These articles also contain stern words for news media that, through their superficial coverage of campaign politics and presidential pronouncements and policies, have been complicit in the many blunders of the Bush presidency.

The book, which is arranged chronologically, opens with pieces that chronicle the presidential campaign of 2000. Brasch skewers pundits who pretend that speculations regarding candidates’ primary rankings and their prospects for gaining ground in the next round of the race are more newsworthy than examination of candidates’ policy positions and promises. Also missing are examinations of what candidates’ campaign tactics may reveal about their characters. Brasch countered this tendency with his own insightful observations of such items throughout the 2000 and 2004 campaigns and elections.

Brasch’s analyses proceed through the disasters of 9-11, the Patriot Act and other un-Constitutional legislation, the selling and maintenance of an illegitimate war, irresponsible energy and environmental policies, domestic spying, failure to prepare for and respond to Hurricane Katrina, the 2004 and 2006 elections and the accountability that was finally imposed upon the administration by the Democratic Congressional majority that was elected last year. Since that time, new revelations of the incompetence and political corruption of administrative branch departments have forced the Bush administration to assume a defensive posture that had not been compelled by either a complicit Republican Congress or a complacent national press for the previous six years.

Interspersed with the news accounts are updates regarding subsequent developments of the issues at hand. For example, one of Brasch’s articles, published in November 2005, about the Scooter Libby trial, is supplemented by an addendum describing President Bush’s 2007 commutation of Libby’s prison sentence. Such addendums helpfully remind readers of the ongoing nature of the events discussed throughout the book.

Political junkies will likely enjoy this book, which is a good summary of one writer’s view of a critical period in American history. I only wish that the author had included a subject index. One of the most appealing aspects of the book is the fact that it aggregates a series of “real-time” documents and lays them side-by-side, or end-to-end, as the case may be. It is fascinating to step back in time and relive events as they unfolded and to watch, with the benefit of hindsight, one man’s views as they form(ed). The dual nature of such a reading is engaging and thought provoking. Brasch’s writing is, in turns, witty, enraged, heartfelt and uncannily accurate and prescient. As Americans stand poised on the brink of yet another presidential election, Sinking the Ship of State offers insights into what can be expected in the coming campaigns. More importantly, it reminds us of the errors of our recent past, thereby giving us a tool by which we can begin shaping a better political future for our country. It is a timely book that deserves, perhaps even demands, a wide readership.

Thursday, November 01, 2007

Book Review - Shopping for God

James Twitchell, a professor of English and advertising, spent more than two years researching and writing his account of the USA’s recent rise in religiosity. He notes that consumerism is deeply ingrained in American culture and that American religion has not escaped its effects. In fact, as Twitchell demonstrates, American religion played a role in shaping American consumerism. Thus, the phrase “shopping for God” is literal as well as metaphorical. Twitchell visited dozens of churches and interviewed scores of pastors and churchgoers to discover what churches are selling and what religious consumers are buying. The result is an engaging book that offers substantial insights into both American religion and consumerism.

Twitchell opens by citing the intersections and interactions between American religion and popular culture. It was once the norm that celebrities said little about their religious beliefs. Nowadays, celebrities flaunt their faith. Few, if any, Americans are not aware of Mel Gibson’s Catholicism, or Tom Cruise’s Scientology, or Richard Gere’s Buddhism, or George W. Bush and Hillary Clinton’s Methodism. And religion pervades movies and television. Most Americans have viewed, repeatedly, such “sword and sandal” epics as The Ten Commandments and Ben Hur. Throughout the 1990s, Touched By an Angel was one of the most popular shows on television. And TV news shows, such as Dateline, frequently do special features on religion. You can’t even escape from religion in your car, unless you keep the radio off, because most programming on the AM band is religious. And guess what subject ranks second only to pornography in Internet popularity? Religion is even ubiquitous in print media. In 2004, Americans spent $3.7 billion on Christian books and related merchandise (sometimes called “holy hardware” or “Jesus junk”). Is it any wonder that the subtitle of Twitchell’s book is: how Christianity went from in your heart to in your face? Religion is everywhere in America these days.

Twitchell devotes a fair portion of his book to examining the history of religion (primarily Protestant) in the USA, giving special attention to the “great awakenings” and evangelism. He contends that the “awakenings” were actually precipitated by the development of new “delivery systems” for religious content. Thus, one awakening began when evangelists stepped outside of their sanctuaries and preached in the “open air,” thereby winning new converts among those who had never entered a church, cathedral or synagogue. Another awakening occurred when itinerant preachers traveled from town to town and held camp meeting revival series. He credits the current religious awakening in the USA to the rise of the “megachurch,” in which a congregation consists of at least two thousand members and services are delivered by an array of professional, technical, volunteer and pastoral staff, and to new communications technologies.

Twitchell characterizes the American religious market as a “scramble market” in which the supply of a relatively homogenous product exceeds the demand for that product. In such situations, the suppliers need to find innovative ways to package their products, separate themselves from their competitors and appeal to prospective buyers. The traditional mainline denominations, by and large, are failing miserably at these tasks and are losing members. This failure can be measured, in part, by the fact that they are noticeably bereft of male members, a circumstance that Twitchell analyzes in some depth.

In contrast to the older mainline denominations, there are two sets of Protestant Christians that have set themselves apart from the others and are growing. The Mormon and Seventh Day Adventist churches are growing the old-fashioned way: by knocking on doors or buttonholing people on the street and talking to them one-on-one. The Southern Baptist Convention is doing it by radical decentralization that allows individual congregations to tailor themselves to fit niche markets in their communities. These are examples of denominations that are bucking the trend of most others. Their non-denominational rivals are the megachurches, the Christian equivalent of the big-box store.

What are the megachurches doing that most others aren’t? At least part of their success lies in the fact that they have changed the way the many people “do church.” Worship in a megachurch is more like a rock concert than a church service. Megachurch services feature lots of upbeat music, videos on JumboTron screens, audience participation and little preaching, which typically emphasizes empowerment rather than guilt. Megachurches stress community, casual friendliness, playgrounds, baseball fields, basketball courts and golf courses, web sites and podcasts. The latter two features deliver the ultimate in “designer religions” that allow folks to control the content of their religion, as well as the timing and manner of its delivery. Megachurches are very male friendly and, figuring that where the men go, the wives and children will follow, they have intentionally “branded” themselves to appeal to men.

The mainline denominations have not given up fighting. Several of them are waging multi-million dollar advertising campaigns in their own attempts to change their brands and appeal to new converts (and brand switchers, which nobody admits seeking deliberately, but accepts willingly nevertheless). Twitchell provides some interesting analyses of several of these efforts.

What does the diminution of denominations and the rise of megachurches portend for the future? Twitchell suspects that, as in the wake of previous religious awakenings, the current wave of religiosity will peak and the culture will settle into a period of relatively quiet equilibrium. After that, it’s anybody’s guess as to what will trigger the next spiritual awakening, but rest assured, it too will come.