Volume 8

Guests on Volume 8: Alan Jacobs, on novelist Iris Murdoch and how fiction encourages reflection in the moral life; Gilbert Meilaender, on "Random Acts of Kindness," cultivating virtue, and the meaning of kindness; Richard Lints, on The Fabric of Theology: A Prolegomenon to Evangelical Theology; Lynn Neary, on religion reporting's rebirth in the mainstream media; Ken Myers, on Recent Periodicals; James Davison Hunter, on the superficiality of journalism; Howard Rheingold, on the viability of "Virtual Community"; and Dominic Aquila, on Estonian composer Arvo Pärt's Te Deum.

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Part 1

  • Description

    Alan Jacobs on novelist Iris Murdoch and how fiction encourages reflection in the moral life

    Iris Murdoch

    Author Iris Murdoch wrote serious novels that revealed the complex nature of moral decision-making. Literary critic Alan Jacobs explains that philosophers such as Murdoch and Martha Nussbaum believe fiction captures the complexity of the moral life with much greater sophistication than contemporary analytic philosophy. Murdoch's stories illustrate how a person's decisions affect the lives of others. Her characters are interconnected in a way that does not allow any one to live in a vacuum. Murdoch's work reveals that living the moral life is possible but most often confusing.

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    Gilbert Meilaender on "Random Acts of Kindness," cultivating virtue, and the meaning of kindness

    Ethicist Gilbert Meilaender compares the popular slogan, "Practice random kindness and senseless acts of beauty" with classical and Christian ideas about virtue. This "bumper sticker morality" emphasizes impulsiveness over against the Aristotelian notion that virtues are habits of behavior that must be intentionally developed through discipline. Whereas Christian charity is grounded in a larger understanding of human beings and their relationship to God and one another, randomness resists connection with a broader ethical theory. Meilander also reminds us that true kindness requires a willingness to discipline and even wound.

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    Richard Lints on The Fabric of Theology: A Prolegomenon to Evangelical Theology

    The Fabric of Theology: A Prolegomenon to Evangelical Theology (William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1993)

    Theologian Richard Lints of Gordon-Conwell Seminary is worried about the path evangelical theology has taken since the late 1960s when evangelicalism became an insider force in culture and politics. In his book The Fabric of Theology, Lints observes that evangelicals seem to have lost the ability to think theologically about their daily lives in the midst of a fragmented modern culture. He discusses how the modern emphasis on individualism and personal experience has affected evangelical thinking, particularly about vocation, church life and outreach. Lints insists that Christians must understand themselves within the larger context of history if they are to avoid myopic vision and speak prophetically to the culture.

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    Lynn Neary on religion reporting's rebirth in the mainstream media

    National Public Radio's Lynn Neary discusses the media's growing interest in America's religious life. After years of relegating coverage of religion to the Sunday "church page," journalists are finally beginning to recognize the significant role faith plays in personal lives, culture, and politics. As a reporter for NPR's newly formed "culture desk," Neary searches out stories that give voice to individuals in local communities who are living out their faith in some sincere, heartfelt way. She finds that others respond to such genuine expressions even when they disagree, and they often share freely about their own spiritual lives. Neary is intrigued by the observation that faith can bring out the best and the worst in people.

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    James Davison Hunter on the superficiality of journalism

    Before the Shooting Begins: Searching for Democracy in America's Culture War (The Free Press, 1994)

    Sociologist James Davison Hunter, author of Culture Wars and Before the Shooting Begins: Searching for Democracy in America's Culture War, discusses the role of the press in public life. Hunter claims that the main problem with the media is not bias, but superficiality. Because of their social location, most journalists fail to recognize that societal conflicts are not simply political, but stem from a deeper clash between opposing moral visions about the nature of the good society. In Before the Shooting Begins, Hunter encourages Americans to refrain from seeking political solutions to problems that are cultural in nature. If we seek to establish a "good society," we must go beyond power politics and begin to restore the disintegrating bonds of community life.

Part 2

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    Ken Myers on recent periodicals

    The Bridges of Madison County (Robert Waller: Warner Books, Inc., 1992)

    Ken Myers reports on sales of Robert Waller's sentimental romance novel The Bridges of Madison County, which was the subject of an earlier interview with literary critic Alan Jacobs. Myers also notes two editorials that highlight the negative ways in which the technological revolution is shaping culture. In the May 1994 issue of Harper's, literary critic Sven Berkerts argues that electronic communication promotes shallow interaction devoid of the deeper communion for which human beings long. The editors of New Perspectives Quarterly indict the global media for its role in transmitting the "virus of irony" in their Winter 1994 edition.

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    Howard Rheingold on the viability of "virtual community"

    The Virtual Community: Homesteading on the Electronic Frontier (Addison-Wesley Publishing Company, 1993)

    Howard Rheingold, editor of the Whole Earth Review and author of two books on computer-assisted communications, Virtual Reality and Virtual Community, believes that this technology ought to be used as a tool for creating a new on-line community. Rheingold discusses the disintegration of local communities, citing overpopulation, the profit motive, and self-interest as contributing factors. While he hesitates to promote going on-line as the only option for recovering "literal" community, he does insist that communication technologies facilitate conversation (the most important ingredient for community, in his view) and argues that Americans should not be afraid to use this technology as a tool for building relationships.

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    Dominic Aquila on Estonian composer Arvo Pärt's Te Deum

    Arvo Pärt (b. 1935)

    Dominic Aquila introduces Arvo Pärt, an Estonian composer born in 1935. After several years of artistic and spiritual retreat during the 1970s, Pärt abandoned the harmonically austere style of serialism. Aquila notes that Pärt's music is steeped with a profound emphasis on repentance, characteristic of the Eastern Church. Unlike the minimalist composers John Cage and Philip Glass, Pärt uses purity and simplicity to point beyond the created world as it is to the transcendent Creator.