¬Å“Take Up a Pencil and Think Everyday.’

The passing of Arthur Miller and Susan Sontag within weeks of each other provides a referent point for the deterioration of thought in American public life.

Note these comments about Arthur Miller by Bob Herbert. “Arthur Miller, in his autobiography, “Timebends,” quoted the great physicist Hans Bethe as saying, “Well, I come down in the morning and I take up a pencil and I try to think. …” It’s a notion that appears to have gone the way of the rotary phone. Americans not only seem to be doing less serious thinking lately, they seem to have less and less tolerance for those who spend their time wrestling with important and complex matters. If you can’t say it in 30 seconds, you have to move on. God made man and the godless evolutionists are on the run. Donald Trump (“You’re fired!”) and Paris Hilton (“That’s hot!”) are cultural icons. Ignorance is in.”

One asks, how many people “take up a pencil and try to think” each day?

Susan Sontag’s obituary recalled her similar concern about the lack of serious intellectual and moral rigor in American intellectual life: “In the 1990’s she grew disillusioned with the left for its failure of moral never in confronting genocide in Rwanda and Bosnia and said, [I find myself] “moved to support things which I did not think would be necessary to support at all in the past,” she said in a rueful interview, adding, “Like seriousness, for instance.”

Sontag saw popular culture as a contributor to the problem. “At Harvard she earned two masters degrees, one in English another in Philosophy, and entered the PhD program but did not complete her dissertation. “We live in a culture,” she said, “in which intelligence is denied relevance altogether, in a search for radical innocence, or is defended as an instrument of authority and repression. In my view, the only intelligence worth defending is critical, dialectical, skeptical, desimplifying.” She made the study of popular culture intellectually credible, yet did not own a TV and held a personal library of 15,000 volumes.”

Rabbi Marc Gelman also sees the problems inherent in a disconnect of intellectual life and popular culture “There must be room in the culture for people who believe in both God and Aretha Franklin. Right now we are perilously close to a world in which Rolling Stone owns all the good music (and all the bad music) and religion owns all the good ideas (and a few bad ideas). This cannot continue because, to paraphrase Kant, ideas without music are empty, and music without ideas is blind.”

The 2005 Grammys are indicative of the problem. In his NYT coverage John Pareles described the event as having, “something for almost everyone, bizarrely,” saying, “God, punk-rock, baby-boomer nostalgia and 21st-century hip-hop all had their moments in the Grammy Awards broadcast, which knocks itself out trying to please everybody. It’s determined to be simultaneously glamorous and earnest, hip but not rebellious and suitable for all ages. It’s an awards show in which nine-tenths of the awards are presented in private before the prime-time broadcast, to make time for the live music that sells the show: 24 numbers full of mix-and-match.” The problem is, of course, that God does not mix and match. My 81 year-old father watched the opening and said, “now I know the world has gone completely mad!” The fact that many next generation Christian leaders cannot discern the fallen-ness in so much of popular culture and instead imitate it, only exacerbates the problem.

As a Christian who majored in philosophy in college, I found a soul-mate in a Princeton Professor named Harry Frankfurt whose bluntly titled essay announces the emperor has no clothes. The title? “On Bulls–t.” The gist of it? “The opening paragraph of the 67-page essay is a model of reason and composition, repeatedly disrupted by that single obscenity. “One of the most salient features of our culture is that there is so much [bull]. Everyone knows this. Each of us contributes his share. But we tend to take the situation for granted. Most people are rather confident of their ability to recognize [bull] and to avoid being taken in by it. So the phenomenon has not aroused much deliberate concern, nor attracted much sustained inquiry.” The essay goes on to lament that lack of inquiry, despite the universality of the phenomenon. “Even the most basic and preliminary questions about [bull] remain, after all,” Mr. Frankfurt writes, “not only unanswered but unasked.”

Dr. Frankfurt’s interest in Philosophy mirrors my own, “I got interested in philosophy because of two things,” he said. “One is that I was never satisfied with the answers that were given to questions, and it seemed to me that philosophy was an attempt to get down to the bottom of things.” “The other thing,” he added, “was that I could never make up my mind what I was interested in, and philosophy enabled you to be interested in anything.”

Followers of Jesus are supposed to love the lord our God with our mind. Until we recognize the ¢â‚¬ËœBulls t” in the broader culture and faith community, think about it and take action¢â‚¬¦we are doomed.

PLEASE: Take up a pencil and think everyday!

Yours for the pursuit of God in the company of friends, Dick Staub.

PS. And remember, “these are the best of times and the worst of times, but they are the only times we have.” (For Now).

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