The World Beyond Your Head | Matthew B. Crawford

The cover of Crawford's The World Beyond Your HeadBlame Kant.

That we are more distracted than ever is a truism. It is more difficult today to sustain focus on any one thing than ever before. The standard scapegoat for this distraction is technology. With text messages interrupting your flow and the incredible candy-like temptation of time-wasting games and social networking, what else can you expect?

Crawford agrees that we are more distracted than ever—and that technology plays a role in this. This prevents us from being real individuals. Under the onslaught of corporations whose goal it is to take our attention, we flit from thing to thing like everyone else. While we prize the Enlightenment’s gift of individuality, we cease to experience it in any meaningful way.

Rather than blame technology alone, Crawford sees it as a symptom of our real problem. The underlying issue is the influence of Kant’s understanding of the autonomous will. Here’s Crawford quoting Kant:

“Autonomy of the will is the property of the will through which it is a law to itself independently of all properties of the objects of volition,” Kant writes. “If the will seeks that which should determine it … in the constitution of any of its objects, then heteronomy always comes out of this.” In such a case “the will does not give itself the law but the object through its relation to the will gives the law to it.” Autonomy requires that we “abstract from all objects to this extent—they should be without any influence at all on the will so that [the will] may not merely administer an alien interest but may simply manifest its own sovereign authority as the supreme maker of the law.” (73)

Crawford’s disagreement with Kant on this point sets the agenda for the entire book. Kant (challenging the scientific determinism of his day) tried to maintain human free will by removing human will from the objects humans interact with. For Kant, we don’t deal with things, but with abstractions of things.

The World Beyond Your Head is a passionate, articulate, and philosophically astute book that argues for a direct re-engagement with actual things—not mere representations. He backs his argument up with examples from many different places—the world of high speed motorcycle racing, the fatalistic goals of slot machines, and even the tyranny of Micky’s Clubhouse.

The final chapter describes the author’s trip to George Taylor and John Boody’s organ making shop. These craftsmen know what its like to develop a skill in working with real objects that only come through years of apprenticeship and sustained attention. While they don’t disdain technology, their engagement with the real allows them to use it as a tool rather than to be mastered by it.

This is the best book, of any genre, that I have read in years. Crawford not only diagnoses our problem accurately, he offers inspiring solutions to the autonomous perils of our day.

—Matthew B. Crawford, The World Beyond Your Head: On Becoming an Individual in an Age of Distraction (Toronto: Allen Lane, 2015).

The Complete Peanuts 1989 to 1990 | Charles M. Schultz

The cover of Schultz's The Complete Peanuts 1989 to 1990In 1989 I started grade 10. As I was returning for my second year of high school, Charlie Brown and Sally mused about where the summer went. I walked to school—Sally waited at the bus stop as she lamented to Linus about the difficulty of fitting a hero sandwich into a lunch box.

I have always loved the Peanuts. Comic strips would come and go, but the Peanuts stayed. In this volume, Charlie Brown agonizes about how to afford gloves for a girl who calls him Brownie Charles—the girl he met at summer camp. Marcy (“you’re wierd, sir”) and Peppermint Patty try to figure out how to cope with school. Snoopy, Spike, and Woodstock up the absurdity level while Good Ol’ Charlie Brown remains melancholic.

One of my favourite parts of Schultz’s Peanuts is his frequent nods to Christianity. On July 11, 1989, Sally informs her brother, “I have to have a Bible story to tell by Sunday morning. I was thinking of Daniel in the 49ers’ Den.” “Lion’s Den,” Charlie Brown replies from the comfort of his bean bag chair without turning his head from the TV. “Whatever,” says Sally as she walks away.

The best part of these strips now is reading them with Ryan, my 8 year old son. He has a particular soft spot for the absurd strips. I’ll end with his favourite strip from this volume (August 15, 1989):

MARCY: I love ice shows, don’t you, Sir? I even like the intermission when the Zucchini comes out and resurfaces the ice.
PEPPERMINT PATTY: Zamboni, Marcie
MARCY: Whatever

—Charles M. Schultz, The Complete Peanuts: 1989 to 1990 (Seattle: Fantagraphics Books, 2013).

With Love | St. Augustine

St. Augustine of HippoLove, and do what you want. If you are silent, be silent with love; if you cry out, cry out with love; if you chastise, chastise with love; if you spare, spare with love. The root of love must be within; nothing but good can come forth from this root.

—Saint Augustine, Homilies on the First Epistle of John, Trans. Boniface Ramsey (New York: New City Press, 2008), 110.

Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs | Chuck Klosterman

The cover of Klosterman's Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa PuffsI’ll be the first to admit it. This is one of the more unlikely titles you’ll see reviewed by this pastor. Klosterman is Coupland without a conscience—Žižek without political science. He wears the black hat proudly and although you might cringe at some of the things he confesses to, he comes off as strangely honest in his admitted depravity.

I read Klosterman for two reasons:

  1. He is wickedly funny.
  2. His analysis of popular culture reveals the heart of our society.

This was even true in the last essay in this collection, “How to Disappear Completely and Never Be Found,” which is an analysis of the Left Behind phenomenon. Here’s how he unpacks (acerbically yet truthfully) the effect believing that you’re right has on people’s humility:

There is no sophisticated reason for believing in anything supernatural, so it really comes down to believing you’re right. This is another example of how born agains are cool—you’d think they’d be humble, but they’ve got to be amazingly cocksure. And once you’ve crossed over, you don’t even have to try to be nice; according to the born-again exemplar, your goodness will be a natural extension of your salvation. Caring about orphans and helping the homeless will come as naturally as having sex with coworkers and stealing office supplies. If you consciously do good works out of obligation, you’ll never get into heaven; however, if you make God your proverbial copilot, doing good works will just become an unconscious part of your life. (238)

Now, I know I could challenge the misconceptions in this paragraph (just as I could pull apart the theological naivety behind the Left Behind books). It’s clear from his comments on sophistication that he’s simply never read any sophisticated Christian. Put those thoughts aside, though and hear what he says. This is what the Left Behind phenomenon conveys of Christians to one of the smartest cultural critics around.

It’s not just religion Klosterman focuses on. In fact, religion is one of the smaller themes in his writing. He is at home discussing movies, music, sports, and all the other forms of entertainment we consume.

Now do you see why this pastor reads Klosterman?

—Chuck Klosterman, Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs: A Low Culture Manifesto (New York: Scribner, 2003, 2004).

Plato at the Googleplex | Rebecca Newberger Goldstein

The cover of Goldstein's Plato at the GoogleplexPlato is the man. There is no greater figure in the history of Western thought and philosophy. While it’s true that Socrates lived and taught one generation prior to Plato, we know most of our information about Socrates through Plato’s eyes and writing.

In Plato at the Googleplex, Rebecca Newberger Goldstein imagines what it would be like if Plato was alive today. The chapters in her book alternate between essays about various elements of Plato’s thought (i.e. the role of virtue, the trilogy of the good, the true, and the beautiful, the meaning of Socrates’ death, etc.), and fictional scenarios where Plato is dropped into the modern world and responds.

In the title chapter, Plato is introduced to the internet. He also spends some time on a conservative radio show, debates parenting styles, challenges a neuroscientist as he prepares to undergo an FMRI, and even writes a relationship advice column.

This book is a fantastically informative and thought provoking read on the life and influence of Plato. Goldstein not only gives you information about Plato, she invites you to think through the ideas that he first thought.

My only nagging concern came from my background in studying Jesus. Just as many theologians end up painting a picture of Jesus that validates their own beliefs, I can’t help but wonder whether Goldstein did the same with Plato. (As Reza Aslan did with Muhammad) She paints him as the champion of secularism—basically an alternative to the religious worldviews that have dominated history until very recently in Western society. While its clear that Plato was a radical thinker, I can’t imagine that all of his references to the pantheon were purely rhetorical devices. I don’t think it’s possible for someone to be so removed from their milieu.

Plato just feels too at home in the 21st Century.

—Rebecca Newberger Goldstein, Plato at the Googleplex (New York: Pantheon Books, 2014).

Love Your Enemies | St. Augustine

St. Augustine of HippoLove your enemies in such a way that you wish them to be brothers; love your enemies in such a way that they are brought into your fellowship.

—Saint Augustine, Homilies on the First Epistle of John, Trans. Boniface Ramsey (New York: New City Press, 2008), 30.