Archive | Culture

Fargo Rock City | Chuck Klosterman

The cover of Klosterman's Fargo Rock CityI resonate with Klosterman’s musical obsession despite being one generation removed. Sure, he’s only two years older than me, but when he was listening to Mötley Crüe, I was into Michael W. Smith. It wasn’t until the early 90s that I started obsessing over albums and liner notes.

In Fargo Rock City, Klosterman pays tribute to the genre he loves—lovingly called “hair metal” today. The narrative is a trip through musical and personal landmarks that defined the pre-grunge era.

Klosterman’s penchant for ridiculous arguments is on full display in this critical tour of 1980s heavy metal. He also makes a surprising number of astute musical observations. (For example, he presents an unorthodox yet logical argument for why Bush signalled the death of Grunge.)

If you long for the days of Def Leppard, Poison, Skid Row, Bon Jovi, and especially G’n’R, this book is for you.

Klosterman, Chuck. Fargo Rock City: A Heavy Metal Odyssey in Rural Nörth Daköta. New York: Scribner, 2003.

Secret Path | Gord Downie & Jeff Lemire

The cover of Downie & Lemire's Secret PathSecret Path is many things—a collection of 10 poems by Gord Downie, a graphic novel by Jeff Lemire, an album by the frontman of the Tragically Hip, the true story of Chanie Wenjack.

Chanie died on October 22, 1966 after running away from the Residential School near Kenora to find his father. Downie, inspired by a story in MacLean’s magazine, brought Chanie’s story to light fifty years after the tragedy.

The album-sized graphic novel when paired with the album is a moving experience. Listen to the album while reading the poem and leafing through the pages and Chanie’s short life comes alive.

To dive deeper into the story of Chanie, read Lee Water’s article in the First Nations Drum and watch the two hour CBC special on YouTube.

Downie, Gord and Jeff Lemire, Secret Path. Toronto, ON: Simon & Schuster Canada, 2016.

The Meaning of Sunday | Joel Thiessen

The cover of Thiessen's The Meaning of SundayCanadian churches are closing. Religious identification is dropping. A full 24% of Canadians identified themselves as having zero religious ties in 2011 (94). Zero—not even Christmas and Easter piety!

In The Meaning of Sunday, Thiessen surveys the quantitative data while adding his own qualitative analysis. Through interviews with ninety Canadians from across the socioeconomic spectrum, Thiessen learns why religion does not mean what it used to for Canadians.

Religion is a matter of supply and demand. Researchers like Barna have argued that there is an unlimited craving for religion. If religious levels are dropping, it means that the supply is flawed—we need to do church better. This analysis has led to a rash of church-help books and revitalize-your-congregation conferences. Thiessen argues that supply is not the problem. There is simply a colossal lack of demand for religion today.

You can see this as good news or bad. On the one hand, this is some relief for churches that struggle with declining attendance patterns. On the other hand, it demonstrates that Canada is following on Europe’s heels in racing towards a post-Christian society. Canadian immigration policy has slowed this trend because new immigrants are more religious than the Canadian norm. However, regression to the mean happens quickly, usually within one or two generations.

Thiessen’s research is hard medicine for Canadian Christians, but it’s medicine worth taking. Like an obese person stepping onto the scales at the start of a weight-loss program, The Meaning of Sunday will give Canadian Christians a realistic baseline for future life and ministry.

Thiessen, Joel. The Meaning of Sunday: The Practice of Belief in a Secular Age. Montreal & Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2015.

But What If We’re Wrong? | Chuck Klosterman

The cover of Klosterman's But What if We're Wrong?In 500 years, what will people remember about our era? What music will be remembered? What authors? Which scientific and technological insights will be the path to greater understanding and which will be nothing more than footnotes in a history book?

Klosterman writes about these topics with extreme scepticism. If a candidate seems like a logical choice for canonization (i.e. The Beatles will represent twentieth century music), it’s likely wrong. He argues this way by examining the past. The people we remember are not necessarily the most popular or logical choices for posterity. We remember people because they resonate with our current values.

In But What If We’re Wrong?, Klosterman has written some of his best cultural criticism. He sees everything we take for granted with an odd slant. After all, “the juice of life is derived from arguments that don’t seem obvious” (92). Klosterman’s trademark sense of humour and entertaining use of footnotes are in full display.

The rock critic turned cultural analyst has written another insightful book that draws on his knowledge of music and culture while stretching his boundaries. Read and prepare to question everything.

—Chuck Klosterman, But What If We’re Wrong? Thinking About the Present As If It Were the Past (New York: Blue Rider Press, 2006).

Killing Yourself to Live | Chuck Klosterman

The cover of Klosterman's Killing Yourself to LiveWhat is it about premature death that makes musicians so famous?

That’s the question that Spin editor Sia Michel used to convince Chuck Klosterman to embark on an epic road trip across America to visit the places where musicians met their demise.

Killing Yourself to Live started out as a feature article for Spin, but ended up book-length when Klosterman decided to pack the story full of his musing on past lovers, turning this travelogue into a memoir. This article/book was supposed to follow a standard script. At the end of his journey, his coworker, Lucy asks him some questions.

Are you going to be able to write a compelling story that will dissect the perverse yet undeniable relationship between celebrity and mortality? Will the narrative illustrate how society glamorizes dying in order to perpetuate the hope that death validates life? Will you be able to prove that living is dying, and that we’re all slowly dying through every moment of life? (233)

That’s not the story Klosterman came up with, however. In the end he realized that “love and death and rock ‘n’ roll are the same experience” (234).

This memoir is painfully narcissistic (not to mention exploitative of his relationships), but his brutal honesty makes for compelling reading. Klosterman doesn’t seem to care what the reader will think of him or his moral choices. Add to this his encyclopedic knowledge of rock and roll culture and you get Killing Yourself to Live: a window into the mind of one of our generation’s best cultural critics.

—Chuck Klosterman, Killing Yourself to Live: 85% of a True Story (New York: Scribner, 2005).

Places of the Heart | Colin Ellard

The cover of Ellard's Places of the HeartPlaces of the Heart is an odd convergence. Colin Ellard walks along the intersection of psychology, architecture, and urban design. He studies precisely how various design elements make you feel and shares his knowledge in an accessible form.

This book is packed full of interesting and useful knowledge. Did you know that curves are more welcoming than straight lines? That aggressive lines and sharp corners can cause anxiety? That a few improvements to a facade can physically slow down pedestrian traffic in front of a big box store?

Like all good science writers (Levitin, Mlodinow, and Kahneman to name a few), Ellard takes technical experiments and translates them into compelling prose. He translates the material of scientific journals into the vernacular and forms them into consistent narrative.

Places of the Heart is worth reading for anyone with a love of design and the human condition.

—Colin Ellard, Places of the Heart: The Psychogeography of Everyday Life (New York: Bellevue Literary Press, 2015).

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).

The End of Absence | Michael Harris

The cover of Harris' The End of AbsenceConsider this: if you were born in the 1980s, you’re part of the last generation of human history to experience what life was like before the Internet. Michael Harris wrote this book to explore what that means. In his words, we need to consider:

What will we carry forward? And what worthy things might we thoughtlessly leave behind? (15)

In the first half of the book Harris makes a compelling case for how drastically our always-on and always-connected culture is affecting us. This transformation has arrived so insidiously, we haven’t recognized it.

Think of that moment when the fridge shuts off, causing you to realize—in the silence that ensues—that you’d been hearing its persistent hum before. You thought you knew silence, but you were really surrounded by the machine’s steady buzz. Now multiply that sensation by the world. (109)

Anyone who has tried to turn of their technology for any length of time knows this feeling. This silence is a consequence of every major canoe trip I take—and something I have grown to cherish!

In the second half of the book, Harris explores how to respond to these changes. This is where Harris and I part ways. Instead of suggesting and exploring real ways to remain grounded and (at least at times) unconnected, he assumes the inevitability of the change and makes peace with it. After all, how could we possibly hook up without Internet dating sites?

The conclusion that gives him a sense of peace is unsatisfying for me:

Every technology will alienate you from some part of your life. That is its job. Your job is to notice. First notice the difference. And then, every time, choose. (206)

Immediately my mind went to Ellul in considering the effect this alienation has on those who resist—either by choice or by demographic. Nothing alienates our elderly like a world of constant connection.

The End of Absence is an insightful book that belongs on the shelf beside Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death and Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows. Read it and either mourn for what we’ve lost or consider how to forge a way ahead.

—Michael Harris, The End of Absence: Reclaiming What We’ve Lost in a World of Constant Connection (Toronto: HarperCollins, 2014).

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