On Language: A Primer for Careful, Thoughtful Introspection

If words matter–and you’ll find that I am very quick to contend that they do–then we ought to be careful with the language we speak. For some, this point might seem like something akin to an argument against profanity. I’m not (necessarily) out to destroy those with foul mouths–it isn’t my habit, and it is one that I prefer as strong emphasis rather than filler words, but if done with thought and a certain sort of intention behind it, a chosen “swear word” can pack the necessary punch to communicate precisely what was intended. (See here Paul’s use of the word ‘skubala’) Continue reading On Language: A Primer for Careful, Thoughtful Introspection

Meta-Thoughts for Forum Blogging

It might have slipped your notice, but the Evangelical Outpost found six Torrey Honors students who were keen on writing, tsk-tsked at our lonely Blogspots and well-hidden journals, and invited us into the open, the fray of forum blogging. Instead of constantly writing by ourselves (and mostly, for ourselves), the forum-structure offers a chance to refine our blog posts with dialogue. The major premise of EO content isn’t a particular theme or audience; it’s inter-editorial feedback. So, I won’t say they let us go completely unscathed, not with the weekly grooming and shearing our pieces get. We subscribe to the blog-dialogue approach, where every post is part of a larger conversation.

Sometimes, Facebook feed and daily blog skimming unearths posts which are actually aspiring to be essays—pieces that stand-alone on internal consistency and supported argument. Timothy Bartel recommends an excellent set of questions for what qualifies as a good ‘essay-post.’ But that’s not the only way to read or write. In fact, it’s rare in the blogging world. Several of us are looking into what we do with those messier, less-polished posts that don’t deserve the wide, public audience an essay would.  Rebecca Card-Hyatt suggests we are writing for a difference audience: peers, friends and like-minds.

The future for blog-dialogue offers several promising effects:

 

Relevance / ‘In Real Time’  

 Write a review of a presidential debate. Then, refine it for a month until it qualifies as an essay. There’s too much distance. While the written response might be insightful, interest in the instigating event has already peaked and disappeared. Our friends have already watched, opined about and moved beyond the following four debates. Essays aren’t naturally conducive to interacting with fast-paced culture. One alternative is to devote all blog posts to what’s transcendent, limiting ourselves to only abstract ideas and excluding current events. That’s a limiting alternative, however. range of interests, though. For me, writing in conversation with like-minds runs on a spectrum of interests, including everything from the ordinary to the sublime. All due respect to the ordinary, writing quickly is the way to keep pace with up-to-date topics.

 

More critical thinking, not less

Real conversations crumble under the siege of poor speech and lazy thinking. The challenge of having real forward movement required you to move forward at a shared pace, going step by step, thought by thought. Simultaneously, the challenge of communicating to someone else requires you to think through old thoughts in new ways and invent an apt expression for them. The blogger keen for listeners and responses wants the same things as a normal conversationalist, simultaneously aware that blogging is susceptible to sloppiness of thought and delivery but, placed in a dialogue atmosphere, might become an opportunity working out real communication. Each post functions like a few statements, building on previous thoughts and anticipating nearby implications. The guidelines and challenges of an ordinary conversation shape limits for the writer which naturally improve her work.

 

Layers of timbre

I encounter a lot of over-assertiveness in individual blogs. The writers are distinctly aware that, aside from their font and background color choice, confidence is their only platform. But too often, the anxiety of being their own endorsement makes their tone more obnoxious than persuasive. The blog-dialogue distributes the weight of authority between all the participants, giving everyone a chance to risk sharing their idea without fearing the ‘you-don’t-sound-expert-enough’ response. It allows different timbres to color the general tone: curiosity, concord, humility, uncertainty, etc. Instead of being delivered in one tone bent on asserting the speaker’s authority, the blog-dialogue has a layered tonal atmosphere that illumines the topic directly, in addition to highlighting the speaker.  The wider range of writers increases the range of readers.  The entire team of writers draws an audience of diverse shape, eliciting fresh density to the tone of the pieces. As a result, the audience watches how their attention actually contributing to the conversation, validating their input and watering down the emphasis on who is following, sharing or tweeting whom.

 

Recurrences

Images seeped with memories. Rock-bottom questions. Words with long histories. Inside jokes. Recurrences are facilitators of our best conversations. They are reminders of how common understanding between people makes listening worthwhile. They function as comfortable resting points during strong disagreement. Ultimately, they support our weird questions and crazy assertions with credible backstory. Spouting out statement after statement like meteors that light up and then die keeps a writer on a surface his audience can instantly access. Without backstory with his audience, he won’t reach the level of discourse where his thoughts begin to build new ideas on familiar concepts.

The outworking of blog-dialogue continues to evolve. Some actually address their posts to their intended reader, as though writing a letter. Others have a heyday with embedded links, drawing lines out to as many available perspectives as possible. At the Evangelical Outpost, there’s always a dialogue behind the scenes in the editorial process. The future of the approach doesn’t require commitment to any one tactic. Blog-dialogue will and continues to occur wherever online publication multiplies one thought into several ideas, one question into network of thought-projects, and one person into a community.

The Best Article You’ll Read Today (Isn’t This One)

I’m serious.

If this is the best article you’ve read today so far, then I would encourage you to read more. Maybe try this one. That is just what I had open on my desktop, there are a lot more out there.

But who knows which one will be the best to read? That’s a journey you’ll have to take alone, my young apprentice.

You may have noticed—assuming that you at any point in the last three months had access to the Internet—that there’s been an overwhelming surge of a certain type of article headline. The kind that makes whatever the article is talking about sound like it must be up there with finding a cure for all of the world’s diseases.

Things like “You Won’t Believe What Happened When This Person Did This Thing,” or “This Thing That Happened Will Restore Your Faith In Humanity.”

This type of enticing headline style is called “clickbait.” It was recently made legendary by “good-news-spreading” site Upworthy, and has been copied ad nauseum everywhere else. Sometimes it starts to get a little annoying with so many grandiose claims and so much similar wording all over your Facebook newsfeed.

Steve Hind of The Guardian writes in his In Defence of Clickbait: “When readers are lured in, and rewarded for their curiosity by good content, everyone wins.”

Sure. But what if online publishers set up promises on which they can’t deliver?

“Well duh, then no one will share it,” the readers respond.

And it’s true, to some extent. In the Darwinian world of online traffic rankings, only the interesting survive. (Kanye tweets excepted.)

But there are still a couple of repercussions to this kind of model. The first, as you might expect, is that everything becomes impossible to gauge or even take seriously. We can’t just give all of our online content participation trophy-headlines, or the same thing happens that we all felt in second-grade soccer—suddenly no one is special.

In the same way that repeated, unpoliced misuse of “your/you’re” has made even grownups unsure of correct usage, overuse of hyperbole dumbs down the awesomeness of everything.

We’re already reaching a point where having a “purely factual” headline is something only really super-respectable news sources, who already have an audience, can feel confident about. An un-established writer labeling something as “Some Thoughts I’ve Had” rather than “Something Everyone Needs to Know” is immediately dismissed. Because with all of The Most Important within our reach, why would we have time for anything else?

Another thing that irks me about this type of marketing is an assertion like “This Will Be The Best of This Type of Thing You’ll See All Day.”

Sure, there is some potential for really niche topics: a video titled “This Will Be The Best Video of A Llama Singing You See Today” will probably turn out to be accurate.

But did anyone tell these people about the Internet? I can actually go to this thing called YouTube and type in “llama singing” and find other results, which I might be inspired to do after seeing that first video that piqued my interest.

And finally, my biggest concern with clickbait is its tendency to try to predict or even mandate your reaction. Particularly lines like “You’ll Never Guess” or “This Will Make You Cry.”

Who are you, freelance Buzzfeed columnist, to tell me what I will or will not think or feel?

There is, of course, some implicit understanding that titles like this are just a recommendation of your most likely reaction, and meant merely to give you some kind of context for what type of thing you’re about to read or see. It’s better, I suppose, to be aware you’re about to watch a heart-wrenching story, before everyone hears you sobbing in your cubicle.

But that doesn’t keep lines like that from acting as the laugh tracks of the Internet. Sometimes appropriate, but sometimes painfully awkward and misplaced.

Which comes back to that issue of making promises.

Most of us grew up hearing stories like “The Boy Who Cried Wolf,” and can’t shake the feeling that there’s something wrong with stringing your audience along. Even if they’ll keep believing you every time.

Back when newspapers and magazines had to rely on physical subscriptions, there was no room for bait-and-switch marketing. People got what they paid for, because it was the same thing that they had already gotten to know and learned to trust.

And trust is something that marketing agencies have been trying to replicate for decades, but never mastered.

I grew up with a stellar ability to overdramatize my problems when it was convenient for me. (Think Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.) There were numerous factors that led to my eventual reformation, but one of them was just having a couple of professors who wouldn’t buy what I was selling. After the third “but I was so sick and busy and ran out of printer ink the day that paper was due!” they started calling me on it.

And perhaps it would be helpful to start calling these “best things ever” on their respective crap.

Am I saying that we should all boycott Upworthy? No. Stop reading Buzzfeed? Well, maybe.

But can you imagine what it must be like working at a site like that? Having to scour the world for “the BEST advice for twenty-somethings” and “the CUTEST cat picture EVER.” That’s a lot of unnecessary pressure, spawned from the success of clickbait.

Maybe we can start by presenting things with less ridiculous adjectives in our own sharing, and giving less-paraded things a chance. There’s nothing wrong with reading another article aside from the best one. It can still be good.

I think one of the reasons I like listening to NPR is that they spend so little time on convincing you to care. They don’t introduce a segment about Somalia with “This Story Will Bring You to Tears”…they just start talking about it. It’s up to you, the listener, to engage with the content and react as you see fit.

What a concept.

Maybe we could be people who are thoughtful and humble in the way that we engage with media content and each other. Giving everything a fair shot, but valuing trustworthiness above flashiness.

Wouldn’t that be just the BEST?

Image via the ever hilarious xkcd.

Lark News: Evangelicalism’s Finest News Source

Lark News truly is evangelicalism’s finest news source. It is like an onion, with many layers to its journalistic excellence. I recently discovered it after a friend on Facebook linked to an article about a church cutting non-essential members who do not give and do not volunteer. Every article carries hard truth that speakers and writers might either be afraid to address directly or that they might not address tactfully and effectively. They address issues like how churches treat youth pastors, the quality of Christian radio, and evangelical withdrawal from American society.

Satire done well is a beautiful, beautiful thing, and Lark News plays it straight. The great thing about satire is that being quick to get the point makes readers look silly. I am used to The Onion, which is a satirical treatment of general news, and I sometimes figure that others will catch satire when they see it. However, Lark News is good enough that I have seen people get taken in by what they do, much like foreign newspapers mistake The Onion for real news. Satire does not call the reader to be quick enough to jump on a bandwagon but rather to be slow enough to watch where it is going. There might be a fine point to a bit of satire: “You’re right, but you’re doing it wrong!” There might be a grand and sweeping attack: “This whole thing is wrong! Get rid of it!” It is regularly shocking, demonstrating how the abuse of a good idea or the use of a bad idea becomes horrible and absurd. It shows rather than tells.

Lark News forces Christians to reexamine issues that they might not otherwise consider. The articles that I have seen so far attack self-righteousness and legalism, the adoption of business methods into church practices, and unrealistic expectations put upon pastors. One article features a couple who not only practiced abstinence during their courtship but also carried it two years into their marriage. For another, the title says everything: “Church franchise a hit, but hostile take-overs rattle congregations“. Yet another describes how a church completely lost faith in their pastor’s competence as a religious leader after he opened a Twitter account. Even when harmful church practices receive intelligent and sympathetic criticism, they do not always change. Satire offers another way to say the same thing again but in a way that does not only pass through the head.

When people laugh at themselves and come to realizations on their own, changes in personal character are more permanent than when people are ambushed with a sermon. Writing good satire is like parkour for the mind. It takes a bit of flexibility to understand, but to write it requires leaps and twists connecting things that do not belong together in the same path. Sermons are pretty great, but they are easy to make, and even when they are poorly composed, there is no great loss. Poorly written satire, however, comes off as childish or bitter mocking and reduces the likelihood that readers will give an author a second chance. It is good to see someone out there having a go at the ridiculous points in evangelicalism but doing so skillfully, leaving something left for compassion to work on when the whips and scorpions of satire are done. There is much to love in evangelicalism, so it is encouraging to see someone who cares enough to run it through the satirical wringer.

Vinoth Ramachandra and Theology from the Global Church

I was doing some research on short-term missions when I found a blog by Vinoth Ramachandra, a Christian writer in Sri Lanka. He has studied and traveled in Europe, done extensive ministry in South Asia, and he has written cogent criticism of Christianity as it is received in the non-Western world. He clearly and accurately writes things that the West needs to hear, both praising the good and condemning the bad. Incisively addressing everything from the War on Terror, whistleblowers in the US government, and US foreign policy to relations between Western and Eastern Christians, missionary work done badly, and the influence of media on relations in the Church worldwide, Ramachandra is an intelligent voice from the “other side” of world Christianity. Continue reading Vinoth Ramachandra and Theology from the Global Church

“Heyyyyyy”: Elongated Vowels and the Alleged Degradation of Language

The way we speak fascinates me, but the way we write is something I’m not sure I’ll ever be done explicitly exploring. It all boils down to forms of communication: in what ways do we convey meaning when we are limited by the internal voices of others? When I write, particularly if we’ve never spoken, you sort of have to assume a great deal about what I’m saying: am I terse, or relaxed? Perhaps I simply want you to get the facts straight, or maybe you should really read into that last thing I just said, alright?

Each time I come across an article decrying the difficulties of written communication, I find myself mentally scoffing. While I admit that text-based conversations or opinions are often more difficult to interpret, I have a sneaking suspicion that if we work harder at it, we’ll be capable of spreading our thoughts more or less as intended, with a degree of accuracy akin to the spoken word.

Even so, text communication is tricky. On the one hand, you’ve got the temptation to slip into some rather strange informal speaking tendencies–duplicating letters, as in the article linked above, or ignoring grammar, as in much of ‘meme speak’–all in the name of sending a simple message. On the other hand–and this is where I tend to lean–you have the temptation to formalize your writing, always attempting to communicate as if you were writing a paper. There’s some leeway there, of course, since the subject matter I deal with in day-to-day IM, e-mail, and texting doesn’t necessitate the sort of high level philosophy that my graduate work does. But the temptation is there, partially because the broader scope of philosophical language allows me to communicate ideas with greater clarity.

I don’t want to overstate that, though. There’s something to be said for the ‘strange informal speaking tendencies.’ For starters, a lot of those tendencies are widely shared; the reason we use that sort of language is because it is understood by others. Further, sometimes our written language simply attempts to reflect its spoken counterpart: sometimes people really do use elongated vowels and say “heyyyyyy,” and our spoken language is often far more informal than the papers you wrote in college (I hope so, anyway, for the sake of your grades, or in my case my friends).

Finally, there’s something to be said about writing in different tones. It’s good that I can write academically when I sit down to hash out some philosophy problem. That may not help me when I’m e-mailing a friend from high school, though, nor will it help if I’m IMing my younger brother. The problem isn’t necessarily with understanding–my brother is a smart guy, though I’m not sure about some of my high school friends–but rather lies with intention: my goal is to talk about what is going on in someone’s life (either his or mine), not debate the existence of minds, or some other such esoteric issue. I should practice both, and perhaps practice other sorts of writing (informal yet professional, professional and formal but not academic, etc.), because I am likely to encounter all of these in my day-to-day life, to some degree or another.

Some suggest that “almost all of our digital communications are total thought garbage, so we get away with the least amount of verbal effort we can.” That makes me sad, though if it is true I suspect it is likely just as true for any of our communications (how much time do we spend gossiping, or talking about other trivial matters?). I suspect we can use our written words to impact the world as much as or more than our spoken words, though it would certainly take a bit of effort.

After all, it was by words that God spoke the universe into existence. The Word became flesh, and we now experience the Word through the recorded words of Scripture. Our responsibility is to think, speak, and write well, whatever medium we may be currently engaging.

Image via Flickr.

The Grad Student Unplugs: The Internet vs. My Homework

After one semester as a graduate student, I realized while the internet could be my servant, but it was rapidly becoming my master. Having instant access to unlimited YouTube videos, LA Times stories, my school’s library archive, and a news feed of everything my friends were thinking – it all beckoned me with a promise that I never had to be bored. Lacking will-power, I would find myself watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer until 4 A.M. or wondering why I was Liking my friend’s Facebooked baby pictures instead of writing the economics report for which I thought I had opened my MacBook. Continue reading The Grad Student Unplugs: The Internet vs. My Homework

#OnHashtags

As is often the case, I’ve found myself considering the language we use in our daily lives. As a blogger, it seems only natural to spend a portion of my time considering the written word, but I also communicate with many people by poking at a keyboard: e-mail, Twitter, Facebook, and text messages fill up a good deal of my time. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing—I haven’t stopped talking to people in person—but it does give me space to consider our habits in and out of the written word. One strange phenomenon is the hashtag. Continue reading #OnHashtags

There is Nothing, Son, Under the Gnu: Or, Originality is Overrated

If you want to make a name for yourself, a good way to start is to attack something people believe without question. The broad-minded will hear you, the doctrinaire will attack you, and everybody else will check you out just to learn why everyone is so excited. “Blind” faith can be a sort of scurvy of the mind, so it is right to disturb the unopposed from time to time. On the whole, though, originality is overrated. Continue reading There is Nothing, Son, Under the Gnu: Or, Originality is Overrated

Reflections on Exhaustion, Self-Deception, and Intellectual Responsibility

I struggled with a topic to write about today, for a variety of reasons. There is no shortage of options: I’m taking two summer classes that could both use some good reflection, I just finished a semester where all I took was philosophy, and I’m currently reading some excellent contemporary literature in tandem with ancient Chinese philosophy. Plenty here to digest, I admit, but I’m really just exhausted, so those will be saved for another day. Continue reading Reflections on Exhaustion, Self-Deception, and Intellectual Responsibility