From the remarkable book How the Irish Saved Civilization by Thomas Cahill:
“Like the Jews before them, the Irish enshrined literacy as their central religious act. In a land where literacy had previously been unknown, in a world where the old literate civilizations were sinking fast beneath successive waves of barbarism, the white Gospel page, shining in all the little oratories of Ireland, acted as a pledge: the lonely darkness had been turned into light, and the lonely virtue of courage, sustained through all the centuries, had been transformed into hope.”
Among the podcasts in my regular rotation, there are two others I’m listening to that are both limited series, airing concurrently, and happen to share a surprising thematic overlap.
One is Gene and Roger, an eight-part Spotify-exclusive series from The Ringer that serves as an oral history of Gene Siskel, Roger Ebert, and their movie criticism legacy. The other is The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill from Christianity Today, which charts the story of Mars Hill Church and its controversial pastor Mark Driscoll.
What’s the connection between these two disparate stories? The epiphany came after listening to recent episodes of both shows, released on the same day.
For the brand
“Top Guns” finds Siskel and Ebert reaching new heights of exposure, popularity, and power through their TV show and “two thumbs up” brand. Meanwhile, “The Brand” follows Driscoll as he and Mars Hill’s burgeoning marketing team harness technology and internet to build his personal brand and rocket the church’s growth.
Both subjects became celebrities within their domains despite their unlikely origins, unorthodox approaches, and often prickly demeanor. Whatever criticism that came their way—like for the reductive sloganeering of Siskel and Ebert’s “two thumbs up” and for Driscoll’s macho masculinity and objectification of women—was overshadowed by their surprising success and cultural ubiquity.
Movies and machismo
Though I was too young to watch Siskel and Ebert together on TV at the time, I was a regular viewer of the post-Siskel iteration with Richard Roeper and even the post-Ebert version with Michael Phillips and A.O. Scott. Before podcasts and social media, this was the only time I could see intelligent people arguing about movies. You also couldn’t be a film lover and understand what it means to write and think about movies without Ebert’s influence specifically. (His Great Movies anthologies are an essential resource, and the documentary Life Itself is a great primer on his life and work.)
Driscoll had a similar influence within American Christianity. I listened to his sermon podcasts through iTunes in the early 2010s, back when they were usually topping the Religion charts (and back when I was still listening to sermons). Driscoll’s tough-guy personality and the reported toxic culture of Mars Hill eventually turned me off, but his cultural cache lived on—probably peaking with his infamous trolling of Obama for his second Inauguration—until Mars Hill’s demise less than two years later on account of Driscoll’s bullying and “patterns of persistent sinful behavior”.
The beauty of synchronicity
The comparisons do fade at some point. The end of Siskel and Ebert—as a show and as individuals—was caused by untimely illness, while it was Driscoll’s behavior that led to his disgrace.
Still, it was a synchronistic delight to catch both of these excellent podcasts at the right moment to hear how seemingly unrelated stories can inform each other. One of the benefits of subscribing to (probably) too many podcasts…
Here’s two quotes I re-encountered while going through my reading notes.
From Lab Girl by Hope Jahren:
My laboratory is like a church because it is where I figure out what I believe. The machines drone a gathering hymn as I enter. I know whom I’ll probably see, and I know how they’ll probably act. I know there’ll be silence; I know there’ll be music, a time to greet my friends, and a time to leave others to their contemplation. There are rituals that I follow, some I understand and some I don’t. Elevated to my best self, I strive to do each task correctly. My lab is a place to go on sacred days, as is a church. On holidays, when the rest of the world is closed, my lab is open. My lab is a refuge and an asylum. It is my retreat from the professional battlefield; it is the place where I coolly examine my wounds and repair my armor. And, just like church, because I grew up in it, it is not something from which I can ever really walk away.
From Underland: A Deep Time Journey by Robert Macfarlane:
My sense is that the search for dark matter has produced an elaborate, delicate edifice of presuppositions, and a network of worship sites, also known as laboratories, all dedicated to the search for an invisible universal entity which refuses to reveal itself. It seems to resemble what we call religion rather more than what we call science.
As acknowledged back in DDC 220-229, the 200s have been overwhelmingly biased toward Christianity. But don’t fear, every other religious person reading this: your time has come! The Lords of Dewey have deigned the 290s the “Oh Crap We Forgot All The Other Religions” section. Hence Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, and every other possible religious -ism bunched together in the caboose for a SparkNotes tour through ancient and modern religion and spirituality. Certainly not adequate space for the plethora of writing out there, but it’s the best Dewey is willing to do at this point.
Time for an #OccupyDewey campaign? Only the people can decide. Meanwhile, we’ve concluded what has to be the most contentious section in all of Dewey. (What’s that? The 320s are Political Science?)
Outside of being Protestant, I don’t have a specific denominational background. In spite (or because?) of that, I find other denominations, sects, and congregational interpretations fascinating. As a non-participant in the holy wars between Methodists, Baptists, Presbyterian, and of course Catholics, I watch with equal parts confusion and admiration for the dedication each section holds for their specific ways. Though all housed under the “Christian” umbrella, their adherents have found many ways to diverge from each other since the very beginning of the faith. (Only those in the culture can appreciate/disdain the irony of “no longer used” being paired with Unitarianism.) Despite the division, there is much to be gained historically, sociologically, and theologically from reading about how each of these parts interact with each other and with the whole of the faith.
Or, if you’re sick of Christianity, you can just wait for the 290s.
Once again we’ve got a number of winning Ghosts of Dewey Past. Perhaps it’s fitting that formerly evil is in the section about God. Whether by divine intervention, miracle, or the fortuitous maneuverings of an OCLC employee, Dewey #216 is no longer the damnable hellscape of sin and evil it once was, and I for one am thankful. I was pleasantly surprised to find a quite varied field of God-related books: some that argue for the existence of God, others that aren’t so sure, and some that make a federal case out of their certitude either way. Personally, I’m more interested in the former than the latter. Doubt, like any tool, serves an important purpose in its right context, so leaving some room for it, I think, is a healthy way to look at the world.
201 Religious mythology, general classes of religion, interreligious relations and attitudes, social theology
203 Public worship and other practices
204 Religious experience, life, practice
205 Religious ethics
206 Leaders and organization
207 Missions and religious education
209 Sects and reform movements
Y’all ready for this? It’s about to get contentious up in here. Religion has been and always will be a hot topic to tackle no matter where you’re from or what you believe. But the first ten-spots of the 200s is a nice way to ease into such a gargantuan topic, as it covers religion in the broadest way possible. Hence, a book about religion in Star Trek sitting comfortably near another about zen and mysticism by a Trappist monk. There’s a lot to enjoy and delve into in this section, and it’s diverse enough to appeal to many interests. That won’t necessarily be the case moving forward, so I hope you’re prepared for some spice…
Religions of Star Trek
By Ross Shepard Kraemer
Random Sentence: “Is the Q Continuum Star Trek’s answer to the Force?”
Mystics and Zen Masters
By Thomas Merton
Random Sentence: “This pilgrimage, let us repeat it, does not end at the monastery gate.”