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from "It's Hip to be Round," by Guy Trebay, The New York Times, 12 August 2009

...this year an unexpected element has been added to the [Brooklyn hipster] look, and that is a burgeoning potbelly one might term the Ralph Kramden.

Too pronounced to be blamed on the slouchy cut of a T-shirt, too modest in size to be termed a proper beer gut, developed too young to come under the heading of a paunch, the Ralph Kramden is everywhere to be seen lately, or at least it is in the vicinity of the Brooklyn Flea in Fort Greene, the McCarren Park Greenmarket and pretty much any place one is apt to encounter fans of Grizzly Bear.

What the trucker cap and wallet chain were to hipsters of a moment ago, the Kramden is to what my colleague Mike Albo refers to as the “coolios” of now. Leading with a belly is a male privilege of long standing, of course, a symbol of prosperity in most cultures and of freedom from anxieties about body image that have plagued women since Eve.

from "The Love of Reading," by Virginia Woolf, from her Essays, vol. 5, excerpted in The Guardian, 17 January 2009 :: via 3quarksdaily

Reading is a very complex art - the hastiest examination of our sensations as a reader will show us that much. And our duties as readers are many and various. But perhaps it may be said that our first duty to a book is that one should read it for the first time as if one were writing it.

One should begin by sitting in the dock with the criminal, not by mounting the bench to sit among the Judges. One should be an accomplice with the writer in his act, whether good or bad, of creation. For each of these books, however it may differ in kind and quality, is an attempt to make something. And our first duty as readers is to try and understand what the writer is making from the first word with which he builds his first sentence to the last with which he ends his book. We must not impose our design upon him; we must not try to make him conform his will to ours. We must allow Defoe to be Defoe and Jane Austen to be Jane Austen as freely as we allow the tiger to have his fur and the tortoise to have his shell. And this is very difficult. For it is one of the qualities of greatness that it brings Heaven and earth and human nature into conformity with its own vision.

from "A picture is no longer worth a thousand words," by Farhad Manjoo,, 22 April 2004 :: via The .Plan

There was a time when photographs were synonymous with truth—when you could be sure that what you saw in a picture actually occurred. In today’s Photoshop world, all that has changed. Pictures are endlessly pliable. Photographs (and even videos) are now merely as good as words—approximations of reality at best, subtle (or outright) distortions of truth at worst. Is that Jane Fonda next to John Kerry at an antiwar rally? No, it isn’t; if you thought so, you’re a fool for trusting your own eyes.

Some photographers welcome the new skepticism toward images; it’s good that people are learning not to automatically believe what they see, they say. But many fear that we’re losing an important foothold on reality. Without trustworthy photographs, how will we ever know what in our world is real?

by Andy Crouch for Culture Making

Today marks the launch of a new online magazine from the New York-based International Arts Movement, The Curator. As editor-in-chief Alissa Wilkinson writes, The Curator will seek “to encourage, promote, and uncover those artifacts of culture . . . that inspire and embody truth, goodness, and beauty.” Amen to that, sister—expect us to follow The Curator’s progress with great interest in the coming weeks and months, and no doubt to steal, er, I mean, excerpt and repost, some of its best material.

Alissa was one of the early readers and reviewers of Culture Making, and I’ve been grateful for her intelligent enthusiasm for the book, and more importantly for her discerning eye for signs of hope and opportunities to cultivate and create. Best wishes, Alissa and team!

by Andy Crouch for Culture Making

One of the interesting consequences of writing a Christian book is that you end up doing a lot of interviews with Christian media. I enjoy almost all of these conversations. For one thing, I love the voices of people who work in radio! And I consistently find that my interviewers are intrigued by the topic of my book and genuinely eager to talk about it.

Still, there is one pattern to my interviews with Christian media that perplexes me, and that is my hosts’ relentless sense of pessimism about “the culture.” One of my favorite Christian radio hosts, a super-bright guy with whom I’ve talked several times, said in our most recent interview, “When we were in high school [I think he’s maybe a few years older than me] it seemed like the culture was a mixed bag. But now doesn’t it seem like it’s just gotten worse and worse?”

I had to answer that honestly, that’s not how it seems to me. For example, when I was in high school I remember hearing about the horrifyingly high incidence of drunk driving. But a mother named Candy Lightner, whose daughter had been killed by a drunk driver, started Mothers Against Drunk Driving. (People my age will remember yellow ribbons tied to car antennas, inspired by MADD—come to think of it, people my age will remember car antennas.) Two decades later, the cultural horizons have shifted decisively on this issue. As Frederica Mathewes-Green has pointed out, films from the “innocent” 1950s regularly portray drunkenness (and its corollary, violence against women) with a lightheartedness that we now find inconceivable. Overall, it seems to me that culture, like Wall Street, is a random walk—improving in some ways, declining in others. The Christian job is simply to assess our current moment and cultivate and create within it. But when I express this on the air, I’m almost always greeted with disbelief, even when my hosts find the idea appealing.

What accounts for this Christian-radio pessimism about “the culture”? It occurs to me it’s strikingly similar to something documented by Dave Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons: the culture’s pessimism about “the Christians.” In their book unChristian, Gabe and Dave show just how negatively most secular Americans view Christians when they are asked to characterize them as a group—even though the same people will report that their personal encounters with Christians have been much more positive. While some of this pessimism can certainly be traced to the way we Christians are presented in mainstream media, some of it seems to come from that media filling a vacuum of experience. People just don’t have enough encounters with self-identified Christians who are not wildly judgmental, homophobic right-wingers to realize that their stereotypes are untrue. When they meet an actual Christian who doesn’t fit their expectations, they are more likely to dismiss him or her as an exception than to revise their rule of thumb.

And that, it seems to me, is exactly what Christians—especially those who by vocation spend a lot of time immersed in the Christian subculture—are doing with the culture itself. In the absence of sustained encounters with our neighbors who don’t share our faith, cocooning in our own media and social groups, we fall into pessimistic stereotypes about “the culture” out there. When we happen to actually get to know an unbelieving neighbor and find that they are not wildly permissive, atheistic left-wingers, we just file them in the “exception to the rule” category.

The most basic solution to the challenge posed by unChristian, it seems to me, is for a lot more of us to get involved, as Christians, in the structures and institutions where our neighbors spend their time. But perhaps that will change more than just our neighbors’ attitudes. We, too, may discover that “the culture” is full of grace and heartbreak and beauty and folly—not so different, after all, from the church herself.