Faculty Book Reviews
Liturgy of the Ordinary: Sacred Practices in Everyday Life
Tish Harrison Warren | 184 pages | InterVarsity Press | 2016
Reviewed by Adjunct Professor of Bible and Religion Anthony Rodriguez
Spiritual formation seems like the domain of the spiritual master, the monk who perches on top of a mountain for decades at a time. And for those of us who are dominated and ruled more and more by devices that chirp and vibrate and notify us into submission, spiritual formation sounds like an impossible task. But in Liturgy of the Ordinary, Tish Harrison Warren offers hope and a way forward for the spiritually incompetent amongst us. Which is to say: all of us.
Using the structures you might expect at a liturgical worship service, Warren invites us to re-appropriate the common habits of our days for the slow and gradual work of spiritual formation. Acts as simple as making your bed or brushing your teeth or sitting in traffic become moments to be attentive to the habits we have acquired that shape us and the ways we might alter them to slowly form ourselves in God’s direction. What if, for example, we honored our need for sleep as a gift from God to remind us of our smallness and not something to fight for another episode in our latest Netflix binge?
Warren’s book is charmingly accessible. She freely confesses her own frailties and foibles such that any reader can feel the author is wholly sympathetic to the difficult task of ordinary spirituality. But this is precisely what makes her practical, simple suggestions so encouraging. The everyday work of everyday people, which is what “liturgy” means, really is for people like you and me. With Warren’s help, the boring ordinary can be the common arena for spiritual formation. Never mind those mountain-top fantasies. How might God meet you in the grit and grind of your everyday normal?
Marshall McLuhan: You Know Nothing of My Work! (Douglas Coupland)
224 pages | Atlas | 2010
Reviewed by Associate Professor of Communication Dr. Joseph Martin
Back in the 60s, Marshall McLuhan enjoyed an academic comet ride that emitted sparks enough to lend his name celebrity cachet on talk shows as well as college campuses. The home TV set was an appliance that both transfixed and rattled families with its rapid- fire delivery of live footage—from presidential debates to American Bandstand to the Vietnam War—and McLuhan’s musings on the social effects of media made him sound as current as the evening news itself. He upped his ante with a knack for inventing hip-if-arcane sounding neologisms, a trait that made him popular with the Haight-Ashbury crowd if not always equally so in the faculty lounge (of his counterculture fans he quipped to Playboy, “I’m flattered to hear my work described as hallucinogenic, but I suspect many academic critics find me a bad trip”). Some of his material now seems only marginally less florid than a mural by Peter Maxx, but it turns out the professor wrote with more prescience than he knew. His uncannily spot-on predictions and maxims about technology’s warp-speed escalation are more and more taken for granted. McLuhan imagined a “digital divide” issuing from a “global technological village” long before the worldwide web, and he coined the phrase, “The medium is the message,” a half century before anyone was dropping vocabulary like “vlogging” or “abandonware.”
Less remembered, however, is the fact that McLuhan himself was a convinced Christian believer. In Marshall McLuhan: You Know Nothing of My Work!, novelist-turned-biographer Douglas Coupland reclaims this and other facts as he portrays the scholar as a latter-day prophet with honor. At once informing and entertaining, this slim monograph is the best pairing of biographer with beast in memory, what another reviewer called a virtual “Vulcan mind-meld” of two cultural mavericks. Coupland, whose acclaimed 90s novel Generation X scrambled Kerouacian listlessness with a jump drive’s worth of pop culture allusions, ably explains why McLuhan is rightly regarded as patron saint by the technophiles who read Wired magazine. Even the book’s style (short declarative passages interspersed with portions lifted from the web, and clipped chapter titles named after computer key-command cues) functions as an implicit homage. But the portrait that emerges here is as aware as it is affectionate. Though he doesn’t share his subject’s faith, Coupland highlights how McLuhan’s Christian conversion provided the integrity, as well as the warp and woof, behind some perceptive pop scholarship:
“How do you explain the fact that, while you’re busy hanging out in eternity, the world you left behind has merely the drab little future ahead of it? Although he never phrased it as such, it was the irreconcilability of the world with the afterworld that generated the contradictions that defined much of Marshall’s career. On the one hand, technology was a bauble to be played within the mortal coil. It was not worthy of the respect accorded religion [but] it was a transformative agent for the mind and society. It had to be worthy of the same attention as literature. It was this detachment from the world that afforded him an objectivity missing in other social analysts… He came to feel that his religion was indeed a sense, a sensory perception that colored his life as much as, if not more so, than sight, taste, touch, hearing, smell, or gravity. He had found his key to eternity and was now free to turn his full and detached attention to the merely human.”
Armed with such detachment, McLuhan pioneered the field of media studies and left behind an artful arsenal of creative arguments about technology’s hardly neutral influence. Coupland has produced a quirky, kinetic, and accessible account of an intellectual life. Marshall McLuhan’s story, Coupland surmises, “shows us the majesty of the human brain in all its flaws and kinks and wonders. It also tells us about a certain window in time, now long closed, when rules were being rewritten … and the future existed as clearly and wonderfully as a place one might someday hope to visit, like Rome or New Zealand.” Reading and remembering about it all now from such a lookout reanimates a whole set of new hopes and apprehensions for our own Tomorrowland. ■