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1. A few weeks ago The NY Times Magazine published a column questioning if, in the wake of a public tragedy such as a mass shooting, politicians’ “thoughts and prayers” mean anything. Ethan mentioned it in one of our round-ups, quoting an expert who observed, ‘‘When uttered by civilians, [that pair of words is] mechanical enough. When uttered by elected officials, it has all the emotional resonance of a Miranda warning’’.

He’s right. Overuse hollowed out the phrase long before the advent of social media. Instead, it tends to be “something to say” when words fail, often to make the speaker feel better, i.e., a pale shell of its true meaning. Of course, extending “thoughts and prayers” can also be a gut-level expression of empathy, which Andy Crouch did a great job of explaining over at CT.

Anyway, in the wake of the shooting in San Bernardino this week, the Twitter-sphere erupted with what might politely be called impatience at those who would publicly drop the phrase in lieu of, say, “doing something” (like tweeting, I suppose). As the sentiment has gained traction, pundits have labelled it “prayer shaming”, kicking off another round of culture war hand-wringing–sententious paranoia on the right and Bill Maher-levels of hostility on the left. 

ny-daily-news-mocks-prayerHaving just written about that aspect of things, I’m more interested in what the uproar reveals about the popular conception of the relationship between faith and works. Because suddenly a sizable amount of avatars people are weighing in on that precise dichotomy. It would be amusing if the content were more original. Alas, the tune is all too recognizable: even/especially those who recognize the value of prayer seem to be embracing a message that amounts to “stop (just) believing and start doing”, i.e. “be the church (dammit)!”. The second chapter of James’ epistle is getting quoted like mad–I’ve even come across a piece or two about how Jesus “prayer shamed the Pharisees! Sheesh. Read enough of this stuff and it starts to sound as if the comfort of grace is a distraction (maybe even a liability), rather than the only basis for hope in a world done in by doing.

Prayer does not excuse the gap between what we believe and what we do. It is the act of recognizing just how vast that discrepancy is. As vacuous as the words themselves may be in the mouths of politicians and celebrities (not to mention our own!), if the efficacy of our prayers were dependent on the purity of the motivations behind them, well, they might truly be useless. But to heap added expectation on one another about the ‘correct’ way to respond to something so ghastly will only ensure that we’re more bound up in monitoring our own righteousness (and ratcheting up the pressure) than responding to the suffering around us. 

Writing for The Washington Post, Russell Moore put it this way:

The first response to a word of our fellow citizens in peril should be a human response of empathy. For religious people, that means a call to pray for them, and to encourage others of like mind to do so. For non-religious people, that means perhaps holding your loved ones tightly and realizing your, for lack of a better word, blessings. It shouldn’t mean an immediate search for who is to blame for holding the wrong opinions.

2. The timing, in other words, probably couldn’t be better for Brent White’s riff on sanctification, “Self-Improvement Is Killing Me”. Or for that matter, Bill Giavanetti’s explanation of “Why I Preach Grace-Filled Sermons“. Despite the irony that the piece lapses into quite a bit of to-do language itself (he’s addressing clergy), the heart on display couldn’t be more sympathetic.

Grace is that fearsome force flowing from God’s heart to deliver unmerited favor to train wrecks like me. It stands forever as the most counter-intuitive force in the universe. The fall reversed our polarities…

The imperatives of the pulpit rise off the church like the wavy lines of cartoon stink from a road killed skunk. Most of our people are struggling just to get by. They’re overwhelmed. Then they come to church, for what? Another duty for their already backed-up to-do lists.

The bulk of Scripture is declarative. Who God is. What he has done for us. The wonders of Calvary’s cross. The incredible promises of God. Our riches in Christ. The writers of Scripture never tire of lifting the veil to offer a peek at the throne of all-sufficient grace.

So many times, your listeners come to church worn out by life. Many feel deep failure. The weight of adversity presses hard. Guilt and shame lurk at the door. The cross of Christ is what they need. Paint on the corridors of their imagination an indelible picture of all their failures and troubles being swept away in the tidal wave of Calvary’s love. If you don’t run to the cross in your messages, your people won’t run to the cross in their trials.

3. An oldie but a goodie from The Boston Globe. Author Anthony Doerr (All the Light You Cannot See) pleads to “Let Us Now Praise Libraries, Librarians” , touching on the cult of productivity in the process, ht LM:

There are many justifications for the continued existence of public libraries. People who don’t have jobs turn to them. People who don’t have childcare turn to them. People who don’t have computer skills turn to them. Libraries are deeply useful.

But is “usefulness’’ the only criteria we should consider? Can’t the books inside libraries also show readers beauty, wake them up to the startling, breathtaking phenomenon of being alive? These are things that cannot be scored or quantified. And yet they are considered the most important reasons, perhaps, for sustaining libraries.

On the map of my life, with its dark spots and blank spots and smudged spots, few spots glow more brightly than the libraries, those luminous repositories of stories and lives, little holy lands that have taught me, all my life, about the mysterious, dangerous, profound, and addictive magic of our shared language.

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4. Next, this is great. The NY Times explores “The Peculiar Ascent of Bill Murray to Secular Saint“. I was delighted to learn that our hero crashed Elvis Presley’s funeral. Kind of surprised they didn’t mention St. Vincent, though:

It’s clear that [Bill Murray] has come to symbolize something. But what, exactly?

“There’s a lack of pretense, a lack of phoniness that people respond to,” said Robert Schnakenberg, author of “The Big Bad Book of Bill Murray”… Zach Tutor, who runs one of the Tumblrs devoted to Bill Murray, went further, venturing to say that he embodies…“the sense of freedom that we all pursue.”

The stories are legion: Bill Murray singing with the awe-struck patrons of a New York karaoke bar; Bill Murray appearing out of nowhere to join a kickball game; Bill Murray reading poetry to construction workers; Bill Murray entertaining a group of villagers in deepest Bali, who had no idea who he was, with an impromptu pantomime comedy performance; Bill Murray foregoing an agent and publicist in favor of an 800 number and a seldom-checked answering machine.

5. Bill is in the news this week because Netflix has just released A Very Murray Christmas, which I’ve yet to see but have heard is pretty funny. In conjunction with the special, the French band Phoenix recorded a Christmas single (on which Murray himself guests – see above), a cover of the wonderful unreleased 1977 Beach Boys tune, “Alone on Christmas”. Terrific recording, just disappointed that they left out the final verse, where Mike Love brings in the religious element of the holiday. Their loss! Elsewhere, Vice compiled an oral history of The Wrestling Album and man, what a wild ride. Worlds colliding in the coolest way possible. Finally, The Killers released their annual Christmas single this week, and it’s another winner, the final part of a trilogy of songs about Santa trying to murder Brandon Flowers. Spoiler alert–it has a happy ending:

The group also stopped by Jimmy Kimmel to perform last year’s release, the truly grace-tactic “Joel the Lump of Coal”.

6. Was hoping/planning to get through this post without delving into collegiate outrage culture, but this post from the president of Oklahoma Wesleyan University was impossible to past up. It begins:

This past week, I actually had a student come forward after a university chapel service and complain because he felt “victimized” by a sermon on the topic of 1 Corinthians 13. It appears this young scholar felt offended because a homily on love made him feel bad for not showing love. In his mind, the speaker was wrong for making him, and his peers, feel uncomfortable.

It goes on from there.

7. In humor, a mysterious little volume satirizing start-up culture has been blowing minds out in San Fransisco, the perfectly titled Iterating Grace. It takes about 20 minutes to read the whole thing (which you can do here) and you’ll be glad you did. Think Silicon Valley meets Kerouac. I thought McSweeney’s take on “The First Black Friday” was pretty hilarious too.

8. A wonderful, lengthy profile of Orson Welles, courtesy of Alex Ross in this week’s New Yorker, prepping us, God willing, for the release of Welles’ unfinished final film The Other Side of the Wind. According to Ross, “if Welles had pulled it off, “Wind” would have been a death-defying trick: a comeback picture about a doomed director who can’t finish his comeback picture.” I love how Francis Truffaut once described Welles’s work: “a meditation on the weakness of the strong.”

9. Lastly, Francis Spufford listed a few of favorite reads of 2015 for Christian Century. Penelope Fitzgerald gets a nod, ‘natch, but they all sound amazing, especially the last one, The Thing Itself by Adam Roberts, which he calls “the strangest book I’ve read in many years… a mash-up of Kantian metaphysics with John Carpenter’s movie The Thing, full of pulp violence and virtuoso literary pastiche, through which an atheist author spins a plot out of the idea that the physical universe is a scanty frontage for infinite love. Can you imagine being talked into going to church by Philip K. Dick, who wrote the novel that became the movie Blade Runner? Well, it’s far weirder than that.” Sign me up.

Strays

  • David Bentley Hart has some flattering and very worthy things to say about Pope Francis.
  • James Romaine, the art historian who spoke at our NYC Conference last year, has a terrific series of videos on the art of Advent.
  • Our friends at Think Christian are giving away copies of A Theology of Star Wars, a beautifully designed ebook collection of the essays they’ve been running this Fall about the franchise (to which I was privileged to contribute a chapter). Get it here.
  • TV: I cannot get over how good the second seasons of both The Leftovers and Fargo are! From every possible perspective, including theological. More next week.
  • Social Science study of the week is probably “Sodium Warnings Are a Nice Idea, Which Is Why It’s Too Bad They’re Probably Useless”.
  • Have you heard about To Ash? It’s a video game designed to teach people about the acceptance of mortality. The main character starts out strong and loses power and agility as time passes.
  • Monday is a big day. Our new publication, Mockingbird at the Movies, hits and pre-registration for our 2016 NYC Conference (4/14-15) opens!