1. First off, we cannot dodge–and wouldn’t want to–the story that’s dominated the media these past few days, however stomach-turning it may be. I’m referring to the trial of Larry Nassar, the doctor convicted of abusing female gymnasts. You hear a lot these days about “the prophetic voice,” whether it be that of church leaders or late-night TV hosts or actors on the red carpet, and it’s a fuzzy concept–at best a way of baptizing unpopular but necessary truths with religious significance, at worst a megaphone of rationalized unforgiveness. Definitely a case where overuse breeds cynicism. Then you hear the closing statement read by Rachael Denhollander, the first accuser to come forward, and “prophetic” is the only word that applies. That and “saintly”:

You spoke of praying for forgiveness. But Larry, if you have read the Bible you carry, you know forgiveness does not come from doing good things, as if good deeds can erase what you have done… The Bible you carry says it is better for a stone to be tied around your neck and you thrown into a lake than for you to make even one child stumble. And you have damaged hundreds… The Bible you carry speaks of a final judgment where all of God’s wrath and eternal terror is poured out on men like you. Should you ever reach the point of truly facing what you have done, the guilt will be crushing. And that is what makes the gospel of Christ so sweet. Because it extends grace and hope and mercy where none should be found. And it will be there for you.

I pray you experience the soul crushing weight of guilt so you may someday experience true repentance and true forgiveness from God, which you need far more than forgiveness from me — though I extend that to you as well.

If you read the rest of the statement–and it’s not easy–you know that her words aren’t cheap. They’re not used to gloss over or reduce the very real cost of Nassar’s crimes, or even ameliorate Denhollander’s own wounds. To be honest, it’s the kind of faith one finds near impossible to fathom much less emulate, a miracle of the most unreasonable and offensive variety to which one can only venture a dazed but grateful ‘amen’.

2. No elegant way to segue from that, apart to say that while we’re on the subject of miracles, perhaps you’ve heard this one before: In late December of 1980, something extraordinary occurred in Lengby, MN. A man named Wally Nelson awoke to find the body of 19 year old girl named Jean Hilliard frozen “solid as a log” on his doorstep, where she had apparently sat for six full hours outdoors in 22 below Fahrenheit temperatures. He somehow got her to the hospital (the details boggle the mind!), where, to everyone’s disbelief, she was revived–and with hardly any lasting damage. A few weeks ago, a local radio station caught up with Hilliard and her comments were striking, ht MR:

She toured local churches. Talk shows flew her to New York City to tell her story: The miracle girl from Lengby, Minnesota. “I was on the ‘Today’ show,” she said. “I was interviewed by Tom Brokaw. I took my mother on that trip. That was fun.” But once the attention wound down, Hilliard said the experience didn’t really change the trajectory of her life. She said she kept waiting for something dramatic to happen. Almost everyone she knew told her she was saved by a miracle. Those things are supposed to happen for a reason. But her life’s been normal.

She got married had kids, then later divorced. She lives in Cambridge, Minn., now and works at Walmart… Things might have turned out differently Hilliard said, if she remembered the six hours she spent frozen in Nelson’s yard. If she’d seen anything. “It’s like I fell asleep and woke up in the hospital,” she said. “I didn’t see the light or anything like that. It was kind of disappointing. So many people talk about that, and I didn’t get anything.”

It’s both remarkable and understandable that she would feel the miracle itself was not enough. Who among us wouldn’t want it to be a stepping stone toward something larger, maybe some kind of personal breakthrough and/or foreshadowing of future glory? But if it just meant we got to stay alive, have kids, and work at Walmart, well, there’s something about the humility that strikes me as more trustworthily divine. At the very least, it doesn’t make the event any less of a miracle, or the one who wrought it any less of a, you know:

3. Next, picking up on the recent research out of the UK, psychologist Jane Adams reported that “More College Students Seem to Be Majoring in Perfectionism”–a notable bit of Mockingbait that leads straight into Adam Gopnik’s survey in The New Yorker of the latest parenting handbooks to hit the market, “How to Raise a Prodigy“. I was unaware, for example, that the Germans are now being lauded in print for their rearing skills much like the French were a few years ago (Bringing Up Bébé). Having been reared in that part of the world myself for a bit (and having just finished Netflix’s awesome German language time-travel show Dark), his characterization of deutsche Kindererziehung made me laugh out loud, e.g. “the most highly organized forms of not being highly organized that have ever existed”. But my favorite part was his discussion of Karen Crouse’s new book Norwich: One Tiny Vermont Town’s Secret to Happiness and Excellence:

Crouse, a Times sportswriter disillusioned by drug-enhanced results and joyless competitions, stumbled on Norwich in the midst of her travels with more or less the same stunned enthusiasm with which Ronald Colman, in the movie “Lost Horizon,” stumbles on Shangri-La. In Norwich, no parent presses, no bar is set, and after a kid scores two goals in a soccer game he is sat down so that some other kid has a chance to score. Yet Norwich continually sends athletes to the Olympics and other competitions in numbers ridiculously disproportionate to its size…

Looking at Norwich, we’re told that the non-competitive, non-pressuring approach is best because it gets us to the medal stand, or close. But what if it didn’t? If Norwich values matter, it’s because they’re good, not because they’re shortcuts to victory. The point of a non-competitive attitude can’t be that it makes us better able to compete; the value of an unpressured approach can’t be that it creates a more effective kind of pressure…

Put another way, when we turn grace into law — when we make acceptance a means to an end rather than an end in itself — it ceases to be grace. Alas, such are our natural proclivities that we fashion even our most precious ‘non-methods’ into fresh methods.

What really helicopters over these books is what one might call the Causal Catastrophe: the belief that the proof of the rightness or wrongness of some way of bringing up children is in the kinds of adults it produces. This appears, on the surface, so uncontroversial a position—what other standard would you use?—that to question it seems a little crazy. But, after all, chains of human causality are, if not infinite, very long; in every life, some bad consequence of your upbringing will eventually emerge. We disapprove of parental hovering not because it won’t pay off later—it might; it does!—but because it’s obnoxious now. Strenuously competitive parents may indeed produce high-achieving grownups, but it’s in the nature of things that high-achieving adults are likely to become frustrated and embittered old people, once the rug is pulled out from under their occupation. If a chain is only as strong as its weakest link, then all chains are infinitely weak, since everybody ends up broken… As the nineteenth-century Russian philosopher Alexander Herzen said, after the unimaginable loss of a child drowned (in words famously adapted by Tom Stoppard in “The Coast of Utopia”), “Because children grow up, we think a child’s purpose is to grow up. But a child’s purpose is to be a child.”

In other words, much of the anxiety surrounding modern parenting is the fruit of an over-emphasis on future outcome as opposed to present reality. Which, even if inescapable (See: The Onion’s evergreen headline “Study Finds Every Style Of Parenting Produces Disturbed, Miserable Adults”), should certainly be taken into account when invoking parenting analogies in the pulpit, i.e. when in doubt, go Dragon Parent over Tiger.

4. In honor of author Ursula K. Le Guin, who died this past week, a couple of sympathetic paragraphs from her 2006 essay “Imaginary Friends” in New Statesman, ht AJ:

When there began to be such a thing as books written for children, in the mid-19th century, fiction was dominated by the realistic novel. Romance and satire were acceptable to it, but overt fantasy was not. So, for a while, fantasy found a refuge in children’s books. There it flourished so brilliantly that people began to perceive imaginative fiction as being “for children”.

The modernists extended this misconception by declaring fantastic narrative to be intrinsically childish. Though modernism is behind us and postmodernism may be joining it, still many critics and reviewers approach fantasy determined to keep Caliban permanently confined in the cage of Kiddie Lit. The voice of Edmund Wilson reviewing J R R Tolkien is still heard, bleating: “Oo, those awful Orcs!” There should be a word — “maturismo”, like “machismo”? — for the anxious savagery of the intellectual who thinks his adulthood has been impugned.

Her words reminded me of a recent editorial in the Times, in which Jason Zinoman asked “Why Are We Ashamed to Call ‘Get Out’ and ‘The Shape of Water’ Horror Films?” Call me naive but I’m pretty sure it has as much to do with righteousness as it does quality.

5. Writing over at Vox, upcoming NYC conference speaker Alissa Wilkinson penned a marvelous reflection on “How Three Billboards went from film fest darling to awards-season controversy”. Clue: it has something to do with Flannery O’Connor (and the director’s apparent failure to follow his tribute all the way upward)…

“It is asking a lot of people to watch a story in which we root for a racist and abusive police officer in the name of his own redemption, but it is asking even more of the audience if Dixon himself does no actual work in the name of earning that redemption,” Hanif Abdurraqib wrote at Pacific Standard

In [director Martin McDonagh’s purely humanistic] view of the world, we receive moments of grace only from one another — a worthy thing, to be sure, one that everyone can aspire to despite their own theological commitments, but one that requires more earning. And that may just be what many critics are reacting to: The idea of redemption one can read in the plot doesn’t work even according to the film’s own standards.

6. Next, Father Stephen Freeman is at it again, this time re: “The Mystery of Providence”. To wit, ht RS:

Our temptation is to presume that the work of the Cross in history is finished, that having completed that work, God has now left us to get on with fixing a broken world. But the Cross is not only the means of our salvation, once-and-for-all, it is the means and manner of our salvation at every moment, for all time. As noble as we might imagine coercive power to be, “if only used wisely and rightly in a good cause,” it is not the means of our preservation and salvation.

7. On a similarly theological note, Phillip Cary responded to letters pushing back against his can’t-believe-they-published-it article for First Things on the Reformation CJ highlighted last Fall. His rejoinders pretty much say it all:

By a Lutheran reckoning, the command to “repent and believe the gospel” is not itself a saving word—precisely because it is a command, which means it is law, not gospel. It tells us what to do but does not give us Christ, who alone can do what is necessary and sufficient to save us. If we ask ourselves, “Have I repented sufficiently to deserve absolution?” the answer is surely no, Luther thinks. And the same answer must be given if we ask about how sincerely or strongly we believe, as if this were a virtue that merited salvation.

Negatively put, he wants to free us from the kind of performance anxiety that asks: Am I doing this (repenting, believing, etc.) well enough to be saved? The answer is always no. Positively put: Justification by faith alone amounts to justification by Christ alone. That is something to keep talking about.

8. Finally, speaking of performance anxiety, this just in from Saudi Arabia: Camel Beauty Pageant Kicks Out 12 Animals for Having Botox, ht AN. Elsewhere this week:

Strays