1. Lots of good reading material for this Memorial Day weekend! Our first article—a ripe one 😉 by philosopher Crispin Sartwell, for the New York Times—defends the concept of original sin, from a secular standpoint. And while the era of extreme division and gun violence might seem the perfect stage for the original sin renaissance, Sartwell, importantly, begins his argument not with everyone else’s problems but with the man in the mirror. (I’ve excerpted a good majority of the piece here; it’s all quite good. Hear an extended convo about it on this week’s Mockingcast!)

When I look within, I see certain extreme failings. I have not been able to get rid of most of them, and I have accumulated others as I’ve gone along. Perhaps you’ve done better, but most of us certainly come up short of our own ideals, ones I hope most people, religious or not, generally share…

To complicate matters further, action undertaken for apparently good motives can often yield unintended harmful consequences, outweighing any possible good effects. We can intend, at best, only a tiny proportion of the effects of any of our actions. In trying to make the world an excellent place for human beings to live by developing and applying ingenious technologies, for example, we may wind up rendering it uninhabitable. Or in trying to keep ourselves safe and secure by stockpiling defensive weaponry, we may annihilate life on earth. There’s really no need for God’s punishment when you’re making your own hellfire. As Paul told the Romans (according to David Bentley Hart’s excellent recent translation of the New Testament), “I do not know what it is that I accomplish” and “what I wish, this I do not do; instead, what I hate, this I do.” […]

There is some level of self-scrutiny too merciless for most of us, some inner corridor too dark. We are mystified, or purport to be, by mass shooters, for example. What could possibly motivate a person to want to kill — everyone? What could turn them so against their own species? I suggest that to answer a question like that we must look within ourselves — at our own violent fantasies, the ways we hate or negate the world, our moments of imagined annihilation of people we fancy to be our enemies, our feeling at times that we are being arbitrarily persecuted or misunderstood. Perhaps, if we were witheringly honest, we might see a school shooter within us, or a bully or abuser of the sort that helped create people like that.

This insight is not the exclusive province of Christian theology. Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote, “I have within me the capacity for every crime.” Not long after, the American feminist Voltairine de Cleyre amplified this sentiment. Few readers of Emerson, she wrote, believed that he truly meant those words, but rather they took it as an attempt by Emerson to “say something large and leveling.” She went on:

But I think he meant exactly what he said. I think with all his purity Emerson had within him the turbid stream of passion and desire; for all his hard-cut granite features he knew the instincts of the weakling and the slave; and for all his sweetness, he had the tiger and the jackal in his soul. I think that within every bit of human flesh and spirit that has ever crossed the enigma bridge of life, from the prehistoric racial morning until now, all crime and all virtue were germinal.

We may regard a shooter — or a racist, a sexual predator, an addict or someone who commits suicide (as de Cleyre herself tried to do at least once) — as alien. This reinforces, to ourselves and others, our sense of our own sanity and goodness; it is a way to keep us safe not only from those who would commit such crimes, but from the parts of ourselves who are like them, or who could have gone down that road.

Original sin is gracious, in other words. It acknowledges mutual wrongdoing; that just about anyone who did something bad, to us, to others, in history, was doing the best they could with the resources they’d been given—which may help us understand one another but doesn’t excuse the sin itself. We aren’t good people, Jesus says (Mt 19:17, Mk 10:18, Lk 18:19), but that’s why his love is so radical. In spite of our deeds and misdeeds, by his death, we’re forgiven.

2. At Ancient Faith Father Stephen Freeman picks up a similar line of thought in a moving piece about modernity’s inherent violence. He defines violence in this case as more than what you might at first think of, of guns and fights and abuse, but as any act of force, or control:

The philosophy that governs our culture is rooted in violence, the ability to make things happen and to control the outcome… The work of “making it so,” is always an act of violence. We take what is not so and force it to be otherwise. Whether it is the violence of a plow making a field suitable for planting, or the violence of creating a parking lot, human beings have formed and shaped their world by “making it so,” for all our existence. The field and the parking lot, as innocuous and innocent as they may be, also create consequences that were not part of the plan. The only means of dealing with these consequences are to employ more violence to alter things yet again (requiring yet more violence, ad infinitum), or to treat the consequences as an acceptable change.

“Changing the world,” under a variety of slogans, is the essence of the modern project. Modernity is not about how to live rightly in the world, but about how to make the world itself live rightly. The difference could hardly be greater. The inception of modernity, across the 18th and 19th centuries, was marked by revolution. The Industrial Revolution, the rise of various forms of capitalism, the birth of the modern state with its political revolutions, all initiated a period of ceaseless change marked by winners and losers. Of course, success is measured by statistics that blur the edges of reality. X-number of people find their incomes increased, while only Y-number of people suffer displacement and ruination. So long as X is greater than Y, the change is a success. The trick is to be an X.

As we control and exert dominion, we do inevitable harm, even if we don’t intend to. If cats run free, the birds die. (Sartwell makes a similar point so eloquently above.) But it’s not like we can stop plowing fields. Try as we might, we can’t live 100% harmlessly. We put out sin continually, except by the gracious intervention of God.

The approach of classical Christianity does not oppose change (there is always change), nor does it deny that one thing might be better than another. But the “good” which gives every action its meaning is God Himself, as made known in Christ.

3. Legendary Philip Roth passed away this week. In memoriam, here’s a relevant interview from January in the New York Times, in which the retired author dished on living in the “shadow of death.”: “Getting into bed at night I smile and think, ‘I lived another day.’ And then it’s astonishing again to awaken eight hours later and to see that it is morning of the next day and that I continue to be here.”

But one of the more ballsy moments (pun intended I guess. You’ll see) comes from a comment about the recent pulling back of the curtain on the celebrity libido:

I am, as you indicate, no stranger as a novelist to the erotic furies. Men enveloped by sexual temptation is one of the aspects of men’s lives that I’ve written about in some of my books. Men responsive to the insistent call of sexual pleasure, beset by shameful desires and the undauntedness of obsessive lusts, beguiled even by the lure of the taboo — over the decades, I have imagined a small coterie of unsettled men possessed by just such inflammatory forces they must negotiate and contend with. I’ve tried to be uncompromising in depicting these men each as he is, each as he behaves, aroused, stimulated, hungry in the grip of carnal fervor and facing the array of psychological and ethical quandaries the exigencies of desire present. I haven’t shunned the hard facts in these fictions of why and how and when tumescent men do what they do, even when these have not been in harmony with the portrayal that a masculine public-relations campaign — if there were such a thing — might prefer. I’ve stepped not just inside the male head but into the reality of those urges whose obstinate pressure by its persistence can menace one’s rationality, urges sometimes so intense they may even be experienced as a form of lunacy. Consequently, none of the more extreme conduct I have been reading about in the newspapers lately has astonished me.

Roth was known for an irreverent sense of humor. But this isn’t what you’d call a lighthearted take on male sexuality; I’d say the opposite. Sexuality, for Roth, was a formidable force, emerging, no doubt, from within. It could not be suppressed by shame or scolded into good behavior. It had to be reckoned with honestly, and the damage it could do required healing. (Honestly, this is probably why any man goes to church, if he goes at all.)

Along these lines (anthropology), a wonderful review of Portnoy’s Complaint appeared in The Ringer: “The Iconic Profanity—and Essential Anthropology—of ‘Portnoy’s Complaint’” by Alison Herman:

Reading Portnoy’s for the first time thus felt like someone tapping into parts of my lizard brain I hadn’t even known existed, pointing out an ancestral source code that had been shaping my personality without my knowledge. I’m at least a couple of generations removed from Roth and am also, crucially, a woman; I’ve had neither the desire nor the physical ability to ejaculate into a piece of liver. I am, however, an overeducated neurotic from an extended family chock-full of them…

Reading Roth was how I learned to recognize certain parts of myself… It speaks to Roth’s unrivaled talent that even a masterpiece like Portnoy’s, whose delirious profanity provided a vessel no genteel work of anthropology could ever hope to match, didn’t come to define his legacy. (There would be countless accolades, including a Pulitzer for American Pastoral, still to come, though never the Nobel many felt Roth was owed.) Portnoy’s Complaint nonetheless helped articulate a particular square of our national patchwork, branding it as American as any Norman Rockwell idyll. As vehemently as prominent Jews rejected Portnoy’s at first in the name of respectability, in the long term, he did us all a favor. Sunlight is the best disinfectant, even for defiled lunch meat.

4. While we’re on the subject of defiled lunch meat, the Atlantic published a piece about the ins and outs of militant (online) veganism. More low-hanging fruit… It’s kinda humorous, but also kinda sad, this piece by Jordan Bissell, which chronicles the life cycles of Vegan YouTube celebrities. In a lot of ways, they mirror the life cycles of “on fire” Christians: The vegan starts their journey with an “evangelical” passion (Bissell’s words, not mine), focused on high standards and moral righteousness—until those standards prove unattainable and often impossible to even define. Interestingly, vegan social media stars face the harshest criticism from within: not from meat eaters (who, mainly, probably, just aren’t interested in their media feeds) but from vegans themselves, who say they aren’t doing veganism correctly or well enough:

There are so many opinions about the right way to be vegan that anyone who posts meals online almost inevitably receives some amount of backlash.

Many vegans have made spreading awareness of the “evils” of eating animals central to their identities. But in the process, food bullying has become a major issue within the online vegan community itself. This kind of diet critique can be dangerous, especially for vegans with a history of disordered eating like Rae.

Bissell talks about “unhealthy restrictions” — there is a point at which rules, even those that may initially seem helpful, begin to condemn.

After being a strident vegan for nearly a decade, [Alex Jamieson] says she developed insomnia, an irregular menstrual cycle, and chronic anemia, all of which she traces to stress and orthorexia, an unhealthy obsession with healthy eating.

5. On a more uplifting note, the following video tells a beautiful story of grace about a singing group called the Dallas Street Choir, which welcomes homeless people of all backgrounds. They recently sang at Carnegie Hall (ht JAZ).

The choir director says, “Whether you have mental illness or not, you are welcome in this choir. We have folks with addiction… If you’re under the influence, you’re asked to leave. We say, ‘Mm, this isn’t your week. Come back next week.’”

“Everyone gets a second chance.”

“And a third, and a fourth.”

And another one: “While out for a jog, she discovered a baby buried alive (!). Twenty years later, they reunite.”

6. Vaguely related: Paramedic Announces He Will Only Help Those Who Help Themselves.

7. Last but not least, my friend Rebecca Lankford wrote a funny and moving reflection on her first year in youth ministry, for Rooted: “The Unimportance of Being Cool”:

As I’ve grown in both the quantity of students I know and the quality of our relationships, I’ve realized how I, a sinner wired to chase after my own glory rather than Jesus’, have longed for them to think of me as “cool” or “likeable.” Turns out my Middle School days were not the last time I’ve cared so much about what a thirteen-year-old thought of me!…

While it might not hurt to listen to the new Taylor Swift album or attempt to understand the intricacies of SnapChat so that we might relate with our students, striving after the “cool factor” will ultimately dim their vision of Jesus. If what we long for our students to know is the lifelong joy and peace that is found in following Christ, then we must allow His truths to far outweigh their opinions of us. Regardless of how “cool” they find their Youth Minister, a relationship with the everlasting God is the greatest gift our students can know. […]

God’s constant and eternal approval of us based on the work of Christ is a beautiful reminder to those of us who wish they cared less about how high schoolers perceive them. The verdict that “the only person whose opinion counts looks at [us] and finds [us] more valuable than all the jewels in the earth,” allows us to love and serve our students for the sake of Christ’s kingdom rather than our own.

Amen! Have a lovely weekend y’all!

Strays: