1. First up has got to be the video below, in which The Guardian(!) casts a light on some truly miraculous conversions happening in El Salvador at present. I forget who said that where sin remains theoretical, so does redemption, but whoever they were, this video illustrates the inverse truth beautifully. PTL:

2. “Humans seem to be wired to seek salvation,” writes Molly Worthen in her new column for The NY Times, which profiles “The Podcast Bros Who Want to Optimize Your Life.” While I could do without the increasingly broad/acceptable (and mighty convenient) pejorative of “bro”, she does a great job of detailing how the Joe Rogans and Tim Ferrisses of the world are filling the vacuum left by religion, in both positive and less-than-positive ways (#seculosity). On the plus side, these, er, gents are clearly communicating hope to those burnt out on the “high anthropology” Us vs Them dichotomies on which the more political commentators thrive. They’re slaking a thirst for practical wisdom and help that addresses people personally rather than as a group–non-ideologically, you might say. On the downside, I’m not sure that recasting Pelagian self-salvation as biohacking is ultimately all that hopeful–at least, it’s pretty weak sauce when you compare it to what the El Salvadorians have going on. Course, there’s more to it than that, most of which Worthen’s article touches on:

Over the past few years [these] podcasters have become a significant cultural phenomenon, spiritual entrepreneurs who are filling the gap left as traditional religious organizations erode and modernity frays our face-to-face connections with communities and institutions.

Don’t dismiss the podcast bros merely as hucksters promoting self-help books and dubious mushroom coffee. In this secularized age of lonely seekers scrolling social media feeds, they have cultivated a spiritual community. They offer theologies and daily rituals of self-actualization, an appealing alternative to the rhetoric of victimhood and resentment that permeates both the right and the left. “They help the masses identify the hole in the soul,” Karli Smith, 38, a fan who lives in Tooele, Utah, told me. “I do feel the message is creating a community.” All this continues a long American tradition of self-help and creative, market-minded spirituality.

Shipping Aug 15th! Click on the image to subscribe.

The common thread linking the podcasters’ interest in evolutionary psychology and their metaphysical dabbling is the quest to transcend the ego, and to overcome the idea that we are personally aggrieved by enemies wholly unlike ourselves… Evolutionary psychology is the secular answer to the doctrine of original sin: a primordial explanation for the anxieties that haunt us even if we have a decent job and a functional family…

Is this a postmodern monastic order, passing on breakfast and shivering in the shower while pondering the next step in mastering the ego? These podcasters lead one of the largest quasi-spiritual self-help “denominations” in the United States. It is a far-flung virtual community that gives people solace, a regimen and a sense of like-mindedness at a time when churches and other old-fashioned institutions simultaneously seem to ask too much, yet also fail to provide many people with whatever they’re looking for.

3. Over at Commonweal, John Thornton Jr penned a wide-ranging and compassion-inducing review of Malcolm Harris’ new book, Kids These Days, which understands the palpable anti-institutionalism evinced by many millennials as a response to being viewed their entire lives as “human capital.” If that sounds a bit dry, blame me, not Thornton. While the book in question sounds like a fresh take on the fallout of performancism, I was especially taken with the anecdotes Thornton relays in the write-up from his own tenure as a youth minister. The way he phrases the role the church might play is downright inspiring:

At each step along the way the speed, pressure, and workload of millennials has increased, while the reward for such efforts has dwindled. School-age students spend more time on homework than ever before. They are increasingly pressured to perform well on high-stakes tests that will determine their futures—all aspects of their lives are thought of in terms of competition with other students to get into a good university. Education, then, is no longer about basic socialization and acquiring a broad base of knowledge, but about preparing for the marketplace by gaining a competitive edge over one’s peers.

It turns out that being raised to view life as a desperate competition for ever-decreasing rewards has taken its toll on our mental health. Rather than expecting our institutions to respond to a populace dealing with increased anxiety, depression, ADHD, and other mental-health problems, we collectively accept these symptoms of the system as the price of progress. A workforce that lives in fear of failing and relies upon the right dosage of medicines to remain attentive and productive accords quite well with companies and institutions that treat people as investments to bring in a return…

At the church where I grew up, the guiding ethos of my youth group seemed to be entertainment. Students thought church was boring so my church youth group added music that sounded like “cool” secular music. We added laser lights, Playstations, and integrated videos into the Wednesday-night message. The goal was to make church “fun,” a rival more than an alternative to the broader culture. But an alternative is precisely what Pope Francis recently suggested the church needs to become. “This is the mission of the Church: the Church heals, it cures,” he said. “Sometimes, I speak of the Church as if it were a field hospital. It’s true: there are many, many wounded! So many people need their wounds healed! This is the mission of the Church: to heal the wounds of the heart, to open doors, to free people, to say that God is good.”

Now, as I sit and plan the youth retreat, I cannot imagine attempting to entertain them more than the phones they carry in their pockets. If the church has anything to offer them, it is to be a people that embodies a different logic than that of work and competition. We have to offer them a place to be bored with each other. We have to take them and their lives seriously enough to treat them not merely as investments but as people to whom we owe care.

Thornton’s diagnosis is very much echoed in Rosie Fleeshman’s column for The Telegraph this week on “The Trouble with Being a Millennial Perfectionist,” ht MC.

4. Speaking of God being good, playwright John Waters (not that John Waters) issued a beautiful testimony of grace and recovery–in spite of one’s self–entitled “Getting Out of God’s Way”. That there’s some mildly synergistic language used only adds to the glorious irony of redemption. Descriptively speaking, Waters was put to sleep a la Abraham just in time for the healing wind to blow, ht RS:

The reason that I have no memory of a struggle with alcohol in which I was ultimately successful is that no such struggle occurred. In a sense, I did nothing—or at least, the things I did, with the help of AA, were peripheral things, almost misdirected activities, distractions.

The alcoholic is required to “clean house,” to conduct a personal inventory, to admit faults, to make amends. These tasks are important for their own sake, but above all they keep the alcoholic occupied while the real work goes on, unbeknownst to him. Their true purpose is to disintegrate his arrogance, to render him again a servant of the Source of his own existence, and clear the way for Grace to enter.

Most of the twelve steps are concerned with moral reconstruction, but the most important step is the second: “[We] came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.” The point of the rest of the steps is to keep the alcoholic busy so he won’t trip God up. The language of the steps is subtly chosen for this purpose: The alcoholic should “admit,” “come to believe,” “make a decision,” “turn over” his will and his life, “humbly ask.” In taking the steps, the alcoholic resigns as chief executive of his existence and invites the deposed Chairman to reclaim control.

5. A truly epic example of sin-articulated-as-cognitive-bias (calling SMZ!) comes to us via Nathaniel Rich’s novella-length article on climate change in The NY Times Magazine, “Losing Earth”. Oy vey:

In the late 1970s, a small group of philosophers, economists and political scientists began to debate, largely among themselves, whether a human solution to this human problem was even possible. They did not trouble themselves about the details of warming, taking the worst-case scenario as a given. They asked instead whether humankind, when presented with this particular existential crisis, was willing to prevent it. We worry about the future. But how much, exactly?

The answer, as any economist could tell you, is very little… Human beings, whether in global organizations, democracies, industries, political parties or as individuals, are incapable of sacrificing present convenience to forestall a penalty imposed on future generations.

If human beings really were able to take the long view — to consider seriously the fate of civilization decades or centuries after our deaths — we would be forced to grapple with the transience of all we know and love in the great sweep of time. So we have trained ourselves, whether culturally or evolutionarily, to obsess over the present, worry about the medium term and cast the long term out of our minds, as we might spit out a poison.

6. After that blast of low anthropology, methinks a laugh or three is in order. My favorite recent chuckle is probably The Onion’s “Bodybuilder Strong, But Now What?” Elsewhere, Hard Times reported that “Keytar Sales Down for 425th Straight Month,” while McSweeney’s unearthed the “First Yelp Reviews of Significant Human Inventions” (favorites are probably rope, map and money). Daily Shouts has a list of “Self-Help Books That Take Into Account Your Many Limitations” that’s worth checking out (e.g., “Seven Habits of People Who Were Probably Just More Loved Growing Up”, “Women Are from Earth, but They’re Looking for a New Planet”).

7. Finally, a timely addition to the Cult of Productivity file from The NY Times, “Summer Vacation? Nah, I’m Taking a Creative Hiatus” in which Carrie Seim spoke to a few of the “overachieving taskmasters who are taking a so-called creative hiatus this summer, rather than yet another status vacation to an exclusive hot spot.” You can’t make this stuff up:

These roll-up-your-sleeves sabbaticals offer worldly go-getters a fresh laurel in their multi-hyphenate (and, not quite needless to mention, affluent) crowns.

“It’s like my own luxury staycation, except at the end of it I’ll have a boat,” Mr. Preszler, 41, said.

Such undertakings also offer the ultimate escape fantasy: a chance to slip the surly bonds of social obligations for the entire summer, guilt free.

“Instead of vacation photos, we’ll have before-and-after house photos,” Mr. Lowry said of the [rennovation project he and his wife had undertaken in lieu of a vacation], which he acknowledged is completely outside their wheelhouse. “But,” he added, “you don’t grow in your comfort zone.”

8. Heaven forbid we experience comfort during our downtime… Sheesh. In that spirit, I give you the single best concert vid I’ve ever seen (and I’ve seen a lot):

Strays

  • Over at Film Stage, our friend Josh Encinias interviewed Eighth Grade star Elsie Fisher interview about the film itself as well as the performancism it so vividly (and heartachingly) depicts. Great stuff.
  • In LA, someone made an entire grocery out of felt.
  • Fascinating map that traces current US political divides back to the ethnic and religious backgrounds of the earliest colonists who settled in each region.
  • Believe it or not, The Deja Vu Issue of The Mockingbird goes to print next week! This one’s a beast–132 pages of beautifully adorned, thoroughly refurbished highlights from our past ten years, with a bunch of fresh surprises thrown in. To be sure you get it as soon as it ships (Aug 15th at the latest), subscribe over at magazine.mbird.com – or sign up for any amount of monthly giving to the organization.