1. First up, a searing column from Eve Fairbanks on BuzzfeedNews, claiming that “Well-Off Millennials Are All Julia Salazar.” Not being much of a political junkie, I had to look Salazar up. She just won the Democratic primary for State Senate in Brooklyn, and was roundly criticized for misrepresenting her upbringing, making it sound inaccurately arduous in order to garner both sympathy and moral authority. Fairbanks both personalizes and universalizes Salazar’s embellishments, suggesting that the tendency to revise our past to make our present more appealing–i.e., to justify ourselves–is far more commonplace than we might pretend, and not just among millennials. We curate everything else about our presentation, after all. Which is perhaps why voters didn’t really seem to care. I was especially appreciative of how (compassionately) Fairbanks cut through our underlying assumptions about the hierarchy of suffering:

Let’s be real here: We have a culture that lionizes survivors of challenging childhoods, that gobbles up memoirs of poverty and suffering, and that makes having endured harrowing circumstances seem almost necessary to speak with any moral authority. I suspect so many of us have been embellishers, especially when we were young, in the stakes to abjure privilege, to claim uniqueness in the form of obstacles, to show our guts and thorny individualism in rising above ordinary roots.

In my freshman year of high school, my new best friend convinced the whole grade she had a fatal degenerative lung disease and that her parents beat her. Turned out the disease was made up, and she came to school early to sneak into the theater greenroom to apply costume-makeup bruises to her neck and arms. These were horrible things to lie about. But at the time, I didn’t even question why she would: It obviously lent her a nobility and a heroism far above all the rest of us boringly comfortable and well-provided-for suburban youngsters, an air of the overcomer, who is the aristocrat of our time.

[Embellishing our past to make it sound more miserable than it was] strips us of the capacity to acknowledge that even advantage, in an unequal world, can harm a person. I think my suburban classmates really did feel pain. It was the pain of also being caught up in a visibly unequal and brutally success-oriented world, of being told to strive for roles and lives that they knew, in their child’s hearts, were lonely and disconnected, punishingly individualist and heartbreaking. It didn’t do anybody any favors to insist, societally, that people had to make this discomfort tangible in the form of oppressed ancestry, family hardship, or visible physical suffering. If anything, copping to the very different sorts of disturbances that trouble the relatively advantaged might yield more solidarity, through the recognition that America tends to warp everybody in different ways.

2. Also on the self-justification tip, Brooke Williams penned a revealing, if somewhat brutal Modern Love installment last month, “Honey I Swept the Floor,” which describes marital scorekeeping in terms of branding. Oy vey:

Closing the Whirlpool’s door with an exaggerated swagger, Christopher rolled down his oxford sleeves and said, “Just unloaded the dishwasher!” I stared at him. I had loaded the dishwasher that same day without feeling the need to tell anyone. I have heard him tell clients: “If you fail to define your brand, your competition will.” It took me a while to realize that he was applying the principles of branding to our marriage.

After our son was born, there was so much to do and so little time that everything turned into a negotiation: whose turn it was to sleep in, who got a night out with friends, etc… Without any division of labor or set roles, we each thought we were doing everything (because we were). While he never actually came out and said, “I do more than you,” he didn’t need to. By consistently claiming credit for everything he did, he was dominating the dialogue in our new domestic world order and positioning himself as the winner in the “who is doing more” fight.

Speaking as a husband who does exactly what Christopher is being taken to task for, this one strikes close to home. I believe it was Hannah Arendt who wrote “the moment a good work becomes known and public, it loses its specific character of goodness, being done for nothing but goodness’ sake…” Of course, a more generous interpretation of the situation would be that the same housework announcements that Brooke hears as condemnation or credit-seeking may in fact be his (irritating and counterproductive) way of asking for encouragement.

Whatever the case, I’m reminded of the section in Grace in Practice on “mythology” in marriage. One way that the law kills love is through the calcifying of judgments early on in a relationship. We relegate each other to a single role (the responsible one, the emotional one, the angry one, etc) that we then spend each day trying to disprove–a cage we never break out of. Clearly, by writing an op-ed in The NY Times that makes her husband look shamefully ridiculous, Brooke has claimed the mantle of The Right One for all time. I can’t imagine it bodes well for their bond. See also: “Thirteen Ways of Looking at an Equal Marriage” in the Déjà Vu Issue. We also talk about this more on The Mockingcast.

3. Next up, over at The New Yorker Kelafa Sanneh explores “The Unlikely Endurance of Christian Rock”, profiling “godfather” Larry Norman and a few others. But what could be a hatchet piece, with all the usual criticisms and condescension about CCM, takes a left turn at the end.

What counts as Christian music? In gospel music, form and content are joined: the term denotes both a style and a message, leaving no room for theological ambiguity. Likewise, the sound of seventies Christian pop was warm and sweet, designed to reinforce the hopeful spirit of the words. But, in the eighties, many Christian rock bands embraced snarling guitars, which were harder to interpret… Some Christian bands found that the obsession with lyrics gave them freedom: they could make pretty much whatever noise they wanted, as long as the words were sufficiently joyful.

Do Christian bands have a propaganda problem? It is certainly true that most Christian rock bands were obliged to follow doctrinal rules. But these bands weren’t necessarily much different from the many secular bands that wrote protest songs: in the history of rock, furious conviction has been neither rare nor necessarily unhelpful. There is no easy way to distinguish between a musician who spouts “prepackaged doctrine” and one who boldly stands up for what is right.

I find Sanneh’s observation there at the end to be particularly incisive. We live in a time when more and more contemporary music can be classified as “message music,” when every other review you read seems just as concerned if not more with the politics of a record than the melodies or emotions on display. And seldom do those messages diverge from progressive orthodoxies in any substantial way. The parallels to CCM–what John Jeremiah Sullivan once called “the only excellence-proofed musical genre”–are pretty striking. This doesn’t mean that message music has no aesthetic value, just that the best (and most enduring) artists in any genre are the ones who can channel their convictions into something that transcends the didactic and reaches either up into the sublime or down into the bedrock of human need–where the listener walks away with some sense of Why and How the artist cares about such-and-such, not just What. Perhaps this is why I love Josh White’s Pilgrim so much. And everything Swamp Dogg ever recorded (the humor doesn’t hurt either):

4. Speaking of humor, The Hard Times broke the news that “Youth Pastor on the Verge of Cracking Fortnite Metaphor” and The Babylon Bee that “Mother Of Four Ready To Lecture Any Random Stranger Claiming To Be Tired.” Oh and if you’re a sucker for awkward album covers like me, check out this fresh batch.

5. Next, Vox uses the viral successes of fidget spinners and weighted blankets as a jumping off point to survey the growing “anxiety economy”–an economy which also includes adult coloring books, aromatherapy vapes, and essential oils.

Now that many more of us are aware — that we’re stressed, that we’re anxious, that we’re not getting enough sleep, that anxiety is really bad and will doom us to an early death so we should really take care of it, which of course makes us even more anxious about our own anxiety — it makes sense that our immediate impulse is to buy stuff that promises to deal with it so that we don’t have to. And if fidget spinners and weighted blankets haven’t quite been doing it for you, chances are there will be even more anxiety-quelling doodads to spend your money on in the very near future.

6. Holy Uebermensch, Batman! The game is most definitely afoot over in Gotham City. Christianity Today reports on a new arc in the Batman comics exploring the Caped Crusader’s long-suspected-but-never-confirmed atheism. As much as I love the character, there’s no better avatar of faithlessness; Batman has always represented the (fantasy) apotheosis of human potential and mastery, the man who needs only himself. According to the report, the key dialogue comes when Bruce Wayne confesses to a jury that “After my parents died, I sought transcendence. I found Batman.” Yet the issue in question appears to contain more dimension than the hype suggests. If anything, it sounds like writer Tom King and artist Lee Weeks have staged a deconstruction of Bruce Wayne’s atheism. Journalist Alex Wainer springboards into some pretty germane thoughts of his own too:

What the jury hears as Bruce’s source of relief from the fear that had stalked him since childhood, the readers see as Bruce’s tortured confession of his search for an alternate savior, who became himself…

Similarly, what keeps me awake at night, or in distress through the day, might be a signal that I have my own dueling identities—the diurnal right-believing identity that finds in myself a nocturnal creature whose desires and emotions diverge from my beliefs. Anger, conflict, and frustration undermine my striving to do right.

“He tries … and he fails, and he tries again. But he can’t,” Bruce is finally forced to admit of Batman. “He does not provide solace from pain. He cannot give you hope for the eternal. He cannot comfort you for the love you lost. God blesses your soul with grace. Batman punches people in the face.”

If his suffering finally brought about his abandonment of Batman as a substitute god, is Bruce ready to also return to faith in his father’s God? He confesses to Alfred, his butler, that he’s “lost” and needs to remember who he is. The caption at the bottom of the last page depicting Bruce, now back in his original suit, quotes Job 1:20–21: “Then Job arose and rent his mantle, and shaved his head. He fell down upon the ground and worshipped. He said: Naked came I out of my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return. The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away. Blessed be the name of the Lord.” (Emphasis in original)

7. Color me surprised: a recently unearthed letter from Ronald Reagan to his dying father-in-law sheds new light on the 40th president’s faith, which appears to have been more sincere than most suspected. It also relates a remarkable story of a healing he experienced.

8. Instagram, as we all know, is supposed to be friendly. So why is it making people so miserable? asks Alex Hern in The Guardian. Some of this is old hat–presentation anxiety, Fomo, etc–but he hits a few fresh notes too:

Instagram looks like the friendliest social network imaginable… But, for a growing number of users – and mental health experts – the very positivity of Instagram is precisely the problem. The site encourages its users to present an upbeat, attractive image that others may find at best misleading and at worse harmful. If Facebook demonstrates that everyone is boring and Twitter proves that everyone is awful, Instagram makes you worry that everyone is perfect – except you.

Users ranked how their use of the platforms affected everything from the quality of their sleep to their Fomo – the fear of missing out on what others are enjoying. Instagram came last, scoring particularly badly for its effects on sleep, body image and Fomo. Only Snapchat came close in its overall negativity, saved by a more positive effect on real-world relationships, while YouTube scored positively on almost every metric – except its effect on sleep, for which it was the worst of all the platforms… In effect, the service began promoting a curated, unrealistic version of an already curated, unrealistic feed.

9. Finally, in music, A Mess of Help readers take note: this past summer, as a purely extracurricular activity (i.e. not Mbird-affiliated), a friend and I recorded a bunch of podcasts about the history of rock, pop and soul. We’re calling it The Well of Sound and our first slew of shows focus primarily on second tier rock bands from the 70s like Little Feat, Mott the Hoople, Cheap Trick, ELO, etc. But we’ve got plenty of curveballs in store. The first four episodes are up now on iTunes and Google Play, and music lovers may enjoy our Twitter feed as well. Spread the word!

Strays