1. We’ve all been there. Exhausted from the daily grind… Overwhelmed by expectations from work and family and social commitments… Needing the peace and quiet of a nice, structured jail cell… Wait, what? Our first story this week (ht CB) tells of a mock prison where ‘inmates’ pay $90 to spend 24 hours in solitary confinement, away from all phones, clocks, and people. Photographer Kim Hong-Ji shows inmates meditating and resting, depositing cell phones into baskets.

I don’t know what this says about me, but it all looks just a little bit wonderful. The facility is called “Prison Inside Me,” and the name seems telling — that the self could be a such an utter prison, we might need to lock-down, in an actual prison, in order to get some rest.

“I was too busy,” said Park [Hye-ri] as she sat in a 54-sq-foot (5-sq-m) cell. “I shouldn’t be here right now, given the work I need to do. But I decided to pause and look back at myself for a better life.” […]

Clients get a blue prison uniform, a yoga mat, tea set, a pen and notebook. They sleep on the floor. There is a small toilet inside the room, but no mirror. The menu includes steamed sweet potato and a banana shake for dinner, and rice porridge for breakfast.

Credit: Kim Hong-Ji

Co-founder Noh Ji-Hyang said the mock prison was inspired by her husband, a prosecutor who often put in 100-hour work weeks. “He said he would rather go into solitary confinement for a week to take a rest and feel better,” she said. “That was the beginning.”

Noh said some customers are wary of spending 24 or 48 hours in a prison cell, until they try it. “After a stay in the prison, people say, ‘This is not a prison, the real prison is where we return to,'” she said.

2. This next one comes from Episcopal priest David Peters, for The Guardian: a truly illuminating subject and viscerally moving testimony. What happens to your life after you accidentally kill someone? Peters — himself an accidental killer due to an unfortunate car wreck — describes the complexity and pain of this turn of events, and also the shocking prevalence of it:

With 40,000 automobile fatalities in the United States every year, in addition to innumerable fatal firearm accidents, mechanical accidents, and friendly fire and civilian killings in our nation’s wars, there are thousands and thousands of accidental killers out there. Some of them are famous, like Laura Bush, who writes movingly in her memoir of how she lost her faith in God the night she accidentally killed a fellow high school student in a car accident. Most of us, however, stay silent, consumed by shame and worried that the blood-debt we have incurred will somehow come due. […]

I believe accidental killers feel guilt, in spite of everyone telling us it wasn’t our fault, because of a deep-in-our-bones instinct that a life must pay for a life. Even if it was an accident, someone has to pay. Years after my own accident, I bought a motorcycle and rode it obsessively, reasoning that justice would be served if I crashed and died. […]

David Zahl considered this very issue last year, recognizing it as “a plight for which our current moment lacks vocabulary” — a situation for which empathy can be impossible and in which a person who is “not culpable can nevertheless be responsible.” He writes: “Could it be that, like it or not, forgiveness requires authority, and we lack the authority in ourselves to self-forgive, sometimes by virtue of what we’ve done to warrant forgiveness in the first place?” In this regard, Peters’ conclusion is powerful:

My own religion, Christianity, is no exception in the importance it places on themes of blood debt. Christians regard Jesus Christ as having died for our sins, and liturgies and teachings about Christ’s atonement on the cross often emphasize a cleansing of sin, especially the kinds of sins and transgressions that are impossible to reconcile with a simple apology.

Kazuya Akimoto

3. A few weeks ago, I made note of China’s “social credit system” — the Mockingcasters discussed it as well — but it is perhaps more real than we realized. According to Bloomberg, “China’s plan to judge each of its 1.3 billion people based on their social behavior is moving a step closer to reality, with Beijing set to adopt a lifelong points program by 2021 that assigns personalized ratings for each resident.” Good deeds, like donating blood, will be marked as a sign of ‘trustworthiness’; traffic violations will be flagged as the opposite. Already debtors are being blocked from taking certain plane flights and high-speed trains.

It’s a surreal externalization of a system already at work, internally, everywhere. Who can help judging others’ social credit based on their deeds? The problem of course is that scorekeeping rarely (ever?) works, and increases anxiety levels of the judged, and keeps the debtors debting.

The Beijing project will improve blacklist systems so that those deemed untrustworthy will be “unable to move even a single step…”

China has long experimented with systems that grade its citizens, rewarding good behavior with streamlined services while punishing bad actions with restrictions and penalties. Critics say such moves are fraught with risks and could lead to systems that reduce humans to little more than a report card.

4. Speaking of report cards: a blogpost from CenterForLit describes student anxiety about earning grades. Kids, though young, are perceptive enough to know that, in our world of social credit, good grades are often — tragically — mistaken for goodness.

Beneath this…lies a preconception that I think we all share: my identity depends on my accomplishments, and, since I cannot be sure of a perfect record, I cannot be sure that everything is, truly, ok.

In considering this fundamental human fear, few arenas are more potent than one organized entirely around performance and evaluation. Schooling calls us all, students, parents, and teachers alike, to take up our burdens and get down to the business of self-evaluation, and it is seldom a painless experience.

Here at the beginning of the year, even as I remind myself, I’d like to offer a word of comfort and reassurance to my students, and to their parents: the burden you’re carrying around isn’t yours to carry. It belongs to the Lord.

5. Weekend funnies include A Message from Your Laptop, Which Hasn’t Been Backed Up in Three Hundred and Eleven Days:

I’m happy to serve your needs, day in and day out, and for you to close me shut at nightfall, without saving any of my information, or exiting any of my tabs, all while a very full glass of water rests precariously nearby on an uneven stack of magazines…

Also, Nihilist Dad Jokes: “I don’t really like playing soccer. I just do it for kicks! Like all of humanity, I pretend to enjoy things, and others pretend to care about my charade.”

6. Have we blogged about The Good Place enough? NO. As the show’s mythology/theology continues to unfold, canny viewers can’t help raising Big Questions. Apparently, such viewers include a lot of therapists who have been questioning (spoilers!) Chidi’s damnation. The other characters have been damned for more or less understandable reasons: Eleanor (narcissism); Tahani (narcissism); Jason (criminal activity). But Chidi: destined for eternal torture due to what appears to be an anxiety disorder? Really? From Vice, Sydney Lyons writes:

Fans of the show have taken to Reddit and other online forums to express their disappointment and confusion as it relates to Chidi’s fate. Many say that…rather than burning in hellfire, Chidi might instead benefit from the right combination of medication and therapy. Or at the very least a more understanding God. They are not wrong. […] Having anxiety, depression, or OCD doesn’t make you a bad person, and it certainly doesn’t warrant a one-way ticket to the Bad Place—fictional or otherwise.

It must be said, this show is not an allegory for Christianity; supposedly, there is only a 5% overlap (no mention of a God, for example). It’s a “thought experiment” — yet one from which Christians can take away quite a bit. In this case, sin, like a mental health problem, is not something we can think our way out of. This is precisely the topic of The Lost Doctrine of Sin, a recent essay by Simeon Zahl. Read the whole thing, but here’s a taste for the skimmers:

…theologically speaking, sin is a condition under which human lives exist. Sin is a way of describing the fact that there is a fundamental flaw in the human system and is an explanation for why that system keeps throwing up errors […] 

But what about the fact that my depression also means that during these periods of personal darkness I am an absent father to my small children, and I am simply unable to care about their needs as much as I otherwise would? Saying my brain is broken doesn’t change the fact that the children get hurt, feel unnoticed and unloved, and wonder if it is their fault. Likewise, what about anxiety? The fact that it can be and often rightly should be called a disorder does not mean that it doesn’t make life miserable for the people who have to deal with the anxious person.

Chidi’s anxiety damages the people around him, and The Good Place offers no real grace for that (so far). The question becomes, if mental illness counts against you, how does anyone get into the Good Place? If even such a place exists? In Christianity, the answer was given, 2000 years ago. And I guess that accounts for the missing 95%.

7. In other news, exorcisms are still a thing — and increasingly so. In a long-read for the latest Atlantic, Mike Mariani reports that “in 2011 the U.S. had fewer than 15 known Catholic exorcists. Today…there are well over 100.” The Catholic Church’s official exorcist for Indianapolis has received over 1,700 exorcism requests this year. What accounts for the upswing? Well, according to exorcists, demons often enter through “doorways” — one particular doorway being an interest in the occult…

In recent years, journalists and academics have documented a renewed interest in magic, astrology, and witchcraft, primarily among Millennials. “The occult is a substitution for God,” Thomas said. “People want to take shortcuts, and the occult is all about power and knowledge.” […]

Adam Jortner, an expert on American religious history at Auburn University, agreed. “When the influence of the major institutional Churches is curbed,” he said, people “begin to look for their own answers.” And at the same time that there has been a rebirth in magical thinking, Jortner added, American culture has become steeped in movies, TV shows, and other media about demons and demonic possession.

Today’s increased willingness to believe in the paranormal, then, seems to have begun as a response to secularization before spreading through the culture and landing back on the Church’s doorstep—in the form of people seeking salvation from demons through the Catholic faith’s most mystical ritual.

Yet the increase in alleged demonic activity (and the sizable outcry for help amidst that) seems to suggest more than this. Not simply to acknowledge where a lack of organized religion leaves us but also to wonder about an actual reality beyond all that we know. Consider:

Jeffrey Lieberman, the chairman of Columbia’s psychiatry department, told me that if you conducted a survey of the population seeking exorcisms, a great majority would likely suffer from a known psychiatric condition, and dissociative identity disorder would be “at the top of that group of conditions.” But Lieberman also acknowledged the possibility that a small percentage of these cases could be spiritual in nature. Over the course of his career, he’s seen a couple of cases that “could not be explained in terms of normal human physiology or natural laws.”

Strays: 

  • Indeed we have read The Atlantic’s sex recession article — stay tuned for more complete coverage, coming soon to a grace-infused blog near you…
  • Fugazi fans take note: Ian MacKaye and Joe Lally debuted a new project…in a church (ht JT).