1. Apologies in advance for the rather bleak (midwinter) weekender! Hopefully the hymn is still ringing in your ears. First off, Joshua Graves had the opportunity to ask Experimental Theology’s Richard Beck–an emerging favorite, for his Calvin and Hobbes series if nothing else–what he would like people to know about death and the Christian faith. Beck’s response was beautiful, doubling as an ideal, accidental intro to our 2014 NYC Conference theme, ht WB:

thesmithsI’d start with Henri Nouwen’s question: “Who am I when nobody pays attention, says thanks, or recognizes my work?” The answer most of us would give, shaped as we are by the culture, is this: you’re a nobody. If you’re not someone who “stands out” you’re a nobody. Brene Brown calls this the “shame-based fear of being ordinary.” Nobody wants to be ordinary. We want to be extraordinary.

And why is that? Because of existential (death) anxiety. We want our lives to matter, to be noteworthy and significant in the face of death. We don’t want to fade away, we want to leave a dent in the universe. So we grasp at anything that makes us stand out from the crowd, that allows us to make and leave a mark. And so we get caught up in the neurotic social comparison game–online, at work, and in our social relationships. The main symptom of this “shame-based fear of being ordinary” is envy/jealousy fused with a feeling of inferiority and inadequacy.

The trouble with this, and here is the pastoral turn, is that everywhere we see Jesus asking us to “take the last place.” To be a servant. To be the littlest, least, and last. But that is impossible if our egos are being driven by a neurotic and shamed-based anxiety. Because the reality of Good Friday is that if you become like Jesus–if you carry his cross–nobody will pay attention, no one will say thank you, no one will recognize your work. That’s crucifixion. Of the ego, of the self, of our aspirations to be “a somebody.”…

2. On that note, a trio of interesting if rather downbeat articles about social media came across the radar screen. First, for The New Yorker, Mark O’Connell weighed in about the mercilessness of Twitter, using Justine Sacco as his primary case study. Sacco is the digraced public relations officer who dropped an offensive tweet just before taking off on transatlantic flight, only to find upon landing that her message had gone viral, and her job had gone, period. The unavoidably legal (and substitutionary) language is telling:

In his strange and unsettling book “Humiliation,” the poet and essayist Wayne Koestenbaum writes about the way in which public humiliation “excites” his empathy. “By imagining what they feel, or might feel,” he writes, “I learn something about what I already feel, what I, as a human being, was born sensing: that we all live on the edge of humiliation, in danger of being deported to that unkind country.” Justine Sacco is a deportee now; I’m trying to imagine what it must be like for her there in that unkind country, those twelve words repeating themselves mindlessly over and over again in her head, how the phrase “Just kidding!”—J.K.! J.K.!—must by now have lost all meaning or have taken on a whole new significance. In this mode of trial and punishment, I sometimes think of social media as being like the terrible apparatus at the center of Kafka’s “In the Penal Colony”: a mechanism of corrective torture, harrowing the letters of the transgression into the bodies of the condemned.

The weird randomness of this sudden mutation of person into meme is, in the end, what’s so haunting. This could just as well have happened to anyone—any of the thousands of people who say awful things on Twitter every day. It’s not that Sacco didn’t deserve to be taken to task, to be scorned for the clumsiness and hurtfulness of her joke; it’s that the corrective was so radically comprehensive and obliterating, and administered with such collective righteous giddiness. This is a new form of violence, a symbolic ritual of erasure where the condemned is made to stand for a whole class of person—to be cast, as an effigy of the world’s general awfulness, into a sudden abyss of fame.

More than a little reminiscent of Matt J’s recent post about Sammy Rhodes, eh? Next, Kelly Dickerson explored something called the ‘generalized friendship paradox’ (GFP) on Business Insider, which is a fancy term for the nagging sense we sometimes get that our friends have more friends than we do. Dickerson delves into the research–indeed, the math!–to find that it’s not just a suspicion, that “Your Friends Are Probably More Popular, Richer, and Happier Than You.” Talk about a double-bind!

Finally, The Atlantic taught us “How To Spot a Narcissist Online”. Turns out it’s not terribly difficult. But the discussion of the ‘now self’ and the ‘possible self’ is pretty relevant/amusing, especially when phrased as something that was discovered in… 1987.


3. A charming little article “On Christian Balloon Twisting” appeared in a recent issue of the Christ in Pop Culture Magazine. I for one was unaware the skill/practice was so advanced!

4. In humor, someone had the wherewithal to put Allie Brosh’s brilliant “The Motivation Game” online, and we sure are thankful. It’s taken from the “Motivation” chapter of Brosh’s magnificent new book, Hyperbole and a Half: Unfortunate Situations, Flawed Coping Mechanisms, Mayhem, and Other Things That Happened, as inspired and hilarious an illustrated tour of low anthropology as we’re likely to get this decade (in fact, its genius is such that it almost undermines the content). Full-length review forthcoming. The Onion packed two gut-punches into their commentary section this week with “As Your Friend, I Promise You Can Tell Me Anything That Makes Me Feel Superior To You” and “Son, You’ll Thank Me For Pushing You This Hard When You’re 37 And Miserable.” Ooof. The Vulture also made me smile in the wake of the Academy Award nominations with their “Award Season’s Saddest and Whitest Sad White Guys.” And speaking of the breed (but in earnest), the BBC’s report on the “spiritual pain” Mikhail Kalashnikov, inventor of the AK-47, experienced on his deathbed is powerful stuff, ht BJ.

5. An interesting write-up of a new book about Dale “How to Win Friends and Influence People” Carnegie appeared in The Globe and Mail. The title of the review sort of gives it away, “How Dale Carnegie’s self-help movement is now more about entitlement than enlightenment,” ht SD. On a somewhat related note, New York Magazine ran an entertaining analysis of a widespread trait that will make you feel less alone, “Help: I’m a People-Pleaser and I Hate It”, only qualification being that the half-hearted attempt at mindfulness suggests that the author may not hate her people-pleasing as much as she claims.

6. On Slate, Megan Greenwell put her finger on “The Advice Every Single Woman Gets on Her 30th Birthday”, tracing on a pretty fascinating development in the expectations American women face, ht JL:

When I surveyed a dozen highly educated female friends in their 30s, only two reported hearing classic tropes like “when are you going to think about settling down?” or “you’re not getting any younger” around the time of their 30th birthdays. It’s 2014: No enlightened being would ever say those things to a single woman. The most common advice my friends received is the same as what I’ve been getting: “don’t panic,” in tones ranging from peppy to sympathetic. Besides the universal assumption that we will marry in our 30s, the other striking similarity among our experiences was that none of us had to seek out advice or indicate any level of concern for people to tell us not to be concerned. Aunts and uncles: I wasn’t worried until you told me not to worry!

The content of the (little-l) law may change–it may even take on a comforting veneer–but its existence and function (how it is heard) remains discouragingly static. Sigh.

7. In TV, it’s still too early to say much of anything, but both Justified and Community are off to terrific starts–a bang, as it were. I’m particularly heartened by Raylan and co and the superb writing on that show. The dynamic in the second episode between Raylan and Loretta is one of the show’s most gracious–and it has a few! Next, Parenthood has finally picked up some heart-wrenching steam too. While I’m not 100% sure I’m buying Joel’s behavior at the moment, it has certainly given Erika Christensen some opportunities to show off her incredible skills. This season’s MVP thus far? Hank. This probably isn’t the right forum to assess the first couple of episodes of Girls, but what they’re doing with Adam thus far is interesting, to say the least–though I sure hope the female members of the cast doesn’t become any more cartoonish, or the show as a whole any more cartoonish in its cynicism. Finally, I’m cautiously optimistic about the Sherlock premiere… Here’s hoping!


8. Other strays: the site Steadfast Lutheran interviewed our friend Tullian Tchividjian and his answers were predictably, um, what’s-another-word-for-grace-centered? Patrick Doyle’s 12 Essential Tracks by the Everly Brothers has some true surprises (“Milk Train”!), Pavement meister Stephen Malkmus has been all over The AV Club in the nicest of ways. Slate nailed the increasingly ridiculous (and annoying) Springsteen bias in RollingStone. Mollie Hemingway made a provocative and thorough (and to my mind, sadly convincing) comparison of the receptions of 12 Years a Slave and The Passion of the Christ (gotta love Armond White!), negative-thinking guru Oliver Burkeman’s endorsement of the one theology book all atheists really should read in The Guardian caught me off guard, and Alan Jacobs reviewed Thomas Pynchon’s Bleeding Edge in extremely compelling depth.

9. Finally, in what I may have to make a running feature of this column, here’s your Morrissey autobiography quote of the week:

“‘And what do YOU like in life?’ [the priest] asks me, ready to play the patronizing game at my expense in order to raise a giggle from the rest of the class, thus rendering him popular for a few perverse minutes. ‘Mott The Hoople,’ I answer truthfully.”