1. If there’s an overriding theme this week, it would have to be the increasingly unavoidable dogmatism which seems to be driving our social and political discourse at the moment. What Chris Rock noted in relation to resurgent ‘political correctness’ rings true: as awful as recent headlines have been–and here in Charlottesville, they have been pretty awful (if not altogether trustworthy)–one wonders whether the ideological fervor almost detracts from the events themselves, whipping us instead into righteous frenzy. I mean, anyone wanting a primer on heresy-hunting need only check Twitter these days. There’s enough apocalyptic jargon, demands for repentance, and assertions about salvation to make the most rabid fundamentalist blush. Secularized perhaps, but no less harsh. I’m heartened, though, that more and more commentators on all sides of the aisle are decrying the tactics being employed–consciously or not–to silence/marginalize the voices that we’d rather not hear.

First, there was Giles Fraser in The Guardian, reflecting on the response to the Church of England’s recent vote to ordain female bishops. He draws a connection between the haughtiness he’s observed and the recent coverage of ISIS, claiming that “Our Secular Salvation Myth Distances Us From Reality”. Fraser’s column focuses on the often subtle denial of “coevalness” he hears coming from aggressively secular circles, which places our foes in the past but leaves us in the present. He calls it “a denial that we share the same temporal space with those who have different values or different political aspirations”:

bfacf49be72d3c596b82624bec14d597“Isis, for example, are often described as “medieval”. Travel to Damascus or Baghdad, and you travel not just to the Middle East but also to the middle ages. In part, this familiar trope is based on the idea that the extreme violence of contemporary jihadis has more in common with the extreme violence of the middle ages. As a comparison, this is most unfair on the middle ages, which is transformed from a rich and complex period of human history into modernity’s “other” – little more than that against which modernity comes to define itself. Forget about the founding of the great cathedrals and universities, forget about the Islamic development of mathematics, forget about Leonardo da Vinci and all of that: in secular salvation myth we are sold the simple story that we have been saved from the dark ages of barbarism and stupidity by the clear moral vision of science, rationality and Apple computers. This is just as much a salvation myth as any proposed by religion – though in this version of salvation it is religion itself that we need to be saved from.

But the problem with the idea that the current age is the triumphant pinnacle of historical achievement is that Isis is very much a 21st-century phenomenon. And not just because its members are good with the internet. Their violence and brutality have not appeared directly from the middle ages through some wormhole in time. To think as much is to deny the need to look for contemporary causes and contemporary solutions. As the historian Julia McClure has written: “Rather than … questioning the arrogance that has led us to believe that we are the inheritors of a historical tradition of success and process, society has developed a neat trick: it simply denies that shocking events are part of our time.”

2. Next we have The Dish, which has been tirelessly beating this drum for quite some time now, to their largely left-leaning audience. Andrew Sullivan and co seem to possess a preternatural understanding that, regardless of how distasteful we may find certain attitudes or positions, censoriousness will only breed more anger and perpetuate if not accelerate the cycle of recrimination and ill will. As we like to say, no one experiences a change of heart after being shouted down. From one of their recent round-ups:

No_Pier_PressureMichael Brown did not deserve to die, any more than Matthew Shepard did. But that doesn’t mean both are perfect victims, unalloyed by all the flaws that flesh is heir to; or that their deaths illustrated pure random homophobia or pure racism. And this need for perfect victims is of a piece with a church of liberalism in which there is only one way to be good – a member of a minority – and only one sin – prejudice. All churches need saints and martyrs. But liberalism – no more than conservatism – should never be a church. It’s as dangerous to civil politics as Christianism.

A reader notes how this church’s doctrines are increasingly enforced – and sinners punished – on social media:

Many of us mocked the Tea Party in its seemingly religious quest to root out “RINOs” and its dedication to finding ever more fringe and lunatic conservative causes, but something similar seems to be happening to liberals. Looking at the weekly outraged Facebook posts and blog articles of friends, colleagues, and commentators, I see the purpose of the liberal conversation as increasingly being the enforcement of a shared set of ideals and the rooting out of those among us who might disagree with them. We’re building an echo chamber in which dissenting voices are first drowned out and then excluded. This isn’t about building forums for debate with like-minded souls – it’s about dividing the world into The Righteous and The Wicked.


3. Thirdly, there’s “The Spiritual Shape of Political Ideas” from The Weekly Standard, in which Joseph Bottum explores, “how it is that we once again find ourselves rooting out sin, shunning heretics, and heralding the end times.” His discussion of ‘white privilege’ and its parallels with ‘the inheritance of Adam’ is interesting, but I found the observations about shunning to be most convincing, ht JK:

The spring of 2014 alone saw Condoleezza Rice chased away from Rutgers, Christine Lagarde from Smith, Ayaan Hirsi Ali from Brandeis, and Robert Birgeneau from Haverford, all of them declared too conservative (or at least insufficiently radical) to be allowed to address the new and impressionable college graduates.

Plenty of the spiritualizing of American social politics occurs on the political right. In the libertarian elevation of the idea of individual freedom above all or in the tendency of Tea Party members “to be excessively confident in their righteousness” (according to conservative academic Jon A. Shields), one can discern dissociated Christian ideas. It’s in the air, and no one in public life entirely escapes breathing it.

But most of the recent cases of banned speakers and censored heresies seem to come from the radical side of things—unsurprisingly, perhaps, given the left’s dominant position in academia and the media, and its claim to possess now the moral authority once held by the mainline liberal consensus. Think of it in terms of the old Christian idea of shunning. Or, rather, think of it in terms of the shape and tone of the idea of shunning, set free from its constrained place in a general theological scheme. Think of shunning as it lives now, in the Church of Christ Without Christ that produces so much of our current social discourse.

The point here is not to scapegoat one side or another as being particularly susceptible to misplaced devotion. The point is the same as always: everyone is religious, whether or not they claim to believe in God, and to pretend otherwise is wishful thinking at best, active denial at worst. The only thing that waxes and wanes is power, which dictates whose gods receive tribute and whose are defamed. That said, religiosity in and of itself is not bad or harmful. That people are passionately loyal to causes and principles that are bigger than they are is largely a good thing (or at least, it was before the advent of social media…!). What’s harmful/dangerous/tragic is where this religiosity stops, i.e., short of “where true religion is found.” Indeed, Bottum is right to invoke Flannery O’Connor’s term, “The Church of Christ Without Christ.” We get all of the church but none of the Christ, all of the form and none of the substance, all of the law and none of the grace or forgiveness. Cue Benjamin Watson and his incredibly moving reflection on the events in Ferguson. (Or Mark Galli).

4. Alrighty, that’s enough of that! Amidst so much bad news, some good news did arrive this week, in the form of The Killers’ ninth annual Christmas single (above). Their batting average on these tunes has been nothing short of miraculous, and this year continues the trend with “Joel the Lump of Coal”, which they conceived of with Jimmy Kimmel. The song tells a wonderful fable of grace, exposing the cruelty of Santa’s quid-pro-quo methodology and offering something much, much more seasonally appropriate. Bravo!

5. Speaking of Joel, we haven’t checked in with Parenthood recently, which just went on hiatus until the new year. Let me add my voice to the chorus of people praising Katims and his team for how they dealt with the Joel and Julia situation. Something of a relational eucatastrophe! Of course, my favorites scene of the season had to be the one with Camille counseling Julia, in which she claims that marriage is one thing and one thing only: Forgiveness. Not exactly the line about ‘rights’ and ‘boundaries’ we normally hear on screen. I bawled like a baby. Too bad we all know what’s coming re: Zeek. Brace yourself, people.

6. Click here to check out some truly righteous gingerbread architecture.

7. The New Yorker published an amazing short story by Tim Parks, “Reverend”, about the son of an English clergyman coming to terms with the memory of his father. All I can say is stick with it.

8. Humor-wise, The Onion made me laugh with “Woman Launches Into 4-Minute Self-Deprecating Preamble Before Speaking Mind”, and Clickhole gave us “7 Nonexistent Traits To Look For In Your Next Boyfriend”. The New Yorker sheds light on “What the Guy Next to You at the Coffee Shop Is Furiously Typing”. Then there’s “The Entire Bible Explained in One Facebook Post”. And I cannot get enough of the ‘George Lucas special edition trailer’ for Episode VII:


A school with no rules! Me likey, ht BJ.
– Someone is trying to measure depravity. Oy vey, ht JH.
– Another thoughtful takedown of New Atheism, ht SMZ.
– Chris Rock let more wisdom fly over at Rolling Stone. I especially appreciate what he said about The Jackson 5. (Cannot wait for Top Five!)
– Quartz’s “Americans Ruined Yoga for the Rest of the World” traces the practice’s journey from austerity to glamor, a fascinating inversion of core principles.
Mess of Help pre-sale ends at midnight on Sunday! Price goes up, so does shipping (enter ‘MESS’ in the coupon field to get free shipping until then). Apologies again about the shopping cart issues that tripped us up earlier this week. It’s all working like a charm now.
– Finally, we sent out our big year-end letter/appeal today, which details some of what’s happened with our work this year, what’s coming up in 2015, and how you can help. If you’d like to get a copy, be sure you’re signed up for our mailing list.