We’re trying something new, and it’s pretty exciting: a weekly podcast in conjunction with this column, 20 minutes or so talking about the stories we decided to cover, and maybe some others that didn’t make it in. Right now we’re going to call it The Mockingcast. But that may change, esp as The Hunger Games finale gets closer. Our pal Scott Jones in Philadelphia (one of the guys behind the New Persuasive Words cast) is making it all happen, and we owe him big-time. Probably goes without saying but this is new territory, so bear with us! And please don’t hesitate to drop us a line, either in the comments below, or at info@mbird.com if you have any thoughts on how to make it something you would want to listen to. Click here to listen/subscribe and be sure to spread the word.

1. First up, as the image below suggests, the proof for The Technology Issue of our print magazine arrived this week, and I don’t think any of us were prepared for how beautiful it turned out. (It’s at the binder’s now and should ship mid-week). Of course, now begins the march of the shoulda-woulda-couldas, and at the head of the parade walks the following quote from Theodor Adorno’s prescient essay, “Work and Pleasure”, which touches on, among other things, the Psychology of Gadgeteering and the Happiness Imperative. Remember, this was 1950, ht JD:

IMG_7939Labor-saving devices … are invested with a halo of their own… It seems that the kind of retrogression highly characteristic of persons who do not any longer feel they are the self-determining subjects of their fate, is concomitant with a fetishistic attitude towards the very same conditions which tend to be dehumanizing them. The more they are gradually being transformed into things, the more they invest things with a human aura. At the same time, the libidinization of gadgets is indirectly narcissistic in as much as it feeds on the ego’s control of nature: gadgets provide the subject with some memories of early feelings of omnipotence.

The essay came to our attention via Brain Pickings, where Maria Popova elucidates the paradox of today’s smart-tech, namely “We perform this “gadgeteering” under the illusion that our devices optimize our work efficiency and thus save us time to be used toward play. But they actually achieve the opposite, hijacking the realm of leisure and making it subservient to the same efficiency standards by which we assess the realm of work.” Sound familiar? Adorno criticizes what he sees, to paraphrase Popova, as “the industrialization of happiness as an item on the tyrannical checklist of social success”. He writes:

There is above all the monotonously frequent advice to “be happy.” … Obviously it is directed at encouraging [people] to overcome what, in popular psychology, has come to be known as “inhibitions.” However, this encouragement becomes paradoxical in as much as instinctual needs contrary to the rule of rational interests appear to be commandeered by rational interests. Even that which is spontaneous and involuntary is being made part of arbitrariness and control… One is forced to have fun in order to be well adjusted or at least appear so to others because only well-adjusted people are accepted as normal and are likely to be successful.


2. When we talk about the industrialization of happiness, or at least its incorporation into the self-actualization industry, we’re in Oprah territory. Ms. Winfrey is an easy target, I know, but now that she’s tackling religion so explicitly in her Belief documentary series, it’s worth taking a fresh look, at least at what she means when she uses that word. To that end, I found Joel J. Miller’s article on “Oprah and the Trouble with our DIY Spirituality” to be helpful:

As [William Cantwell Smith] says in Believing: An Historical Perspective, belief once referred to our commitment to a manifest truth. Summarizing Smith’s summary, “I believe in God” meant “Given the reality of God, I’m with him. I trust in that reality and live accordingly.” It’s taking our subjective experience and aligning it with an objective fact. Call this believing 1.

In the seventeenth century, things began turning. The emphasis moved from trust to assertion. “I believe in God” now meant “Given the doubts some people have about the matter, I have decided for myself that, yes, God exists.” It’s primarily about asserting a contested fact. Call this believing 2.

In that regard, we’re closer to 2 than 1. But what’s really going on is that we’ve moved onto what we can call believing 3, which is not about aligning our subjective experience with an objective fact—like subscribing to a creed in the older sense of the practice—but elevating our subjective experience to something approaching objective fact. The criteria for truth is now just what we fancy as such. Hence, Oprah’s million ways and the your-truth-my-truth language we employ.

3. Miller’s assessment certainly dovetails with Mary Karr’s theory about the exploding popularity of literary memoir, i.e. that it goes hand in hand with the “triumph of the subjective” in the wider culture. Of course, there is no louder critic of said triumph than the, er, subject of the next piece, Columbia Journalism Review’s “The Transformation of David Brooks”. The article traces the NY Times columnist’s journey from political pundit to something close to public theologian–or at least the only voice in certain arenas daring to talk not just about issues but motivation:

At times, [Brooks] evokes moral awareness in peculiar contexts. On Meet the Press, in 2011, David Gregory asked Brooks and E.J. Dionne about the lack of accountability in the Penn State child molestation scandal.

“We have lost our clear sense of what evil is, what sin is,” Brooks said. “And so, when people see things like that, they don’t have categories to put it into. They vaguely know it’s wrong, but they’ve been raised in a morality that says, If it feels all right for you, it’s probably okay.”

pumpkin-funny-scary-face“I think David is way too abstract here,” Dionne interjected, perhaps appropriately.

Brooks aims to revive a “secular priesthood of intellectuals,” which at times can be taken as a shrewd form of proselytizing. When the Christian right campaigned for “family values,” that was tied to specific public policy. But when religious concepts aren’t a prelude to advocacy, but rather a resource for reflection, secular paranoia is undue.

The article almost makes it sound as though Brooks equates the triumph of the subjective with what he sees as widespread moral indifference. Which maybe he does, I don’t know. But what I read in his work is not so much an endorsement of a set morality so much as a check on the inflated anthropology that fuels so much partisan debate, and renders most moral positions so stale. After all, people don’t seem to be less morally engaged these days–if anything the strength of moral convictions seems to be rising–it’s more that subjectivity is increasingly used, on all sides, as a shield against any pronouncements that might address the individual as such. That is, if we can keep the discussion focused on groups of people and social ills, we keep deeper questions at a safe, comfortable distance and never have to reckon with our own, individual hang-ups (which is ultimately where most of us live). I can’t help but wonder if the situation contributes to the loneliness epidemic in some way.

4. Anyway, it reminded me of an article which appeared in Modern Reformation back in 2008, but only recently came to my attention, Jonathan Leeman’s “Individualism’s Not the Problem–Community’s Not the Solution”:

Bee+Gees+The+Legend+170090The problem with the modern self is not merely that it’s “unrelated.” It’s rebellious. Not just disengaged, but defiant. Not just independent, but insubordinate. Where Yahweh, the maker of heaven and earth, described himself to Moses as the self-defining, predicate-less “I am” (ego sum in the Vulgate), the ground of all reality, Descartes’ method effectively shoved Yahweh aside, making his existence (and God’s!) a predicate of his own thinking mind (cogito ergo sum). He established a philosophical method for asserting that we are like God, knowing good from evil. Descartes’ move, like Adam’s, did not merely break a relationship; it broke God’s law or Word. The implications are not merely personal, but judicial. It’s not just a friend who is cast off; it’s a Lord and Judge. The philosophical methods we associate with modernity and postmodernity, in a sense, whisper the same line whispered by the snake in the Garden (Gen. 3:5). What the shift from pre-modernity to modernity signified, really, was that this satanic whisper gained a moral and philosophical credibility in the so-called Christian West (even if it had always been believed and practiced). In other words, the Enlightenment did not bring us radical free agency and contractualism. Genesis 3 did. The Enlightenment legitimized it.

You don’t have to spend much time in church circles to recognize the issue he’s addressing. “Community” has only become more of a buzzword since that article was published. Which I guess is a good thing, as far as it goes (who doesn’t want friends?!). On the other hand, I was at a conference recently where a very prominent theologian spoke about how the Gospel is meaningless outside of a communal context. Hmmm… Tell that to this guy. Or see item 1 on our “How To Shrink Your Church” list. Just goes to show you that subjectivity and individualism are not the same thing. In my experience, nothing creates true community more reliably than an objective word (of comfort) addressed to an individual sufferer–where that word is allowed to breath, i.e. sans injunctions about what the ensuing community life should look like.

5. How does the individual relate to God then? Enter the terrific Q&A Nadia did the other day with The Washington Post:

I’m more and more convinced that right relationship with God is just standing naked in front of our Creator and receiving the love as broken people. Right relationship is confession and forgiveness. That’s right relationship. Allowing God to be the forgiving, redeeming God that God wants to be for us. Whereas we think that being in right relationship is not making any mistakes so we don’t have to bother the guy. That’s not a relationship, then.

Other favorite part of that exchange was this:

Q: In the book, one of your critiques of social justice goes like this: “Nobody gets to play Jesus.”

A: People say, “I’m just a Jesus-follower. I want to be just like Jesus.” No one’s like Jesus, man. Jesus was Jesus. Jesus was God. You’re not God. You’re going to fail. If we’re trying to be forgiving people because that’s the way Jesus was, and yet we’re never willing to confess our sins and admit what we need forgiveness for, good luck with being a forgiving person…

6. Social Science Study of the Week is definitely “In Defense of Giving Up” which reports on a new paper, published in the Journal of Research in Personality, that, despite all the praise and energy directed at cultivating Grit these days, “there are times a tenacious spirit can backfire, causing people to stubbornly dig in their heels even when doing so ends up costing them.”

photo-217. Humor: Funniest thing I’ve seen all week is Smosh’s “24 Pics That Prove ‘Ken M’ Is The Greatest Troll On The Internet”. I’ll consider it a major victory if he ever posts here. Also, in the borderline painful category, The Toast lists “How to Say You’re a Christian in Your Twitter Bio Without Really Saying It”. Oof.

8. In TV, the small screen is back in full swing, praise God. My favorites thus far this Fall would have to be the second seasons of Doll & Em (baffled by how little press it’s gotten, esp compared to that other HBO female-centric dramedy) and The Leftovers, which returned just as dark and religiously fixated as before, but with fresh intrigue and characters. Fargo has me hooked once again, though I don’t feel like I’ve seen enough to form much of an opinion (outside of the fact that it’s got a tremendous cast and the split-screen thing works). Jury’s still out on The Walking Dead too–bracing myself for one of their trademark (excruciating) stand-still episodes.

9. Finally, turns out the United States isn’t the only land that’s having troubles regulating the censoriousness of its college campuses. The Economist published a short report on the Intolerance of Intolerance in the UK, concluding that students are getting quicker and quicker to label offensive material hate speech–apparently “135 bans of various sorts [predominantly visiting speakers] had been imposed within university campuses in the previous three years.” For a timely example of hyper-vigilance (and its effect) from our own shores, check out Scared Mommy’s “Over-The-Top Allergy Parent Shames Neighborhood For Their Halloween Candy Offerings”. Goodness gracious.