Another Week Ends

Click here to listen to the accompanying episode of The Mockingcast. Be sure not to […]

David Zahl / 1.15.16

Click here to listen to the accompanying episode of The Mockingcast. Be sure not to miss the special Theology/Church episode released earlier this week.

1. It’s been a David Bowie world this week, and we just live in it. Despite the sadness, I feel like the immersion has been good for my soul, or at least, a timely reminder that our venerated “low anthropology” is not a ceiling so much as a baseline, a starting point rather than upward limit, that beauty and creativity and courage exists alongside the other, less savory aspects of our nature. Which is not to say Bowie was some kind of saint–obviously not–just that the sweep of his career does boggle the mind. The best Bowie site on the web, by a significant margin, is Pushing Ahead of the Dame, a song-by-song compendium of all things Bowie. While the site’s author may not share the Thin White Duke’s spiritual and religious adventurousness, he seldom ignores that aspect either. So if you’re looking to kill a few hours going down the rabbithole, it’s the place to go. Their recent Top Ten Album Poll is about as close to perfect as I could imagine.

As far as formal tributes go, author Jonathan Lethem’s was beautiful, and the final thought in Deerhunter singer Bradford Cox’s testimonial was spot-on:

I keep hearing a lot of people say things like “David Bowie made it OK to just be yourself”…and while I think that’s a great sentiment, it feels a little off to me. David Bowie was the guy that made it OK for you to be your ideal self—your imagined self, your self in space, your self as a superman. I love him for that.

Meaning, Bowie was not a paragon of “self-realization” in the way we like to imagine, he was an artist, and his image was part of his canvas. He was more interested in becoming something other than himself.

While I probably exhausted the ‘grace angle’ on Bowie earlier this week, there was one final episode that I’d be remiss not to mention. It came during a live radio broadcast on a British station back in 1997, on a program where David had agreed to answer fan questions. If one aspect of grace is the notion of superabundance–a gift that is lavish beyond any measure or expectation–Bowie caught a glimpse when one of his heroes, Scott Walker, called in to wish him a surprise happy 50th birthday (on live radio). It knocked the singer off kilter in the most beautiful and arresting way:

2. Moving from one David to another, David Brooks submitted to an interview with Moment Magazine, the acclaimed Jewish journal, that was too good to pass up, especially since he goes into detail on his “evolution” from political pundit to moral mouthpiece. This past year, for example, the NY Times columnist wrote only 40 pieces about current events, as opposed to 51 on “big questions” like love, purpose, death, ambition and motivation. Along with this shift, the interviewer noted that Brooks has moved from referencing social scientists to philosophers (and clergy). Here’s his answer, ht CT:

I’ve really become disillusioned—not completely—but halfway disillusioned with neuroscience. Ten years ago, I thought that was going to teach us a lot about who we are. And it does, a little. It teaches you the importance of emotion, how the amygdala is involved in everything. But I don’t think neuroscience has taught us anything that George Eliot didn’t already know. It doesn’t at all solve the problem of meaning. So I felt I had to go back to the Soloveitchiks or the Niebuhrs or George Eliot or Dostoyevsky, who didn’t have fMRI machines but were pretty good observers of human nature.

[Interviewer:] Was your decision to switch directions a factor of living in the digital age or of your stage in life, or were there other reasons?

RickmanIt’s a lot of things. First, stage in career, in which I’ve achieved more worldly success than I’d ever imagined and am not satisfied. Second, stage in our culture, which has gotten so technology-oriented. Third, teaching at Yale, where everything’s so achievement- and résumé-oriented. Fourth, I just read a book from Carl Jung, of all people, who said that every single one of his middle-aged clients was mourning the loss of a religious sense and was searching for that religious sense. And there’s some element of that in me. And then finally, there used to be a lot of Abraham Joshua Heschels in the world, and even Billy Grahams, and they were commenting in public on moral issues. Now we just don’t have as many. Jonathan Sacks is one. The Pope is obviously a giant. But there are really very few. And when I write about it, the reader interest is just off the charts…

I was having coffee with one of my students at Yale and he said, “We’re so hungry.” Because they’ve been raised with so little moral vocabulary and so much achievement orientation. They feel they’re humans, they have souls. I don’t have to tell them how to be good. I just have to name the categories. If we use a word like “grace,” what does that mean? Or “sin,” what does that mean? I don’t have to say, “Don’t be sinful.”

3. Next, a fabulous and close-to-home personal essay from Donovan Riley over at Christ Hold Fast entitled “When Doctrine Becomes Idolatry” which explores how addiction colors the way we do theology, yes, even good theology. Or you might say, how doctrine itself can and often is used as a shield against that which it seeks to describe, namely, a living God–the Old Adam being quite the adept. After talking about his own history with substances and then exercise, Donovan fesses up to a developing a dysfunctional relationship with his studies:

david_bowie-holy_holy_sI replaced one god, drugs, with another god, theology. More specifically, to riff on Martin Luther’s explanation of the First Commandment in his Small Catechism, I had moved from fear, love, and trust of drugs, to fear, love, and trust of doctrine. Drugs hadn’t been able to save me from reality, but I was sure doctrine could… The power of sin in me was using theology to glorify the Old Adam. I’d tried to use doctrine to escape having to deal with God as He is in Christ Jesus, not as I would have Him be for me in myself.

But that’s what we all do, whether you’re a drug addict, housewife, student, pastor, or truck driver. It’s not addiction that drives us to it. It’s plain, ordinary, I-can-do-this-better-than-God-ever-did, sin. To go back to Luther’s explanation of the First Command in his Small Catechism, Old Adam doesn’t want God to be a God for him. Specifically, he doesn’t want God to be a gift-giver God for him. More specific, the old sinner doesn’t want anything from God that he hasn’t earned for himself. And if that means he has to use God’s own words against Him to accomplish that goal, he will without a second thought. Old Adam has no shame about using his knowledge of God, or theology, or his knowledge of “pure doctrine” against God. Old Adam revels in it. What better way to stand in God’s place than to use God’s words, to speak like God, to throw down commands as if his word is God’s Word?

4. Speaking of Luther, over at The Wall Street Journal D.G. Hart summarizes the two most recent books about the Great Reformer to crop up in anticipation of the 500th Anniversary of the Wittenberg Door, Scott Hendrix’s Martin Luther: Visionary Reformer and Andrew Pettegree’s Brand Luther (which Ethan mentioned last month). The penultimate paragraph stuck out:

Each author also cannot resist rendering Luther, who some regard as the man who opened the floodgates of modernity, as a very modern man. Mr. Hendrix compares him to Martin Luther King Jr., the name that shows up in Google searches much more frequently than the original. King and Luther were, he writes, “both extremists” because they “refused to settle for the status quo and defied the powers who were loath to have it disturbed.” Mr. Pettegree does not attempt an explicit comparison, but the name that comes to mind is Steve Jobs, a person who transformed an industry and created his own brand in doing so.

5. Alrighty, enough seriousness. Humor-wise, The Onion’s been oddly quiet of late, so I was happy to come across the new “Alignment Of 6,071 Completely Independent Variables Necessary For Man To Feel Okay” which made me laugh. Someone sent me this brilliant bit of Mockingbait from their archives too: “Area Dog Will Never Live Up To Dog On Purina Bag”. Next, “Unnecessary Digs At Servants In Classic Vampire Novels” demonstrates once again why Mallory Ortberg gets paid the big bucks. Also, in the Great-Job-Internet department, there’s Han Solo Dad Jokes on Twitter. Example:


6. Social Science Study of the Week is definitely the conglomeration that Arthur Brooks put together in his NY Times article, “To Be Happier, Start Thinking More About Your Death”.

8. Also in The NY Times, Barbara Ehrenreich called positive psychologists on the carpet for contriving gratitude as means a self-improvement, of turning something essentially outward focused into its opposite–a way to make yourself feel better/happier/healthier. Too bad she disses the Almighty a couple times.

9. Finally, in music, this is apparently happening. And in honor of Carl’s list of last year’s best albums, here’s How Craig Finn Spends his Sunday mornings. No surprise there!

– This just in: Pope Francis is “a sinner saved by grace“. Why this stuff continues to make headlines is a bit disconcerting re: the public perception of institutional religion, but still, Francis is remarkable.
Mark Galli’s take on the Wheaton College-Larycia Hawkins debacle is characteristically irenic, gracious and wise.
Somewhere, Blade Runner‘s Roy Batty Just Stepped Off the Assembly Line.
– A George Costanza-themed bar is set to open in Melbourne. Favorite line from the write-up: “One guy contacted me last night who lives in Melbourne and who is in the middle of eight different George Costanza paintings. We are talking about doing a show with him.” PTL.
– We’ll be taking MLK off. See you on Tuesday!