Click here to listen to this week’s episode of The Mockingcast, which features an interview with Mark Tietjen, author of Kierkegaard: A Christian Missionary to Christians.

1. Everything else fades into the background in a week when something like this initial item appears. It’s the first bit of music Nick Cave has released since his son Arthur died tragically last November, and it speaks volumes and volumes–even to those, I suspect, who haven’t spent the last few weeks cradling a newborn:

2. Have you heard about Secret Keeper, the new app for Amazon Echo that allows you to whisper private thoughts to Siri Alexa and protect them with a password (or share anonymously with strangers)? Navneet Alang wrote about it, and a number of related phenomena, for The Atlantic under the title “The Comfort of a Digital Confidante.” What starts out as a fairly cut-and-dry report takes a turn mid-way through toward the legitimately spiritual:

So much of human communication is wrapped up this desire: our inarticulate, inevitably futile wish to have another person understand us exactly as we understand ourselves. Alas, that person doesn’t exist. The aching chasm between one person and another is exactly what generates so much misunderstanding, but also drives everything from making art to talking over coffee for hours, the very gap itself making those rare moments of connection feel like such ecstatic relief. What we want is to be seen in our entirety, and we are always striving to inch closer to that impossible goal.

Perhaps, then, that Instagram shot or confessional tweet isn’t always meant to evoke some mythical, pretend version of ourselves, but instead seeks to invoke the imagined perfect audience—the non-existent people who will see us exactly as we want to be seen. We are not curating an ideal self, but rather, an ideal Other, a fantasy in which our struggle to become ourselves is met with the utmost empathy.


3. That description of an Ideal Other immediately brought to mind not only a certain messiah, but Worcester MA undertaker Peter Stefan, profiled the other day in an incredible piece for Narratively, “This Undertaker Buries the Bodies Nobody Else Will Touch”. The entire article is worth your time, soaked as it is in grace, the standout being:

Two weeks after police shot and killed Tamerlan Tsarnaev –  who, along with his brother, set off bombs near the finish line of the Boston Marathon – his body remained unburied as the state attempted to figure out what to do with it: No funeral home or cemetery wanted it. Stefan was approached by the Tsarnaevs’ uncle – who had been referred to Stefan based on Stefan’s familiarity with Islamic burial rituals – but the body was sent to another funeral parlor by mistake.

“I got a call from them down there,” Stefan remembers – a funeral parlor in North Attleboro where the body arrived during the middle of a wake, complete with a coterie of protesters and media. They were basically living in a state of terror,” and they needed Stefan to come collect the body as soon as possible. “They were thinking of waiting until the morning, but they said, ‘Nah, we better do something now.’ So we went and got the body in the middle of the night,” Stefan recalls.

The quiet exchange was discovered anyway. Before Tsarnaev’s body made it to Worcester, a local news station was already waiting at Graham Putnam & Mahoney. Soon, every media outlet was there looking for answers. They wanted to know what Stefan planned to do with the body.

He had one answer. “We bury the dead, that’s what we do,” Stefan says. “Doesn’t matter who it is. I can’t separate the sins from the sinners.”

Amen to that. And amen to the one who can do the separating, as far as the East is from the West. He’s no stranger to death either–or the dead.

Speaking of Jesus-types, the following will be ringing in my ears the next time I encounter a biblical reference to ‘laborers’. PtL, ht JD:

4. On The Mockingcast this week we talk a bit about the notion in quantum physics of the multiverse, in reference to both Sam Kriss’s article in The Atlantic “The Multiverse Idea Is Rotting Culture” and Scott’s recent talk with a humanist chaplain (alas, not Joss Whedon). You don’t have to grasp the metal-slit experiment in question fully to get a sense of what Kriss was trying to say, as it was basically a paraphrasing of Scott’s inspired post earlier this week, namely, that whatever the story we want/need to tell ourselves, some form of faith is inescapable, even at the subatomic level.

Unlike all the others, [the multiverse idea] seems to approach us not as ungainly lumps of seething quanta but as human beings. Everyone has regrets, everyone has done things they wish they hadn’t, everyone wonders what might have happened if things had gone another way. The many-worlds interpretation consoles us and wards us off all at the same time. Everything really did go the other way. You really can be happy. But not here; never here.

There’s no way we could ever carry out any experiment to test for the multiverse’s existence in the world, because it’s not in our world. It’s an article of faith, and not a very secure one. What’s more likely: a potentially infinite number of useless parallel universes, or one perfectly ordinary God?

The multiverse is a prop, a way to explain away things that can’t otherwise be explained. It’s supposed to induce a Copernican vertigo, your own tininess in a hall of mirrors where every reflection can strut around asserting its primacy, but in fact it’s a strangely comforting doctrine. Go back to the double-slit experiment. What the ‘God did it’ theory of waveform collapse and the many-worlds interpretation both do is cut out all the uncomfortable messiness of life, the contingency, that spectral ‘could have’ trembling on the other side of ‘is.’ If there’s a divine hand that chooses, or a cleavage in the universe that delivers both results, then there’s some kind of order in the universe.

Kriss seems to be equating multiverse theory with a particularly severe form of double-predestination, warning that thinking about [either] too deeply fosters creative/existential/intellectual apathy or paralysis, i.e., why do anything if nothing can be changed? It’s a curious conflation, though, one that relies more on a deist conception of a personality-less watchmaker God than a compassionate creator, to say nothing of a suffering servant. Speaking of the multiverse though:

For my own part, I found Scott’s exchange with Bart fascinating if at points galling (in kind of a fun way) yet ultimately compassion-inducing–a great broadcast in other words. Fascinating because of the straight-faced endorsement of ‘reason’ qua ‘reason’ couched in transparently emotional doublespeak–a la a case study in a Jonathan Haidt book. Galling for the dehumanizing (and misinformed?) elitism that seeped through (said the log to the splinter). But sad, not just for all the olive branches left on the cutting room floor, but for the unapologetically law-shaped description of the chaplain’s role, whether it be under supernatural auspices or ostensibly positivist ones. It didn’t sound like comfort was on Mr. Campolo’s menu, either side of the faith divide–just goodness goodness goodness. Which I suppose only affirms the expediency of grace for all of us, wherever we find ourselves on the faith spectrum.

Mainly I was just grateful for Scott’s effusive, non-threatened graciousness, which I’m not sure I could have mustered myself. Lord knows defensiveness won’t get us anywhere (said the pot to the kettle).

Those looking for a bit more on the topic would do well to tune into Scott J’s other podcast, New Persuasive Words, which he co-hosts with Bill Borrer, as they followed up that interview with a spirited (and raucous) discussion how “Not All Atheism Is Created Equal”.


5. In The New Yorker, Nathan Heller wrote a fascinating reflection on “Trump, the University of Chicago, and the Collapse of Public Language”, in which he posited that much of the divisions we’re encountering in this country have their root in the way that ideology has taken language captive (to the point where it’s very difficult to make yourself known to anyone but those who already know you). One wonders how much his diagnosis explains the epidemic of loneliness we’re also undergoing at the moment. The BK tidbit is particularly priceless, ht LL:

Social media made public self-definition instant and easy: I am X; I am Y. Personal meaning thrived. During the spring when I reported in San Francisco, Burger King switched its slogan from “Have it your way” to “Be your way”—a broadening from condiment preference to ontology which, as the chain told it, reflected a turn toward “self-expression” and a belief that “it’s our differences that make us individuals instead of robots.” No freethinker could disagree…

-1Self-defining language has grown easy to pass around but hard to translate into social results. “Diversity,” we know, is crucial. Yet the word means disparate things to a housing activist, a tech executive, and an admissions dean, and they end up talking past one another. Most of us agree, admirably, that we are feminists, like Beyoncé, but we struggle to have Beyoncé-sized conversations on the subject, because our ideas of what, specifically, that declaration means are often irreconcilable—and the public road to sorting it out is rocky, full of jagged disputes and tricky questions to be smoothed out. Many of us quietly give up: our self-description becomes our identity, and our community is the people who appear to understand our language, more or less, the way we do. When we communicate across society, it’s at the level of rhetorical belief—“taking a stand”—more than in detail. Privacy is something we support. We should fight Big Money. Black lives really do matter, a lot. It can be hard to find one another amid such abstracted ideals, but at least we know that, wherever we are, we’re working under the same stars… In a climate where common language is not held accountable to common meaning, “taking a stand” becomes a mostly theatrical exercise.

6. Okay, time for some much-needed yucks. “Actually, I’m Teaching These Kids Way More Than They’re Teaching Me” at McSweeneys made me laugh, but not as much as the report from The Atlantic on the a substantial increase in the number of fake presidential candidates filing paperwork with the FEC this election cycle. They detailed the phenomenon in an article entitled “The FEC Wants God and Satan to Prove They Actually Exist“:

A wide array of individuals listed as presidential candidates in the agency directory don’t seem like they could possibly be real. To name a few: Darth Vader, Anakin Skywalker, Jean-Luc Picard, Captain Crunch, Queen Elsa, and Francis Underwood. Several of these supposed candidates have received letters asking for proof of existence… God, Satan and Ronald Reagan’s Ghost have 30 days to respond with proof of their existence, or their candidacy will be removed from the [FEC] website.

Also, this looks hilarious:

7. Splitting the difference between items 5&6, not sure where I’ve been but this was the first I’m hearing of “clapter”, a term whose time was way overdue. The mention came in The AV’s solid review of Donald Glover’s new series Atlanta:

Donald Glover says that he doesn’t want his new FX comedy series Atlanta to provoke “clapter,” the Seth Meyers-coined term for “politically correct humor that elicits applause but that isn’t actually funny.” It’s a telling moment of self-awareness from the series’ creator, co-writer, and star, considering that Atlanta potentially opens itself up to being a clapter-filled woke-fest, something designed to be appreciated for its politics but isn’t enjoyable to sit through. Though technically about two cousins navigating Atlanta’s rap scene, the show really focuses on the malleability of racial identity and the lived experience of black America. Such a weighty premise suggests a sober perspective both on and behind the screen, but Glover and his team don’t get lost in the drama of the series’ reality. Instead, they present it unflinchingly and let comedy define the tone.

8. Last but not least, Eve Tushnet wrote a powerful editorial about the perilous prospect of convicted felons receiving their verdicts via videoconferencing rather than in person. Eve argues, both convincingly and Christianly, for “The Right to Look Your Judge in the Eye”:

Our bodies can humiliate us, especially when we confront power. Most of us have had the experience of trying to plead our case and realizing that we’d be more persuasive if we could just have a quick shower and a change of clothes. When we confront other human beings in our bodies we risk provoking not empathy but disgust.

Our bodies represent weakness—but this weakness is what allows them to signify our equality. At the very least, the body reminds us of the universal weakness of mortality. Recognition of weakness plus recognition of commonality provokes mercy.

“The right to look your judge in the eye” is an attempt to put into words something of that irreducible encounter. The judge has a “duty to acknowledge the humanity of even a convicted felon,” the court says: to recognize him- or herself in the eyes of the defendant.


Gene Wilder: Master Of The Comedic Pause from Rishi Kaneria on Vimeo.

P.S. We’re taking Labor Day off – see you back here on Tuesday.