1. Let’s start with this article, by Cari Romm, from NY Magazine: “Buying Fair-Trade, All-Organic Everything Can Actually Make You a Meaner Person.” Romm reports that moralistic eating and shopping habits may actually produce bad attitudes due to ‘moral licenscing,’ something we’ve talked about here before. If a person feels that they are doing well in one particular area, they will likely feel entitled to slack off in another:

One 2010 study, for example, found that people who chose environmentally [friendly] products were more inclined to later cheat on a test; another study from 2006 found that people who imagined themselves behaving generously were more inclined to splurge on a selfish indulgence over a home necessity…

In conclusion: Don’t be too smug about buying all-organic everything. The best kind of ethical shopping is the kind that’s done quietly.

It’s not a long bridge from here to Christianity, really…after all, that last line is pretty much straight from the New Testament (Mt 6:5-6). How many churchgoers have used their so-called spiritual goodness to justify less “moral” behavior on the sly? Guilty as charged!


2. Films for Action posted a really insightful essay, by Asam Ahmad, about “call-out culture,” a term which refers to the ever-present tendency on social networks and in politics (and in ourselves) to “call-out” others publicly, whether on Facebook, Twitter, or the debate podium, for political insensitivities, social missteps or violation of whatever social law we are subscribing to. Ahmad explains:

What makes call-out culture so toxic is not necessarily its frequency so much as the nature and performance of the call-out itself. Especially in online venues like Twitter and Facebook, calling someone out isn’t just a private interaction between two individuals: it’s a public performance where people can demonstrate their wit or how pure their politics are. Indeed, sometimes it can feel like the performance itself is more significant than the content of the call-out…

In many ways, “calling someone out” is an act of showy or pharisaical piety. As with all laws, the focus shifts away from the human heart to the conception or interpretation of mere words:

It isn’t an exaggeration to say that there is a mild totalitarian undercurrent not just in call-out culture but also in how progressive communities police and define the bounds of who’s in and who’s out. More often than not, this boundary is constructed through the use of appropriate language and terminology – a language and terminology that are forever shifting and almost impossible to keep up with. In such a context, it is impossible not to fail at least some of the time. And what happens when someone has mastered proficiency in languages of accountability and then learned to justify all of their actions by falling back on that language? How do we hold people to account who are experts at using anti-oppressive language to justify oppressive behaviour? We don’t have a word to describe this kind of perverse exercise of power, despite the fact that it occurs on an almost daily basis in progressive circles. Perhaps we could call it anti-oppressivism.

3. Mark Galli’s wonderful cover story for Christianity Today, “Beautiful Orthoxody,” offers a definition of orthodoxy that, when lived out, is remarkably similar to the experience of law and gospel—always falling back into God’s mercy. It’s a thoughtful exposition, worth the read in full, but here are a few good quotes:

Christian beliefs about the good come not from our moral imaginations, but from a source outside ourselves…

God’s mercy toward the ungodly in Jesus Christ changes the calculus of the good life.The criterion of good is not so much excelling at ethics or religion but living and acting with a deep sense that one is a failure in ethics and religion.

This self-acknowledged failure to live up to God’s law paradoxically cultivates a radical new way of conceiving of the good life…

This is beautiful orthodoxy. We cannot hope to live it perfectly, but the Lord is gracious and will use even our meager efforts for his glory. And as we seek to live it, he promises to make himself known as the one who can turn the world’s mourning—and ranting and raging—into joy and dancing.

4. The unyielding charisma of the Berenstain Bears (my adult self will never been able to accept that it is not Berenstein…) has always been a mystery to me, personally. Even as a kid, I could never understand the great preoccupation with a family of happy bears, and apparently Dr. Seuss couldn’t either, according to this article, “How the Berenstain Bears Found Salvation.” It’s by Saul Austerlitz, from The NY Times.

Austerlitz starts out thinking that the value of The Berenstain Bears came from their ability to make the mundanity of a toddler-life engaging. Imagine his surprise, then, to find the focus of the Berenstain Bears shifting away from that mundanity toward explicit Christian evangelicalism. Imagine his even greater surprise when his son didn’t care.

61cs15cul-_ac_ul320_sr318320_I could practically hear a needle scratch when I opened up some newer editions my son had received as a gift, and I discovered that the Berenstains’ concerns had turned from the mundane to the theological. The new volumes, “The Berenstain Bears: Do Not Fear, God Is Near” and “The Berenstain Bears Go to Sunday School,” had a markedly different cast than my son’s old favorites.

…it was hard not to see the Bears’ conversion as another means of escape from the changing world they had always sought to escape. In the 1960s, Bear Country was a refuge from tumult; basically, it was the suburbs. Now religion was the refuge, a cloak for the bears’ deliberate and unfashionable fustiness. But was there any need for such a justification?

Ultimately, bedtime stories serve twin purposes. To children, they’re entertainment; to parents, a soporific. “Show Some Respect” stayed in regular bedtime-reading rotation in our household, my discomfort with its Christian themes outweighed by its uncanny ability to speed the progress from bath to bed to blissful (parental) immersion in “Catastrophe.” My son, though, could not have cared less that the Berenstain Bears were quoting from the Bible, any more than he would have noticed references to the Quran or “The Communist Manifesto.” He was just glad that the Bears had found a place to have their picnic — and that they always would.

5. At Quartz, Catherine Baab-Muguira wrote a fantastic confessional, “The Age of Self-Acceptance Is Making Us All a Little Delusional.” It’s about her discomfort with the popular and seemingly unquestioned anthem of self-acceptance sung by pop culture at large, but particularly by our favorite female celebrities.

50d555b66945f98425341842f74d039cBut the truth is that I don’t accept myself, and I can’t really imagine doing so.

Perhaps you won’t be surprised to hear that I was raised Catholic. Between my religious conditioning and my own nature, I’ve got a permanently guilty conscience….

But my objection to self-acceptance also grows out of a realistic assessment of my personality. I’m a mixed bag at best. I want to be kinder, less self-obsessed, more generous. I want to be the sort of person who shakes off a mean comment instead of spending the whole morning brooding about it and cooking up the perfect retort. So while I have no choice but to accept my past selves, and I aspire to accept my future selves, I do not accept my current one. More than anything, I object to mandatory self-acceptance because I value self-doubt as a hedge against delusion. Keeping a critical eye on myself and my actions encourages me to improve, however slowly.

The dictum that I must accept myself can also feel like the psychic equivalent of being told to smile. While the self-acceptance movement is certainly well-intentioned, it suggests that there’s something wrong with women who are naturally prone to critical introspection—which can, ironically, only end up making them feel worse.

Even if it’s the law of “love yourself,” the law condemns. And as PZ says on his recent podcast, Centennial, “one’s healing doesn’t come from fiat, i.e., from declaration…healing comes from abreaction…from engagement with the past and with your hurt.”


6. Over at MissioAlliance, William Walker wrote a great piece entitled “Tim Keller, Science Mike, and How We Believe.” He compares two recent books that address the nature of faith and concludes that expecting reason to produce faith is like expecting the law to produce goodness.

No matter how reasonably it gets packaged, it’s still very hard for many people to believe that a man who lived two thousand years ago 1) was God and 2) vicariously suffered for our sins to save us from divine judgment.

Consider the following from Mike McHargue:

“There is an atheist in my brain who remains wholly incredulous about the idea of a divine being who once dwelt among us in the form of a man. There is a Christian in my brain who is indescribably and enduringly comforted by the idea and love of a supernatural Savior. I’ve stopped trying to deny, starve, or otherwise do away with either of them.” – p. 134, Finding God in the Waves

Of course, I don’t have Mike’s scientific knowledge, but I have had to go on my own kind of deconstructive and reconstructive spiritual path for similar philosophical and existential reasons. So it’s very encouraging to read a well-written reflection on someone else’s experience with doubt and the journey back to a more mature, post-critical faith.

All this to say that there might be more to many of our stories than only reason can explain, and that’s ok.

7. Books and Culture posted an interview, “Only Connect,” with the wonderfully thoughtful novelist Zadie Smith, who isn’t shy about sharing her complicated relationship with/opinion of religion. Smith talks about her admiration for writers who deal with the uncertainty of religion rather than making a caricature of it.

I guess I believe in the variety of religious experience—that a lot of people have religious experience, people who might not even think of or refer to themselves as religious… And one of the things I felt in writing [my novel] White Teeth is that the religious impulse is also very strong in atheists. It’s possible to be religious about atheism…

Lewis is my earliest influence. I loved Narnia so much, was obsessed with it. And the closest I ever came to being a formal Christian was The Screwtape Letters, which actually David Foster Wallace recommended to me. I found it convincing. I think he found it convincing, too… The clarity is so fine. And the intimacy… He’s very clear, and he also has that kind of writerly instinct for knowing your doubts or suspicions. He really has them covered. That’s what Screwtape is, basically; it’s just a series of pre-emptive descriptions of your objections, articulating them before you can yourself and in this manner neutralizing them.

But I guess even from the Narnia books, I always thought that—it sounds ridiculous—that to make good on the kind of belief expressed in them—not to be in bad faith—would be to be enormously lost to joy, so that you wouldn’t be able to go about your daily life. I think maybe that’s one of the frightening things about faith for me, that it would be an obstruction of my daily life, and I like my everyday sinful life.

Smith goes on to align her personal beliefs (not uniquely…JK Rowling has done the same, as have many other writers) with those of Graham Greene:

[R]eligious people in Greene[’s writing] come off quite badly—formally religious people, people who think they know the rules of the game, the rules of their relation to God, who’s being punished, who’s not being punished. Greene’s wary of those people, but it’s out of respect for a God who is larger than their arguments. That vision attracts me. But anything which condemns—you know, throws the stone at the house next door: I can never join those clubs. My own sins are too evident to me.


8. Foodies, take note: GQ posted a great review entitled Why America’s Best Restaurants Won’t Stop Reinventing Themselves. The reason is largely exactly what you’d expect.

Generally speaking, these places are geared toward More: more courses, more glassware, more ostentatious technique, more theatrics (not to say gimmicks), more hours at the table.

There is a thrilling, artistic exuberance at these restaurants, but also a whiff of dancing-as-fast-as-they-can anxiety, as if to justify their existence at a time when the drift of dining at every other level has been toward the casual and the democratic. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that as more people gained access to great food—as ingredients and techniques once reserved for Michelin three-star restaurants began showing up in trucks and malls, in grab-and-go, fast-food, casual, and every other type of venue across the dining ecosystem—the food at the highest-end restaurants grew ever more abstract.

As DZ wrote in his post last month, “The strictest form of legalism, you could almost say, is the kind that lacks a discernible law to fuel it and instead appeals to highly subjective abstractions.”


9. The tenth anniversary of Friday Night Lights’ premier was this past week. A wonderful write-up about why the show was so moving appeared in The Atlantic by Meghan Garber:

The pilot’s opening scene foreshadowed the kind of quiet impressionism that FNL would embrace, again and again, throughout its five excellent seasons. It also foreshadowed the approach that you might call the “friendly panopticon”: Everyone, here, is seen. And everyone, here, is capable of seeing…

And then the pilot of Friday Night Lights serves up the image the show will return to, again and again, over its five remarkable seasons: a football hurtling through the air, against a wide and darkened sky, above the crowds and over the lights, arcing and spinning and hoping—assuming—that someone will be there to catch it.

Garber’s idea of why FNL is so affecting is similar to what Smith was advocating above, that the experience everyday life isn’t lost in the glory of high school football (or religion). Friday Night Lights, while definitely about football, goes to meet its characters in their everyday lives and give them the full stories they deserve.