Another Week Ends

1. Popular depictions of Christianity, especially political ones, often prioritize joy, love, kindness, and — almost […]

CJ Green / 4.21.17

1. Popular depictions of Christianity, especially political ones, often prioritize joy, love, kindness, and — almost always — resolution. “The firm foundation.” But as Peter Wehner says this week in his surprisingly sympathetic NY Times op-ed, humility is often missing. Strange, considering this might be one of the few indisputable characteristics of the otherwise enigmatic Christ. Talk of spiritual fruit, though, gets tricky and usually spins off into a tirade of ‘shoulds’ and ‘oughts’ without addressing what is. Wehner aptly navigates these snares:

At the core of Christian doctrine is the belief that we have all fallen short, that our loves are disordered and our lives sometimes a mess, and therefore we are in need of grace. As a result, one of the defining qualities of a Christian’s witness to the world should be gentleness, an irenic spirit and empathy. The mark of genuine humility is not self-abasement as much as self-forgetting, which in turn allows us to take an intense interest in the lives of others.

But that is hardly the whole of it. Epistemological humility should also characterize Christians. In my last conversation with him before he died in 2015, Steve Hayner, who was president of Columbia Theological Seminary and an enormously influential figure in my life, put it well. “I believe in objective truth,” he told me, “but I hold lightly to our ability to perceive truth.”

What Steve meant by this, I think, is that the world is unfathomably complex. To believe we have mastered it in all respects — that our angle of vision on matters like politics, philosophy and theology is just right all the time — is ridiculous. This doesn’t mean one ought to live in a state of perpetual doubt and uncertainty. If we did, we could never speak up for justice and moral truth. It does mean, however, that we’re aware that what we know is at best incomplete. “We see through a glass darkly” is how St. Paul put it in one of his letters to the Corinthians: We know only in part.

My point is not that humility is uniquely available to Christians; it is simply that Christian teaching and tradition affirm its importance.

2. Mysteriously, though, humility is often absent from our daily lives, despite all our hours logged at Sunday School. We might find no better response to this conundrum than Kendrick Lamar’s new album, DAMN., and specifically Spencer Kornhaber’s interpretation of it over at The Atlantic. This album is generating plenty of waves, per the usual with KL, and we’d be remiss not to mention it at greater lengths here. Kornhaber sees DAMN as an everyday examination of original sin, the title referring both to a colloquial expression as well as the more traditional, religious verb:

The first proper Damn single, “Humble,” also came across as a collection of delicious schoolyard taunts for the likes of Drake and Big Sean. But…the context of the album changes the song. Coming right after a track entitled “Pride” and two tracks after he and Rihanna commiserated “It’s so hard to be humble / lord knows I’m trying,” the chorus kick-off of “Humble”—“It’s levels to it / you and I know / bitch, be humble”—is transformed. There are levels to it: The you, the I, and the bitch may well be the same person.

The freedom that Lamar feels to stunt, diss, and seduce has an intoxicating effect on his music. For the explosive “DNA,” he works a cyclical, repetitive cadence to pack in syllables about excellence—“I just win again / then win again / like Wimbledon, I serve.” When the beat changes to a slower, shuddering pace, he uses a different sort of intense flow while his thematic focus spirals out: “Peace to the world, let it rotate / Sex, money, murder—our DNA.” The notion of sin as intrinsic to humans is another one of Lamar’s multi-level concepts: at times it seems the album is making a very specific (and theologically rooted) argument about racial identity, and at others he’s speaking about original sin in more universal terms.

In either case, as he makes clear, it’s tough to be sanctified. “In a perfect world, I’ll choose faith over riches / I’ll choose work over bitches, I’ll make schools out of prison,” he raps through the funk mist of “Pride.” But alas, “a perfect world is never perfect, only filled with lies.” He gets more specific on “XXX,” a haunting indictment of American cycles of bloodshed: “Ain’t no Black Power when your baby killed by a coward / I can’t even keep the peace, don’t you fuck with one of ours.” The sound of a police siren accompanies Lamar’s admission that, if faced with extreme enough circumstances, he would murder an enemy who was on their way out of church. It’s a thrill to hear Lamar so menacing, so unhinged. But in case you don’t pick up on the note of tragedy here, he interrupts his violent fantasy with a small skit in which he gives a speech on gun control to some students. Hypocrisy continues to be his great muse.

I already mentioned one of Damn’s most moving moments—the one where Lamar goes from rage to gun control on “XXX”—but what really nails the heartbreak of that pivot is a sample of his voice saying “pray for me” in the background. Listeners should, by that point, be happy to oblige.

So if we’re looking for humility it may be best to start at the cross, and not the mirror. On this topic, you might enjoy a few others from the Mbird archives: “The Church Built on the Rock of Hypocrisy,” “A Treatise Against Christian Hypocrisy,” and “Why Scandals are So Entertaining (and Hypocrisy So Infectious).”

3. In late June, the Museum of Failure is opening in Sweden! It will preserve “the world’s worst products,” like Coca Cola Blāk and Google Glass. Would love to visit, though it doesn’t seem all that different than my own house. Also: from The Onion: “Pope Francis Scouring Papal Tombs For Final Easter Egg Of Vatican Hunt.”

4. Over at Science of Us, Cari Romm served up a good one, reporting that “Teens Really Hate It When Adults Try to Solve Their Problems.” Huh.

Few things fuel teen angst better than a parent who tries, and fails, to act like they get it. After all, everyone involved knows it’s mostly a charade: The teenagebrain is such a strange and wild and constantly changing place that, much of the time, even teens don’t really understand whatever it is they’re going through…

And as writer Juli Fraga recently explained for NPR, throwing your hands up and declaring defeat may, paradoxically, be the thing that gets a teenager to listen. “When adolescents are distressed, most parents are inclined to try to solve their problems,” she wrote, “but often what teens really need is help developing problem-solving skills of their own.”

And that can mean taking a different, less results-oriented approach when you try to relate, psychologist Sheryl Gonzalez Ziegler told Fraga. Parents “may say things like, ‘When I was fourteen, I had a job, and I still did my homework and made time for my friends. I know that you can do this, too,’” she said. But “teenagers are looking for proof that their parents don’t understand them and bringing up these examples only confirms that you’re not on the same wavelength.”

More effective phrasing, she added, might be something like: “‘When I was your age, I had difficulty with my friends. I felt confused, and my heart was broken, too.’” Few kids appreciate a Try-Hard Cool Parent, but it’s soothing to know that adults are fallible, too — that they had their own stuff to figure out, and they did, and they came out okay on the other side.

Reminds me of Alastair Campbell: “there is no cleverness or accomplishment in pastoral care. It is no more (and no less) than sharing with another in the experience of grace, a surprising, unsought gift.”

5. Comedy lovers may enjoy Willy Staley’s profile of the creator of Office Space, Beavis and Butthead, Idiocracy, and Silicon Valley: “Mike Judge, the Bard of Suck”:

Judge has said that one reliable source of comedy for him is the way humanity simply isn’t prepared for modernity, which ensnares us in vast systems of control in order to sustain itself. What he couldn’t have imagined while making “Idiocracy” in the early 2000s was that technology was about to thrust humanity into an era for which we are even more ill equipped. It was around that moment that Silicon Valley inventions — blogging platforms, social media, YouTube — began sweeping away old orders and gatekeepers in a way that was both exhilarating (because we were more in charge of our destiny than ever before) and mortifying (because we were, well, more in charge of our destiny than ever before). “Idiocracy” was released the same year that Time magazine heralded this new age by naming us all the Person of the Year. A decade later, Donald Trump earned that honor, along with the presidency. If anything can explain the short time horizon on which “Idiocracy” and reality merged — if you believe they have — perhaps it is that technology left us completely, terrifyingly, to our own devices.

I’m left thinking less about Donald Trump and more about Robert Godwin and his viral demise last Sunday, as well as the live debate about Facebook’s answerability to it. The unashamed pursuit of Silicon Valley (the real one, not the show) to increase transparency ultimately only reveals that ‘total depravity’ is not as dusty a term as it sounds. At any rate, grateful for Judge’s comedic relief from this latest episode of Black Mirror.

6. More TV: HBO’s Girls finished up last week. I’ve mostly found this [controversial] show to be of a real lobster quality, though it looks to all the world like chicken fingers — and understandably so, as it’s in its own league of crassness. I did, however, appreciate Ross Douthat’s parting thoughts, A Requiem for ‘Girls’:

…successful art has a way of slipping its ideological leash, and the striking thing about “Girls” is how the mess it portrayed made a mockery of the official narrative of social liberalism, in which prophylactics and graduate degrees and gender equality are supposed to lead smoothly to health, wealth and high-functioning relationships.

In large ways and small the show deconstructed those assumptions. The characters’ sex lives were not remotely “safe”; they were porn-haunted and self-destructive, a mess of S.T.D. fears and dubiously consensual incidents and sudden marriages and stupid infidelities…Meanwhile the professional world was mostly a series of dead ends and failed experiments, and the idea that sisterhood would conquer all even if relationships with men didn’t work out dissolved as the show continued and its core foursome gradually came apart.

(Marnie’s “I win” in the final episode was both moving and typically self-serving, and a final reminder that the characters’ most bizarre moves are always the tip of the iceberg with this show.)

And the genius, and resonance, and staying power of Lena Dunham’s show rests not only on its artistic quality but on its message to its mostly liberal viewers: You do not have this alternative figured out.

 7. In that same category of ‘political-narratives-gone-awry,’ The Atlantic’s Caitlin Flanagan attempted to put a foot in the mouths of late-night comedians in her article: How Late-Night Comedy Fueled the Rise of Trump.

As usual, the politics here are less remarkable than the rather Christ-ian claim that, when we least expect to be, we are our own worst enemies. If, like John Oliver, we look at an unseemly circumstance and shout “How did this happen?!” with great innocence, it may be best to begin with the log in our own eyes, as that disquieted rabbi suggested so many years ago. In my view, Flanagan’s analysis is a far cry from the-money—particularly her assessment of Jimmy Fallon’s “rightful” castigation for the infamous Trump Noogie of 2016. And also her concluding question “My God, what have we become?” which unknowingly echoes “make politics great again” and all of the problems that go along with polemical nostalgia.

But I mention this article because–widely speaking–it gestures in that same direction as “Yesterday’s News,” DZ’s reflection from back in November, which held that politics have everything to do with Law and Gospel, and the way humans respond to each.

Two days before the election, every talking head on television was assuring us that Trump didn’t have a chance, because he lacked a “ground game.” After his victory, one had to wonder whether some part of his ground game had been conducted night after night after night on television, under flattering studio lights and with excellent production values and comedy writing.

Though aimed at blue-state sophisticates, these shows are an unintended but powerful form of propaganda for conservatives. When Republicans see these harsh jokes—which echo down through the morning news shows and the chattering day’s worth of viral clips, along with those of Jimmy Kimmel, Stephen Colbert, and Seth Meyers—they don’t just see a handful of comics mocking them. They see HBO, Comedy Central, TBS, ABC, CBS, and NBC. In other words, they see exactly what Donald Trump has taught them: that the entire media landscape loathes them, their values, their family, and their religion. It is hardly a reach for them to further imagine that the legitimate news shows on these channels are run by similarly partisan players—nor is it at all illogical. No wonder so many of Trump’s followers are inclined to believe only the things that he or his spokespeople tell them directly—everyone else on the tube thinks they’re a bunch of trailer-park, Oxy-snorting half-wits who divide their time between retweeting Alex Jones fantasies and ironing their Klan hoods.


Above, the lovely Stephen-King-books-meets-heartbreak-songs are the work of Butcher Billy.