1. How about we kick off 2018 with a pair of fresh instances of grace? First, there’s the story of a Baltimore city councilwoman who has become a mentor to the two boys who carjacked her last year. Beautiful stuff. But merely a precursor to the story of “The Vandal and the Mosque”, which you can listen to here. The gist: in late 2016, a poor young man in Arkansas named Abraham Davis, along with a couple friends, deface a local mosque in the most ugly fashion imaginable. He is caught and convicted of a felony, which means community service and a hefty fine. Once in jail, Abe writes a sincere letter of remorse, in response to which the mosque not only forgives but begins to advocate for the young man. The NY Times then runs an article about the event, which an audience starved for heartening news gobbles up. Still, after the publicity dies down, the primary fine remains and it soon becomes clear that Abraham’s family cannot afford to keep him out of jail. And so, just before Christmas… the mosque pays his fine in total, wiping the slate clean. Needless to say, Abraham is stunned:

“It’s a great weight being lifted off of my shoulders,” he said, looking at the floor. “And I don’t deserve it, but this act of kindness, it’s just, wow… It’s like a whole new window just opened up. It’s like somebody who has been locked in a padded room and has never felt the wind before. I’m just in awe of this moment right now.”

An innocent party absorbing the all-too-real damage/loss/penalty incurred against them by (and for the sake of) the guilty. If that’s not the kind of good news we can get behind, I don’t know what is. Enough to remind one of stewards and kings and their balance sheets.

2. Then again, before we get too excited, I’m hard-pressed to disagree with Farhad Manjoo’s ice-cold prognostication in the Times, “Expect 2018 to Be More Sane? Sorry, It’s Not Going to Happen”:

People seem to have a latent, hopeful sense that things are going to calm down, that we’re on the cusp of a more normal news cycle. I suspect that’s wrong. Chaos is the new normal; the apprehension you feel every time you get a notification on your phone — the fear that you don’t know what fresh horror it could bring — isn’t an overreaction but an adaptation…

There’s another complication to fold into the chaos: Technology isn’t stopping. The pace of technological change is in many cases too fast for anyone of us to comprehend or get used to; as a result, just as the world seems to get its head around one new force unleashed by tech, another comes along to discombobulate our efforts to respond to it…

“I do think people are now realizing the world is less predictable than we thought it was,” [Nate] Silver said. “But in some ways that’s a return to normal.”

That word “chaos” has become something of post-theist buzzword of late, but if it means simply “that which is out of your control”, one cannot fail to see the resonance. I’m also reminded of (and comforted by) what Mark Galli writes in his wonderful book Chaos and Grace, where he introduces the term “holy chaos” as a euphemism for the disruptive yet liberating work of the Spirit. If that sounds like a rationalization, well, perhaps we’d do well to remember that no one chooses chaos – it’s something that happens to us, the true fruit/fallout of which is often unclear for years and years. And even so, this sort of chaos need not be confined to the personal. It can be and often is macroscopic. Which may not make our present circumstances any less scary (or our anxieties less suffocating), but perhaps it puts them in perspective. Speaking of which:

3. The Point magazine is hosting an online symposium on the question of “What Is Church For?” and several of the contributions are worth checking out. I was particularly captivated by James Chappel’s “A Serious House,” in which the Duke University church historian upends, or at least unmasks, the lazy decline-and-fall narrative told so often in regards to religion in the West (also known as “the secularlization thesis”). He is hardly the first person to make such an observation, but there’s a humility and lack of defensiveness in his account that one rarely finds in such pieces. Taking Philip Larkin’s infamously anti-religious poem “Churchgoing” as his jumping off point, Chappel writes:

Once upon a time, the world made sense, and the church was the antechamber to that meaningful universe. We disenchanted moderns, however, are forced to make our own way. Sociologists, philosophers and filmmakers alike have peddled some version of this story over the past half-century…

Over the past fifteen years, however, a number of personal experiences have led me to question any story that relegates the church to the sacral past… The decline-and-fall account of church history legitimates particular voices while discounting others. It presumes that the cynical modern city is more intellectually or morally advanced than the putatively God-soaked hollers of the Trumpian heartland.

It is simply not the case that secularization proceeds apace with modernization… [Karl Marx called religion “the opium of the people” but he] also called religion the “heart of a heartless world,” predicting that the church would not disappear until capitalism did. It provided, he knew, too much spiritual and material sustenance for too many people, ravaged by a system that created far more needs than it could fulfill.

Chappel’s experience reinforces one the sections in Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age I found most convincing, namely, his discussion of how deceptively ‘secularlization’ has been moralized in our context, i.e., godlessness equated with ‘courage’ and ‘maturity, and who doesn’t want to be (thought of as) courageous and mature? Clearly, this muddies whatever supposedly objective contest of ideas or ‘takes’ one sees reflected in poll responses. But I digress.

After a lengthy–and fascinating–profile of 19th century Catholic thinker/convert Jaques Maritain, Chappel concludes with an appraisal of the increasingly unique role the church plays in our society:

Just because I was a child does not mean the experience I had there was a childish one; just because I was ignorant does not mean that others were. I dimly recall, now, debates about Somali refugees…, public grappling with alcoholism and mental illness; I remember canned-food drives and volunteer work… I remember a place where imperfect people gathered in an attempt to make sense of an imperfect world, and where old words and old music combined to create something like beauty. Some people can find these things in secular places, but many cannot. And the list of secular institutions in which racially and economically diverse populations come together to confront moral questions with any degree of seriousness is not a long one… We need now, more than ever, the sort of space that Larkin presumed to be a relic of the past: “a serious house on serious earth,” and one “proper to grow wise in.”

A flattering assessment, I suppose, and definitely not one to sneeze at. Yet “church as moral education center” didn’t sound too far removed from church as community action center (if anything it casts church even more explicitly as an arbiter of law…). Neither of which is ‘bad’, per se, just super-tepid when you consider the true riches at the church’s disposal, AKA the forgiveness of sins and absolution of the sinner, to say nothing of the healing reality of the Holy Spirit. Put another way, the moment the church becomes wholly immanent/horizontal in orientation, or the transcendent/vertical Word of Comfort becomes secondary, it loses the force to sustain itself. It may become something else, sure, maybe something constructive, but I’m not sure I’d call it a church. Call me quaint, but church without God… no thank you.

4. Indeed, when it comes to the question of “what church is for?”, perhaps there’s no better answer than the one our friend Chad Bird gives in his timely reflection, “God’s New Years Resolution”:

While the world is making resolutions, the church is rejoicing in the Lord’s resolve to save us. And unlike so many human resolutions, the Lord’s resolve never will waver… There’s no nagging questions about whether our actions are good enough or sincere enough, because God does the acting. His actions are always more than good enough, more than sincere enough. So where does that leave us? With a silver cloud of grace that has no hint of a dark lining of doubt.

5. Humor-wise, the handful of headlines I’d highlight this week would be The Onion’s “Earth’s Successful Completion Of Orbit Around Sun Inspires Woman To Reflect On Eating Habits”, Babylon Bee’s “Local Man Tries Hard, Believes In Self, Fails Miserably”, and McSweeney’s “Parenting Blizzard Bingo” . On the meme-front, Sad and Useless’ “15 Realistic New Year’s Resolutions” contains a couple of memorable entries, e.g., “Forget a Foreign Language You Only Vaguely Learned in High School”.

6. Moving on, Daphne Merkin’s editorial in The NY Times this week expressing her fellow wizened feminists’ skepticism about the #MeToo movement, “Publicly, We Say #MeToo – Privately, We Have Misgivings”, is bound to produce some lively responses. Whatever you make of the prognosis, though, her candor is refreshing, and I’m not sure how you’d argue with the summation she offers: “We are witnessing the re-moralization of sex, not via the Judeo-Christian ethos but via a legalistic, corporate consensus.”

7. Social Science study of the week would have to be the research that just came out from the ASA showing that the oft-reported, ever-increasing perfectionism of today’s college students is showing no sign of slowing down. While we’ve reflected on the ramifications and roots of this from umpteen angles elsewhere, it would feel callous to lose sight of the data:

Published in the journal Psychological Bulletin, the study examines responses to the Multidimensional Perfection Scale from over 40,000 college students who took the survey between 1989 and 2016… The results showed… a 10 percent increase in self-directed perfectionism, a 33 percent increase in socially prescribed perfectionism (that is, high standards dictated by the expectations of others) and a 16 percent increase in other-oriented perfectionism (perfectionistic standards that are applied to other people).

We tend to talk about “perfectionism” as if it’s a secret strength; it’s the clichéd answer to that clichéd job interview question, “What’s your greatest weakness?” Some psychologists do indeed believe that there is such a thing as healthy perfectionism, the kind of intense, internal drive that can lead to high achievement. And yet there is obvious risk to feeling trapped in an endless cycle of unreachable expectations and overly critical self-evaluation. Tying one’s sense of self-worth to achievement can make a person unable to hold on to the sense of satisfaction that comes with success, and has been associated with clinical depression, anorexia, and early death.

8. On a somewhat related note, my favorite New Years “long read” would have to be Alan Jacobs’ “Wokeness and Myth on Campus”, which gave me some genuinely helpful terms for understanding the runaway outrage gumming up higher education ‘lo these past few years–a phenomenon that one suspects is far from over. As we announced on this week’s Mockingcast, Alan will be one of our speakers at this year’s NYC Conference! Very excited about that. Almost as excited as I am about this track about a NT passage that gets far too little synth-pop attention, ht JAZ:


  • Podcast-wise, I’m pleased to announce that we’ve finally ironed out the issues with the PZ’s Podcast feed, and all of the old episodes are available once again on iTunes. Click here to listen/view.
  • Second, a new episode of The Mockingcast is now up! It’s entitled “A New Year, Some Good Books, and an Old Church” and features Dr. Todd Brewer, who sits in for a vacationing RJ to talk with Sarah and myself about the top theology book(s) of 2017, as well as a couple of the articles mentioned above. Please note: we ran into some technical issues which sadly made a good portion of Todd’s track unusable – rest assured, he had a lot more (great stuff) to say! Also, I promise to drink less coffee before we record next.
  • RIP Tommy Keene: