1. Looks like David Brooks this week is onto something again–his article on “The Blindness of Social Wealth” strikes gold. Increasingly, the defining pathology of our time is loneliness, a theme we’ve surveyed on mbird pretty extensively. Brooks makes the case sharply and succinctly:

Bob Hall was a rancher. In 1936, in the midst of the Depression, he was suffering from a cancer that was eating the flesh on the side of his face. His ranch had dwindled to nearly nothing, and weeks after bankers took the last of his livestock, Hall died, leaving his family deeply in debt.

His sons pleaded with anybody they could find to make a loan and save the family ranch. No one would do it. Finally, in desperation, they went to their neighbor, Buzz Newton, who was known for his miserliness, and asked him to co-sign a loan. “I always thought so much of your dad; he was the most generous man I have known,” Newton answered. “Yes, I’ll co-sign the note.”

Bob Hall’s grandson, also named Robert Hall, drew out the lesson in his book “This Land of Strangers,” noting: “The truth is, relationships are the most valuable and value-creating resource of any society. They are our lifelines to survive, grow and thrive.”

They are indeed! In my (admittedly brief) work with local homeless people, the lack of community seems devastating. UVA’s new(ish) football coach, Bronco Mendenhall, implemented a team motto his first season: “Earned, not given.” Fair enough for football, but when social belonging is something we construct – by doing all the right things – as opposed to receive (à la Buzz Newton), the ones who get left behind fall through the cracks completely.  (For the best example of constructed belonging, read Ethan’s brilliant explication of “Nosedive,” a cutting parable of the connection between earning and isolation.)

There’s a mountain of evidence suggesting that the quality of our relationships has been in steady decline for decades. In the 1980s, 20 percent of Americans said they were often lonely. Now it’s 40 percent. Suicide rates are now at a 30-year high. Depression rates have increased tenfold since 1960, which is not only a result of greater reporting. Most children born to mothers under 30 are born outside of marriage. There’s been a steady 30-year decline in Americans’ satisfaction with the peer-to-peer relationships at work. . . .

I summarize all this because loneliness and social isolation are the problem that undergird many of our other problems. More and more Americans are socially poor. And yet it is very hard for the socially wealthy to even see this fact. It is the very nature of loneliness and social isolation to be invisible. We talk as if the lonely don’t exist. . .

The British anthropologist Robin Dunbar observes that human societies exist on three levels: the clan (your family and close friends), the village (your local community) and the tribe (your larger group). In America today you would say that the clans have polarized, the villages have been decimated and the tribes have become weaponized.

That is, some highly educated families have helicopter parents while less fortunate families have absent parents. The middle ring cross-class associations of town and neighborhood have fallen apart. People try to compensate for the lack of intimate connection by placing their moral and emotional longings on their political, ethnic and other tribes, turning them viciously on each other.

More accurately, I think we could say the clan has broken down, the villages are in flux, and the tribes . . . yeah, the tribes have been weaponized. So much of belonging now takes place on the realm of the abstract as opposed to the personal: “You also believe in X / abhor Y and Z? We can be friends . . . ” The ’Net don’t help, of course; written communication is necessarily abstract, since a proposition – which conveys little more to your best friend than to a perfect stranger – is an utterly impersonal thing. As Brooks notes, the critical moral and emotional part of life, which used to be situated in a me-to-you relationship, has increasingly attached to collectives.

Veterans of the evangelical church life may well recall a time when they felt like overtures of friendship were artificial–that a prospective mentor would’ve loved to “go deep” with them in a Bible study (i.e., talking shop), but would’ve had no patience watching a football game with them, connecting in personal but mundane ways.

2. New York residents: there may be help for your David-Brooks-described loneliness. One good bet is our always-fantastic conference next weekend (which I’ll be devastated to miss this year); another is the new Chik-fil-a on Fulton Street. Indeed, the semi-infamous New Yorker article on it was my favorite Internet piece of the week, if not for ‘truthiness’, then at least for style. (As a sidenote, major props to the author for resisting the use of the word “abattoir,” which was an unexpected but welcome instance of not stylistically ‘overdoing it’).

In a sense, the author perfectly diagnoses some of the weirdnesses of Chik-fil-a. In an altogether different sense, they’re barking up the wrong tree. The article stands as a brilliant, if (probably) unintentional, indictment of postmodern society. Here goes:

The tables are made of reclaimed wood, which creates, according to a Chick-fil-A press release, “an inviting space to build community.” A blackboard with the header “Our Community” displays a chalk drawing of the city skyline. Outside, you can glimpse an earlier iteration of that skyline on the building’s façade, which, with two tall, imperious rectangles jutting out, “gives a subtle impression of the Twin Towers.”

This emphasis on community, especially in the misguided nod to 9/11, suggests an ulterior motive. The restaurant’s corporate purpose still begins with the words “to glorify God,” and that proselytism thrums below the surface of the Fulton Street restaurant, which has the ersatz homespun ambiance of a megachurch. David Farmer, Chick-fil-A’s vice-president of restaurant experience, told BuzzFeed that he strives for a “pit crew efficiency, but where you feel like you just got hugged in the process.”

If reclaimed wood on tables doesn’t create real community, then I think we’re all in trouble. An unfortunate number of the most ‘local’ and ‘authentic’ brunch places in New York and other American cities have used reclaimed wood to create a simulacrum of a moral community in an eating establishment. If this facade dupes people less effectively in a chain fast-food store than it would in some farm-to-table local establishment replete with modern ‘twists’ on Eggs Benedict, what fault is that of Chik-fil-a’s? But there’s more: on the cows, for instance,

Stan Richards, who heads the ad agency that created the Cows, the Richards Group, likened them to “a guerrilla insurgency” in his book, “The Peaceable Kingdom”: “One consumer wrote to tell us the campaign was so effective that every time he sees a field of cows he thinks of chicken. We co-opted an entire species.”

The absurdism is delightful, but again, I think the issue goes well beyond Chik-fil-a. Every toddler in New York could probably tell you what noises a cow makes (moo!) or a sheep makes (baa!), though many of us in our late twenties have never come within spitting distance of any mammal besides dogs, cats, and the overemboldened squirrel. Or again,

Homogeneous food is comfort food, and chains know that their primary appeal is palliative.

Palliative? The primary appeal of Chik-fil-a is that their sandwiches taste incredible, and a combo comes in at just under $8. I don’t love Chik-fil-a because of a weird allegiance to uniformity, but because food is to me already commodified along a taste/value/health matrix, and the Original Chicken Sandwich fares very well under two of those criteria.

Thus we’re back to a Lutheran idea of how the Law, which judges and condemns us, operates. As the narrator in Kurosawa’s Ikiru says of a patient, “he will have to get a lot worse before he can get better.” Likewise, the problem with the Chik-fil-a piece is not so much that it’s unfair to Chik-fil-a (which it might be), but that it seems to assume an over-optimistic view of every restaurant. Who among us hasn’t used wooden tables to create an artificial sense of community? Bought into businesses where moral beliefs are part of the marketing effort? Who hasn’t stereotyped, cute-sified, and anthropomorphized farm animals? Like it or not, “‘pit crew efficiency, but where you feel like you just got hugged in the process’” is the mantra not just of Chik-fil-a, but lots of the contemporary business world. And if the metaphorical hugs feel a little bit warmer at Truett Cathy’s “homespun megachurch”, well, that’s not the worst thing.

3. Constructed social spaces appear not just in business, but online, social media being one of David Brooks’s main culprits for the loneliness he diagnosed. Alan Jacobs, whom we’re thrilled to host next weekend in NYC, wrote a piece adapting some of Jacques Ellul’s thoughts on Propaganda to the new social media.

[Ellul:] “Man, eager for self-justification, throws himself in the direction of a propaganda that justifies him and this eliminates one of the sources of his anxiety. Propaganda dissolves contradictions and restores to man a unitary world in which the demands are in accord with the facts . . . For all these reasons contemporary man needs propaganda; he asks for it; in fact, he almost instigates it. . . .

That is, propaganda, by positing its own set of facts, remakes the factual world into one which can mesh perfectly with our ideological predilections.

Propaganda is concerned with the most pressing and at the same time the most elementary actuality. It proposes immediate action of the most ordinary kind. It thus plunges the individual into the most immediate present, taking from him all mastery of his life and all sense of the duration or continuity of any action or thought. Thus the propagandee becomes a man without a past and without a future, a man who receives from propaganda his portion of thought and action for the day; his discontinuous personality must be given continuity from the outside, and thus makes the need for propaganda very strong.

Propaganda takes one out of history in the sense that facts, convictions, and emotions – in short, one’s individual subjective landscape, which is particularized and unfolds over time – ceases to matter. One instead gets to be caught up (Vulgate rapiemur, raptured) in a systematic, impersonal truth which requires only submission by the individual.

[Jacobs:] Thus the very common type of Twitter user who expresses himself or herself almost completely in hashtags: pre-established units of affiliation and exclusion.

And yet — Russian bots and political operatives (who have turned themselves into bots) aside — social media lack the planned purposefulness intrinsic to propaganda. So they must be a different kind of thing, yes?

Yes and no. I think what social media produce is emergent propaganda — propaganda that is not directed in any specific and conscious sense by anyone but rather emerges, arises, from vast masses of people who have been catechized within and by the same power-knowledge regime. Think also about the idea I got from an Adam Roberts novel: the hivemind singularity. Conscious, intentional propaganda is so twentieth century. The principalities and powers are far more sophisticated now. I’ll be thinking more about this.

4. Stephen Freeman’s at it again, contrasting self-help and human progress (which he sees as modern-day variations on the occult) with the Cross. (The full post is so good, I almost finally figured out what Hesychasm is –almost.)

The heart of magic (and witchcraft) is the desire to control the outcome of the world around us. In that sense, the entire modern project is magic by brute force. We bend the world to our will.

Many people are unable to distinguish between this and Christianity. For them, God exists in order be persuaded to meet our needs (and our desires). . .

The various versions of mind power are all antithetical to the Cross. They are not only not Christian they are anti-Christian. At the heart of sin is our desire to consume, to turn the world into an object of desire and master it. It breeds death in us and in those around us. At the heart of righteousness is the Cross, the willingness, for the sake of love, to unite ourselves with Christ and give ourselves to the Providence of God.

The simple fact is that we do not know how to manage the world. We do not know what constitutes a good outcome. We do not have the knowledge to see the future, to understand and comprehend the collateral damage of our management. The only guarantee of the outcome of history (and our lives) is the goodwill of God.

So good. And the comparison to Paul F.M. Zahl’s treatment of sorcerye most fowl in his marvelous Panopticon is too good to pass up:

The demons and succubi of yore and lore are personifications of an energy that is desired for control. The energy which occultists wish to utilize for personal advantage is neutral in itself. Only when it becomes the object of manipulation – human power – does it become malignant. (Otherwise it seems to “rest in peace”.) It is not the energy, personified or not, that is evil in itself. It is the attempt to dominate the energy. That becomes the un-holy element.

The occult is a kind of religion, therefore, that is not usually called a religion. It comes under the heading of power. It is about the human urge to convey to itself the possibility of effective intervention – in any sphere of life you can name.

Whether you are a student of Vedanta or a Christian nun, a Sufi teacher or a roshi Zen master, you are taught that receptive patience is the secret to living, not desire or grasping. It is ironic that the Western world now regards Christianity as the religion of control rather than freedom. It is really not that way at all. The religion of control, hiding under cover as it desires to, and wherever it may, is the occult.

5. On that nu-Pagan note, a writer at McSweeney’s describes a workday in the idiom of the great ancient poets, e.g.:

5:00 PM – David son of Jesse

Blessed is he

Who does not request overtime on a Friday,

Or procrastinate his weekly report until the last second,

Or get cornered by Phil by the reception desk,

But whose delight is in clocking out on time,

And who makes strides to his car upon the wings of an eagle,

That person shall be like a tree planted by streams of water,

Not in that he shall prosper and not wither,

But more in the sense that he shall be stuck in one place for [] ever,

Ye, for that jacka[napes] in the purple Corolla has somehow gotten in front of me,

And is doing twenty-five in the left lane with his left blinker on,

Are you kidding me?

Also in the humor/existential angst category, sadanduseless (which also gave us those Star Wars in everyday life photos, above) featured an Instagram account with some texts which may be humorous to the kind of people who would try to cure a depressive episode by reading Sickness Unto Death (see 1 Tim. 1:15b) (immediately above).

And at Shatner Chatner, Daniel Mallory Ortberg talks about “Russian Authors I Have Never Technically Lied About Yet Always Feel Uncomfortable Discussing”. Some highlights:

Dostoyevsky: “Is there a way to casually ensure that the conversation stays focused primarily on the Grand Inquisitor chapter of The Brothers Karamazov?”

“If you want to finally betray yourself and make sure that everyone starts calling you Norton’s Anthology, then by all means. Just sit this one out.” . . .

Gogol: “Was he not Diary of a Madman?”

“I feel like all of these guys have written a short story called Diary of a Madman.”

“That does feel right, actually.”

“About like, a government inspector who briefly meets a woman named Sophy and then has a conversation about God with a man named Ilyas in a tavern and then is driven mad by the sight of an overcoat from a long-forgotten farm of his youth.” . . .

6. And continuing on the existential theme, the Guardian this week featured an article (by Terry Eagleton!) on our esteemed John Gray, the most self-actualized agnostic out there (de Botton gets the runner-up).

The philosopher John Gray’s role has been to act as a Jeremiah among these Pollyannas, insisting that we are every bit as nasty as we ever were. If there is anything he detests, it is schemes of visionary transformation. He is a card-carrying misanthrope for whom human life has no unique importance, and for whom history has been little more than the sound of hacking and gouging. One might note that Christianity is as pessimistic as Gray but a lot more hopeful as well. . . .

The truth is that everyone believes in progress, but only a dwindling band of Victorian relics such as Dawkins believe in Progress. So this book is really hammering at an open door. How many champions of a vastly improved future are there in a postmodern culture? [Sidenote: I actually think a lot.]

Gray also believes that humanists are in bad faith. Most of them are atheists, but all they have done is substitute humanity for God. They thus remain in thrall to the very religious faith they reject. In fact, most supposedly secular thought in Gray’s view is repressed religion, from the liberalism of John Locke to the millenarian visions of the Jacobins and Bolsheviks.

If I could paraphrase Gray in more Christian terms, he recognizes that the root of bad religion is positing self-justifying fictions to make us feel good about living in a suffering world. That’s the negative way of putting it; the positive way would be to say that there are truths beyond the realm of mere empiricism, truths for which the sole criterion is the human heart and human experience. Thus Christianity cannot be empirically proven, but neither can many of our deepest moral commitments:

How could any increase in scientific knowledge validate values such as human equality and personal autonomy? The source of these values is not science. In fact, as the most widely-read atheist thinker of all time [Nietzsche] argued, these quintessential liberal values have their origins in monotheism.

Eagleton, however, as someone who leans more Christian (albeit with his Marxian bent), adds his own spin to Gray:

Gray belongs to that group of contemporary thinkers, of whom George Steiner is the doyen, who disdain the secular but can’t quite drag themselves to the church or synagogue. They turn, instead, to a kind of transcendence without content, of which there is no finer example than what one might call Hollywood spirituality. Those celebrities who dabble in Kabbalah or Scientology do so as a refuge from a material world crammed with too many chauffeurs, masseurs, bank accounts and swimming pools. The spiritual for them is the opposite of the material, a mistake that Gray also makes in his less luxury-laden way. This is not the view of Judaeo-Christianity. When Jesus speaks of salvation in terms of feeding the hungry and visiting the sick, he speaks as a devout Jew, for whom the spiritual is in the first place a matter of how one behaves towards others [insert qualification here]. Those who seek some otherworldly comfort in religion are apparently deaf to Jesus’s warning to his followers that if they were true to his word they would meet with the same fate as himself.

7. Next up, music! A couple developments: first up, Charlottesville band Sons of Bill has two new singles out ahead of their June release, Oh God Ma’am. There’s nothing to really say about the singles except for the fact that they are real, real good. “Believer / Pretender” got a brief review here, and it’s worth a listen, above.

Second, there’s the brand-new(ly discovered) original recording of Prince’s heart-wrenching “Nothing Compares 2 U”, well worth a listen, below:

8. Finally, some plugs. Again, our 2018 NYC Conference will be next weekend. The theme is “The Grace of God in Divided Times”, and Alan Jacobs will be keynoting. The schedule looks amazing.

On the Podcast front, it’s been a golden week. Sarah Condon was featured on Crackers and Grape Juice, Connor Gwin riffed some more on deconstruction at Priest Pulse, David Zahl talked grace at Slow Down and talked Mbird at Ministry Minded, and Bill Borror expands on his Humor Issue article at New Persuasive Words.

Finally, on the faith at work work-life balance being a decent person while still taking the job seriously front, I’ve heard that Adam Grant’s TED talk on WorkLife, below, is full of insight. That’s all for this week–happy weekend.