Another Week Ends

1. Lots to consider from this week’s first link: “The Positive Death Movement Comes to […]

CJ Green / 6.29.18

1. Lots to consider from this week’s first link: “The Positive Death Movement Comes to Life,” by John Leland for the Times (ht SZ). All told, this article is partly amazing, partly ridiculous.

First, the amazing. “Death is having a moment,” the subtitle says. This is good news in the context of modernity’s widespread denial of death. We so fear death that we pretend it doesn’t exist. Says one interviewee: “We got so far removed from death even being an option.”

Now, in small pockets here and there, certain people—mostly women—are beginning to question the denial of this undeniable reality. Why don’t we talk about death? Why is the one thing that is guaranteed in life also something we are completely unprepared for? Now a popular YouTube channel called “Ask a Mortician” provides information about the dreadful details of decomposition; “end-of-life doulas” aide the dying in their last days; “death cafés”—sanctuaries for informal discussion about the macabre elephant in the room—have sprung up all over the world.

“Nearly a million people have downloaded the starter kit for the Conversation Project, a guide to discussing plans for the end of life. Others use the popular WeCroak app, which sends five daily reminders that we are all going to die.

All share a common idea: that Western culture has become too squeamish about talking about death, and that the silence impoverishes the lives leading up to it.” […]

“We just don’t know what to do with death anymore,” [Joanna Ebenstein] said. “It’s this big, scary thing. We don’t have a set of rituals around it that contains it or gives it meaning. Ours is the first culture to pathologize an interest in death…”

“This idea that we have now, that death is exotic and cannot be seen, is brand new,” [Ms. Ebenstein] said. “Your grandparents tended to die in the house. They’d be laid out in the parlor when they died, which the Ladies’ Home Journal advocated changing to the ‘living room’ when the funeral parlor came around. The living room became the living room because it’s no longer the parlor for laying out the dead. And that’s around 1900. All of these changes are happening, and now we think of death as something that happens offstage, that we don’t see and children certainly shouldn’t see. But that was not possible until so recently.”

I read something similar in “I See Dead People,” a chapter on hospital chaplaincy in Sarah Condon’s must-read book Churchy. Which indicates, to me, that Christianity is kinda ahead of the curve, at least when it comes to this one thing. At the center of it, after all, is a dead guy.

So death: it’s worth talking about. Things get a little bizarre, though, when the same desperate optimism that denied death in the first place begins skewing this fundamentally terrifying reality into a rose-colored perk. Truthfully, there’s no such thing as a FUN-eral; death is no friend. To suggest otherwise is the ultimate denial. “I really want to experience my dying,” one cheerful interviewee says. To me, this is the voice of the zeitgeist, not a genuine cogitation on impending non-existence. “Having an experience” is the gospel du jour: If all else fails and you literally die, well, at least you had an experience—is no comfort at all. Leland ends with, “For one afternoon, at least, death did not get the last word,” but it did, it does, it always does. The last enemy and the puzzling catalyst for history’s greatest writings/theories/religions will not be silenced by a smile and a well-decorated coffin.

It bears noting that this isn’t an exclusively ‘secular’ problem; there is a death positivity movement in Christianity, too—a theology of glory, which finds death so unpalatable it suppresses all grief. Christianity is most powerful, to me, when it remembers that Christ too died; he was not merely napping. He was in the tomb three long days. For his disciples, it sunk in, miserably, that he was gone…before, at last, they encountered him once again alive on that sunny, shocking walk to Emmaus.

2. At Christianity Today, Dave Zahl wrote a fascinating critique of a new book titled America’s Dark Theologian: The Religious Imagination of Stephen King. Fans and skeptics will love. Touring through King’s work with the affinity of a real fan, DZ convincingly argues that the Master of Horror’s religious imagination may be more active than many might suspect:

Characters regularly wrestle with the divine, and rarely the same way twice. Sometimes a character’s faith wavers, sometimes it evaporates, sometimes it morphs, and sometimes it triumphs. But it’s almost always there in some way.

3. My personal favorite piece not written by my employer this week is “Bo Burnham’s Age of Anxiety” by Michael Schulman for The New Yorker (which is also, I think, my favorite thing that magazine has published in a while). Bo Burnham, you may know, is a 27-year-old comedian who made it big in the early days of YouTube. Since then he’s pursued a successful career in stand-up. But this is not the triumphant story you’ve heard before.

Burnham is regularly afflicted by anxiety and panic attacks, even in public, even on stage. And in his new movie, Eighth Grade, Burnham gives a voice to this anxiety—in the form of a thirteen-year-old girl named Kayla. (“He didn’t use himself as a model. He watched hundreds of teen vlogs; the girls tended to talk about their souls, and the boys about Minecraft, so he made his protagonist a girl.”) Genuinely looking forward to this one:

In the article, Burnham powerfully addresses generational maladies. Without getting preachy or condescending, he speaks with what seems to be a real empathy and grace for some of social media’s biggest participants (and victims): kids.

“…I think there are probably certain elements about social media that we’ll look back on in the way we look back on smoking, where we’ll be, like, ‘Maybe we shouldn’t all have been doing that.’ The equivalent of ‘My doctor smoked’ will be, like, ‘My shrink had a Twitter.’ …You want to say a swear on television, you have to go in front of Congress. But, if you want to change the neurochemistry of an entire generation, it can be, you know, nine people in Silicon Valley.”

The article follows him to the stage and describes one of his comedy acts:

Toward the end of “Make Happy,” he asks, “What’s the show about?” He crouches at the edge of the stage. “It’s about performing. I try to make my show about other things, but it always ends up becoming about performing.” He brings up the house lights. “Social media—it’s just the market’s answer to a generation that demanded to perform, so the market said, ‘Here, perform everything to each other all the time for no reason.’ It’s prison. It is horrific.” Staring down the audience, he delivers a cri de coeur: “If you can live your life without an audience, you should do it.” Shortly afterward, he followed his own advice and abandoned standup for two years.

New Yorker articles are often too long for me, but I do commend this one in its entirety. With Burnham as his guide, Schulman conducts a genuine, non-judgmental investigation into minds of social media’s youngest users, asking them about politics, school, family, and more. A particularly moving part describes Burnham’s discussion with a group of middle schoolers:

A boy who identified himself as a competitive gamer spoke up. “A lot of people just see me as this happy, loving kid, but I don’t show anyone my other side, because I don’t want them to be worried about me,” he said softly. “So, when I’m alone, I’m being my other self.”

Burnham leaned forward and told him, “I’m sorry you feel that way. It is not unique. I felt that way when I was a kid. I feel that way now.”

3. For your weekenderly dose of humor, there’s the following: You’re Meditating Wrong from McSweeney’s, and from the Onion, “‘First Date Going Really Well,’ Thinks Man Who Hasn’t Stopped Talking Yet.” HA. (Reminds me of this tidbit from Grace in Practice: “Original sin is listening to the other person and compulsively, unconsciously bringing the conversation back to you.”)

From The New Yorker.

Also, this Daily Shout is especially good: “I’ve Quit Writing Personal Essays About Quitting Things: A Personal Essay”:

Inevitably, everyone will convince herself that she can’t live without some new technology or trend, and I will not be able to resist asking, via a multi-part essay, with lots of pointless dependent clauses: Do we really need this thing?

4. Some wonderful new music this week: indie rock trio Basement Revolver recently released a single called “Knocking.” You will want to tune in for sure. Vocalist Chrisy Hurn shared about the song’s backstory at BrooklynVegan (but I’ve recopied her entire blurb here—it was too powerful to cut down):

Knocking is probably the heaviest song on the album for me, personally. I often still can’t sing it without crying. I wrote it after writing my family a long letter that came clean about my past, and about some of the shit that I have been through. Hard things that left me feeling shameful, or like a disappointment to them — things that made me feel like I wasn’t the “good Christian woman” that they had hoped I would one day become. The letter came after a few years of hardcore wrestling and rebelling against what I believed in response to a traumatic event in my life. I got to a point where I didn’t recognize myself, or all the anger that I was holding inside. I basically kept telling myself that I was garbage, broken, unlovable, used and a whole other slur of things.

I think that knocking was my way out of that dark place. I told my boyfriend everything, and he just loved and supported me through it. I told my family everything, and they felt that they could understand me better. When it came time to talk to God about it (I’m sorry I don’t love getting religious, but it is where this song comes from and so I feel that I have to be honest about that), I felt grace, and forgiveness and acceptance. I felt like he/she had been standing there, waiting for me to get to a place where I was able to move on and forgive myself — and a place where I wasn’t angry or shutting God out. It reminded me of a story that I was told when I was a little girl and it is super cheesy (I think its in the Bible somewhere too) about God just standing at the door of our hearts, and knocking, waiting for us to open up.

(Been listening to their music all day. “Baby,” “Family,” and “Johnny, Pt. 2”—and, what the heck, “Johnny, Pt. 1,” too—are additional highlights.)

5. Fonts enthusiasts like myself, and other aesthetically minded people, will marvel at what Ryan Hammill is able to extrapolate in his recent piece for Mere Orthodoxy, “Against the Sterile Style.” There he discusses the evolution of the Google logo, from its original highly stylized appearance to its current sans-serif sterility (font name: Product Sans). By “sterile” Hammill means “cleanly formatted” or “minimal” (ht RS).

The central problem with the Sterile, a problem unique to it—because this is in the very nature of the Sterile—is that it cannot produce anything beyond itself. It has stripped itself of all ornamentation. It has deliberately cut itself off from any outside source. It is self-contained, but it is not self-sustaining. It cannot bring forth life. […] ‘Being’ itself is ultimately not sterile. That’s the problem with the sterile style—it is a lie. We are not self-contained, sufficient unto ourselves. […] Opposing the sterile style, however, is not primarily a negative, or oppositional task. It is, rather, a positive, constructive task. We are searching for a new style, one that is vital, fertile with life’s florid energy. We will need artists, and poets, and musicians, and critics, and philosophers.

Certainly styles develop over years, and it’s only a matter of time before we throwback to the more “fertile” look. But it does say something about our particular cultural moment that cleaner (more sterile) is considered better, cooler. We like our fonts like our lives: as clean and controlled as possible.

6. Some powerful words from Fr. Stephen Freeman about the nature of power and its inversion in the gospels. This, from his latest piece, “The Meekness of God.” Again, I commend the whole thing but here’s the part that spoke to me:

American Christians have become increasingly politicized over the past few decades (both on the Left and the Right). They have fallen prey to the lure of a better world through the exercise of power. Regardless of who is “up” at any given election cycle, there are no winners and there can be no peace. For with every “victory,” the opposition remains. Continual warfare becomes a necessity. We are anxious, depressed and angry. The path of theosis has been traded for the life of demons.

Christ’s aphorism, “He who seeks to save his life will lose it, while he who loses his life will save it,” becomes quite clear in its meaning when all of this is considered. God Himself lives a life of self-emptying love. He “lost” creation in His love for it. He “lost” Himself in His love for creation that He might gain it again. We frequently want God to join us in our demonic path of anxiety and control. We see the things that trouble us and say, “Why doesn’t God do something?” We have Jesus but we want Zeus.

That the notion of mutual self-emptying is so difficult for us to fathom is difficult for us, in part, for the fact that we have been exalted to positions of relative power within the cultures of the world. Even the least voter can imagine themselves to be the shaper of history. Christians in the First World have become “managers.” The least among us often practice a form of self-emptying because they have no options. Aspects of the gospel are easier for them. Those who find themselves with power (or imagine that they do) discover that self-emptying is an “eye of the needle,” and that salvation is nearly impossible. That such statements seem odd is a testament to how deeply Christianity has been perverted in our time and become but one more position of power among the many.