Too much good news for one week: announcing today that early registration for our annual Mockingbird conference in Tyler, TX is opening Monday! Join us for #MbirdTyler19 as we explore “The Future of Grace”. It’s a totally different Mockingbird experience from any other gathering we host, and we can’t wait to reconnect with all our friends in Tyler! Between that and the news from earlier this week, the release of the Faith & Doubt edition of The Mockingbird Magazine, the good times just keep coming! Subscribe, pre-register, and have a great weekend:

1. Sorry to burst your balloon, but that Benedictine Tech Startup you’ve been dreaming about? Already been done. Over at Commonweal, Jonathan Malesic pens a moving profile of a monastic community that couldn’t complete the business of their 1990s’ internet startup because, well, they were too busy praying. The essay is titled Taming the Demon: How Desert Monks Put Work In Its Place, and it’s both startling and refreshing to hear a monastic community decide that the breakneck pace of work in the current era is, at the end of the day, a distraction from the importance of God’s, erhm, real work. Here’s the summary of how the tech startup scriptorium was envisioned, launched, and eventually shut down:

The scriptorium was a hit. It got a boost from national news stories and soon had an abundance of orders—including one from the Holy See. In 1996, Brother Mary-Aquinas Woodworth, a systems analyst in his secular life who started up the scriptorium after he became a monk, predicted it would quadruple the monastery’s revenue. He pitched a Catholic internet service to the U.S. bishops, naming AOL, then a ubiquitous provider of dial-up service, as “the model, the competitor” to his vision. (The bishops passed on his proposal.) As the scriptorium’s reputation grew, Brother Mary-Aquinas began hatching plans to open an office in Santa Fe but was willing to look to bigger cities—including New York and Los Angeles—if he couldn’t get the space he needed in New Mexico. He dreamed of hiring up to two hundred people. At one point, traffic to the monks’ website was so great, it caused the whole state’s internet service to crash.

But then, in 1998, the scriptorium closed up shop. Monks adhering to Benedict’s rule can’t pull eighteen-hour shifts to fill orders. They can’t respond to clients’ emails while they’re praying the Liturgy of the Hours, studying, or eating—the activities that make up most of their day. Abbot Philip told me in an email that the project ended because he couldn’t justify the labor the scriptorium demanded. It took a long time to train monks for the work, but he couldn’t fully capitalize on their skills, as he would soon need to send them off for theological study. In her history of the monastery, Brothers of the Desert, Mari Graña writes, “There were so many orders for design services that what at first seemed the perfect answer for work that would not interfere with the contemplative life, soon began to take over that life.”

Monastery of Christ in the Desert, New Mexico

It goes without saying that no company in the world beyond the canyon would call an end to an enterprise with as much promise as scriptorium@christdesert. If its staff couldn’t keep up with orders, it would hire more workers. Possessed by the spirit of capitalism, it would encourage people to work overtime. But the monks can’t do that, not without thwarting the reason they went to the desert in the first place. So they quit.

The whole essay is packed with anecdotes of how unconcerned the monks strive to be regarding productivity. While the ancient desert fathers prayed and fought against demons in the desert, these monks were fighting in the New Mexico desert against the contemporary demon of work. Fascinating stuff. Here’s how it ends:

Merchant asks me to recall the way the monks leave their choir stalls at the end of every prayer office. Each one bows to the altar, then to his brother opposite him. They repeat this action seven times a day. As Merchant sees it, it’s a way of saying, each monk to the other, “I am respecting your dignity and the presence of the Spirit in you.” Compared with an economic culture that demands you labor constantly to prove your value, it might be the most radical thing the monks do.

2. The New Yorker examines the growing interest that tech companies have in nostalgia. Did you see the #2009vs2019 hashtag? Reviewing the links between Spotify’s Time Capsule and Facebook’s Memories function, the article is a look into how companies aren’t just using nostalgia for fun, they’re using your specific nostalgia to keep your eyes glued to their screens:

This resurfacing of content is often framed in terms of rediscovery, as though, without the algorithms, we might lose track of our own lives under the weight of time. The velocity of social media is overwhelming; perhaps that’s why anything from the recent past can feel so surprising. The app-based nostalgia machine works in a kind of loop, resurfacing ephemera that the algorithm suspects we like, so that we might “like” or post or listen again. It’s a little hard to tell whether these platforms are capitalizing on our collective desire to post a picture of ourselves circa 2009 vs. 2019, or whether we’re taking cues from Facebook Memories. Who decides it’s Throwback Thursday, Instagram or us?

The real insight, though, is the link that’s drawn between nostalgia and measurement.

[Twitter CEO Jack] Dorsey took documenting his habits to its illogical extreme, exposing the fallacies of life viewed retrospectively through the lens of the usage of time. But these metrics continue to appeal to many of us, trapped in the cycle of self-improvement; if we track our time, perhaps we could manage it better next year. Meanwhile, we’ll look and listen back to the past, which has been resurfaced and culled for us. It’s very seductive. The tagline for Spotify Wrapped says it all: “Take a look at how you listened. Because no one listened exactly like you.”


Nostalgia may be more than a simple reminder of bygone days. It may very well be a measuring tool to see how far we’ve come and how far we have to go, and if the tech giants behind the nostalgia machine know how to do anything well, it’s measure. For a quick related laugh, here’s what the internet’s great catalog of nostalgia, the Way Back Machine, saw on the website back in 2009. Not to measure, but we’ve come quite along way from the old blogspot, huh? #2009vs2019

3. Keeping on the social media front, researchers at Stanford have produced the largest and best study so far on the impacts of Facebook on the brain:

Although four in 10 Facebook users say they have taken long breaks from it, the digital platform keeps growing. A recent study found that the average user would have to be paid $1,000 to $2,000 to be pried away for a year.

So what happens if you actually do quit? A new study, the most comprehensive to date, offers a preview.

Expect the consequences to be fairly immediate: More in-person time with friends and family. Less political knowledge, but also less partisan fever. A small bump in one’s daily moods and life satisfaction. And, for the average Facebook user, an extra hour a day of downtime.

No surprises here. This paragraph may be one of the most instructive results of the data:

If heavy Facebook use caused mood problems, the researchers would have expected to see the moods of heavy users improve by a greater amount relative to lightweight users. But that didn’t happen, which suggested that the heavy users were moody before they were sucked deeply into Facebook.

As much as I wish I could pin cultural mood swings on Facebook, the data says those things already existed in users prior to getting online. It would have been really convenient to scapegoat the social network for a rise in cultural angst, but it seems that we are simply fearful people, even prior to the ‘net. Speaking from the perspective as the guy behind Mbird’s social media, if anyone offers you cash to get off social media, take the money and run.

4. For anyone needing a break from the Kondo media junket, McSweeny’s “The Life-Changing Magic of Keeping Absolutely Everything” will spark laughter.

Every time you go to throw something away — an eggshell, a used wrapper, a straw, a dirty paper towel, a broken DVD player, a sock with a hole in the toe — pause, and gently ask yourself How else can I use this? Give it time. Let the item speak to you, however quietly. Be patient. Perhaps keep the item — a screw of unknown origin, a ball of lint, a soiled Kleenex — around for a bit. Set it on the counter, stash it in a drawer. Behold the power of shelving — leaving things unused until their time, their power reveals itself to you.

See also their list of translated tech jargon translations. The Babylon Bee has this week’s cold snap covered with Minnesota Man Forced to Warm Himself in Tauntaun Carcass. No theology there, it’s just really funny. And if anyone needs a Mockingbird themed Super Bowl preview, we’ll send you over to cutting sports commentary provided by The Onion. Also, see the above ode to The Get Back Coach, the answer to why grown men just can’t help stepping onto the football field when they know it will give them a penalty.

5. Over at Christianity Today, Mbird favorite Mark Galli reviews a new book from Eleonore Stump titled Atonement. The book looks promising, even with Galli’s critique that the author doesn’t quite give Anselm his due:

Stump’s theory could be summarized like this: God is love from beginning to end. This, of course, sounds trite, but in her hands it is anything but. Using Aquinas as a guide to the meaning of divine love, she argues that her atonement theory deals not only with our guilt but also our shame. Not only our suffering but also the suffering our sin has inflicted on others. Not only our past sin but also our current and future sin. Not only our alienation from God but our alienation from others.

Stump puts it this way: “God’s love [is] maximally expressive of God’s nature and central to the atonement, and it takes God’s forgiveness to be God’s love in operation towards human beings suffering from guilt. . . . There is no human being, however steeped in evil, with whom God does not desire union, which is the true good for that human being. In a sense, all of this book is an explanation of the love of God.”

6. Switching over to entertainment news, it’s not everyday you get to read a Christian conversion story in the papers, and this one in particular is fantastic. The Guardian outlines a spiritual awakening that Lars Mikkelsen experienced from his turn as a lusty, boozy priest in the show Ride Upon the Storm:

Mikkelsen was raised by communist atheist parents, but says that at first he felt no obstacle to playing a man of God. You don’t have to be a Scottish murderer to act Macbeth, as Mikkelsen has done on the Copenhagen stage. “At the start,” he says, “my own background didn’t matter in terms of making a priest seem real.” But the longer he inhabited the part, the more impact it had. “Acting is a messy thing: it’s partly you, partly what’s in the script, and partly what you can pick up from your research. You’re left with a bloody mess in the end. You tend to want to make sense of it after.”

But how could he make sense of playing a priest whose faith is so fervent that at one point, like a desperate lover, he climbs a ladder to kiss a statue of crucified Christ? Late in the filming of the second season, Mikkelsen went to see a pastor himself, and asked to be baptised into the National Church of Denmark. It was rather as if, while paying Petrov in House of Cards, he had gone to the Kremlin and started running Russia.

The ceremony was low-key – head splashed three times with holy water, rather than total immersion – but it was such a change that it unnerved his family and friends. “I don’t know if they’ve accepted it yet,” he says. “Actually, I’m not sure I have. I can’t explain it. I think I’d been fighting it for a while. As I get older, I feel it’s important to be true to myself. And this felt true to myself.”

His character has a line about churches being “built for the big moments in life”, and he came to the same conclusion. “I’m getting older, experiencing people dying, and to give that meaning, I found churches and ministers to be the right place.” He also wanted to feel part of a community: “For me it was the church. But if you don’t like that, join a [expletive] political party, join a trade union. It’s important to me that we join rather than disconnect.”

7. Wrapping up, in preparation for our conference in New York City this April, here’s an excerpt from guest speaker Alfie Kohn’s book Punished by Rewards: The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A’s, Praise, and Other Bribes. Apply the same insights to the command “do these thing and you shall live,” and you’ll understand why the law of Moses was ineffective to produce the heart change that God is looking for. Consider it a carrot that gets you to google how much a plane ticket to NYC costs from your neck of the woods:

In certain circles, it has come to be taken as revealed truth that we are supposed to stop punishing an citing and instead attempt to “catch people doing something right” and reward them with privileges or praise… the underlying assumption is that there are exactly two alternatives: punitive responses or positive reinforcement, sticks or carrots, “slaps or sugar plums.”

When the choice is framed this way, of course, only a sadist or a simpleton would fail to pick the latter in each pair. Rewards are less destructive than punishments, and the difference between the two becomes more important as the punishment in question becomes more harsh. But the dichotomy is a false one: our practical choices are not limited to two versions of behavior control. And that is very good news indeed, because despite the relative superiority of rewards, the difference between the two strategies are overshadowed by what they share. The troubling truth is that rewards and punishments are not opposites at all; they are two sides of the same coin. And it’s a coin that does not buy very much.

Those who dispense rewards in order to avoid punishing people may not have thought about the punitive features that are built into the process of rewarding. Two such features come to mind. The first derives from the fact that rewards are every bit as controlling as punishments, even if they control by seduction… if reward recipients feel controlled, it is likely that the experience will assume a punitive quality over the long run, even though obtaining the reward itself is usually pleasurable… the question is not whether more flies can be caught with honey than with vinegar, but why the flies are being caught in either case– and how this feels to the fly.

That rewards punish is not due only to the fact that they are controlling. They also have the effect for a second, even if more straightforward reason: some people do not get the rewards they were hoping to get, and the effect of this is, in practice, indistinguishable from punishment. Many managers and teachers make a point of withholding or withdrawing a reward if their charges do not perform as instructed.

A parent tells a child that continued good behavior will be rewarded with a visit to the circus on Sunday. On Saturday, the child does something that annoys the parent, which prompts a familiar warning: “Keep this up and you can forget the circus tomorrow.” Can there be any doubt that this threat to remove a reward is functionally identical to a threat to employ a punishment? (pg. 50-52)