Another Week Ends

1. In the first slot this week, Christianity Today published Kent Dunnington’s reflections on small […]

Bryan J. / 5.10.19

1. In the first slot this week, Christianity Today published Kent Dunnington’s reflections on small groups and AA: Small Groups Anonymous: Why the best church small groups might take their cues from the Twelve Steps. An in-depth look at how AA works and why most small groups fail to transform character and practice, Dunnington’s piece highlights the utility of the twelve steps as a model for producing actual transformation.

Since those early days, AA has helped countless people into lives of greater flourishing. It’s a mistake to think AA is just about getting people to quit drinking. The desire to quit is the single requirement for membership, but AA sets its sights on a more ambitious target: flourishing in sobriety. One can avoid alcohol (for a time) and yet fail to acquire the dispositions necessary to thrive sober. This is called “coasting in recovery,” and as AA members say, “if you’re coasting, you’re going downhill.” Working the steps is about something bigger: being transformed as a person.

How and why this transformation comes about is the subject of ongoing study and debate. But generally speaking—and amazingly—AA works. It has a theory of how people change and a set of practices designed to change real human beings. In this respect, AA has what the contemporary church, or at least a large portion of the contemporary evangelical church, seems to lack: a clear theory of personal transformation codified in practices and traditions that are easily accessible to those who would like to be transformed. Small groups have been the contemporary evangelical church’s most concerted effort in this direction, yet I’ve come to believe that despite great intentions, they are currently not an effective model of transformation. Would they be more effective if they looked more like AA?

If you can’t get beyond the paywall, see also DZ’s take on the subject, and I personally can’t say enough good things about JAZ’s longform take on the subject here.

2. “Man does not strive for happiness. Only the Englishman does.” That’s a great Nietzsche quote, one which I learned from Gary Saul Morson’s The Problem With Happiness essay in The Athanaeum Review. Morson’s exploration of happiness through epicurean and socialist philosophies is a remarkable look at the frailty of felicity. The essay notes specifically that the great Russian authors like Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, and Solzenitsyn all saw happiness as a pale comparison to the importance of meaning. In light of the great quest for happiness led by Bolshevik socialism, the Russians had a keen sense for the fleeting nature of happiness. Here’s a sample:

Untroubled by the need for meaningfulness, some happiness theorists respond by simply including it among the criteria for personal happiness. But this response misses the point. If one performs unselfish actions for selfish gain, they are not unselfish actions. Genuinely unselfish actions may (or may not) result in happiness, but to be unselfish in the first place, personal happiness cannot be their purpose. In much the same way, if one aims for meaningfulness as a source of pleasure, one is aiming for pleasure, not meaningfulness. There are some things one cannot get by striving for them…

Great writers have offered at least three objections to this view of life. First, when it comes right down to it, even the most ardent defenders of Epicureanism do not really believe it. There are circumstances in which one would choose something else over happiness. Recall Nathan Hale’s last words (quoted from Addison): “I only regret that I have but one life to give for my country.” Hale wasn’t happy to be hanged. Indeed, sometimes people sacrifice themselves for others and then—oddly enough—rationalize it by telling themselves they were only being selfish, as their theory demands!

Second, happiness itself is much more mysterious than Epicureans, hedonists, utilitarians, or psychologists of happiness usually allow. Finally, life has presented extreme situations that test the philosophy of happiness, and it usually fails the test. What happens when an Epicurean finds himself in the Gulag?

3. Oliver Burkeman is back at it at The Guardian, giving us an exploration of “Why We Judge Other People’s Relationships.” After a quick takedown of unimoons (which, I agree with Burkeman, are a fictional trend) and policing posts on social media, Burkeman gives us this insight:

Nobody with the slightest insecurity, or even curiosity, can possibly regard others’ private lives as none of their business, since they’re far too valuable a trove of data about how people cope with the challenges of being alive. And this speculation naturally takes the form of judging, because, as the essayist Tim Kreider has written, we anxiously size up “how everyone else’s decisions have worked out, to reassure ourselves that our own are vindicated – that we are, in some sense, winning.” Of course, you should almost always keep such judgments to yourself. Plus it’s all based on a ridiculous double standard anyway, since we see only our own relationships – the best bits and the worst – from the inside, which skews our perceptions. But at the core of the urge to judge is something universal, and very human: the desire to get a handle on how we’re doing, in a world where confusion far outweighs clarity.

How else are we supposed to gauge whether we’re succeeding in life if we have no data to prove it? In the age of information, judgment as data collection for self-justification is a great metaphor. Metrics for happiness, metrics for success… mene mene tekel upharsin.

4. The #Seculosity fun continues, this week with a review from The Crossings Community. (So great to read a review where the material has clearly hit home!)

There is a strong lesson here for all who seek to preach law and gospel. It is usually assumed that because people don’t “feel guilty” anymore about their sins before God some other method for preaching is necessary. Usually what is proposed is some form of “transformative” hearing of the text in which assumptions are checked and priorities re-arranged. This is a fundamental error that only pours fuel on a raging fire. Just because people do not feel overtly guilty before a transcendent God for their sins does not mean that they do not labor under the grind of a law that resides in their relationships or even worse in their own heads. The vengeful God in the sky standing outside of us and ready to smite has been replaced with a ferocious and demanding idol within, a worshiped image of the self we ought to be: happier, skinnier, busier, smarter, more successful, more fulfilled, more informed, more woke, the better parent, the better spouse, even the better Christian. This is where the law digs in to its deadly work of saying “not enough.”

5. someBODY once told me that this next link was really funny. It’s the in-depth journalism you didn’t know you wanted outlining 20 years of Smashmouth’s memetastic earworm “All Star”:

Part of [songwriter] Camp felt dirty and mercenary about having written a song at the bidding of the record label. His original handwritten lyrics contained the line, “Say bye bye to your soul” (later changed to “All that glitters is gold”). “This would be the first time that I had to do something that the record company told me to do,” Camp said. “And I was kind of like, ‘Well, you know, I guess here we are.’”

And for all of you celebrating Mother’s Day this weekend, don’t miss “Someday I’ll Be Dead And Then How Will You Feel About It?” – A Mother/Daughter Custom Engraved Bracelet and Hello, I’ll Be Your Toddler Tour Guide for This Trip Out the Front Door, courtesy of the fine folks at McSweeny’s.

6. Given that Mother’s Day is right around the corner, it seems off to feature an essay about the religion of manhood, but Wil S. Hylton’s dark personal essay about the violence of his hypermasculine cousin is worth the long read. It’s titled My Cousin Was My Hero. Until the Day He Tried to Kill Me, and it’s a deep-dive into the #seculosity of masculinity.

When I look back on the crisis of my own life three years ago — the explosion of our friendship and the implosion of my marriage — I see a common thread. My attraction to my cousin and my detachment as a husband both reside in the pantheon of male tropes. Masculinity is a religion. It is a compendium of saints: the vaunted patriarch, the taciturn cowboy, the errant knight, reluctant hero, gentle giant and omniscient father. Like Scripture, each contains a story of implicit values. Fraternity, dominance, adamance, certitude — these are the commandments of male identity. Maybe in societies deep through history, those qualities helped organize a world of chaos, but the antediluvian constructs of masculinity are easily weaponized in modern life. The virtue of strength invites abuse. Adamance enables intransigence. Restraint devolves to disengagement, and fraternity yields exclusion. The veneration of those traits is poison to young men. It offers an easy escape from the necessary struggle of self-reflection and replaces the work of interior discovery with a menu of prefabricated identities.

As a teenager, I gravitated toward an archetype embodied by my cousin. I envied the power that he seemed to command and the fear he didn’t possess, but my effort to renounce that persona in my 20s left many others to face. Conventional models of male identity are everywhere around us. They linger in the air we breathe and infuse the culture. As a father and husband, I slipped into the antiquated role of provider, protector, patriarch — assuming the position and entitlements of another male archetype. What I see now is that I haven’t fully escaped from either. The challenge is not to believe that I have. It’s not to imagine that I will. It’s to watch for the dogmas of masculinity taking root in myself each day, to acknowledge whatever virtues they contain and disavow the rest. It is to seek and find, again and again, what does and ought to guide me.

7. A pair of very sad deaths over the course of the last week. First, well-known author and blogger Rachel Held Evans died suddenly at the age of 37, leaving behind two small children and a husband. The subsequent outpouring of grief online has been both moving and deep–and from a touchingly broad swath of people. Emma Green at The Atlantic’s penned a tribute, in which the following paragraph stuck out:

“A lot of liberal, progressive people are afraid of the word sin,” she told me in a 2015 interview. But this is the core of Christianity, she said, the “bizarre truth of Christian identity.” Her conviction was clear in the way she held herself in conversation: acknowledging human fragility and failings, including her own. Speaking with care and humility. Summoning grace for the abandoned.

Perhaps nobody expressed grace for the abandoned like Jean Vanier, who also died this week. Vanier’s work founding and running L’Arche totally reimagined the church’s love for the intellectually and developmentally disabled. We commend to you CT Magazine’s tribute and our own Connor Gwin’s previously posted reflection. Let’s give Vanier the last word today from a speech he gave in 2015:

I want to speak of what we have learned in L’Arche and Faith and Light. As you know, people with intellectual disabilities are not able to assume important roles of power and of efficacy. They are essentially people of the heart. When they meet others they do not have a hidden agenda for power or for success. Their cry, their fundamental cry, is for a relationship, a meeting heart to heart. It is this meeting that awakens them, opens them up to life, and calls them forth to love in great simplicity, freedom and openness. When those ingrained in a culture of winning and of individual success really meet them, and enter into friendship with them, something amazing and wonderful happens. They too are opened up to love and even to God. They are changed at a very deep level. They are transformed and become more fundamentally human.

Let me about you about Pauline. She came to our community in 1970, hemiplegic, epileptic, one leg and one arm paralyzed, filled with violence and rage. It was not easy to live in one of our small homes with her. Our psychiatrist gave us good insight and advice: her violence was a cry for friendship. For so long she had been humiliated, seen as hardly human, having no value, handicapped. What was important was that the assistants take time to be with her, listen to her and show their appreciation for her. Little by little she evolved and became more peaceful and responded to their love. Her violence disappeared. She didn’t particularly like to work in our workshops, but she loved to sing and to dance. When she was quite a bit older I would go and visit her. Sometimes she would put her good arm on my head and she would say “poor old man”. It takes a long time to move from violence to tenderness. The assistants who saw her initially as a very difficult person, began to discover who she was under her violence and under her disabilities. They also began to change. They discovered that for a person, growth was not primarily climbing the ladder of power and success, but of learning to love people as they are. Love, in the words of St Paul, is to be patient, to serve, to bear all, to believe all, and to hope all.


• ICYMI, Mockingbird’s clergy are gathering in Lancaster, PA next month. We’d love to have you!

• DZ is guest of honor at a not-so-secret house party in Atlanta tonight!

• Our friends and partners at StoryMakers launched this week, too! Run, don’t walk!

• A new Mockingcast drops soon, and the trio talk pop culture homework, Burkeman’s above piece on judgment, RHE, and L’Arche.

• Also: Conference recordings! What a busy week at Mbird HQ!