1. Well, file this first one under unexpected. Christianity Today published the transcript of the commencement address that Missouri senator Joshua Hawley gave at Kings College earlier this month, the title of which immediately piqued my interest, “The Age of Pelagius.” Pelagianism has long been a favorite punching bag here at Mbird, though admittedly not as much as its more nefarious cousin, “Semi-Pelagianism” (also known as God-Helps-Those-Who-Help-Themselves-ism). Hawley provides a solid crash course before spelling out why the 4th-century heresy matters so much more than I wish it did:

Pelagius held that the individual possessed a powerful capacity for achievement. In fact, Pelagius believed individuals could achieve their own salvation. It was just a matter of them living up to the perfection of which they were inherently capable. As Pelagius himself put it, “Since perfection is possible for man, it is obligatory.” The key was will and effort. If individuals worked hard enough and deployed their talents wisely enough, they could indeed be perfect.

This idea famously drew the ire of Augustine of Hippo, better known as Saint Augustine, who responded that we humans are not achievement machines. We are fragile. We are fallible. We suffer weakness and need. And we all stand in need of God’s grace. But Pelagius was not satisfied. He took his stand on an idea of human freedom. He responded that God gave individuals free choice…, that individuals could use their free choice to adopt their own purposes, to fix their own destinies—to create themselves, if you like. That’s why a disciple of Pelagius named Julian of Eclanum said freedom of choice is that by which man is “emancipated from God.”…

if you listen closely today, you can hear [Pelagianism] almost everywhere—in our fiction and our film, in our school curricula and self-help books. It even features prominently in our law… The Pelagian view says the individual is most free when he is most alone, able to choose his own way without interference. Family and tradition, neighborhood and church—these things get in the way of uninhibited free choice. And this Pelagian idea of freedom is one our cultural leaders have embraced for decades now.

Senator Hawley, as you might imagine, extrapolates a tad more in the direction of his own political party than strictly necessary—the Right has always had a fatal love affair with hyper-individualistic bootstrapping (and worse, Ayn Rand-style self-deification) but Lord knows the Left has its own version of humanistic self-salvation (not to mention self-creation!). But still, check out where he goes with it:

Here’s the paradox. For all the big talk about individual freedom, Pelagian philosophy has made American society more hierarchical, and it has made it more elitist. This is no accident. Pelagius himself was most popular with the old senatorial families of Rome—the wealthy, the well-connected. The aristocrats. They were his patrons. And why? He validated their privilege and their power. Because if freedom means choice among options, then the people with the most choices are the most free. And that means the rich. And if salvation is about achievement, then those with the most accolades are righteous, and that means the elite and the strong…

Fundamentally, Pelagius misunderstood the Cross… The Cross announces the weakness and need of every person. And that means it excludes the boasting and the pride of the few. The Cross says the talented, the well-born, the well-educated do not deserve special privileges. They are not more valuable than anyone else. The call of God comes to every person and the power of God is poured out on all who believe.

2. Amen to that! Speaking of high school graduations, I suspect we’re only beginning to witness the breadth and depth of the ‘Varsity Blues’ that’ve taken root in our secondary schools. Over at The Atlantic, Adam Harris reports on “Parents Gone Wild: High Drama Inside D.C.’s Most Elite Private School”. All is not well, it would appear, at the esteemed Sidwell Friends School in the nation’s capital:

In January, the head of the school, Bryan Garman, sent a remarkable letter to parents of seniors in which he demanded that they stop “the verbal assault of employees.” He also reiterated a policy banning them from recording conversations with counselors and making calls to counselors from blocked phone numbers. Garman also suggested that some parents were responsible for the “circulation of rumors about students.”

Anger, vitriol, and deceptiveness have come to define highly selective college admissions. In the now notorious Varsity Blues scandal, the desire from wealthy parents to get their children into such elite institutions as Yale and the University of Southern California led them to lie on applications and obtain fake SAT scores. At Sidwell Friends, one of America’s most famous Quaker schools, the desire manifested itself in bad behaviors—including parents spreading rumors about other students, ostensibly so that their children could get a leg up, the letter said…

As a Quaker school, Sidwell Friends derives its motto from the Quaker notion of inward light—or the idea that God is in every person, and should lead people to do good for others. But anonymous rumblings on message boards have been anything but generous, often suggesting that the college counseling office was responsible for students not getting into selective schools.

For more on the #seculosity of parenting as it relates to the college admissions process, look no further.

3. The first of several long-reads to comment on this week would be Vox’s stunningly honest “Confessions of a Reddit Karma Whore” by Brian Burlage. There’s some lingo to figure out, but if you can stick with it, you’ll find about as vivid and contemporary an illustration of the futility of scorekeeping as exists. Talk about The Arrival Fallacy! Woah nelly, ht BG:

I could post cheap puns and wisecracks in the hope of scoring fake internet points, known as karma, earned by sharing a post or making a comment that gets upvoted. It’s a way to gain a hollow kind of influence, and having a lot of karma is proof that you can repeatedly capture the attention of scores of people on a site as huge as Reddit. Amassing karma is a game of hard-fought strategy, and I wanted to win…

For several months, my daily routine was monastic: as soon as I rolled out of bed, I’d open Imgur, Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook and scour for something I could post, continuing the search through the morning, afternoon, and evening until I’d rounded up at least three or four viral posts and satisfied my own made-up quota… I was, and still am, a “karma whore.”…

And yet, all along, a feeling of voicelessness and meaninglessness crept beside me. I was in pursuit of a daily adrenaline shot, this singular form of power that came from watching a post rocket to the top of Reddit’s popularity ladder. Nothing else mattered. Nothing beyond my fake internet points.

Gradually, I started eating less. I saw people less. My parents and I talked less, and I retreated to my room, where the silence of everything but my own clicking and typing and wandering mind filled the air around me. I worked in what felt like a four-walled enclosure, a laboratory and not a bedroom. When my back would ache or my neck would get tight, I’d pull myself away from my computer long enough to observe the thinness of my wrists.

As much as Reddit had helped me to fill empty time, it exposed a more significant emptiness within me. Attention on Reddit, after all, is like quicksand. Every post I shared made me feel closer to getting out, but the effort it took to make those posts plunged me deeper into the pit.

As a mentor of mine is fond of saying in relation to the little-l laws which fuel our performancism both off- and online: “We always lose when we keep score.” Oy vey. Help us, Lady Willpower:

4. Before we move on from the Church of Cyber, yet another utterly engrossing, fabulously thoughtful essay from Megan O’Gieblyn on replacement religion appeared over at The Believer this week, entitled “Good Shepherds.” This time she’s returning to a subject she explores in her collection Interior States, namely, our relationship with technology, particularly Artificial Intelligence. I’ll be honest, this stuff scares me to death, and not just cause this is the fourth time I’ve read someone who actually knows what they’re talking about reference Ted Kaczynski’s manifesto with begrudging and slightly horrified respect:

If machines understand reality better than we can, what can we do but submit to their mysterious wisdom? Some technology critics have argued that our trust in such an opaque authority signals an end to the long march of the Enlightenment and a return to a time of medieval superstition and blind faith—what the artist and writer James Bridle calls “the new dark age.” Yuval Noah Harari has argued that the religion of “Dataism” will soon undermine the foundations of liberalism. “Just as according to Christianity we humans cannot understand God and His plan,” he writes, “so Dataism declares that the human brain cannot fathom the new master algorithms.” Of course, exposing the spiritual undertones of Silicon Valley is a self-defeating exercise when its leading researchers are starting their own cults. Anthony Levandowski, Google’s robotics wunderkind, recently founded a religion devoted to “the realization, acceptance, and worship of a godhead based on Artificial Intelligence.” He believes it is only a matter of time before AI assumes divine powers…

Our predicament today is more complex than Ivan Karamazov’s: it is not only the natural world that is beyond our powers of comprehension, but also the structures of our own making. We now live in what has been called “the most measured age in history,” a moment when the data at our disposal—flowing from cell phones and cars, from the redwood forests and the depths of the oceans—exceeds all information collected since the beginning of time. For centuries, we looked to theories of moral philosophy to make decisions. Now we trust in the wisdom of machine intelligence. This is especially true within the realm of justice, where courts and law-enforcement agencies increasingly lean on predictive algorithms to locate crime hot spots, make sentencing decisions, and identify citizens who are likely to be shot. The programs can be eerily precise (one, PredPol, claims to be twice as accurate as human analysts in predicting where crimes will occur), but since their reasoning is often unknowable, the resulting decisions, however baldly problematic, cannot be examined or questioned…

The rest of the essay is very much worth your time, even if you don’t have much, er, bandwidth for techno-talk. Just don’t give up til you get to this paragraph of cross-pressured perfection:

…my atheism, if it can be called that, has always felt tenuous, provisional. I have my rational justifications, which I defer to whenever I’m asked why I don’t believe. But I have never completely shaken the suspicion—an anxiety that tends to surface during long drives and sleepless nights—that there might be, as Ivan Karamazov suspects, another realm where Euclidean logic breaks down and human reason is revealed as merely one dimension of a universe that is far more bizarre than we can presently imagine. That’s not to say that the alternate dimension, if it does exist, would be the baroque spiritual battlefield described by writers in the sixth century BCE, or that the cosmic consciousness would be Jehovah. But then again, why not? If it could be anything, why not that? My atheism did not erase God as a necessary premise, but left behind a perceptual gap in the fabric of reality, a possibility I can still feel looming, in moments of unquiet, like some ontological ozone.

I was surprised at how well O’Gieblyn’s essay paired with novelist Andrew Klavan’s sympathetic long-read “Can We Believe?” in City Journal, despite the latter having very little to do (formally) with tech. They may come to different conclusions but both confront the underlying epistemology of our age with rigor and humility.

5. Next, on a slightly lighter note (thank God!), have you picked out your summer reading yet? (I just finished A Confederacy of Dunces and I think it may honestly be my new alltime favorite book.) But more importantly, have you chosen an online forum to keep you accountable to your summer reading goals? Over at The Atlantic Julie Beck profiled the increasingly popular practice in her column, “The Adults Who Treat Reading Like Homework.” Needless to say, all the monitoring and measuring innovated by today’s bookworms does not appear to be fostering much enjoyment of reading, or even reading period. In fact—drumroll, please—the opposite may be happening:

Attainable reading goals can be motivating and improve the experience of reading, according to Neil Lewis Jr., a professor of psychology at Cornell University who studies motivation and goal pursuit. But “if the goal is unrealistic (given the realities of the person’s life) then it could actually be demotivating,” he told me in an email…. Indeed, some people find the challenges to be the opposite of motivating. Sue, a 50-year-old teacher who lives in Crowthorne, England, just joined Goodreads this year and set a goal of reading 20 books. So far, she’s not enjoying her experience with the challenge. She’s kept a list of every book she’s read in a notebook since she was in secondary school, and can see from that record that she actually used to read more books in a year when she didn’t set a numerical goal.

“I put down 20 books, which I thought was not a lot compared to what I have done,” she told me. “Ever since I’ve done that, I found my reading rate has slowed down. I keep getting messages from Goodreads saying, ‘You’re behind target on your reading schedule.’ I’m wondering if psychologically it made it feel more like a chore as opposed to pleasure. I almost wish I hadn’t gone onto Goodreads. It’s making me feel like I’m back in my school days.”

Ultimately, the people I spoke with who seemed to be enjoying their reading challenges the most were the ones who didn’t seem to care much about completing them.

6. In humor, McSweeneys gave us The Twelve Labors of Millennial Hercules, e.g. “Hercules: Obtained the belt of Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons. Millennial Hercules: Spent six hours reading customer reviews of a belt on Amazon”;  “Hercules: Captured the Cretan Bull. Millennial Hercules: Invented a craft cocktail containing Red Bull.”) Then Shouts and Murmurs served up “Self-Care Throughout the Ages”. The entry for Judea 30 A.D. is pretty funny, but my fave is Puritan New England, 1672. But the best thing I saw was The Hard Times’ brilliant “Search History Repeats Itself”:

JUPITER, Fla. — Local woman Kim Vandiver’s search history is cluttered for the fourth day in a row with Buzzfeed quizzes and Craigslist apartments she cannot afford, according to researchers who dubbed the finding “disturbing, but not surprising.”…

“Think of it in the same way your mom still wants to eat at Panera Bread on her vacation to Italy,” agreed lead statistician Marielle Dubois. “Those who don’t remember their search history are, sadly, doomed to repeat it.”

Researchers hope to better understand why, instead of using unlimited, high-speed internet access to learn a new skill or take an online course, people are increasingly using the collective knowledge infrastructure to find out which “Rick and Morty” character they are based on their zodiac sign…

Thus far, the team has merely confirmed that change is expected only after hitting rock bottom — which can mean anything from realizing one knows all the words to a certain episode of The Office, to picking a fight in the comments section of an Alanis Morissette song.


  • On the #Seculosity front (sort of), the BBC profiled the Ásatrú Association of Iceland, currently one of that country’s fastest growing religions, a curious mashup combination of Norse mythology and ecology. They write, “Although the Ásatrú Association has no doctrine as such, it does promote virtuous behaviour. ‘It’s about being honest, upright and tolerant,’ [head priest] Hilmarsson said. ‘Respect for nature is also important. You have to make sure you live in harmony with nature.'” Just goes to show, I suppose, you don’t need doctrine to preach the law, but you might need it to preach anything else…
  • For their 100th issue (!), Image Journal published a beautiful essay from Bob Crawford of The Avett Brothers on the bonds he shares with his bandmates, and it abounds with grace. Also in that publication, #Seculosity readers would also do well to check out Jack Nuelle’s reflection on “The National’s Secular Heaven.”
  • Over at 1517, our friend Kelsi Klembara sums up some of Luther’s Counsel for the Worried and Anxious. As a bold illustration of what that state of mind feels like, Wil Wheaton’s viral essay for Medium is worth your time if you haven’t seen it yet. Be sure you don’t miss the (any!) paragraph that begins with the words “I’m not religious but…”
  • Podcast-wise, the newest Mockingcast won’t drop until next week—Tuesday most likely—but if you’re looking for something to tide you over, check out Todd Littleton’s interview with recent NYC conference presenter Jason Micheli about his brand-new book Living In Sin: Making Marriage Work Between I Do and Death (which is out now!).
  • Finally, an oddly confessional ad from Volkswagon—a contradiction in terms but still, ht JM: