THE GRAPHIC MISSIONARY by Joshua Dease @joshuadease on Instagram

1. First up, a stirring reflection on the meaning of Advent in The NY Times of all places, courtesy of Tish Harrison Warren, “Want to Get Into the Christmas Spirit? Face the Darkness”. This one is pretty much gold from start to finish:

For Christians, Christmas is a celebration of Jesus’ birth — that light has come into darkness and, as the Gospel of John says, “the darkness could not overcome it.” But Advent bids us first to pause and to look, with complete honesty, at that darkness.

To practice Advent is to lean into an almost cosmic ache: our deep, wordless desire for things to be made right and the incompleteness we find in the meantime. We dwell in a world still racked with conflict, violence, suffering, darkness. Advent holds space for our grief, and it reminds us that all of us, in one way or another, are not only wounded by the evil in the world but are also wielders of it, contributing our own moments of unkindness or impatience or selfishness.

American culture insists that we run at breathless pace from sugar-laced celebration to celebration — three months of Christmas to the Super Bowl, Mardi Gras, Valentine’s Day, and on and on. We suffer from a collective consumerist mania that demands we remain optimistic, shiny, happy and having fun, fun, fun. But life isn’t a Disney Cruise. The tyranny of relentless mandatory celebration leaves us exhausted and often, ironically, feeling emptier. Many of us suffer from “holiday blues,” and I wonder whether this phenomenon is made worse by the incessant demand for cheer — the collective lie that through enough work and positivity, we can perfect our lives and our world.

I’m all for happiness, joy, eggnog, corny sweaters and parties, but to rush into Christmas without first taking time to collectively acknowledge the sorrow in the world and in our own lives seems like an inebriated and overstuffed practice of denial… Both darkness and light are real, and our calendar gives time to recall both. But in the end, Christians believe the light is more real and more enduring. There is still good news to celebrate, even when — perhaps especially when — it’s been a hard year.

2. I suppose you could think of these next few links as a tour of our current darkness, or at least one corner of it, not predatory evil but the kind of everyday mercilessness that slowly eats away at a person–part of what Warren references as “the collective lie.” Up first there’s “The Quiet Protests of Sassy Mom Merch” by Jia Tolentino in which The New Yorker’s latest star delves into a trend that will be familiar to longtime Mbird readers:

On Etsy, as of this writing, there are more than five hundred listings that mention Amazon Prime…. most are mom merch, and most of these items directly allude to survival. Prayer, dry shampoo, Amazon Prime; caffeine, Target, Amazon Prime: this, the shirts and doormats and wall hangings say, is how moms get it done. Kristia Rumbley, a mother of three in Alabama who runs an online store called the Tiger’s Trunk, told me that “This mom runs on coffee, wine, and Amazon Prime” was the first mom-themed T-shirt that she designed and sold, in 2017. She’d seen the Amazon Prime meme on Facebook and liked it. “I had no idea that smartass mom shirts were really a thing,” she told me. “I sort of thought I was inventing it.” The shirt sold “really, really well,” she said, as did all the other sassy mom merch.

Social media exacerbates two competing impulses in the performance of one’s everyday self: aspiration and honesty. Women, in particular, find these impulses rewarded on the Internet, where the ever-present cultural interest in female desirability and failure—in encouraging women to balance atop pedestals in part because it is satisfying to watch them fall off—is codified in the form of public comments and likes. My colleague Carrie Battan recently wrote about the rise of the “getting real” moment for Instagram influencers, in which women who have built their public identities on meeting an ideal version of womanhood offer a moment of catharsis to their audience: all of this is constructed, they say, and it’s anxiety-inducing, and there’s so much that you don’t see. But this form of expression doesn’t seem to cut back on aspiration so much as complicate it—women are now encouraged to be both very perfect and very honest at once.

In March, Molly Langmuir wrote a profile for Elle of the women behind Unicorn Moms, a community of mothers who are attempting to resist judgment in a way that nonetheless seems to be extremely judgment-conscious. The “Unicorn Moms” Instagram page, which has about ninety thousand followers, declares that the Unicorn Mom is “not perfect, enjoys alcohol, has a sense of humor & couldn’t care less what you think. Also, Beautiful; Boss Bitch & Zero F#&Ks Given.”… As Kathryn Jezer-Morton noted in the Cut, the Unicorn Moms reflected a new phase in the mom-centric Internet: the construction of “the #perfectlyimperfect mom.” This mother “may not be perfect, but she has tried very, very hard to be—and is making peace with her ‘limitations.’ ” Perfection, in other words, still provides the vocabulary and sets the tone.

THE GRAPHIC MISSIONARY by Joshua Dease

3. Next stop on the tour would be Marina Koren’s article for The Atlantic outlining “The False Promise of Morning Routines.” It’s enough to make a guy wonder if the sleep-hacking wave has crested, and the vanguard of optimization has shifted to the booting-up waking up process. Whatever the case, it’s all pretty priceless from a #seculosity point of view, especially for those weened on morning quiet times and the like. Talk about monasticism 3.0!

Morning Routine stories are a relatively new trend in the undying genre of self-help. In voyeuristic glimpses into a typically private time of day, the rich and the famous reveal how they are almost invariably superhumanly energetic. They meditate, run several miles, make matcha tea, do some yoga—all before 8 o’clock. Some dive into their email right away. Others ban phones at breakfast. But the through line is the same: A carefully choreographed morning routine is the key to a productive day. These people have it together, the stories seem to imply, and so can you, if you just wake up at 5:30 a.m.

wallace and gromit

I read this stuff obsessively. Like many morning-challenged people, I mine others’ routines in search of some revelation—a tip or technique that will inspire me to transform my feed-the-cat-and-sprint-out-the-door ways so that I may unlock the healthiest and most productive version of myself. But I end up feeling terrible instead, and wondering what’s so great about the saintliness our culture seems to ascribe to early-bird achievers…

In essence, morning routines have been repackaged as sacred rituals, safeguarded from the cursed bits of the rest of the day. As a label, routine doesn’t quite capture the sense of spirituality that imbues self-care behaviors.“There’s something unsexy about a routine; it doesn’t sound like you’re living your best life. It has this sort of sterile sound to it,” says Daphne Javitch, who offers nutrition and lifestyle coaching through her company, Doing Well. “When I think of the word ritual, I picture moving to Santa Monica and warming up some raw goat milk from my pet goat in my yard.”…

But something sinister seems to be going on if you feel that you have to wake up 30 minutes earlier than usual to improve your well-being, so that you can also work 60 hours a week, cook dinner, run errands, and spend time with your family. In a culture obsessed with self-optimization, “we are being sold on the need to upgrade all parts of ourselves, all at once, including parts that we did not previously know needed upgrading,” Alexandra Schwartz wrote in The New Yorker last year… In this way, otherwise fun accounts of morning routines can become mental-health traps for some people…

4. Okay, quick detour into Humor before we contract secondhand anxiety: First, “Three Experts on African Weather Fact-Check Toto’s ‘Africa’” has some great lines. Then there’s The Hard Times “No One on DIY Tour Can Change Tire” and especially “What It’s Like to Be Diagnosed With Depression More Severe Than Yours.” But funniest thing I’ve read this week had to be McSweeneys’ “Chili’s Menu, by Cormac McCarthy”:

Southwestern Eggrolls – $9.95

In a tortilla made by the boy’s abuela he watched her, with her armfat and canvas apron, cast frijoles negros upon flecks of cilantro like ash fallen silently on a bed of rice, tiny bones chalkwhite against an avocado ranchero sauce creamy in the light of the coals like the obsidian-flecked desert where God has forsaken all life. Outside a pale starving gallena quickens a lizard to its last writhing gasps. Evening creeps in, a single lobo cries out across the mesa as the sun dips bloodred below the thin black spine of the mountain where death will come again many times in the dusty clockless hours before twilight.

5. Back to the task/tour at hand with “You Are What You (Don’t) Eat” by James McWilliams in The Hedgehog Review, which may be my new go-to survey of the Seculosity of Food. The piece profiles a Texan couple who at age 50 decide to adopt not only a vegan diet but, well, a vegan faith:

[Their vegan diet] allowed them to frame otherwise dull choices in an exclusive and essentialist—and often very exciting—ideology, one that gave them a sense of conviction and community. In this respect, veganism, like many rigorous diet schemes, functions like a cult, with an ethic rooted in what members won’t eat and the value imbued in that denial.

The ghost of religion hovers like a mist over America’s sprawling dietary landscape. Catholics’ abstinence from meat on Fridays, Jews’ avoidance of the flesh of cloven-hooved beasts, and the Hindus’ vegetarianism are well-known, identity-forming convergences of diet, faith, and community. But [author and psychology professor Kima] Cargill takes this religious association further, suggesting that the secularization of modern culture “has left many searching for the structure and identity that religion once provided.” Given this spiritual void, she explains, “food cults arguably replace what religion once did by prescribing organized food rules and rituals.” These are rules and rituals that—whether the diet is vegan or vegetarian, paleo or primal, Mediterranean or South Beach—nurture identities that keep us loyal, insularly focused, and passionate about what we will and, even more significantly, will not eat…

We hide in ever more obscure and fragmented dietary shelters that to outsiders often seem ridiculous, if not narcissistic. Whether it’s vegans fighting over the ethics of dribbling honey on your toast (honey, of course, being an animal product), whether you should identify as “primal” or the more ideologically pure “paleo,” whether the juicer’s drink is from organic produce or not, or even whether you should recruit your pets to join you in your little raw-food revolution, diet zealots undermine the larger cause by making targets of themselves and becoming the “elitists” of pseudo-populist mockery—or, conversely, making it all too easy for pandering politicians to enhance their credibility as “one of the people” by chomping down on a Big Mac or tucking into a bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken on Air Force One.

Extreme identitarianism, whether in matters ethnic or dietary, also suffers from an inwardness and insularity, a preoccupation with purity and correctness, that delineates boundaries instead of forging commonalities among people who might otherwise have common cause.

6. As the final stop on our brief tour of American mercilessness, Vox published the decidedly non-subtle “Perfectionism Is Killing Us” by Christie Aschwanden. That none of what she reports is particularly groundbreaking doesn’t make it any less heart-wrenching or urgent. You could almost say that in a time of waxing #seculosity, the line between what we call little-l law and Big-L Law grows thin to non-existent. Those who read the whole piece will stumble on one of the sadder uses of the word “grace” I’ve ever come across. Anyways:

Striving for perfection isn’t the same as being competitive or aiming for excellence, which can be healthy things. What makes perfectionism toxic is that you’re holding yourself to an impossible standard that can never be achieved — essentially setting yourself up for perpetual failure.

“It’s really difficult when people feel like they’re being held up to impossible standards. And when these people are successful, they may fear that now the expectations are just raised even further,” Flett says. “You see an escalating sense of pressure.”…

Ironically, many people pursue perfectionism with the belief that striving for perfection will make them more acceptable to other people, but instead what more often happens is that they’re perceived as prickly, guarded or hostile, Hewitt says. “It’s meant to garner acceptance and closeness to others, but instead, it pushes people away — that’s the neurotic paradox.”

7. Which brings me to this year’s most flattering moment, personally speaking. In a lengthy interview on Five Books, Oliver Burkeman of The Guardian named Seculosity the second best ‘Self-Help’ book of 2019. Before you object to the genre, it’s worth remembering two things: First, Burkeman is the author of The Antidote: Happiness for Those Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking, one of the best and most gut-level treatises on the hopeful/healing aspects of low anthropology written by, well, anyone. Second, I have a strong suspicion that Five Books lacks a (Pop-)Theological-Cultural-Commentary-Soft-Apologetics category. If ‘Self Help’ signals books that speak to where people really live today–people interested in help (Prince Philip)–then I’m all for it. But all that aside, the interview itself! It’s a powerful thing to be understood on such a core level. Here’s how Burkeman connects the dots:

It surprised me how much I got from this book, because it is – in a very low-key, not in your face way – a Christian work, and I’m not a Christian. David Zahl’s basic argument is that this idea that we’re not religious these days is mistaken; we’ve just transferred our religious urges onto things other than conventional organized religion. What he means by that is that we’re seeking salvation of some sort in work, in shopping, in the cultivation and creation of identities online, in parenting, in foodie culture and a whole bunch of other domains. We seek transcendent meaning from secular sources. ‘Seculosity’ is religiosity applied to the secular world.

I think he makes a really good argument from a Christian perspective: that religion has many, many flaws, but it has built into it a capacity for forgiveness that our other modern secular ‘religions’ don’t. This is the quality that he would call ‘grace’ – the idea that you are worthy, and acceptable, despite, perhaps almost because of, your flaws. That you don’t need to deserve God’s love, by meeting some kind of level of accomplishment or virtue, in order to have it. That’s very much not true when it comes to seeking salvation through, say, your work; there, you really do have to meet specific criteria to count as worthy, and you’ll probably find that the bar you’re supposed to meet keeps rising the closer you get to it.

I became a parent, what, three years ago now, and I’ve found that it’s very easy to think that you’re going to somehow one day find the perfect way of parenting, and, as a result, create the perfect adult, and as a result, finally get to consider yourself a worthy and successful parent. But it’s totally, totally counter-productive, a massively anxiety-inducing way of thinking. This book helps you see that that’s what you’re doing – that you’re trying to get something out of it, that it can’t provide. Though Zahl does, toward the end, make the case for his flavour of Christianity, I think it’s a really useful argument no matter your feelings about religion: that you might be trying to seek a kind of salvation from things that can’t really provide what you need.

8. Can’t think of a better way to conclude than with Jonas Ellison’s God Doesn’t Need Your Good Works (But Your Neighbor Does) on Medium which beats a trustworthy path through all the mercilessness, even the mercilessness within–more than an echo of the Advent Surprise:

One would think that this would make us lazy. But it actually works the opposite way. Humans don’t work well under obligation. Our hearts harden when we feel forced to do things. Sure, we might grunt through it. But grunting through it has adverse long-term effects.

And so, just as Luther said, our neighbors need our good works (I know I sure do), but God doesn’t. I don’t know about you, but hearing this takes so much existential weight off of my incapably human shoulders. When I walk around with this vertical lightness and warmth, I can labor for my neighbor with a smile and an open heart (or not) and know that I’m loved.

Strays

  • Een-ter-esting: Dictionary.com named ‘Existential’ the word of the year.
  • The Who have a new record out today and I don’t know what I was expecting but definitely not for it to be this good (the first single “Ball and Chain” notwithstanding). I’m particularly fond of the single “I Don’t Wanna Get Wise” and “Beads on a String.” Pete Townshend is always good for a soundbite or five, and speaking to the NY Times Magazine he let slip this little piece of #seculosity: “What we were hoping to do [in the 60s] was to create a system by which we gathered in order to hear music that in some way served the spiritual needs of the audience. It didn’t work out that way. We abandoned our parents’ church, and we haven’t replaced it with anything solid and substantial. But I do still believe in it.”
  • Also on the music front, my extracurricular gig The Well of Sound put out a new episode just before Thanksgiving all about songwriter/actor/American treasure Paul Williams (Carpenters, Three Dog Night, Muppets, Phantom of the Paradise, etc). I know I’m biased but it’s an extremely good time.
  • Timely essay that doubles as a follow-up to CJ’s excellent recent post about the rise of skepticism, “How Protestantism influenced the making of modern science” by Peter Harrison on Aeon. Tom Holland mines similar territory in Dominion.
  • Honored to be a guest on the Core Christianity radio show/podcast today, with hosts Michael Horton and Adriel Sanchez. Four more episodes to come! Listen here.
  • Gift Guide coming next week! New Mockingcast too!
  • My personal favorite Advent devotional right now is the cartoon series done by Joshua Dease, a few of which I’ve embedded in this post. Apparently it’s based in part on our Same Old Song podcast. Follow him on Instagram or Twitter to get the daily updates.
  • Finally, our big end-of-the-year newsletter and appeal went to post office this week, and we would love for you to receive a copy! All you need to do is sign up for our mailing list.