1. First up this week, other than Ozzy Osbourne in 1987 (featured image), would have to be Agnes Callard’s magnificent piece for The Point, “Who Wants to Play the Status Game?” in which she unpacks the not-so-subtle status games we play with those whom we’ve just met. Meaning, when you’re introduced to someone at a party, the first ‘game’ you likely play involves searching for commonalities and connections such as shared acquaintances and locations. If that game yields too much ambiguity about our status relative to one another, we tend to move on to one of two “advanced games”, The Importance Game and The Leveling Game. Pay attention, kids:

In the Importance Game, participants jockey for position. This usually works by way of casual references to wealth, talent, accomplishment or connections, but there are many variants. I can, for instance, play this game by pretending to eschew it: “Let’s get straight down to business” can telegraph my being much too important to waste time with such games. The other game is the Leveling Game, and it uses empathy to equalize the players. So I might performatively share feelings of stress, inadequacy or weakness; or home in on a source of communal outrage, frustration or oppression.

A player of the Importance Game tries to ascend high enough to reach for something that will set her above her interlocutor, a player of the Leveling Game reaches down low enough to hit common ground. The former needs to signal enough power to establish a hierarchy; the latter enough powerlessness to establish equality.

The advanced games really are advanced. This is due to the fact that one must, while playing them, also pretend not to be playing them. It is not okay to approach a new acquaintance with: “Let us set up a contest to figure out which of the two of us is smarter.” Nor would it be reasonable for me to say to my colleague: “How the administration oppresses us! Let us unite in self-pity.” Or to an undergraduate who enters my office: “Let me tell you how overwhelmed I am, that will put us on equal footing.” (“Stars: they’re just like us!”)

The most adroit players are always finding new ways to mix it up, so the successful lighten their self-importance by emphasizing the struggles they face or their humble origins; likewise, you can add zest to the Leveling Game by finding ways to turn empathy into a status battleground. This is what the game of competitive wokeness is all about. In an academic context, I’ve noticed that complaining about how busy one is hits a sweet spot of oppression—I cannot manage my life!—and importance—because I am so in demand! When you’re playing with a master, it can be hard to tell which game you’re in…

So what she’s describing are basically two variations on the ways we gauge our “enoughness” in social interactions–one through hierarchy, the other through solidarity. The Leveling Game may feel less overtly self-justifying, and yet even it assumes a ladder mentality, i.e. a framework for relating that’s driven by ascent and descent, i.e. the law. There’s a subtext to these social interactions, then, that proves exhausting to the extent that both it’s hidden and by definition endless. Interesting as this all may be, what caught my attention most was her conclusion. She writes:

There is a philosophical conundrum at the root of all this: morality requires we maintain a safety net at the bottom that catches everyone—the alternative is simply inhumane—but we also need an aspirational target at the top, so as to inspire us to excellence, creativity and accomplishment. In other words, we need worth to come for free, and we also need it to be acquirable. And no philosopher—not Kant, not Aristotle, not Nietzsche, not I—has yet figured out how to construct a moral theory that allows us to say both of those things.

As RJ remarks on this week’s Mockingcast, one’s initial thought is definitely, “uh, might I bend your ear for a moment about Jesus of Nazareth?” Of course, the very notion that “morality requires we maintain a safety net that catches everyone” strikes me as an essentially Christian one in the first place (paging Tom Holland!). But even laying aside the intellectual history, this is part of why a theology of law and gospel addresses everyday life so wondrously: the Law levels worth and the Gospel bestows it. Game over. Just ask Ken Fuson.

2. Or canvas some of the competitors at The Importance Game World Championships, which have apparently just concluded  in Davos, Switzerland. …Or have they? After all, the Alfalfa Club Weekend is about to commence in DC! In an article for Politico on “Globalists Gone Wild” John F Harris suggests that the burgeoning schedule of elite networking events (parodied so deftly in the most recent season of Succession) reveals a transparent desire among the world’s movers and shakers, not for more face-time with other CEOs and power-brokers, but for “confidence if other important people are gathering somewhere they will not be left out and missing potentially valuable action.” Harris writes:

Here’s a hypothetical that anyone with the usual quotient of ambitions and insecurity might ask themselves: Do you think you could ever become so successful, so confident in your wealth and your professional relationships, that you would no longer worry about any of this stuff? That you would not compare your achievements to other people’s, that you would no longer wonder whether you were in the right place because you believe that the coolest place is exactly wherever you happen to be?

This question, by the way, almost certainly has a correct answer: No. You would not ever have enough attainments that you would no longer be haunted by these nagging concerns of the sort that are on such vivid display at Davos. Here you can witness even CEOs and White House aides standing in line to be cleared by some attractive young person with an iPad in hand into this or that party, as though it were Studio 54 in the 1970s and Mick and Bianca Jagger were being ushered through the door.

Of course, it’s hypothetically possible that someone could be so temperamentally at peace that he or she would shimmy the greasy pole of credentialism and meritocracy and be fully satisfied once reaching a certain height. But it’s doubtful such a person would ever start shimmying the greasy pole in the first place.

It is this basic human instinct—that hunger to be in the room where it happens, as glorified by the musical Hamilton—that has fueled what is now a large industry of high-level socializing. This includes not just the top corporate, political and media leaders but a vast profession of public relations professionals, who are devoted both to helping instill certain gatherings with an exclusive mystique that makes influential people want to go, but also to writing the speeches and securing the interviews that will make influential people look good once there.

3. In the first of several trenchant reflections this week on the increasingly tenuous relationship between individuals and institutions (or simply larger bodies of humans), church historian Philip Jenkins commented on The Decline of Us-ness: Bowling Alone and Dying Alone. He uses Robert Putnam’s prescient book as a jumping-off point to cast some fresh light on the Church-pocalypse phenomenon, coining a new word in the process–one which I’ll be borrowing, post-haste:

Before the 1960s, say, it was easy and natural to join a church or synagogue, just as you signed up for any other kind of social organization. It was what “we” in this community did, part of what makes us a collective us. We were clubbable, and churchable (a word I have just invented). More recently, that is simply not the case. When churches decline, it’s not so much a matter of theology, or morality debates, or anger at the behavior or attitudes of particular churches or their hierarchies. Rather, we have become non-joiners, non-participators. Successful institutions adapt to that as best they can. Megachurches offer a great example in the very varying degree of commitment they offer and demand, for different kinds of people…

Highly relevant to this story is the growth of the much-publicized Nones, which is mainly a phenomenon of the present century. Let me say again that, despite much media incomprehension, Nones are not necessarily people who reject belief, and they might actually be quite religious in their attitudes. What marks them off is that they refuse any kind of affiliation with a religion or religious denomination… We can tell this story as one of secularization, but it is rather one of isolation, of non-joining, of a rejection of us-ness. Large sections of the population have given up being churchable.

The other part of the larger story is that people do indeed seek community ties and us-ness, but now they mainly find those things on the Internet. At its worst, this quest manifests through the shrieking of Twitter mobs, which coalesce almost randomly, express deep and passionate solidarity on particular causes, and then dissipate. We still become “us,” however temporarily, but with a total lack of physical presence. Collective institutions and sentiments are still there, but in a radically different form.

“Radically different” is one way to put it; “fundamentally dehumanizing” is another… On The Mockingcast we try to make sense of what this means for institutions that remain inescapably and regressively embodied, especially those centered around a God whose principal revelation involves him joining the unchurchable.

4. Writing for The NY Times, Yuval Levin took Jenkins’ diagnosis a little further, highlighting the extent to which performancism has hijacked what remains of our institutions. How Did Americans Lose Faith in Everything? he asks:

What stands out about our era in particular is a distinct kind of institutional dereliction — a failure even to attempt to form trustworthy people, and a tendency to think of institutions not as molds of character and behavior but as platforms for performance and prominence…

In one arena after another, we find people who should be insiders formed by institutions acting like outsiders performing on institutions. Many members of Congress now use their positions not to advance legislation but to express and act out the frustrations of their core constituencies. Rather than work through the institution, they use it as a stage to elevate themselves, raise their profiles and perform for the cameras in the reality show of our unceasing culture war.

5. Also on the tension between the individual and the collective, Jenny O’Dell penned a thoughtful post for The Paris Review examining the appeal of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s influential essay “Self-Reliance”–what one commentator a few years ago called “the most pernicious piece of literature in the American canon.” I was expecting the piece to land with a deconstruction of privilege and renewed appreciation of interdependence, etc. But in her attempt to parse the limits of the individualism in which she was raised (without rejecting it entirely), the author of How To Do Nothing stumbles on something, well, vertical:

The tensions between agency and situation, between the individual and the collective, have never been easy to resolve. I’m trying to learn to live in the messy space between. Here, you can be both your own and not your own, responsible to communities without exhibiting the dreaded groupthink, and bound by one commitment: to examine your commitments, forever. Sometimes—many times—I’m wrong. And when I am, that is a time for listening to others, not for “keep[ing] with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude.” I’m reminded of an archaic form of the noun “reliance,” where it means the opposite of a dependent; a reliance was someone on whom you depended. When I examine my identity, I do see an inalienable spirit grasping for infinity. But in the very same place, I also see an intersection of historical and cultural vectors, held up by a web of countless reliances.

Emerson’s writing contains a version of the self-not-self paradox, even if it’s with eyes directed upward and inward, not outward. After all, besides “Self Reliance,” the other thing he’s most associated with is the philosophy of transcendentalism, which can entail a transcending of the self as much as it does transcending society. This is the stuff that made me feel drunk, where the boundaries of the self are breached in a meeting with something else. In “The Over-Soul,” “[o]ur being is descending into us from we know not whence … I am constrained every moment to acknowledge a higher origin for events than the will I call mine.”

Speaking of transcendent, thank you Pet Shop Boys:

6. “The cross. Of course I end up here.” Just one of the many perfect lines in what has to be the long read of the week year so far, Christian Wiman’s essay “The Cancer Chair” that appeared in Harpers last week. Before you wince at what sounds like a huge downer, let me just say that, despite the subject matter, Wiman’s sense of humor keeps the mood crackling, and his (absurdly enviable) prose is far more inviting than he’s usually credit for. In fact, the whole thing sings too much to excerpt in good conscience, but I guess them’s the rules. A couple passages to whet your appetite then:

Recently I compiled an anthology of poems about joy, and in thinking about suffering it has occurred to me the two abstractions are alike in at least four ways:

1. They are never abstract.
2. They are inevitable. (I don’t believe any life is entirely devoid of joy.)
3. They cannot be willed or instrumentalized. (Thus I am excluding any pain that is initiated to serve an end.)
4. There is something sacred in them, or at least there can be.

It’s that last assertion that sticks in the modern throat. Suffering is simply something to avoid thinking about for as long as possible, and then, because to avoid it forever is impossible, to expunge from the mind the minute one is beyond the scald. Think of our culture’s almost Talmudic attention to physical health or—adjusting the dial on Oblivion slightly—our national addiction to opiates. Think of the hours we feed our brains to screens, the numb way we move from one month’s mass shooting to the next. Think of the way we separate the very old from society as if they were being culled, the stifled, baffled air of the modern funeral. The proximate causes for these conditions are many, but the ultimate one, I suspect, is the same: evasion…

Perhaps the question, with regard to suffering and what it will mean in your life, comes down to this: What will be the object of your faith, and what will your act of faith look like?…

Miroslav [Volf] says some thinkers believe all existence is intertwined and some believe there’s a crack that runs through creation. For the first group the task is to match one’s mind to that original unity. For the latter the task is one of repair, resistance, and/or rescue.

Predictably, I find myself in both camps. I think all creation is unified; the expression of this feeling is called faith. And I think a crack runs through all creation; that crack is called consciousness. So many ways to say this. I know in my bones there’s no escape from necessity, and know in my bones that God’s love reaches into and redeems every atom that I am. I believe the right response to reality is to bow down, and I believe the right response to reality is to scream. Life is tragic and faith is comic. Life is necessity and love is grace. (Reality’s conjunction is always and.) I have never felt quite at home in this world, and never wanted a home altogether beyond it. Does that make sense? Of course it doesn’t.

Also very refreshing to read someone pushing back against the cult of Harari…

7. Alrighty, time for some levity. In humor, I got a kick out of the Unusually Scented Soap Bars that adorn this post. And then Fictional Self-Help Books by Johan Deckman as well. Also, McSweeney’s Email Signatures In Ascending Order of How Nervous I Am to Be Emailing You cut deceptively deep. Lastly, while it’s super niche, the Shatner Chatner’s riff on “I’m Sorry, I Can’t Hear You – I’m A Redwall Mouse” absolutely killed me:

I simply can’t hear whatever unpleasant thing you’re trying to tell me, wimplesnap, because I’m too busy rolling out these gingercrickle cookies for Master Brithbraice’s vole-mumbling class! Now either make yourself useful and go fill this heavy earthen jug with spiced summerblack honey from the apiary, or be off with you — and don’t let Frabble Grasspiker see you do it, neither, for he’s been mighty jealous of that summerblack honey ever since Brother Grimgarious paw-swiped a trough-full on St. Swilban’s Day.

We’ve got bramblesour pudding, hopscotch jam with crookshanks in, clove-and-crumbleberry pie, sticklenix cheese with sour cherries and chives, slumpin’n’marfin’ in a crust rampant, gammon-biscuit, lupin-’n’chokepear stew, sweet almond wine, leek and acorn gravy, walnut buckle, purslane salad, cinnamon hippocras, goat’s eggs, scuppernong mist, spoonbread and trencherbread, good solid molefare, damson butter, hot little cabbage-turnip cakes in a pepper crust, vinegared cheeses, and hodgebread, and a table full of hungry mice, so you’ll have to find some other time to deliver your bad news.

Oh and a month later, I’m still snickering/crying about this:

8. Finally, as the combo of impeachment trials and Iowa primaries threatens to drown out all other strands of expression, Scott McKnight contributed what I thought were some worthy observations in his column “Christianity Tomorrow.” At least, they mirror pretty closely what I tried to say in the Politics chapter of Seculosity:

At no time in my life have I seen the church more engaged in politics and more absorbed by a political story. I’m not referring here simply to Republican vs. Democrat or Conservative vs. Progressive. Rather, I mean the belief that what matters most is what happens in DC and if we get the right candidate elected America can be saved. Blogs, Facebook updates, Twitter posts and websites are tied together and double-knotted with this political narrative. It is so pervasive many don’t even know it’s running and ruining our public and private lives. Ask them about a candidate and their blood pressure pops or their mouth spews or their mind runs into the wall of exasperation.

The political narrative of today makes for a mesmerizing story: there are problems, we are strung along for two years or more with potential winning or losing, and then the Vote Day comes and the story’s next chapter starts. We may even give the story’s centrality a break for a year or so and then we start up all over again. But make no mistake, the American story is increasingly statism. We are in Locke’s trap. More significantly, statism entails an inherent belief, either explicit or implicit, in the state. It is a belief that solutions to our biggest problems are found in the state and the Christian’s responsibility from the Left or the Right is to get involved and acquire political power. Statism as I am using it here is the idol of making a human the world’s true ruler. Statism exalts humans and human plans and voting. Statism centers its faith in the future on who rules in DC. Statism makes government a god. Statism is a secular eschatology and soteriology. No one, of course, says this or even admits it but our lives betray our words.

This doesn’t mean that many of the problems we face in the world can’t be addressed and even solved by political means. Of course they can. But we’d do well to remember W. H. Auden’s line in The Christmas Oratorio, “That the dream of a Perfect State or No State at all, to which we fly for refuge, is a part of our punishment.” Needless to say, Larry David milked these divisions for some primo laughs in the season premiere of Curb this past Sunday:

Strays

  • For those interested in the true animating force of the zeitgeist, you could do worse than to read, mark, and inwardly digest Lauren Oyler’s epic excoriation of Jia Tolentino’s Trick Mirror in the London Review of Books. Don’t mistake it for sour grapes; there’s LOT of meat on that bone. And while not quite enough to turn me off JT’s writing altogether, I also haven’t been able to shake that term “hysterical criticism.” Lord knows the religious blogosphere has its own version.
  • Lego sets its sights on a growing market: Stressed-out adults – PTL!
  • All tiers of pre-registration for our NYC conference (4/23-25) are now open! We’ve also added a number of names to the Speakers page. We hope to have the full schedule up and finalized by mid-Feb. Oh and stay tuned for an announcement on Monday about what we’ve redubbed The Mockingbird Festival in Tyler (April 2-4).