1. We’ll begin this week’s round-up with the story of Keisha Yearby, a second-grade teacher who has taken to Facebook Live to read to her students at bedtime. The Washington Post reports that on Tuesday evenings a new episode airs of “Ms. Yearby’s Reading Adventures,” during which she reads, asks viewers thoughtful questions, and brings the content down to earth, to outside-the-classroom life. Not only do her students watch, but so do former students and their family members: “The shows, which last about 20 minutes, have drawn up to 800 viewers at times.”

Yearby said she worries that with an increased focus on standardized testing, teachers are losing out on the opportunity to teach students how to be good friends and how to cope with challenges.

“We don’t take the time to develop these kids. They have to learn how to be people,” Yearby said. “They have to learn how to deal with their problems.” […]

On one Tuesday, she read “Ruby’s Worry,” an illustrated book about a little girl troubled by anxiety that follows her around in the shape of a yellow cloud. At the conclusion of the book, she asked students to name something that made them happy. […] And then she gave them homework: “I want you to do one thing today to make someone else smile.”

2. A powerful interview was recently published in Christianity Today, with Bryan Stevenson, author of Just Mercy. (The movie version is in theaters now.) A defense lawyer, Stevenson goes toe-to-toe with the criminal justice system. But the story revolves not just around wrongful conviction and capital punishment, but bigger questions of what it means to be human at all. In his review of the book, Ethan once wrote: “What Stevenson realizes…are not just the external factors prohibiting redemption, but the internal factors every human lives with. The yearning, in one way or another, to put away the inner-criminal.” In his interview, Stevenson says:

What has defined my work over the last 35 years is this belief that each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done. I genuinely believe that no one is just their worst act. If you tell a lie, you’re not just a liar; or if you take something, you’re not just a thief—even if you’ve killed someone, you’re not just a killer. And justice requires that we know the other things that you are. […]

I want the same things for me that I want for my client; I want the opportunity to be forgiven if I say the wrong thing or do the wrong thing. I can’t expect that for myself if I’m not going to give it to other people. That has shaped my work. I don’t want to see anybody burdened with the lie that their life doesn’t matter, that they’re beyond hope and beyond redemption or beyond any purpose. I don’t believe that for anyone. Part of what my work is about is trying to illuminate that path so that we can both see it.

3. Next is this incredible obituary (it’s real, btw; at first I thought it was a weird satire), penned by the deceased. It’s a feel-good, feel-sad, puts-things-in-perspective kind of thing. I was especially moved by: “He prided himself on letting other drivers cut in line.” And also the transformative power of Jesus Christ.

4. Increasingly notable in current culture is the “replacement religion” of fandom. There may be few better examples of this than the rowdy, occasionally dangerous Bills Mafia — Buffalo Bills tailgaters. The following comes from a story by John Gonzalez for The Ringer; it was originally published in September but is oh-so appropriate for the end of football season. Hopefully none of you will be acting like this:

At some point during the last decade, the wildest and (likely) most overserved Bills fans started gaining attention for throwing each other through folding tables, like professional wrestlers without the formal training. Just last Sunday, a viral video captured a Bills fan (mis)using fireworks to disastrous effect; the accompanying comments were as empathetic as you might expect.

These days—more than the filing cabinet pizzas or bowling balls full of booze—[tailgater] Pinto Ron is best known for getting doused in ketchup and mustard before each game. It’s become such a spectacle that crowds assemble about an hour and a half before kickoff in anticipation. Johnson stands there, the mob around him chants, and then people climb atop a nearby van and drench him in red and yellow condiments. Everyone loves it.

…[a fan] would gush to me about how much he loves Buffalo and how he can’t understand why more people don’t feel the same way. He told me that NFL players who don’t want to come here are missing out because, well, just look around: Where else can you find such energy and enthusiasm?

Well, you might find such enthusiasm at umm tent revivals or other fervently religious environments. Cough cough seculosity. Incredibly, Gonzalez concludes, the fans have such intense pre-game rituals that they almost forget about the actual games.

A similar trend (though less…physical) has cropped up in the music scene. As Aimee Cliff says in The Guardian, online super-fans (stans) expect a lot, to the point where they begin semi-bullying the artists they are fans of.

Among Rihanna’s first tweets of 2020 was a carefree selfie. The first reply came from a fan: a picture of a child holding a knife, captioned: “Where’s the damn album.”

When did fans start believing they deserve albums from their favourite pop stars? New albums were once “eagerly awaited”; now fans believe that work is, in effect, being held to ransom.

If new music does materialise, but fails to meet fans’ high expectations, the backlash is swift and brutal.… In stan culture, everything is hyperbolic. This breed of extreme fandom has emerged from a connected world in which fans can access (and berate) stars at the click of a button… The binary tendency to declare something either a “hit” or a “flop” has rippled through the increasingly polarised music press: in an economy driven by page views, it pays to declare everything either an era-defining masterpiece or a heap of trash.

As with the Bills Mafia, the very reason the fans are ‘fanning’ is almost a sideshow. The football, the music — becomes secondary to the fans’ reactions to it: “For all that stans cast themselves as the people who truly get an artist, this demand for satisfaction — for product — fundamentally misunderstands creativity, and fails to appreciate the ebb and flow of human life.” Cf: “The Seculosity of Fandom.”

5. This week’s humor comes from The New Yorker: The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse’s Group Text:

Famine: What time is everyone getting there? I don’t want to show up and have it be just, like, me and the beasts making small talk.

Pestilence: I think I caught a bug or something and I’m kinda sick, so I think I’m gonna go on the early side and then duck out.

Haha!

6. For relationship insight, here is a great one from author/psychologist team Jon Tierney and Roy F. Baumeister, “How Negativity Can Kill a Relationship,” courtesy of The Atlantic. The authors begin with a stirring observation, that “The worse matters far more than the better in marriage or any other relationship.” Meaning: how one copes with inevitable negative experiences.

“The reason long‑term relationships are so difficult,” says Caryl Rusbult, who led the couples study, “is that sooner or later one person is liable to be negative for so long that the other one starts to respond negatively too. When that happens, it’s hard to save the relationship.” Negativity is a tough disease to shake—and it’s highly contagious. Other researchers have found that when partners are separately asked to ponder aspects of their relationship, they spend much more time contemplating the bad than the good. To get through the bad stuff, you need to stop the negative spiral before it begins.

One wonders whether negativity seems particularly alluring in an age of authenticity; positivity may seem naive, blind. But I’m reminded of an Invisibilia episode about pain and attention: in cases where pain was given much attention, it was felt exponentially. Importantly, in any relationship, there are things partners will dislike in one another. But looking past some of those things may be less like rose-colored glasses and more like grace (or maybe one in the same).

But in the Tierney/Baumeister piece, there’s another element in play, what they identify as low self-esteem. Describing individuals with heightened insecurity, they continue:

…they projected their own self‑doubts into their partners’ minds. They assumed their partners would judge them as harshly as they judged themselves.

This sort of needless self‑protection is especially harmful to a relationship… All too often, couples would seem to be in good shape—they had relatively few conflicts—but then one partner’s insecurities would kick in. They’d mentally push their partners away or devalue their relationships even though there was no real danger.

…insecure people were the ones most likely to act negatively. Their own fear of rejection no doubt intensified the distress they felt, because for them an argument wasn’t just about a specific issue but a sign of deep problems and an ominous signal that the relationship was in jeopardy.

Needless to say, this is the type of situation where the gospel can be introduced to great relief. If insecurity has the power to undo a relationship, what might be the effect of the assurance of an always-loving, merciful God?

7. At Aeon, Andreas Sommer contributed an interesting — though not necessarily spiritual — defense of mystical experiences. From a purely historical perspective, he argues, one can observe the unproductive repercussions of scoffing at another’s mystical testimonies. We may be too comfortable, he says, with the “narrative of Western modernity”: which becomes especially problematic when, following a near-death experience, baffling vision, or miraculous experience, a person is changed for the better:

If there really are concrete benefits of personality changes following ‘mystical’ experiences, this might justify a question that’s not usually raised: could it be harmful to follow blindly the standard narrative of Western modernity, according to which ‘materialism’ is not only the default metaphysics of science, but an obligatory philosophy of life demanded by centuries of supposedly linear progress based on allegedly impartial research?

Sure, the dangers of gullibility are evident enough… Faith in the ultimate benevolence of the cosmos will strike many as hopelessly irrational. Yet, a century on from [William] James’s pragmatic philosophy and psychology of transformative experiences, it might be time to restore a balanced perspective, to acknowledge the damage that has been caused by stigma, misdiagnoses and mis- or overmedication of individuals reporting ‘weird’ experiences.

8. A quick flip through the New Testament turns up a suspicious amount of fish: miraculously multiplying fish, fishermen, fishers of men; not to mention a seaside post-resurrection fish-fry. At 1517, Chad Bird penned some compelling insights about what all this imagery points to:

When Jesus consumed fish, he was visually enacting the Gentiles’ incorporation into the kingdom. They were, quite literally, entering the body of Christ… Notice the progression: resurrection, eating fish, the OT fulfilled, and the Gentiles now to hear the message of the kingdom.

In other words, God had now added fish to his diet.

All of this is the best of news for us. For we who once were separated from the Lord of the covenant, alienated from Israel, far-off Gentiles, have been brought near to God by the blood of Christ (Eph. 2:12-13)… We who once swam in the darkness of sin and death have been caught by the net of the Gospel. Christ thereby consumed us, made us part of his body, incorporated us into himself.

It’s great to be a fish when God gets hungry.

9. Last but not least, a brief quip from philosopher Roger Scruton, who died this week. This one was excerpted from the New York Times, though many tributes abound. He is quoted as having written, in one of his final pieces:

“Falling to the bottom in my own country, I have been raised to the top elsewhere, and looking back over the sequence of events I can only be glad that I have lived long enough to see this happen.”

“Coming close to death you begin to know what life means,” he added, “and what it means is gratitude.”

Bye bye for now folks. Grateful for YOU.

PS: The earlybird registration rate for the Mockingbird conference in NYC expires on Monday. Find tickets this weekend at their lowest cost, and come party with us in April! The food is delicious, the company fun, the grace exorbitant. We would love to see/meet/hang with you in the Big Apple. Confirmed speakers can be found here.