1. Today’s devotional content comes courtesy of the New Yorker, where Casey Cep contributed a concise but heartening column about Johnny Cash and the gospel. “Gospel music changed Cash’s career,” she writes, “and the gospel of Jesus Christ changed his life.” This comes from a review of Richard Beck’s new book Trains, Jesus, and Murder: The Gospel According to Johnny Cash (which was listed on this site as a top theology pick of 2019):

[The book is] a hodgepodge of music criticism, theodicy, biography, exegesis, meditations on fatherhood, and musings on [Beck’s] own prison ministry. The title was inspired partly by Beck’s son, who jokes that Johnny Cash’s songs are all about murder, trains, and Jesus. But it also nods to Cash’s liner notes for one of his later albums, “Unchained,” from 1996, which include a stranger, more thorough, and more beautiful list:

I love songs about horses, railroads, land, Judgment Day, family, hard times, whiskey, courtship, marriage, adultery, separation, murder, war, prison, rambling, damnation, home, salvation, death, pride, humor, piety, rebellion, patriotism, larceny, determination, tragedy, rowdiness, heartbreak, and love. And Mother. And God.

A lot of country musicians make their careers off of nouns, but Cash did without the pickup trucks and Mason jars, homing in instead on the harder stuff of that jumbled list.

I particularly enjoyed Cep’s admiring response to when Cash — at his mother’s dogged request — read and recorded the entirety of the New Testament. (Part one of that recording is embedded below; all together, is it some nineteen hours.)

Cash’s familiarity with scripture, and his deep conviction that it is a living word, is part of what makes his audio recording of the Bible so wonderful: he sounds joyful, and even a little eager, as if he is reading a letter from home that he can’t wait to get to the end of, just so he can read it all over again. In Cash’s delivery, the New Testament really does sound like good news. It’s a rare thing to hear chapter after chapter unfold—even for Christians, who can go long stretches encountering scripture only in the choppy clips of pericopes, and it’s a pleasure to hear them do so in Cash’s sprawling, subterranean voice. Listening to him, you remember that these stories, letters, prophecies, and revelations are every bit as complicated as Cash was; it’s a little reassuring to hear him trip at times on Paul’s long, meandering sentences, or scare himself with the word “demon,” or catch his breath in the apophatic pauses between the crucifixion and the resurrection.

2. In the spirit of Valentine’s Day, I wanted to post everything here in red font, but instead of that, here’s some relationships-related humor, from Laura Leelun at McSweeney’s. “Dating Red Flag or My Fitbit?

1. Keeps track of my every move.

2. Sends hourly messages with passive-aggressive reminders disguised as encouragement.

3. Pressures me to spend the night with them.

4. Monitors fluctuations in my weight.

5. Holds me to unrealistic expectations based on arbitrary measures of success.

And if you’re needing a last-minute treat for your sweet, take note: Song Of Solomon Sweetheart Candies Now Available. From the Babylon Bee: “Your spouse will swoon upon reading that her teeth are like a flock of sheep or that her nose is like a giant tower…”

3. As a follow-up to Ethan’s recent post about listening, this next link comes from Kate Murphy (author of the new book You’re Not Listening). In her recent piece in the New York Times, she describes “closeness-communication bias.” For grace in practice, this is nuts-and-bolts stuff:

Once you know people well enough to feel close, there’s an unconscious tendency to tune them out because you think you already know what they are going to say. It’s kind of like when you’ve traveled a certain route several times and no longer notice signposts and scenery.

But people are always changing. The sum of daily interactions and activities continually shapes us, so none of us are the same as we were last month, last week or even yesterday.

The closeness-communication bias is at work when romantic partners feel they don’t know each other anymore or when parents discover their children are up to things they never imagined.

…what is love if not a willingness to listen to and be a part of another person’s evolving story? A lack of listening is a primary contributor to feelings of loneliness.

4. The French Dispatch was no doubt the biggest trailer released this week, but English majors will want you to know that The Green Knight is, um, hot on its heels (see Dev Patel’s head combust 15 seconds in). You can read the Mockingbird interview with director David Lowery here. (Also of note: the Gospel According to Wes Anderson, here!)

5. The big-picture progress puzzle continues to raise eyebrows: some of us look around and see improvements, some don’t. Ross Douthat goes for the jugular in a lengthy New York Times op-ed. (“Cut the drama,” we’re told!)

While we might find Western civilization progressing by some measures, Douthat finds that, overall, it is “a bottleneck if you’re optimistic, a ceiling if you aren’t.” Strangely, though, media consumption may have us feeling as if we are hurtling toward something. He attributes this breathlessness to information overload.

[W]hat if the feeling of acceleration is an illusion, conjured by our expectations of perpetual progress and exaggerated by the distorting filter of the internet? What if we — or at least we in the developed world, in America and Europe and the Pacific Rim — really inhabit an era in which repetition is more the norm than invention; in which stalemate rather than revolution stamps our politics; in which sclerosis afflicts public institutions and private life alike; in which new developments in science, new exploratory projects, consistently underdeliver?…the virtual realm might make our battles more ferocious but also more performative and empty; and that online rage is a steam-venting technology for a society that is misgoverned, stagnant and yet, ultimately, far more stable than it looks on Twitter.

A lot to consider. Certainly Douthat’s upcoming book (The Decadent Society, from which this piece was taken) will merit a closer look. But I always struggle to get through the weeds of this topic: less crime, we’re told, but more depression; less war, more selfies. Progress? Who knows. (What many are calling the climate emergency isn’t mentioned, either; if this is your concern, know that you can at least survive the endtimes on a budget!)

Actually, Douthat’s most significant point may be that “the promise of Silicon Valley was as much an article of faith for those of us watching from the outside as for its insiders…we both envied the world of digital and believed in it…” It’s hard not to detect, simmering beneath all of this, the hunger for one thing that is never mentioned: meaning.

6. Next up: a good one from UVA professor Charles Matthewes, evaluating the work and impact of “public intellectual” Malcolm Gladwell. According to Matthews, Gladwell provides a heavily produced, entertaining form of intellectualism—but beneath that? It’s questionable.

[Gladwell is] interested not in revolution but in immersion…he wants his work to be “an immersive experience,” something captivating. I think this is a deep clue to a lot of our internet-narcotized and social-media-doped world we live in. All the technologies are designed to be immersive–to saturate your conscience, overwhelm your capacity to see beyond them, “flood” your mind, drown you with . . .  what? They give us more, and the more they give us is, I suspect, mostly more of the same.

I am not against the Internet. I use it all the time. But I don’t use it as a direct device for wisdom. The kind of immersion it provides, I think, hampers and short-circuits critique, suffocates us with immanence, refuses us any critical distance. Its aesthetic is absolutely superficial, and absolutely vertiginous, at the same time: it overwhelms with other surfaces, suggests there’s only more of this, superficiality all the way down, an infinite of beyond, but nothing behind, or beneath.

7. “Sunday scaries”: we’ve heard of this. Increasingly used in the [American] vernacular, “Sunday scaries” refers to the terror one feels when the weekend is ending, and the work-week is coming, and the sands of time seem to be running out.

The term itself merits scrutiny: cheesy enough to speak of lightly, it nonetheless points toward an anxiety we may be too afraid to consider directly. For the Atlantic, Joe Pinsker gets to the bottom of this:

One advantage of the term is that it is immediately graspable, but at the same time it is almost gratingly infantilizing, expressing genuinely uncomfortable emotions in the language of toddlers. […] “For some reason, we have a great whack of words that sound silly but describe unpleasant feelings or negative emotions: the heebie-jeebies, the screaming meemies, the collywobbles, the jitters, the creeps, a case of the Mondays, boo-hoo,” Stamper says. She notes that some of these terms are playful and sonically repetitive, and wondered if “we like these ameliorating terms because their humor makes it easier to talk about something we would rather not talk about at all.” […]

“In 19—whatever—52, some people hated their jobs and didn’t want to go back to work, but I don’t think this is about hating your job,” says Anne Helen Petersen, a senior culture writer at BuzzFeed and the author of the forthcoming book Can’t Even: How Millennials Became the Burnout Generation. “I think the Sunday scaries are about feeling an overwhelming sense of pressure”—to perform well at work and thus pursue or maintain financial stability, as well as to keep up other everyday responsibilities, like cooking or child care.

Similarly, I doubt this term’s connection to economic precarity, at least primarily. You probably know someone, if not yourself, who feels the scaries despite manifest financial security and health. This ‘condition’ is more about performance — enough-ness — and the suspicion that you may never quite live up to whatever bar is placed before you (or maybe that you could, if you worried hard enough).

Pinsker, too, sees something deeper going on. Bleakly, he concludes that the Sunday scaries are an existential anxiety. They reflect life, and its inevitable end.

I suspect that there is an element of tragedy inextricable from the basic nature of weekends, which (not to get too glum about it) are like lives in miniature: That approaching expanse of leisure that one can survey on Friday evenings, no matter how well used, is followed within 48 hours by the distressing realization that the end of it is inevitable, and that what once seemed like so much time has been used up. On Sundays, we each reckon with the passing of time and die a small death. And that’s scary.

8. More spiritual, I’ll leave off with this phenomenal commentary on the fraught topic of forgiveness. I’ve included a few excerpts here, but really I suggest reading the whole thing. Very powerful.

Forgiveness is complex and difficult. To talk glibly, moralistically or smugly about it is an insult to the many people deeply wounded by life, sometimes by the church. No one has the right to demand that someone else forgive. …

[But] Jesus talked about loving our enemies and praying for those who persecute us. It wasn’t simply idle talk. Jesus’ words, “Father forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing,” came as he was being tortured to death.

…In my experience, the story of a crucified, forgiving God and the powerful sense of connection with this God that I experience through prayer, worship, beauty and community, is what feeds anything in me that is forgiving and gracious.

And then:

  • More Valentine’s Day humor: Bad Romance Novels, from the New Yorker: “‘Can’t Help Falling in Love with You (Because Free Will Is but an Illusion and We Are but Slaves to the Cruel Whims of Operant Conditioning),’ by B. F. Skinner.”
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Featured image c/o @rosalindmwhite — “The weirdly insulting world of Victorian Valentine’s day cards.”