Photo by Deanna Dikeman, 2006 –

1. Straight to the matters at hand, cue upcoming NYC Conference speaker Tara Isabella Burton hitting the nail on the head in a piece for RNS on “Fleeing coronavirus and finding our mortality.” Indeed, it’s hard not to see the current panic as tremendously revealing–and not in a good way. Then again, perhaps the timing of all this is kind of poetic, church calendar-wise, conferences notwithstanding. Love her concluding reminder too:

Our reaction to the coronavirus threat at the personal level — our desire to stockpile hundreds of dollars’ worth of hand sanitizer (less effective than soap and water), or to leave places where there is no reported threat — is also a statement about our need for control: our bodies, our world.

That’s what makes the mere possibility of sickness and death that now dominates our news cycle so strange: It reveals precisely how incorporeal, and disengaged, our daily lives tend to be. It’s something we liturgical Christians feel fleetingly as the ashes are pressed onto our foreheads once a year, a wobbly kneed quickening in the face of mortality that vanishes almost as soon as we totter back out through the church doors.

The statements about mortality we make on Ash Wednesday (and, indeed, through Lent) are only shocking because they have virtually vanished from the rest of our cultural consciousness. We forget that we are mortal bodies — indeed, that we are mere bodies at all: that our flesh is not something, through judicious diet and detox teas and expensive exercise classes, that exists purely under our own willed jurisdiction.

…That the Christian faith carries with it not simply an acknowledgment of the inevitability of death but also the promise of a bodily resurrection [is] all the more astounding and all the more seemingly out of step with an era in which our bodies are sacrosanct and in which sickness is seen as such an alien part of the human condition.

2. Following on the theme of control, Katie Heaney claims that Video Games Are a To-Do List You Play and while the statement deserves a couple qualifications, the observation stands. She’s referring to the portions of many modern video games that involve doing virtual errands, what gamers refer to as ‘grind.’ Think Zelda but without any of the battles. You’d imagine that players would avoid grind but developers have found the opposite to be true, that a great many of them find this stuff soothing rather than tedious:

The main reason people like their video games to come with some grind has to do with self-determination theory, says [Glasgow professor and gaming expert Matthew] Barr. “One of the three basic human needs is a sense of autonomy, a sense that we’re able to control things,” he says. “[Grind] is repetitive, and chore-like, but at the same time, you’re able to check them off and say ‘I’ve done that.’” On the one hand, I am annoyed when, as Geralt of Rivia in The Witcher, I am asked to go back to the town from which I’ve just come to retrieve something to bring back to the cave I’m in now, and then go back to the town again to let someone know. On the other hand, when I’ve finished, there’s a really satisfying choral sound, and I get points, and I feel good about myself. That does not happen when I finish dusting my apartment.

Even better, because these tasks are low stakes (i.e., imaginary), they provide a hit of accomplishment without the same level of anxiety or stress that real-life tasks can induce. “The stakes are lowered, but it still taps into that part of the brain where it feels like you’re getting stuff done,” explains Barr. “You feel like you’re in control.”

Anyone looking to experience this sort of satisfaction in real life should listen to the stellar new episode of the Reply All podcast, “The Case of the Missing Hit.”

3. Jumping into deeper and considerably more murky waters, Fr. Stephen Freeman asks this week, “Can you forgive someone else’s enemies?” That the zeitgeist shouts its “No!” so loudly should be a tip-off that he answers in the affirmative. As an aside, I find Fr Freeman’s abiding distaste for (and resentment of?) any legal framework in theological matters to be baffling to the point of off-putting–as though one dimension of forgiveness rules out others. Especially when said legal schema is both biblical and pastoral in the extreme. Course, as with everything the man writes, there’s much to be gleaned here. The line about blame alone!

Photo by Deanna Dikeman, 2006 –

“Forgive everyone for everything.” It is a quote taken from The Brothers K and the fictional Elder Zosima, but it is certainly a sentiment well within the bounds of Orthodox Christian thought. I have been challenged from time to time by people arguing that we cannot forgive those who have not sinned against us – that this right belongs only to the victims involved. I believe this is profoundly untrue. But to understand why, it is necessary to look deeply into the meaning and function of forgiveness.

I should add as an aside that those who argue loudly that they cannot forgive some else’s enemies find little trouble in blaming someone else’s enemies. They do not think this to be beyond their reach.

Forgiving is “loosing.” Refusing to forgive is “binding.”… When we sin, or even when we are involved in sin, we become bound. There is a binding that occurs because we ourselves were the cause of the sin. There is a binding that occurs because we ourselves were the victim of a sin. There is a binding that occurs because we simply witness the sin…

Of course, it jars us to hear that someone dares to forgive the killer of a child. “Only the child could offer such forgiveness!” These words were spoken by Ivan Karamazov as he professed his refusal of God’s mercy. He demanded justice for an injured child. Forgiveness that works by justice is no forgiveness at all. Forgiveness is not the child saying, “What you did to me is ok.” It is loosing the bonds that are forged in sin. The forgiveness of sin is the trampling down of death by death – an act of radical, undeserved resurrection.

We often think that not forgiving someone is only destructive for them. But the lack of forgiveness is often equally devastating for a victim as well… Murder is the triumph of a lie. Forgiveness is the triumph of an even greater truth.

It is striking how utterly central forgiveness was to the ministry of Christ. It dominates almost everything He did. Many observe that He kept company with “sinners.” But He first and foremost forgave them. Their loyalty and devotion to Him flowed from the spiritual loosing that they found in Him.

We talk about this quite a bit on The Mockingcast this week. Suffice it to say, regardless of how we answer Father Freeman’s question, it nonetheless remains a question of Ought–of Law, not Gospel–and therefore a question of capacity. And there are very few ethical domains more stubborn when it comes to human agency than that of forgiveness. So perhaps, while we wait with hope for the chains to be loosed, it is enough to hold on to the audacious claim that God forgives those whose boundness has made them fundamentally forgiveness-averse. Indeed, He extends pardon even to those who, er, bound Jesus to those wooden pylons.

4. Longread of the week has got to be Alan Jacobs’ “review” of Terrence Malick’s new film A Hidden Life. Indeed, “review” would be a severe understatement. The film–by all reliable accounts a masterpiece of religious filmmaking–inspired Prof Jacobs to muse on the nature of cinema, criticism, mystery, beauty, and even the Passion itself. Nice to see St Alban’s Waco get such a loving shout-out too.

5. In humor, The Onion had a couple funny ones this week, e.g., ‘No, Stop, Please,’ Shouts Woman As Hands Uncontrollably Google All Of Boyfriend’s Exes and Weighted Blanket Sure To Succeed Where CBD, Salt Lamp, Oil Diffuser, Acupressure Mat, Bath Bombs, And White Noise Machine Failed a. Over on Sadanduseless Worlds’ Greatest Gallery of Men in Socks and Sandals had me laughing too. But definitely the funniest thing I stumbled on this week was the cult-of-productivity-skewering “Winners Wake Up Early: Every Article I’ve Written About My Morning Routine” over at Shouts and Murmurs (“Winners Wake Up at 4:30 A.M.: The Science of How We Can All Become Rich by Being Less Pathetic” and so on).

6. For the #lowanthropology file, writing for The NY Times, Alex Stone profiled a subset of citizens whom he politely terms ‘harbingers of failure.” These are folks with an uncanny attraction to products and candidates that don’t pan out. Call it bad intuition or bad luck or some combo thereof, it would be comic if it didn’t also makes a person think of Jesus’ disciples–or even, from a certain angle, Christ himself:

“We looked in the data and saw there were some customers who were really good at picking out failures” — so good, in fact, that a newly introduced product was less likely to survive if it attracted these buyers. (And if they bought it repeatedly, its chances of survival were even worse.) Professor Tucker called these people harbingers of failure because, statistically speaking, their fondness for a product heralded its demise…

Being a dowsing rod for disappointments, moreover, appears to be a curiously stable attribute, a “sticky” trait that is transported but not transmitted and doesn’t bow to shifting social norms. “It’s not a contagious thing,” Professor Tucker says. “It’s an inherent characteristic.”

But what exactly is that characteristic? Who are the harbingers? Attempts to characterize these people have borne little fruit.

7. Over at The Hedgehog Review, yet another trenchant reflection from Jon Malesic, this time in defense of.. regret. Not just a refreshing dissent from the YOLO zeitgeist, the essay doubles as a seasonally appropriate defense of, well, repentance and contrition.

[According to today’s prevailing wisdom] instead of ruing our past, we should own it—our wins, losses, truths, lies, loves, cruelties, scars, jail terms, adolescent poems, tweets, everything—and enter the future with abandon. According to digital-age folklore, the only regrets that truly sting are over actions not taken: jobs not applied for, alluring beauties not dated, trips untaken, fears unfaced.

To test your commitment to the philosophy of no regrets, imagine, as Friedrich Nietzsche suggests, that a demon comes to find you “in your loneliest loneliness” to tell you that you will repeat all your actions, past and future, in exact sequence, an infinite number of times. Even the demon’s visit, and your response to it, will recur forever. “Would you not throw yourself down and gnash your teeth and curse the demon who spoke thus?” Nietzsche asks. “Or how well disposed would you have to become to yourself and to life to crave nothing more fervently than this ultimate eternal confirmation and seal?”

“No regrets” sounds great on TV and shares well on social media because we equate decisiveness with importance and control. But to live proudly without regret is to ratify your own idiocy, to take unjustified self-satisfaction in your existence. Your past actions made you who you are, sure, but maybe who you are isn’t so great. Without regret, you have no way to reckon with that. Knowing that dating that person blew up several friendships and netted you an STD (its own eternal recurrence), do you relish the thought of repeating the affair over and over, forever?

Reminds me a bit of my father’s counter-intuitive (and unpopular) maxim: we can’t change our future, we can’t change our present, the only thing that can actually be changed is our past. Meaning, today is already sliding into the past #bondageofthewill; tomorrow is an abstraction (and in God’s hands); but yesterday can be (and has been!) reconciled and redeemed. The Cross recasts the past as prelude, which in turn recasts the future and the present.

8. And finally, speaking of the past and one’s parents, the photo essay “A Photographer’s Parents Wave Farewell” featured in The New Yorker made this grown man cry. I’ve included a few entries above but you really need to take in the whole thing, with commentary, to get the gist. Such a dear, humble, true portrait of sustaining love, set against a backdrop of mortality and the passing of time. All the feels, as the kids say–and I praise God for it.

TYLER MOCKINGBIRD FESTIVAL 2020 from Matt Magill on Vimeo.