Another Week Ends

1. I don’t know about you but while I enjoy its long-form profiles and cartoons, […]

David Zahl / 4.3.20

1. I don’t know about you but while I enjoy its long-form profiles and cartoons, as a general rule I don’t look to The New Yorker for wisdom on churchgoing. But everything else is being turned on it’s head at the moment, so why not our reading proclivities? Cue the moving essay that Casey Cep wrote on The Gospel in a Time of Social Distancing. After surveying how various churches are pivoting (or not) during this pandemic, Cep offers some timely and deeply hopeful observations about what we’re terming “remote worship.”

It’s easy to feel like all that modern gadgetry is the very opposite of spiritual, but the ability of the faithful to be together when they are not is one of Christianity’s oldest technologies…. [I] remember being in the church when my father was an usher and I was barely big enough to help him pass the heavy brass offering plate. He also handed out bulletins in the narthex and delivered the faithful to the altar for Communion, but my favorite of all the tasks he performed was ringing the bell, at the start of worship and at the end, but also near the middle of the service.

Later in life, when I took a more meaningful interest in the liturgy and all its components… it finally occurred to me to ask my pastor why we rang the bell when we did, during the Lord’s Prayer. In response, he asked if I could name any of the farmers who were not there for worship because of the harvest or recall any of the homebound who could no longer make it to services. We ring the bell for them, he told me, so that they know when we have gathered and when we are sent back into the world, and so that, no matter how far they are from the sanctuary, they can join us in reciting the words that Jesus taught us to pray. For almost as long as the Church has existed, bells have called Christians together when they have to be apart.

I’ve thought often this week of something else I learned from another pastor, one whom I met much later in life when I was away from home, living in a city, where it was far more common to hear the sound of an ambulance siren. Think of it as a kyrie, he said: a plea for Christ to have mercy. Many of us will be hearing more of those sirens than church bells in the weeks to come, but perhaps those, too, can call us to prayer, and to one another.

2. Next, over in The American Scholar, Philip Acabes put his finger on yet another psycho-spiritual factor that has emerged during “coronatide”, namely, “The Anxiety of Culpability.” Add it to the jumble of emotions boggling our hearts at present. I mean, who knew you could feel anxious, guilty, resentful, relieved, and grateful all at once?

These days, and even before coronavirus, social media were making every piece of advice, no matter how useless or how incorrect, abundantly available. The stakes feel higher now, though. If I don’t do yoga or meditate for stress reduction, don’t drink green tea for the antioxidants, and don’t remember to change my Facebook password every three months (I don’t), I may nonetheless remain confident that both the world and I will muddle through. But if I should be wearing a mask when I go out for a walk and I don’t, will I get coronavirus and die? Worse, will I have contributed to the catastrophe by spreading virus to others? Suddenly, civilization seems to be on my shoulders. Yours, too.

It’s not just frustration I feel, then, but also the anxiety of culpability. It’s not only the sudden awareness of the closeness of death that makes the Coronavirus Era so disconcerting. It’s also the fear of terrible error.

3. It’s refreshing to see the number of voices pushing against the cult of productivity (and seculosity of work) in a time like this. CJ highlighted Nick Martin’s opening salvo for The New Republic the other day, Alan Lightman took up the banner on The Atlantic this week, as did Aisha Ahmed for The Chronicle of Higher Education. Then, in The NY Times, Taylor Lorenz urged us to Stop Trying to Be Productive:

[Burnout expert Anne Helen] Petersen said that the impulse to optimize every minute is especially common in millennials, many of whom are now balancing work and child care at home. “I think for millennials, our brains are particularly broken in terms of productivity,” she said. “Either you give up or feel bad about it all the time.”

Dr. Petersen said having compassion during these times is key. “I think that everyone is coping with this differently, and there’s a real tendency to shame people who aren’t coping with it the way you are or have different circumstances,” she said.

For a more upbeat take on the same theme, check out Jonathan Malesic’s Imagining a Better Life After the Coronavirus in The New Republic:

The pandemic has brought to light many failings of our society and values, among them the religious devotion to work: the very American notion that only through labor do our lives have meaning. Thus we have politicians arguing that the holy economy must not be forsaken even at a time like this—that some humans may need to make the ultimate sacrifice so that we all may continue working, generating and spending the money necessary to nourish the insatiable beast of American capitalism…

[Responses to the Coronavirus have] laid bare an axiom of our culture: You exist, first of all, to work. The coronavirus crisis is simultaneously reinforcing that axiom and undermining it. …to make post-pandemic working life more humane for all […,] we will also need to change the moral status of work, to displace it as our highest duty.

4. Not sure where you’re at with your quarantine culture consumption (I’m currently post-Tiger King, making my way through all of John Bellairs’ inter-generational Gothic adventure books), but over at Vox, Scott Indrisek explores the appeal of “dad lit,” in this case the work of Michael Connelly, author of the Bosch series. After turning up his nose at airport novels for years, Indrisek has found that reading his father’s favorite detective novels to be an effective form of therapy:

Part of the appeal of Bosch is, to be sure, the sense of a sane world where decency prevails by the bullet-riddled third act. It’s the same reason why so many people (not just dads) adore Law & Order: SVU. “Like most procedurals, SVU is beholden to a narrative formula,” Laura Barcella wrote in Rolling Stone, surveying the “soothingly formulaic rhythms” of the never-ending show. “In fact, part of the reason it feels so eerily comforting is because it serves as a sort of parallel universe where victims of unspeakable crimes are believed and often find justice.”

But forget about plot for a second. I’d venture that there’s something about Michael Connelly’s very prose that lends itself to a new parent’s internal clock. Readers get long stretches of boredom and repetition, of waiting around and dead-end interviews and paperwork and meals, punctuated by blasts of action that make your eyeballs shake — and that isn’t so far off from the lived experience of parenthood.

Beyond this, reading Bosch provides an illusion of semi-pro mastery that might otherwise be lacking in a dad’s life. I may not know how to soothe my infant’s monstrous gas, but I have a basic understanding of how a detective’s murder book is organized… Maybe dad lit is just a blank canvas on which to project all our hopes and fears, our sappy nostalgia and our hazy vision of the future.

5. “Celebrity Culture Is Burning” notes Amanda Hess in The NY Times, detailing the strange evolution our relationship with movie stars, pro athletes, and pop singers has undergone in recent weeks. From a #seculosity vantage point, I’d venture that celebrities serve an almost primordial religious purpose, bearing the burden not just of our hopes but our fears as well. The theological term being expiation. The price these individuals pay for their fame is objectification to the point where they can be consumed, guilt-free. But isolation has complicated that distance, pun only sort of intended, leaving celebrities more unscripted than usual–and therefore more vulnerable. I imagine the reactivity on our part has something to do with the rage we feel at our own powerlessness–that one way we express that the world has not been fair to us, or that things have been out of our control, is by trying to derive some semblance of it through surrogates. Anyways, it’s pretty fascinating to watch:

It must be a very hard time to be so famous. Celebrities are not among the very wealthiest Americans… but they are the ones who are tasked with liaising with the general public, offering vicarious access to their lifestyles… This compact rests on the celebrity’s ability to seem to move easily between the elite and the masses, to be aspirational and approachable at once. And under normal circumstances, they are accustomed to receiving accolades for “using their platforms” to “raise awareness” in the service of bland initiatives for the public good.

But our awareness has never been so easy to rouse, and misuse. Celebrities have a captive audience of traumatized people who are glued to the internet, eyes darting toward trending topics for clues to processing the unimaginable horrors looming just outside, and instead are finding Madonna bathing in a rose petal-strewn bath.

Stunts like Gal Gadot’s crowdsourced famous-person cover of John Lennon’s “Imagine” are tone-deaf in more ways than one. Most of these people cannot even sing; their contributions suggest that the very appearance of a celebrity is a salve, as if a pandemic could be overcome by star power alone.

And yet the antics of these celebrities, even as they are publicly shamed, still tug on our attention. I have never thought about Gal Gadot so much in my life… In addition to food and rent money and medical attention, people require sufficient entertainment to weather the lockdown. But if I’m going to pay attention to celebrities at a time like this, their contribution better be charming or deranged enough to distract me from the specter of mass suffering and death.

Thankfully, there are plenty of celebrities rising to the occasion too. So praise God for that.

6. In humor, the hits keep coming fast and furious. On The New Yorker, there’s “Things That Used to Be Annoying But Are Now a Comfort,” and “What Shakespeare Actually Did During the Plague“. The Hard Times cracked me up with “Guy Fieri Stuck In Flavortown Until Quarantine Lifted.” McSweeney’s chimed in with We, the Hard-Working, Newly Homeschooling Parents of America, Have Rewritten the Common Core Standards, and Frog and Toad Are Self-Quarantined Friends. But the funniest thing I’ve seen this week is Short Existentialist Plays Starring You, Your Coworkers, and Your Family During Quarantine. For example:


[YOU feel a tickle in your throat and stop typing mid-sentence.]

YOU: I think—

SPOUSE: You don’t have it.

[YOU suddenly feel a little hot.]

YOU: But what if—

SPOUSE: You don’t have it.

[A part of YOU would rather have it, and know YOU have it, than be plagued with this tortuous uncertainty. Another, more primal part of YOU would prefer not to contract a potentially fatal illness at all.]



SPOUSE: You don’t have it.

7. Quite a thrill to see my sister-in-law Bonnie Zahl’s brilliant 2016 article from the Mental Health Issue of our magazine, “Attachment Theory and Your Relationship With God,” written up so glowingly by Glenn Packiam in a timely piece on Lament for NT Wright’s website:

A few years ago, I read a stunning article by psychologist Bonnie Poon Zahl on attachment theory and our relationship with God. She describes attachment theory as an explanation of “how people learn to experience and respond to separation and distress in the context of core, close relationships from very early on in their lives.” Drawing on both John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth, Zahl explains the three types of attachment—a secure attachment, an anxious-avoidant attachment, or an anxious-ambivalent attachment. From Ainsworth’s research, an “anxious-avoidant” child didn’t care when they were separated or reunited with their parents, and only wanted to play alone; “anxious-ambivalent” children “clung to their parents, and were extremely upset when their parents left” and “were difficult to soothe” even when their parents returned, seeming “to be angry at their parents for leaving.” Zahl writes that research “confirms the tendency to see God as an attachment figure and the tendency to think about one’s relational dynamics with God along the same two dimensions of human attachment: anxiety about abandonment and avoidance of intimacy.”

When I read Zahl’s article, I thought about the value of honesty in the Psalms. By laying every emotion and every experience before YHWH, their covenant God, the psalmist was reinforcing a bond of intimacy, affirming an attachment. Just as God made covenant with Abraham by the breaking apart of animals, so Israel embodied the bond of the covenant by breaking open their hearts before God. The Torah was organized into five books of God’s instruction—His word to His people; the Psalms are organized into five books, guiding us in how to “answer God”. The God who speaks calls us into relationship. Lament is one of the ways we respond.

8. Finally, with Holy Week almost upon us, I was edified and deeply ministered to by the beautiful sermon that The Rev. Canon Jessica Martin preached on YouTube, ht AJ:

[Jesus] weeps for Lazarus, whom he loved and who died when he was far away. He weeps for himself, and for the goodness of life which he must leave, for the connections of love which will fall away, for the promise and hospitality of his first transforming encounters, shadowed now by the pain and isolation which lie in front of him. He weeps for and with the griefs of the human family for whom he will die, for every isolated death, every grieving sister and brother and mother. The lonely sorrow of every human being begins to fall upon the Son of God at the grave of his friend.

But he does not look away, and he does not falter. Love needs to be unflinching. Faced with the great rock doorway which separates the living from the dead he says, ‘Roll away the stone’. And from the place of death, real, actual death, with all the tragedy and sorrow which must attend it, the living man Lazarus will respond to God’s words of love and stumble blindly towards light and safety.

Because Jesus will die, Lazarus, who died, will live. There will be another tomb, and another great rock doorway between the living who grieve and the body’s resting place, and it will be rolled away by angels to reveal a space as clear and as empty as the Holy of Holies in Jerusalem’s Temple. The living, loving person will be somewhere else entirely.

Because the story of Jesus’s encounter with Lazarus is not a story of rescue, but of what happens beyond rescue; not a story of healing but of impending sacrifice; not a story of triumph, but of patience. Looking ahead to his own suffering, Jesus shows us the one important thing about the grief of God, and it is this: that love is stronger than death.

9. Oh, and I almost forgot! Yesterday marked one year since Seculosity came out. What a fantastic ride it’s been. Thank you to everyone who’s read the book, purchased the book, reviewed the book, posted about it, led a small group on it, podcasted about it – my cup truly runneth over. It’s been deeply gratifying to witness.

I was doing an interview about it the other day for the Christian Humanist Profiles podcast (should be up next week), and the interviewer observed that the Coronavirus has rendered Seculosity either obsolete or painfully relevant. I pray it’s the former but suspect it’s the latter. Time will tell.

If you’re twiddling your thumbs at home, there are worse ways to pass the time than by posting a short review on Amazon or GoodReads. It really helps.

Also on the self-promotion front, here’s the video I got to take part in–along with some familiar faces!–this past October at the Here We Still Stand conference in San Diego: