1. Let me ask you this: which religions-that-aren’t-called-religions do you think are the most popular, and which do you predict will become even more popular? Those are two questions I got in nearly every interview for Seculosity, so for the paperback–out Aug 25th!–I took the opportunity to put a few thoughts down on paper.

Needless to say, when it comes to sheer ascendancy, the seculosity of (partisan) politics sits at the top of the heap. The increase in religious energy flowing in the direction of Capitol Hill, from every direction, is frankly astounding. And yet, I’d still venture that career remains the most popular form of seculosity today. That is, people are more likely to sacrifice their love life or their politics for their résumés than the other way round. “Success” almost always wins in practice, however large the spiritual-emotional cost.

This was brought home yet again in the stunning article that Arthur Brooks penned for the Atlantic this week on “Why Success Won’t Make You Happy.” Brooks argues persuasively that many of us actually suffer from an addiction to success (and the praise it garners), not just a desire for it. You can know in your head that career success doesn’t bring lasting happiness–you can watch Hook on repeat every day and LOVE it–but knowledge won’t be enough to kick the habit. The hedonic treadmill is called a treadmill for a reason:

Though it isn’t a conventional medical addiction, for many people success has addictive properties. To a certain extent, I mean that literally—praise stimulates the neurotransmitter dopamine, which is implicated in all addictive behaviors.

But success also resembles addiction in its effect on human relationships. People sacrifice their links with others for their true love, success. They travel for business on anniversaries; they miss Little League games and recitals while working long hours. Some forgo marriage for their careers—earning the appellation of being “married to their work”—even though a good relationship is more satisfying than any job.

Many scholars, such as the psychologist Barbara Killinger, have shown that people willingly sacrifice their own well-being through overwork to keep getting hits of success. I know a thing or two about this: As I once found myself confessing to a close friend, “I would prefer to be special than happy.” He asked why. “Anyone can do the things it takes to be happy—going on vacation with family, relaxing with friends … but not everyone can accomplish great things.”

My friend scoffed at this, but I started asking other people in my circles and found that I wasn’t unusual. Many of them had made the success addict’s choice of specialness over happiness. They (and sometimes I) would put off ordinary delights of relaxation and time with loved ones until after this project, or that promotion, when finally it would be time to rest. But, of course, that day never seemed to arrive … 

Can you relate? If the pursuit of justification, or “enoughness,” is what drives most human affairs (as opposed to the pursuit of pleasure or power), then no wonder Brooks found this to be true. After all, “special” equates to “enough” over “happy” any day. Also, “special” feels a lot more like “lovable”–or a means to love–than “happy.” He goes on to draw out the pitfalls of performancism (aka justification by works of the law of “specialness”) in no uncertain terms:

Success addicts giving up their habit experience a kind of withdrawal as well. Research finds that depression and anxiety are common among elite athletes after their careers end; Olympic athletes, in particular, suffer from the “post-Olympic blues.” I saw this withdrawal all the time in my years as the president of a think tank in Washington, D.C. Prominent people in politics and media would step back from the limelight—sometimes of their own volition, sometimes not—and suffer mightily. They talked of virtually nothing but the old days. Many suffered from depression and anxiety.

Success in and of itself is not a bad thing, any more than wine is a bad thing. Both can bring fun and sweetness to life. But both become tyrannical when they are a substitute for—instead of a complement to—the relationships and love that should be at the center of our lives.

He closes by giving a few AA-sounding suggestions about how to get clean, but unfortunately leaves out the Antiques Roadshow solution:

2. Lots of articles about coping right now, for obvious reasons, and not just here on Mbird. First up would be Emily VanDerWerff’s lengthy look into “The enduring appeal of The Office in a crumbling world.” I can corroborate her findings 100%, at least if the college students in our town are any indication. I honestly don’t think there’s a more popular show in that demographic. And the image of using it to help fall asleep is not arbitrary. Parks and Rec plays a similar role, but not as universally. Here’s Emily:

Most shows that become this big in reruns have at least a hint of escapism to them—think Friends (with its candy-colored New York City full of attractive, presumably rich, white people) or The Simpsons (set in an animated world). The Office is a little gray and drab, a little like being devoured whole by a week of Mondays. It takes place in a world where you wear a tie to work, drive every day to a dull office park, where the closest thing to excitement is playing a prank on a coworker. The series features a kind of social realism largely missing from more current notions about the importance of “meaningful” work.

This contrast makes The Office feel like it takes place in a weirdly bygone era, where our lives are not our jobs and our jobs are not our passion. The series even takes place in Scranton, Pennsylvania, a small city in the middle of the country, exactly the sort of place hollowed out by recession and corporate restructuring in the 21st century.

What’s remarkable about The Office is not only that it’s so beloved, but that it seems to be popular with just about everyone. Teens who will most likely never work at a paper company love it. Their parents, who might be worried about their jobs amid the economic collapse, love it. And lots and lots of people use it to soothe anxieties both current and eternal.

She interviews a number of superfans to get to the bottom of the show’s appeal, and clearly there’s no single attribute that accounts for its endurance. But of all the factors–the non-threatening mundanity, the now-archetypal characters (which have become an accepted shorthand), the genuine and consistent hilarity–my hunch is that the most overlooked is probably “the heart” of the show:

[Office superfan Jamie] Coletta told me to look beyond Jim and Pam to The Office as a whole to see one of the most love-filled programs in American television history.

“It’s about being a hopeless romantic in a way. Everybody wants to find love! That’s a very universal thing,” she says. “The show is a bunch of different people working at a really boring job and the ins and outs of their interpersonal relationships with one another. And by the end of it, I want them to have found their people. I want them to have found their happiness.”

3. Along similar lines the Atlantic explored Why is Bob Ross Still So Popular? It would appear that he has become the ultimate non-anxious (fatherly) presence in a world desperate for one:

Even in the comments under the YouTube videos, usually one of the more poisonous forums on the internet, nearly all of the posts are appreciative. Under a video with nearly 30 million views, the top comments run along the lines of “If art teachers were all like Ross, no one would fail, no one would feel ashamed to show their work, no one would dread to come to art class. He is so inspiring!” And: “He didn’t paint to show how good of a painter he was. He painted to show how good of a painter you could be.”

A Bob Ross level of positivity is contagious. When someone can conjure that amount of peaceful happiness, it compels other people to pay attention, to partake in the bliss. Each episode also feels complete: What starts out as a few scratches on the canvas soon turns into an elaborate, beautiful glimpse of the world. His message was prescient, too. More than a decade before most therapists were telling clients to be mindful and present, Ross was telling his viewers to appreciate their every breath.

4. Over at Christianity Today, Glenn Packiam explores one of the church’s greatest resources for coping in times like these, namely, singing. The article is taken in part from Glenn’s new book, Worship and the World to Come: Exploring Christian Hope in Contemporary Worship:

So what do we do without physical touch and social interaction? We sing. … [S]tudies show that “after a group singing session, oxytocin increased significantly for singers.” Singing makes us feel better. Science, as it turns out, agrees.

So would the ancient Hebrews. In their songbook, the Psalms, they lift up praise and petitions, laments and sorrow, and calls for God’s attention and action. But they were not simply singing to feel better, as an act of ritual catharsis. In prayer and in song, they lifted their souls to God, their covenant God—the sole sovereign over creation who had bound himself to them in love. We learn from the ancient Hebrews that the power of singing is not simply in the song but in who you are singing to.

Centuries after the Psalms were penned, two traveling teachers were arrested, beaten, and thrown in prison. They were the first generation of followers of Jesus the Messiah, convinced that he was the Son of God, indeed, that he was Israel’s God who had come to rule as king. Crucified by the Romans, he had been raised up and made to be the Lord of the whole world. Chains in a Roman prison in Philippi could not quell the surge of their hope. And so it was that Paul and Silas, at midnight when the hour was dark and the outlook was bleak, began to sing. Christians sing like it’s morning even while it’s midnight in the world … 

Christians are those who believe that because Jesus was raised from the dead, the worst day will not be the last day. So we sing. And we welcome you to sing along.

Here’s one I’ve been singing along to this past week:

5. Following up on the beautiful John Lewis story from earlier today, I found Alan Jacobs’s musings on race and grace at the university where he teaches (Baylor) to be both helpful and brave, in particular these two whammy paragraphs:

It’s become fashionable, in some circles, to denounce calls for reconciliation. Some say, “We don’t want reconciliation, we want justice.” But to Christians, reconciliation is what justice is for. When injustice marks our relations, then what is unjust must be repaired or healed in some way, insofar as that is possible, so that we may live peaceably and lovingly with one another. Walking away from one another is not, for Christians, an option. Forgiveness must be asked for and granted, ordered and received.

In my judgment, it is the opportunity to receive and extend forgiveness that is the greatest possible inducement to repentance and amendment of life, and—I cannot stress this too strongly—a shared repentance and amendment of life make genuine community possibleWe will join the prophets and cry out for justice to roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. But we will also echo St. Paul and tell you that we Christians forgive others because God in Christ has forgiven us. We will tell you that your shortcomings and failures can never outpace the mercy of God, who loves his wayward children, all of them, and will someday wipe from their eyes every tear. This is the great hope of those who wound as well as those who are wounded. And all of us sometimes wound and sometimes are wounded.

6. Speaking of forgiveness, Relevant re-ran an article that Malcolm Gladwell wrote for them around the publication of David and Goliath, the conclusion of which is worth revisiting:

I have always believed in God. I have grasped the logic of Christian faith. What I have had a hard time seeing is God’s power.

I put that sentence in the past tense because something happened to me when I sat in Wilma Derksen’s garden. It was one thing to read in a history book about people empowered by their faith. But it is quite another to meet an otherwise very ordinary person, in the backyard of a very ordinary house, who has managed to do something utterly extraordinary.

Their daughter was murdered. And the first thing the Derksens did was to stand up at the press conference and talk about the path to forgiveness. “We would like to know who the person or persons are so we could share, hopefully, a love that seems to be missing in these people’s lives.”

Maybe we have difficulty seeing the weapons of the spirit because we don’t know where to look, or because we are distracted by the louder claims of material advantage. But I’ve seen them now, and I will never be the same.

7. Humor-wise, it’s somewhat slim pickings out there at present. So I was grateful that the Hard Times reminded me of “Local Man Gets in Touch With Nature by Relentlessly Instagramming Hike.” Then the Onion hit close to home with “Man Somehow Able To Muster Strength To Fold Laundry Without Listening To Podcast“. The Happy Priest on Instagram has been warning folks about the seven deadly sins via pictures of goats. Finally, Greg from Succession weighed in with a ‘tomlette’ of a 2020 pop punk anthem:

8. Checking in on the music world, the new Jarvis Cocker record has only been out a couple weeks but it’s a keeper (“I can resist gentrification / But I can’t resist… temptation”). Brooklyn Vegan ran a lengthy interview with the former Pulp frontman and he tells a story toward the end that knocked me over:

The bit of Paris I live in is quite near to the Sacré-Cœur cathedral. It’s up on a hill and sometimes I would push [my son] up there in a stroller. Like in a lot of places in the world, religious places, now, are really tourist attractions. They certainly feel like they’re more tourist attractions than they are spiritual places and you get kind of crowds of people hanging around taking pictures of them looking at them. I went into Sacré-Cœur this one time because I like going to churches because they’re quiet. Even a church like that which has got a lot of through-traffic of tourists, people generally will be quiet in a church.

So I’ll go and sit there, and I like the stained glass especially when the sun is shining through it and you get nice patterns on the floor and stuff. And I was sat in the church this one time and a woman was sitting next to me and she just started talking to me. And that’s the incident that’s described in the middle of the song. So there’s a big sign up in Sacré-Cœur that says no photography and she said, “I took a photograph.” And I said, “Oh, okay.” And she said, “I’m really worried now. I’ve sinned in this sacred place.” And I said, “Well, I don’t think anybody would have seen you do it.” And she said, “But God saw me do it, maybe.” I wasn’t really taking the conversation that seriously, but I said, “Well, He probably had some other things to look at rather than you taking a picture in Sacré-Cœur.” And then she said, “Well, maybe it’s like a speed camera.” And I said, “I don’t quite follow you.” And she said, “Well, a speed camera, you drive, and the speed camera automatically takes a picture and then you just get a fine in the mail three weeks later. And maybe God’s like that. He’s not watching actively but if you sin, it’s registered somewhere.”

So I couldn’t deny the logic of what she was saying, so I said, “Okay. Well, if you think that, you’re in a church so maybe this would be the place to ask for forgiveness.” And then she did start to cry … Like I say, although I’ve not got a deep particular faith, I do believe there’s a spiritual dimension to life. Or at least I want to believe there’s a spiritual dimension to life because I think that enriches life a lot. So I do go and visit places, and I do get something from being in those places.

Finally, major major props to our friend and Mcast listener Lonnie Lacy for going super-mega-viral with his Hamilton church parody:

Strays

  • At the risk of overload, I commend to you Matthew Barrett’s review for CT of Steven Lawson’s new book, New Life in Christ, in which he breaks down the beauty of that oft-misused phrase “born-again”:

We think the new birth is something we must do. But that misses the miracle of it all. It also misses the meaning of the metaphor: Birth is something that happens to us, not something we accomplish. How much more so with matters of the heart? Lawson stresses that the new birth is the work of the Spirit, not the work of any sinner.

That might sound unnerving to evangelicals today, in that it pictures the new birth as something other than an offer we can choose to accept or reject. But Jesus is in the habit of turning preconceived assumptions upside down, even if they belong to Israel’s most renowned scholar. The reason Jesus’ words are so shocking is this: Like babies in the womb, we can do nothing to bring about this new birth. It is not something we initiate. Nor is it a cooperative effort between us and God. It is completely his doing, a phenomenon so unnatural it can only be attributed to the Holy Spirit.

  • The Far Side Returns to a Weird World via the New Yorker
  • New Mcast has been recorded and should be up tomorrow!
  • Last but not least, PZ has been asked to do a video course on church history, and the first installment just dropped. A new format (and audience~!) for the man some of us call father, but I’d say he pulls it together beautifully: