Another Week Ends

1. Late in November, I had to stop watching the news. (As if it had […]

CJ Green / 12.11.20

1. Late in November, I had to stop watching the news. (As if it had been so beneficial prior to that.) But more than ever, the headline refrains were becoming, for me, untenable: Don’t visit your family! Thanksgiving=bad! But I had already made up my mind. I was going. And it seems I wasn’t the only one. At the Atlantic, Julia Marcus reflected on the holiday season rule-flouting, as well as the messaging about it. “Lecturing,” as she describes it, has “its limits.”

Instead of yelling even louder about Christmas than about Thanksgiving, government officials, health professionals, and ordinary Americans alike might try this: Stop all the chastising. Remember that the public is fraying. And consider the possibility that when huge numbers of people indicate through their actions that seeing loved ones in person is nonnegotiable, they need practical ways to reduce risk that go beyond “Just say no.”

Anger at people who are flouting public-health guidelines is understandable, not least for exhausted health-care workers and those who are especially vulnerable to infection. But many long months into this pandemic, people are at their wits’ end: economically depleted, socially isolated, and disgruntled about — and in some cases genuinely baffled by — the arbitrariness of some of the restrictions on their daily lives. And if the HIV epidemic has revealed anything, it’s that shaming does little to deter risky behavior. Instead, it perpetuates stigma, which drives behavior underground and hinders prevention efforts. Americans have been told during this pandemic that taking any risks, no matter how carefully calculated, is a sign of bad character — so it’s no surprise when people are reluctant to notify others whom they may have exposed or engage with contact tracers.

If you ever needed a case-study in Law, here it is. It’s what theologians have understood for centuries: commandments cannot produce what they command. Instead, people game the system, or even, in many cases, outright rebel.

Very few people want to get infected or get others sick. When people take risks, it often reflects an unmet need: for a paycheck, for social connection, for accurate information about how to protect themselves. Acknowledging and meeting people’s needs will reduce risk behavior; finger-wagging won’t. …

And, just like safer-sex education, guidance for this holiday season must also include nuanced information about how people can protect themselves if they travel to that Christmas dinner anyway: minimizing contacts and testing before and afterward, keeping gatherings small, driving instead of flying, masking when indoors or close to others, meeting outdoors if feasible, and increasing ventilation when outdoors isn’t an option. Giving any risk-mitigation advice might seem imprudent when the dangers of social contact are so acute, but adherence to public-health recommendations is never universal, and everyone needs access to information and tools to stay safer.

A change in public messaging is not likely to happen, in this crisis, or any other. The sheer glee of trying to subdue others with impossible mandates is too powerful. But we can, at least, take a smaller step and look at ourselves the way Marcus suggests: with pragmatism under the circumstances, and compassion.

2. On a lighter note, I really enjoyed this meditation on libraries from Ben Dolnick in the New York Times. The library, he writes, is like a portal to the future, where you can discover what seductive new books will eventually be. Their newness fades, the content reveals itself (and is usually less than life-changing), and the book gathers dust on some shelf. Depressing! But Dolnick extrapolates some life lessons:

[I]n dispelling my fantasies of permanence, the library does more than save me the cost of a paperback — it provides me with a template for navigating the great sea of longing and disappointment that is life. […] The library, in addition to its many civic duties, can function as a great engine of personal clarity, of facing facts, of recognizing that life is not, in the main, a pristine hardcover with deckle edges; it is a threadbare thing from a few decades ago whose binding is barely hanging on and in which someone unstable once went to town with a lime green highlighter.

Library-induced realism is a great thing, one that can do much to increase your happiness. Because the world in which you are perpetually under the impression that the next book purchase, the next apartment, the next significant other will be the one that finally delivers the goods is not a life of happiness. It is a life of perpetual dissatisfaction, a life of thin and sugary highs followed by long and unenlightening lows. The library is, with its careworn and temporary offerings, as lovely and as poignant a reminder of our actual human condition as the tides or a forest in fall. To quote Penelope Fitzgerald (whose books are well worth owning): “Our lives are only lent to us.”

3. That feels like an oddly apt parallel for the next two items. First, Ruth Graham detailed the downfall of celebrity pastor Carl Lentz, also in the New York Times. The article highlights Lentz’ association with celebrities like Justin Bieber, as well as his career at the storied megachurch Hillsong. In October, it was discovered that Lentz had been having an affair, shortly after which the church fired him.

For her part, Graham takes the opportunity to examine Hillsong as a culture and a structure. She emphasizes the church’s image management, something many (most?) large religious groups seem susceptible to:

At Hillsong, living well and looking good are sometimes framed as forms of evangelism. Janice Lagata, who was an early attendee at the New York branch, recalled leaders referring to a well-known verse from 1 Samuel that reads in part, “Man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.” The verse is traditionally interpreted as an exhortation to look past appearances. At Hillsong, the verse was “twisted,” Ms. Lagata said: God’s presence is not in doubt, but to attract superficial “man,” it was important to present the best “outward appearance” possible.

The church seemed to go out of its way to cultivate a hierarchy of coolness. A reserved seating section for V.I.P.s appeared at the front of the church, and then expanded to take up multiple rows. Ms. Lagata, a former volunteer, said that when high-profile entertainers or sports stars would try to slip into the main seating area, content to worship with ordinary churchgoers, ushers were often instructed to guide them to the special section in front, or to whisk them backstage to meet Mr. Lentz. “The staff built this culture, and made them a big deal,” Ms. Lagata said. “A lot of us felt torn because it doesn’t feel like something Jesus would do.”

It’s assumed the church’s slimier attributes are related to Lentz’ undoing. But David French took a different approach, weighing in at his own site. Focusing less on the structural problems than on the emotional ones, French notes that Lentz’s downfall is far from unique. “It’s happened again,” he writes, seemingly unsurprised.

The longer I live, the more I understand a verse from the book of Jeremiah: “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick, who can understand it?” I also ponder the truth of C.S. Lewis’s definition of courage (you’ve heard me quote it before): “Courage is not simply one of the virtues but the form of every virtue at the testing point, which means at the point of highest reality.” (Emphasis added.)

I’ve known pastors who were absolutely convinced that they were faithful men — right until the moment when they made a “connection” with the attractive woman in the front pew. I’ve known Christian leaders who believed they were honest — right until the moment when honesty might harm their ministry. And I’ve known celebrities who believed they were humble — but who also somehow convinced themselves that God needs their ministry to accomplish His work on earth.

Moreover, the celebrity’s apparent talent and relevant success teach him to do the things he must not do: to trust himself, to believe that he is a person of virtue, to believe that he is important. This is particularly dangerous when talent and success almost always create both opportunity and motive for serious sin.

As a post-script, I went to re-listen to Hillsong’s most popular song “Oceans,” and halfway through was interrupted by an ad for salsa verde enchiladas. If that’s not a metaphor, I don’t know what is.

4. Yet another, albeit more tragic, celebrity demise was that of “business evangelist” Tony Hsieh, the Zappos entrepreneur, who died last week in a fire. This transpired after his behavior became reportedly more dangerous and self-destructive. Forbes interviewed over 20 of Hsieh’s friends and acquaintances who painted the picture of a man obsessed with the pursuit of happiness:

“He fostered so much human connection and happiness, yet there was this void,” [a] close friend continued. “It was difficult for him to be alone.”

[…] his brainchild also appeared to carry a dark side. Across the span of 18 months in 2013 and 2014, three founders of startups linked to the Downtown Project died by suicide. […] “[Hsieh] was trying to understand it through the data,” says Paul Bradley Carr, a journalist who became close friends with Hsieh. “I think Tony saw happiness as a problem he was trying to solve, an algorithm he was trying to crack.”

Hsieh’s friend, the singer Jewel, tried to offer a reality check. In a letter shortly before he died, she wrote:

“When you look around and realize that every single person around you is on your payroll, then you are in trouble […]

“If the world could see how you are living, they would not see you as a tech visionary, they would see you as a drug-addicted man who is a cliché. And that’s not how you should go down or be known,” she wrote in her letter to him. “Your body cannot take not sleeping. And the amount of N2O you are doing is not natural. You will not hack sleep and you will not outsmart nature.” She added that he risked crossing the line “from eccentric to madness.”

It’s tempting to make a parable out of what is obviously just a very sad story of a real, albeit surreally successful, person. Still, I’m reminded of something Alain Ehrenberg wrote in The Weariness of the Self (a book that mysteriously arrived in the Mockingbird office recently). For Ehrenberg, depression is tied directly to the ever-present expectation that people can make themselves successful and happy.

Depression presents itself as an illness of responsibility in which the dominant feeling is that of failure. The depressed individual is unable to measure up; he is tired of having to become himself.

5. Time for some humor? Think so, yes. This headline from the Onion really made me laugh: “Facts Carefully Redacted From Travel Story To Avoid Revealing It Mission Trip.” Can’t say I’ve never related to that.

But my absolute favorite humor piece from this week — and maybe this year — is the riveting narrative of how Jesus inspired the spawn of the devil, Satan Claws, to evolve into the purpose-driven toy-maker Santa Claus. It’s called “The 100% True History of Santa, and Jesus, Probably,” from John and Charlie Moe, at McSweeney’s. Here’s a snippet:

One night, Jesus had gotten together with his closest friends for a big dinner. Santa was invited but declined, saying he had some toys to build. Jesus just shook his head and laughed. Classic Santa.

And here is a timely link from the Reductress: “How to Resist Screaming ‘You Don’t Even Know Me, Do You???’ When Your Mom Asks for Holiday Gift Ideas.”

6. Anyone interested in literary culture and criticism should check out this recent interview with UVA English professor Rita Felski. Discussing the evolving landscape of academic criticism, she points out that

there’s now a greater willingness to acknowledge one’s enjoyment of a novel or a film — and to reflect on the varied and complex reasons for such enjoyment — without rushing to label it as either conservative or subversive. There are other, more interesting adjectives. […]

I used to get into arguments with colleagues who thought we should give up value judgments altogether because they’re hierarchical and elitist. But … evaluation is inescapable. […]

When it comes to aesthetic experience, however, there is no single set of criteria by which to evaluate works of art. To borrow a phrase from John Frow, there are different regimes of value: People like works of art for many different reasons. I’m not sure that literary scholars engage adequately with these reasons. That may sound like an odd thing to say, given that there’s now much more attention paid to popular culture and politics in literary studies. But in academic contexts, this often gets routed back into the language of paradox or irony or ambiguity — the same formalist literary values that dominated in the middle of the last century.

TL;DR: The heart wants what it wants. I’m reminded of David Zahl’s timeless commentary on guilty pleasures and the self-justification of taste.

7. Which brings us to probably the biggest news of the week. If you haven’t heard, Taylor Swift has released yet another surprise album. These back-to-back releases might be annoying (what have YOU accomplished this year??) if they weren’t so good. I like how Alexis Petridis puts it: “as lockdown overachievements go, it’s pretty impressive.”

Following the July release of folklore, Swift explains, “It feels like we were standing on the edge of the Folklorian woods and had a choice — to turn and go back or travel further into the forest of this music … We chose to go deeper in.”

8. Lastly, here is a classic Advent reflection from Walter Russell Mead (posted to Mbird in 2012); these many years later, it holds up as one of the more poignant, concise reasons for the season:

As a kid I could never understand why Advent was a season of fasting and solemnity in the church rather than a time of feasting and dancing. What better way to prepare for a really big celebration than to have a lot of little celebrations as you approach it? What better way to get into the mood? …

But as I’ve reflected on the holiday over the years, I think I see more reason for making Advent a season of restraint and reflection rather than anticipatory fun. We can never really understand Christmas unless we understand how much we need that baby in the manger. Advent is a time to think about the ways that life without God is an empty husk […]

I remember Christopher Hitchens saying once that we were all like mudballs, catapulted up into the air and sailing along very nicely, but that one day all of us, sooner or later, will hit something and go splat. Advent is a time to remember that it will all end and end in a splat. There are those who think that we should try not to think about depressing subjects like that, but in fact the ability to face the prospect of life’s end with some dignity and courage is part of what makes the rest of life rich and worth living.

For Christians, and nobody else really has much business thinking about Advent or observing it, there is something else. If there is no Christmas, there is no Cross, no answer to the problems of sin, separation, failure and pain. Advent is a time to think about what life would be like if we didn’t have faith in a Redeemer, a Savior who was ready, willing and able to complete the broken arc of our lives, forgive what is past and walk with us step by step to help us build something better in the time that is left.

Advent is a time to remember that we need something more than what we can summon with our own resources to make our lives work. It’s a time to remember how lost we would be if Someone hadn’t come to find us.

Strays: 

  • According to Gallup, people who attended religious services weekly were the only demographic whose mental health went up in the last year.