Another Week Ends

1. How can we not lead with this piece of delicious pop-history: Martin Luther would […]

Bryan J. / 1.29.21

1. How can we not lead with this piece of delicious pop-history: Martin Luther would have ruled Twitter, via Dominion author (and hopefully one-day conference speaker) Tom Holland. Part of what made/makes Luther such a compelling theologian is his down-to-earth, shocking, relatable polemic. The man does not mince his words, which is either a testament to his confidence in God’s love in his life or (if you were the recipient of his contempt) evidence against God’s love in his life.

To describe the Reformation as a Twitter spat that got out of hand would obviously be anachronistic. Nevertheless, it is not entirely so: for it hints at a quality of Luther’s genius that we, in the age of social media, are perhaps peculiarly qualified to appreciate […]

He was — to coin a metaphor — a digital theologian faced by ponderously analogue foes. The technology he exploited was, of course, the printing press. No one had recognised its potential as readily as Luther, nor leveraged it to such seismic effect. The impact of his 95 theses had been crucially dependent on his determination to have them broadcast as widely as possible. He carried on as he had begun […]

Luther, by coming to the Diet of Worms, by sticking his head in the lion’s jaws, by daring the emperor to do his worst, had demonstrated in the most dramatic manner possible everything that had made him so effective a rebel against the established order: his daring, his popularity, his refusal to bow and cringe before his foes. Yet all these qualities would have been for nothing had they been in the service merely of his own ego. Certainly, Luther believed himself to be loved by God — but not because he merited such love. As a monk, he had lived in dread of divine judgement, starving himself and praying every night, confessing his sins for long hours at a time, wearying his superiors, all in a despairing attempt to render himself deserving of heaven.

Yet the more he had studied the Bible, and reflected on its mysteries, the more he had come to see this as wasted effort. God did not treat sinners according to their just deserts — for, were He to do so, none would ever be saved. Only by means of His grace might salvation be obtained. This was the conviction that Luther brought with him to Worms. Unworthy though he was, helpless and fit to be condemned, yet God still loved him […]

Luther, over the course of his career, displayed a breathtaking command of all the qualities required to flourish on social media: a genius for aphorism, for invective, for denouncing fake news, for spreading fake news, even for publicly doting on pets. (“Oh, that I could only pray,” he once exclaimed, “in the way that my puppy stares at meat!”)

Holland’s suggestion that Luther would be a modern-day Twitter dunking memelord is fantastic: good historical explanation and a timely lesson. Sadly (gladly?) I am no Martin Luther whilst I run @mockingbirdmin for the good of the cause. Spicy memes give me heartburn.

2. Were this essay from the Atlantic by Mbird fave Amanda Mull published on our fair website, we might title it “The Grace of Weak Ties,” but its actual title is “The Pandemic Has Erased Entire Categories of Friendship.” A “weak tie” is the sociologist’s term for loose friendships, connections that we enjoy but may not feature a significant depth or history. It’s a whole category of friendship that has been taken away by the pandemic, and Mull reports back to us the ripple effects of this near-universal loss:

The psychological effects of losing all but our closest ties can be profound. Peripheral connections tether us to the world at large; without them, people sink into the compounding sameness of closed networks. Regular interaction with people outside our inner circle “just makes us feel more like part of a community, or part of something bigger,” Gillian Sandstrom, a social psychologist at the University of Essex, told me. People on the peripheries of our lives introduce us to new ideas, new information, new opportunities, and other new people. If variety is the spice of life, these relationships are the conduit for it…

The small joys of running into an old co-worker or chatting with the bartender at your local might not be the first thing you think of when imagining the value of friendship—images of more intentional celebrations and comforts, such as birthday parties and movie nights, might come to mind more easily. But Rawlins says that both kinds of interactions meet our fundamental desire to be known and perceived, to have our own humanity reflected back at us. “A culture is only human to the extent that its members confirm each other,” he said, paraphrasing the philosopher Martin Buber. “The people that we see in any number of everyday activities that we say, Hey, how you doing? That’s an affirmation of each other, and this is a comprehensive part of our world that I think has been stopped, to a great extent, in its tracks.”

When we gather at the bar or the coffee shop, to say nothing of Sunday morning, we are engaging in an activity that is fundamentally about love and affirmation. In their own way, each of these connections is an expression of grace, the acknowledgment by another that we exist and that someone desires a relationship with us apart from our failings. What another loss we’ve all endured these ten months, this closed-off yet practical conduit of grace. 

3. In Literature news, writer Francis Spufford released his second novel, Light Perpetual, and the reviews are glowing thus far. From the Guardian:

Spufford is a lay representative of the diocese of Ely and has, as a writer, a Christian heart without ever being off-puttingly pious. Light Perpetual is an exercise in gratitude, enhancing the sense that it is a fluke that we’re here at all. It is a meditation on death, too, with an entertaining warmth that does not cancel out its melancholy. It may be less uplifting than Golden Hill but its serious purpose dignifies it. Fiction depends on “what ifs” and in Light Perpetual, fiction is a form of mercy.

The book drops next week in the UK, but the US version doesn’t arrive until May. So, if any of our readers across the pond from Charlottesville are feeling generous, shoot an email to info@mbird.com and let us know about international shipping rates right now…

And speaking of reviews, the Living Church reviewed Daily Grace: The Mockingbird Devotional, Vol 2., and we’re so glad to hear they’re enjoying the book too.

You wouldn’t think a Mockingbird would make a good, daily spiritual companion, but this one does.

4. An update from the world of video games for the parents who are anxious about their kiddos playing them: maybe it’s not so bad. The Washington Post‘s video game desk (which actually exists!) wrote a critique of a rival publican’s essay that missed the mark about screen time during the pandemic. Though the essay is framed as a takedown, parents anxious about video gaming as a hobby may breathe a little better after a read-through:

[Child & family therapist Dr. Steve Kuniak] said it’s important to stress that gaming addiction can be real, but many times this stems from another underlying problem. The important thing to remember is to ask people why they play so much.

“I ask them, why do you play? What do you get out of play?” Kuniak said. “No one ever asks them that. The answers were always very diverse. Everybody games for different reasons. Some of my clients say, ‘I like to be the hero. I like to feel like I’m making [a] change. I like to socialize.’”

Kuniak finds that his patients are often Pittsburgh Steelers fans. They enter his office dressed from head to toe in the NFL team’s black and gold colors, while presenting their child as having an obsession with games. People who play video games often point out this hypocrisy as well. This criticism of gaming also seems weak in an era where bingeing TV shows on Netflix is considered a normal weekend night.

Much has been made about [essay writer] Richtel quoting the boy’s parents in the article. The teen boy’s mother laments, “What are you going to do when you’re married and stressed? Tell your wife that you need to play Xbox?”

Why, yes. Millions of adults already do this, just as they would resign themselves to watching sports, or reading a book, or listening to or playing some music.

Like many things in life, when games become all-powerful over a person’s life, the games aren’t the problem, they’re the symptom. And I appreciate how the stigma of video games says more about the works-righteousness of the accuser than the freedom to play of the gamer. It may not be productive to plug in and collect all the stars or beat the boss in the virtual world, but it’s certainly easier than living under an anxious mother worried about one’s romantic future.

5. Humor time! Headlines of the week: $20 Planner Tasked With Turning Entire Life Around, and ‘Home Gym Equipment Is Still Sold Out Everywhere,’ Man Hopes. McSweeney’s has AITAs for Parents of Young Children, which will sound familiar for any of our readers (AITA is a crowdsourced advice forum, and the acronym stands for “Am I The [Jerk]?”):

AITA for washing my hands before my son did even though he repeatedly refused to wash his hands?

I (35/f) repeatedly tried to get my son (3/m) to wash his hands before snack, and he adamantly refused. Because we were short on time, I washed my hands first. This was apparently a mortal offense. You probably heard the screaming. It was yesterday afternoon around 3:45 pm, eastern time, in case you are reading this in central or mountain time. Apparently, the only acceptable state of affairs was one where he both did not wash his hands and washed his hands first. So, I am asking you, AITA for not following mutually exclusive demands and for generally staying within the parameters of the space-time continuum? Thanks in advance.

6. If you’ve been following Thad Cockrell’s feel good story, add this to the fun … rumor has it Thad was the lead musician at one of Mockingbird’s supporting parishes for a season before he made it big on Fallon this week. So glad to see his star rise — well deserved and providential!

7. If last year’s great sports documentary was The Last Dance, this year’s Tiger, a biography of the legendary golf prodigy, is gunning for the same heights. The Atlantic titled their review of the film “The Emotional Miseducation of Tiger Woods,” and shares how this documentary opens a window into the immense psychological sacrifice one needs to become a great athlete. If there was ever a parable of the law killing …

But unlike The Last Dance, which steers away from discussions of unflattering family dynamics, Tiger goes where it wants. While the film spends ample time revisiting its subject’s career highlights, it does its most revelatory work by zeroing in on the immense psychological toll it took for Eldrick Woods the prodigy to become Tiger, the phenom. Throughout the documentary, archival audio of Tiger’s late father, Earl Woods, most clearly illustrates the pressures placed on the young golfer. Before the interview in which Tiger Woods compares himself to Jordan, for example, we hear Earl Woods explaining the monumental task he’s assigned to his son: “The world is ready for a nonwhite golfer to be successful,” Earl announces. “I have availed Tiger of this, and he takes that responsibility seriously.” That the film begins and ends with the voice of the elder Woods is no coincidence.

Interviews with family friends and colleagues speak to Tiger’s difficulty carrying this responsibility, especially in his youth. They note that Earl repeatedly cited Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela as the kinds of unifying figures whose level of influence his son would one day achieve. Through these anecdotes and archival commentary from the ’90s, the film charts the development of not just a world-class athlete but also a troubled man, one who never got the chance to be a regular boy or to express himself openly. “When this thing happened, I thought, Well, this is wonderful for golf,” one anchor says of Tiger’s massive advertising deal with Nike, in which he was pitched as the sport’s Black future. “But I wonder how great this is for just a 21-year-old kid. The bar is now way up here.”

8. We’ll give the final word this week to Alita Joy, who wrote in the Church Times about faith, prayer, and her bipolar disorder. It’s beautiful and poetic — an act of writing that expresses hope that a bipolar reality is one that God can also enter into. The whole essay is worth your own prayerful consideration:

I am embodied in brokenness, hellish in my depression. I know the body that cannot rise against the gravity of despair, let alone hands able to knit one, purl two.

My vacant tongue lashes at the corners of my mouth as if ridding it of cobwebs. If lips could atrophy from disuse, mine would wither. The atmosphere feels too thick and suffocating for sound to reach the heavens. Only muffled cries and grunts of pain escape my mouth.

When my soul circles this black hole, a gratefulness for cobbler and cool sheets sounds ludicrous. Am I a weak, foolish woman who does little more than pay attention to silly things?

But when I think of a God who “chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise, the weak things of the world to shame the strong,” maybe a world with kingfisher-blue alpaca yarn is more than enough to remember Jesus’s loving tenderness.

God’s mercy tethers me to hope in the foolishness of a kingdom where childlike wonder, the ramblings of my manic mind, and my depressed groanings are liturgy. Is this what it means to pray without ceasing?

A mind attentive to God’s grace. A God near enough to hear my prayers.

I swish my legs across my sheets in search of the cool spot and I remember Yours is the kingdom and the power and the glory. And this prayer is enough for a weak, foolish woman like me. Amen.

Strays:

  • You loved her Advent work — now get ready for her thoughts on the season of Epiphany? A prayer request from Fleming Rutledge.
  • Ben Maddison, our local TikTok expert, talks Reformation Grace, Mockingbird, and Law/Gospel on the Doth Protest Too Much podcast.
  • “The practices that carry the greatest potential for transformative change are usually counter-instinctual” — The Awkwardness Principle, via Oliver Burkeman in The Imperfectionist
  • More Episcopal-centric fun from the the Living Church via a shoutout to Calvary St. George’s — be sure to read all the way through!