Another Week Ends

Ballerina Babies, Soul Mate Parenting, Forgiveness as Activism, and the Gracious God of Justin Bieber

Bryan J. / 4.26.21

1. First out of the gate this week: one of the silver linings of the pandemic may be a grievous blow dealt to the #seculosity of work. A number of articles came forward this week addressing a growing sense of unrest and resentment toward finding spiritual fulfillment in our jobs.

The first, “Welcome to the YOLO Economy by Kevin Roose via the New York Times, outlines how COVID-19 has caused so much burnout that many employees (particularly the HENRY crowd: High Earning, Not Rich Yet) are seriously considering a total lifestyle shift:

If “languishing” is 2021’s dominant emotion, YOLOing may be the year’s defining work force trend. A recent Microsoft survey found that more than 40 percent of workers globally were considering leaving their jobs this year. Blind, an anonymous social network that is popular with tech workers, recently found that 49 percent of its users planned to get a new job this year.

“We’ve all had a year to evaluate if the life we’re living is the one we want to be living,” said Christina Wallace, a senior lecturer at Harvard Business School. “Especially for younger people who have been told to work hard, pay off your loans and someday you’ll get to enjoy your life, a lot of them are questioning that equation. What if they want to be happy right now?”

So the pandemic seems to have exposed a rift in the workism life plan. It turns out work may not live up to its promise of fulfillment or, at the very least, happiness. And while that HENRY crowd is seriously reconsidering their future life, many of New York’s professional dancers bucked the nation wide Baby Bust trend and took advantage of quarantine to make their own big life changes, namely, having a baby.

2. While the HENRYs and the ballerinas are questioning the sufficiency of their work, the most unexpected (and welcome!) swipe at the poison of workism comes from GQ’s interview with Justin Bieber. I know. I hear your skepticism through the screen. I say to you, right now, that this essay is the most profound and theologically moving exploration of gracious transformation I have read in a long time. Justin Bieber may have been saved from total self-destruction by two forces of unconditional love drawing him away from the siren sound of stardom: a loving wife and a loving God.

[Bieber] tells a story about a trip he took back to Toronto right after he signed his first recording contract, when he was still a boy and already exhausted by what success was going to ask of him: “I was working so much as this young kid that I got really sad, and I missed my friends and I missed normalcy. And so me and my friend hid my passport. The record label is freaking out, saying, ‘You have to do the Today show next week and you can’t find your passport.’ It takes a certain amount of days to get a new passport. But I was just going to do anything to be able to just be normal at that time.” So he hid the passport, but then he ended up confessing that he hid the passport, and everyone was concerned, and they asked him if he was okay, but then he went straight back into the machine. He did the Today show like he was supposed to. “I had this dream to become the biggest superstar in the world,” Bieber says now. He was just beginning to find out what accomplishing that dream might mean or what it might cost […]

Two things brought Justin Bieber back, ultimately: his marriage and his faith. What they had in common was that they were value systems that didn’t depend on him performing in exchange for money. Bieber talks a lot about “have to” versus “want to” — his life has been mostly shaped by the former, in the sense that from a young age, he was brought up primarily not by his parents but by managers and bodyguards and label executives, whose purpose and presence, however benevolent, was to keep the business on track. What he wanted, beyond money and further success — for instance, to stay in Toronto with his friends instead of performing on the Today show — was something he learned not to think about too much […]

It is beautiful to hear Justin Bieber talk about God. “He is grace,” he says. “Every time we mess up, He’s picking us back up every single time. That’s how I view it. And so it’s like, ‘I made a mistake. I won’t dwell in it. I don’t sit in shame. But it actually makes me want to do better.’” (And perhaps this is convenient: Bieber has done a lot in his life that needs forgiving, and an ethos of total acceptance can be alarmingly close to an ethos of total impunity, of being right in your deeds, no matter how bad or dark or selfish they are. But hear him out.) I am not a believer myself. Bieber doesn’t care about this. “My goal isn’t to try and persuade anybody to believe in what I believe or condemn anybody for not believing what I believe,” he says. “If it can help someone, great. If someone’s like, ‘Hey, I don’t believe that. I don’t think that’s true,’ by all means, that’s their prerogative.”

Reader, I tell you the truth. I wept reading this story like a teenager at one of JB’s concerts in 2015. It is indeed beautiful to hear Justin Bieber talk about God. Kudos to writer Zach Baron for an interview that deals with matters of faith sincerely and charitably.

3. Parenting is hard enough as it is, but two helpful correctives hit the web this week, and both are worth a quick browse. First, the Atlantic explores how modern parenting expectations have taken a serious toll on adult friendships:

According to a survey conducted in 2012 by the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture, nearly three-quarters of parents of school-age children said they hoped to be best friends with their children when they’re grown. This hope is being fulfilled, to some degree. Studies show that parents and their adult children have far more frequent and affectionate contact than they did only four decades before.

In the same way the concept of “soul mate” evolved to capture a romantic ideal, being best friends with your child captures a parental ideal: that all the love and resources a parent pours into a child are paid off by the child’s shared desire for closeness. However, parents’ expectations of extensive intimacy with their children can create problems as well — especially when their kids are just a text away. The desire for parents to respect boundaries is one of the most common complaints I hear from adult children in my therapy practice, where I specialize in intergenerational conflict and estrangement. […]

Parents are spending more time than ever with their children because our kids matter very much to us and — hopefully — we do to them. “Childhood has become the last bastion of kindness, the last place where we may find more love in the world than there appears to be,” write the psychoanalyst Adam Phillips and the historian Barbara Taylor, in On Kindness. “Indeed, the modern obsession with child-rearing may be no more and no less than an obsession about the possibility of kindness in a society that makes it harder and harder to believe in kindness.” Yet relying too much on relationships with children to meet our emotional and social needs can be unfair to the children and detrimental for the parent.

Alongside this, sociologist Christian Smith, who coined the helpful phrase “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism,” had a few parenting suggestions based on new research. Over at First Things, he breaks down a few ways Christian parents can help their kiddos keep their faith into adulthood. Yours truly thinks it sounds suspiciously like Law and Gospel, or in the words of our Tyler Conference speaker Coach Mosley “Rules without Relationship Equals Rebellion”:

Though the influence of parenting style is known to vary somewhat by race and ethnicity, it is broadly true that the religious parents who most successfully raise religious children tend to exhibit an “authoritative” parenting style. Such parents combine two crucial traits. First, they consistently hold their children to clear and demanding expectations, standards, and boundaries in all areas of life. Second, they relate to their children with an abundance of warmth, support, and expressive care. It is not hard to see why this parenting style works best for raising religious children. The combination of clear expectations and affective warmth is powerful in children’s developmental formation.

Nor is it hard to see why the alternatives fare worse. Parents who are strict and demanding with their children, yet exhibit little emotional warmth or support, enact an “authoritarian” parenting style. They provide their children little opportunity for bonding, engagement, and identification, and hence make it difficult for them to internalize an identification with the parents’ concerns. Parents who are all affection and empathy but offer their children few boundaries and standards exhibit a “permissive” parenting style, signaling to their children that it doesn’t matter much what they do, including where religion is concerned. And parents who give their children neither affective warmth nor clear expectations display a “passive” parenting style, which likewise provides little basis for passing on religion.

In short, American children are more likely to embrace the religion of their parents when they enjoy a relationship with them that expresses both clear parental authority and affective warmth. Such children know that their parents hold them to high standards precisely because they love them. They also know that when they fail to meet those standards there will be consequences, but never will those consequences include the withdrawal of love and support. The other three parenting styles do not convey these messages as clearly, and the consequences for passing on religion are empirically evident. It doesn’t work as well.

4. In humor, “Woman Between TV Shows Considers Starting Spiritual Journey.” Also, “Woman Relieved She No Longer Has To Support Closed Bookstore.” I’ve checked, and David Zahl isn’t interested in collecting the updated Recycle Bin Kids: The Eco-Conscious Alternative to Garbage Pail Kids. And the New Yorker has More Haikus from My Parents’ House, One Year In. Gems include:

Here’s my dough starter.
That’s my dough ender. I am
Pointing at your dad.

5. The biggest news of the week, of course, was the initial resolution of matters involving the death of George Floyd last summer. Over at Christian Century, Johnathan Richardson takes a step back to discuss the broader topic of forgiveness and peacemaking in society. After engaging with writer Ta-Nehisi Coates, whose atheism leads him to cast aspersions on spiritual solutions to racial maters, Richardson articulates how Christian forgiveness provides what a secular vision of justice lacks, namely love.

But unlike Coates, I do not reject the notion of a Christian God. Indeed I believe that the church has something of radical significance to offer amid the circumstances in which we find ourselves, amid the continual mourning for Black people killed by systems of violence. From my perspective, Coates’s particular brand of atheism does not allow us to be as radical as we need to be in addressing the violence and death that are too much a part of American society.

Christianity is a religion rooted in historical claims about Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. Therefore, Christian peacemakers cannot deny history or forget it. Specifically, they cannot forget the history that sends police “into ghettos armed with the same self-generated fears that compelled the people who think they are white to flee the cities and into the Dream,” as Coates writes. This history and its deepest realities are at the center of Christian peacemaking. Peace can only come with a true accounting of history.

Furthermore, a forgiven people understands that they cannot heal history all on their own. We can’t make it right. Coates says he believes that the only work that matters will be the work that humans do, but as a forgiven people, we know that we do not have it within ourselves to make everything turn out all right. We do not conceive of history as a human achievement; we submit to the notion that we are not only divinely contingent and determined but also known and loved.

This offers hope, and it is perhaps the best reason that Christian peacemaking principles need more room on the public stage, especially in our current climate. Christian forgiveness as a social ethic offers something that society cannot get without the witness of the church. You do not necessarily need the church or religion to participate in acts of justice. An appeal to the rule of law and the language of individual rights may be enough to move the needle of the American democratic republic toward a more just society. It cannot, however, move the needle toward a more beloved one.

6. The final word this week goes to John Newton, who penned the eternal hymn “Amazing Grace” back in 1779. It turns out, when he wasn’t repenting of his participation in the slave trade, the hymn-writing abolitionist penned a letter to a colleague outlining how to best engage in public conflict. The whole letter is a masterclass in Christian charity and timely in our age of unprofitable online discourse, one that sounds a whole lot like David Zahl’s article from a couple of weeks ago. The Mockingcast trio will be talking about it this week too. If you’ve ever wondered why Mockingbird’s social media manager doesn’t engage in the art of the Twitter dunk, Newton knew the answer 250 years ago. A few choice paragraphs from a letter well worth your time:

Dear Sir,

As you are likely to be engaged in controversy, and your love of truth is joined with a natural warmth of temper, my friendship makes me solicitous on your behalf. You are of the strongest side; for truth is great, and must prevail; so that a person of abilities inferior to yours might take the field with a confidence of victory. I am not therefore anxious for the event of the battle; but I would have you more than a conqueror, and to triumph, not only over your adversary, but over yourself. If you cannot be vanquished, you may be wounded. To preserve you from such wounds as might give you cause of weeping over your conquests, I would present you with some considerations, which, if duly attended to, will do you the service of a great coat of mail; such armor, that you need not complain, as David did of Saul’s, that it will be more cumbersome than useful; for you will easily perceive it is taken from that great magazine provided for the Christian soldier, the Word of God […]

As to your opponent, I wish that before you set pen to paper against him, and during the whole time you are preparing your answer, you may commend him by earnest prayer to the Lord’s teaching and blessing. This practice will have a direct tendency to conciliate your heart to love and pity him; and such a disposition will have a good influence upon every page you write […]

If our zeal is embittered by expressions of anger, invective, or scorn, we may think we are doing service of the cause of truth, when in reality we shall only bring it into discredit. The weapons of our warfare, and which alone are powerful to break down the strongholds of error, are not carnal, but spiritual; arguments fairly drawn from Scripture and experience, and enforced by such a mild address, as may persuade our readers, that, whether we can convince them or not, we wish well to their souls, and contend only for the truth’s sake; if we can satisfy them that we act upon these motives, our point is half gained; they will be more disposed to consider calmly what we offer; and if they should still dissent from our opinions, they will be constrained to approve our intentions […]

It seems a laudable service to defend the faith once delivered to the saints; we are commanded to contend earnestly for it, and to convince gainsayers. […] And yet we find but very few writers of controversy who have not been manifestly hurt by it. Either they grow in a sense of their own importance, or imbibe an angry, contentious spirit, or they insensibly withdraw their attention from those things which are the food and immediate support of the life of faith, and spend their time and strength upon matters which are at most but of a secondary value. This shows, that if the service is honorable, it is dangerous. What will it profit a man if he gains his cause and silences his adversary, if at the same time he loses that humble, tender frame of spirit in which the Lord delights, and to which the promise of his presence is made?

Strays:

-Mischa Willett’s The Elegy Beta, the first book of poetry Mbird has ever published, got a reading at this year’s online The Hidden Cathedral Poetry Festival.

-The Mcast trio also talk about our obsession with birth order. Expect the new episode soon!

-The Point does a deep dive into questions of race, grace, and Marilynne Robinson’s latest novel, Jack.

In his newsletter this week, Russell Moore has some big-picture analysis on the rise of the religious nones.

-Pop Sci-fi covers to theological classics courtesy of @benmenghini