Another Week Ends: Anglican Anniversaries, Attractive Uncertainty, Battlestar Theology, The Cooler and Better You, Compulsive Tweeting, and Neurotic Parenting Art

1. As the current edition of the Book of Common Prayer celebrates its 350th anniversary, James […]

Will McDavid / 10.19.12

1. As the current edition of the Book of Common Prayer celebrates its 350th anniversary, James Wood at The New Yorker offers a fascinating reflection on the book’s literary and cultural significance. It’s not everyday you read the sentences in those pages like “The sinner is justified—redeemed from sin, made righteous—by faith alone in God, not by doing good works or by buying ecclesiastical favors”:

Cranmer had been a Cambridge scholar (he had held a lectureship in Biblical studies) and a diplomat, before being plucked by Henry VIII to be archbishop, and he almost certainly did not imagine that he was writing one of the great, abiding works of English literature, what the historian Diarmaid MacCulloch calls “one of a handful of texts to have decided the future of a world language.” But the acute poetry, balanced sonorities, heavy order, and direct intimacy of Cranmer’s prose have achieved permanence, and many of his phrases and sentences are as famous as lines from Shakespeare or the King James Bible.

Theologically, the Book of Common Prayer is both radical and conservative. Its Protestantism can be felt in its emphasis on man’s sinfulness, and on the unearned gift of God’s salvation.

…[Writers Virginia Woolf and Samuel Beckett]  both use the language of the Prayer Book to enact prayers that have no hope of answer: at best, we are “vouchsafed” something, but cannot say what it is. The words persist, but the belief they vouchsafe has long gone. A loss, one supposes—and yet, paradoxically, the words are, in the absence of belief, as richly usable as they were three hundred and fifty years ago. All at once, it seems, they are full and empty. They comfort, disappoint, haunt, irritate, disappear, linger. 

Even in a largely secular literary world, with writers like Woolf or Beckett continually flirting with solipsism, absurdism, and destitution in their literature, these same writers still find expressive solace in Cranmer’s evocative prose. Though religious ideas have fallen in and out of vogue with various writers and thinkers, some irreducible element in Christian language and symbolism seems compelling – the writers seem compelled to use religious symbols because of their power and profundity (note: in Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, solipsism is temporarily overcome in a feast!). For modern  Christians, Woolf’s language or Beckett’s or other modern writers’ language may be the most compelling available – and plenty of Christians find expressive power in appropriating symbols from “secular” culture – but the interdependence is something often overlooked.


2. In the world of Lena Dunham, the rising-star, 26-year-old creator, director, and lead actor of HBO’s Girls, Slate has done an incredibly insightful piece on Why We Value Potential Over Achievement, using Dunham’s book contract as an example:

…what makes the book advance so surprising is that Dunham doesn’t have a track record of selling a lot of books…Logically, it doesn’t make sense to part with so much cash without knowing how many of Dunham’s fans are book buyers, or if LeBron James would actually hold up in the NBA. And yet, we pay extra for potential all the time.

Our collective willingness to jump on the beginner’s bandwagon seems at odds with one of psychology’s most robust findings: We are averse to uncertainty. But as it turns out, our reaction to incomplete information depends on our interpretation of the scant data we do have. Uncertainty is a sort of amplifier, intensifying our response whether it’s positive or negative. If we see a monster in our closet, we’re scared; if all we can see is the tail, we’re downright terrified.

As long as we react positively to the little information shown, we’re actually attracted to uncertainty. In one study, female college students were asked to rate how much they liked the Facebook profiles of attractive male students. All women were told that the (fictitious) guys they were judging had already seen and rated their own profiles, and in some cases the women were shown those ratings. Participants were much more attracted to the fake profiles when they didn’t know what the guys supposedly thought of them. Not only did the women like these men the most, but they reported thinking about their profiles the most.

Again, contemporary (behavioral) psychology is affirming some fairly common-sense insights, but they’re of course useful in continuing to demolish the myth of the rational, always-acts-in-her-self-interest human being. Christians have had interpretants for these data for centuries (past achievements have less self-justificatory power than future ones, we constantly demand new arenas in which to prove ourselves, etc), but it’s so encouraging to see modern psychology questioning our idealized view of man, too. And, of course, we all need it – it’s not the Enlightenment’s fault we think we’re all rational, but the bias towards viewing ourselves a certain way comes, of course, from within.

3. On a lighter note, and nerds out there will more than appreciate io9’s list of Big Theological Questions that Science Fiction Should Answer, for example:

What if God was provably real?

[Butler theologian James] McGrath would love to see more science fiction stories set in a universe where God was out there, and you could seek His advice or help…He mostly liked how the rebooted Battlestar Galactica dealt with the notion of a monotheistic God that might answer prayers, but remained mysterious.

So a sort of religious sci-fi, it seems – and certainly one of Galactica‘s strengths was its imagination and playfulness with religion (and honorable mention to A Song of Ice and Fire for the same religious imagination, in fantasy). In keeping religion around hundreds of years from now, too, the sci-fi writers who develop religious dimensions to their universe affirm some indispensably spiritual part of human nature, or at least a searching one. An it’s impossible to comment on this piece without referencing Michael Belote’s theo-geek opus, Rise of the Time Lords.

4. Gizmodo this week imagined how happy someone would be to Meet the Facebook Version of You:

The wit in your status updates is delightful. The real life version of you always seemed intent on cornering me into a night of drinking wine after work so I could listen to you go on rather humorlessly about money problems and the usual rash of petty resentments against family and colleagues. But the Facebook version of you is one languid little paragraph of blurted bon mots after another.

And I am crazy about the fact that the Facebook version of you is spiritual bordering on religious and philosophical. The real life version of you is, to be blunt, pretty quick to judge people for believing in anything more than reasonably priced alcohol, entry level luxury cars, restlessness, and chronic dissatisfaction. But the Facebook version of you has spun an enchanted web of a bio that feels like a cross between Steve Jobs’ Stanford commencement speech and the mission statement of an idealist’s filthy commune that I long to spend my remaining years on:

“Life is a temporary celebration of something larger and eternal. It is a shared path, sometimes traveled at different times than our fellows, but never traveled alone. Wealth is not measured in money or possessions, but in love and experience, ideas both created and imagined.”

Ha! It’s possibly the most humorous and simultaneously profound introduction I’ve seen to questions we constantly ask on the blog. For more on Facebook, check out Ethan’s talk on The iLife Pursuit: Social Media and Adultescent Loneliness on our conference recordings page.

5. In further social media news, an interview over at Slate examines “The Psychology of Constantly Checking Twitter.” Very interesting and worth a watch (if you can’t see it in your browser, go to Slate’s post here).

6. The New York Times Opinionator shared a powerful illustration (at right, below) of parenting anxiety this week, in work of art by a father showcasing “all the baggage that one picks up from personal, family connections that you want to filter out for your kid.” It’s a great illustration, but overwhelming – maybe don’t analyze too closely if you’ve ever had a tendency to stress out about your role in your kid’s character formation.

7. CBS did a nice piece on everyday grace, briefly interviewing a traffic cop who’s made over 25,000 stops and, amazingly, hasn’t gotten a single civilian complaint. The backdrop to this, of course, is that traffic police get complaints all the time, because they introduce condemnation, through ticketing people, that none of us feel we deserve – if I’ve never committed a felony, or done anything illegal that actively harms others, then why is the law getting down on me? The down-to-earth, mundane condemnation of traffic complaints challenges our identities as law-abiders, so these police get loads of complaints – except for L.A. Sheriff’s deputy Elton Simmons. So what overcomes our self-righteous bucking against being condemned by traffic cops? Simmons divulges his secret:

“I’m here with you,” said Elton. ” I’m not up here” (motions his arm up towards the sky). One thing I hate is to be looked down on — I can’t stand it — so I’m not going to look down at you.”

That’s why, in lieu of a lecture, he gives most people the benefit of the doubt instead. Of course they still get the ticket — just not the guilt trip.

The drivers seem to appreciate that — so much so that by the end, some are downright smitten.

“You know what it is, it’s his smile,” said driver Mike Viera, who just got a ticket. “He’s got a great smile. He’s a nice guy. How could you be mad at that guy?

Bonus Track: For those who have always wondered about a HotPocket-powered steam room, or are just generally grateful that we live in a culture where things like this can happen, check out Snoop Dogg, DeStorm and Andy Milonakis’s new commercial for everyone’s favorite microwaveable pastry: