Another Week Ends

1. At this point, you’ve likely seen Andrew Sullivan’s Newsweek cover story on the “Crisis […]

David Zahl / 4.9.12

1. At this point, you’ve likely seen Andrew Sullivan’s Newsweek cover story on the “Crisis in Christianity”. While there’s regrettably little talk of salvation – which I’m not sure is really within the purview of such a piece – and the reference to Jefferson is a bit dubious, the overall diagnosis strikes me as sound. Sullivan’s conclusion is particularly stirring:

The crisis of Christianity is perhaps best captured in the new meaning of the word “secular.” It once meant belief in separating the spheres of faith and politics; it now means, for many, simply atheism. The ability to be faithful in a religious space and reasonable in a political one has atrophied before our eyes…

I have no concrete idea how Christianity will wrestle free of its current crisis, of its distractions and temptations, and above all its enmeshment with the things of this world. But I do know it won’t happen by even more furious denunciations of others, by focusing on politics rather than prayer, by concerning ourselves with the sex lives and heretical thoughts of others rather than with the constant struggle to liberate ourselves from what keeps us from God…

This Christianity comes not from the head or the gut, but from the soul. It is as meek as it is quietly liberating. It does not seize the moment; it lets it be. It doesn’t seek worldly recognition, or success, and it flees from power and wealth. It is the religion of unachievement. And it is not afraid. In the anxious, crammed lives of our modern twittering souls, in the materialist obsessions we cling to for security in recession, in a world where sectarian extremism threatens to unleash mass destruction, this sheer Christianity, seeking truth without the expectation of resolution, simply living each day doing what we can to fulfill God’s will, is more vital than ever. It may, in fact, be the only spiritual transformation that can in the end transcend the nagging emptiness of our late-capitalist lives, or the cult of distracting contemporaneity, or the threat of apocalyptic war where Jesus once walked. You see attempts to find this everywhere—from experimental spirituality to resurgent fundamentalism. Something inside is telling us we need radical spiritual change.

2.  The reviews for Whit Stillman’s Damsels in Distress are in, and they’re a predictably curious bunch. An unfortunate number of journalists seem deadset on turning Whit into some kind of construct, disappointed that his new film is not a dilute statement of one kind or another (as if he’s ever been interested in “relevance”…!), rather than, say, a delightfully dissenting work of art unlike anything else out there. Which isn’t to say Damsels succeeds ipso facto (I have yet to see it, of course – though I have read the script), just that I’m encouraged by the confused response and grateful Whit decided not to go the retread route. The notable exception being The A/V Club, who evince a considerably deeper understanding of the man’s work:

Dig beneath the zippy chatter, vivid colors, absurdist turns, and occasional dance numbers, and at heart, Damsels In Distress is a Whit Stillman movie about the way young people try to define themselves, and how—“sane” or not—they hide their petty hypocrisies behind convoluted modifications to their public identities. Which is to say: This is a Whit Stillman movie. Whatever mode he’s working in, few filmmakers have ever been as attuned to the way we cheerfully lie to ourselves, right up to the point where the truth is exposed, and we’re left with a choice between breaking down or soldiering on. Or, as so often happens in Stillman’s films, both.

The A/V Club interview with Whit is also worth reading (“We’re in a pre-groundswell situation”). And Slate managed to dig up some of his much-recommended early short stories.

3.  Bon Appetit magazine recently caught up with Hugh Garvey, the author of The Gastrokid Cookbook, who has left his erstwhile project behind in an almost, well, repentant manner. Is he a recovering foodie? Or simply a man who has come to learn the difference between loving people as they are as opposed to how you’d like them to be? The use of the phrase “burnt out” is telling, ht JD:

The actual production of dinner (and two D.I.Y. media projects) turned my home life into a reality TV show without the cameras: My kitchen and dining room were the set, my family my antagonists. While dinner would appear on the blog and in the book with color photographs for, say, grilled Japanese eggplant with haloumi and mint, sometimes the real dinner was not so sleek… I didn’t write about the Tiny Town rebellion or the unhappy wife.

While some fathers fantasize of tossing the pigskin with their progeny, I dreamed of crisping it. Because I wanted them to appreciate the glorious pleasure of an in-season tomato. To know that a happy chicken makes beautiful eggs. And because I wanted them to see cooking as an adventure. I gave my kids plastic knives, taught them how to chiffonade, pointed out the difference between farmed and wild salmon, fresh and washed rind cheese, the nuttiness of Iberico ham. And after four years of this, I found myself on the verge of becoming Crusty the Clown of kids cooking. Burnt out by the effort of curating a new socio-culinary experience on the plate every weeknight, I let the blogging fall to the wayside and got on with the rest of my life, i.e. actually spending time with my family.

It’s been three years since I blogged, and here’s where things stand: My children are not the mini-me cooks I tried to engineer. Thank God. There are saner careers to prepare for and more childlike pleasures to be had. When I invite my son to cook with me, he’d rather play catch.

4. Elsewhere, The Atlantic spoke with psychologist Roy Baumeister about his famous “Chocolate-Radish Experiment That Birthed the Modern Conception of Willpower.” Fascinating as always. The same can’t be said for the transparently ridiculous “Are you almost Alcoholic?”

5. The Gospel Coalition ran a terrific piece last week on “A Brief History of Youth Ministry”, weighing the pros and cons of the post-war youth movement in American Christianity, and spotlighting the work of Rooted. If you’re not aware of what they’re doing, run don’t walk.

6. A couple of important articles on the eve of GNR’s induction to the Rock n Roll Hall of Fame. First, a year ago on Vice, Sam McPheeters asked the perennial question, “Is Rock Over?” and I’d be lying if I didn’t find his case pretty convincing, that rock is essentially a “closed frontier” ht JF. It certainly explains why all I want to listen to these days is early Bee Gees and late Monkees… Speaking of which, in The NY Times Magazine, Alexandra Molotkow discussed “Why the Old-School Music Snob Is The Least Cool Kid on Twitter,” the self-justification undercurrent of which is too rich (and close-to-home) not to mention. I only take issue with her use of the word “perverted” at the end, that is, I’m not sure the current populism doesn’t have its own share of identity-related problems:

My love of knowledge-hoarding was part snobbishness, part proprietary, part nesting: I liked the idea that my favorite movies, books and music are for me and a select few others, because they’re special and they’re part of my life. To think that everyone in the world might love them just as much makes me feel like a salt molecule in a tub of brine. Like friendship, taste should be somewhat exclusive — your friends are the ones you choose above all the other bozos. If everybody is friends, then no one is, really. The same applies to being fans of Arcade Fire.

Then again, it’s better to be friendly to all than to be a flat-out jerk to all but a few. And I have to admit that cultural populism is a lot healthier than the crabby elitism that used to prevail. The old way was guided by perverted logic (the fewer people who like something, the more valuable it is), while the new way is guided by a sounder reasoning (the more people who like something, the more valuable it is).

7. In the understatement department there’s the new study from Notre Dame that reports, “Ambition May Bring Success But Not Happiness.” 

8. And in television, I could not be more excited about the new HBO comedies starting next week, Girls and Veep, and not just because I think so highly of Lena Dunham, Tony Hale, Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Armando Iannucci. If anyone can undo the damage that Showtime’s “trouble women” obsession has wrought, it’s them. But it sounds like they’re not just our for laughs. I found Dunham’s frank comments about sex in The NY Times recently undeniably insightful, if also a little depressing:

She thinks young men today are influenced by pornography, which the Web has made more instantly and cheaply available. “When I first started kissing boys,” she said, “I remember noticing things, certain behaviors, where I thought, ‘There’s no way you learned that anywhere but on There’s no way any teenage girl taught you and reinforced that behavior.”

She added that the instant connections a person can make on the Web, which also lets them survey a broad world of possibility, can create a restlessness and an even greater disinclination to commit: “I knew a guy, and I couldn’t actually believe he was saying this, but he said, ‘Why would I want to eat in the same restaurant every night when the world’s a buffet?’ I thought people said that only on ‘Entourage’.”

9. Last but not least, I had no idea that Darth Vader’s helmet is hidden on the National Cathedral. Go Episcopalians!



P.S. The countdown to NYC has begun: Talk titles will be announced tomorrow!