Another Week Ends

1. Rod Dreher blogged on a Martin Heidegger interview from 1966, with some incredibly prescient observations about […]

Will McDavid / 6.21.13

1. Rod Dreher blogged on a Martin Heidegger interview from 1966, with some incredibly prescient observations about our religious urges amidst the decline of Christianity in Europe/America:

get-attachment4-e1345353676554HEIDEGGER: … Philosophy will not be able to bring about a direct change of the present state of the world. This is true not only of philosophy but of all merely human meditations and endeavors. Only a god can still save us. I think the only possibility of salvation left to us is to prepare readiness, through thinking and poetry, for the appearance of the god or for the absence of the god during the decline; so that we do not, simply put, die meaningless deaths, but that when we decline, we decline in the face of the absent god.

SPIEGEL: Is there a connection between your thinking and the emergence of this god? Is there, as you see it, a causal connection? Do you think we can get this god to come by thinking?

HEIDEGGER: We cannot get him to come by thinking. At best we can prepare the readiness of expectation…

[Dreher]: The problem is that knowing that culture requires a cult, that civilization needs a religion, is not sufficient to make one acquire a religion. Nobody believes in God because they find it helpful. Notice that Heidegger didn’t say that “only God can save us,” but only “a god” can. We are going to have a god, one way or another. Which one?

Of course, the idea that religion provides social cohesion isn’t a new one, but the proliferation of different gods/standards/ideals is certainly a feature of the modern world, and one that certainly contributes both to individual anxiety and to a certain centrifugal force, socially speaking. And to judgment – conservative ideals seem ridiculous to liberals, and vice versa; I-bankers and Wall St. occupiers can treat each other with equal disdain, etc. And it’s particularly evident in celebrity culture, where different cultural figures seem absurd to followers of others…remember the Nirvana/Guns n’ Roses wars?

2. Andrew O’Hagan at the London Review of Books writes a wonderful review of The Bling Ring (book) that teases out some of the book’s best insights about American celebrity culture and narcissism – especially as it relates to keeping up appearances. “But I know you have not the glamour of Paris Hilton in your hearts…”


Perhaps it’s a new kind of narcissism, where you only get to feel fully realised, successful and self-loving when you look at your reflection in the pool and see your idol. And having your idol’s shoes and handbag is one of the ways to achieve that.

Fame today is a matryoshka doll: inside each celebrity is a series of smaller, hollow simulacra, and, at the very core, there is a hard little being who feels buried alive….

The relationship between modern celebrities and their greatest fans is rather like the relationship that once existed between cops and robbers in the movies. (And in life, if you believe the Mafia lore.) Classic cops and robbers have the same DNA: they understand each other, because, at some basic level, they are the same people. The Bling Ring (as the Los Angeles Times called them) already possessed many of the items they were stealing, but what they craved was proximity and identification.

Lesson over. Except not. Alexis gets dropped by the underwear firm she was hoping to be the ‘face’ of. ‘These are the consequences of hanging out with stupid people,’ her mother told her. But off-camera, Alexis was already surfing that strange plane where delusional people, high on fear and bogus spirituality, turn their desperation into positive spin. She told a journalist she might ‘lead a country one day’. If real fame is a mask that eats into the face, then pseudo-fame, the current kind, might be a decoy that eats into the brain.


A bit critical, perhaps (imagine reading this about yourself on the Internet), but the anthropology here is impossible to ignore. To crave proximity to an ideal, and to have the ability to literally try on celebrity status whenever – irresistible. And though the matryoshka doll thing doesn’t make much sense (to me) in the article, the layering on of identities, statuses, and achievements is a potent image for the external self. You’d hope that imprisonment would strip away some of the burdensome layers and might, just might, give some freedom. But the fall doesn’t always produce freedom (c.f. Walter White)…

When she eventually went to her all-female jail (three months in the Century Regional Detention Facility in Lynwood) Alexis Neiers found that she was being held in the cell Paris Hilton had occupied during her own bad spell in 2007.

Pretty dark.

2. But maybe some of these issues have existed for a while, even before profile pics with Paris’s handbag was an option. In social media, Pacific Standard published a surprisingly un-novel article reminding us to “Stop Blaming Social Media for Our Behavioral Problems“. That is, the desire for proximity to an ideal existed before Paris Hilton, People magazine, or even Gatsby…

The Internet is destroying our national parks.

That’s according to Lorna Lange, the spokeswoman for Joshua Tree National Park in California, anyway. Lange spoke to New York Times reporter Felicity Barringer, who wrote a depressing story about the recent uptick in graffiti on public lands. According to Lange, park personnel are blaming social media for the rise in vandalism. “In the old days, people would paint something on a rock—it wouldn’t be till someone else came along that someone would report it and anybody would know about it.” Lange told the Times, “with social media people take pictures of what they’ve done or what they’ve seen. It’s much more instantaneous.”


As a man who spent his childhood camping, I find this defacement of such natural beauty sickening, but I’m just as unsettled by park officials’ explanation for the increase in vandalism. Does the immediate gratification of posting a photo to a social network really “stimulate the impulse to deface,” as Barringer writes?…

Is social media making us less social? Is it making us dumber? How about lonely? Is social media making us lazy? Is it making us depressed?…

This is how social media “makes” us do things: by making it easier for us to fall prey to our own impulses and our habits in a space where risks and costs are relatively low. Is social media making us rude? No, you were already rude, but the Internet is a great place to be a jerk. Is social media making you racist? No, you were already racist, you just found somewhere to express it that wasn’t the dinner table or the office. Is Facebook to blame for the rise of cyberbullying? Not really: your local bully has always been a bully, they just found a place without the watchful eye of a teacher.

As tempting as it is to be curmudgeonly, the problem isn’t out there. And that should produce compassion… if I could wear Paris Hilton’s clothes (or, erm, Clooney’s) and post pictures on Facebook, who’s to say I wouldn’t? Or at least we can say that everyone has some area in which they’d like to posture, SoCal aside.

3. Speaking of celebrity, Kanye West’s new album, Yeezus, is out, and the reviews are in. But perhaps the best recent Kanye article is an interview at the New York Timeswhere we get a glimpse of his aspirational, energetic, and profoundly self-conscious creativity:

kanye-new-album-yeezusWhen your debut album, “The College Dropout” came out, the thing that people began to associate with you besides music was: Here’s someone who’s going to argue for his place in history; like, “Why am I not getting five stars?”

I think you got to make your case. Seventh grade, I wanted to be on the basketball team. I didn’t get on the team, so that summer I practiced. I was on the summer league. My team won the championship; I was the point guard. And then when I went for eighth grade, I practiced and I hit every free throw, every layup, and the next day I looked on this chart, and my name wasn’t on it. I asked the coach what’s up, and they were like, “You’re just not on it.” I was like, “But I hit every shot.” The next year — I was on the junior team when I was a freshman, that’s how good I was. But I wasn’t on my eighth-grade team, because some coach — some Grammy, some reviewer, some fashion person, some blah blah blah — they’re all the same as that coach. Where I didn’t feel that I had a position in eighth grade to scream and say, “Because I hit every one of my shots, I deserve to be on this team!” I’m letting it out on everybody who doesn’t want to give me my credit….

Do you believe in the concept of regret?

If anyone’s reading this waiting for some type of full-on, flat apology for anything, they should just stop reading right now…

So if you had a choice between taking back the original action or taking back the apology, you’d take back the apology?

You know what? I can answer that, but I’m — I’m just — not afraid, but I know that would be such a distraction. It’s such a strong thing, and people have such a strong feeling about it. “Dark Fantasy” was my long, backhanded apology. You know how people give a backhanded compliment? It was a backhanded apology. It was like, all these raps, all these sonic acrobatics. I was like: “Let me show you guys what I can do, and please accept me back. You want to have me on your shelves.”

4. And for the ultimate American celebrityEntertainment Weekly ran a Superman article chock-full of wisdom, comparing his perfect-power-drives-out-fear ministry to Jesus. But despite the obvious parallels, the Man of Steel is, unsurprisingly, the Jesus we wish Jesus had been – or the kind of super-Christian too often held up as the ideal on Sunday mornings (shall our blood come to be/ The blood of paradise?) With Superman, yes – secular humanism’s exalted ideal at work, ht EC:

Superman does not subscribe to what theologians might call the policy of “divine hiddenness.”… Superman usually serves the world with joy in his heart, as Christians are supposed to do (2 Corinthians 9:7: “Each of you should give what you have decided in your heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver”), and with extraordinary internal discipline that allows him to execute his mission without being tempted to violate one of the great commandments binding Christians and superheroes – “Thou shalt not kill” – and even receive the persecution of his enemies by turning the other cheek. Blessed are the peacemakers. Especially when bullets can bounce off their chest….


He is a cheerless giver, and he seethes with passive-aggressive anger toward the bad guys that he’s been taught not to fight.* He could change course at any time. But he won’t let himself, because (and this is more my interpretation of the text than anything else) behaving otherwise would render his father’s heroic sacrifice for his sake meaningless. Guilt and shame – or the fearful avoidance of either — are the crappy glues that hold this flim-flam Man of Steel together….

With a download of origin story, Jor-El almost completely reprograms Clark’s buggy godhood operating system to its original, intended, common sense settings. The Good Father reveals that Kal-El has never been wrong to feel as he does, that his impulse to respond directly to the problem of evil has always been correct, that divine hiddenness is a bizarre counter-intuitive policy for someone so innately good, who could possibly change the world for the better by simply by being known. The alien no longer alienated from himself, Superman is set free to be the superhero – and the foster God – he was meant to be.

Man of Steel’s ironic Super-Jesus…takes The Adversary out once and for all with a much-talked-about act of violence that represents shocking violation of Superman’s storied turn-the-other-cheek, Thou Shalt Not Kill code of ethics.

But this is not your father’s Superman, or his metaphorical Jesus. Man of Steel is subversive mythology for atheists that exalts a Superman who behaves the way they think God should but doesn’t...


So maybe Superman’s the savior we always wanted… with the possible exception of movie critics. Nolan’s Batman trilogy delved into our collective anxiety, moral ambiguity, etc and delivered a distinctly modern tour-de-force where our icon embodied, in dramatic form, many of the same tensions and problems we feel on a daily basis. Superman, in contrast, offers a semi-religious balm to our collective frustrations and self-doubting. Not so much Heidegger’s religion in the face of absence as a this-worldly cure to an otherworldly threat, a visible cure-all for a safely externalized evil. This is the moral/political face of human religiousness (and the hope of Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor), a super-powered version of ourselves who serves as an indisputable, above-reproach icon for human persistence – maybe one of the reasons why Man of Steel‘s sci-fi element was the most compelling part of the movie…

5. A Christian temptation could be to call all of this ‘idolatry’, or some other vaguely judgmental, better-than-the-bling-ring type term. But that would be to fall into the Superman trap, i.e. simple good-vs-evil, us-vs-them, etc, etc. And trying to pull away from our identifications with Paris Hilton or Superman or whoever else would be another try at pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps, at proximity to the ideal. But as the Batman movies might remind us, the most compelling ideals are the ones that are the most distinctly human – that is, fallen, weak, etc. Which is why the Jesus we wish Jesus could’ve been, to quote E Weekly, just raises the standard of aspiration. And while aspiration may produce success (see Kanye above), it doesn’t necessarily lead to a contented life on a quiet farm… no, Superman must transcend that. But there is the hope of some religion amidst doubt, which meets us in the here and now, one that’s even distinctly modern to the extent that it factors in suffering and uncertainty, and is absent of judgment.


Cue Francis Spufford’s Unapologetic, which received a great review this past week from Adam Joyce at Curator Magazine:

“Christians have given atheists less and less in which to disbelieve” –Alasdair MacIntyre

Western Christianity received the atheists it deserved. Better yet, Britain has the atheists American Christianity earned: Those for whom Christianity is a cloud of illusion composed of the collective rituals and fears of humanity’s childish past. Those meteorologists hope for a strong rational wind to clear our minds and lives. They are critics who only speak the language of caricature.

What does it feel like to trust, to forgive, to cry, to screw up, to hope, to love when one believes the God of Everything interrupted death and is mending the world in this flesh and blood man, Jesus Christ? Spufford invites the reader into the emotional language and landscape of Christianity, overthrowing the mini-tyrannies and traditions of the Christian/atheist “mud-wrestling match” in the process…

The human race has come up with plenty of myths that are the theological equivalent of pornography, stories following the directorial instructions of wish fulfillment. The story of Christ—his ministry, death, resurrection—has become familiar in all the wrong ways, morphing into a clone of our petty and parasitic prejudices. For Christians, Spufford’s writing makes the familiar strange; for others it can make the strange intelligible. Humanity is an infinite onion of self-deception and distortion—or, as Spufford shorthands it, sin is the “human propensity to f*** things up,” or HPtFtU. Christianity is the “League of the Guilty”…


The Christian community is just as subject to HPtFtU as the rest of humanity. Still, Spufford wisely sidesteps the kind of quantitative misery-counts we hear too often from evangelicals that sound something like “Christianity has caused less suffering than your worldview.” “The bad stuff,” says Spufford, “cannot be averaged. It can only be confessed.” Truthful human self-narration only occurs in this context. God’s grace provides a painful reorientation, not a simple run through the divine dishwasher. Grace makes us “better readers of each other,” shaping and changing us, not necessarily into lives of virtue, but a sense of healing and forgiveness.

6. And finally, we couldn’t be more excited about what promises to be the best (or at least most ridiculous) celebrity movie of the next year – profanity warning in effect:



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2 responses to “Another Week Ends: Celebrity Religion, Superman Myths, More Spufford, and Santa Uncrossed”

  1. stratkey says:

    Spufford’s book is the best I have read in a long time. His retelling of Yeshua’s story brought me to tears. I’ll be using it with our seniors this year. Unfortunately, you still have to order it from Amazon UK. We need to get this guy over here…

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