Another Week Ends

1. An incredibly moving account of “Depression and Despair at Harvard” in response to the […]

David Zahl / 9.21.12

1. An incredibly moving account of “Depression and Despair at Harvard” in response to the suicide of a classmate by Jordan Monge on The Harvard Ichthus. With real vulnerability, Monge touches on the crushing power of expectation, the vicious circle of shame and fear, the grace of defeat, even the toxic and tragic way Christians revert to the Law, post-conversion. It’s a courageous testament to the reality that we are not saved us from pain, but in and through it, ht AZ:


Admitting my weakness feels like admitting that I am not good enough to bear my own name. This deep pride in being strong and capable was at its peak just before my fall…

My guilt and shame was exacerbated by my faith; I converted from a once-militant atheism to Christianity during my freshman year. Though this faith often gave me courage, humility, and joy, I found that during my senior year, the desire to share the faith that helped me so much made me hyper-cognizant of how I was portraying my beliefs to others. Each of my failings seemed to suggest not only that I was personally weak, but also that I was disappointing God with my failure to be a good witness to others. Even though I believed Christianity initially because I recognized my own weakness and guilt, it felt like a personal failing that I hadn’t gotten around to being perfect yet.

Often expectations shape our emotions more than actual experiences.

2. Taking that last statement and running with it, NPR aired a fascinating story about how Teachers’ Expectations Can Inform How Students Perform. Something of a primer on the psychology of imputation, in which Robert Rosenthal’s classic 1964 experiment is revisited:

The idea was to figure out what would happen if teachers were told that certain kids in their class were destined to succeed, so Rosenthal took a normal IQ test and dressed it up as a different test. “It was a standardized IQ test, Flanagan’s Test of General Ability,” he says. “But the cover we put on it, we had printed on every test booklet, said ‘Harvard Test of Inflected Acquisition.’ ” Rosenthal told the teachers that this very special test from Harvard had the very special ability to predict which kids were about to be very special — that is, which kids were about to experience a dramatic growth in their IQ.

After the kids took the test, he then chose from every class several children totally at random. There was nothing at all to distinguish these kids from the other kids, but he told their teachers that the test predicted the kids were on the verge of an intense intellectual bloom. As he followed the children over the next two years, Rosenthal discovered that the teachers’ expectations of these kids really did affect the students. “If teachers had been led to expect greater gains in IQ, then increasingly, those kids gained more IQ,” he says.

The article goes on to describe some recent work at University of Virginia that seeks to harness these insights in a productive way. Since the expectations have proven themselves to be immovable, new techniques are being developed to help teachers short-circuit their preconceived beliefs. The researchers phrase things in outside-in terms, but you could just as easily make the argument for inside-out a la Mark 7. It’s fascinating stuff.

3. The best of the 25th anniversary of Bad coverage comes, predictably, from Joseph Vogel on The Atlantic. His “How Michael Jackson Made Bad is supremely informative and draws out some of the (highly relevant) themes that informed the record, that is–you guessed it–Expectation with a capital E. And I for one was unaware of the offensive origins of the “Wacko Jacko” moniker. Elsewhere on that site, John Murph points out some of the record’s obvious failings (i.e. “Just Good Friends”). I’m more and more convinced that none of Jackson’s records, not even Thriller, are masterpieces, but each of them–with the exception of Invincible–had the makings of one. And that includes HIStory, maybe even most of all.


4. Given all this talk of expectation, the new excerpt from Tullian Tchividjian’s rapidly forthcoming Glorious Ruin could not have been better timed. It’s called “Man at the Bottom” and it’s just what the Doctor ordered. And if parts of it sound a little familiar, well, let’s just say we’re flattered:

How often have you heard the gospel equated with a positive change in a believer’s life? “I used to __________, but then I met Jesus and now I’m ___________.” It may be unintentional, but we make a serious mistake when we reduce the good news to its results, such as patience, sobriety, and compassion, in the lives of those who have heard it. These are beautiful developments, and they should be celebrated. But they should not be confused with the gospel itself. The gospel is not a means to an end, it is an end in itself.

What happens in this scheme is the following: well-meaning Christians adopt a narrative of improvement that becomes a law (or an identity, which is often the same thing) through which we filter our experiences. The narrative can be as simple as “I was worse, but now I am better,” or as arbitrary as “I used to have a difficult relationship with my mother, but now it’s much easier.” Soon we wed our faith to these narratives, and when an experience or feeling doesn’t fit—for example, when we have a sudden outburst of anger at someone we thought we had forgiven—we deny or rationalize the behavior.

If the narrative we’ve adopted says that in order for our relationship with God to be legitimate, our life has to get better, we set up an inescapable conflict, or what social scientists call “cognitive dissonance.” When our view of ourselves is at risk, honesty is always the first casualty. That is, when the gospel is twisted into a moral improvement scheme, (self-)deception is the foregone conclusion…

God is not interested in what you think you should be or feel. He is not interested in the narrative you construct for yourself, or that others construct for you. He may even use suffering to deconstruct that narrative. Rather, He is interested in you, the you who suffers, the you who inflicts suffering on others, the you who hides, the you who has bad days (and good ones). And He meets you where you are. Jesus is not the man at the top of the stairs; He is the man at the bottom, the friend of sinners, the savior of those in need of one. Which is all of us, all of the time.

5. Also in music, in conjunction with the release of his autobiography, Neil Young was profiled for The NY Times Magazine by none other than David Carr. There’s quite a bit in there about the nature of creativity (“Sometimes a smooth process heralds the approach of atrophy or death…” “The straighter I am, the more alert I am, the less I know myself and the harder it is to recognize myself. I need a little grounding in something and I am looking for it everywhere.”) but my favorite bit has to do with Neil’s son, Ben a quadriplegic with cerebral palsy (and one of the main inspirations for the Bridge School Benefits), ht CB:

Now 34, Ben goes on every tour. “He’s our spiritual leader in that way,” Young says. “We take him everywhere, and he’s like a measuring stick for what’s going on.”

6. Ever since author/journalist Jonah Lehrer’s career hit some, um, snags a few months ago, there hasn’t been quite as much neuroscience to blog about… The feeding frenzy on poor Mr. Lehrer has been compassion-inducing, to say the least (If you’re out there, Jonah, we at Mbird remain greatly appreciative). Anyways, two noteworthy articles on the subject surfaced this week. First, on The Atlantic, Frank Rose unpacked the recent study about pleasure/reward when it comes to talking about ourselves in “The Selfish Meme” and second, a great complement on Boing Boing in the form of a warning about the dangers of Neurospeculation. It turns out that putting a “neuro-” in front of something doesn’t magically rule out confirmation bias or selective reporting (or the human condition). Which isn’t to say that Rose doesn’t sound like he’s on solid ground, ht CR:

Researchers found that the mesolimbic dopamine system—the seat of the brain’s reward mechanism—was more engaged by questions about the test subject’s own opinions and attitudes than by questions about the opinions and attitudes of other people.The system has long been known to respond to both primary rewards (food and sex) and secondary rewards (money), but this was the first time it’s been shown to light up in response to, as the researchers put it, “self-­disclosure.” What the study really illustrated, then, was a paradox: when it comes to information, sharing is mostly about me. The researchers weren’t trying to answer the thornier question of why—why, as they wrote, our species might have “an intrinsic drive to disclose thoughts to others.”

7. A couple of pretty funny, or at least laugh-or-you’ll cry links this week: “Man Accused of Threatening Woman With Handgun for Smoking While Pregnant” and then “Do Aliens Need Photo Captions? Werner Herzog Thinks So.”

8. Finally, P.T. Anderson’s The Master hit theaters this week and the reviews–and reactions to the reviews–have been fascinating. For instance, the film inspired A.O. Scott to write a passage of particular eloquence in The NY Times:

[With his films which all depict some aspect of the American West], at every point in history, Mr. Anderson discovers the perpetual promise of new beginnings and a poisonous backwash of anomie, violence and greed. In his world fortunes are constantly being made and squandered. New religions are springing to life. Gamblers, pornographers, hustlers and drunks are plumbing the mysteries of existence. Fathers are at war with their biological and symbolic sons. Husbands are at war with wives. Men are at war with the universe, perversely convinced that they have a chance of winning. All of this striving — absurd, tragic, grotesque and beautiful — can feel like too much. “The Master” is wild and enormous, its scale almost commensurate with Lancaster Dodd’s hubris and its soul nearly as restless as Freddie Quell’s. It is a movie about the lure and folly of greatness that comes as close as anything I’ve seen recently to being a great movie. There will be skeptics, but the cult is already forming.

Of course, having not seen the film, there’s only so much one can say, outside of the fact that it sounds as though the Scientology aspect is more muted than expected, or at least, pretty peripheral (bummer!). What struck me as relevant, however, were some of the observations made by Stephanie Zacharek over at The A/V Club, who perceptively notes the undercurrent of elitist Law running through some of the reviews:

Last week, as The Master geared up for its initial limited release, I noticed a number of critics and other observers noting that anyone who hoped to get the most out of the movie really ought to see it twice. In their eyes, the picture is that rich, that artistically challenging, that impossible to immediately “get.” But the subtext of those tweets—unintentional, I’m certain—was passive-aggressively dictatorial. The unspoken suggestion was, “If you didn’t get it the first time, keep going back until you do.”

But what if viewers see The Master once and not only don’t warm to it—or find it engaging in any of the ways we engage with films we don’t exactly like—but also don’t think there’s much to get?…there’s something distressing about the urge to anoint Paul Thomas Anderson as—finally! at long last!—a cinematic genius.


Finally, our Fall Conference in Charlottesville, VA is officially one week away! The final schedule (with some minor reshuffling) is here. Online pre-registration closes on Wednesday at midnight. As always, last-minute walk-in’s are more than welcome, the only stipulation being that we can’t guarantee food or drink–so if you’re planning on eating with us (and the food is going to be delicious, I’m happy to report), we need to know before hand–simply send us an email at Again, if you can only make part of the event, you’ll be able to pay at the door (cash, check or credit card), but do drop us an email to let us know to expect you. The “pro-rated” fees are: $30 for Friday, $20 for Saturday, and $10/single session or talk. What else? There are a handful beds left for those that still need housing–email us at to reserve and finally, childcare will be available for kids ages 1-6.

Oh and if you’re on the fence, or are having trouble summoning the courage to blow off work/obligations, we strongly recommend you take the advice of the reunited Ben Folds Five (and The Fraggles):