Another Week Ends

1. With a fresh flock of college graduates entering the fray this week, a number […]

David Zahl / 5.23.14

1. With a fresh flock of college graduates entering the fray this week, a number of articles have appeared taking their pulse, and the pulse of higher education in general. Writing for The NY Times, Michael Roth, president of Wesleyan University, aka Joss Whedon’s alma mater, issued some warnings about the over-development of our students’ critical faculties, a trend which naturally has implications well beyond the classroom. It’s certainly endemic to the blogosphere, for instance, both religious and otherwise. Plus, the phrase “fetishizing disbelief” strikes me as a potent one:

article-2293039-18A49129000005DC-919_634x950Liberal education in America has long been characterized by the intertwining of two traditions: of critical inquiry in pursuit of truth and exuberant performance in pursuit of excellence. In the last half-century, though, emphasis on inquiry has become dominant, and it has often been reduced to the ability to expose error and undermine belief. The inquirer has taken the guise of the sophisticated (often ironic) spectator, rather than the messy participant in continuing experiments or even the reverent beholder of great cultural achievements.

Of course critical reflection is fundamental to teaching and scholarship, but fetishizing disbelief as a sign of intelligence has contributed to depleting our cultural resources. Creative work, in whatever field, depends upon commitment, the energy of participation and the ability to become absorbed in works of literature, art and science. That type of absorption is becoming an endangered species of cultural life, as our nonstop, increasingly fractured technological existence wears down our receptive capacities.

Reminds me quite a bit of a convicting article I read a few years ago by Wheaton professor Timothy Larsen about students at Christian colleges:

I often find [my students] quick-off-the-draw-ready with a forceful and sophisticated critique of most any traditional religious belief or practice. They can be sadly flummoxed, however, by a simple request to explain what is true. If I wonder, “What are some problems with the doctrine of the atonement?” hands fly up all over the room, but if I straightforwardly ask, “What is the gospel?” the room falls strangely silent, and I find myself staring at rows of students quietly avoiding making eye contact.

In other words, it’s a lot easier to know what you’re against than what you’re for and a lot easier to make disconnections than connections, nudge nudge wink wink. Of course, this probably isn’t a week when we need any reminders about how critical Christians can be of their own. Lord have mercy.


2. Taking the diagnosis one step further would be a surprising feature on Salon about how “David Foster Wallace was right: Irony is ruining our culture”. An admittedly overstated title but the piece does cover quite a bit of ground. The basic thesis could be boiled down to: “At one time, irony served to reveal hypocrisies, but now it simply acknowledges one’s cultural compliance and familiarity with pop trends. The art of irony has lost its vision and its edge…” I was especially struck by the discussion of the black spiritual “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen” (Spaceballs, anyone?). They get dangerously close to a religious affirmation:

In the history of this country, no artistic tradition has done more to elevate the human spirit than black American music. If one wanted to write a book that advanced the novelistic tradition and the possibilities for humankind, one could learn something critical from studying, for example, “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen.” The opening words: Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen/Nobody knows my sorrow/ Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen/ Glory Hallelujah

In an interview with Bill Moyers, Professor James Cone of Union Theological Seminary explains the seeming contradiction between the grief of the refrain and the promise of the closing exaltation.

And you sort of say, sure, nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen. Nobody knows my sorrow. Sure, there is slavery. Sure, there is lynching, segregation. But, Glory Hallelujah. Now, the Glory Hallelujah is the fact that there is a humanity and a spirit nobody can kill.

One can’t help but wonder if the transcriber missed the capital ‘S’ in that last sentence.


It’s telling that the authors go on to endorse Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead and Mary Gaitskill’s Veronica as two examples of high art that refused to ‘hide behind’ irony. Both those writers are not exactly shy about their faith; some would even call them paragons. The kind of irony that DFW took such issue with is the same that Tim Kreider renounced so stridently at our NYC Conference–irony that acts as a veil for spiritual emptiness or, worse, intellectual laziness. Which is mighty tempting when traditional sources of meaning (seem to) have lost their grounding.

We all know what they mean–who among us hasn’t known someone, or been that person ourselves, who uses sarcasm as a mask? A way to avoid taking risks, either relationally or intellectually, AKA a shield against vulnerability? I’m pretty sure this is one reason people can’t take later Michael Jackson seriously. The man had zero sense of irony, God bless him.

So what’s problematic here is when irony becomes its own purpose and turns into something fundamentally dishonest–rather than, say, dishonesty in the service of honesty.

Speaking as someone who not only relishes but relies on irony, I’d be very hesitant to somehow blame ‘irony’ for the way it is often used. Irony is the bee’s knees! In fact, I’d take hipster irony over sentimental gauziness or straight-up nihilism any day–at least it’s funny. And in the hands of an artist with real religious or ideological convictions, I’m not sure there is any more powerful tool for penetrating the walls we erect around ourselves, even walls of irony. I’m thinking of J.D. Salinger and Whit Stillman and Flannery O’Connor and Stuart Murdoch, all of whose work is steeped in irony that adds to what they’re trying to communicate rather than detracting from it. In fact, wasn’t it Wallace himself who said that you can’t talk about God, post-Dostoyevsky without putting tongue at least slightly in cheek? And if there’s anywhere that could actually benefit from more irony, not less, it’s the Church…

But the article is worth your time, especially the closing where they riff on the role of sincerity in art (though they sadly missed an opportunity to reference Jonathan Fitzgerald’s excellent treatise on How the New Sincerity is Changing Pop Culture for the Better):

Skeptics reject sincerity because they worry blind belief can lead to such evils as the Ku Klux Klan and Nazism. They think strong conviction implies vulnerability to emotional rhetoric and lack of critical awareness. But the goal of great art is the same whether one approaches it seriously or dubiously. To make something new, to transcend, one must have an honest relationship with what is: history, context, form, tradition, oneself. Dishonesty is the biggest obstacle to making original, great art. Dishonesty undermines a work’s internal integrity — the only standard by which a work can succeed. If the work becomes a vehicle for one’s ego, personal or political agenda, self-image, desire for fame, adulation, fortune — human as these inclinations may be — the work will be limited accordingly.


Speaking of Stillman, it was announced this week that the director’s new pilot The Cosmopolitans will debut on June 30th — can I get a “Glory Hallelujah”?!

3. You might think that that was all that surfaced regarding the state of the graduating generation, but you’d be mistaken. To counteract what he sees as misleading convocation missives, philosopher Gordon Marino published a bold declaration on The NY Times about having “A Life Beyond Doing What You Love”. His conclusions are not what you would call unsympathetic:

The faith that my likes and dislikes or our sense of meaning alone should decide what I do is part and parcel with the gospel of self-fulfillment. Philosophy has always been right to instruct that we can be as mistaken about our views on happiness as anything else. The same holds for the related notion of self-fulfillment. Suppose that true self-fulfillment comes in the form of developing into “a mature human being.” This is of course not to claim that we ought to avoid work that we love doing just because we love doing it. That would be absurd. For some, a happy harmony exists or develops in which they find pleasure in using their talents in a responsible, other-oriented way.

The universally recognized paragons of humanity — the Nelson Mandelas, Dietrich Bonhoeffers and Martin Luther Kings — did not organize their lives around self-fulfillment and bucket lists. They, no doubt, found a sense of meaning in their heroic acts of self-sacrifice, but they did not do what they were doing in order to achieve that sense of meaning.

4. On an unrelated note, when it comes to The Law of Motherhood, an impossible standard if ever there was one (getting impossible-r by the day), The New Yorker dropped quite the righteous rant against the New York Post’s characterization of NYC First Lady, Chirlane McCray as a “bad mom”:

Apparently, even a mother who quits her job risks being called a bad mother—one who neglected her child—if she hesitates a second too long. What would the Posts ideal have been—if McCray had lost all desire to spend any time in the office, or anywhere but with Chiara, the day her daughter was born? Maybe, by the Posts lights, being a working mother is permissible only if one ritually expresses the wish that one’s life was different. To be anything other than a “bad mom,” must one despise work?

Perhaps, then, the key to being a good mother is self-flagellation. But not quite: any expression of regret or doubt might count as a “confession” of one’s failure to “embrace motherhood.” So maybe the Post is suggesting that, to be a good mother, one must be smug—or maybe it isn’t leaving women any good option at all.

The Washington Post might have something to say on the matter–it reported just this week that despite our complaints about our jobs, both women and men are more stressed at home than they are at the office. Just ask Betty Draper.

5. Next, in the ‘good cry’ department, I lost my composure this week after reading an article on Gawker (of all places) about the superhero funeral given for a 5-year old who died of brain cancer. Heartbreaking yet beautiful:


6. In the less good cry department, The New Yorker ran a fascinating article by Elizabeth Kolbert asking “How Did We Get So Busy?” While John Maynard Keynes is her jumping off point, the most relevant part of the article deals with Birgid Shulte’s new book Overwhelmed. Get a load of this:

One theory [Schulte] entertains early on is that busyness has acquired social status. The busier you are the more important you seem; thus, people compete to be—or, at least, to appear to be—harried. A researcher she consults at the University of North Dakota, Ann Burnett, has collected five decades’ worth of holiday letters and found that they’ve come to dwell less and less on the blessings of the season and more and more on how jam-packed the previous year has been. Based on this archive, Burnett has concluded that keeping up with the Joneses now means trying to outschedule them. (In one recent letter, a mother boasts of schlepping her kids to so many activities that she drives “a hundred miles a day.”) “There’s a real ‘busier than thou’ attitude,” Burnett says.

7. In music, summer is just about here and so is DJ JAZ’s “Episco-poolside Mix”. You’re welcome:

8. In humor, The Onion put together some helpful facts and figures about millennials, e.g. “3 out of 5 millennials have an iPhone that could use some juice if anyone has a charger.” And the legendary version of Return of the Jedi as directed by David Lynch (who almost got the job, no joke) finally got a trailer:

9. Lastly, RIP the late, great Gordon Willis:

P.S. We sent out our summer e-newsletter today, which you can view by clicking here. Oh and we’ll be off on Monday for Memorial Day but will see you back here on Tuesday.

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