Another Week Ends

1. An encouraging number of signs of life in the bibliosphere this week. First, over […]

David Zahl / 11.30.12

1. An encouraging number of signs of life in the bibliosphere this week. First, over at The New Statesman, much to my surprise (and much to his credit), renowned atheist Alain de Botton selected Francis Spufford’s Unapologetic: Why, Despite Everything, Christianity Can Still Make Surprising Emotional Sense as his favorite book of the year. For a profound little excerpt from the book, go here. Can’t wait for it to come out in the States. Second, there’s the arresting depth of understanding and engagement in From Exile, Grow Man’s review of PZ’s Grace in Practice. Probably the most honest review I’ve read of that influential volume. Third, Andrew Solomon’s parenting opus Far From The Tree: Parents, Children and the Search for Identity has been making headlines. The book is a chronicle of ten years spent interviewing  parents of “exceptional” children (300 or so). By “exceptional” he is referring to children with disabilities, gifts, proclivities or circumstances that depart from those of their parents, the driving question being, how does a parent relate to a child that is almost nothing like them? The theological implications should be fairly obvious, though despite what sounds like every attempt at sensitivity, he’s touched a nerve or two. I was particularly taken with one paragraph from The NY Times review:

This is the book’s central conundrum: most of the families he describes are deeply grateful for the very experiences they would have sacrificed everything to avoid. We can’t help loving our children for who they are, not who they might have been. So, a mother whose second son was born as profoundly disabled as her first admits that if she had known the condition might have been repeated she “would not have risked it.” But she immediately contradicts herself by saying if she had the chance to “wipe out that experience,” she certainly wouldn’t have. Solomon declares, “Difference unites us.” But how much difference is too much? It’s a question that neither he nor this work ever manages to answer. But you sense that somewhere in that very uncertainty lies a startlingly accurate definition of parental love. Of the Rwandan rape victim who begged him to help her love her daughter more, Solomon observes, “She did not know how much love was in that question itself.”

2. Elsewhere, in his review of Kevin DeYoung’s Hole in Our Holiness for Christianity Today, Mark Galli describes the slippery slope of “holiness” with what some might consider exemplary humility and thoughtfulness (just don’t tell him so!):

[DeYoung] says that those who pursue a righteous life are “susceptible to judgmentalism and arrogance.” What I think he fails to see is that those who pursue holiness with the passion that he pleads for are more than “susceptible” to these temptations; they will inevitably become self-righteous. This is my personal testimony and the witness of history. DeYoung points us to the Puritans as examples of holiness. But there is a reason that the Puritans have a reputation for priggishness and self-righteousness. Having been a student of the Puritans myself, I know their movement started out with the best of motives—to live godly lives in a sinful world. But their passion for holiness led inevitably to self-righteousness. Their historical reputation is due in part to secular bias, but it is also due to historical facts.

…while I applaud the reminder that we are called to be holy, and while I recognize that there is some deliberate effort involved, I believe that a conscious and purposeful pursuit of holiness is about the worst way to go about it. I cannot think of a person I know or a historical figure who has aspired to holiness without suffering from spiritual pride. This has certainly been the case in my own spiritual journey. The times I have deliberately tried to become godly are when I have become most like the devil—irritable, judgmental, arrogant, and prideful to start with. The paradox is when I stop trying to be holy, and simply repent as the sinner I am, I become more patient, kind, and loving.

3. One last book-related item before we move on. In The NY Review of Books, Elaine Blair uses her review of DT Max’s biography of David Foster Wallace to explore Wallace’s relationship with Alcoholics Anonymous and how radical of a departure it represents in terms of his contemporaries’ attitudes about received wisdom and/or tradition of any kind, ht KW:

The part of the AA meetings that most annoys Wallace’s characters is the repetition of mottoes. New members “are always encouraged to invoke and pay empty lip or hypocritical lip-service to slogans they don’t yet understand or believe—e. g. ‘Easy Does It!’ and ‘Turn It Over!’ and ‘One Day At a Time!’ It’s called ‘Fake It Till You Make It,’ itself an oft-invoked slogan.”

For Wallace, brilliant student, philosopher, novelist, the submission to “goofily simple,” trite, sometimes ungrammatical slogans is the essence of submission itself. There could be no more dramatic symbol of the depth of trouble that the addict is in than his agreement to hear and repeat these truisms. It represents a submission not just to AA methods, but to the idea that you are not different from everyone else, not exempt from ordinary suffering and ordinary consolations.

4. On a tangentially Wallace-related note, there’s been an interesting discussion going on this past week about irony and sincerity in the wake of Christy Wampole’s NY Times article about Hipsterdom, “How To Live Without Irony.” The principle question being, are we living in an age of irony or sincerity and is that a good or bad thing? “Hipster,” as we all know, has become a widespread pejorative over the last decade or so, taking the place of contempt that “yuppie” occupied in the 80s and early 90s. And considering the degree of value judgment associated with the term, it’s no surprise that it embodies a certain amount of cultural Law, i.e. whatever you do, don’t be a hipster! Or simply think of it as the Wes Anderson backlash on one side and the Mumford and Sons backlash on the other. There’s a lot of identity/righteousness at stake, even if it’s all shifting sand as R. Jay Magill so wisely points out on The Atlantic in “We’ve Been Arguing about Irony vs Sincerity for Millenia.” It’s an incredible piece and not just because it ties the whole Sincerity vs. Irony thing (somewhat questionably) to the Reformation:

It was really during the Reformation that the heightened moral hostility between sincerity and irony got underway, and has been influencing our conversations ever since. Frustrated with what they perceived to be the corruption and hypocrisy of the established Christian church—and its flippant apologists—figures like Martin Luther, Ulrich Zwingli, and John Calvin urged believers to look into their hearts, convene with God in private, read the Bible, and turn away from rituals and Church dogma. If believers really, sincerely believed, they would realize they were just paying lip service to ecclesiastical authority and would resolutely turn away from its falseness. Sincerity, as such, became an enormously important quality to cultivate, because Reformation theology stressed the importance of personal faith over work (or indulgences), and thus one’s very soul depended on it. Moreover, society was changing radically in the 16th century. Social mobility caused increasing numbers of people to come into contact with strangers, and being sincere—and detecting it in others—became a sign of Protestantism. This helped people of faith to identify one another in a world seen as cold, heartless, and manipulative—particularly in the wake of Machiavelli’s Prince, published in 1513, to hatred of Christians and the love of nobility who wanted to keep a grasp on their power.

Also on that site, Jonathan Fitzgerald makes a strong case that “Sincerity, Not Irony, Is Our Age’s Ethos”–though if you read the piece, he’s actually arguing that it’s neither strictly one or the other, which strikes me as sound. As for Protestants not being predisposed to irony, well, I’ll let the master speak:


5. New York Magazine published feature recently with the unflinchingly pleasant title, “I Really Like That You Like What I Like: How Did the Internet Get So Cozy?” Apparently there’s been a shift in Internet norms from argument and harassment to affirmation and encouragement. Sites like Facebook have a vested commercial interest in keeping things civil, of course, since the thrill of escape to its world has a lot to do with the construction and affirmation of a new identity. Or you might say, the broad appeal of this kind of social media is that it’s insulated from many of the problems of real life (“IRL”). Thus Facebook’s vigorous policing, which helps sustain this insular world. Another reason we’re ‘nicer’, presumably, is that we’re held accountable for what we say, ht WB:

“Facebook may have replaced Disneyland as the happiest place on Earth,” says Joseph B. Walther, a Michigan State University professor who’s been researching Internet interaction for decades. “Even though one individual may be griping about something, all their friends come to their aid and support.

Unlike the early Internet, which was powered by anonymity, today’s web is a familiar place: Instead of going online to hide from the real world, we venture onto the web to partake of it—and to be seen partaking. Where there used to be a lawless place to escape to, there’s now only the cuddly, applauding web—or the fantasy of trying to live a complete life without it.”

I can’t help but feel that NYMag is pretty off base here – not only because of the irony of Walther’s statement, but because the anonymity part is 100% backwards. The anonymous web was far more vicious precisely because it allowed human nature total license, apart from any consequences. Now that we have to be “seen partaking”, i.e. with Facebook posts (or, say, comment sections on websites that requite you to register…) we curb our aggression because our online behavior now has direct bearing upon our identity. It used to be a lawless place, NY Magazine claims, but now that there’s a law it becomes not more authentic, but less – an insular, largely illusive world of closed-circle affirmation.

5. Also on the social media side of things, Megan Garber on The Atlantic unpacks some recent studies about the reportedly direct relationship between Facebook friends and stress. So the gap between who we present ourselves to be (which varies/conflicts according to audience) and who we actually are creates fallout? Nothing we didn’t already know (or The Atlantic hasn’t told us umpteen times at this point), but nonetheless well articulated:

The stress comes, Marder theorizes, from the kind of personal versioning that is so common in analog life — the fact that you (probably) behave slightly differently when you’re with your mom than you do when you’re with your boss, or with your boyfriend, or with your dentist. And it comes, even more specifically, from the social nuance of that versioning behavior colliding with the blunt social platform that is The Facebook. Behaviors like swearing and drinking and smoking, the study suggests, are behaviors that you (might) do with friends — but not (probably) with your boss. And, more subtly, language that you might use with your friends — in-jokes, slang, references to Breaking Bad — probably won’t track when you’re in a different social context. The awareness of that discrepancy — Facebook’s tendency to disseminate even highly targeted social interactions — leads to stress.


6. A couple of good chuckles from The Onion include New Dating Site Matches Users With Partners They Deserve and Study: Everyone, Everything Linked To Paranoia.

7. In music, The New Yorker stepped up to the plate and put out an article on The Grateful Dead that’s as lengthy as it is fascinating. Meaning, it tackles the whole shebang: their music, their career, their (off-putting) cult, their ever-evolving perception and sociological importance, and their substantial lore. As such, it almost doubles as a history of Boomer coolness and culture. Never having been much of a fan, it was enough to make me want to a second look/listen. (Where should I begin?). The New Yorker also reported on a recent public conversation between Aimee Mann and playwright Neil Labute on the subject of happiness. Having long been an Aimee fan, the wise soundbites they reproduced only increased my admiration:

Mann said that happiness had to be internal. “Looking to outside sources to make you happy is just a disaster,” she said. For instance, “It’s perfectly possible to play a show and have it go well and be miserable.” She mentioned something she had heard at a twelve-step meeting: “I’m not going to make being cool my higher power anymore.”

She also said, “If I have an impulse to help someone, it’s usually in some kind of obsessive way that is rescue-y and is probably not very helpful and probably has more to do with me wanting to feel a certain way about myself. ”That sounded like an Aimee Mann lyric in the making… “Triumph isn’t happiness. . . . It’s not fist-pumping.

Speaking of Aimee (and hipsters and sincerity, etc), I’m just going to say it: Ben Gibbard’s new solo album is really good. Better than the last few Death Cab records for sure, and his duet with Mann is a highlight. Plus, New Girl fans will find plenty of post-Zooey references to mull over.

8. Finally, if you’re in need of a good weekend devotion, look no further than “Tis Better to Give Than to Receive” from Jeff Dunn over at Internet Monk.



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