Another Week Ends

1. To start off, Henry Allen over at The Wall Street Journal describes a contemporary cultural inertia […]

Will McDavid / 8.9.13

1. To start off, Henry Allen over at The Wall Street Journal describes a contemporary cultural inertia he’s felt. An ironically self-described ex-“Ziggy Zeitgeist”, he’s now in limbo, the cultural doldrums, ht VH:

Now I am disquieted. It’s not that I see things changing for better or worse, for richer or poorer, or even not changing at all. It’s something else: The most important thing in our culture-sphere isn’t change but the fact that reality itself is dwindling, fading like sunstruck wallpaper, turning into a silence of the dinner-party sort that leads to a default discussion of movies.

Is some sort of cultural entropy homogenizing us?

As novelist Douglas Coupland has pointed out, ordinary people in photographs from 1993 are indistinguishable from people in photographs now. Can you name another 20-year period in modern American history when this is true? 1900-20? 1920-40? 1970-90? His analysis: There’s not much geist left in the zeit.


He also says that the last American novel to make must-read waves in American society was John Irving’s World According to Garp. All that to say, we don’t have any sort of firmly-rooted cultural identity for the 2010s. “Reality itself is dwindling” is a startling claim to make, especially without much explanation, but the decline of religion, nationalism, and all the other usual suspects may account for it. All that to say, perhaps the contemporary expressions of Law and, concomitantly, “meaning” are more everyday and mundane than they have been in the past.

2. It’s been an interesting week for TV: recent Mbird fave Heather Havrilesky examines the anti-hero so prevalent in the current ‘golden age’ of TV, and the viewer’s internal tug-of-war between sympathy and condemnation:

The second we determine that our antihero is nothing but an irredeemable loser and/or we conclude that his or her choices will never make a shred of sense, we’re lost. Every plot twist feels arbitrary and impossible to care about, like watching Bart Simpson burn his finger over and over again without learning a thing about cause and effect…

Gut checks depend on what’s at stake for viewers, how many ethical lapses are tolerable to them, how interesting they find it to watch a person’s principles bend and then break, and which personality strengths (and weaknesses) they judge as redemptive, where others are judged as unforgivable.

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Havrilesky tips her hand a bit with a pretty negative line on Tony Soprano, but she did just admit that some ethical lapses are tolerant to some people, others to other people. Which isn’t to say it’s all just relative, but rather that we edit the Law in practice, so if I’m succeeding in not being a meth dealer, I’m likely to condemn Walter White more strongly. Especially interesting, in this line, is ‘sympathetic’ and ‘unsympathetic’ vices:

Tony’s very relatable vices — laziness, gluttony, adultery — offered the recurring impression of an indulged child who refused to grow up. We were meant to see our own lapses reflected in Tony, and to empathize with him despite his obvious repugnant choices.

Breaking Bad’s Walter White tends to be more unsympathetic (at least in later seasons), because his vices are not especially relatable. Personally, I think she’s a bit hard on White’s accomplice, Jesse Pinkman, but the show’s anthropology is as low as it goes. Perhaps, too, the article could go farther – maybe part of the appeal is fascination with immorality, maybe part of it is enjoying sitting in the judgment seat, but it could also be because these anti-heroes capture an aspect of truth about human nature that’s been underrepresented movies, etc… speaking of which, the entirety of David Zahl’s Christianity Today article on Breaking Bad is now available on their site, and (dare I say) a must-read.


3. Also in TV, it turns out that Coach Taylor, of Friday Night Lights fame, is the consummate Southern Gentleman. The missing ingredient? Religion, says Rod Dreher:

I hadn’t quite thought of it this way, but it’s true: Coach Eric Taylor of Friday Night Lights, portrayed by Kyle Chandler, is the ideal Southern gentleman of our time. The only thing that doesn’t ring true about the Eric Taylor character — and this is true of the whole series — is that religion is all but a ghost in his life and in the lives of the show’s characters. You see them going to church, but the show never makes a serious attempt to explore the complex role faith plays in the lives of the characters. That is simply not how it goes in the life of small Texas towns, or small Southern towns. Even Southerners who aren’t churchgoers think about Jesus.


Of course, after the “religion is all but a ghost” comment, it’s impossible not to reference the no. 1 purveyor of Southern religion herself, Ms. O’Connor:

“…almost anything you say about Southern belief can be denied in the next breath with equal propriety. But approaching the subject from the standpoint of the writer, I think it is safe to say that while the South is hardly Christ-centered, it is most certainly Christ-haunted. The Southerner, who isn’t convinced of it, is very much afraid that he may have been formed in the image and likeness of God. Ghosts can be very fierce and instructive. They cast strange shadows, particularly in our literature. In any case, it is when the freak can be sensed as a figure for our essential displacement that he attains some depth in literature” (“The Grotesque in Southern Fiction”)

Dreher’s ghost is nostalgic, Flannery’s more complex and ambiguously threatening, as ambivalent as the South’s relationship to generalizations. In any case, “very much afraid that he may have been formed in the image and likeness of God “strikes as a pretty good description of Coach Taylor. His character almost expresses a nostalgia for nostalgia – that is, he embodies a set of classical virtues that at least most of us can agree is good. More or less fortunately, this involves leaving Christianity mostly out of the picture – the Southerner’s relationship with a culturally authoritative Evangelicalism, and nostalgia for that, is also far from simple. In the Southern religion vein, the Peter Lawler piece which Dreher cites is pretty interesting, too.

4. On a different note, don’t try to fool Netflix! As the AV Club reported this week, they have a better idea of what you like than you do, not taking into account your ratings so much as what you actually watch:

poster_09Then they use [Netflix browsing data] to make recommendations for stuff maybe you didn’t actually watch, but they know lurks deep down in your heart. In the near future, they even plan to have “contextual recommendations” based on the time of day, what device you’re using, and maybe even your location…

But most importantly, Netflix knows you’ve been lying about what you like, ostensibly to impress them: “A lot of people tell us they often watch foreign movies or documentaries,” Goez-Uribe says. “But in practice, that doesn’t happen very much.” In other words, it knows, and that’s why you keep getting recommendations for “Critically Acclaimed Foreign Dramas That You Will Just Ignore Because… We Have All The Seasons of Cheers. Remember That One Where Cliff Went On Jeopardy?”

Ha! They know the Netflix effect, and are using it wisely.

5. In the redemption department, well, someone’s college professor was a murderer back when, and there’s a beautiful article offering a good helping of grace in practice over at The Daily Beast:

In 1967, a 15-year-old boy killed his family in Georgetown, Texas. Then he grew up to be my psychology professor and I’m okay with that. But not everyone is. Last week, for the first time, news reports connected Jim Wolcott the triple-murderer with Dr. James St. James, the Millikin University psychology professor. In his trial for the killings, Wolcott was declared not guilty by reason of insanity after being diagnosed with a mental illness…

Since hearing the news, I’ve thought long and hard about how I feel about my professor’s past and how it should impact his present. Reading the story made me feel ill. My initial thoughts were “Someone I know killed his family. He’s now a teacher. That’s terrible.” But those knee-jerk reactions have given way to something more important: a strange kind of hope that the justice system we as a society profess to believe in really works. That a boy with a mental illness can receive treatment and find a way to not only live a good life, but one that has had profound positive effects on thousands of students…

“I know him as a warm and thoughtful person who was a friend as well as a fantastic teacher,” said Millikin alum and Hollywood actress Heather Burress. “Came to all my gigs. Even cooked meals for me when I was broke one summer and really needed a decent meal. That’s my experience of the man. And it’s really all I think I can use to judge him.”

And perhaps the most powerful phrase is the one that I have seen over and over again: “I believe in redemption.” It is a phrase I would like to believe we all stand by.


6. In religion articles this week, Nick Lannon’s Indiana Jones piece takes the cake, looking at how the Law of God destroys all alike, and not even Indy’s righteous enough to keep his eyes open during the (surprisingly graphic) covenant-opening debacle. Also of interest were The Jesuit Post’s take on Marie Howe’s brand of mysticism in poetry and the New Republic’s rich piece on Peter Sloterdijk.

7. Foremost for Law in Practice this week, The Atlantic discusses the app Kahnoodle, something meant to “gamify” relationships – that is, clarify the expectations, establish clear numbers for nice things you’ve done for someone and, overall, to make the “points” joke in relationships quite literal. I’ll let the article take over:

Its options include sending push notifications to initiate sex; “Koupons” that entitle the bearer to redeemable movie nights… and, of course, the love tank, which fills or empties depending on how many acts of love you’ve logged…

The love tank makes it “a little easier to constantly think about each other.” And Kahnoodle Concierge, a recently launched service that plans surprise-filled date nights for as little as $20 a month, is a godsend. “If my husband and I can simply show up to the same place, it’s great.”

Kahnoodle keeps the Zeidlers engaged. And in a world where couples spend more time with their smartphones than each other, that’s no easy feat.

You can’t judge the app’s users – it probably does help people that need it – but it can’t but seem a little weird that conditions exist which would make an app like this necessary and profitable. On the other hand, if we sometimes do tend to scorekeep regardless, maybe the app helps people to be honest about that scorekeeping? Makes it less passive-aggressive? Still, objections to / reservations about this type of technology (and the coinciding possibility of depersonalization) probably have something to them.


8. For Hemingway fans, By Faith Online has a detailed article on the man and his work. It’s a bit agenda-driven in places, but still very interesting:

The ideas of truth and tragedy encapsulate Hemingway’s life, writings, and worldview — or perhaps truth as tragedy is a better way of putting it, for Hemingway saw tragedy as the message that he was truthfully telling. And concerning the tragedy of this life, Hemingway was right. This world is utterly and completely fallen; that fallenness spares no one and extends itself to every area of our lives…

…a world without Jesus is just as Hemingway describes it:

“What did he fear? It was not fear or dread. It was a nothing that he knew too well. It was all a nothing and a man was nothing too. … [H]e knew it all was nada y pues nada y nada y pues nada. Our nada who art in nada, nada be thy name thy kingdom nada thy will be nada in nada as it is in nada. Give us this nada our daily nada and nada us our nada as we nada our nadas and nada us not into nada but deliver us from nada; pues nada. Hail nothing full of nothing, nothing is with thee. …

“Now, without thinking further, he would go home to his room. He would lie in the bed and finally, with daylight, he would go to sleep. After all, he said to himself, it is probably only insomnia. Many must have it.” (“A Clean, Well-Lighted Place,” written by Hemingway in 1926 at age 27. “The Complete Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway: The Finca Vigia Edition,” p. 288.)

The doubt, of course, extends to Christians as well. Hemingway’s echoing of the Lord’s prayer certainly does not express “a world without Jesus” so much as it does a world struggling to find a language in which to understand grace, experience it. It is repeating the structure of faith, dependency, prayer and grace without managing, for all that, to apprehend its content. The tragedy aspect certainly works, but the real tragedy the difficulty of knowing oneself to be loved (or forgiven, accepted) in difficult circumstances – acknowledgement of powerlessness (or for Hemingway, impotence) in the time before delivery from it. In this sense it is ‘secular’, but secular in the word’s original sense of the time of waiting for deliverance. Hovering between the time of the Fall (most often PTSD) and a hope of restoration always deferred, Hemingway’s books are ‘secular’ works par excellence – as is, incidentally, the biblical wisdom to which his first title alludes.


9. Finally, posted an incredible interview with Derek Webb, who has an album coming out next month that (we hear) is something to be pretty excited about. To hit some high points:

DW: We have compelling stories to tell as Christians.  Unfortunately, because of the constraints of what I consider to be a marketing category, we’ve taken ourselves out of any real position to tell them.  As evidenced no where better than in the advertising for a so-called Christian Radio Station where the billboard advertises that the content of the radio station is “safe for the whole family”… By setting up the expectations culturally that we’re about safety – that the product we’re selling is safety – we are immediately disqualifying ourselves from being able to tell the most compelling stories of redemptive history.  So I don’t know what it is that we are advertising when we talk like that, but it is not Jesus.  I’ve said this before, but for the sake of the record I’ll say it again that the word Christian, when applied to anything other than a human being is a marketing term.  That’s all that it is...

So growing up I always heard that there were three things you had to learn how to say in order to keep any relationship going.  I was wrong.  I’m sorry.  I love you.  So if I am consciously, deliberately making a record about the church again, I thought I should start with those three statements.  We are diverse members of one body, the church, a group of people who only gather based on our sickness. The church is essentially an AA meeting and if our churches don’t feel like AA meetings we’re not doing it right. Remember, we gather together to confess our need for sickness and our healing.  Even the guy in the front gets up and says, “I too am like you and am needy and sick. Follow me as I go to Jesus.”  That is what we’re doing.  If the only thing we have in common is sickness, no wonder we’re going to bicker and disagree.  So it felt to me like the best first statement is for me to say this and to model it.  It just felt like the perfect title, the perfect opening track, the perfect song.

Bonus: For more Law, and the clash of different forms of judgment, check out a hilarious piece from The New York Times on minding your manners in the Hamptons. For more gamifying, quantify “Are You a Good Person?” at The Daily Telegraph’s site, and for more on literature, check out “Fallen Idols” at the Times. Also, Mumford and Sons does some self-satirization (below) in the wake of’s semi-serious quiz, “Mumford & Sons Lyric Or Gandalf Quote?”


In closing, a wise man once said that it’s for freedom that Christ has set us free…