Another Week Ends

1. “Do The Jews Own Anxiety?” asked Daniel Smith in The NY Times last week, […]

David Zahl / 6.1.12

1. “Do The Jews Own Anxiety?” asked Daniel Smith in The NY Times last week, and his answer may surprise you. A member of the tribe himself, Smith traces the public (gentile) perception of Jewish neurosis, as well as how its poster-boys (Woody Allen, Philip Roth’s Alexander Portnoy, etc) have almost gleefully perpetuated the stereotype, and managed to eclipse such once well-known non-Jewish neurotics such as Soren Kierkegaard, Emily Dickinson, Ingmar Bergman and William James in anxious notoriety — to say nothing of our favorite “patient of great significance,” Dr. Luther! My own experience would be that those whose neuroses are on the surface tend to be a whole lot healthier in actuality than those whose anxieties are suppressed or disallowed (usually for religious or cultural reasons). But it is Smith’s conclusion, where he goes beyond ethnicity and makes a larger point about our propensity for self-justification (and calling a bad thing good), that is perhaps most relevant for us:

[There is a] current of self-flattery that runs through the Jew-as-anxiety-hero trope. Because if anxiety is rooted in excessive intellectual activity, then it is also rooted, by association, in excessive intelligence. When a Jew says he’s a member of the most neurotic tribe in existence, it’s a backhanded way of saying he’s a member of the smartest tribe in existence, the tribe of Spinoza and Marx and Freud and Einstein — and Roth and Allen. It’s a way of claiming mental power.

Which says as much or more about anxiety, I think, as it does about Jewish identity. There are people who argue that mental illnesses are outgrowths of noble faculties — that, for example, depression is related to emotional depth and schizophrenia to the fertility of the imagination. But no one could argue sensibly that it is nobler to be depressed or psychotic than not. No one could argue that depression and psychosis are desirable. Whereas lots of people — Kierkegaard foremost among them — have made this argument about anxiety. There’s a whole history of claiming that anxiety, for all the pain it causes, is a sign that the person who struggles with it exists in a higher state of being than those who don’t — that they are more alive to life’s contradictions, more receptive to the true nature of things, that they have sharper vision, more sensitive skin. That they are more conscious than other people.

And I am here to tell you: this is a really dangerous position to accept.

2. A bit of self-promotion: Christianity Today graciously asked me to respond to the largely excellent and important new book by Thomas Bergler, The Juvenilization of American Christianity, and my piece, entitled “By Grace You Are Mature” appears in this month’s issue. An excerpt is now online, though you have to subscribe to read the whole thing (and see the hilarious caricature they did of me!). It doesn’t cost anything to do so, and if you haven’t checked out CT recently, let’s just say it might not be the publication you remember. Here are a few paragraphs:

Christianity has been irrevocably cast in romantic terms over the past 50 years; in many corners of the church, “personal relationship” has become an almost unimpeachable phrase. The kneejerk anti-institutionalism of mainstream American Evangelicalism is undeniable. The emphasis on (good) feelings over theology, the obsession with sexual purity relative to other Christian virtues, the subtle and not-so-subtle appropriations of cultural norms, from the use of movie clips in sermons to the blatant commercialism of the “book table”, that have strangely resulted in a deeper incubation from the wider culture than anyone could have imagined – would any of us really deny that this is reality?

The question, as Bergler points out, is not whether the church has been juvenilized, but whether or not this is a good thing. I personally do not care about the packaging if the message is true. Bergler, like Marshall McLuhan before him, suggests the packaging is not neutral, and that it always changes the message. And he is probably right. Are we then to assume that the message that appeals to the young, whether it be one of political yes-we-can-ism or personal spiritual and moral improvement, will stray, by default, from the Gospel? I certainly hope not, but again, the proof may be in the pudding…

I remember speaking with a pastor who was preaching the basic, adult Gospel each and every week—the forgiveness of sins through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ—who remarked that, contrary to what one might think, the people in the congregation who gave him the most headaches were not the older, stodgier types. It was always from the younger, ex-para-churchers. They were the ones consistently policing his every word (and each other), demanding something “more” than the Good News of Christ’s finished work on the Cross. They wanted their marching orders, in other words, because they had an adolescent—and, ironically, unbiblical—view of themselves and their potential, that as Bergler says “change is possible and desirable.” They “pushed back” when he would talk about the tragic dimension of the human condition—they didn’t want to hear about themselves, at least not as they actually were. The older people in the crowd, on the other hand, wanted a comforting Word, one that took into account the storms and shipwrecks of life. Transformation simply does not have the same appeal to a 70-year-old as a 30-year-old. Mercy does…

2a. Speaking of youth, if you’ve attended any graduations this year, you know that all the hype about the “boy crisis” in this country is not just hype. Speaking as someone who works with college students, I found CNN’s report on “The Demise of Guys: How Video Games and Porn Are Ruining a Generation” to be more matter-of-fact than alarmist. The researchers they cite refer to the problem being one of “addiction to arousal” and while there are of course other more socialized factors at work, I’m not sure I’d argue, ht DJ. On a somewhat related note, here’s a rare recording of Flannery O’Connor reading, “A Good Man Is Hard To Find”:

3. On the other hand, both Big Think and The Guardian commented this week on the re-release of Ray Bennett’s The Underachiever’s Manifesto: The Guide To Accomplishing Little And Feeling Great. Sample quote: “Our world is so full of unrelenting messages about being the best you can be that it may not even have occurred to you to try for anything less,” ht JD.

4. Elsewhere Tullian Tchividjian and the wonderful John Dink expound on how this dynamic between achievement and identity plays itself out in an ultimate and theological sense, touching on the crucial difference between Cheap Grace and Cheap Law:

In Matthew 5, Jesus shows unambiguously that the greatest obstacle to getting the gospel is not “cheap grace” but “cheap law”–the idea that God accepts anything less than the perfect righteousness of Jesus. (By the way, the proper response to the charge of “cheap grace” is not to make grace expensive by adding a thousand qualifications and footnotes, but rather to declare that grace is free!)

Cheap law weakens God’s demand for perfection, and in doing so, breaths life into the old creature and his quest for a righteousness of his own making.

Cheap law will never quiet the self-righteous being because it invites him to keep haggling over what he can do apart from Jesus. And that is why law must be costly. It must always get to the heart of the matter. It’s not only murder that deserves death, but hate. It’s not only adultery that condemns, but lust. Not only theft, but coveting. It’s not only what is done with your hands that is judged, but what is done in your heart. And so – it should be clear – this is not “let’s make a deal.” The deals have been cut. The law of Moses is more than you can afford. The Son that God did not spare is priceless. The grace Jesus gives is free. That’s all there is. But cheap law keeps us searching for something to leverage against our poverty.

5. At Brain Pickings, the always thought-provoking Maria Popova highlighted what sounds like a fairly sympathetic albeit admittedly “secular” (and gnostic) treatment of some of our favorite Alcoholics Anonymous‘ (New Testament!) insights, The Spirituality of Imperfection: Storytelling and the Search for Meaning by Ernest Kurtz and Katherine Ketcham. A few choice quotes:

We are not ‘everything,’ but neither are we ‘nothing.’ Spirituality is discovered in that space between paradox’s extremes, for there we confront our helplessness and powerlessness, our woundedness… This is not a spirituality for the saints or the gods, but for people who suffer from what the philosopher-psychologist William James called ‘torn-to-pieces- hood’ (his trenchant translation of the German Zerrissenheit). We have all known that experience, for to be human is to feel at times divided, fractured, pulled in a dozen directions … and to yearn for serenity, for some healing of our ‘torn-to-pieces-hood.’

We modern people are problem-solvers, but the demand for answers crowds out patience — and perhaps, especially, patience with mystery, with that which we cannot control. Intolerant of ambiguity, we deny our own ambivalences, searching for answers to our most anguished questions in technique, hoping to find an ultimate healing in technology. But feelings of dislocation, isolation, and off-centeredness persist, as they always have.

6. On Slate, Ron Rosenbaum looks at how W.H. Auden and Philip Larkin dealt with the question, “Does Love Survive Loss?” It’s a fascinating column, esp in regard to Auden’s decision to change his famous line “We must love one another or die” to “We must love one another and die” (from Law to Gospel in other words!).

7. This is pretty rich. A slightly tongue-in-cheek article by Steven Kurutz in the Times looking at the Law of the Beard as it is currently playing out in US hipster enclaves like Brooklyn, ht CB:

At 35, I can grow a decent goatee and mustache, both recent developments, but my cheeks are so prepubescent smooth, with nary a whisker pushing up, that a full beard is impossible. Apparently, I’m not the only one. I mentioned my frustration to Steven Wilson, who runs, a Web site created to “increase awareness, appreciation and understanding of the beard.” He’s heard the story many times.

As Mr. Wilson explained to me in an e-mail, many men who suffer from this “terribly profound personal problem” are “extremely distressed” by their lack of beard-growing capability. They experience “pain and suffering” and “face ridicule” from their bearded friends. They can even be “intimidated by the sight of someone with a great beard.”

8. In music, it’s been gratifying to see Paul and Linda McCartney’s Ram finally get its due, following its re-release a couple of weeks ago. The history of that album’s reception doubles as a history of expectation, and its blinding effect on critics and consumers. That is, the record was truly defiled upon release — but it’s not only McCartney’s best solo album, it was as ahead of its time as his latter-day Beatles’ work, if not more (given today’s indie aesthetic). Both The A/V Club and Pitchfork reviews are worth your time.

9. Just in case our playlist this month wasn’t billboard enough, this Tuesday witnesses the release of a new Beach Boys’ album, That’s Why God Made the Radio, which coincides with the 50th anniversary of their formation. Needless to say, many people will not like it, and I will not be among them (see previous item re: expectations). You can stream a few tracks here. Then, The Daily Beast ran a fairly fascinating short history/full-band interview last week, and perhaps you saw the guys on Charlie Rose talking about the yin and yang of their group persona (Mike Love’s jocular fun-in-the-sun-ism and Brian Wilson’s choirboy melancholy). And speaking of melancholy, and radio, and half centuries, a new study shows that Top 40 radio has grown significantly sadder over the past 50 years, ht DJ.



P.S. We sent out a big summer newsletter yesterday, which you can read here. Worth noting is the special offer that if you sign up for any amount of monthly giving, we’ll send you a complimentary copy of This American Gospel!


3 responses to “Another Week Ends: Jewish Anxiety, Christian Juvenilia, Male Demise, Cheap Law, Underachievement and Imperfection, Bearded Brooklyn, Ram and Beach Boys”

  1. John Zahl says:

    What a great week-end wrap up! So many interesting reads. I hope more people notice the “p.s.” at the bottom. What a deal that is!

  2. Steve Martin says:

    Great stuff!!!

    Would you mind if I suggest 1 more that would fit in nicely with that group?


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