Another Week Ends

1. We’ve spoken before about why we so often feel the need to conceive of […]

David Zahl / 11.22.13

1. We’ve spoken before about why we so often feel the need to conceive of our lives as a narrative of progress or upward-sloping trajectory. We’ve tried to highlight the dangers this poses, especially when the progress is understood to be moral or spiritual in nature. An instinct that can sometimes help us make sense of our lives (and we need all the help we can get!), when left unchecked can end up obscuring reality (where God is) and compounding loneliness. On The Huffington Post, Carolyn Gregoire explores this phenomenon in some detail, particularly in relation to Dan McAdams’ new The Redemptive Self: Stories Americans Live By. Highly relevant stuff:

roz-chast-the-last-thanksgiving-new-yorker-cartoon“…when it comes to life stories, our current emotional states and life circumstances have an enormous impact on how we construe the past and imagine the future — even based on moment to moment oscillations, says McAdams. Going through a depressive period or time of pain can change your entire story for the duration of that period. While recovering from a divorce or breakup, for instance, you might view the past more somberly and be motivated to construe how you got to this point…

When McAdams and his students examined the life stories of a group of people in their 30s and 40s who were seen by themselves and others as being highly “generative” — meaning caring, productive and committed to making a positive difference in the world — they found again and again that these people brought themes of redemption into their narratives.

“Redemption is seen as when something in the story starts really bad,” says McAdams. “They’ll talk about a negative event – a failure, or some kind of disruption or loss – and then they’ll transition into some positive outcome from that.” For example, a generative person might view getting fired or divorced as a catalyst for a better opportunity to arise later down the road. The basic arc of a generative script is always one of going through suffering and then coming out of it better than you were before.

Religiously speaking, we are talking here about the art of the personal testimony and how dodgy it can be to put one’s faith in some perceived change in behavior or circumstance (double lives, selective memories, playing God, etc). McAdams sees the tendency to identify with a personal narrative as particularly tempting for those of us who grew up in land of the Mayflower. And if contemporary churches are any indication, not even the most devout of Pilgrim offspring can claim immunity. Again, it’s not that changes in behavior don’t happen, or that people don’t experience progress or victory in one area or another. It’s just that, as McAdams (and Gregoire) rightly underscore, our testimonies are often far more fluid than we might like to believe–cue “The Subjective Importance of an Objective Gospel.” On the flip side of identity formation, Psych Central mused about social anxiety and who it is we’re really trying to hide from when we don our Soul Toupees, ht RW:

We all have sides of ourselves that we want people to see more than others, and we do our best to consciously put these out there so people will have the impression of us that we want them to have. Consider it our desired image. However, what people don’t often realize is that what we intend to cover up becomes easily visible to people in other ways. Whether it’s in body language, undertones in speaking, general opinions, responses to conversations or certain questions, choices we make in life, how we dress, how we receive communication, etc., etc., we’re much more visible to people than we all want to believe.

Unfortunately, knowing this information is generally not enough to help people let go in social situations, or even let go more easily in a relationship. This means that even with knowing that others can easily detect parts of us we don’t want to show, that we’re still hiding from something…. Ourselves.

The Onion managed to capture the whole shebang in a single headline this week with “Man Was Himself for 27 Minutes Today”.


2. Speaking of the home of the brave, on the eve of a holiday week, Matthew Ygelsias used the well-known statistics about Americans taking less vacation days than any other developed country to ask “Will a Vacation Reveal How Dispensable You Are?” Needless to say, it doubles as an inadvertent but valuable meditation on works righteousness, that is, our underutilization of off-time being an inconvenient barometer of how tied up our identities are with our work. Which helps explain the irony implicit in The Economist’s report of how “Firms that keep grading their staff ruthlessly may not get the best from them”, ht CB:

If a large proportion of the workforce doubt the fairness of the grading system, and fear being among an arbitrarily imposed quota of “underperformers”, many may try to jump before they are pushed: staff turnover may thus be higher than is desirable. Worse, employees may look for ways to game the system, as happened at Enron, where workers conspired to inflate their results to secure their bonuses or escape the axe. That is not the sort of teamwork and collaboration that is wanted.

3. Where’s the hope, then? Can work ever just be work, or achievement just achievement? Look no further than Marilynne Robinson’s review of Flannery O’Connor’s recently published Prayer Journals, in which she let fly a beautiful paragraph on inspiration as it relates to (creative) endeavor:

south-park-1513-a-history-channel-thanksgiving-clip06Every writer wonders where fictional ideas come from. The best of them often appear very abruptly after a period of imaginative drought. And, mysteriously, they really are good ideas, much superior to the contrivances of conscious invention. Such experiences are by no means exclusive to writers with religious worldviews. But believing them to be literal gifts grants them an objective existence they seem actually to deserve. This entails problems, of course. Fiction rarely shows a divine imprimatur, as its mortal creators are well aware. I would be curious to know what story or part of a story by O’Connor should be attributed to the Lord. It can seem self-aggrandizing or simply bizarre to ascribe any thought or work to a seemingly external source, named or unnamed. Nevertheless, ­Hesiod, Pindar and any number of poets and prophets before and after them have declared indebtedness of this kind. If they, and O’Connor, were naïve, sophistication has made language poorer. There is no way now to describe an experience many a writer can attest to, having been surprised by it, and having enjoyed it as a particular pleasure and reward of the art. Religion is by its nature more accommodating to the unaccountable than rationalism ever can be.

Literature buffs will also enjoy NPR’s story on How Doris Lessing Didn’t Want to Be Remembered, ht JL.

4. A couple of Christian-specific links this week would be Richard Beck’s incisive observations about the neurotic drinking habits of post-evangelicals, a group who, in his view, tend to treat alcohol either as a symbol of independence (aka reaction) or superiority (aka self-justification). He’s got a point… Elsewhere, Zach Hicks’ (flattering) reflection on “What Worship Curved in on Itself Looks Like” displays the kind of wisdom and compassion that is largely missing from deconstructions of contemporary church music. As he writes:

“The irony… is that singing about my feelings for God doesn’t actually have the power to engender feelings for God, even if it’s backed by the most mesmerizing key pad, the most worshipful electric guitar reverb swell, or the most fervent BGVs.”

5. Social Science Study of the Week comes to us from The Atlantic (where else?): “As Babies, We Knew Morality”. They include a pretty striking quote from Frans de Waal– “The child is a natural moralist, who gets a huge helping hand from its biological makeup”–which reminds one of another recent Atlantic article, “Is America Less Moralistic Now, or Has Its Code Just Changed?”. Careful readers will recall that yours truly did his darndest to weigh in on that question here.

6. TV: I keep rooting for Parenthood this season, but Katims and co are not making it easy with this ridiculous mayoral subplot. Fortunately, the show has a track record of strong second halves of seasons, so there’s reason for hope. Next, after reading yet another glowing review, I finally took the plunge on Sleepy Hollow, and I’m very glad I did. I could call it X-Files meets Back to the Future but that wouldn’t do it justice. The show’s religion really jumps out at you (in a good way)–finally someone seems to have figured out how to combine the extremely evocative (and cool) supernatural aspects of Christian mythology with the day-to-day profundity of guilt and absolution (Episode 3 will knock your socks off in that regard). It certainly puts all those fairy tale shows to shame–though not Revolution or Arrow, both of which are enjoying banner second seasons. In fact, these three shows have proven so (unexpectedly) enjoyable that they’ve cast The Walking Dead, which has gotten unbearably sullen and boring this season, into very unflattering relief. That said, I did enjoy the Governer’s return last week. In comedy, New Girl has been showing signs of life after a lackluster first few episodes. Sadly, in no conceivable universe would I feel comfortable endorsing or even mentioning the most brilliant comedy of the year, which just ended its insane run on a surprising yet undeniably gracious note. (One word: Dakota). Lastly, a quick clip to illustrate why this week’s news about Monty Python is more exciting than your average reunion story (also a brilliant lampooning of the Law of Hard Knocks, or what it looks like to justify yourself according to suffering):

7. While you’re still smiling, The Onion gave us a lot to give thanks for this week: “Woman Who Had Almost Formed Healthy Sense Of Self Rejoins Social Media” and “Siblings Gather Around PowerPoint To Hash Out Off-Limits Topics For Thanksgiving”. And don’t miss last year’s “Nation’s Uncles Enter Last Stage Of Prep For Thursday’s Thanksgiving Debates”. Elsewhere, a very funny and remarkably wise rumination on how golf reflects both life and God. Clue: “Causation is but a dream.”

8. In music, Mbird fave Terry Eagleton raved about Morrissey’s Autobiography in The Guardian, and having just breezed through it myself, I heartily concur. One particularly juicy bit:

“Although a passable human creature on the outside,” [Morrissey] comments of himself, “the swirling soul within seemed to speak up for the most awkward people on the planet”, of whom he himself ranks among the most adept. He is one of the great curmudgeons and contrarians of our time. He even puts in a good word for the Kray brothers.

If you do pick it up, might I recommend the recently re-configured Maladjusted as your soundtrack? People will tell you otherwise, but in this fan’s over-considered opinion, it may be his secret masterpiece. Sachs Media has put together a highly amusing look at “Rock n Roll Heaven”–their approximations of what deceased rock stars would look like today (including a remarkably Scott Bakula-like Dennis Wilson), ht JF. And we’d embed the video for the new U2 single “Ordinary Love” if we could–it bodes well for the Danger Mouse-produced record they’re hoping to release in March. Also, if you haven’t played around with the incredible interactive new video of “Like a Rolling Stone”, you’re in for a treat. Here’s the teaser:

9. Finally, today, as we all know, marks the 50th anniversary of JFK’s assassination, a day when two other men who have spoken to us over the years also happened to die, Aldous Huxley and CS Lewis. Click on their names to peruse our archives – there’s gold in them hills!

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2 responses to “Another Week Ends: Life Stories, Vacation Days, Literary Grace, Curved In Worship, Baby Morality, Sleepy Hollow and Eagleton on Moz”

  1. Ross Byrd says:

    As always, these are my favorite mbird thingies. Thanks dz. You always do the weekend right.

    A long PS… Would love to have more conversation on the worship stuff (#4). Zach’s piece is sharp, but I wonder if it overemphasizes the ‘objective’ side of the gospel in worship, discounting–not intentionally, I assume–the possibility of subjective sincerity on the part of Christians, who, by the power of the Spirit, may actually mean what they sing in the moment (even if they lack the ability to follow through with it perfectly). We neo-Reformation types tend to be pretty confident in the universal power of sin, but rather cynical regarding the power of the Spirit of God in believers.

    That contemporary worshippers are being self-congratulatory when they sing such songs seems a bit unfair in my experience. Perhaps we are often self-deceived regarding our own sincerity and ability to carry out the devotional promises we sing. I dare say, it seems David in the Psalms was as well, at times. But is a father utterly displeased with his child’s saying, “I want to obey You only now,” even though he knows the child cannot and will not follow through as well as he or she ought?

    Further, the reason we put words to music in the first place is to say what we feel toward God, not simply what we know of Him. The creeds must stay. But so also, in my view, must devotional music, which is something different. If He is winning our hearts at all in this life, we must give him back the parts that He’s won.

    If we want to see ‘worship turned in on itself’, we can look at the world, we can look, indeed, at our own lives–how we turn everything back to ourselves. But perhaps we should be a bit more careful when we look to crowded sanctuaries of people singing love songs to Jesus. They may perhaps be theologically misinformed. They are most certainly self-interested, just as we. But we have bought into an incredibly deep cynicism if we are going to say that that is “what worship turned in on itself looks like.”

    On another note, I have been obsessed with the story of Sleepy Hollow since I was a kid, and thus, was simultaneously excited and hopeless (can we make that a Latin phrase?) about this new TV series. But you have given me hope. I shall watch.

  2. Ian says:

    Kudos, Ross: I wonder if a good deal of our cynicism is biblical anthropology curved in on itself. I wondered (and wondered!) at that this morning in my church’s worship as I discerned genuine joy blossoming as I followed the lead of men I knew firsthand to be deeply, deeply flawed and even hurt fully sinful at times, i.e. on no normal account of experience ought this to have been happening. Grace was suddenly awfully surprising again.

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