Another Week Ends

1. Yesterday I mentioned the name-dropping op-ed that appeared on the Washington Post, Tullian Tchividjian’s […]

David Zahl / 10.18.13

1. Yesterday I mentioned the name-dropping op-ed that appeared on the Washington Post, Tullian Tchividjian’s “The Missing Message in Today’s Churches.” It’s fine little piece, notable as much for where it was published as what it is saying, most of which will be familiar to readers of this site:

“Too many churches perpetuate the impression that Christianity is primarily concerned with morality. As my colleague David Zahl has written, ‘Christianity is not about good people getting better. It is about real people coping with their failure to be good.’ The heart of the Christian faith is Good News not good behavior. When Sunday mornings become one more venue for performance evaluation, can you blame a person for wanting to stay at home? As someone who loves the church, I am saddened by the perception of Christianity as a vehicle of moral control and good behavior, rather than a haven for the discouraged and dying.”

the-grand-budapest-hotel-poster2The reason I mention the article again is not (merely) for self-glorifying ends but to address a more general response I’ve been seeing to the PR campaign for this new book. I’m not talking about the post-Dawkins, hang-em-high ‘rationalism’ endemic to most online dialogue about G-O-D. That’s par for the course. I’m referring to the observation that, contrary to Tullian’s claims, the pendulum of American religion has, in the past half decade or so, swung away from the moralism that marked the Bush years, toward that of ‘faith alone’. Certain commenters (on pretty much all of the articles/interviews/reviews out there) would have us believe that the increasingly high-profile “Gospel movement” has succeeded in giving things like “obedience” and “ethics” a bad name. In other words, there may be some over-correction going on, and if so, Tullian and his co-conspirators are clearly complicit. The lady doth protest too much!

Far be it for me to speak for an entire “movement” (shudder!), or even another person, but a couple of thoughts do spring to mind: First, the trend they’re observing is confined almost entirely to Evangelicalism (Reformed Evangelicalism specifically), which may be a large chunk of American Christianity, but it is thankfully not the only game in town. Second, if we have indeed seen a shift in the overriding emphasis of American preaching–and I for one have serious doubts, especially given how many people email us each week (in vain) for recommendations of churches that preach grace–still, if it’s true, then awesome. Let’s enjoy this short moment before the momentum shifts, as it inevitably will. Which, again, isn’t to say that I’m convinced. Look at any of the largest religious movements in this hemisphere–whether they be churches, conferences, books, programs–and they are all very much still based in Improvement of some kind, as opposed to Comfort. A bit more of a concerted focus on death wouldn’t, er, kill us.

But thirdly, even if the message has permeated some of our country’s pulpits, I don’t see how you could possibly argue that the memo has reached the non-churched world (where most of us live, whether we go to church or not). And that’s where the real strength of Tullian’s plea lies–he’s talking to a world ensconced in performancism and the anxiety it produces, not just a religion. He’s speaking to Christians, sure, but he’s also speaking beyond them, to human beings who will never, short of a miracle of God, shake their addiction to control. The climb may be even steeper for those brought up under the mythology of American bootstrapping. In fact, if Tullian’s diagnosis holds, we will turn invariably one-way-love into a new law or metric by which to measure and control others and ourselves. Some might say we already have.

Fortunately, at the end of the day, these are all just words. A marketing strategy may be able to reference the Gospel, but it cannot contain it. The forgiveness of sins is by definition immune to co-option or positioning, thank God. That is, you can bill “Grace” as the hot new stop on the train all you want, you can try to reduce it to a concept or an attractive set of presuppositions, but its reality is a different matter. Grace (no quotes) is shorthand for what happens when we fall off the tracks of fashion altogether, which we never do willingly. So “radical grace” may be experiencing an ever-so-slight cultural ascendancy, but have no fear, the reaction is coming, and when it does, our hope will remain where it always has: not in the arc of the pendulum’s swing but in its crucifixion.


2. Speaking of crucifixions, Ashley Fetters wrote a very interesting article for The Atlantic about “Lance Armstrong, Anti-hero”, in which she places the fallen athlete in the context of our favorite fictional antiheroes, such as Walter White, Don Draper and Nicholas Brody, ht JL:

In some alternate universe where Lance Armstrong was a fictional character created in a writers’ room (rather than a real person who’s disappointed millions of people), would he be looked upon with contempt or with fascination? With a few clever storytelling touches—a few glimpses of Lance’s unstable childhood in Texas here, some added emphasis on just wanting to win it for the cancer survivors there, some strategically placed flickers of truly agonized soul-searching—it’s not hard to imagine that his story might even elicit some degree of conflicted compassion. Audiences have, after all, been known to empathize with fictional al Qaeda-aligned terrorists avenging the murder of the boy they loved like a son. They root for fictional murderous outlaw meth manufacturers to escape the feds yet again so that they can continue to provide for their families. It’s not so far-fetched to think some audiences would sympathize with another kind of cheater if his underlying intentions were proven early on to be honorable—more honorable, that is, than simply wanting to win at any cost…

627-2The problem with real life, however, is that it can’t be engineered to include the kinds of glimpses into underlying intentions that TV can. Current events don’t come with point-of-view shots, or flashbacks, or revealing soliloquies. Real-life characters develop through their actions and their spoken words, not their thoughts; they develop in real time, in neutral shots, in third-person objective. And that often means that the observing public doesn’t see a conflicted protagonist grappling with the moral quandaries of living a secret double life, but a liar—who says he’s one thing and is later exposed as another.

3. Time to get the tissues out. Pearl Jam’s new record Lightning Bolt hit stores this week, and in conjunction with the release, former New Orleans Saints defensive back Steve Gleason interviewed the band. Gleason, a huge PJ fan, is suffering from Lou Gehrig’s disease, which means he probably will not live to see his young son grow up. Pearl Jam fans know that (absent) fathers and sons are a big theme for frontman Eddie Vedder (see: “Alive”), and Gleason clearly feels a connection to the singer in this respect, which he asked him to comment on in their exchange. Even if ESPN milks it for all it’s worth (as they often do), Vedder’s answer is still incredibly moving and may even point to a theological truth or three. This despite the fact that the singer does not exactly hold back his ambivalence about organized religion on the new disc, ht TM:

Also in music, Paul McCartney’s New came out this week and it’s fun! The lyrics are characteristically lightweight–what did you expect?–but also not without a few zingers, especially on the subject of Salvation, believe it or not. In “Alligator”, for example, he sings, “Everybody else is busy doing better than me/ And I can see why it is / They got someone setting them free/ Someone breaking the chains/ Someone letting them be/ I want someone who can save me…/ I need somebody used to dealing with a sinner.” The best tracks are the ones produced by Mark Ronson and Paul Epworth, my personal faves being “Queenie Eye”, “New” and “Save Us”. “Everybody Out There”, a pretty good Beatlesque stomper produced by Giles son-of-George Martin, also catches the ear with its “grace of God” chorus.

4. While we’re (sort of) on the subject of absent fathers, Harvard Business Review published a report on “The Changing Face of Diversity: The ‘Slacker’ Millenial Guy”, which touches on some encouraging changes in the way men understand ambition, ht RW:

While the media, consumed with the idea of “mommy wars” and “queen bees,” has largely missed the tug of war that has emerged among men, sociologists have been busy uncovering the change. Statements like that of the Silicon Valley engineer who expressed resentment at his manager’s demands by saying, “[he] doesn’t have two kids and a wife, he has people that live in his house, that’s basically what he has,” as reported by Marianne Cooper, are increasingly common among younger men.  “It’s akin to winning a pie-eating contest where the prize is more pie,” observed a law firm associate, rejecting law firm partnership as a goal.

627While elite men “often view ambition, dynamism, a strong work ethic, and competitiveness as doubly sacred because they signal both moral and socioeconomic worth,” as Michèle Lamont has written, blue-collar guys disagree. To them, this looks more like selfishness. Lamont’s 2000 study quotes a bank supply salesman: “A person that is totally ambitious and driven never sees anything except the spot they are aiming at.” An electronics technician agreed, criticizing people who are “so self-assured, so self-intense that they don’t really care about anyone else…. It’s me, me, me, me, me.”

5. More self-promotion: I was flattered to be asked to contribute “A Few Thoughts on the Bioethics of Space Cowboys” for Amy Julia Becker’s Thin Places blog on Patheos. The jumping off point was the question of whether or not Down Syndrome is something that should be “cured”. Needless to say, I went the Whedon-route.

6. Elsewhere, The Guardian posted a little reflection on “Why Do We Judge People By the Food They Eat?” Why indeed, you say, but some of the research she mentions about the link between personality and taste buds sounds pretty intriguing (and potentially offensive!). ‘Food-profiling’ being a solid addition to our legal lexicon, ht RW:

The comments threads on Word of Mouth are full of food-based profiling. A recent article about Dairy Milk, for example, saw more than one person filing those who refrigerate their chocolate under “food philistine”. People make statements about themselves, intentionally or otherwise, via the medium of food foibles. I was recently at a tapas bar with some macho foodies who made a big show of crunching the heads off their prawns. I felt rather exposed as squeamish, hoping no one would notice me sliding mine back on the plate…

Food likes are so personal that it can feel like quite an attack when someone disses your food. I once told a friend about an amazing salad I had made, and got the oddly angry response that it was “garbage salad”. He then launched into a self-righteous monologue about the joys of a single tomato with a little salt. I was floored.

7. In The Wall Street Journal, Dilbert creator Scott Adams put together some thoughts on failure as the key to success. Before you roll your eyes, know that the article goes a little further than most recent pieces on the same “strategy”.  It’s not just more descriptive, it’s rather consoling. And I’m sure he recognizes the irony of endorsing a non-results-oriented approach to getting results, ht TB:

627-1To put it bluntly, goals are for losers. That’s literally true most of the time. For example, if your goal is to lose 10 pounds, you will spend every moment until you reach the goal—if you reach it at all—feeling as if you were short of your goal. In other words, goal-oriented people exist in a state of nearly continuous failure that they hope will be temporary. If you achieve your goal, you celebrate and feel terrific, but only until you realize that you just lost the thing that gave you purpose and direction. Your options are to feel empty and useless, perhaps enjoying the spoils of your success until they bore you, or to set new goals and re-enter the cycle of permanent presuccess failure…

Where you want to be: steeped to your eyebrows in failure. It’s a good place to be because failure is where success likes to hide in plain sight. Everything you want out of life is in that huge, bubbling vat of failure.

We can’t mention Dilbert without reiterating the great news about yesterday’s Bill Watterson interview. The Calvin and Hobbes‘ creator’s first and last answers are probably the gems–certainly good to know he has some compassion for those of us still mourning the strip’s end. Interviewer in bold, Watterson not:

There is a tendency to rehash and regurgitate properties with sequels and remakes. You had an idea, executed it, then moved on. And you ignored the clamor for more. Why is it so hard for readers to let go?

Well, coming at a new work requires a certain amount of patience and energy, and there’s always the risk of disappointment. You can’t really blame people for preferring more of what they already know and like. The trade-off, of course, is that predictability is boring. Repetition is the death of magic.

Owing to spite or just a foul mood, have you ever peeled one of those stupid Calvin stickers off of a pickup truck?

I figure that, long after the strip is forgotten, those decals are my ticket to immortality.

8. Lots of passivity and grace in our Social Science Study of the Week, which implores readers to “Teach Kids to Daydream.”

9. Finally, Wesley Hill penned a wonderful review of Francis Spufford’s Unapologetic for Christianity Today, under the title “What It Feels Like To Be a Christian.”