Another Week Ends

1. This is embarrassing to admit. As much as I love The Replacements, it is […]

David Zahl / 6.28.13

1. This is embarrassing to admit. As much as I love The Replacements, it is The Wilson Quarterly that has truly been rocking my world this past week. Two articles in particular, both from their Spring issue, are worth mentioning here. First, there’s Sarah Courteau’s “Feel Free to Help Yourself”, in which the author surveys not only the history of self-help but allows herself to dabble in it sincerely. All very relevant and, well, helpful–but also not nearly as patronizing as some of us might be tempted to be. She writes, ht WB:

charles-barsotti-nobody-laughs-at-my-library-of-self-help-books-now-new-yorker-cartoonSelf-help, along with the rest of the culture, has undergone a pronoun shift, from “you” to “I.” In Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People or, to go back to the beginning of the genre, Samuel Smiles’s Self-Help (1859), the inspirational anecdotes are about others. Today, the focus is relentlessly on the I who is delivering whatever advice is on offer. It’s their lives that serve as the platform, and if they’ve overcome hardship, so much the better… Increasingly, that I is a woman. In the self-help industry, male gurus have traditionally dominated, but today there are more women at the top. I’m looking at you, Oprah Winfrey, Suze Orman, and, most recently, Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg. For women like me, looking for a way to balance the stresses and pressures of trying to do it all, these women’s success is actually a problem…

There’s a large dollop of self-congratulation in these gurus’ advice. To offer a blueprint for success is to produce evidence that one’s own good fortune was achieved through deliberate planning, hard work, and good character alone. While all these ingredients are a part of these women’s great American success stories, a large element of luck, and, in some cases, privilege, was involved. To insist that anyone can do it is the bedrock of the American dream, and the answer to everyone who falls short. The flip side of the empowerment doctrine that self-help offers—that the potential to change your life lies entirely within you—is that the potential to fail does, too. At least when God was part of the plan, His hand shared some of the blame.

Of course, you don’t have to be a woman to be familiar with what she is talking about. Let’s face it, as much as Christians tend to poo-poo self-help, the dynamic is equally distributed among believer and non-. That is, when a person’s testimony or recovery or improvement is directly linked to their message, things become very tenuous, indeed. Thus the extremely appealing notion of an external righteousness, etc.


2. The second, and slightly more timely piece, is Wilfred McClay’s “Still The Redeemer Nation”, in which he traces the theme of redemption throughout our national history with real insight and wisdom. Beyond the clear political implications, McClay makes a convincing case for the universality not only of religious impulses, but a particular kind of religious impulse. I doubt he’d go so far as to classify absolution as an inherent and unavoidable human need (as we might), but the leap is not a far one. I’m reminded of that line of Gerhard Forde’s about how we may leave the church, but the law goes with us, ht CR:

What would American political culture look like without its pervasive moral dramas of sin and redemption, sometimes expressed in forms lofty and noble, but at other times resembling nothing so much as the smarminess and vulgarity of soap opera? One thing can be said for certain: We are not only intensely fascinated by these episodes of political theater, but fully in the grip of them, as far more than mere onlookers. For an allegedly secular society, the United States seems to be curiously in thrall to ideas, gestures, emotional patterns, nervous tics, and deep premises that belong to the supposedly banished world of religion. These habits of heart and mind are evident everywhere we look, and they possess a compulsive and unquestioned power in contemporary American life. It is as if the disappearance of religion’s metaphysical dimension has occasioned a tightening hold of certain of its moral dimensions, particularly so far as these relate to guilt and absolution…

…the yearning for redemption is not likely to go away, since the need for a certification of one’s blamelessness is so strong. And it must be said that, despite all the pathologies I have named, there are many reasons why we should not want it to go away, even if we could somehow miraculously banish it. For we all have serious faults, often grievous ones, and the yearning for redemption is the rightful call of our consciences and the proper object of our hopes, the very thing for which hope is forever hoping, especially in dark or troubled times.

3. Speaking of the hope (and lack thereof) of redemption, the Mad Men finale certainly boosted my interest in the flagging show, allowing the viewer finally to feel something other than the slow-burning sadness that has bogged the season down. It was a risk to use an evangelist to play such a key role in Don Draper’s (presumed) bottoming out, but one that paid off. Kudos to them for playing it straight! And while I can’t say I agree with AV Clubber Todd VanDerWerff’s tentative hope visa vi Don Draper’s ultimate fate (per usual, methinks Heather Havrilesky has it right), his take on the episode nonetheless caught me off guard in a beautiful way:

Perhaps prompted by the line from the man who would take Don’s job (“Going down”), I started thinking again about how this season opened with The Divine Comedy, quoting its opening lines as Don read them on a Hawaiian beach. It seemed somehow appropriate in an episode that invoked both Jesus Christ and God’s forgiveness, but the more I thought about it, the more I thought it gibed with the episode’s overall thrust about the bracing clarity that comes in the moment after the truth is revealed. The truth can ruin your life. It can ruin many lives. But only once you’ve owned up to it and to who you really are can you begin to understand what it will take to change your life, to begin the journey to being a more whole, fuller, happier human being. Advertising aims to get in the way of that, but it can never stave off these elemental needs for long. When honesty arrives, it’s terrifying, but it’s also freeing

The beginning of The Divine Comedy relates the story of a middle-aged man who finds himself lost while wandering through a wood, about to be taken on a journey into the deepest reaches of Hell, into the numbness of Purgatory, and, finally, into the beauties of Heaven itself. The line that concludes the poem—“the love that moves the sun and the other stars”—is one that has always stuck with me, both for the beauty of the image and for the concept behind it, the idea that no matter our petty concerns, there is something greater animating that which is around us. In the Christian tradition, that love stems from God, but it also stems from the perfect truth that comes with admitting that one is a sinner, that one must finally let go of the fallibility of the self and embrace the infallibility of that which is beyond us. (Well, in theory; in practice, of course, it rarely works out, because we are always fallible.) The only sin, the random preacher tells young Don, is to believe that one is beyond God’s forgiveness, beyond that all-animating love. Don may have lost everything, but he is finally capable of grasping the purity that comes in the moment of truth. He’s been in Purgatory long enough. Maybe, finally, with one year of the ’60s and this show left ahead of him, he can step forward into light.

4. While we’re on the subject of recovery, literature buffs will find Eve Tushnet’s “‘Middlemarch’ and What We Mean When We Say Shame Works” to be very much worth their time. What a wonderful paragraph, ht KW:

In Recovery Options: The Complete Guide, Dr. Joseph Volpicelli and Maia Szalavitz review the evidence which finds that shame-based treatments for addiction make addicts worse. People drink and use more when they feel worthless and hopeless. The more extreme shame-based “therapy” has an absolutely awful record of creating cruelty in well-meaning staffers and worsening or even creating addiction in patients. By contrast, if you offer a renewed, forgiven identity, people will often choose it even if you are actively working not to stigmatize their existing, messed-up identity.

And while we’re in the 19th century, Liberate posted a truly exquisite piece on the distinction between judgment and mercy in Les Mis by Jono Linebaugh, “A New Way of Judging.” Also over there, be sure to read Tullian Tchividjian’s absolutely wonderful “Who Is the Good Samaritan?”

5. A pair of softballs in the social science arena. First, The Atlantic reports on a study that found “Stressing About Stress Is Bad For You”. Key line being: “To some extent, the results may reflect a self-fulfilling prophecy. The people who thought stress impacted them a lot were also more likely to report experiencing high levels of stress.” Then, in a page taken almost directly from Grace in Practice (or Emily Dickinson), The Wall Street Journal had me laughing out loud with “The Perils of Giving Advice”, TB:

In a series of six studies that followed 100 couples for the first seven years of marriage, researchers at the University of Iowa found that both husbands and wives feel lower marital satisfaction when they are given too much advice from a spouse, as opposed to too little. And—surprise!—unsolicited advice is the most damaging kind.

6. A few months ago, we put up a couple posts about British philosopher John Gray’s new book, The Silence of Animals: On Progress and Other Modern Myths. As provocative and sympathetic as most of those pull-quotes were, it struck me as a perfect volume to read about rather than read itself. But then I read The National Interest’s thorough review, “The Fallacy of Human Freedom”, and the purchase hump was officially surmounted, ht WB:

poster_01-1[The doctrine of progress] is the thesis that mankind has advanced slowly but inexorably over the centuries from a state of cultural backwardness, blindness and folly to ever more elevated stages of enlightenment and civilization—and that this human progression will continue indefinitely into the future. “No single idea,” wrote the American intellectual Robert Nisbet in 1980, “has been more important than, perhaps as important as, the idea of progress in Western civilization.” The U.S. historian Charles A. Beard once wrote that the emergence of the progress idea constituted “a discovery as important as the human mind has ever made, with implications for mankind that almost transcend imagination.”…

Gray rejects it utterly. In doing so, he rejects all of modern liberal humanism. “The evidence of science and history,” he writes, “is that humans are only ever partly and intermittently rational, but for modern humanists the solution is simple: human beings must in future be more reasonable. These enthusiasts for reason have not noticed that the idea that humans may one day be more rational requires a greater leap of faith than anything in religion.”…As Gray writes, “Among contemporary atheists, disbelief in progress is a type of blasphemy. Pointing to the flaws of the human animal has become an act of sacrilege.”

7. Humor-wise, The Onion’s “Woman Who Claimed Book Changed Her Life Has Not Changed” is undeniably funny. Prayer of Jabez sure seems like a long time ago, eh? And the Game of Portlandia tumblr cracked me up.

8. The music world has certainly been humming along, pun intended. This week saw the release of the new Mavis Staples’ record, One True Vine, her second with Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy in the producer’s seat. Tweedy even wrote a couple of gospel songs for her (as only he can), “Jesus Wept” and “Every Step”, as well as the title track. Our beloved Nick Lowe also contributed a track, “Far Celestial Shore.” If you haven’t caught wind of Joseph Arthur’s new one, The Ballad of Boogie Christ, it’s got potential Mbird record-of-the-year written all over it (check the video for “I Used To Know How To Walk On Water” above for a taste). Look for a review soon. The Atlantic took a shot at the question on everyone’s mind, post-Yeezus, “Why Do So Many Rappers Impersonate Jesus?” Beach Boys fans everywhere are rejoicing at the news that the 6-disc Made in California boxed set will be released in August, especially as it includes 60 unreleased recordings! Last but not least, perhaps you read that Focus on the Family broadcast an interview with Bono this past week. I’m not sure what I was expecting, but definitely not something so candid and far-ranging. Marriage, kids, Jesus, poverty, love–Bono goes there:

Daly: That Scripture in Psalms that talks about God being close to the brokenhearted and saving those crushed in spirit—does that mean something to you?

Bono: First of all, David’s a musician, so I’m gonna like him. … And what’s so powerful about the Psalms are, as well as their being Gospel and songs of praise, they are also the Blues. It’s very important for Christians to be honest with God, which often, you know, God is much more interested in who you are than who you want to be.

9. Finally, a great new website to check out and bookmark: Dropping Keys. The contributors–including our very own Lauren Larkin–describe themselves as “a group of women who know what it is to live under the crushing burden of the law with no grace in sight”. Yes please! The name is taken from a Hafiz poem, but their explanation is too priceless not to reproduce here:

“We are all prisoners, incapable to free ourselves from the bondage of our failures, defeats, our shame, and guilt. We are beaten down by the “try-harder,” “do-better” law that often meets us when we seek encouragement. Everywhere we turn, more lists, more to-dos, more law. Dropping Keys seeks to be a place of proclamation that the “doors of bronze are shattered, and the bars of iron are cut in two!”


P.S. We have been delighted and encouraged by how many people decided to take us up on our offer of a free Mockingbird Devotional to those who sign up for any amount of monthly giving. Thank you! It’s not too late to get in on the action–the offer ends Monday, July 1st. Oh and a bunch of stuff just went on sale in our Publications store.

P.P.S. RIP Richard Matheson:

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3 responses to “Another Week Ends: Successful Blueprints, Redemptive Politicians, Don Draper’s Truth, Marital Advice, Humanist Blasphemy, Mavis Staples, Bono, and Dropping Keys”

  1. Hey, thanks for the Dropping Keys shout out! We are obviously heavily influenced by all of you at Mockingbird. Thank you for preaching the beautiful freedom of the gospel.

  2. fenderem7 says:

    A shout out for that MBird Devotional…it is really, really good.

    Love Bono’s quote re: God being more interested in who you are than who you want to be. Experiencing personal anger with God and subsequent grace not condemnation from him has made that dynamic more real to me vs the “God can’t wait to change me” feeling that hovers a cloud over my acceptance…thanks.

  3. Rebecca W says:

    Thanks fir highlighting Wilson Quarterly’s article “America: Still the Redeemer Nation”. It immediately brought to mind the following book by Rodney Clapp. Ever heard of it or read it?

    Johnny Cash and the Great American Contradiction:
    Christianity and the Battle for the Soul of a Nation

    “…That Cash is the embodiment of what Clapp calls “The Great American Contradiction” comes to the surface rather easily. Cash himself titled the three-disc compilation project he supervised “God, Love, Murder,” and there you have a fair summary of the Cash repertoire.

    But what is the American contradiction that Clapp speaks of? A slave holder writing “all men are created equal” is a start. But as Clapp unfurls it, it includes a series of contradictions that become chapter titles for Clapp’s exposition:
    “Lonesomeness and Community” (chapter two);
    “Holiness and Hedonism” (chapter three);
    “Tradition and Progress” (chapter four);
    “Guilt and Innocence” (chapter five);
    and “Violence and Peace” (chapter six).”

    … “Equally engaging is the last chapter, where all the musings on culture come under some decisive theological analysis. While Christians are indeed citizens of heaven, we are also citizens of a secondary polity. For Cash and Clapp that’s America.

    Clapp finds the dynamic to living as good citizens of BOTH from baptism and from the word patriot, deriving as it does from the Latin pater. He puts it this way, “Asked how I might suppose a baptized Christian could also be an American patriot, I would reply: in the same way one is a baptized Christian and strives to be a loyal mature son to his elders” (126). This provides Clapp with a different way to talk about being a Christian and an American than either the docetist, who can’t connect Christianity to culture, or the triumphalist, the diehard proponent of the “Christian America” thesis. Through Cash, Clapp has found a middle way.”

    Read the whole (insightful) review here:

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