Another Week Ends

1. Much of value comes across one’s desk during Holy Week, and this year was […]

David Zahl / 4.18.14

1. Much of value comes across one’s desk during Holy Week, and this year was no exception. But the sources are seldom the expected ones. What stopped me in my tracks this week was an interview The European conducted with prominent German intellectual Martin Walser on “Kafka, Faith and Atheism” (and Karl Barth), which was picked up by The Huffington Post in 2012. Don’t gloss over! Despite the somewhat confusing allusion to Martin Luther–a generous read of which would surmise he’s referring either to the -ism that followed the man, or the way the Reformer’s understanding of vocation was culturally bastardized–Walser articulates concerns that are near and dear to the Mockingheart. Probably doesn’t hurt that we confronted the subject of atheism and its discontents so directly in NYC. It should be noted that his highly relevant musings on Josef K in Kafka’s The Trial are not wholly unfamiliar, ht JDK:

tumblr_n4421eMsrw1tyxypso1_400The European: You have written about man’s deep desire for justification. Where does that desire come from?

Walser: We can see the desire in everything that men have said, thought and written to justify themselves. In earlier times, people felt they had to justify our actions before God. They did not think that they could truly speak for themselves, that they could act freely. A higher authority was invoked to judge man’s actions. From that, different religious moral codes came into being, all driven by our inability to justify ourselves.

The European: In addition to the religious component, you also mention a social component –- justification of the rich vis-à-vis the poor, for example.

Walser: Yes, that was added later. However, the original desire for justification does not include a social component. In Christianity, the idea of mercy through good deeds entered history only during the time of Martin Luther. St. Augustine or St. Paul radically rejected that idea, and I was very impressed by that attitude: You were committed to a God against whom you had no powers. You were chosen, or not. That is a rather radical conception of human being, marked by a severe lack of human agency. But with Luther, religion came to be seen as a thing of the world, as practical. So you had to act in certain ways to be able to justify yourself. And the old wound of lacking justification has continued to bleed -– that’s what I am interested in. The authors Franz Kafka and Karl Barth have quite a bit to say on that question… People who don’t pay attention to the question of justification are often rather uninteresting, in my opinion…

Once you have awakened to the question of faith, you cannot simply return to your everyday agenda like a committed atheist could. You cannot retreat to the comforts of atheism. Behind us are 2,000 years that have been marked by questions about God. Today’s atheistic calm, even from intellectuals, is equal to the eradication of our intellectual history.

The European: Why?

Walser: Because we would have to admit that we were crazy. You cannot spend 2,000 years trying to understand God and then simply abandon the question and declare that we’re not interested in it anymore.


2. While we’re on the justification tip (and when are we not?!), writing for the NY Times, humorist Joyce Walder produced a hilarious account of her “new life as a Diet Supremacist, sneering with disgust at people who are scarfing huge portions of calorie-rich food”. In the wake of losing 20-odd lbs, she describes the inner dialogue that takes place between her charitable side and her significantly less charitable one, ‘the dybbuk’. It works much better as a whole, but if I had to pick the best line, it’d probably be this one, ht JDK:

“Let me tell you something,” the dybbuk said. “When it comes to weight loss, nobody is nice. You know what people are really thinking when you tell them you lost 20 pounds? ‘It should have been me.’ It’s like winning the lottery: ‘Why her? I would have known what to do with it. I could have gotten back into that Stella McCartney dress I haven’t been able to fit into in three years. All she’s going to do is buy another pair of NYDJ jeans.’ ”

3. Someone called the cops on Jesus! That’s what NPR reported this week in their story about the response to the sculpture Jesus the Homeless that was recently installed outside an Episcopal church in North Carolina. Appropriate for Good Friday. As the rector wisely notes, it’s “a good Bible lesson for those used to seeing Jesus depicted in traditional religious art as the Christ of glory, enthroned in finery.”


4. If you’re looking for a primer in the art of the sneering take-down, especially when it comes to something of genuine significance, I’m not sure you’ll find a more convincing one than David Bentley Hart’s “Of Gods and Gopniks” that appeared on First Things this week. The occasion for the blast was Adam Gopnik’s New Yorker essay on atheism that we mentioned a few weeks back, which vastly misrepresented Hart’s work. Harshest lines come at the end, ht MS:

The tiny, thwarted blastema of a thought that seems to be lurking in Gopnik’s words is the notion that we have only lately discovered that God cannot be found as a discrete physical object or force within the manifold of nature, and that this is somehow a staggering blow to “that hypothesis”—though, curiously enough, Augustine or Philo or Ramanuja (and so on) could have told him as much: God is not a natural phenomenon. Is it really so difficult to grasp that the classical concept of God has always occupied a logical space that cannot be approached from the necessarily limited perspective of natural science?

It does not matter. Nothing is happening here. The conversation has never begun. The current vogue in atheism is probably reducible to three rather sordidly ordinary realities: the mechanistic metaphysics inherited from the seventeenth century, the banal voluntarism that is the inevitable concomitant of late capitalist consumerism, and the quiet fascism of Western cultural supremacism (that is, the assumption that all cultures that do not consent to the late modern Western vision of reality are merely retrograde, unenlightened, and in need of intellectual correction and many more Blu-ray players). Everything else is idle chatter—and we live in an age of idle chatter. Lay the blame where you will: the internet, 940 television channels, social media, the ubiquity of high-fructose corn syrup, whatever you like. Almost all public discourse is now instantaneous, fluently aimless, deeply uninformed, and immune to logical rigor. What I find so dismal about Gopnik’s article is the thought that it represents not the worst of popular secularist thinking, but the best.

Ooof. Perhaps the most striking statement Hart makes in the piece comes earlier though, and it’s one that dovetails almost perfectly with what Francis Spufford laid out so eloquently in New York. Admittedly a little overstated, but I guess that’s sort of the point:

We have reached a moment in Western history when, despite all appearances, no meaningful public debate over belief and unbelief is possible. Not only do convinced secularists no longer understand what the issue is; they are incapable of even suspecting that they do not understand, or of caring whether they do. The logical and imaginative grammars of belief, which still informed the thinking of earlier generations of atheists and skeptics, are no longer there. In their place, there is now—where questions of the divine, the supernatural, or the religious are concerned—only a kind of habitual intellectual listlessness.

5. Social Science Study of the Week, ht BJ: “96 percent of Americans admit to lying”.

6. The Internet strikes again (and again)! This week’s most inspired mash-ups include Time is a Flat Circus, which pairs Family Circus cartoons with True Detective dialogue, and Justin Devine’s amazing series of watercolors depicting The Muppets in Twin Peaks settings, ht JAZ. Humor-wise, there’s also The Onion’s “Newly Discovered Cave Paintings Suggest Early Man Was Battling A Lot Of Inner Demons.” The article itself is quite a bit funnier than the headline, fyi.

7. Ann Hornaday published an inspiring column in The Washington Post this week entitled “Confessions of a Christian Film Critic”. With the glut of biblical films on the horizon, her reflections could not be more germane. Or maybe I’m just flattered that she name-checked a few of our favorites, ht AW:

tumblr_n3xvzozKhy1tyxypso1_r1_400I tend not to be a fan of the earnest literalism of films like “Son of God,” but I have a well-documented soft spot for such satirically ribald (and, by my lights, sincerely devout) comedies like Monty Python’s “Life of Brian.” I was gratified that church­going was portrayed as an everyday part of life rather than a condescending punch line in the films “You Can Count on Me” and “Lars and the Real Girl.” I can’t prove it, but I definitely saw grace at work in the otherwise secular film “The Visitor,” by Tom McCarthy, as eloquent a testament one can find to the hospitality and sacred fellowship Christ exemplified throughout his ministry…

I’m constantly on the lookout for films that lift up our capacities for connection and mutual understanding — not as sentimental, schoolmarmish morality plays, but as an artist’s genuine healing response to a broken and confused world. Anything that seeks to honor or nourish or at least acknowledge our fumbling, feeble, quietly heroic attempts to help get each other through the heartbreak and suffering of life will always earn at least a nod of gratitude from me. Even if, for reasons formal or philosophical, that gratitude doesn’t translate to a full embrace of a particular film, I’ll continue to meditate on the right spirit and words with which to write about it.

8. TV: First, I was on the fence about whether or not to stick with Mad Men this season, but I’m glad I did. At least, based on the premiere, which was a deeply compelling, wheelhouse portrait of the discrepancy between presentation and reality, and the perilous negotiations we try to strike the dead ends we hit. Next, Parenthood nearly exonerated itself in the final five or so episodes of a season that initially bore all the indications of a trainwreck. Grace abounded on pretty much every front, from Drew’s windfall and Sidney’s bed-time story to Zeek and Camille’s touching compromise (and acceptance of one another). The highwater mark, though, was the Hank and Sarah plotline. Their talk in the previous episode may be one of the series all-time highlights. That said, I’d be lying if I didn’t note that the Haddie revelation felt a bit too much like a gesture toward tokenism (a relative rarity in the Katims’ world), but that’s a minor gripe — it was certainly nice to have her back in the ensemble. Meanwhile, the Silicon Valley-Veep block on HBO is a godsend for those of us who are drowning in an ocean of (melo)drama. Praise God for Mike Judge and Armando Iannucci!

What else? In general, we’ve done a lousy job of trumpeting the genius of Adventure Time, one of the funniest, most touching and genuinely creative shows on television. This is due partly to how hard it is to write about such a singular show without just saying, ‘watch it’. Fortunately, someone has finally done the show justice in print! Ladies and gents, I give you the rosetta stone of Adventure Time coverage. You can thank me later.

The hits just keep coming in the Whit Stillman-o-sphere, as last week Amazon announced that they’d be picking up the pilot for the writer-director-all-around-hero’s first ever TV series, The Cosmopolitans. Everything there is to know about the show can be found here. Finally, writing for Faithstreet, David Dark produced a wonderful list of the “Top 10 Reasons We’re Glad a Catholic Colbert Is Taking Over Letterman’s ‘Late Show'”. Numbers 8 and 2 would have to be my faves.

9. Music-wise, the announcement of a new Michael Jackson record is always reason to rejoice. Pitchfork caught my attention with its review of Dylan’s Gospel, a 1969 full-gospel version of pre-gospel Dylan. Een-ter-esting. Speaking of the bard, his collaboration with The Secret Sisters, “Dirty Lie”, is a pleasant surprise. Also on Pitchfork, a fascinating interview with Holly George-Warren, the author of the critically-acclaimed new biography of Alex Chilton.