Another Week Ends

1. Where to start with a hierarchy of most severe ‘little-l law’ in ‘secular’ society? We […]

Will McDavid / 2.27.15

1. Where to start with a hierarchy of most severe ‘little-l law’ in ‘secular’ society? We could start with body image, health, having cool experiences, and the like, but prosperity honestly takes the cake. And among the people who have already checked that box, it’s fast becoming political correctness. Political correctness is important, but its ascendant, uncompromising severity and occasional use as a class-code leads to a totalization which is, to say the least, in tension with the traditional (L/l)iberal ideal of discourse. Cue Camille Paglia, who had some fantastic things to say in America Magazine (Jesuits) about the backslide of feminism and its effect on college campuses:

Identifying yourself as a “dissident feminist,” you often seem more at home with classical Greek and Roman paganism than with postmodern academia. How has this reality affected your public and professional relationships?

I feel lucky to have taught primarily at art schools, where the faculty are active practitioners of the arts and crafts. I have very little contact with American academics, who are pitifully trapped in a sterile career system that has become paralyzed by political correctness. University faculties nationwide have lost power to an ever-expanding bureaucracy of administrators, whose primary concern is the institution’s contractual relationship with tuition-paying parents. You can cut the demoralized faculty atmosphere with a knife when you step foot on any elite campus. With a few stellar exceptions, the only substantive discourse that I ever have these days is with academics, intellectuals, and journalists abroad.

A couple caveats: living in a college town and spending way too much time on the Net, we’re probably overemphasizing this. And sensitive speech, along with overall social sensitivity, is a towering achievement of our culture, not to be downplayed. But in certain circles, at least, political correctness has quickly re-emerged as the new, absolute standard. There are inquisitions, secret denouncements, and occasionally a purge at top universities and, yes, the appreciation of great art starts to recede before the new goal of developing an ideologically trendy theory and correlating it to a text. Just goes to show that even among a generally pretty secular crowd, some new system of absolutized virtue, with its competing strains of orthodoxy, reviled heterodoxies, and strict standards of purity, must emerge. We’re hardwired to systematize the Law.

2. The Atlantic contributes some thoughts on religious-themed apps (such as the can’t-make-this-stuff-up Sinner2Saint), starting off with ways to remind Muslims of prayer-times:

Athan, developed by VentureDive (a product consultancy firm) in conjunction with IslamicFinder, is also experimenting with non-traditional features to integrate into the app. Its popular “Prayer Book” extension allows users to log both completed and missed prayers throughout the day (so that they can be made up at a later time). “I think there is an opportunity to introduce an element of gamification,” Saad Fazil, a co-founder of VentureDive, told me. “For instance, a certain number of prayers can garner a badge, and users can compare those scores on a common leaderboard.”…

“Some of the prayer apps now send out motivational quips that can be cute or funny, which is great, but even those can easily become inappropriate,” he said. “The other day I saw someone Snapchatting a prayer while he himself was praying, and that definitely felt wrong.”


It’s hard to see how these apps could be a bad thing, especially for complex situations like a Muslim flying between several time zones and trying to estimate the right time to pray, as the article mentions. There are some nice liturgical apps which help with the equally-complex Daily Office (if Proper 2 starts on an even calendar day in an odd calendar year, turn to page 414, footnote c); but they’re particularly interesting as moral evaluators. Things like Sinner2Saint, despite the marketers’ appeal to spiritual pride, may provide good diagnostics for where we’re erring, removing wriggle-room for the sin-averse conscience. But it does remind me of Gerhard Forde’s thought that fulfilling the Law is more dangerous than being driven to despair by it (thus making fillable checklists a bit dangerous), and social networking features would likely violate that whole thing about, you know, not practicing your piety before others. It’s a brave new world out there, and the integration of religion with technology, which will seemingly only increase, is a promising new theater for observing our religious behaviors.

Sinner2Saint is now downloading exercise files and other content to tailor your Interior Life experience. This process usually takes 1-2 minutes depending on your connection speed. Patience is a virtue. 🙂 Please wait…

Brave new world, indeed.

3. In humor, The Onion strikes a chord with “Once-Loyal Enabler Betrays Man By Suggesting Therapy”:

ANN ARBOR, MI—After years of faithfully supporting every bad decision he made, a formerly dependable enabler of local man Ken Vatter reportedly betrayed him Thursday by casually suggesting he see a therapist about his problems. “Maybe it wouldn’t hurt for you to talk to somebody,” said the modern-day Judas, who sources confirmed could once be relied upon to encourage whatever self-destructive behavior or antisocial activity Vatter chose to engage in. “I’m always here for you, but I’m just saying that it might not be a bad idea to sit down with a professional.” At press time, the man who had heartlessly stabbed Vatter in the back was compounding his act of treachery by offering to put his friend in touch with the person he goes to.

4. A wonderful reflection on Mbird-favorite W.H. Auden and politics comes to us from the Boston Review – highlights below, ht MS:

Political orthodoxies of both the right and left have often insisted that art should remain subservient to politics, supporting their contention by asserting a utilitarian moral right…

In its day, W. H. Auden’s claim that “poetry makes nothing happen” was a necessary reproof to an ideologically mandated culture of protest that had a chokehold on the literary left in the 1930s, an example it remains important to consider today…


Debates over speech and sensitivity often invoke an undemocratic understanding of what politics is and how it works, one concerned primarily not with individual freedoms but with enforcing group solidarity and the hegemony of a prescribed set of opinions…

“Poetry makes nothing happen” has two meanings, both of which can be deduced from The Prolific and the Devourer. In its more pessimistic valence, it suggests that writers and artists are incapable of effecting political change…

But later in the same work Auden explores a more nuanced position: poetry should not make things happen; it should not be instrumentalized for a political cause and is harmed by acceding to such uses…

Auden’s assertion that art plays no role in political history subverts the call for engaged art. For that is precisely what socialist realism was: a dogmatic reflection of Soviet cultural policy. Auden might say that, if the artist changes the world, he or she does not do so qua artist….

Art’s independence is inseparable in the end from the goal of individual liberty as such. Just as artists cannot be forced to serve the good cause, whatever that cause may be, neither should any of us be forced to serve ends that are collectively designated for us. Art must at times serve no cause but that of its own freedom. The tenor of Heaney’s discussion of poetry and politics recalls Auden’s. Like Auden, if perhaps not quite as extravagantly, he concludes that maybe the best we can hope for is that politicians and activists will leave poetry in peace.

The independence here seems particularly interesting in the continuing discussion about the role of a Christian artist, the amount of engagement or agenda present. In the best ones, at least – like Auden – the religion never sounds forced, like the author begins by asking how a particular idea can be expressed (and parts of Eliot’s Quartets have been criticized on these grounds), but rather by starting with “the thing itself”, as Stevens wrote.


5. The New Republic contributes a fascinating reflection on the Driscoll/Mars Hill phenomenon, with a view toward the admittedly real issue of gender in churches (and churchgoing):

In content and delivery, Driscoll’s ministry mirrored facets of the “pick-up artist” movement, a self-improvement industry generated, according to Katie J.M. Baker, out of “neuro-linguistic programming ‘speed seduction’ theories in the early 1990s,” which promises to get frustrated men into bed with the women of their dreams…

Its books, talks, seminars and videos all presuppose those seeking its wisdom are losers of one sort or another, though the source of male short-coming is often chalked up to institutionalized anti-masculinity in homes, schools, and society at large. There is as much disdain for women as desire for them, and the techniques developed by PUAs tend to focus on fulfilling both urges at once…

Mars Hill maintained much of the essentializing and misogynist ideology of the PUA world without adopting its technical guidance. Nonetheless, twin how-to and sexual self-improvement themes run through both streams of products and promotional materials….

In the few months since Vocativ ran its profile on Mooneyham [another hyper-masculine preacher in Missouri], he too has stepped down, pursuant to an arrest for drunk driving. He has since chalked his alcohol use up to an attempt to “self medicate”, explaining that he drank “to sleep, to calm frayed nerves after a difficult day, and sometimes just simply to escape pain and reality.” As a result, Mooneyham submitted, he had been “leading from a place of very real weakness, hurt and vulnerability.” One wonders if a code of strict machismo contributed to Mooneyham’s request for help coming only after his fall.

The ego-inflation and aggressive tendencies that these hyper-masculine ministries encourage seem to be the very pathologies that undermine their churches, leaving their congregations vulnerable to upheaval and public spectacle. With an interpretation of Christian gospel that so thoroughly entrenches themes of masculine dominance and control, pastors like Driscoll and Mooneyham occupy a position that is at once enviable and immensely precarious. Though Driscoll’s power was nearly absolute so long as it appeared to cohere with his narrative about the beneficial aspects of male headship and paternal control, the coincidence of so many embarrassing crack-ups quickly fractured not only his public image, but the very foundation of his authority. The most damning incidents had to do with losses of control: an exposure of fund mishandling by World Magazine in the case of Real Marriage’s bought bestseller spot, the release of private conversations in the letter from Mars Hill elders, and an online unmasking in the linking of Driscoll to his anonymous internet posts. Driscoll’s sudden resignation could portend more worrying scandals yet untoldone critic, Anderson University professor James Duncan, has accused him of clever tax maneuvering to misdirect church fundsbut it seems just as likely that Driscoll’s spell, heavily reliant upon a particular story about divinely ordained male leadership, simply broke when beefed up masculinity proved more harmful to the church than helpful.


6. Dissent of the week comes from another Catholic website, Aleteia, which sounds like a fancy Greek word, concerning Sarah Condon’s fantastic Lenten post last week:

But we don’t need to ignore Jesus’ forty days. It’s a perfectly good model for us. We can relate in our own way. Jesus went into the desert to do what he had to do and we go into our own desert to do what we have to do. He set an example.

In fact, in Lent we are dealing with the devil, or as the enemy is traditionally described, the world, the flesh, and the devil. We are tempted to use our gifts for our own gain, to presume upon God’s care, and to do evil to gain worldly power in order (as we tell ourselves) to do good. We can relate to our Lord because he faced the same temptations we do…

Some people have suffered such struggles or condemnation that forcing themselves to face their own sinfulness through a discipline can be dangerous and in some cases to be avoided. Most of us, bad as we may feel about ourselves from time to time, need the hard, practical, physical reminder that we are sinners entrenched in our sins and that the troika — the world, the flesh, and the devil — has us in the palm of its hand.

It’s a hard truth, but it’s not the whole truth. It is however the truth we have to face in order really to understand the whole truth. Lent leads to the Triduum and then to Easter. To put it another way, here you are and there is Jesus. At the end of a good and holy Lent, you realize he’s a bigger man that you thought. Lent with all its disciplines just makes Easter a lot more fun.

Any time you see the word “troika” used on a Christian website, it’s probably worth reading. While I’m naturally a good deal more sympathetic toward Sarah’s view, this seems like a very good form of the argument for the other side. For higher-church readers, it’s also worth recommending Aleteia in general, as well as Catholicity and Covenant, since those looking for a theology fix from First Things will find that the Queen of the Sciences has taken a backseat to political ideology with a dash of Lefebvrite sensibility. Additionally, Andrew Sullivan’s fantastic Dish is sadly closing down, so please let us know if you stumble on any great new sites.

Finally, on the Oscars front, Alejandro González Iñárritu delivered a great quote in his acceptance speech for Birdman:

Ego loves competition, because for someone to win, someone has to lose. But the paradox is that true art can’t be compared, can’t be labelled, can’t be defeated. My work and the work of my fellow nominees will be judged only by time.

7. Also, in events this week, we’ve all had a decent dose of the unreliability of basic perceptions (and our penchant for the trivial) via the dress thing – if you haven’t seen it (please don’t) Google it. Randall Munroe at xkcd makes all things manifest:


I also can’t help but mention the Berkeley Springs International Water Tasting competition, which I had the pleasure of attending this weekend. Talk about Law: lots of time/money/thought put into making elaborate hierarchies out of very nearly identical substances. (“This isn’t wine tasting;” Watermaster Baron Arthur von Wiesenberger warned judges, “this is subtle.”) Apropos of the Dress Color Fiasco, the ‘objective’ differences in taste became apparent; this page needs a gustatory counterpart. As a final note on Berkeley Springs, if anyone wants to review local autarch Jeanne Mozier’s book on Senate Magic for Mbird, email

BonusRepent! – singularity is nigh; distract yourself with this article on the attention-deficit-disorder economy, embrace your irrationality, discover your brilliant short story idea’s already been taken by the hilarious Guy In Your MFA, apply your inner pedant to the Bible (run, don’t walk), and check out the Sesame Street version of House of Cards. Happy weekend.

Last but not least, our big February book sale (20% off) ends on Monday!