The Pagan Priests of Mockingbird

Here’s one of the lists from this most recent issue of our magazine, The Deja […]

Mockingbird / 8.31.18

Here’s one of the lists from this most recent issue of our magazine, The Deja Vu Issue, which should have arrived at your house by now. If not, well, you can remedy that now…

One well-worn slogan that we’ve consistently enjoyed putting to the test is that “all truth is God’s truth.” Come to find out, oracles come in all shapes and sizes, and from a refreshing array of backgrounds. Not just strange vessels whose message conforms with what we’ve already decided is good and holy and right, but those who teach us new things and expand (or deepen) our understanding of the truth, even the one who is Truth. Which probably sounds more syncretistic than intended. The point is not to undermine the staggering uniqueness of God’s revelation in Christ, merely that when we limit our attention to the labels people have chosen for themselves, we do so at our own peril and impoverishment. With that in mind, here are a few individuals from whom we’ve drawn a lot over the years, most of whom would check any box on the questionnaire other than “Christian.”

Alain de Botton

The philosopher of everyday life, with a real sympathy for—if not downright investment in—Christianity, especially its concepts of sin and grace. His Religion for Atheists is undeniably better than 95 percent of what’s actually out there for theists. de Botton is a wellspring of wisdom when it comes to describing, in down-to-earth language, how law and grace surface in all kinds of relationships, so well portrayed in his philosophical novels (The Course of Love) and essays (Status Anxiety). Oh, and every premarital counseling course should begin with a copy of Why You Will Marry the Wrong Person.

Esther Perel

Anyone familiar with a not-perfect marriage will greatly appreciate the gracious work of psychotherapist Esther Perel. Her podcast “Where Should We Begin?” creates a space for anonymous couples to honestly confess resentments, confusions, and failures. As the show’s host (and mediator/counselor/priest), Esther listens without judgment and helps her clients address infidelity, sexual avoidance, familial loss…and forgiveness.

Camille Paglia

As she said in an interview with Salon, “Sneering at religion is juvenile, symptomatic of a stunted imagination…the real problem is a lack of knowledge of religion as well as a lack of respect for religion.” While Paglia is certainly one to overstate things, the purpose is always to upend righteous certitude and snobbish intellectual superiority which stereotypes enemies in unhelpful ways. A feminist critic of feminists and atheist critic of atheists, Paglia is a truth-teller to the highest degree.

Carol Tavris & Elliot Aronson

Tavris and Aronson are the power duo when it comes to the science of self-justification. Their book, Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me) is a crash course in the social psychology of cognitive dissonance, and is a useful illustrative tool for describing all the ways that we seek to fly under the radar of the law in our lives. Using the science of self-justification, Tavris and Aronson pave the way to understanding how Pharisees and tax collectors are really just the same: “How in the world can they live with themselves? The answer is: exactly the way the rest of us do.”

Jonathan Haidt

The moral psychologist, political philosopher, and Mockingbird conference speaker understands human beings as both bound and blinded by moral stories about themselves. As he puts it, “We circle around our sacred values and then share post hoc arguments about why we are so right and they are so wrong.” In other words, when it comes to choosing between truth and victory, we will always choose the latter. His Moral Foundations Theory will help you navigate the political divide (and maybe even the yearly family gathering) with a bit more compassion. If you’re looking for a place to begin, The Righteous Mind is an absolute must-read.

Tim Kreider

“If we want the rewards of being loved we have to submit to the mortifying ordeal of being known.” No one since Larry David has gotten the low anthropology thing with more compassion, humor, or sensitivity. Great place to start: We Learn Nothing, a collection of essays which explore the difference between who we’d like to be or feel we should be and who we actually are.

John Gray

While deconstructing Christianity is all well and good, agnostic philosopher John Gray has focused his energy on tackling a different religion: humanism. For Gray, the beliefs that we are all inherently “good” people, and that human society is progressing, require just as far a leap of faith as any of the old theistic religions. The main difference? Humanism is empirically disprovable. Setting about that task, Gray’s work surveys history, literature, and psychology to vindicate a low anthropology. The Silence of the Animals is a great place to start.

Mike Tyson

There could be an entire list of jaw-dropping Mike Tyson truth bombs, but that’s another issue. The only individual on this list with a face tattoo, Tyson is both famous for ripping heads off, and readily admitting his own inner-troubles. (“I’m addicted to perfection. Problem with my life is I was always also addicted to chaos.”) A man who has come to terms with life through so much success and suffering, fame and infamy, it’s no wonder there’s a lot of truth to glean (and a lot of surprises), like this: “At one point, I thought life was about acquiring things. Life is totally about losing everything.”

Heather Havrilesky

While her Ask Polly column is its own eternal font of grace in relationships (How to Be a Person in the World is a collection of those columns released in 2016), Havrilesky is also a genius when it comes to the “secular pieties” of our everyday lives more generally. She has unmasked our devotion to authenticity, our need for cleanliness, our romanticization of romance, and our gamification of games, all with the wit and empathy that only a fellow failure can produce.

Lewis Hyde

His classic work The Gift is a wellspring of insight on the nature of creativity as something received, not earned. With an emphasis on art and intellectual property, Hyde illustrates, with unrivaled eloquence and gentleness, the power of “gift” as a concept—and as an agent for positive change.

David Foster Wallace

Only sort of counts, since he consistently flirted with the commitments of faith—especially via Alcoholics Anonymous—but his impact on our work is too deep not to mention, both in style and substance. However much his image has been inflated in the years since his death, DFW remains an undisputed master of the English language and a sage when the conversation veers anywhere near the discontented self and “the conditions of belief” today. He was also flat-out hilarious. Begin with the essay collection A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again, then give Infinite Jest a shot.

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3 responses to “The Pagan Priests of Mockingbird”

  1. Andrew says:

    I agree with all of them, except Paglia. She is just awful, and I do not think she is as much a truth-teller and a me-teller. She is incredibly self-centered. I still think Molly Ivins had her pegged, and she has written nothing in the decades since that contradicts Ivins’ review.

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