Another Week Ends

1. Over at Internet Monk, a thoughtful Ash Wednesday article explores singer/songwriter Townes Van Zandt’s legacy […]

Will McDavid / 2.15.13

1. Over at Internet Monk, a thoughtful Ash Wednesday article explores singer/songwriter Townes Van Zandt’s legacy in relation to the way Americans process death, depression, powerlessness, or other ‘negative’ emotions:

tvzOf course we live in a culture of death — because we are human, and human beings die, and human beings often choose ways that lead to death rather than life. My question is how we deal with this fact.

…We the people will watch violence and death on our TV screens and computer monitors, but we continue to hide our dying ones away in hospitals and nursing homes. We spend the vast majority of our Medicare dollars on futile care in the final days of life because we just can’t face the fact that life will, at some point, end. We’ve turned funeral services for the mourning into “celebrations of life.”

…We’re not just a culture of death, we’re a culture of death-deniers, a people that tries to hide and avoid the fact that death is real.

That’s why we need to focus our attention on poets like Townes Van Zandt. He was a powerful symbol of death who walked among us. He could not hide the death that was working within him; he smelled of it, and his songs overflow with it to this day. His life represents most everything the righteous turn away from in moral outrage while at the same time his music touches us in deeply human ways. Van Zandt speaks to the death in each of us: the death of promise, the death of stability, the death of our ability to control and manage the vicissitudes of life, and ultimately the ability to hang on to life itself.

When I think of Townes Van Zandt and his strange, sad combination of image-of-God poetic genius with personal disarray and dissolution, I get a feeling like I had that day in Mysore [India]. A symbol of death is here, demanding my attention. I cannot, I must not look away until I have seen myself being carried in that chair — or holding that guitar, or grasping that bottle.

Well to live is to fly
All low and high

So shake the dust off of your wings
And the sleep out of your eyes

Today, the dust flies. And to dust we shall return.

Needless to say, being able to reckon with weakness and death in Ash Wednesday/Good Friday services, and indeed year-round, is a strength of Christianity, as John Jeremiah Sullivan noted, but one that it doesn’t always necessarily embrace. Townes could embrace it because he had to – “In love’s service only the wounded soldiers serve” (T. Wilder).


2. In the didn’t-need-to-do-a-study-on-it department, Reuters reports that “Hyper-parents can make college-aged children depressed.” The findings make a true point, but the conclusions are perhaps a mixed bag:

Researcher Holly Schiffrin from the University of Mary Washington in Virginia found so-called helicopter parenting negatively affected college students by undermining their need to feel autonomous and competent….

In the UK, a housemaster from top British public school, Eton College, is involved in a campaign to get parents to slow down a little, arguing that hyper-parenting may in fact demotivate a child and even cause psychological damage.

Grenier said it was disconcerting to see parents putting children as young as 3 or 4 into tutoring to ensure they get into the best schools and remain in the best schools to get top university places. “There is the fear that if they don’t get the right school and don’t get the right university then they won’t get the opportunity to fight for the best jobs,” he said. “The stakes are higher in people’s minds.” Grenier is an advocate of a movement called “slow education”, a concept adapted from the Italian culinary movement that has prompted a wider philosophical approach to travel, business, living and now schooling. “The real danger of hyper-parenting is that it is intrusive and parents don’t let their children make their own decisions, take risks and learn for themselves,” he said.

Undermining their need to feel autonomous and competent? Perhaps, but a more psychologically astute vocabulary of parental emotional overinvestment, implicit performance-demand, and the paralysis of Law could shed more light on the issue. Freud said that a child forming a moral consciousness independent of the parent’s was a crucial stage in growing up, and this ‘middle way’ helps unite the article’s autonomy/competence with a more traditionally Mbird view of freedom from guilt/from parental obligation to perform.


3. Jane Austen has been popular, even trendy recently, and a self-admittedly pretentious critic at Slate bewails this, focusing on a recent book by Yale critic William Deresiewicz. Despite the snobbish undertones (overtones), his annoyance at how Austen has been co-opted by self-help is well-worth a read, ht WTH:

…it’s begun to seem like she’s now assumed the role of the designated highbrow writer for light readers. It’s not that she’s overrated. It’s that she’s in dire jeopardy of being overhyped—and dumbed down in the process….

Anyway, until I read Deresiewicz’s book, I always had respected and admired his intelligent literary criticism and I still can’t quite believe he committed this gimmicky dumbing down of serious literature into insipid self-help. In the book, he portrays himself as basically someone raised by wolves, an oafish fellow with no social skills or interpersonal sensitivity until—sacre bleu!—he “discovers” Jane Austen and learns by reading her that he has been a jerk all his life, and that she has Important Things to teach him about life and love that transform him into a civilized sensitive human being.

A transformation brought about by a series of lessons which he then turns around and—treating the reader like a third grader raised by the same wolves—painstakingly teaches us. Mainly how to be nice. Not just nice, but nicey-nice nice. In doing so he manages to get just about everything about Jane Austen and her novels wrong. For one thing, she is not “nice.”…

The idea that literature as a whole and Austen in particular should chiefly be read for rules of behavior rather than, say, for the unique intensity of aesthetic pleasure that a beautifully crafted sentence can offer, the idea that literature is somehow simplistically about how to behave—that literature has a single unified view of morality, of the self (and thus self-help)—is ludicrously retrograde, antiquarian, and frankly anti-literary.


4. Buzzfeed this week did a slightly mean-spirited, but admittedly hilarious, round-up of the “33 Ways You Know Were a Youth Group Kid.” A few highlights:

13. Every Wednesday night you were at Fuel, The Edge, Fire, Reverb, The Blaze, Kindle, or Echo.

14. You said “just” a lot when you had to pray out loud.

24. You went to TGI Friday’s after youth group with a party of 14

5. In TV, HBO’s Girls this week ran an episode that we can’t help but mention, despite the fact that the vulgarity has so gotten ridiculously over-the-top in Season 2 that we hesitate even more than we usually would (normal Girls skin-warning in effect, this week to the point of absurdity). It was a fantasy of sorts, where our (tragic) hero Hannah meets a 42-year-old man and lives with him for three days. Lena Dunham’s excursus into this one episode, leaving out almost all the other characters, is a concentrated character study on Hannah, placing her in an esthetically overdeveloped, subtly harrowing world of unchecked desire, which ultimately gives way to isolation (a la husband-wife limbo in Nolan’s Inception). From the ‘wait, what’s your name?’ snag after a first kiss, up until Hannah leaves the third morning, it’s a tour-de-force of sexual morality/psychology from a secular point of view, not to mention incredibly well-written and directed. The A/V Club comments:

“One Man’s Trash” is very consciously an idyll, a pause in the action that eschews every character who’s not Hannah (but for a wonderful rant from Ray to open the episode) in order to take stock of where our main character is at this point in her development.

…if you want to call the episode self-indulgent, I’m not going to stop you, but it’s also very successful at feinting toward an explanation for why this brief, intense connection forms between these two people. It proves fleeting, as we knew it must, but I bought the fundamental premise of the episode. If you didn’t, fine.

…“One Man’s Trash” never really lets us in on what he’s thinking, but it keeps using Shepard’s direction to give us keys to his thinking. He’s isolated. He’s alone. He’s stuck in the middle of a giant space that will never be finished, surrounded by the symbols of a life that should be fulfilling, but he’s so, so alone. This is territory Mad Men and Enlightened often play in, but it’s not a place TV—a medium driven by always leaving you wanting more—tends to enjoy visiting. What happens when the wanting is still there, when the desire for something more than what you already have never goes away? What happens when you realize you’re empty inside?


The episode is a thought-experiment, asking the question whether a three-day bacchanalia is emotionally sustainable and contrasting insular self-indulgence with the inevitable return to reality. In doing so, the episode asks about the nature of human desire, dwelling in the space of  the incommensurability of our attempts at emotional fulfillment and fulfillment itself. People have criticized Girls as self-indulgent for focusing on rich people’s problems – but what else was Augustine’s drunk beggar? If the person with all the advantages and the opportunity to play out their desire in any way is defeated, what hope is there for anyone? But the episode follows a death-resurrection pattern: in getting a glimpse at happiness but knowing something’s still off, Dunham’s character realizes there could be genuine happiness, and she wants it. But it’s only when her fantasy is defeated, on the third day, that she can take refuge in the liturgy of morning chores, can at last detach, and can start looking toward something we might call a ‘long view’ toward finding happiness. It seems like a significant step for TV in terms of form, and Dunham undoubtedly meant it that way. The honesty, stark facial expressions, and psychological acumen she accomplished in a half-hour is a great example of how a toned-down, understated, unflinching TV short can, just by virtue of acting performance and photography, make a profound statement about human nature and interaction.

6. At Christianity Today, Mark Galli convincingly argues that Christian athletes are not moral role models–or at least shouldn’t be pigeonholed as such, though we’re tempted to do so as an indulgence of moral identity:

ckWhen we see that power and grace in the field of play—well, it is a thing of wonder. We’re witnessing human glory (that glory that is just a little less than the angels—Psalm 8). When we witness such a sight, it’s almost impossible not to hope that this same human being might be a specimen of excellence in other arenas. Thus is born in us the desire for the athlete to be a moral role model.

What amazes us today is not to discover that an athlete is narcissistic, greedy, and selfish; a philanderer, a drug addict, or even a murderer. It’s when we find one who appears humble and morally upright. Thus our culture’s fascination with Tim Tebow—an “oddball” in today’s athletic culture.

For Christians, such moments feel like vindication: See, Christianity does make a difference! And when we see a Christian winner on the field, we hope against hope that he is a moral winner in his life—a role model for our children, and maybe even for us…

This gives us a clue about what we should be looking for in our Christian athletes—nothing more, nor less, than we look for in ourselves: signs of God’s grace.

The Christian athlete, like any athlete in top condition and training, is a picture of athletic grace, to be sure. We can glorify our Creator for giving some men and women such extraordinary abilities for us to behold. But beyond that, we’re looking at typically weak, selfish, prideful people, subject to the same temptations that we succumb to.

Two men went up into the megachurch to pray, one a Role Model, and the other a Scoundrel. The Role Model, standing by himself and yet in clear view of the ESPN cameras, prayed thus: “God, I thank you that I am not like other athletes—self-centered, adulterers, and drug addicts, or even like that Scoundrel. I work out twice a day, I give my all, on and off the field, to be an example to others.” But the Scoundrel, standing far off away from the microphones, would not even lift up his eyes, but wept, saying, “God, be merciful to me, a scoundrel!”

7. In social science, you almost have to feel bad for Jonah Lehrer–he fabricated quotes and dabbled in some plagiarism, to be sure, but the feeding frenzy has been pretty appalling. Nonetheless, hits the nail on the head with its analysis of Lehrer’s equivocating, self-justifying apology this past week, a “Mea Sorta Culpa” which, ironically, is the best (public) testament yet to Lehrer’s idea that we are motivated by the intuitive, or irrational, just as much (probably more) as we’re motivated by a rational, unbaised concern for the truth, ht WTH:

Lehrer has been humbled, and yet nearly every bullet in his speech managed to fire in both directions. It was a wild display of self-negation, of humble arrogance and arrogant humility….

What remorse Lehrer had to share was couched in elaborate and perplexing disavowals. He tried to explain his behavior as, first of all, a hazard of working in an expert field. Like forensic scientists who misjudge fingerprints and DNA analyses, and whose failings Lehrer elaborated on in his speech, he was blind to his own shortcomings. These two categories of mistake hardly seem analogous—lab errors are sloppiness, making up quotes is willful distortion—yet somehow the story made Lehrer out to be a hapless civil servant, a well-intentioned victim of his wonky and imperfect brain….

Could a set of “standard operating procedures” really make a liar mend his ways? Could it help to save his soul?


If Lehrer’s most compelling ideas about human decision-making are true, they suggest that more specific rules will do little to solve the problem.

8. Faith and Leadership this week published another touching Ash Wednesday reflection (no Meat Loaf unfortunately), asking why we need reminders of our failures and limitations on Ash Wednesday when they’re all around us anyway. A pastor of church in Washington, Amy Butler ruminates on the appeal of death, sin, and limitation, ht MS:

Oddly, every year it’s Ash Wednesday when we welcome so many people whom we’ve never seen before. Out of all the days of the church year, it’s this day — the day we focus on our sin and humanity — that draws in the most strangers. Past the imposing steeple, in through unfamiliar doors, up the steep stairway and into the dimly lit sanctuary they come, seeking the imposition of ashes.

Every year when I see unfamiliar people wander in among the regulars, I wonder why we all seem to need Ash Wednesday so much. Why do we crave reflective moments to ponder our shortcomings?

…I am coming to believe that we do because we all desperately need a place to stop for just a little while, to lay down the heavy burdens we carry, to be — if only for a moment — honest about who we are….

We’re smart and good, pretty and talented, witty and full of great ideas. We go to work every day wearing our titles like Boy Scout badges informing the world that we know what we’re doing. But secretly, we’re scared someone will find out that we really don’t. Our families appear to the world like the picture of happiness, but truth is, we live every day with the pain of disappointment, betrayal and broken relationships. We tell the world we are peaceful and purpose-filled, but inside we’re scared and lonely, and we wonder all the time about life’s deeper meaning….

“Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”


And in that moment, no matter who we are or where we come from, we can and will face, if only briefly, the truth of our lives, with all their failures and missed opportunities and disappointments. We can be honestly, openly human.

Experts wonder these days about the future of the church. In 20 years, will communities of faith have a place in big cities like mine? On Ash Wednesday I am certain that they will, because every year I look out at a congregation filled with people who have intentionally sought this place, a place of solidarity in the struggle to live authentically in a world that only wants us when we’re perfect.

And when we gather together in all the diverse expressions of our humanity, we become — stranger and regular alike — one of the best representations of what the church can be in this world. There we are, shoulder to shoulder, stripped of the facades that decorate our regular lives and yearning together for those words of honest declaration:

“Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

We stand together, in all our shared humanity, unified in our yearning for forgiveness and grace, and together buoyed by the reassurance, ringing in our ears as we go back into this cold, hard world:

“… but the steadfast love of the Lord endures forever.”

9. Finally, Francis Spufford drew our attention to Eddie Izzard’s hilarious spoof of St. Paul: