Another Week Ends

1. Love has been on the brain here in Cville as we put the finishing […]

David Zahl / 9.26.14


1. Love has been on the brain here in Cville as we put the finishing touches on the upcoming ‘Relationships’ issue of The Mockingbird. Among other things, we’ve been watching insane documentaries, interviewing experts, and listening to (un-)godly amounts of ABBA. So it was serendipitous this week to come across The Atlantic’s “Love Is Not Algorithmic”, a review of/reflection on Dataclysm: Who We Are (When We Think No One’s Looking), the new book by online dating guru and OKCupid co-founder, Christian Rudder. Most of it falls into captain obvious territory re: love & identity & control, but a couple of soundbites were striking:

There is no higher praise these days than being data-driven. A person who is data-driven is free of bias, and cuts through arguments with a sword of truth. No longer do we need to fumble through life. The answers will come. We will know how to respond, just what to do. We will let the data tell us!…

But something more is at risk. What is troubling here, as we enter the Age of Big Data, the Age of the Internet, and the like, is that we are also entering an Age of the Axiomatic. To be axiomatic, at its best, is to be deductive, but at its worst, it is to assume that a system is consistent and complete.

This dangerous kind of axiomatic logic is pronounced when we assume that a user is a collection of “data points” with a consistent or complete identity. In fact, online-dating services are notoriously complicated by users’ own impossible burden of fully representing themselves in a two-dimensional personality. Social media has struggled to contemplate the self-contradiction and inconsistency of its own users—to see them as more than flat profiles that can be targeted for advertising. Speaking of users who have multiple profiles, Mark Zuckerberg famously said “having two identities for yourself is an example of a lack of integrity.” Writer Curtis Sittenfeld quipped in The New York Times: “To which my only response is, ‘You’ve got to be kidding.’ I mean, I’m not even the same person with all the members of my immediate family.”

The French philosopher Alain Badiou provided the most direct challenge to social networking in his 2012 book “In Praise of Love.” He suggested online dating was a form of “safety first” love, in which love becomes a commodity or a consumer product. He went so far as to suggest that the premise of the user experience is an affront to the spirit of love…

2. On a highly related note, writing for Aeon back in March, Dougland Hine made some trenchant observations about where the veneration of Information qua Information has gotten us. “The Problem with Too Much Information”, in his view, is that the fire hydrant of data at our fingertips has not only failed to usher in a new age of enlightenment, it has yet to make us any less restless, unhappy, or, well, bored. The opposite in fact–which may not be news to anyone who’s read Daniel Kahneman or Step 6 (or 1 Corinthians 8) but it bears repeating, ht VH:

JKxu8T3It is not only among the antisocial creatures who lurk under the bridges of the internet that boredom persists. We might no longer have the excuse of a lack of stimulation, but the vocabulary of tedium is not passing into history: the experience remains familiar to most of us. This leads to a question that goes deep into internet culture and the assumptions with which our infinity machines are packaged: exactly what is it that we are looking for?

The trouble is that information doesn’t nourish us. Worse, in the end, it turns out to be boring… if there is an antidote to boredom, it is not information but meaning.

Information is perhaps the rawest material in the process out of which we arrive at meaning: an undifferentiated stream of sense and nonsense in which we go fishing for facts. But the journey from information to meaning involves more than simply filtering the signal from the noise. It is an alchemical transformation, always surprising. It takes skill, time and effort, practice and patience. No matter how experienced we become, success cannot be guaranteed. In most human societies, there have been specialists in this skill, yet it can never be the monopoly of experts, for it is also a very basic, deeply human activity, essential to our survival. If boredom has become a sickness in modern societies, this is because the knack of finding meaning is harder to come by…

3. Next, in response to Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby’s (admirable) recent candor about personal doubt–and the absurd if yawn-inducing response it produced in certain corners–The NY Times published a worthy column from Julia Baird. Surprise surprise, faith and certainty are not, nor have ever been, synonymous:

Faith cannot block out darkness, or doubt. When on the cross, Jesus did not cry out “Here I come!” but “My God, why have you forsaken me?” His disciples brimmed with doubts and misgivings… Doubt acknowledges our own limitations and confirms — or challenges — fundamental beliefs, and is not a detractor of belief but a crucial part of it.

4. I’m reminded of Mbird fave John Jeremiah Sullivan line about harboring doubts about one’s doubt. Especially since JJS penned a fascinating profile of writer Donald Antrim for The NY Times magazine, published this week under the enticing title “Donald Antrim and the Art of Anxiety”. Buried in the final third is an incredible story of what some of us would be tempted to call Providence involving none other than David Foster Wallace. An episode of grace, pure and simple, of an unbidden hand reaching out to someone at their absolute lowest ebb. I was stunned.

5. TV: The premiere of Parenthood‘s final season aired last night, and while I’ve yet to watch, The AV Club gave it a promising review. Would love to hear what you thought. I finally caught up on the second season of Ricky Gervais’ Derek, and while it’s certainly no masterpiece (or as consistently funny/touching as season one), those who stick it out will discover a remarkable instance of grace in the final episode (Geoff is the key). Over at ThinkChristian, Donna Bowman provides an awesome little reflection on “CBS’ Moms and Comedy of Recovery”. I haven’t caught the show either, but her endorsement definitely inspired me to update my TEVO settings:

“Without ever setting foot in a church, [Anna Faris’ recovering single mother] Christy offers one of the most authentic models of Christianity on network television. Redeemed from selfish pleasure-seeking, but utterly free of moralism, she shoulders an impossible task with her eyes wide open. Kierkegaard would have loved this show – and raised his glass to it.”

6. Music-wise, Slate did a commendable job of rounding up the 33 1/3 book series–the one on Aretha’s gospel output sounds particularly promising/relevant–and Rolling Stone ran a story about The Replacements reunion (NY show sounded amazing!) that included the following priceless tidbit:

After 35 years, [Paul Westerberg and Tommy Stinson] have a buddy-comedy chemistry: Westerberg is the grumbly wiseacre, and Stinson, who joined the band at age 13, is the eternal punk-rock kid. Last night, Stinson stayed up reading the Bible. “A lady friend gave it to me,” he says. “I’ve been meaning to read it. It’s sort of the Dr. Seuss version.”

“Many is the time I’ve been like, ‘I’m going to open the Bible, and this pertains to me!’ ” says Westerberg. “And, instead, it’s ‘Aesop’s sandal was pointing to the seventh donkey.’ It’s like, ‘[Fiddlesticks]!’ You know? You want it to say, ‘Turn down thine amp!'”

7. In humor, Clickhole’s “Share This ‘VeggieTales’ Thing Unless You’re Ashamed Of Christ” gave me a chuckle, as did Buzzfeed’s “44 Medieval Beasts That Cannot Even Handle It Right Now”. The Onion weight in with “Frozen Tundra Of Emptiness Stretching Out Forever And Ever Weighed Against Date With Mike4763”. But the funniest thing I read this week was Fr. John Zuhlsdorf’s response to a reader of his blog about the mechanics of “Baptizing Aliens who Burst Into Flame From Water”.

8. Anyone looking for a solid primer on what is probably our favorite ‘church debate’, the one between Augustine and Pelagius, would do well to click here.


Eve Tushnet’s review of God Help The Girl is a great read (with a great title).

– Inside the bizarre subculture that lives to explore Chernobyl’s Dead Zone

The Law of the Home-Cooked Meal, ht BP.

– To address some ongoing ‘site speed’ issues, we’re switching servers over the weekend. So if you notice some downtime, that’s what’s going on.

Houston Conference only three weeks away! If you get close to the screen, you can almost smell the brisket… Here’s your Slaid Cleaves jam-of-the-week:


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3 responses to “Another Week Ends: Axiomatic Romance, TMI Troubles, Welby’s Doubts, Antrim’s ECT, Recovering Moms, Reuniting Replacements, and Alien Baptisms”

  1. Alison White says:

    The Onion link would not work. Here it is again:,37026/

    Thanks for the bundle of laughs paragraph, because this avatar just Can’t anymore…I feel like I’m being drawn and quartered in three different directions (Hopefully my limbs will be scattered). Mine as well seriously consider the possibility of baptizing aliens who immediately burst into flames upon contact with H2O. I mean, why not?? Anything to avoid the “Frozen Tundra”! How about them shameless Vegetables?!

    Who does the artwork with the “f” ? I don’t know if I like it or not…it hurts a little bit…

    And life goes on…

    Thanks for the last two Mockingbird Magazines (a friend gifted me with the second) – looking forward to the third.

    God’s Peace.

  2. Bryan J. says:

    Hi Alison- the artist who did the facebook images is Pawel Kuczynski. Here’s a link to more of his facebook inspired social media work:

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