Another Week Ends

Click here to listen to this week’s episode of The Mockingcast, which features an interview […]

CJ Green / 6.3.16

Click here to listen to this week’s episode of The Mockingcast, which features an interview with author and film critic Alissa Wilkinson.

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1. This week New York Magazine covered the fascinating tug-of-war between meritocracy and luck in modern culture. Entitled, “Why Americans Ignore the Role of Luck in Everything,” the article discusses the inflammatory remarks of Robert Frank, an economist at Cornell, who said that luck plays a more important role in success than we like to think.

The article explores what luck is and why we tend to react so negatively to any serious mention of it. First of all, because we don’t know what luck is; hard work and talent, however, as its opponents, are more easily identified.

Humans don’t, as a general rule, do well with ambiguity. We like to tell clear, coherent stories about the world we see in front of us, and success is no exception. Hindsight bias, which is — and I’m just going to go with the Wikipedia definition here, because it’s good — “the inclination, after an event has occurred, to see the event as having been predictable, despite there having been little or no objective basis for predicting it,” can partly explain how we come up with stories that cause us to discount the role of luck.

In other words, we can’t help but try to can the unnknowable into little mason jars, which we will later Instagram for consumption by the wider public. Luck, as far as definitions go, is just the way a series of events shake down outside of our control; if meritocracy is the law, then maybe luck–solely because of it’s complete independence of us–is grace. This is not at all to say that God shows grace through luck but more to say that we fear what we don’t understand and what we can’t control.

Not only does luck resist control but it drops gloves against our achievements and threatens our entire sense of identity, that self-interpretation which we have composed based on our actions.

Frank kept circling back to the fact that absolutely nothing he’s saying is at all controversial….It takes some luck to be a successful person. Every thinking person understands this intellectually, and yet a lot of people react really aggressively to what is a thoroughly commonsensenotion.

Part of the problem is hindsight bias, of course — hard work and merit constitute a tighter, more linear and straightforward story, and therefore one that’s easier to process cognitively. The other problem is that people tend to react very poorly to any ideas that chip away at their sense of who they are. People hear “Luck is a contributing factor,” and think what the speaker is actually saying is “You didn’t earn what you have.” They make a giant leap, simply because acknowledging the role of luck can feel like such a blow to one’s self-concept.


Also interesting are the rhetorical politics of luck:

[Frank] pointed out that, in his experience, telling rich people they’re lucky tends to be a surefire way to evoke defensiveness. If, on the other hand, you ask them to come up with times when they were lucky, Frank believes it often gets them thinking about their own life and the path they took to get where they are. Everyone who is successful can point to some way in which they were lucky — they will always have some kind of answer, and it might spur them to think about the concept in a new, helpful way.

2. Speaking of luck, what else can it be when a nineteen-year-old, dead for three thousand  years, still remains a household name? The tomb of King Tut, who had a butt, continues to broaden our minds. This week, an article from The Guardian wrote: “Researchers who analysed metal composition of dagger within wrapping of mummified teenage king say it ‘strongly suggests an extraterrestrial origin.’”

Cue St Paul: “I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that the Gospel I preach is not of human origin” (Gal 1:11).

3. And, in humor, The Babylon Bee stings again. Here’s a good one from this week, entitled: “Family’s Piety Lasts 12 Seconds After Leaving Church Parking Lot.

MARQUETTE, MI—The Granger family’s piety lasted for just 12 seconds after leaving the parking lot of 1st North Baptist Church Sunday, sources reported. Having enjoyed a sermon on 1 Peter 1:14-16 titled “Holiness In Our Lives” and having engaged in warm, loving conversation with friends on matters of church fellowship, the family of five’s reverie was almost immediately shattered as their Chrysler Town & Country minivan made its way home.

Despite the heartfelt emotion and resolve the worship service had engendered in parents Lloyd and Mary Granger, while the car was still turning onto the main road, their five-year-old son Hunter punched his brother Taylor “because [he] wanted to.” […]

At this 12-second mark, any vestiges of piety in the minivan had been completely eradicated, resulting in a discordant row and personal sniping that only subsided when the warring family called a fragile cease-fire on the promise of lunch at Cracker Barrel.

Also: “Two-Hour Sermon, Altar Call Somehow Left Off ‘Youth Fun Night’ Flier.

4. Vox posted a story entitled, “The White House Made Me a Poster Boy for Beating the Odds. And Then I Dropped out of College,” by Anthony Mendez. In short, Mendez grew up in poverty in the Bronx and went to college and was championed as a success by the White House for it. The thing was, in his first year of college, he received failing marks over two consecutive semesters and was not allowed back.

Credits: Space pictures by NASA. People on vintage magazines.

Eugenia Loli

In June, the White House invited me to come to DC again to be an official ambassador for the Reach Higher initiative. I didn’t know what to do: How could I be an ambassador for the program if I wasn’t currently attending college? But I did not tell them about the latest with my situation. I decided to attend….

The theme was called “Beating the Odds” and centered on the obstacles we had all overcome to attend college. Seeing so many kids look at me as someone who beat the odds and getting such admiration was difficult for me. I wanted to tell them how messed up everything was. But I just couldn’t get the words out because I knew that if I did, I wouldn’t have that same impact. The same kid who had sat next to the first lady as an example of how anybody could beat the odds and attend college was no longer even in college. I was distracted the whole day. I felt like a fraud.

The ironic tragedy is that the burden of expectations only serves as yet another yolk to tie around the neck of a young man who had already experienced great suffering–from living in a homeless shelter miles from home to learning that his best friend had been shot dead just a few years earlier. In many circles, college has become too much. In this case, and through the blind optimism of the Reach Higher campaign, college was supposed to be the justified ends to a life of great suffering.

Mendez’s story reminds us of the hard, humiliating reality of failure, but also that college is not the savior many people think it is. (One of my cousins recently graduated from trade school and, on hearing this, I nearly dropped the phone. He is so cool, and also one of the only people I know under the age of thirty to have chosen that route. This is primarily because I live in a social bubble of academics, but also because he is a legendary Pokemon indeed.) According to many people, college is a mostly glorious time of tacky sweaters and coffee and plenty of laughter among like-minded youths, and most importantly the best/only shot at having a “successful” life–but, like all things, it is not necessarily for everybody and it is not the redemptive end to a story of hardship; college cannot balance, heal or justify a life of poverty in the Bronx. And it does not determine the value of a life. That can only be determined by love, which can only be determined by sacrifice (see more from what Will wrote last week: “Critics’ demands that suffering have a redemptive purpose are in some ways legitimate ones, but they risk looking at suffering as a means to an end, of connecting suffering with some justificatory purpose….There is not always a redemptive purpose to suffering.”)

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5. This one is actually from March–how did we miss it? A wonderful conversation with New York Times columnist, David Brooks. Things get really good about three-and-a-half minutes in:

I had a friend who was exuberance personified….He was just an inner light. He died last week, or two weeks ago now, and I went to see him the day he died, and he greeted death with such confidence and almost joy. He is a man of deep faith. He said, “I’m going to the Kingdom.” To greet death with such joy, and to have a faith that not only animated his approach to death but animated his life…a life of selfless giving. A lot of us who have our name and talk into microphones don’t have that–I certainly don’t have that. How do you get that? You think, what do I have to cut loose to get that? Because that would be wonderful.

Frankly, writing a book about it, or reading a bunch of books about it, won’t get you there. You’ve got to have an emotional connection, and a lot of us in middle age hopefully become emotionally more open and frankly more feminine. The radical leap has to happen in emotional vulnerability, which is lived out…

My last book was based on this distinction between the resume and eulogy virtues…we wall want to be good at the eulogy virtues, to be honorable and honest and courageous and capable of great love, but how you get there is sometimes a matter of passivity.

Another piece of writing I just came across was by Abraham Joshua Heschel on the sabbath, on taking a day off, and he said the sabbath is a palace in time. You don’t take a sabbath so you can be more efficient at work; you work so you can climax your week at the sabbath.


6. FiveThirtyEight published a piece entitled, “The Sun is Always Shining in Modern Christian Pop” (ht TB). It points out what many of us defeatist Christians already know–that Christian pop is gratingly cheerful. A study on over 200 of Christian pop’s most popular songs shows that positive words are used way more than negative ones: On average, “grace” is used 2.5 times as often as “sin”; “life” is eight times more popular than “death.” Tracing footprints of a theology of glory….

What was also interesting was how Christian music, specifically in tone, mirrors popular secular music.

Jamie Grace’s “Beautiful Day” was one of the top 10 Christian songs of 2014 and has a typically peppy chorus: “This feeling can’t be wrong / I’m about to get my worship on / Take me away / It’s a beautiful day.” Switch it out for Pharrell’s “Happy,” and a congregation might not be able to tell the difference.

In the 1960s and ’70s, Christian bands started to bring amps and drum sets into worship services but still included somber themes in their songs. In the Cold War period, singing about death and the Last Judgment didn’t put Christian singers too far outside the mainstream. Secular pop music, created under the specter of nuclear war, also had apocalyptic themes. But when that secular pop music moved on from this fear, so did the Christian music.

If Christian music follows the sway of secular pop, it’s just one more piece of evidence that Christians are human beans, too, which is a gospel reminder against our always-creeping sense of virtuosity and self-righteousness. As much as God’s spirit is alive in Christian pop, it’s there, too, in not-Christian pop.


7. The Economist ran a very balanced update on the battle of political correctness on college campuses, which hit a fevered pitch last fall but continues feeling aftershocks, and even some full quakes, now. The emphasis is that there are currently various incompatible moral imaginations in the American mind, and campuses are currently skillets mixing veggies. A huge part of the issue is that people who feel they are different from other people may not feel that their perspectives and circumstances are understandable by those who haven’t yet (or never will) experience them.

The powerful riposte is that, to function, society relies on impartial adjudication of wrongs, especially in an era of multiculturalism, with its attendant frictions. Prejudice may indeed abound, but for officials to intervene it must be proven, not merely alleged. In any case, the idea that any group’s experience is inaccessible to others is not just pessimistic but anti-intellectual: history, anthropology, literature and many other fields of inquiry are premised on the faith that different sorts of people can, in fact, understand each other.

Perhaps we put too much emphasis on lived experience, which is subjective and fallible from any one person’s perspective. But it would be wrong to quickly discard real feelings of pain and misunderstanding. That’s why we can be thankful for an objective Gospel, one which doesn’t champion one experience over another but pronounces love, period. (For more: this, on emotional coddling, and this, on objectivity.)

8. Over at Key Life, Steve Brown’s article, “Life Without the Kicker” discusses how the Gospel is something given, not bartered for.

Some seriously misguided Christians once called a Jewish friend of mine a “Christ killer.” When I told him how very sorry I was for what they had said and how he had been hurt, he didn’t say anything for a minute. He was waiting for me to continue. Then my friend said something that really surprised me, “Steve, I want to thank you for what you said; but more than that, I want to thank you that there was no kicker.”

I asked him what he meant by “kicker.” My friend explained that a “kicker” was a hidden agenda. “Sometimes,” he said, “I get the feeling that the only reason Christians even talk to me is to get me to become a Christian. When you said that you were sorry for what Christians called me, I’ve heard it before but always with something else…a kicker.”

He continues about the various ways Christians will pull the bait-and-switch, whether in friendship or spirituality–how an apology is rarely just an apology, because something must be given and taken. We extend apologies in order to receive something else, but a gift is not a gift unless it is freely given.

Christians don’t have to have a kicker. We are loved without condition, forgiven without exception, and free without any bonds except those of love. We don’t have to protect anything, sell anything, or force anything. We don’t have to be right. We don’t have to pretend to be anything other than what we are…redeemed sinners who are loved without condition.

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