Another Week Ends

Bland Land, Digital Burnout, Pale Beyond, Dominion of Jack, Guilt Lit, Depression Meals, and Electric Jesus

David Zahl / 9.25.20

1. Hum, Quip, Goby, Burst, Boka, Brüush, Gleem, Shyn — these are just a few of the brands, or “blands,” seeking to disrupt the toothbrush industry right now. If you’ve scrolled through Instagram recently, no doubt you’ve seen others trying to do the same in other industries. Caspar, Harry’s, Oscar, Burrow, Keeps, Roman, Rumpl, the list goes on and on and on — small companies that purport to do one thing really well via a super clean, pastel website. Bloomberg did us all a favor and put together a guide to our “Bland New World,” and it’s equal parts funny and, well, disconcerting:

All startups seek to disrupt and disintermediate a smug status quo, or originate and dominate an entirely new niche. But what makes a brand a bland is duality: claiming simultaneously to be unique in product, groundbreaking in purpose, and singular in delivery, while slavishly obeying an identikit formula of business model, look and feel, and tone of voice.

Blands are known for their gut-level language, charming underdog origin stories, beautiful yet minimalist packaging, overt political positioning, and attempts to market their products as doorway to a community of some kind. In other words, a bland is a product geared to someone looking to simplify, belong, and optimize while cultivating a sense of identity and purpose. This is #seculosity, pure and simple, and clearly it works. We talk about this at some length on this week’s Mockingcast (up now!), but I highly recommend the Bloomberg article, as the parade of examples is incredibly entertaining:

In addition to the explosion of blands offering toothbrush and meal-kit subscriptions, one can sign up to monthly deliveries of everything from baby food (Yumi), coffee (Bean Box) and snacks (Graze) to perfume (Scentbird), vitamins (Ritual) and soup (Good Stock). Often these are not cheap: The Sill’s best-selling “Medium Plants for Beginners” subscription (“made for a new plant parent that wants to bring the outdoors in but isn’t sure where to start”) is $60 a month …

Certain bland catchphrases are endlessly recycled: “attention to detail,” “timeless craftsmanship,” “thoughtfully sourced,” “simple and seasonal,” “chef-crafted,” “everyday essentials,” “a membership designed around you,” “join our community,” “fits in to your busy life,” “we make it easy,” “we’re passionate about,” “we’re obsessed with,” “we never settle,” “tireless dedication to quality.” […]

Blands are ineluctable. Despite embodying the vanguard of consumer capitalism, blands tend to be subtly Soviet — quasi-post-apocalyptic. Even within a saturated market, every bland’s message is somehow a post-choice, totalitarian inevitability:

There is only one mattress
There is only one razor
There is only one chef-inspired human-grade subscription-service dog food

2. This week saw the release of Anne Helen Peterson’s much-anticipated book Can’t Even: How Millennials Became the Burnout Generation, and Wired ran a fantastic excerpt. The material itself may be familiar, but I’m not sure I’ve ever read such a vivid description of what it’s like, on a moment-to-moment basis, to get through a smart-device-fueled workday. And her insight about how most of us are “performing work” just as much as, if not more than, actually working struck me as massively relevant to those who care about framing justification in contemporary language. Cannot wait for my hardback to arrive:

We know our phones suck. We even know the apps on them were engineered to be addictive. We know that the utopian promises of technology — to make work more efficient, to make connections stronger, to make photos better and more shareable, to make the news more accessible, to make communication easier — have in fact created more work, more responsibility, more opportunities to feel like a failure.

Part of the problem is that these digital technologies, from cell phones to Apple Watches, from Instagram to Slack, encourage our worst habits […] They are the neediest and most selfish entity in every interaction I have with others. They compel us to frame experiences, as we are experiencing them, with future captions, and to conceive of travel as worthwhile only when documented for public consumption. They steal joy and solitude and leave only exhaustion and regret. I hate them and resent them and find it increasingly difficult to live without them […]

Again, we talk about this dilemma quite a bit on the Mcast this week in regards to social media, namely, why we keep doing something even though that thing causes us clear and continued harm. It may be a perennial question (Romans 7), but also one that feels extra pronounced/loaded these days. My hunch is that it has something to do with our true motives often being hidden from us.

Anyways, mid-way through, Peterson delivers a memorable summation of life-under-the-law-of-do-more-try-harder-be-everything-in-2020:

That’s the reality of the internet-ridden life: I need to be an insanely productive writer and be funny on Slack and post good links on Twitter and keep the house clean and cook a fun new recipe from Pinterest and track my exercise on MapMyRun and text my friends to ask questions about their growing children and check in with my mom and grow tomatoes in the backyard and enjoy Montana and Instagram myself enjoying Montana and shower and put on cute clothes for that 30-minute video call with my coworkers and and and and.

3. Much as I relished Peterson’s excerpt, the best and most trenchant piece of writing I’ve read these past few weeks comes from Zadie Smith, whose short story “Now More Than Ever” says basically everything that needs to be said about the condemnation merry-go-round/scapegoat-o-rama that people are referring to when they use the phrase call-out “cancel culture.” By “everything” I mean that she captures both the diversion tactics at the heart of us-vs.-them thinking as well as the freedom found on the other side of the guilty verdict, which she calls “beyond the pale.” I’m loathe to take a passage out of context — read the whole thing, it’s short! — but how could I not when the paragraphs are these two:

I bumped into someone on Bleecker who was beyond the pale. I felt like talking to him so I did. As we talked I kept thinking, But you’re beyond the pale, yet instead of that stopping us from talking we started to talk more and more frantically, babbling like a couple of maniacs about a whole load of things: shame, ruin, public humiliation, the destruction of reputation — that immortal part of oneself — the contempt of one’s wife, one’s children, one’s colleagues, personal pathology, exposure, suicidal ideation, and all that jazz. I thought, Maybe if I am one day totally and finally placed beyond the pale, I, too, might feel curiously free. Of expectation. Of the opinions of others. Of a lot of things. “It’s like prison,” he said, not uncheerfully. “You don’t see anybody and you get a lot of writing done.”

If you’re wondering where he would be placed on a badness scale of one to ten, as I understand it he is, by general admission, hovering between a two and a three. He did not have “victims” so much as “annoyed parties.” What if he had had victims? Would I have talked to him then? But surely in that case, in an ideal world — after a trial in court — he would have been sent to a prison, or, if you have more enlightened ideas about both crime and punishment, to a therapeutic facility that helps people not to make victims of their fellow-humans. Would I have visited him in prison? Probably not. I can’t drive, and besides I have never volunteered for one of those programs in which sentimental people, under the influence of the Gospels, consider all humans to be essentially victims of one another and of themselves and so go to visit even the worst offenders, bringing them copies of the Gospels and also sweaters they’ve knitted. But that wasn’t the case here. He was beyond the pale, I wasn’t. We said our goodbyes and I returned to my tower, keeping away from the window for the afternoon, not being in the mood for either signs or arrows. I didn’t know where I was on the scale back then (last week). I was soon to find out. Boy, was I soon to find out. But right now, in the present I’m telling you about, I saw through a glass, darkly. Like you, probably. Like a lot of people.

4. Better late than never, Presbyterian superstar Tim Keller weighed in this past week with a stellar review of Tom Holland’s Dominion. I’ve been asked by a number of people if we still plan to have Holland speak in the future and the answer is a resounding yes, availability depending. Just unsure when that will happen or what form it will take. Anyway, to Keller:

The bottom line is this — it is hard to overstate the importance of Holland’s book Dominion: How the Christian Revolution Remade the World. The subtitle tells you the basic thesis. He makes a readable and extraordinarily well-documented case that the central values and priorities of modern, Western, secular culture have actually come from Christianity. And even now, when most of the educated classes have abandoned Christianity and when religion is in sharp decline among the populace, Christianity has such an enduring, pervasive influence that we cannot condemn the church for its failures without invoking Christian teaching and beliefs to do so …

Holland, though, wants to show that even when people try to distort Christianity and use it as a warrant for abuse and exploitation, it has a power in it that backfires on the oppressors:

Repeatedly, whether crashing through the canals of Tenochtitlan, or settling the estuaries of Massachusetts, or trekking deep into the Transvaal, the confidence that had enabled Europeans to believe themselves superior to those they were displacing was derived from Christianity. Repeatedly, though … it was Christianity that … provided the colonized and the enslaved with the surest voice. The paradox was profound. No other conquerors, carving out empires for themselves, had done so as the servants of a man tortured to death on the orders of a colonial official. No other conquerors … had installed … an emblem of power so deeply ambivalent as to render problematic the very notion of power. (504)

Speaking of TK (and the wilderness that is 2020), a friend recently brought to my attention one of his finest sermon illustrations, which comes at the 24 minute mark here. It spoke to me, and I hope it does to you as well:

5. Also on the book review front, a very enticing write-up of Marilynne Robinson’s new novel, Jack, appeared in Christianity Today this week, courtesy of Timothy Larsen:

A central tension of the novel is Jack’s moral dilemma: Should he embrace love and thus move beyond his self-contained, self-destructive life? Or is staying away from Della — thereby ensuring he does not cause her harm — truly the most good and Christian course?

One tragic aspect of the whole situation is the tragedy of America. In contrast to the callous relationship in Gilead that so marred his reputation, Jack’s behavior toward Della [an African American school teacher] is utterly pure, even chivalrous. Yet because their relationship is interracial, everyone around them sees it as shameful and discreditable. The one time in his life when Jack is behaving honorably, he is judged dishonorable; he is at last being respectable, but a racist, sinful, toxic society condemns his actions as disrespectable…

This is a book about grace, and Marilynne Robinson is a theologian of grace. Della’s sister dismisses her interracial relationship as a “disgrace,” but the reader, thank God, doesn’t believe it. It’s not too great a spoiler to reveal that the novel’s last word is literally “grace.” At his birth, Jack was christened “John,” a name that means “the Lord is gracious” or “graced by the Lord.” And the reader, like Jack’s father, is allowed to hope that in Jack’s beginning is his end.

Also on that note, I have a hunch that Casey Cep’s brand new profile of Robinson for the New Yorker is a goldmine.

6. Not out of the literary woods yet! Over at The Point Rafael Walker explored the exploding phenomenon known as “Guilt Lit,” shining a light on the not entirely flattering parallels between Harriet Beecher Stowe (Uncle Tom’s Cabin) and Robin D’Angelo (White Fragility). Here’s the controversial gist:

Let me say outright that I have my doubts about the capacity of literature trafficking in guilt to change minds for the better. After all, what white person alive in Stowe’s time or our own needs a book to know that their forefathers and foremothers — and at times they themselves — have been guilty of grave injuries against generations of people who do not look like them? And this is why I have characterized the experience of reading such books as being no less solipsistic than [more] “romantic” books … They promote self-stroking. However, my doubts about this genre’s social efficacy shouldn’t be taken as suggestions that I don’t think this literature changes people. I think it does change them, just not usually in favorable ways. In my experience, it has made them more self-righteous (emphasis on self).

7. In humor, there’s “Napkin Industry Under Fire For History Of Holding Greasy Slobs To Impossible Beauty Standards” in The Onion. The New Yorker‘s guide to Depression Meals made me laugh (uncomfortably). The Reductress is pretty on the nose with this one: “‘This Site is a Hellhole,’ Tweets Woman Who Will Check for Likes 48 Times.” Oldie but a goodie from The Hard Times with “College Student Discovers Pink Floyd Syncs up Perfectly With Failing Grades, Loss of Friends.”

8. Finally, I had the immense pleasure of pre-screening the film Electric Jesus last weekend (see poster above) and cannot WAIT for more people to see it. Especially since it’s such a rare beast: a coming-of-age dramedy about a failed 80s Christian hair band that doesn’t condescend to (or whitewash) its setting, with pitch-perfect references/jokes, a truly fantastic cast, and a heart of gold. Oh and an INCREDIBLE soundtrack! The whole thing left me legitimately verklempt.

There need to be more movies like this, so expect to hear quite a bit about it in the coming months. The official premiere happens at the Nashville Film Festival in early October, with tons of other screenings scheduled around the country, and wider distribution after that, God willing. You can find out more by signing up for their email list at or follow them on Instagram or Facebook at @ejesusfilm. The goodies alone!!


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One response to “Another Week Ends: Bland Land, Digital Burnout, Pale Beyond, Dominion of Jack, Guilt Lit, Depression Meals, and Electric Jesus

  1. CJ says:

    So many goodies here. Love the commentary on blands. I’m also waiting for a Mockingbird essay on the ubiquity of “disruption.” Recently I was reading a description for a new, cutting-edge book which used the word “disrupt” three times on the book cover. So cool!

    Also, St Anne Helen Peterson — thank God for her. I feel relief simply reading her empathetic analysis of the genuine hardship of our techno-riddled world.

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