Another Week Ends

1. On this week’s Killing Eve, the morally obscure mastermind Carolyn Martens (Fiona Shaw) refused […]

CJ Green / 5.17.19

1. On this week’s Killing Eve, the morally obscure mastermind Carolyn Martens (Fiona Shaw) refused to eat breakfast, instead pulling from a water pipe and saying, “I can’t stand breakfast. It’s just constant eggs. Why? Who decided?” The woman has a point. Whether yogurt, cereal, waffles, or bacon, our breakfast items of choice reveal greater [market] forces determining daily norms and revealing consumers to be more sheeplike than we might hope to be. And in addition to cultural trends and class-marking, the American breakfast, like so many things, can be traced back to a little era called the Protestant Reformation. Really!

As culture writer Megan Garber once explained, “The Europeans of the Middle Ages largely eschewed breakfast. Thomas Aquinas, in his Summa Theologicalists praepropere—eating too soon—as one of the ways to commit the deadly sin of gluttony.” Beginning the day with self-indulgence, not abnegation, signaled an openness to sin. This week, for The Atlantic, Amanda Mull investigates further:

American breakfast begins in Europe, which provided the food norms imported by early colonizers. There, the day’s first meal had emerged from centuries of prohibition under the Catholic Church. “There was a period of time in England and western Europe where eating breakfast was sort of tied to gluttony,” says Heather Arndt Anderson, the author of Breakfast: A History. That all changed with the Protestant Reformation, when morning sustenance became more broadly permissible, if not all that exciting, or even distinct from everything else people ate.

It is for breakfast that Christ has set us free. As for eggs, “breakfast remained a matter of convenience for most people: bread; preserved meats; repurposed leftovers; and things, like eggs, that were easy to prepare and regularly available to rural families.” Until eggs weren’t as convenient as Eggos and now are just vogue.

2. Wending on with the Reformation thread, how exciting to see some premium coverage about law and gospel in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal. Writer Barton Swaim weighs the various interpretations of the writings of the Apostle Paul, explaining that there are mainly two camps in Protestant thinking: first are the early Reformers, who read Paul as criticizing a “works-based system of earning divine favor,” and second, the New Perspective scholars who read Paul’s definition of “works” more along the lines of “cultural boundary markers” (dietary laws, circumcision, Sabbath days). As enlightening as some elements of the New Perspective can be, Swaim says it suffers from the particularly modern context it comes from:

My own suspicion is that the New Perspective achieved popularity mainly because young Protestant ministers would rather talk about inclusion and breaking barriers than about the guilt of sin and the pointlessness of trying to erase it by a regimen of good deeds. That’s understandable. But surely the old message hasn’t lost its relevance.

Even in this permissive, materialist age, people go to extraordinary lengths to atone for their guilt. Consider the vast numbers of Americans who spend their days maniacally trying to prove their upright status in the eyes of secular deities—conspicuously announcing their support for enlightened causes, loudly denouncing bigotry and xenophobia, proclaiming their sympathy with the marginalized and their loyalty to ethically manufactured products. How delightful it might be to hear that salvation is the gift of God, not of works, lest any man should virtue-signal.

Related, from The Onion: “Liberal Relieved He Never Has To Introspect Again After Assembling All The Correct Opinions”: “It definitely wasn’t easy, but now that I have all the proper perspectives on the world all perfectly arranged inside of my head, I know I’ll never need to question my own thoughts, beliefs, or opinions ever again.”

3. On the internet I keep encountering images of celebrity-emblazoned prayer candles, and like Aunt Linda I have been wondering what is going on here. Traditionally, in Catholic (or New Age) rituals, a prayer candle was used to invoke the intercession of whatever saint was depicted on its glass. Even now, as history professor Neil Foley told The New York Times, “Desperate people…burn candles because it can’t hurt and, who knows, it might help.”

But when the saint on the candle is Beyoncé, or Jon Snow, or the Golden Girls (??), the candle’s purpose has no doubt shifted. For many, these may be purely delightful. But according to Aditi Shrikant at Vox, something deeper is also in play:

Replacing the saints with famous public figures extracts the judgment of religion but retains the comfort of the ritual. But beyond the positivity, these candles hold an overtone of irony. By replacing a saint with a celebrity that is outright silly (like Steve Buscemi or Harambe the gorilla), you are dismissing the function of the prayer candle altogether. And by replacing saints with public figures who have historically been rejected by religious institutions (like, say, the cast of RuPaul’s Drag Race), you are communicating acceptance while also thumbing your nose at an entity that has the reputation of treating non-heteronormative people unjustly.

So while on the one hand you might be drawn to these candles for the comfort they’ve traditionally imparted, you resist the effects of that comfort by couching it in irony. Maybe this distance comes from a sense of self-preservation as one approaches a spirituality they have reason to distrust; but maybe it’s more biting than that.

Although America is becoming less religious, the disaffiliated still crave certain aspects of organized religion, namely, the ritual. In his 2015 study “How We Gather,” Casper ter Kuile of Harvard Divinity School found that ritual played into why people were so loyal to CrossFit and SoulCycle, saying that “ritual is this really helpful way of making people think of something greater.”

On a whim I’ll just add—in addition to their many positive aspects—rituals can also get confusing, tiresome, and/or discouraging. I suspect that’s partially why the intercession of saints and prayer candles (and religion itself) are so easily memed and mocked. By contrast, in the words of Richard Rodriguez, “the crucifix [emphasis mine] cannot be mocked. It is itself mockery.” The crucifix requires no reverence; it is our ultimate irreverence. It is a picture of God in Jesus receiving the most sardonic of lacerations: and especially for the sake of those dealing them. So although Shrikant reports these candles “rankle some,” a religion of mercy need not be chagrined by kitsch. Myself, I’ll light a Saint Johnny Rose. (Or, in fearful times, a Judge Judy: “We hope and pray that when we enter the gates of heaven Judge Judith Sheindlin will not be there to judge us.” Same.)

4. Richard Schiffman’s “Making Playgrounds a Little More Dangerous” features an image of a playground with a sign posted out front that reads, “Your children are fine without advice and suggestions.” That pretty much captures the spirit of the piece, which advocates for free(r) play, and argues that ‘risk’ is a social benefit for both children and their parents. Schiffman describes playgrounds that look more like junkyards, without swingsets and monkey bars, that feature instead car tires, hammers, nails, wooden boards, etc. These, apparently, prove more advantageous (not to mention exciting) for the littles:

…children seek out rough and tumble play, climbing to heights and moving their bodies at high speed — activities that are a critical way that children learn about risks and cope with fears.

When we prevent them from doing these things, they get bored, and are tempted to perform rash stunts like turning somersaults on top of climbing frames and standing on the shoulders of others on the swings, Dr. Sandseter said.

This daredevil behavior born of frustration is a main cause of playground accidents, said Mariana Brussoni, a scientist with the Child & Family Research Institute in Vancouver, British Columbia.

In one study, between junkyard playgrounds and ‘safer’ traditional ones, children sustained less injuries in the former: “‘I came to the counterintuitive conclusion that engaging in risk is actually very important in preventing injuries,’ said Dr. Brussoni.” When it comes to human beings, doubling-down on restrictions is not always the best way to safeguard; or as David Zahl has said, “Protectiveness does not always protect.”

Related, from The Hard Times: “Mom Just Calling to See if You Saw Her Text About Voicemail She Left.” “For her part, Mallory claimed she respectfully restrained herself, as she was tempted to try yet again to contact her daughter but ‘…didn’t want to be pushy.’”

5. Compare all of this to a new study suggesting that what may look like narcissistic self-concern may, under its surface, be a harried response to the inundation of social demands. Consider:

The current generation of parents can be seen as responding in kind to the pressure to produce children who meet society’s unrealistic standards. Their tendency to “over-parent,” as some have charged them with, may be seen not as a narcissistic attempt to have their children reflect themselves, but perhaps the more universally held value among parents to have happy children who will do well in life.

But where does “do well” end and “excel” begin? At what point can a parent know she has done “enough”? Today achievement is so often arrived at by besting others, or demonstrating some exceptionalism. In Susan Whitbourne’s words, “fostering competition in the search for individual achievement” leads to the feeling that “you need to be perfect, because you need to be better than everyone else” (cf. Alfie Kohn). This does not mean young parents and millennials are worse than every other generation, but that:

…young adults “are perceiving that their social context is increasingly demanding, that others judge them more harshly, and that they are increasingly inclined to display perfection as a means of securing approval…”

An entire generation does not, and cannot by definition, share identical personality attributes…your ability to be happy with yourself depends in part, but not entirely, on the happenstance of when you were born.

Lots of things to extrapolate from this, but one thing is, as with the breakfast situation described above, no human is a completely free agent but is greatly influenced by powers, or factors, out of their control such as where and in what time they were born. This speaks volumes toward a self-regard of mastery/control—and also gestures towards the reasonableness of surrender in the face of such factors. Indeed the rumors are true: no one is perfect, “no, not one.” So cut these kids a break (and yourself too).

6. Comics fans, look alive. In July comic book writer/artist Jonathan Hickman will return to the X-Men franchise. In an interview Hickman says he has plans for “a bold new era” that will leave a lasting impact on the Marvel mutants, for “years to come.” When asked to describe what this means—what his “version of the X-Men” is—Hickman responds:

Oh, I think the X-Men is about finding the family that you never knew you had. One that accepts you for who you are, who loves you at your best and worst, and who shares your dreams for what the world can be.

You know, everybody wants to love somebody, everyone wants to be loved, and it’s pretty great when you find both. Especially if you’re, say, a weirdo mutant with eyeballs covering your whole body.

7. What say we end with something biblical? This one’s lovely: for Crossway, Paul Zahl has written a brief, insightful interpretation of the book of Job, casting the classic text about suffering in light of the gospel. Picking up (as Ian did earlier this week) with Job’s explanation-happy friends, PZ writes:

Job’s indignant replies to his friends are justified. He accuses them of not taking his questions seriously enough, and rebukes them for not taking his suffering, and therefore human suffering in general, seriously enough. Job speaks rightly, we might say, as far as he goes. He lobs verbal grenades back at his three accusing friends and appears to beat them at their own game, which is accusation, defense, and counter-accusation.

From a gospel point of view, both Job and his friends argue on the wrong basis. Job accuses God; his friends defend God. But all four of them are viewing God in action-consequence terms. The gospel teaches a different version of God: God loves his own with a love that operates apart from and beyond questions of merit. “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8).



2 responses to “Another Week Ends: Breakfast of Lutherans, Celebrity Prayer Candles, Junkyard Playgrounds, All the Correct Opinions, and the X-Men Family”

  1. Alison Mary White says:

    I’ll light a Saint David Rose candle all day~

  2. Mathew Smith says:

    Hey!! That was good one.

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