Another Week Ends

1. Will COVID cancel Christmas this year? I certainly hope not, but that’s what Giles […]

Todd Brewer / 10.16.20

1. Will COVID cancel Christmas this year? I certainly hope not, but that’s what Giles Fraser asks in his latest at UnHerd. Much about this year’s celebration will undoubtedly be different, if not cancelled; [The Grinch] COVID might steal our banquets, caroling, pageants, and large gatherings, but perhaps this year the pathos and joy of the season might be genuinely heard.

There have always been two Christmases, of course — the Christian one and the secular one — and they exist in an uneasy yet symbiotic relationship. The Church grumbles that Christmas has become too commercialised and ever so slightly resents the appearance of drunken strangers sniggering at the back of at midnight mass.

For their part, the non-churchgoing world complains when the Church refuses to acquiesce to the season of generalised sentimental benevolence that is used to sell hard-up people stuff to give to people who don’t really want it. It’s a season they believe starts sometime at the beginning of December (but about now in the shops) and which ends with a roasted bird and an orgy of ripped paper. Indeed, even the timetables of these two Christmases are entirely different. The Christian Christmas begins the very day that the secular one ends. As the star appears over the stable, most people are snoozing on the sofa. […]

By the time the Church reads out the story of Jesus and his family running away to Egypt to escape Herod’s murderous rage, the folk religion bandwagon is already packing up its toys for another year. They have missed the point that the vulnerability of the infant to worldly violence is a sinister prefiguration of the bloody end this child will one day meet. It’s not just a festival of bouncing babies. It’s a festival that prefigures the shadow of death.

And it’s important to get that bit because otherwise the message of the angels — “fear not” — doesn’t really make much sense. “Fear not” said he “for mighty dread had seized their troubled mind,” we will sing. And what more appropriate message could there be as we prepare once again to walk through the shadow of death, as Covid stalks our land?

Christmas is not an escapist fantasy that gives us all a little break from the gloom in which we are enveloped. It is a direct response to the land of death. As St John puts it in that famous reading that ends every carol service: “What has come into being with him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it.” […]

I do not subscribe to all the religious snobbishness about folk religion. Nonetheless, there is potentially much to be gained by the cancellation of all that cheap Christmas cheer that takes place mid-December. The light appears to those living in darkness. If we can allow ourselves to stay in this dark place a while longer, without easy distractions or analgesics, we might hear a very different story to the one we think we know.

2. This week’s parenting deep dive comes via Agnes Callard in The Point, and wow is it a doozy. While current parenting debates can be categorized as a contest between helicopter and free-range parents, Callard believes both operate under the same guiding principle, what she calls “acceptance parenting.” While they might differ regarding the degree to which parents are involved in the management of a child’s life, they equally believe that parenting is meant to facilitate a child’s own self-discovery — their likes and dislikes, hobbies, career goals, and ultimately their own definition of happiness. In both cases, it’s the child that’s really driving the train, and parents are left in the dark about how to be parents. Such a disempowerment of parents ultimately makes raising a child more difficult and stressful for parents (and I might add, places a heavy burden squarely onto one’s children). In Mockingbird terms, the acceptance parenting model seems to be less about what’s best for the child and more a desire by parents to avoid the judgments of their future children, thereby shifting blame for (inevitable) failures onto the children themselves.

Why can’t parents be trusted to simply praise what they think is praiseworthy and blame what is blameworthy? The answer is that praise and blame are ways of directing children, telling them which direction to go in and what outcomes to avoid. Acceptance parents know that they don’t know the answer to those questions. The inclination to look to scientists for guidance in everything from baby sleep to teenager management suggests a self-awareness, on the part of parents, of our ignorance.

Parents have always justified themselves with reference to the future — you’ll thank me later! — and parents have always aimed at the happiness of their child. What’s radically new is not, at heart, how concerned or permissive we’ve become, but how fully we have given over to our children the job of defining “happiness.” For acceptance parents, neither instinct nor culture is a sufficient guide to what counts as acceptable behavior in a child. Instead of being able to draw on culture and tradition to set standards relative to which children are to be assessed, those standards now come from the people they are to be applied to — more specifically, from future, which is to say, not yet existent, versions of those people.

Traditional parents were in the business of handing to their children a settled way of life: values, habits, standards, practices, skills, sometimes a job. On this older picture, it was the role of the parent to give — “tradition” comes from tradere, “to hand over” — and the child to accept, obediently. If I were a traditional parent, I would be trying to give my child some version of my life; as an acceptance parent, I am trying to give my child something I don’t have and am not familiar with — his life.

And yet parental resources are no greater than they have ever been. Apart from some desperate attempts at supplementation — all those after-school activities parents are mocked for enrolling children in — all that each of us has to give remains her own values and standards and practices and skills. The only thing we can change is how we “give” them, and so we’ve come to make our offerings with circumspection and delicacy. We hover around our children attentively, experimenting with what will or won’t “take.” Even though we acceptance parents are committed to tolerance, our resources are no less constrained than those of traditional parents: we are able to tolerate what we independently find tolerable. The difference is that now, when our children transgress our boundaries, we no longer feel sure whose side we should be on. Like all forms of freedom, acceptance parenting makes life more, and not less, stressful. If the parent is demoted from wise authority figure to tentative spokesperson for the child’s future self, childhood and child-rearing become a nerve-wracking quest to find one’s own footing.

3. Over at Rooted Ministry, Charlotte Getz posted  a great article summarizing/quoting a recent talk DZ gave on “Law and Gospel in Youth Ministry” that is well-worth your time.

The law and gospel distinction has less to do with imposing a straightjacket on the Bible text than engaging with a living God. If anything, reading the Bible through the lens of law and gospel safeguards the Word from being read predominantly as an instruction manual — basically the default of teenagers — rather as a living instrument of the Spirit that proclaims God’s work in the world on behalf of sinners in need of saving.

Indeed, the distinction between law and gospel is a powerful explanation of how the Bible doesn’t just sit there; it reaches out and grasps us, shakes us, transforms us, frees us — it kills us and makes us alive.

…The basic demarcation is straightforward: The law tells us what we ought to do; the gospel tells us what God has done. The law shows us that we need to be forgiven; the gospel announces we have been forgiven. The law paves the way for the gospel by revealing our plight, and the gospel proclaims the good news to those struck down by the law. But there’s more to it than that.

The second word, gospel, means good news. News is not command. Command comes in the imperative voice — “Do this” — and news in the indicative voice — “This has been done.” For Christians, of course, the good news is Jesus Christ, who died and rose again, taking the whole of God’s wrath upon himself and setting us free. The gospel announces that on account of Christ’s death and resurrection, we are justified by grace through faith: not by what we do, or even by who we are, but by what Christ has done and who he is. It is a gift with no strings attached, a great and glorious surprise. Our guilt has been atoned for and the deepest judgment satisfied, opening up the reconciliation of sinners with a holy God and life eternal.

4. It would be tempting, as the calendar marches onwards towards 2021, to view this year as a nightmare that will soon pass and quickly be forgotten. Take a mulligan year and try again as if the 2020 hellscape never happened. Writing for 1517 this week, Chad Bird has other plans altogether: this year has been a great year for the church to rediscover some of its central beliefs about sin, repentance, and redemption.

Neither this global pandemic, the gross injustices, the racial tensions, the mad riots, the macabre political theatre, not even Tiger King should have shocked anyone, especially those schooled in the Torah and the prophets. All human history, from Cain and Abel onward, has amply demonstrated that destruction and stupidity, navel-gazing and bloodshed, the ubiquity of fools, and the thin veneer between civilization and anarchy is the norm, not the exception.

This year just happens to be a rather colorful sampling of our commonly shared low anthropology. Welcome to Humanity 101. And don’t worry: it won’t get better. […]

And yet …

[W]e are not the Church of Chicken Little but the Church of Jesus Christ. We do not run around screaming that “the sky is falling.” There is no panic in heaven. Jesus has no sweaty armpits as he surveys our world. Over the chaos of this world reigns the King of kings, Jesus the Resurrected, before whom every knee will eventually bow, whether they like it or not. Every governmental authority now — presidents, kings, prime ministers, you name it — are in lame-duck administrations. Their time is ending. Put not your trust in politicians or parties or ballot boxes. Christ and his kingdom are everlasting. And into that kingdom he calls us all to find forgiveness, life, and peace.

5. Over at Mere Orthodoxy, Laura Cerbus sets the life and works of Emily Dickinson alongside the book of Job and the result is a fascinating discussion on divine providence amid disaster. Whereas we might equate natural causation (how something occurs) with explanations for why it must be so, both Dickinson and the book of Job see the hand of God in all things, whether good or ill.

Question upon question upon question, God leaves Job — and no doubt the reader, as well — silent. Who is Job to question God? Perhaps Dickinson was right — God is a tyrant, and when questioned, he refuses to answer the questions. Instead, he scoffs at Job’s insignificance next to his own omnipotence.

Or does he? God’s questions offer a litany of the breadth and depth of the natural world. Throughout, God communicates a tender, intimate knowledge of his creation. From the birthing of mountain goats and deer, to the provision of food for the raven’s young, to the soaring eagle and hawk, to the singing of the morning stars, God makes his purpose clear: he sustains and nurtures creation. He is not a distant, indifferent God, but one who intimately knows his creation, cares for it, and works for its blessing. Moreover, the lyricism of God’s speeches “changes the discourse from that of rationality and argument to that of delight and praise.” God did not order the world only to step away in aloofness. Rather, God delights in what he made and continues to sustain it with loving care.

Yet God’s delight in the world does not erase its gruesome and awful realities. He does not proclaim, “Look at me,” as a reverse Wizard-of-Oz trick that tries to convince us to pay no attention to any ugly thing that we see. […]

The foolishness and cruelty of the ostrich, God says, are in my hands. And for this He offers no explanation, no way for the ostrich’s behavior to be redeemed. God is not perturbed by the seeming inconsistencies of the natural world. And in the end, Job puts aside his case and worships.

I’m not sure what Dickinson thought of Job’s humility and worship at the conclusion of the book. It’s hard not to imagine that she would have seen Job as another Abraham, another person who “flattered [God] by obeisance.” She refuses any such flattery, unconvinced that the evidence she saw was anything but damning. […] Paradoxically, although she understood her work to be resistance in the face of “tyranny,” she was in fact working in harmony with the goodness and beauty of God.

6. Lots to digest in this next one in Quillette … Rather than living in a post-truth society (as many have claimed), Keith Stanovich believes we suffer from what is called a “myside bias.”  People still believe in the idea of truth, but only their truth, with opposing voices dismissed as falsehoods. Actions by my crowd are righteous, while the very same actions by other tribes are deemed unrighteous. We create a self-reinforcing feedback loop of information and beliefs, entirely precluding the possibility that we might change our mind. This innate and natural cognitive process has become socially normalized through social media and cultural biases, further deepening the cultural divide. Myside bias sounds a whole lot like 2020. Stanovich’s analysis of the problem is wide-ranging, but the solution he proposes is worth underscoring:

When I talk to lay audiences about different types of cognitive processes, I use the example of broccoli and ice cream. Some cognitive processes are demanding but necessary. They are the broccoli. Other thinking tendencies come naturally to us and they are not cognitively demanding processes. They are the ice cream. In lectures, I point out that broccoli needs a cheerleader, but ice cream does not. This is why education rightly emphasizes the broccoli side of thinking — why it stresses the psychologically demanding types of thinking that people need encouragement to practice.

Perspective switching, for example, is a type of cognitive broccoli. Taking a person out of the comfort zone of their identities, or those of their tribes, was once seen as one of the key purposes of a university education. […] No one needs to be taught to luxuriate in the safety of perspectives they have long held. It is something we will all naturally do. Instead, students need to be taught that, in the long run, myside processing will never lead them to a deep understanding of the world in which they live.

7. In humor this week, “Sorry I’m Late, I Was Praying to God for the First Time” is just perfect. And Retructress‘s “How to be More Like Emily in Paris When You’re Feeling Like Courtney in Rochester” is a great antidote to those stuck on Instagram. Lastly, the New Yorker has a fun guide to birthday parties for those of us trending toward the dreaded “middle age.”


  • The New Yorker featured an outstanding article on (Saint) Dolly Parton outlining her long career in country music and distinctly apolitical appeal.
  • The letters of poet John Berryman have recently been published, and the tumult of his life (going all the way back to his father’s suicide) offer a compelling window into the creator of such unnerving and ecstatic verse.
  • Research says that going to church might just be as good as drugs, and it’s not the funky incense.
  • The sad (and hilarious) playground photos come via Sad and Useless.
  • Our friends over at Think Christian have published a collection of essays on the Psalms. For a free preview, sign up here.

And finally — David Zahl is speaking at 1517’s digital conference “Here We Still Stand.” His talk, “Freedom and Why We’re Afraid of It,” airs today at 3:00pm (EDT). To hear him and other outstanding speakers, register here for free! To see the full lineup and schedule, click here.

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4 responses to “Another Week Ends: Canceling Christmas, Acceptance Parenting, Emily Dickinson, the Church in 2020, Law and Gospel, and Myside Bias”

  1. David Clay says:

    Wow. I kept waiting for the punch line in the “Sorry I’m late” Reductress piece, and it never came. That was actually genuine and hopefully what a lot of otherwise secular folks are experiencing this year.

  2. David Zahl says:

    Jam-packed this week! Thank you, Todd, so much.

  3. Robin Lutjohann says:

    Mid-December? I think he means early November, which is when secular Christmas starts in the US. But actually, I can’t wait. I desperately need the kitsch of THAT Christmas this year. I need both.

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