Another Week Ends

1) The Atlantic attempted a definition of “cool” this week, and it runs in tow […]

1) The Atlantic attempted a definition of “cool” this week, and it runs in tow with Shane Snow’s definition of humor in the New Yorker. Whereas humor can be defined as “benign violation,” cool is defined by Derek Thompson as “a measured violation of malign expectations.” Sounds good to me! Within this definition, cool is bound on both ends by law: cool is a response to some form of constraint or expectation, but it also must operate within an expected set of parameters in order for it to be seen as cool. If it operates beyond the parameters of its audience, it will only be received as irrelevant, or weird. Hence, the unseemliness of both the Nazareth Principle and the theology of the cross. (note: I don’t know if Derek really picked the ‘coolest’ dudes out there)

Where this definition of cool—iconoclastic, legitimate, and bounded—runs into trouble for me is the concept of success. Some people who break rules but don’t achieve success are seen as losers or failures. For others in the business world—Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, Mark Zuckerberg—it’s precisely their thrilling success more than their “bounded” “autonomy” that’s the real source of their coolness. They accomplished something. Warren and Campbell could argue that the real source of these CEOs’ cool factor is that they confront pre-existing norms. But every business confronts norms: You’re either creating market share or you’re stealing it. Autonomy is cool. But so is power and money, even when it creates or supports norms that iconoclasts want to destroy.

One of the most interesting implications of this research is what it means for marketing—particularly when trying to persuade young people who are more caught up in the race to be cool. For example, rather than browbeat teenage consumers with earnest pleas to not smoke or drive drunk, the paper recommends aligning negative behavior with a loser mainstream. In fact, that was the thesis behind The Truth’s famous campaign against smoking: Associate teenage smoking with an idiot conformity.


Speaking of cool, one of the malignest of ways not to be an Average Joe is to be a cultural connoisseur—to be validated by the News you know, the tweets you read, the obscure Reddit threads you stay up to date on. I’m not looking at anyone, people, not even myself. From The New York Times this weekend, we ask the question, “What’s behind my pretend cultural literacy?” In a time when “data has become our currency,” what does what we read say about us? And what does “knowing” something mean when reading it in full is out of the question? (This week’s-end-aggregated-blogpost doesn’t count, okay?)

THERE was a time when we knew where we were getting our ideas. In my eighth grade English class, we were assigned “A Tale of Two Cities,” and lest we enjoy the novel, we were instructed to read Charles Dickens’s classic with an eye toward tracking the symbolism in the text. One afternoon while I was in the library, struggling to find symbols, I ran into a few of my classmates, who removed from their pockets folded yellow and black pamphlets that read “Cliffs Notes” and beneath that the title of Dickens’s novel in block letters. That “study guide” was a revelation.

Here were the plot, the characters, even the symbols, all laid out in paragraphs and bullet points. I read the Cliffs Notes in one night, and wrote my B paper without finishing the novel. The lesson was not to immerse and get lost in the actual cultural document itself but to mine it for any valuable ore and minerals — data, factoids, what you need to know — and then trade them on the open market.

With the advent of each new technology — movable type, radio, television, the Internet — there have been laments that the end is nigh for illuminated manuscripts, for books, magazines and newspapers. What is different now is the ubiquity of the technology that is replacing every old medium.

The information is everywhere, a constant feed in our hands, in our pockets, on our desktops, our cars, even in the cloud. The data stream can’t be shut off. It pours into our lives a rising tide of words, facts, jokes, GIFs, gossip and commentary that threatens to drown us. Perhaps it is this fear of submersion that is behind this insistence that we’ve seen, we’ve read, we know. It’s a none-too-convincing assertion that we are still afloat. So here we are, desperately paddling, making observations about pop culture memes, because to admit that we’ve fallen behind, that we don’t know what anyone is talking about, that we have nothing to say about each passing blip on the screen, is to be dead.

And if you think any of this has to do with the law of busyness, well, here’s an article (to scan) called, “Is America Too Busy?”


2) “Dustup” is the right way to describe the whole Tullian Tchivijdian-Gospel Coalition rift, and all the talk that’s surfaced in the wake. Theologically, as Mark Galli points out here on Christianity Today, the distinctions are pointed around the idea of sanctification. Entitled, “Transformation Happens When?” Galli looks not into the externalities of the debate, but (refreshingly) into the internal reality of transformation as he has experienced it. It’s best to read in full, I must say.

This is not to say that we are not “being transformed … from one degree of glory to another” (2 Cor. 3:18, NRSV) even now. But it seems to me the greatest transformation is not necessarily in outward virtue, but in increasing levels of self-awareness—awareness of the depth of our sin—and consequently increasing repentance and humility. Not a humility that points to some virtue in our lives and says, “It wasn’t me, it was the Lord working through me,” but the deeper humility that sees the desperately wicked heart and desperately prays daily, “Lord, have mercy.”

This is the only approach to sanctification that makes sense to me, the only one that grounds me in gospel hope, and paradoxically continues to motivate me to strive for holiness. Not because I actually hope to achieve some level of holiness in this life. But because holy is what I am to become, so I might as well try to live that way now. That is who I am in Christ.

As for progress or lack thereof, I tend to avoid thinking about it much. I leave it in God’s hands. As for deciding whether my moral progress is the direct work of the Holy Spirit or the natural consequence of old age and learning from mistakes—that too is beyond my pay grade. My job is not to measure my holiness or that of others (“Do not judge”—Matt. 7:1), nor to despair when I continue to think and do awful things, nor to give others false hope. Our real hope—and the real reason for our lack of despair and our continuing joy—is the promise of future transformation in Christ.

3) This looks awesome:


4) After reading “The Empathy Exams,” I’m wondering if maybe empathy is a 2014 word. The Atlantic looks into what they call being “empathetically correct” over being “politically correct.” Like political correctness, in which sterile words incapacitate frank honesty, empathetic correctness is only allowing another to see what he or she already believes to be true. In the name of empathy, “trigger warnings” are being put on syllabi in colleges, because a particular reading might distress/depress/trouble the reader’s view of him/herself and the world.

The fact that this is done in the name of empathy is ironic, of course. And that this is done for the age of the “overprotected child,” is a no-brainer.

Flannery O’Connor—a writer whose works are rife with warning label-worthy violence—famously said that sentimentality always leads to the gas chamber. Without any external anchor in law, mores, or trusted guides—or any openness to being challenged in one’s thinking—empathy turned inward will lead each of us to our individual prisons of the self.

And this kind of sentimentality is the very kind of sentimentality that got Vonnegut’s books burned. His letter to the head of the school board that burned them (released in Shaun Usher’s new collection of letters) said as much:

[My books] beg that people be kinder and more responsible than they often are. It is true that some of the characters speak coarsely. That is because people speak coarsely in real life. Especially soldiers and hardworking men speak coarsely, and even our most sheltered children know that. And we all know, too, that those words really don’t damage children much. They didn’t damage us when we were young. It was evil deeds and lying that hurt us.

5) Ah-mazing, from The Onion: “Man Terrified to Realize He Easily Could Go On Like This” (ht JD).

FARMINGTON, NM—Despite being deeply dissatisfied with nearly every aspect of his life, local man Paul Gallardo told reporters Thursday that he was terrified to realize he could very easily continue to exist in such an unhappy state and probably would do so indefinitely.

Gallardo, a part-time file clerk who is unmarried and has few meaningful relationships of any kind, stated that although his personal and professional circumstances were an ongoing source of distress, he feared they would never be sufficiently unbearable to compel him to remedy his situation. According to Gallardo, after more than four decades of living with his painful but entirely manageable loneliness, he was unlikely to ever improve himself, a fact he said has filled him with dread.

“I’ve always been miserable, but I guess I haven’t been quite miserable enough to do anything about it,” said Gallardo, 44, who added that while his daily life is consistently unpleasant, he has never felt the need to abuse alcohol or drugs to numb his emotional anguish. “I still go to my awful job, still pay my rent, still eat a whole frozen pizza pretty much every night. I hate every minute of it, but it’s not making me panic or reassess my life or anything. I kind of wish it did, though.”

“And that’s what’s so scary,” continued Gallardo. “I’m sad, really sad, but I’m also pretty comfortable with everything. God, I hate to say it, but I could see myself doing this for years.”


6) And finally, a huge breath of fresh air coming for the Mommybloggers out there. Rage Against the Minivan released this “lifestyle” piece in all it’s honest glory, replete with pictures of what her house looks like every other day the sun-kissed chevron pillows are not properly placed. In a way, it is inspirational. Talk about empathy.

Then last week, someone sent me a link to a new online magazine for moms. In fact, that’s pretty much the title. I’m not naming it or linking to it because I don’t think these are bad people who need to be scolded, but let’s just say that it’s a magazine about motherhood that appears to only feature thin, beautiful moms with gorgeous houses and trendy clothing. Every story is artfully shot, every picture is pinterest-perfect. There are many posts about fashion, but clearly from a perspective that mothers can afford and are interested in designer clothing. There was even a round-up of hipster rompers. It’s clearly selling to a certain demographic, but it just made me uneasy. Because this is not what motherhood looks like for me. And I’m worried that there are just too many internet destinations selling an idealized version of motherhood that no one can live up to. Because motherhood is beautiful, but it’s also messy. In fact, I would even argue that happy family life SHOULD be messy. A lifestyle blog of only perfect moments is not a lifestyle I’m familiar with.


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One response to “Another Week Ends: Cultural Literati Pretenders, Fake Empathy, The Search for Cool (Moms), Kurt Vonnegut, Calvary, and the Gospel Dustups”

  1. B.I.C says:

    First, Ethan, Calvary does look amazing!

    Second, I read Galli’s article this morning and Tchvidjian’s reflections just now and I was impressed with the spirit of both. I hope some reconciliation can come of it all regardless of theological differences.

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