Another Week Ends

1. Andrew Sullivan of The Daily Dish produced a stirring little meditation earlier this week […]

David Zahl / 12.2.11

1. Andrew Sullivan of The Daily Dish produced a stirring little meditation earlier this week which brought together two of our favorites, philosopher Michael Oakeshott and social psychologist Daniel Kahneman, under the dynamo Oakeshott-inspired title “The Deadliness of Doing.” He speaks about Oakeshott’s lifelong project of trying to recover was a way of doing things which was as unselfconscious as possible. It’s not terribly different from the dynamic described in Tullian Tchividjian’s book we reviewed earlier this week, that true spiritual progress consists in being liberated from self-reference as much as possible, i.e. becoming less fixated on the me-centered notion of “progress” altogether, as Zach suggested in his post this morning. Anyway, Sullivan’s piece is terrific and Pauline language abounds. The first quote below comes from Jim Holt’s review of Kahneman’s recent Thinking Fast and Slow in the NY Times. The second is Sullivan’s commentary on that quote:

[In his recent book Thinking Fast and Slow, Daniel] Kahneman cites research showing, for example, that a college student’s decision whether or not to repeat a spring-break vacation is determined by the peak-end rule applied to the previous vacation, not by how fun (or miserable) it actually was moment by moment. The remembering self exercises a sort of “tyranny” over the voiceless experiencing self. “Odd as it may seem,” Kahneman writes, “I am my remembering self, and the experiencing self, who does my living, is like a stranger to me.”

One sentence keeps ringing: “The experiencing self is like a stranger to me.” And when you try to think your way through life, rather than allowing oneself to experience it, you will become unhappy, confused, even angry. And that particular unhappiness is a good, working definition of alienation or sin: “I do what I hate”, as the oldest son says, like Augustine, in “Tree of Life.”

2. Some wonderful Advent reading from 2012 Mbird Conference speaker Michael Horton in the new issue of Christianity Today, “Why We Need Jesus.” One of the reasons we here at Mbird go to such pains to demonstrate the failure of reason and the ubiquity of bias, endlessly highlighting social science research on fallibility, is that it inevitably highlights the contrasting surprise and beauty of the Incarnation. Seriously:

We need to receive an external word from outside our hearts and to our hearts—one that stops our spin and gives us new hearts even as it is spoken. In other words, our hearts create spiritualities, therapies, and programs that arise out of our natural knowledge of the law, which we distort. Outside our hearts, and at the core of special revelation, is the surprising God, known uniquely in his Son.

This is partly why the gospel is scandalous: not because it’s irrational and subjective, but precisely because here, faith refuses to remain on the Alcatraz of private opinion. The gospel is also a scandal because of what it announces: a radical rescue operation amid a radical problem… The gospel exposes that our claim to be defenders of reason is based on an irrational decision to ignore history and to stand in defiance of our own intuition that we are shipwrecked and need rescue.

3. In The New Yorker, Adam Gopnik explores the allure of young-adult epic fantasy fiction (from Tolkien to Stephenie Meyer) in his article, “The Dragon’s Egg.” He may misread Tolkien pretty egregiously (LOTR characters apparently never experience self-doubt and are all eith purely good or purely evil – whaaaat?!), but his thoughts on the abreactive role these stories play in the lives of adolescents is insightful:

“There’s also a sense in which the books, far from being escapist, offer familiar experience in intensified form. Some popular fiction really is straightforwardly escapist; no one’s life is like James Bond’s. We read it to be it. But we all see our lives from the inside to be those of lost kings, orphaned boys. We read such stories because we think we already are it. You don’t “identify” with Sherlock Holmes; you can’t not identify with Luke Skywalker… Adolescent boys, of the kind who take up books in the first place these days, already experience their lives as a series of ordeals: tests, in every sense. A narrative whose purpose is not to push the hero or heroine toward a moment of moral crisis, à la “Huckleberry Finn” or “Little Women,” but to put him through a telescoped series of ordeals, which aim only at preparing him for the next series of ordeals: this is the story of their life.

4. Over in The NY Times, there’s the powerful and deeply gracious story of Milton Greek, a recovering schizophrenic, “Finding Purpose After Living with Delusion.” At his darkest moment, a breakthrough comes when a community listens to his delusions and doesn’t balk, when they take the content seriously and patiently enough for him to receive their response as loving. This constituted a departure from the normative institutional approach, which viewed the psychosis as something not to be engaged at all. Suffice it to say, there’s a strong Beyond Deserving component to Greek’s turnaround (as one expert in the article says, the goal here is “to find ways to make [schizophrenics] feel safe when they believe they are being persecuted by malevolent forces”), but it’s also a portrait of a man who has to live in the daily reality of being simultaneously psychotic and lucid, ht JC:

It was 1984, [Greek] had begged his way back into Ohio University for graduate studies in sociology, still lost in his own mind, his thoughts turning darker by the day. He was alienating classmates, professors, friends.

About the only exception was Ms. Holley, a graduate student some 15 years his senior who enjoyed his company, and one day he decided to visit the commune where she lived, with her family and several other families. It took him two days to find it, the first spent wandering the misty woods until dark in a waking, delusional dream, and the second stumbling into a clearing just off Hooper Ridge Road, where Ms. Holley and her friends took him in.

Over the next several months they sat with him, accepted him as a member of the tribe, and encouraged his mission to improve the world at face value. And save his life they probably did, in part by suggesting that he seek help. It was Ms. Holley who delivered the message. “I trusted her completely, so when she said I was hallucinating — when she used the word ‘hallucination’ — I knew it was true,” Mr. Greek said. “I would have to give the medication another try.”


5. The David Foster Wallace archive recently released some of his undergraduate teaching syllabi, as well as his annotated copies of the books he was using in his classes, including The Lion The Witch and the Wardrobe. They are delightful, brimming with his characteristically frank yet compassionate overqualifications. Katie Rophie at Slate gives a rundown worth reading:

“Even in a seminar class,” his syllabus states, “it seems a little silly to require participation. Some students who are cripplingly shy, or who can’t always formulate their best thoughts and questions in the rapid back-and-forth of a group discussion, are nevertheless good and serious students. On the other hand, as Prof — points out supra, our class can’t really function if there isn’t student participation—it will become just me giving a half-assed ad-lib lecture for 90 minutes, which (trust me) will be horrible in all kinds of ways.”

“This does not mean we have to sit around smiling sweetly at one another for three hours a week. … In class you are invited (more like urged) to disagree with one another and with me—and I get to disagree with you—provided we are all respectful of each other and not snide, savage or abusive. … In other words, English 102 is not just a Find-Out-What-The-Teacher-Thinks-And-Regurgitate-It-Back-at-Him course. It’s not like math or physics—there are no right or wrong answers (though there are interesting versus dull, fertile versus barren, plausible versus whacko answers).”

6. Speaking of nice guys, Jonah Lehrer reports on a recent study that concluded that they do, indeed, finish last. At least financially. Sort of makes one want to sing Psalm 93:

It turns out Durocher and all those pessimists were right: nice guys really do finish last, or at least make significantly less money… Although agreeable people are less likely to get fired, and are just as likely to supervise others, they appear far less effective at negotiating pay increases, thus suggesting that the main financial benefit of disagreeableness is a willingness to stubbornly fight for what’s wanted, even if it makes others uncomfortable. In addition, the researchers argue that agreeableness is particularly costly for men because it violates our gender expectations. Since we assume men will selfishly pursue their interests – please pardon the lazy generalizations – we tend to look down on those who do not, which leads to a “backlash” against unselfish and altruistic men. In other words, we expect the worst and punish the best.

7. Andrew Ferguson at The Weekly Standard published a wonderful piece on the religious life of George Harrison, “George’s God,” which includes many of the highlights from the recent Scorcese-directed documentary on the Quiet/Best Beatle, ht CR:

The theme that emerges from this dog’s breakfast involves Harrison’s split personality—or as he might prefer to put it, his dual nature, the yin and yang—as a religious seeker on the one side and a decadent, heedless rock star on the other. If you had even a passing acquaintance with Harrison’s career you know about the religion part, but nobody in the movie or book ever gets specific enough to fill us in on the other half. “He had two personalities,” Ringo says. “One was this bag of [prayer] beads, the other was this big bag of anger.” Yoko Ono seconds that emotion: “He had two aspects,” she says. “Sometimes he was very nice. Sometimes he was [long pause] too honest.”

One of George Harrison’s most appealing traits was self-awareness. He would have seen (and said) how absurd such talk was. “I was never a real guitarist,” he once told his friend Klaus Voormann… He made many marvelous records, but as a source of fresh musical ideas, he said, “I’m not really that good.” You could say the same for pretty much anyone who ever wrote a rock song, which is an extremely forgiving art form, but you can’t imagine anyone else who ever wrote a rock song admitting it.Whether his religion led him to his clear-eyed modesty, or it worked the other way around, the two were connected. Along with the humility, his unapologetic religious faith made him the most unlikely rock star in history.

[Harrison was once quoted as saying,] “By having money, we found that money wasn’t the answer. We had lots of material things that people can spend their whole lives to get. And it was good, but we still lacked something. And that something is what religion is trying to give to people.”

8. Thanksgiving may be behind us, but it would be a shame not to mention a couple of the Onion headlines that were featured this year. It’s brilliant stuff, “95 Percent of Opinions Withheld on Visit to Family” and “Study Finds Link Between Red Wine, Letting Mother Know What You Really Think” being two personal favorites from the archives.

9. Finally, there’s “Truth, Jawlines and the American Way: The Changing Face of Superman.”



P.S. We sent out our big year-end letter/appeal today! If you’d like to receive a copy, be sure to sign up for our mailing list.

P.P.S. Something very exciting is coming on Monday – watch this space…