Another Week Ends

Before we dive in, two big bits of Mockingbird news for you that dropped earlier […]

Bryan J. / 2.26.21

Before we dive in, two big bits of Mockingbird news for you that dropped earlier this week. Pre-Registration is now open for #MbirdTyler21, and you can check out for the latest info on our in-person-and-also-streaming gathering.

Also, the latest Mockingbird podcast project, The Brothers Zahl, dropped this week. It’s a great introduction to the Mockingbird goal of connecting the faith to everyday life, whether that’s critiquing Ludwig Feuerbach’s The Essence of Christianity or confessing a shared love of the Paul Rudd movie My Idiot Brother. Now, back to our regularly scheduled weekender:

1. At the Hedgehog Review, Elizabeth Bruenig writes about the unseen benefits of having the devil around. Not literally around, of course, but she wonders if our current pop culture understandings of the adversary are spiritually toxic in ways we haven’t fully considered. After comparing Fox’s Lucifer with True Detective and Hannibal, she surmises that pop-culture depictions of the devil, to us moderns who do not believe in such a thing, actually obscures the thing they describe. Real evil, then, hides itself in plain sight:

But in entertainment like True Detective and Hannibal, the massive, amorphous, and conspiratorial is reduced ultimately to the individual. There is always a killer or a handful of them; there is always a breakthrough, a clue, a culprit. All of the evil in the world that is ambient and ever-present but impossible to characterize or categorize is condensed into one or two bad actors whose discovery and extermination cleanses society and expiates the viewer’s own guilt. With very few opportunities to confront the true moral stakes of life — the fact that, obvious or not, evil is real and is imminent and can pull you down like quicksand — these depictions provide a way for us to touch this reality, however briefly, and emerge with clarity. When the devil was still feared, he and his narratives served this purpose; this is why Delbanco mourns his passing, and why, I suspect, Satan still lingers vestigially in our best efforts to depict evil.

Entertain a thought experiment: Suppose that the devil really was real, and so was evil, and the complex systems of politics and society were not morally neutral but as rife with moral intent and meaning as anything else made by human hands. If all that were the case, wouldn’t these pop-culture glances at evil provide the thrill of confrontation without shedding any light on the confusion that necessitated them? I wonder if all this expiation without exposition is really any better than the neat-looking devil with his good intentions and half-tragic pose. What if, with all our catharsis, we’re surrendering more of evil daily to the realm of fiction — confirming the (admittedly pleasant) notion that real, radical evil is mostly if not totally the stuff of the imagination? To do so would be dangerous indeed. It would be, as Charles Baudelaire might observe, the finest trick the devil ever played.

This is a serious critique of not only fictional depictions of evil, but also of modern morality. We perhaps love a good devil narrative (whether it be Voldemort, Sauron, a politician, a hedge fund manager, or a tech company) precisely because it obscures the pervasiveness of evil and our own entanglement within its systemic corruption.

To slough our social and personal problems onto a devil, who is then tracked down by a society’s agent of justice and defeated, certainly feels like an expiation of sorts. But at the end of the day, as SNL reminds us, the devil can’t write love songs.

2. Matt Ortile’s column over at Catapult, “Grief at a Distance,” won us over this week with his observations about grief and video games. The Mockingcast trio plan to discuss it on their next episode. Ortile makes the connection that, in video games, a parent’s death is often an obstacle to overcome or the catalyst for the protagonist’s victory. In real life, as he finds some solace in gaming, his mother’s death is wholly different.

To seek a similar grand purpose in losing Mom is a fool’s errand. My foolish theories: 1) I published my first memoir too young, at twenty-eight, and God wanted to give me more material. 2) My guardian angel was laid off and God headhunted my mother. 3) God wanted her all to Himself, so He took her away from me. (I’m a lapsed Catholic. She’ll be happy to see me acknowledging His existence.) But 2020, that persistent antagonist, taught me that people die — randomly, senselessly. The fatalistic side of me says, given our family’s medical history, this was always going to happen. Mom always believed everything happens for a reason. I’ve yet to be clued in. […]

My working hypothesis: Grief is not something to conquer, to defeat; after you lose someone, the goal is not to win. Mom’s death doesn’t make me “more interesting,” and there’s no neat answer as to why it happened. But my choices still affect my narrative, the one storyline I get. For now, at least, I choose to walk ahead with grief alongside, to accept its companionship, for it stands where she once stood. I choose to ask it questions, to welcome comfort when I find it.

3. Our own David Zahl sat down with contributor Connor Gwin this week to talk to Christ Church Charlotte about grace in relationships and living in a merit based world.

4. There’s bound to be something in an article titled “Go Ahead and Fail,” which is the headline of the latest essay from Arthur Brooks in his weekly “Happiness” column. After outlining the statistical insights behind a fear of failure (perfectionism being a chief culprit), he offers this secular take on the matter. And, to his credit, the real devil makes an appearance:

In Dante’s Divine Comedy, Satan is depicted as a victim of his terrible pride by being frozen from the waist down — fixed and in agony — in ice of his own making. Fear of failure and perfectionism are like that prideful sea of ice, freezing you in place with thoughts of what others will think of you — or, worse, what you will think of yourself — if you do not succeed at something.

There is a solution that follows Dante’s Catholic sensibility, but that in reality need not be religious at all. [Editor’s note: Good luck!] An early-20th-century Spanish cardinal, Rafael Merry del Val y Zulueta, composed a beautiful prayer called the “Litany of Humility.” The prayer does not ask that we be spared humiliation, but that we be given the grace to deal with the fear: “From the fear of being humiliated, / Deliver me, O Jesus.” It continues: Deliver me from the fear of being despised. From the fear of suffering rebukes. From the fear of being calumniated. From the fear of being forgotten. And from the fear of being ridiculed. […]

If all of the above strategies seem too time consuming, there is one last, tried-and-true method to develop courage in the face of failure: fail. And then, survive what the dark unknown truly holds. That is what eventually cured me. […]

I was slotted to give a short speech — maybe two minutes — about a piece my ensemble was to play. I stepped out of my chair and walked to the front of the stage, shaking in fear. Then I lost my footing, and literally fell into the audience. Decades later, I can still see it happening, in slow motion. As the audience gasped, I jumped up, my horn badly damaged and my arm injured, and shouted, ridiculously and implausibly, “I’m okay, folks!”

Years later, I look back on that experience and laugh. But it wasn’t just funny — it was an incredible gift. Since scoring a perfect 10 in humiliation that day, I care very little about looking ridiculous. I take more risks and show my personality in ways I don’t think I would otherwise. Failure set me free.

For Brooks, it was tripping off the stage in Carnegie Hall. For me, it was a church plant that didn’t stick. For you, it could be anything. But the advice to embrace humiliation, to recognize it as a core part of human existence and receive it as a gift for a humbler future, is good no matter who you are.

5. And now, the curmudgeon existentialist Werner Herzog reviews TikTok videos:

I am enjoying this sea shanty, created by nathanevan55 during this time of rampant coronavirus infections. The origin of the shanty lies with the sailor, who skirts the surface of the ocean, his soul coiled and tensed with the knowledge of the chaos beneath the waves. He works to relieve the anxiety, and sings to meter the work, and in singing he is brought closer to his fellow sailor, who wishes also to forget that beneath his feet is a harsh and unforgiving void that will snuff him out like a matchstick lit in a heavy gale. This shanty, sung now, reflects our collective striving against an inner decay of exhaustion and fear. I shall sing it now, as well.

Elsewhere, the Hard TimesOn the 7th Day God Rested, That Means There’s a Way To Kill Him” is a humorous take on sin. And McSweeney’s “I’m a Short Afternoon Walk and You’re Putting Way Too Much Pressure on Me” brilliantly tells it like it is.

And if you’re in need for new language to describe the experience of Coronatide, the glorious tradition of German compound words has you covered. According to Slate, there are nearly 1000 new German words that have been created to describe this quarantine era. New words I learned from this article:

Hamsterkauf, “hamster buying” — buying more than you need in the manner of a hamster who fills its mouth stuffed with food.

Impfneid, “vaccine envy” — Envy that someone else received the vaccine before you.

Spuckshutztrennscheibe, “spittle protection separation pane” — the plexiglass barrier erected to keep airborne virus transmission from infecting the staff at a bank or grocery store.

6. The New Yorker reviewed the latest from Julien Baker, calling her new album Little Oblivions Songs of Addiction and Redemption.” Baker teased this release last fall, and the album finally arrived yesterday. So far, the reviews are quite promising:

On “Little Oblivions,” some of Baker’s early rebelliousness remerges. She’s made mistakes, and maybe even hurt people, but she hasn’t stopped believing in her own capacity for penance and redemption. “It’s the mercy I can’t take,” she sings, on a track called “Song in E.”

Baker is back in recovery — she first quit drinking and drugs in her late teens — and “Little Oblivions” is, in many ways, a wounded elegy for the blurry retreat of inebriation. Baker started smoking cigarettes when she was twelve, emulating the older kids at her bus stop, and then experimented with alcohol, weed, and prescription medication. It’s easy to overlook burgeoning addiction in a kid. She told GQ, in 2019, “That cultural categorization of substance abuse as the taboo but expected misbehavior of children contributed to me having a warped sort of denial.” These days, she is careful not to overstate the importance of her sobriety, telling Rolling Stone, last year, “I don’t want to construct a narrative of this sort of oscillating prodigal redemption.” Still, the truth of intoxication — how treacherously good it can feel to loosen one’s grip on reality, even briefly — is one of the central themes of the record. Baker is interested in the paradox of addiction: an addict most wants the thing that will eventually kill her.

In other entertainment news, WandaVision continues its twisty-turney fun, though the stakes are raised weekly, and it’s hard to get a bead on what the show’s outcome will be. What started off as a tremendous Greek myth about the power of grief and the relationship between pain and control may yet be something entirely different. Regardless, the show has been a delight to watch, a love-letter to television throughout the ages and an exploration of the ultimately less-than-helpful ways we cope with loss.

7. The last word this week goes to Fr. Stephen Freeman, our go-to voice for grace from the Orthodox perspective, though in his recent column “Healing the Inner Pharisee,” he quoted a Lutheran hymn. Ecumenism is a beautiful thing! In all seriousness, his thoughts are worth your time, especially if you remember the word that knocked you out of the spelling bee (for me, it was 1st grade and the word was lettuce), or if your inner-critical voice has taken control this pandemic season.

I have a very vivid memory of the only word I messed up in a first grade reading group: cupboard. I read, “Cup board.” Old Mother Hubbard would have been dismayed. In the same manner, I remember the word that brought my spelling bee prowess to an end in sixth grade: restaurant. Silly things of no importance, and yet, such memories remain and can carry a sting with them. They are sorts of things that nurture and build an inner Pharisee.

It is not unusual in confession to hear someone say that they are “judging others.” Whenever I hear this, I generally assume that the one who is being judged most harshly is the person who is confessing. The “judging” that takes place in our minds is the sound of an “inner critic,” a voice that begins early in childhood and can continue to torment us throughout our lives. It is, of course, rooted in shame, but can be a painful, even nasty voice that is harsh, unfair, and unrelenting. […]

In His crucifixion, Christ makes Himself responsible for the sins of all. We cannot be crucified with Him and do less.

The sins of the world can be something of an abstraction. It is likely easier to make ourselves responsible for those sins than to stand in the flames of our personal shame. When we “bear our shame,” whether in a setting such as confession, in the security of a therapeutic conversation, within the intimacy of a trusted relationship, or even as we stand alone before God and pray, we experience pain. Our face burns, we avert our eyes, tears may come as well. But just beyond and beneath that burning lies the truth. These tears, this pain, is Christ in us. It is little wonder that His first words of greeting in the resurrection are, “Peace be with you.”



One response to “Another Week Ends: Grief and Gaming, the Hidden Devil, Embracing Humiliation, New Julien Baker, and Losing the Spelling Bee”

  1. ceej says:

    Great stuff, Bryan! So much here—thanks. I have been loving the Julien Baker album & reading about it… couldn’t help sharing this as well. It is so Mockingbird. From her interview with Stereogum.

    BAKER: … on Turn Out the Lights, I felt a need to craft songs in a way that weren’t angry and were somehow helpful or redemptive.…I felt like, basically, I had tried to live my life as an extension of my faith, however non-traditional my practices of having a relationship with God were. But I wasn’t for all of this fixation on what God wanted me to do. I wasn’t able anymore to use that to make myself a better person. In fact, all I was able to use my ideals for were, showing me how I did not live up to any of them perfectly. So I think I angrily was just like, “I’m OK. I’m finished trying to be good. I can’t be good. I am a bad person.” Which of course, I don’t believe, but yeah, I’m an unhealed person still. And I fail at a lot of things. I don’t maybe necessarily feel that fatalistic about it now, but I certainly did when I wrote it.

    I guess as I understand the New Testament, isn’t that the whole thing? You admit you aren’t good, you come to the end of trying to be good, and you try to accept some mercy? Not that there’s no attempt to have some positive moral impact on the world, but you quite literally give up on the idea of living up to perfection.

    BAKER: Sure. Yes. Ideally, that’s how everyone would understand it. I’m thinking of the Marilyn Robinson book Gilead, where it’s like from the perspective of this pastor and he is basically writing in his journal. Like, “I don’t understand why people come to me every week.”

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