Another Week Ends

1. Lots to chew on this weekend, including this genuinely positive (and daring!) review of […]

Ethan Richardson / 9.20.19

1. Lots to chew on this weekend, including this genuinely positive (and daring!) review of a book we mentioned last week—Tom Holland’s Dominion—by one Mockingbird’s favorite atheists, John Gray, in the New Statesman. As DZ mentioned in his earlier post, Holland’s new book discusses how, despite the decline of Christendom in the West, Christianity is responsible for the historical framework that makes up modern secular liberalism, our democratic ideals, our humanitarian and egalitarian values. Values and philosophies that were vastly different from classical, “pagan” understandings of human worth. Gray agrees: 

Christianity, it seemed, had no need of actual Christians for its assumptions still to flourish… The trace elements of Christianity continued to infuse people’s morals and presumptions so utterly that many failed even to detect their presence. Like dust particles so fine as to be invisible to the naked eye, they were breathed in equally by everyone: believers, atheists and those who never paused to think about religion.

Secular liberals dismiss Christianity as a fairy tale, but their values and their view of history remain essentially Christian. The Christian story tells of the son of God being put to death on a cross. In the Roman world, this was the fate of criminals and those who challenged imperial power. Christianity brought with it a moral revolution. The powerless came to be seen as God’s children, and therefore deserving of respect as much as the highest in society. History was a drama of sin and redemption in which God – acting through his son – was on the side of the weak.

Modern progressive movements have renewed this sacred history, though it is no longer God but “humanity” – or its self-appointed representatives – that speaks for the powerless. In many ways, the West today is more fiercely self-righteous than it was when it was professedly Christian. The social justice warriors who denounce Western civilisation and demand that its sins be confessed and repented would not exist without the moral inheritance of Christianity. As Tom Holland writes, “Had it been otherwise, then no one would ever have got woke.”

Implied in this argument, then, is a word to those concerned/hopeless about the future of Christianity and the Church: despite the nomenclature growing less and less relevant, the crucifixion of Jesus was a “rupture” in time that continues to hold meaning. Jesus is everywhere, like cotton, thread into the very fabric of our lives. As Gray notes, 

‘Christianity spreads in two ways: through conversion and through secularisation.’ This incisive observation, cited by Holland as coming from an unnamed Indian historian, encapsulates much of the argument of Dominion. Secular modernity is not the negation of Christendom but its continuation in another form.

2. While #plantgate is in full swing at Union Seminary, we cannot wait for this one: 

3. A candid essay from Instagram celebrity, actress, and writer Tavi Gevinson—about the confusing relationship between the vehicle of her self-promotion and her actual self—is more relatable than you’d expect. What she describes is an amplified environment of judgment and dishonesty, something we talk about all the time when we’re talking about social media; but she is also describing—very honestly—the bifurcated existence that self-promotion (in any arena) produces. None of it, it turns out, is unique to the influencer: 

For all my years growing up online, I am still unable to both rapidly and accurately manage so many realities at once: to account for hundreds of people’s feedback in a matter of minutes; to know what to give weight to and what to let go of, what to take at face value and what to read into, what strikes a chord because of a real insecurity I have and what strikes a chord because of a silly insecurity I’ve learned to have, what of other people is authentic or performance or both or neither, and how to catch my brain when it goes to this place. This cycle of judging and being judged is a black hole in which time disappears, in which I and the people I encounter are all frozen in our profiles. It is where I nourish my insecurities over the millions of past versions of me that float around like old yearbook photos and where I still judge people I don’t know for reasons I can’t even remember…After countless adventures through the black hole, my propensity to share, perform, and entertain has melded with a desire far more cynical: to be liked, quantifiably, for an idealized version of myself, at a rate not possible even ten years ago.

I think I am a writer and an actor and an artist. But I haven’t believed the purity of my own intentions ever since I became my own salesperson, too.

Photos are by Eric Pickersgill, whose series “Removed,” was featured by Quartz this week.

4. Speaking of need—the need to be loved, and the desire to not need it—Leslie Jamison reviews the new Susan Sontag biography, and discusses Sontag’s own battle within herself, particularly her wish to live in the cleanliness of her own mind and her own ideas, instead of her body. 

Sontag’s fraught relationship with her body wasn’t simply about physicality; it was about her tormented relationship to need itself—her shame at having needs in the first place. At the age of 17, Sontag wrote that “sex has been a secret, silent, dark admission of affectional need, which must be forgotten when vertical.” Three years later, she wrote in her journal about confronting “the ‘real’ me, the lifeless one,” an interior self she called “Sue” and tried hard to escape, or at least discipline past recognition:

The one I flee, partly, in being with other people. The slug. The one that sleeps and when awake is continually hungry. The one that doesn’t like to bathe or swim and can’t dance. The one that goes to the movies. The one that bites her nails.

The possibility that all weakness could be hushed through sheer force of willpower was an imperative that Sontag suffered under for her entire life. She had to forget all affectional need. She had to pretend she never napped. It was ironic that Sontag, who argued strenuously against metaphoric understandings of bodily illness, would end up approaching bodily necessities and pleasures as metaphors for even deeper needs—for love and intimacy—and for the shame of being vulnerable, fallible, mortal.

5. You can tell Malcolm Gladwell is on a book tour, that’s for sure. His interview with Oprah has got some great insights into the nature of addiction, assault, and disinhibition…but really what’s great is his chat with Jimmy Kimmel, about how we have innately bad reads on people, and why Friends did us a disservice. 

Oh, and don’t miss Tony Hale talking Enneagram (and God…and McFlurries…plus farts) with Pete Holmes on You Made It Weird (ht HE). 

6. Some funny ones:

“Panicked Ken Burns Worried He In Too Deep With 17-Trillion-Hour ‘The Universe’ Documentary.” 

It’s definitely a lot more work than I anticipated, especially considering I’m only 0.000000001 seconds into the Big Bang so far,” said the visibly frazzled documentarian as he began screening a three-year-long clip from the film, which is set to be an in-depth look at the entirety of the cosmos, including history, science, arts, culture, and the grand design of all existence. “I’m really stressed out that some of the great stuff I have about multiverses, gravitational waves, the development of consciousness, amphibian reproduction, the Ottoman Empire, 19th-century Shaker furniture-making, the history of hydrogen, and feudalism will wind up on the cutting-room floor, because there just won’t be room for it all. Still, it’s been fun revisiting some of my favorite subjects, like baseball and the national parks, since they’ll be a part of this film.

Oh, and this: J.D. Salinger’s Spider-Man

7. Maybe you’re a basketball fan, maybe you’re not, but whether you’re a D-I championship-winning coach or not, it doesn’t matter: if it’s offered to you, you always take a raise. It’s the American way. If your boss offers you more money for winning, in whatever industry you inhabit, you take it. But this natural law does not apply to UVA head coach Tony Bennett, who after winning the NCAA tournament this year, refused a significant pay raise from the school. The Athletic Director at UVA told the press, “This does not happen in our industry.” Bennett had this to say about his decision:

“Laurel (his wife) and I are in a great spot, and in the past I’ve had increases in my contract,” Bennett said. “We just feel a great peace about where we’re at, all that’s taken place, and how we feel about this athletic department and this community and this school. I love being at UVA. President Ryan and Carla were very gracious in what they offered to me as a potential contract, but I have a very good contract. I have more than enough, and if there are ways that this can help out the athletic department, the other programs and coaches, by not tying up so much [in men’s basketball], that’s my desire.”

There are so many eye-rolling caveats that could be levied on this moment of humility—that he’s already making millions, that by winning he has enough status/prestige/etc.—but if you can suspend those, you can see a real sense of gratitude for a gift. Something that transcends quantifying for reimbursement. Reminds me of this, which I hope to see soon. 



Why (Russian) Novels Are More Truthful Than History

Alissa Wilkinson on Ad Astra

Think Christian’s New Resource on The Office

Andrew Yang’s Public Act of Forgiveness

A New Interstellar Visitor?