Another Week Ends

1. First up, just in the nick of time, Oasis main-man/’90s troublemaker Liam Gallagher ushers […]

David Zahl / 12.4.20

1. First up, just in the nick of time, Oasis main-man/’90s troublemaker Liam Gallagher ushers us into the season with a soul-stirring hymn to the “kind of love that’ll be there when the world is at its worst.” The tune is what they call a real belter, potent enough to close out the next season of grace-in-practice-primer Ted Lasso (which was just renewed for two more seasons, ptL!), and I dig the old-school Disney arrangement. Also thrilled to hear the man’s pipes sounding so revitalized after a few years of less than supersonic gusto:

2. Speaking of gusto, the NY Times allowed writer/philosopher Agnes Callard to mow down a few of its sacred cows in her masterful “I Don’t Want You to ‘Believe’ Me. I Want You to Listen,” and I’m frankly a little shocked. You have to read the whole thing to get the intended effect. Suffice it to say, there may be hope yet for our country’s paper of record — as well for those still bold enough to endorse listening qua listening. Here’s a taste:

I am not a private person — quite the opposite — but I do have two secrets. The first concerns some Bad Events that happened to me long ago… [But] I can’t tell you about The Events, because you will [believe me].

I don’t want to be classified as damaged; I don’t want you to feel good about yourself for believing me; I don’t want you to feel sorry for me; and most of all, I don’t want you to praise my courage for “coming forward” or for “surviving.” The prospect of receiving praise or honor for this revelation fills with me with rage — when I imagine your admiration, I immediately imagine throwing it back in your face […]

For you, there is only one question: how much suffering can she legitimately lay claim to? You are so busy trying to answer this question — trying to serve as judge in the pain/suffering/disadvantage Olympics — that you cannot hear anything I am trying to tell you. And that means I can’t talk to you. No one can sincerely assert words whose meaning she knows will be garbled by the lexicon of her interlocutor.

I could use your help — not your support, not your approval, not your reassurance but your help as an open and thoughtful audience for these difficult questions. But you won’t help me, because you won’t listen to what I’m trying to say, because all you care about is how much victim status I deserve.

Ooooof. That last word, I think, is the key to what she’s trying to convey. Do we listen to someone because we care? Or do we listen to figure out if they’re deserving of our care? Might sound like a subtle distinction but in practice I dare say it’s the difference between attention vs. scrutiny, love vs. judgment, spirit vs. flesh.

3. Next, in the latest issue of Yale Divinity School’s Reflections theologian Miroslav Volf reflects on a topic that seems in short supply these days: hope. He warns us not to confuse hope with optimism, though, which is far less durable and much more subject to expectation. Instead of anticipating a return to normal, Christian hope looks beyond the horizon of reasonable expectation toward the unthinkable perfection of the resurrection. Volf says it much better though:

Interpreting the phrase “in hope we are saved,” Martin Luther suggested in his Lectures on Romans that just as love transforms the lover into the beloved, so “hope changes the one who hopes into what is hoped for.” Thus, a key feature of hope is that it stretches a person into the unknown, the hidden, the darkness of unknown possibility. For Paul this can happen because God is with us — God who gives life to the dead and calls into existence things that do not exist.

Optimism, if it is justified, is based on extrapolations we make about the future based upon what we can reasonably discern to be tendencies in the present… [For example,] you and your spouse are healthy adults of childbearing age, you have had no trouble conceiving, and the obstetrician tells you that your pregnancy is going well; you have reason to be optimistic that you will give birth to a healthy child. The present contains the seeds of the future, and if it is well with these seeds, the future that will grow will be good as well. That’s reasonable optimism.

Hope, argued [Jurgen] Moltmann, is different. Hope is not based on accurate extrapolation about the future from the character of the present; the hoped-for future is not born out of the present. The future good that is the object of hope is a new thing, novum, that comes in part from outside the situation. Correspondingly, hope is, in Emily Dickinson’s felicitous phrase, like a bird that flies in from outside and “perches in the soul.” Optimism in dire situations reveals an inability to understand what is going on or an unwillingness to accept it and is therefore an indication of foolishness or weakness. In contrast, hope during dire situations, hope notwithstanding the circumstances, is a sign of courage and strength …

When every course of action by which we could reach the desired future seems destined to failure, when we cannot reasonably draw a line that would connect the terror of the present with future joy, hope remains indomitable and indestructible. When we hope, we always hope against reasonable expectations. That’s why Emily Dickinson’s bird of hope “never stops” singing — in the sore storm, in the chilliest land, on the strangest sea.

Our salvation lies in hope, but not in hope that insists on the future good it has imagined, but in hope ready to rejoice in the kind of good that actually comes our way. The God who creates out of nothing, the God who makes dead alive — the God of the original beginning of all things and the God of new beginnings — justifies hope that is otherwise unjustifiable. When that God makes a promise, we can hope.

4. The opening salvo of Elizabeth Bruenig’s “Forgive Us Our Debts” column in the Times plucks at the ol’ grace-strings and how! Best part being that Ms. Matos is neither a member of the church in question nor familiar to them in any way. Just beautiful:

Vanessa Matos couldn’t believe what she was reading. “I was like, OK, this is a scam,” she recalled of the letter she received in February. Her husband, she said, had the same reaction: “Yeah, this isn’t real.” But it was. Ms. Matos’s medical debt — more than $900 owed because of complications from surgery at the Massachusetts hospital where she had worked as a nurse — had been forgiven by strangers at a church she had never been to.

Adam Mabry, the lead pastor of that congregation, Aletheia Church, a multiethnic, 1,400-member Boston-area Christian community, doesn’t know Ms. Matos, and she doesn’t know him; the two have never spoken. But he told me: “It doesn’t take a theologian to connect the dots. Jesus paid my debt at unbelievable cost to himself, so it probably makes sense for me to pay another person’s debt at some degree of cost to myself.”

Although American Christianity is as malformed by the harsh tug of political poles as any other realm, forgiving medical debt has managed to ally very different Christians behind the same cause.

5. Moving on, UnHerd editor Ed West penned a review of Joel Kotkin’s recent book, The Coming of Neo-Feudalism, and boy oh boy it’s a doozie. I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that, by the end, the article had that “bring out yr dead!” refrain playing in my head. Especially during the same week that we’re sending out our own appeal for, er, patronage:

[Joel] Kotkin is among a handful of thinkers warning about a cluster of related trends, including not just inequality but declining social mobility, rising levels of celibacy and a shrinking arena of political debate controlled by a small number of like-minded people.

The one commonality is that all of these things, along with the polarisation of politics along quasi-religious lines, the decline of nationalism and the role of universities in enforcing orthodoxy, were the norm in pre-modern societies. In our economic structure, our politics, our identity and our sex lives we are moving away from the trends that were common between the first railway and first email. But what if the modern age was the anomaly, and we’re simply returning to life as it has always been? […]

Tech is by nature anti-egalitarian, creating natural monopolies that wield vastly more power than any of the great industrial barons of the modern age, and have cultural power far greater than newspapers of the past, closer to that of the Church in Kotkin’s view; their algorithms and search engines shape our worldview and our thoughts, and they can, and do, censor people with heretical views.

Around 900 years ago Oxford evolved out of communities of monks and priests; … A similar pattern existed in the United States, where each university was associated with a different church: Yale and Harvard with the Congregationalists, Princeton with Presbyterians, Columbia with Episcopalians. The increasingly narrow focus on what can be taught at these institutions [of higher learning] is not new … Similarly, politics has returned to its pre-modern role of religion.

6. Ha. The Hard Times hit the bullseye this week with its razor sharp “Let’s Unpack Why Accusing Me of Co-Opting Therapy Jargon for Internet Clout Is Actually Projection and Gaslighting,” and the New Yorker elicited a few chuckles with “I’ll Have Kids in a Few Years, When I’m Successful and Wealthy and My Life Is Finally Perfect.” But my fave bit of humor was definitely “Home Away from Home Alone: A College Admissions Essay by Kevin McCallister“:

I spent the next chapter of my life [following the events depicted in the first film] bedwetting my way through night-terrors. I would awaken screaming at the slightest disturbance, trembling in nocturnal certainty that the Wet Bandits had returned to exact their revenge. When I was finally able to calm myself, always, just before nodding off, I would be seized by the same disquieting notion: what if that paint can had missed?

Devastatingly, my fear of a reunion with the Wet Bandits was actually a premonition. A mere two years later, my parents oversaw yet another mix-up that landed me in New York for Christmas, once again — you guessed it — alone.

7. 1843 compiled an indispensable if disturbing guide to the workplace slang that’s emerged to describe professional life during the pandemic. While the first one on the list, “Toxic Productivity,” clearly pre-dates the Zoom era (#seculosity), Bo Franklin’s definition is worth more than its weight in paperclips:

Office workers foresaw a welcome change of pace as they were banished to their living rooms at the start of lockdown. Frenzied commutes would give way to lie-ins. Lunch, usually a pre-packaged sandwich wolfed down between meetings, could be savored. They might even sneak in a mid-afternoon yoga session. For many the reality has been different. Hours saved traveling have been filled with high-speed email traffic. The distinction between workplace and home has blurred, and bosses now call on subordinates at all hours of the day. Every waking moment is a slot to achieve things in.

The term for this inability to switch off is “toxic productivity” … The pandemic hasn’t made workaholics of us all, as Netflix’s swelling subscriber count attests. Yet the fact that many of us are as busy as ever, even when theoretically this time offered a chance to reconsider our own priorities in life, seems like a toxic waste.

The rest of the list doesn’t disappoint, e.g. “fried squid.”

8. Social Science Study of the Week has got to be “An Exploration of Spiritual Superiority: The Paradox of Self‐Enhancement,” which just appeared in the European Journal of Social Psychology. Apparently the study found that “some popular forms of spiritual training — such as energy healing, aura reading, and, to a lesser degree, mindfulness and meditation — correlate with both narcissism and ‘spiritual superiority.'”

9. Last but not least, over on The Millions, do yourself a favor and read the stunning true story (of grace) about a young writer receiving the unexpected blessing of a father figure in Ray Bradbury’s Keys to the Universe. I’ve never read Dandelion Wine but am going to address that oversight forthwith. My favorite Bradbury story, and one deeply informed by those same “keys,” remains … “The Dog in the Red Bandana.”

Strays:

  • Rolling Stone caught up with Weird Al the other day, and he did not disappoint.
  • HBO is releasing a documentary about the Bee Gees, and I for one could not be more excited. The reappraisal is WAY overdue.
  • Which reminds me of Sarah Condon’s inspired entry this morning in our Advent in the Time of Corona video devotions in which another member of the Mcast trinity gets a mention — a member who once scored a monster hit with a song written by the brothers Gibb. Follow us on Facebook or Instagram to catch the good news.
  • Fascinating article/parable about what happened When Italian Futurists Tried to Ban Pasta.
  • The Sports Issue episode of The Mockingcast dropped on Wednesday and it is something else, featuring interviews with journalist/ESPN contributor Anna Katherine Clemmons, legendary skateboarder Christian Hosoi, and former Atlanta Falcons cornerback (and current chaplain) Jason Webster. Some serious Friday Night Lights vibes in the final segment. The game is on!
  • Finally, as we’ve mentioned elsewhere, we’ve spent the week here in Charlottesville prepping and sending our year-end newsletter and appeal. To receive a copy, be sure to sign up for our mailing list. We need your help to keep this work going! And don’t forget: all monthly donors receive a subscription to the magazine.