Another Week Ends

Nihilism of Grace, Pirate Jokes, Johnny Cash, Nathan Colberg, a Chess Grandmaster, Rich Thieves, and the Punk Churches of East Germany

CJ Green / 11.15.19

1. Our first link this week comes from Digital Doxa, new home to peer-reviewed “scholastic musings” about the age of the Internet. They jump off with a fantastic dispatch from Lisa Ellen Silvestri, about widespread online nihilism. As Silvestri points out, nihilism (formally “the experience of nothingness”) has proliferated across the Web in recent years, with its own distinct digital flavor. For example, memes circulate depressed Kermit the Frogs, and certain Instagrams proffer “an ‘everything sucks’ ideology.” The problem, as Silverstri sees it, is less the content than the value system that has led to it.

…measuring yourself against external value systems leads to dissatisfaction. In his 1949 play, Death of a Salesman, the protagonist Willy denies his talent as a builder to pursue a career in sales, a more prestigious profession. When Willy finds the path difficult, his friend Charley offers financial help. Willy rejects his outright generosity only accepting a loan under the condition he will pay it back. The financial crossroads offered Willy an opportunity to reconsider his pursuit of becoming a salesman. But instead, he decides to double down and commit to sales anyway, which ultimately leads to a life of drudgery and disappointment. After Willy’s death, Charley declares that he “had all the wrong dreams.” … [Author Jordan Service] recognizes “the game” for what it is and suggests a longing for an alternative way of life—a new dream. For nihilist millennials, it’s not a question of leaving behind the economic world but of finding a way to loosen its stranglehold.

She describes a meme of Fred Rogers at an easel, drawing. In one panel, he admits, “I’m not very good at it”; in the next, “but it doesn’t matter.” You might hear the “doesn’t matter” as nihilism — but you might also hear it as grace. Mr. Rogers is unburdened. Mastering this particular skill, we learn, is not such a huge deal after all. Silvestri correlates all this to Millennial values, mainly “success” — amassing fame, talent, money (cf. this week’s piece from Adam and Allison Grant about parents’ valuing success over kindness). Ubiquitous disappointment and deconstruction may at first conclude with, “This doesn’t matter”; then we may be invited to wonder, what does? Such “nihilism” could even propel us — if precipitously — toward the gospel.

The good news is that waking up in the middle of the wrong dream and having the audacity to look nihilism in the eye enables a type of dignity that Caputo (2015) calls a “nihilism of grace.” Caputo writes, “This nihilism not only dares to think, which is the Enlightenment’s audacity, but dares to hope” (p. 44). More than that, he adds, “It dares to smile” (p.44). Smiling, in this sense, does not imply a lack of seriousness. To the contrary, a nihilism of grace takes seriously the question of what it means to be human and how to go about living well.

…instead of seeing nihilism as symptomatic of a Nietzschean crisis of faith, perhaps we should consider it an opportunity to ripen our faith. Seeing and confirming the void’s existence and saying yes (with a smile) to our shared condition marks a triumph of actual faith over conceptual faith.

2. All of which brings us nicely to Alex Baia’s “Postmodernist Pirate Jokes,” in The New Yorker. Wish I could have re-posted all of them, but these will give you a taste:

How come nobody played cards with the pirate?

Because he was standing on the deck! The other pirates had no universal moral perspective from which to criticize him, so they stared at the ocean and contemplated God’s absence…

What did the pirate say when his wooden leg got stuck in the freezer?

Shiver me timbers! Me entire life is this sentence, composed by some writer for a cheap laugh.”

Also amazing is Emma Brewer’s Emily Dickinson, Freelancer. Especially:

I dwell inside Calibri—
A fairer font than Times—
I won’t be taking any questions—
At this time—

3. Meanwhile: the song everybody should be listening to is Nathan Colberg’s new “Could You Ever Find Another Word for Love” — incredible lyrics and performance, not to mention awesome album art. Hear it below:

Other musical musings include Beate Peter’s “How Punks in Churches Changed Germany,” from The Quietus. It’s an incredible firsthand account of concert-going prior to the tearing down of the Berlin Wall. Pop/punk was played in…churches (h/t RS). A beautiful image of the freedom one hopes this space could always embody —

…churches played an important role. They were allowed to exist in communist Germany, although to be associated with the church also meant to have internalised and [to be] exhibiting an alternative set of values and beliefs. They are known for having provided spaces for discussions between the GDR government and its political opposition in the lead up to German unification. What they are less known for is their provision of space for young people to play popular music.

In the GDR, individuals needed official permission to own an electric guitar or to play in front of an audience. Lyrics and music could be censored through the state-owned record label Amiga or via radio policies. In this climate of repression, churches started to offer services with music, specifically aimed at young people. These were called Bluesmessen (Blues Mass) and didn’t need permission for the musical performance because they were not official concerts, but ‘services’ aimed at the German youth. This meant that censorship was mainly avoided and instead, young people were encouraged to voice their opinions. Originally, it was blues that was played, but punks discovered churches as opportunities to play gigs as well. The churches filled with an unlikely congregation, and I was one of those visitors, albeit not in Berlin. My parents believed in communism, and we always had a massive argument at Christmas Eve, when I would go to Mass to meet up with all my friends. […]

As early as 1983, punk band Die Toten Hosen from West Germany played an illegal gig at a church in East Berlin, and they repeated that on the grounds of another church in 1988. Equipment was borrowed from East German bands, as state surveillance would have taken note of the transportation of music equipment and most likely confiscated it. Mark Reeder, who in 1978 moved from Manchester to Berlin, organised these gigs and risked being extradited if his efforts had been discovered. Punks did not exist in the GDR (at least officially), but knowing that there was a gig by a punk band meant…opposition, dissidence, even freedom. It would be hard to prove, but I have wondered whether those church services with music kept people from throwing stones, from expressing their frustration and dissatisfaction through violence.

And about the new Johnny Cash documentary, reviews are good: “With ‘The Gift,’ Cash’s 71-year reckoning with the wages of sin and salvation is put in eloquently humbling, myth-busting perspective” (LA Times). Haven’t watched myself, but very much like a gift, the whole thing is streaming free on YouTube, also embedded here:

4. A fascinating anthropological insight cropped up in The Guardian recently— Rene Chun reports that “evidence suggests the rich actually do steal more than the poor” (h/t CB). A mystery of mysteries, to be sure, and Chun offers only theories in response, the most compelling of which underscore what you might call “the bound will” — that our actions are not always in our best interest, and may not make conscious sense at all. A Romans 7 thing.

[Psychologist Stanton E Samenow] recounts a case study, a patient that he treated several years ago: “He had more than enough money to buy the item. He took it for the thrill of it, to outsmart the establishment. He enjoyed every aspect of shoplifting: scanning the aisles for the objects, looking for the exits, trying to outsmart the surveillance and store personnel, the theft and the getaway. This was all about excitement and building up one’s self-worth.”

Psychiatrist Jon Grant, a University of Chicago professor, agrees that shoplifting may often elicit a sense of euphoria. But he’s quick to add that once the adrenaline rush subsides, a darker side of this compulsion manifests itself. “I see shoplifting as an addiction,” he says. “The people I treat really hate the fact that they steal. They enjoy the thrill but then almost instantly beat themselves up for the behavior. They have lots of guilt and frequently think about and attempt suicide because of their behavior.”

5. Last week in The NY Times, chess grandmaster(!) Jonathan Rowson contributed a compelling opinion about what life is lived for. Reflecting on his own experience and the thrill of chess, he postulates that “we don’t want to be happy”; we want something, actually, deeper. The battle on the board gestures this direction:

Chess returns us to the perennial questions contained in any life situation: What is happening here? What am I trying to do? What’s my next move? Playing chess, we inhabit questions that matter, that we cannot be sure of answering correctly. In that sense, the game evokes joy as defined by C.S. Lewis in his autobiography: “An unsatisfied desire which is itself more desirable than any other satisfaction.”

That kind of joy is at the heart of the experience of chess, characterized as it is by a sense of constant craving in an atmosphere of intellectual beauty, competitive resistance and inevitable mistakes. Lewis suggests that anyone who has experienced joy of this kind will want it again, and he doubts whether anyone who has tasted it would ever exchange it for all the pleasures in the world. That is certainly true of many chess players.

Lewis adds that joy is not in our power, and he may be right. But it makes me wonder whether he ever played chess.

Enthusiasts should proceed to Mbird contributor August Smith’s reflection on the game.

6. As a follow-up to DZ’s post from earlier today, the following is excerpted from a review of Alec Ryrie’s forthcoming Unbelievers. Nick Spencer, at The Spectator, writes about When Atheists Stole the Moral High Ground.

Always villainous, often incestuous, sometimes penitent, these monsters [Elizabethan portrayals of atheists] paraded the social and moral nightmare of godlessness before their audiences.

But this caricature left believers with a problem. For if the atheist ever abandoned his villainy, the faithful would lose the all-important moral high ground. Worse, if unbelievers started behaving in a more Christian way than Christians, they would capture an impregnable moral castle. Given that Christians spent much of the first half of the 17th century killing one another, this is pretty much what happened.

This is the heart of Ryrie’s argument: not that Christianity forged the intellectual weapons that its enemies thereafter used (though, in the development of textual criticism and the scientific method, it undoubtedly did that), but that it forged the moral ones. Early modern belief measured first the Church, then individual Christians, and then the Old Testament against the standards of Christianity — or more precisely, the standards of Jesus Christ — and found them all wanting. This was why so much early unbelief actually looked like further reformation and purification of faith, and why so many notorious infidels — Spinoza, Voltaire, Jefferson, Paine — singled out Jesus for praise. This wasn’t (simply) tactical. Jesus was the foundation of their infidelity.

7. Finally, as has become typical for these week-in-reviews, we’ll close with a moving meditation from writer Chad Bird. Here he considers the question of questions, “How do I know I’m a Christian?” (Does anyone else know someone baptized 3 times?) Chad offers a resounding, settling answer:

…to answer, “Are you a Christian?” by looking inside ourselves, or by looking to our deeds or love of the neighbor, is to drink the poison of doubt. The more Christians look at themselves to see whether they are Christians, the more they will become convinced that they are not Christians.

We don’t look within ourselves to find out if we are Christians, but within Christ. Our assurance is in his objective, external work of salvation on our behalf. Not in our hearts but in the heart and life and death and resurrection of Jesus Christ do we receive assurance that we are the children of God…

How do you know you’re a Christian? Not because your heart is good and pure but because the heart of Christ pulses with a love for you that will never end.


  • David Zahl’s Seculosity yields another rave review, plus some useful commentary from Jason Micheli, in The Christian Century. The unstoppable Zahl is also quoted in today’s Washington Post!
  • A couple art-related links— From last month, Rowan Williams explored why poetry matters, and Ted Gioia wrote of J.S. Bach, the Rebel— “Bach subverted the expectations of musical piety…”
  • Dunno why but I experienced real joy in The Real Joy of Mock Food: “Mock foods have always impressed people less by being delicious than by offering an element of astonishment. Take mock apple pie, in which crackers take the place of fruit… the dish offers not just a surprisingly realistic facsimile of the original but also ‘material for philosophers to ponder.'”


One response to “Another Week Ends”

  1. David Zahl says:

    Man, what a rich weekender! That article on the Nihilism of Grace has a LOT in it to ponder. And Nathan’s new song! (which was written, I’m told, by Mbird contributor Sam Bush) – so good.

    I was flattered–and a little surprised–to be quoted in the Washington Post piece. The data in question is pretty maudlin, I suppose, but also a good reminder that Twitter is not the world (yet).

    What I meant with the quote she included is that, from where I’m sitting, the decline in church attendance is just as much (if not more) a matter of ‘the tyranny of the urgent’ as a shift in how Christianity is perceived. Or to put it another way, what happens at church on Sunday is not perceived as terribly urgent. Which in many cases–let’s face it–it isn’t. Getting some r&r on the other hand…

    We talked about it at some length on the most recent mockingcast.

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