Another Week Ends

1. An amazing, amazing article about Randy Travis appeared on The Atlantic, trying to make […]

David Zahl / 9.7.12

1. An amazing, amazing article about Randy Travis appeared on The Atlantic, trying to make sense of the country singer’s hellish year. You may know that in August he was booked for a DUI after being found naked on the side of the road (his truck in the middle of a nearby field), and then last week he was jailed following a fistfight outside a church. Writer Anthony Easton looks at Randy’s dramatic ups and downs via the two most tried and true narratives about alcoholism in country music: you’re either delivered by God or you die. Easton notes how Travis’ ongoing failure to master his demons seems to run at odds with his very public (and profound) professions of faith. In other words, the singer has become a living, breathing example of what it means to be simultaneously justified and sinful (simul iustus et peccator) and it’s supremely uncomfortable to witness–doubtless for Randy most of all! Yet perhaps there’s a relationship between his humiliating, ongoing need and his sincere faith in a savior (who is not him). Just too bad that’s not a very marketable narrative. In fact, some might say it’s not a narrative at all…:

Travis’s career has continued to be a question of maintaining this religious credibility. He shows up from time to time on The 700 Club, and his 2002 comeback hit “Three Wooden Crosses” was a story song with a Christian bent, in which a bus accident kills a number of iconic characters. As Travis sings, with absolute earnestness, “An’ that preacher whispered: ‘Can’t you see the Promised Land?’/As he laid his blood-stained bible in that hooker’s hand,” it becomes clear that this is a man who sincerely believes in redemption.

Travis himself has already been redeemed—in the once-saved always saved world of the Holiness churches, and also in his work, he talks movingly, intensely, and personally about the nature of his faith. (Indeed, the headline on a nearly decade-old 700 Club interview reads “Randy Travis: Road to Redemption”). His art gives the impression of triumphing through the dark night of the soul, but this appearance of having being saved does not mean that he stopped drinking—or perhaps can ever stop drinking. In country music’s redemption-or-death dichotomy, Travis then presents an existential problem: What happens when the redeemed fall?

2. Also on The Atlantic, a surprising and affecting reflection on “Rhythm, Repetition and the Book of Common Prayer,” via James Fallows. In all honesty, I tend to glaze over whenever someone starts pontificating about the “cadences of prayer,” but when Fallows talks about how certain passages immediately make him think of rest, he’s definitely got a point. There’s power (and beauty) in them’ thar words! Fallows quotes colleague Benjamin Schwartz:

The language of The Book of Common Prayer “has seeped into the collective consciousness more profoundly than that of any other book written in English, even the Bible.” … [I]t shaped the inner life and branded the tongue of the English-speaking peoples. Its phrases and rhythms did not merely enter the language. They largely defined the language.

3. Amidst all the convention-related juvenilia, a refreshing moment of clarity and wisdom from controversial former South Carolina governor Mark Sanford appeared in Esquire, ht CB:

“I had a number of people come up and say, You could have whatever and all the could-have-beens-would-have-beens of life, and I just think that’s not the way to live one’s life,” Sanford told me. “I think that we’re all gonna have — and I never got this part before — until you’ve fumbled in some form or another in some facet or area of life, you don’t really understand the notion of grace. We all have feet of clay and we’re all on journeys trying to get as best we can, and so I would have said, Yeah, the nature of the human condition is imperfection. By that being the case, certain opportunities may be forgone that might have been, but you can’t live based on what could or might have happened. I think you’ll drive yourself crazy if you live that way.

“I’d say the more searing the fire, the heavier the consequence,” Sanford went on, “and there’s nothing casually learned in searing fire, you know. Everybody’s had their different issues or if they haven’t, they will. And so I would just say I’ve gotten, I wouldn’t say a Ph.D, but I’ve gotten an amazing tutorial — and I don’t recommend the curriculum — on judgment, grace, love, life, and a whole host of things.”

4. Next, a terrific overview on Slate of recent social science research into how, why and when people act unethically from Ray Fisman and Adam Galinsky, “Can You Train Business School Students to Be Ethical?” They discuss the unconscious as well as conscious ways we cheat others and justify those actions–how we are often defined more by our blind spots than our vision (blindness, eh?). The insights about the impotence of self-knowledge/-awareness will be familiar to readers of this site, ht AZ:

Countless experiments in psychology and economics labs and out in the world have documented the circumstances that make us most likely to ignore moral concerns – what social psychologists Max Bazerman and Ann Tenbrusel call our moral blind spots.  These result from numerous biases that exacerbate the sort of distraction from ethical consequences illustrated by the Rubinstein experiment. A classic sequence of studies illustrate how readily these blind spots can occur in something as seemingly straightforward as flipping a fair coin to determine rewards. Imagine that you are in charge of splitting a pair of tasks between yourself and another person. One job is fun and with a potential payoff of $30; the other tedious and without financial reward. Presumably, you’d agree that flipping a coin is a fair way of deciding—most subjects do. However, when sent off to flip the coin in private, about 90 percent of subjects come back claiming that their coin flip came up assigning them to the fun task, rather than the 50 percent that one would expect with a fair coin. Some people end up ignoring the coin; more interestingly, others respond to an unfavorable first flip by seeing it as “just practice” or deciding to make it two out of three. That is, they find a way of temporarily adjusting their sense of fairness to obtain a favorable outcome.

5. In television, if you’re still reeling from the Breaking Bad “mid-“season finale like yours truly, a pair of links, one fictitious, one not: The Onion’s hilarious Breaking Bad Creator Thinking Maybe Next Season Should Take a Dark Turn“and then  Slate’s interview with said creator/showrunner Vince Gilligan. Vince not only makes a relevant distinction between mystery and confusion, but when asked to describe his characters in two or three words, he drops with the following bomb:

For Walt, “ego and lies.” Actually, I want to amend that. Make it, “untrue to himself.” Jesse: “Wants better.” Hank: “Truth at all costs.”

6. Film-wise, a good year just keeps getting better. After hearing so many intriguing things, I finally got around to seeing Richard Linklater’s Bernie this past week, and it was absolutely delightful and deceptively profound. Funny yet affectionate, beautifully acted (Jack Black deserves a nomination) and edited, wonderful bit players: an altogether expertly put-together film. I was not expecting such a pronounced Christian element, which starts out silly but ends up dead serious. In fact, the final line of the film–about the forgiveness of God–is stunning. Highly recommended.

7. Then in music, the next few weeks are stacked to a there-must-be-a-God extent, and I’m not just talking about Dylan, Mumford, The Avetts, MJ’s Bad reissue, the David Byrne/St Vincent collaboration and the Ben Folds Five reunion record. I’m talking about the Pete Townshend autobiography. I’m talking about the new Ian Hunter record which magically appeared last week. I’m talking about The Killers being filmed by Werner Herzog(!). But most of all, I’m talking about the just-announced 6-disc “Made in California” Beach Boys boxed set coming sometime in November. I may have just drooled on the keyboard.

8. Another much-anticipated upcoming release is Tullian Tchividjian’s Glorious Ruin: How Suffering Sets You Free, which hits the shelves on October 1. The introduction and first chapter were made available this past week, and man-oh-man are they good. If these first pages are anything to go by, Glorious Ruin is going to be the accessible and deeply pastoral (and dare I say, entertaining) introduction to the theology of the cross that we’ve been waiting for. Go here to read. And speaking of Tullian, registration opened this week for LIBERATE 2013! Feb 21-14 in Fort Lauderdale and the theme this time is–get this–“Grace in Practice”! If that’s not enough, take a gander at the list of speakers (and special guests) and you may see a few names you recognize. Hope you can join me/us!

9. Also on the conference tip, Mbird Charlottesville (9/28-29) is now just three weeks away! A bunch of exciting updates: 1. As of this afternoon, all of the talk titles have been finalized. Click here to view. 2. On Thursday night, attendees are warmly invited to an informal kick-off cocktail party at the Massie-Wills House, a few blocks from the church, 8-11PM. Check the Schedule for more details. 3. On Friday evening, Sept 28th, Mbird faves The Hill and Wood will be playing a free concert right next door! 4. We still have some free local housing available for out-of-towners. Email us at if you’re interested. 5. If you can only come for one of the two days, the cost (which can be paid in person) are $30 for Friday and $20 for Saturday. You can reserve your spot by emailing us at

10. Finally, for the miscellaneous file, the BBC reports on “The Curious Allure of Child Preachers“, The Atlantic takes a critical look at Shopping Addiction, and Explore posts a (highly suspect) graph that claims to chart the correlation between crime and religious belief.




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