Another Week Ends

1. First up, Tullian Tchividjian posted a reflection on his remarkable grandfather, the late Billy […]

Will McDavid / 2.23.18

1. First up, Tullian Tchividjian posted a reflection on his remarkable grandfather, the late Billy Graham:

The last real conversation I had with him will forever live in my memory.

We were sitting in his bedroom. His body was frail, but his mind was still sharp. He talked to me about how hard it was to get old, how much he missed my grandmother (his wife of over 60 years who had died in June 2007), and how he had watched most of his closest friends die already. He expressed sorrow for a world that was still in dire need of the Gospel and how helpless he felt to do much about it in his weakened condition. But as was typical of Daddy Bill, he mostly wanted to talk about someone other than himself. He was always doing that: turning the attention away from himself to whoever he was talking to. He wanted to know all about my ministry and the unique challenges and opportunities that accompanied it. He wanted to know details about Gabe, Nate, and Genna. He encouraged me and reminded me of how much he loved me. And then we prayed together.

That conversation alone summed up his entire life and ministry: he decreased in order that Christ might increase; he yearned for the entire world to believe the Gospel; and he always saw the person in front of him as the one God had given him to love and care for. . .

I know he would be super uncomfortable with all the praise and admiration he’s receiving as people remember his life because he absolutely believed that he was the worst person he knew. He never paraded his importance, never advertised his fame. If he was pointing anywhere, it wasn’t to himself but to the Cross where the Son of God humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death for us all.

2. Michael Ian Black, the actor and comedian, posted a topically timely, if tentative, article on masculinity over at the New York Times. He echoes what we’ve been saying for a while now–that men are having sort of a hard go of it right now. I don’t mean to suggest there are big social or professional obstacles to men–quite the opposite–but as our favorite diagnositician of human nature once said, a good deal of dysfunction comes from within. By any measure, those obstacles are there. Men are underachieving in school, still incarcerated at a vastly disproportionate rate, and have poor mental health. Anyway, as to the Times article, Black has a couple of good insights:

Too many boys are trapped in the same suffocating, outdated model of masculinity, where manhood is measured in strength, where there is no way to be vulnerable without being emasculated, where manliness is about having power over others. They are trapped, and they don’t even have the language to talk about how they feel about being trapped, because the language that exists to discuss the full range of human emotion is still viewed as sensitive and feminine . . .

And so the man who feels lost but wishes to preserve his fully masculine self has only two choices: withdrawal or rage. We’ve seen what withdrawal and rage have the potential to do. School shootings are only the most public of tragedies. Others, on a smaller scale, take place across the country daily; another commonality among shooters is a history of abuse toward women.

“Outdated” seems true in a number of ways. The old quintessentially male roles, manual labor and martial valor, don’t touch the lives of as many men in a service economy. As to stereotypically male things, that leaves a certain fixation on sexual prowess (manifestations of which have been grotesque in recent news), and physical competitiveness (CTE notwithstanding) as odd vestiges, anachronisms which seem out-of-place (and are out-of-place) in a different world.

Most of the prescriptions for this problem take the following form: first, identify male stoicism with repression; second, view male violence as a result of that repression (a la Freudian sublimation); and third, conclude that the cure is men learning how to be more emotionally vulnerable.

To be clear, I think everyone could do with more vulnerability and emotional candor, men especially, but the diagnosis may be a bit naive. Vulnerability can be a vehicle for love, but simply telling someone else all your worst thoughts doesn’t, in itself, do a thing. E.g., if a churchgoer is vulnerable with a pastor about her doubts of the existence of God, and the pastor tells her she’s going to hell, vulnerability probably hasn’t accomplished very much. The real matter is love. Classic psychotherapy never thought simply sharing something was a cure for repression (words are wind), but rather it presents an opportunity for the patient to air their worst self and have an external, objective person forgive them for being who they are.

A couple more thoughts: first, we believe that the law increases the trespass. Just as the pastor admonishing the doubting woman to believe (and telling her she’s a bad person for not believing) will tend to drive her away from the church rather than toward it. This central Lutheran (and Pauline) insight has been one of the few checks on the church’s tendency toward excessive moralizing, and it would also suggest that a certain amount of moralizing boys can be counterproductive, too. That doesn’t mean the law has not place in the pulpit (it does), but only that one should not expect too much from it, in terms of moral motivation (the latter coming from love produced by belovedness).

Second, forgiveness is not the same as excuse: “they couldn’t help it, given how they were raised”, “they didn’t mean to hurt me”, or “I was at fault, too” may or may not be true to any given human situation, but none of those is in the ballpark of forgiveness, which presupposes culpable sin. Forgiveness is possible only at a point where real wrongdoing and real love meet–and it is consequently miraculous whenever it happens.

In a different context, Conor Friedersdorf at The Atlantic has written a powerful piece on popular ideological discourse, arguing (to vastly simplify his points) that condemnation of those who disagree with you isn’t a very effective persuasive tool. It’s well worth a read. Also on the subject of condemnation versus persuasion, The New Criterion republished an old essay on Camus, in which the writer disclaimed his status as a sage:

“I bear the weight of a reputation for austerity at once undeserved and rather ridiculous. If I have fought so firmly and uncompromisingly against those who legislated or killed in the name of the absolute, it is because I was aware of my own shortcomings and because I found only in them the permission to say that nobody is sufficiently just or pure to arrogate the right to judge without appeal… . Neither in my work nor in myself has there been an attempt to convert people to virtue but a logic that derives from frailty and a difficult struggle to attain to greater light. That is all.”

3. Confessional of the week: Brendan Fraser (whose uncle, incidentally, brought Canada an Olympic gold medal for shooting in 1952) gave a wonderful interview at GQ, touching on grief and on the toll of pushing forward in his film career. It’s a wonderful story of a person who’s found some peace, as well as awareness, post-suffering, ht BJ:

“By the time I did the third Mummy picture in China,” which was 2008, “I was put together with tape and ice—just, like, really nerdy and fetishy about ice packs. Screw-cap ice packs and downhill-mountain-biking pads, ’cause they’re small and light and they can fit under your clothes. I was building an exoskeleton for myself daily.” Eventually all these injuries required multiple surgeries: “I needed a laminectomy. And the lumbar didn’t take, so they had to do it again a year later.” There was a partial knee replacement. Some more work on his back, bolting various compressed spinal pads together. At one point he needed to have his vocal cords repaired. All told, Fraser says, he was in and out of hospitals for almost seven years. . . .

As it turns out, what was behind the sad Brendan Fraser meme was…sadness. His mother had died of cancer just days before the interview. “I buried my mom,” Fraser says. “I think I was in mourning, and I didn’t know what that meant.” He hadn’t done press in a while; suddenly he was sitting on a stool in front of an audience, promoting the third season of a show he’d barely been on. “I wasn’t quite sure what the format was. And I felt like: Man, I got fucking old. Damn, this is the way it’s done now?

He was like one of the characters he used to play in the ’90s, emerging dumbfounded into a new world. “Going to work—in between being in and out of those hospitals, that wasn’t always possible. So what I’m saying to you sounds, I hope, not like some sort of Hey, I had a boo-boo. I needed to put a Band-Aid on it,but more of an account of the reality of what I was walking around in.” For a while, sitting in his living room, he kind of talks around some other things—you can tell there’s maybe more to this story that he’s not yet ready to share. But clearly, it had been a bad decade: “I changed houses; I went through a divorce. Some kids were born. I mean, they were born, but they’re growing up. I was going through things that mold and shape you in ways that you’re not ready for until you go through them.”

Fraser pauses, and his eyes seem to well up, and for the first time in this litany of surgeries and loss, he seems like he might not want to continue. I ask if he needs a break. “I’m okay,” he says. “I think I just need to let some arrows fly.”

He excuses himself as I ponder what this means. A few minutes go by. When he returns, it’s with a leather quiver full of arrows strapped to his back. He steps out onto his porch. Outside, he lofts a bow, nocks an arrow. Down below on his lawn, maybe 75 yards away, is an archery target. He releases the arrow straight into the target’s center. Bull’s-eye. Then nocks a second arrow, and does it again. Finally, he exhales. “I feel a lot better now,” he says. He hands me the bow: “Okay, now you try.”

4. In literature, Lithub posted a short essay by the brilliant Hannah Arendt on mbird-favorite W.H. Auden. It’s a long excerpt below, but I can’t help myself; it’s a marvelous tribute and, for anyone interested in Auden or poetry, worth reading in full:

Stephen Spender, the friend who knew him so well, has stressed that “throughout the whole development of [Auden’s] poetry . . . his theme had been love”—had it not occurred to Auden to change Descartes’ “Cogito ergo sum” by defining man as the “bubble-brained creature” that said “I’m loved therefore I am”?—and at the end of the address that Spender gave in memory of his late friend at Christ Church in Oxford he told of asking Auden about a reading he had given in America: “His face lit up with a smile that altered its lines, and he said: ‘They loved me!’” They did not admire him, they loved him: here, I think, lies the key both to his extraordinary unhappiness and to the extraordinary greatness—intensity—of his poetry. Now, with the sad wisdom of remembrance, I see him as having been an expert in the infinite varieties of unrequited love, among which the infuriating substitution of admiration for love must surely have loomed large. . . 

Rereading Auden’s poems in chronological order and remembering him in the last years of his life, when misery and unhappiness had grown more and more unbearable without, however, in the least touching either the divine gift or the blessed facility of the talent, I have become surer than ever that he was “hurt into poetry” even more than Yeats: “Mad Ireland hurt you into poetry.” Despite Auden’s susceptibility to compassion, public political circumstances were not necessary to hurt him into poetry. What made him a poet was his extraordinary facility with and love for words, but what made him a great poet was the unprotesting willingness with which he yielded to the “curse” of vulnerability to “human unsuccess” on all levels of human existence—vulnerability to the crookedness of the desires, to the infidelities of the heart, to the injustices of the world.

Follow, poet, follow right
To the bottom of the night,
With your unconstraining voice
Still persuade us to rejoice;

With the farming of a verse
Make a vineyard of the curse,
Sing of human unsuccess
In a rapture of distress;

In the deserts of the heart
Let the healing fountain start,
In the prison of his days
Teach the free man how to praise.

Praise is the key word of these lines, not praise of “the best of all possible worlds”—as though it were up to the poet (or the philosopher) to justify God’s creation—but praise that pitches itself against all that is most unsatisfactory in man’s condition on this earth and sucks its own strength from the wound: somehow convinced, as the bards of Ancient Greece were, that the gods spin unhappiness and evil things toward mortals so that they may tell the tales and sing the songs.

5. In humor, a few highlights: first up, Babylon Bee reports, “Man Only Serving in Church Sound Booth to Avoid Greeting Time“:

The man confirmed he has no real passion or enthusiasm for checking sound levels on the thirteen different band members at midweek practice and all Sunday morning. He has no God-given, innate desire to click the slide for the appropriate repetition of the chorus during each worship song. He doesn’t even really know what he’s doing most of the time.

“But frankly,” he said Sunday as he peered out of his hiding place in the church’s sound booth, “it’s all worth it. All the hours of practice, learning all the terminology, pretending that I know what I’m doing as I adjust this or that lever or dial, getting blamed for every single thing that goes wrong in the service—all of it is entirely worthwhile, if I don’t have to shake a single hand.”

For young adults, Babylon Bee’s “Couple Has Baby Just To Be Admitted Into Church Social Circles” may hit a little too close to home. For people of any age, the New Yorker’s hilarious, rather dark piece on “A Typical Day” will hit quite close to home, ht SC:

8:17-8:20 a.m.: Tunnel my body into shapes made from interwoven threads of dyed plant refuse which have been pieced together by poor people a third of the way around the world to match the shapes of my limbs and my trunk.

8:20-8:23 a.m.: Tunnel my body into a different set of interwoven threads because the first one didn’t satisfactorily create the illusion that my body is desirably healthy for copulation as judged by a theoretical stranger whom I may encounter during the day.

8:23-8:25 a.m.: Look for my wallet.

8:25-9 a.m.: Strap myself into a small rocket-room that is powered by the burnt remains of prehistoric kelp, in which I avoid dying by spinning a plastic circle wrapped in optional cow skin.

And it goes on.

6. In culture, two good pieces. First off is a report from The Daily Wire that Norway’s documented penchant for grace in practice extends to its sporting ethos, too, where apparently they don’t keep score the same way U.S. development does:

A huge amount of Norwegian kids are doing sports, so we have very broad recruiting base, and our top sports programs and our kids are very closely connected in our system. They can compete, but we don’t make like No. 1, No. 2, No. 3 before they’re in their 13th year. We think it’s better to be a child in this way because then they can concentrate on having fun and be with their friends and develop. We think the biggest motivation for the kids to do sports that they do it with their friends and they have fun while they’re doing it and we want to keep that feeling throughout their whole career.

Finally, as things on social media continue to be fairly toxic, Silicon Valley faces a dilemma in attitude. Because technology is such a powerful force for expanding human capabilities, people in the Valley have long been more susceptible to the illusion of human perfectibility than others. When the sources of evil are merely circumstantial–lack of education, lack of access, lack of connection to the world–than fixing those circumstances (say, by inventing an Internet) promises to actually propel humanity forward. Against this anthropology, however, you have the actual experience of, say, Twitter, which rarely tends to confirm the most optimistic beliefs about human nature. Gary Olmstead at The American Conservative contributes a reflection on this tension in the life of Mark Zuckerberg, inventor of Facebook:

Facebook has decided it’s “putting a car in reverse that had been driving at full speed in one direction for 14 years.” Although Zuckerberg has always intended “to create another internet, or perhaps another world, inside of Facebook, and to get people to use it as much as possible,” he’s now encouraging changes to the platform, which, he believes, will make people use Facebook less. Perhaps he’s realizing he needs to design for fallibility, addiction, and bombast—not for perfectibility, innocence, and self-control.

But Zuckerberg cannot edit human sin out of Facebook’s algorithms. We are ultimately responsible for our own choices, online and off, which means we all need to have our own Zuckerberg moments in coming days. That means we must realize that the internet does not, in fact, bring out our best selves, and must be approached with temperance and caution. We must confront the beasts we’ve created online: our own miniaturized Facebook Frankenstein monsters, whether they be unkind profile posts, ruined friendships, malicious blog posts, or toxic news feeds. If we don’t, we risk deeper consequences than fake news and nasty election cycles. We risk giving up real community and real virtue for fantastical and fake counterfeits.

Strays: Over at First Things, there’s a fascinating essay on some members of the alt-right’s avowed antagonism to Christianity; our friend Duo Dickinson is blogging through Lent over at Saved by Design; and Mallory Ortberg writes about Bible verses she has quoted to her dog, to no effect. Finally, we’re conferencing in Tyler, TX this weekend, which is doing another iteration of its fantastic Mockingbird Fanzine (bottom). Happy weekend!