Another Week Ends

1. Writing in The NY Times Magazine this past weekend, Rachel Cusk pondered “The Age […]

David Zahl / 2.17.17

1. Writing in The NY Times Magazine this past weekend, Rachel Cusk pondered “The Age of Rudeness.” Her jumping off point likely goes without saying, and yet, I was refreshed by how much fresh ground the essay tilled. Namely, we laud honesty and authenticity but demonize rudeness, when the line between them is often a very thin and fluctuating one. What is the moral status of rudeness? Cusk asks–why might it have possibly cost Hillary the election (“basket of deplorables”) and won it for Trump? When does decorum cease to facilitate discourse (a vehicle of communication/connection) and begin to stifle it (a vehicle of manipulation and resentment)? Cusk implies that manners are often employed, unwittingly or not, as instruments of power, a way for the educated to control language/expression. Yet they can be the means of reconciliation as well, her relationship with her parents notwithstanding. I’m not sure we get a clear-cut answer, but I was definitely not expecting JC to make such an extended appearance:

The social code remains unwritten, and it has always interested me how many problems this poses in the matter of ascertaining the truth. The truth often appears in the guise of a threat to the social code. It has this in common with rudeness. When people tell the truth, they can experience a feeling of release from pretense that is perhaps similar to the release of rudeness. It might follow that people can mistake truth for rudeness, and rudeness for truth…

In the Bible, Satan is not rude — he is usually rather charming — but the people who act in his service are. Jesus, on the other hand, often comes across as somewhat terse. Indeed, many of the people he encounters find him direct to the point of rudeness. The test, it is clear, is to tell rudeness from truth, and in the Bible that test is often failed. An unambiguous event — violence — is therefore required. The episode of the crucifixion is an orgy of rudeness whose villains are impossible to miss. The uncouth conduct of the Roman soldiers at the foot of the cross, for instance, can be seen in no other light: Anyone thinking that Jesus could have done a bit more to avoid his fate is offered this lasting example of humanity’s incurable awfulness. They know not what they do, was Jesus’ comment on his tormentors. Forgive them.

Children are the members of our society most often accused of being rude; they are also the most innocent…

The rudeness of public figures gives pleasure and relief, it is clear, to their audiences. Perhaps what they experience is not the possibility of actual violence but a sort of intellectual unbuttoning, a freedom from the constraint of language…

What Jesus did was sacrifice himself, use his body to translate word to deed, to make evil visible. While being crucified, he remained for the most part polite… This might be a dangerous time for politeness. It might involve sacrifices. It might involve turning the other cheek.

Sounds a bit like Christ is at his “rudest” when preaching the law and his most “polite” when imputing to/forgiving sinners. And yet, it seems pretty rude to allow a stranger to interrupt a dinner party (that you’re not hosting) so they can wash your feet, and what’s more gracious than that? The categories here are admittedly pretty flimsy. But somewhere there’s a doctoral dissertation waiting to be written… In the meantime, I’m thankful that God’s grace doesn’t abide by any of our codes of etiquette, that the Holy Spirit is no gentleman.

2. The Wall Street Journal published a sympathetic review of Donna Freitas’ beautifully titled new book The Happiness Effect: How Social Media Is Driving A Generation To Appear Perfect at Any Cost. Par for the course, perhaps, but what a course…! And it sounds like Freitas has covered the ground well:

Social media sites can be addictive. Almost as addictive: complaining about what social media does to young people…

The real downside of Facebook, Instagram and their ilk, Ms. Freitas argues, is constant cheeriness. Young people learn that any hint of unhappiness or failure may not be posted; it can haunt their futures and damage their “brands.” This imperative then creates a vicious circle. “Because young people feel so pressured to post happy things on social media, most of what everyone sees on social media from their peers are happy things; as a result, they often feel inferior because they aren’t actually happy all the time,” Ms. Freitas writes. Young people feel that they have to be online almost all the time, but they cannot share their real selves there, a situation that produces even greater unhappiness. “For better or worse, students are becoming masters of appearing happy, at significant cost,” she says…

Some of her interviews contain real gems. One woman reported being so attached to her phone that, mugged for it on a bus, she pursued the muggers and to get it back gave them $150 (that, apparently, they hadn’t asked for previously).

3. Some pretty funny stuff out there this week, including The Bee’s Local Believer Shows No Evidence Of Salvation Before Morning Coffee and McSweeney’s Parents’ Manhattan Kindergarten Application Essay, ht SP. My personal favorite would have to be “Valentine’s Day Poems for Married People”. Oh man.

4. Speaking of Valentines, the Journal weighed in the other day on What ‘La La Land’ and ‘Fifty Shades’ Get Wrong About Love. The title is a bit misleading, though, at least in relation to the former film (and what the article actually says). Namely:

“La La Land” is more radical in its way. It’s a genuine departure from the typical romantic formula because ambition, in the end, trumps love. The seemingly ill-assorted hero and heroine encourage and applaud each other—he tempering her insecurity and she his grandiosity—but they can’t figure out how to stay together through a temporary separation. When lovers are too immature to deal with conflicts, love does not conquer all. It is a darker but perhaps more realistic view of the two-career relationship than we usually get at the movies.

Despite their self-consciously naughty accouterments, the “Fifty Shades” movies are actually a steamy variant of a very old fantasy: the idea that the love of a good woman—and in this case, her submission to degrading sexual practices to save her beloved from his tortured past—can transform a cold man into a warm one. But it never does. It’s a pernicious fantasy of relentless hope, whose harmful effects I see every day in my psychotherapy practice.

5. In the dramatic irony department, your assigned weekend viewing is the short documentary from Aeon, Three Walls, which looks into the origins of the modern evil known as… The Cubicle. In short, “The Creator Of The Cubicle Didn’t Intend For His Invention To Be So Terribly Soul Sucking.” Some killer soundbites scattered throughout:

6. The Other Journal conducted an engrossing and provocative interview with philosopher/theologian Carl Raschke recently. It’s dense, but very much worth the time it takes to untangle the core insights. We talk more about this on The Mockingcast this week.

Theorists of neoliberalism point out that neoliberalism is essentially an economic system that is based on consumerism, on what Wendy Brown calls the “entrepreneurship of the self.” That is, neoliberalism is based on the creation of new subjectivities that are largely consumer subjectivities… According to Brown, with the production of new subjectivities, we have developed an ethos of spiritual consumerism… These subjectivities are very personal; they are divorced from tradition; and there is no institutional infrastructure to support them…

Many Protestant denominational seminaries perform ecumenics within a framework that attempts to preserve their own heritage rather than throwing away everything about what it means to call oneself a Methodist, Catholic, progressive Christian, or evangelical, announcing a new epoché as radical as René Descartes or Edmund Husserl, and staring the singularity in the face. I think that once we are willing to let go of our institutional commitments, which is what Jesus did in terms of the history of Judaism, we might be surprised and shocked. Jesus says, “I’m the Messiah, this is what the messiah really means—you’re staring the singularity in the face, which is me,” and of course, the people of his time had no idea what he was talking about, and he went to the cross. Now we’re in the same boat: the Messiah is there, but we’re missing it. We don’t want to look at it. We have too much to preserve.

Identity is basically an effort to try to capture something that has been lost. It’s not an effort to form something new. In that sense, identity politics and identity theory are reactionary; they are not progressive. This is not surprising. The Roman Empire was able to manipulate identity for the sake of the grand imperium, the new empire; likewise, the grand imperium of institutionalized neoliberalism now manipulates identities in the same way… And so religious studies, you might say, has become, as a field, the effective, offshored management system for the neoliberal global economy, which forages for religious identities.

7. Downer of the Week (in a sort of good way) would have to be “Unraveling Love Stories” by Gabriel Rockhill in The NY Times, which details the true stuff-of-life with both poetry and a touch of rationalization: how double lives develop and relationships fall apart, i.e. the dynamics of the “Romans 7 moment” that often occurs in midlife, after the ascent stage is over. Not sure I’d characterize midlife ‘acting out’ in such (necessarily) positive terms–see D. Brooks’ line in today’s video about competing restraints–but certainly the column reveals just how much “narrative” has come to serve as a euphemism for Law.

At some point, it seems, life cracks. It breaks up. Half of it, or more, goes underground, if it wasn’t there before. People — or, at least, some people — go through the motions of work, relationships and home life, but only part of them is present. The rest is in some parallel universe that only they, or a few close friends, actually know…

Cracks in the foundations of our life narratives can have the surprising effect of clearing space for unforeseeable developments. Like the seeds that sprout in toxic soil, or push up through slabs of oppressive concrete, re-emergence and reinvention become possible. Instead of playing out familiar plotlines, which would otherwise escort us all the way to the tomb, we can take over the screenplays of our lives, and we can begin to spin the most quixotic yarns, set in a wilderness untamed by moralism, careerism and the strictures of conformism.

Although these types of crisis are typically affiliated with midlife, they can, and of course do, happen at any time. From childhood to old age, there is hardly a moment when one is not confronted by scripted life… Crisis is also about accepting the fact that life does not sew up its loose ends like a well-crafted narrative. 

In other words, the Muppets had it right:

8. Let’s close on an upbeat note. Pete Holmes’ (and Judd Apatow’s) new TV series, Crashing, debuts this weekend on HBO, and I for one cannot wait. Not only cause You Made It Weird has become such a fave but because of the write-up in The Daily Beast:

After his divorce, Holmes says he would try to listen to [Joel] Osteen, who he “really loved” at the time. “It just couldn’t find anywhere to land anymore,” he says. “When everything was going right, it made perfect sense. Then things went sideways.” The drift away from and back toward religion is part of the narrative Holmes hopes to explore in future seasons of Crashing, should he get the opportunity.

“Losing your faith is an essential part of having a three-dimensional, vivid, vibrant faith,” he says now, quoting Jesus as readily as he quoted Mitch Hedberg earlier in our conversation. “I think that’s what Jesus is talking about when he says, ‘Whoever wants to gain his life must lose it.’

“I think it’s very significant that in any hero’s journey—you start in the Shire and then you come back,” he says. “But when you come back, you’re different. Everything’s where you left it, but you’ve changed. My spiritual journey definitely had me leave and it had me wounded and it had me scared. I’m back in a similar place, but it’s also completely different.”…

“I was really drawn to the fact that it was also about religion,” Apatow says, noting that spirituality had been on his mind lately as well. “The idea of a young, naive, religious comedian trying to navigate the dark waters of the New York comedy scene seemed like a great way to bring up all sort of issues for someone who’s trying to keep their soul while also trying to be a comedian.”



4 responses to “Another Week Ends: Rude Saviors, Happy Students, Married Valentines, Fifty Shades, Christo-Singularity and Crashing

  1. Robert says:

    Thank you for doing this good work each Friday.

  2. David Zahl says:

    Thanks Robert. It’s a labor of love.

    First episode of Crashing was phenomenal, btw. Very promising.

  3. David Morton says:

    As for the cubicle video, is it strange of me that all I could ask myself was “where do all these people work that they can manage to find the nice, HIGH-WALLED cubicles in which to work???”

    Ten years I searched for a high-walled cubicle environment.
    Ten years I worked in the “open office” or “low walled cubicle” concept.
    Ten years I’ve harbored jealousy over the privacy.

    Programmers have needs, ya know???

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