Another Week Ends

Click here to listen to this week’s episode of The Mockingcast, which features an interview […]

David Zahl / 5.13.16

Click here to listen to this week’s episode of The Mockingcast, which features an interview with Howard professor of Homiletics Kenyatta Gilbert.

1. What a glorious day it is when you wake up to a new single by The Stone Roses! I’m going to withhold judgment til I’ve had a bit more time to sit with it, but woah that guitar solo:

2. Next, writing for The NY Times magazine, Amanda Hess asks, What Do Our Online Avatars Reveal About Us? A lot, as it turns out. The stakes are theologically richer than meets the eye too:

The word “avatar” originates in Hinduism, where it refers to a god descending to the earth in mortal form… The technological co-opting of the word replicated the power dynamic in the original avatar myth — the avatar helps a higher being interact with a lesser realm, one he or she controls…. But in the mixed-use spaces of the Internet — where some people were playing themselves and others were hoping to play tricks — avatars became ambiguous. Bad actors could sulk under the cover of the Web while they pasted reputation-killing content on a message board or terrifying threats on Twitter. Avatars became tools for stoking chaos instead of enforcing order...

Tinder-5When social networking arose, mammoth platforms like Facebook and Linked­In chose to strip the mask away… These are “platforms” with “profiles” and “accounts.” On Facebook, you’re supposed to just be “you” — no particular technological prowess required, and no avatar necessary to translate yourself to the new medium. That’s the new tech fantasy, anyway.

But of course, on Facebook, our profile pictures are avatars, too: emblems of our success, our good grooming, our unflap­pable happiness. In fact, proliferating online platforms have prompted us to create more and more conceptions of ourselves to send off into the world. Showing up, looking good, being clever and seeming like you really care in all these different spaces can feel like a video game set to the hardest level, except you only get one life.

Life as a video game? Set to the hardest level? If the shoe fits

3. On a related presentation anxiety note, the funniest thing I’ve come across this week would have to be the tumblr called “The Humanitarians of Tinder”, which documents the apparently quite popular practice of parlaying voluntourism into social/sexual capital. Cringey, yes, but hilarious. The site was referenced in an excellent essay on Medium by Courtney Martin, “The Reductive Seduction of Other People’s Problems”, which touches on something that one comes across not just in online circles but in church missions ones as well, i.e., the more exotic/impoverished/remote the location, the more righteous the mission. Which (most of the time) has as much to do with self-conception as actual need or opportunity. Martin wisely points out:

The “likes” one gets for being an international do-gooder might be greater than for, say, working on homelessness in Indianapolis. One seems glamorous, while the other reminds people of what they neglect while walking to work.

It’s hard to avoid cynicism in this arena, especially since nobody wants to poo-poo a college student’s desire to spend the summer working with orphans in Zambia. There are plenty of more self-absorbed ways to spend three months. Yet at she notes, going abroad is not simply more glamorous than staying a home, it can be an act of self-defense. That is, we eliminate the risk that we might come across ourselves–or others that look like us–in the bread line. It keeps the problem “out there”, distant and contained. Kind of like the balls in this video, which may be the most Japanese thing I’ve ever seen:

4. The winner of May’s headline-of-the-month award goes to The Telegraph for “Vicars urged to rein in the jokes and rambling anecdotes in sermons”. (The lead image could also win some awards). My immediate reaction was, perhaps these English clergy just need better jokes. But those being polled have a point: humor from the pulpit is tricky. Too much of it and the sermon becomes a self-aggrandizing performance or an awkward plea for public affirmation, but too little (esp of the self-effacing variety) and listeners’ walls remain safely up, reinforcing the notion that the religious world is an alternate sphere of existence, freighted with an inflated sense of propriety, where people speak in different kinds of voices and use different kinds of words (as per Andy Kind’s wonderful closing remarks in the article). Of course, forced humor is terrible in any context. Not much else to say on the subject other than what Paul Walker wrote in his authoritative article in the Church Issue (which, if you haven’t read, is a run-don’t-walk situation) and what was covered in this weeks’ Mockingcast.

5. While we’re on the subject of humor, this is a blow: yesterday Mallory Ortberg and Nichole Cliffe announced that after three years of chock-a-block activity, they’re closing The Toast. You can read their cogent and predictably winsome explanation here, but for a sense of what we’re losing, check out a couple of Mallory’s recent surrealist animal takedowns, “Everything What’s Wrong Of Possums: It’s All Of Them” and “Everything That’s Wrong Of Raccoons”.

6. As a follow-up to that magnificent William James quote we posted earlier this week, The Atlantic ran an interview with psychologist Kristen Neff on “Why Self-Compassion Works Better Than Self-Esteem”. She opens with the theory that the self-esteem movement is largely responsible for producing a generation of emotionally fragile narcissists, and goes from there:

At least in American society, that in order to have high self-esteem, you have to feel special and above-average… And so the problem is we’re constantly comparing ourselves to others. We try to puff ourselves up. We have what’s called self-enhancement bias, where we see ourselves as better in almost any culturally valued trait. There’s a large body of research showing that bullying is largely caused by the quest for high self-esteem—the process of feeling special and better-than.

The real problem with that is self-esteem is only available when we succeed. But when we fail, self-esteem deserts us, which is precisely when we need it most. And some people argue that the instability of self-esteem going up and down is more damaging than the level of self-esteem itself…

Neff then brings up the notion of “self-compassion”, which nearly doubles as grace to “self-esteem”s law. Nearly. I was particularly intrigued by the distinction she makes between a self-understanding that alienates a person from others (AKA a high anthropology: “I’m okay because I’m special in X, Y, or Z regard”) vs one which unites them with their fellow humans (AKA a low anthropology: “I’m okay because everyone fails sometimes at X, Y, or Z). You could even go so far as to say that in one case, self-worth is tied to ‘doing’ and therefore contingent, whereas in the other it is tied instead to ‘being’ and therefore categorical:

tumblr_o5m9a4mNuT1ttmx9fo1_1280I would argue that self-compassion also provides a sense of self-worth, but it’s not linked to narcissism the way self-esteem is. It’s not linked to social comparison the way self-esteem is, and it’s not contingent, because you have self-compassion both when you fail and when you succeed. The sense of self-worth that comes from being kind to yourself is much more stable over time than the sense of self-worth that comes from judging yourself positively….

A big [finding in the research], which a lot of people just can’t quite believe, is that [self-compassion] enhances motivation. People who are more self-compassionate, when they fail, they’re less afraid of failure. There was a study where helping people be more self-compassionate about failure [on a test], later on when they had a chance to study for a second test, they actually studied longer than people who were not told to be self-compassionate. Because, basically, it creates an environment where it’s safe to fail, so self-compassionate people are often more likely to try again. They also have more self-confidence, because they aren’t cutting themselves down all the time.

While much of what Neff outlines here couldn’t be more sympathetic, from a Christian point of view the word “self-” presents a bit of a stumbling block, which the interviewer (Olga Khazan) unintentionally gets at in one of her questions. That is, “self-compassion” seems to presume we have the means to summon the correct mental attitude toward ourselves–a friendly rather than antagonistic one–if only we practice hard enough. It sounds nice but flatters our capabilities, ignoring the all-too-common reality that we’re often not very nice or compassionate to others (and ourselves) even when we know we should be (Romans 7). I mean, what if the thing we need to be compassionate to ourselves about is our lack of self-compassion? Thankfully, God comes into the picture when the self runs out of steam. In these terms, one wonders if the ultimate hope for epidemic narcissism would be for human worth to be prescribed by someone other than the self, AKA imputed.

It’s telling, though, (and pretty amusing) that Neff is asked to answer the Antinomian charge:

Khazan: Is there a risk, though, that you can sort of forgive yourself for too much?

Neff: That’s another surprising finding. People who are more self-compassionate are more likely to take personal responsibility for harming others and are more likely to apologize. When it’s safe to make a mistake and you have the resources to say, “I can’t believe I said that…” Self-compassion gives you the resources to acknowledge that and see yourself clearly, because you’re not saying you’re a horrible person, you’re just saying, “Wow, I was out of line there.” And that actually increases your ability to take responsibility and apologize.

There you have it, folks. Social science never lies.

7. Over at The Washington Post, Ann Hornaday penned an encourage profile of an emerging genre of cinema which she dubs “Christian Films for the Rest of Us”. She defines these as:

“…films that do engage explicitly with Christianity, not in the spirit of preaching to the choir, but with the kind of clear-eyed compassion, tough realism and observant humor that all movies, religious or otherwise, can and should aspire to. These are films in which characters pray, go to church and invoke God as an understated matter of course, not in order to flag them as morally superior or naively “quirky.” The 2007 indie comedy “Lars and the Real Girl” did just that, as did “You Can Count On Me,” “The Way” and, more recently, Bob Nelson’s wonderful “The Confirmation.”

The impetus for the article is the release of Rodrigo Garcia’s Last Days in the Desert, which stars Ewan Mcgregor as both Jesus and Lucifer and takes place during a well-known forty days. Our friend Josh Encinias had the opportunity to interview Garcia, who also happens to be the son of magical realist author Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and needless to say, the film sounds highly intriguing. As does another that Hornaday mentions–The Confirmation–talk about an irresistible description:

The story of a recovering alcoholic reconnecting with his son over the course of an eventful weekend, “The Confirmation” might be my favorite kind of Christian movie — the kind that, in author Barbara Brown Taylor’s words, “prizes holy ignorance more highly than religious certainty.” It’s about flawed protagonists doing the best they can by one another, falling and getting up again, going to church but not always feeling at home there, finding solace and mercy and redemption — not when they’re quoting Scripture or casting their eyes heavenward, but when they’re engaged in the painful, not always pretty, often laughably absurd work of loving one another. Anchored by a wounded, wonderfully hangdog lead performance by Clive Owen, “The Confirmation” forms an apt bookend to “Last Days in the Desert” as a depiction of faith and fallibility that rings true for those who consider themselves practicing Christians — with an emphasis on “practicing.”

8. Finally, the reviews for Whit Stillman’s Love and Friendship are coming in and they’re phenomenal! 100% on Rotten Tomatoes after 51 reviews. The best and most wide-ranging thus far comes from Laura Miller at Slate. Speaking of Stillman, I’m proud to announce that this summer, Mockingbird is hosting a special series of screenings at the Avon Theater in Stamford, CT entitled “Religious Hope from the Movies”. The first film we’ve selected, which will be shown on Weds June 22nd (save the date!), is Stillman’s Barcelona, and yours truly will be on hand to give a short introduction, along with several other special guests. Hope you can come.