Another Week Ends

1. This morning, I found myself engrossed in The Guardian’s latest “long read,” an essay by Dina […]

CJ Green / 8.25.17

1. This morning, I found myself engrossed in The Guardian’s latest “long read,” an essay by Dina Nayeri, “Yearning for the End of the World.” Nayeri writes about growing up in Iran during the revolution, attending an underground church that ached for the Rapture. Her family fled to America in 1989, only to find a similar eschatology there. Her story traces a somewhat obvious trajectory from one extreme to the other—from Revelation to Christopher Hitchens—but not without making some perceptive observations first:

In my intimate hilltop church [in Oklahoma], discussions took on a frantic, impatient new tone. “We live in end times!” our congregation often said, instead of “the end is near”. Now the Rapture wasn’t just on the horizon; it was a daily possibility. Though I was young, I was surprised to hear the language of the refugee in their mouths: “We are exiles on Earth,” they said, as if to deny involvement. “We’re citizens of heaven.” This casual disavowal was like a pantomime of displacement, containing nothing of the reluctance of the true refugee, the sorrow of being forced to leave home. “We’re leaving soon!” they said happily.

Two things from the above: first, we can’t “deny our involvement” with the world. As cringeworthy a word as “complicit” has become, it nevertheless aptly describes our relationship to the world, regardless of what we do (cf. this past Sunday’s lectionary reading, Mt 15:19). Second, our default condition is one of homesickness, which we see in various forms of “rapturous” worldviews, from Iran to Oklahoma.

As an aside, during college, I (a lapsed Catholic) asked a Baptist friend what the Rapture was. This friend had scored a near-perfect SAT and was by all accounts a “well-educated elite,” and he told me all about the end-times and said that the Antichrist would be someone well-liked: “Maybe Oprah.”

Back to Nayeri, she goes on to describe the universal essence of this eschatology:

After I gave up my own apocalyptic obsessions, I began to notice evidence of rapturous thinking elsewhere—and not only among evangelical Christians. Sometimes I saw the signs in those wishing for a return to the past: the elderly, social conservatives. The more the rest of society seemed to reject their identity, the more they craved a reckoning, something decisive and game-changing to stop the creep into the unfamiliar…

Every generation thinks the world is ending. And for the oldest among us, it is true—their world is ending. Social, economic and technological change has engulfed them so slowly that they didn’t even notice it happening. Suddenly home looks like a foreign place. It’s messy and threatening, and, as the underground Christians in Iran believed, it’s not their mess.… And what is to be done when it seems that history has no direction but the grave? All you can hope for is a sudden removal from the narrative, a sharp left turn, a deus ex machina. What you desire most is a violent disruption.

2. Swimming through similar apocalyptic waters, the following article reconciles our various seemingly incompatible versions of Christ: the passive, crucified lamb versus the vindictive judge. Before the Judgment Seat of Christ by Fr. Stephen Freeman (ht RS):

My childhood Christianity made a huge distinction between the Jesus of the Cross and the Jesus of Judgment Day. For all intents and purposes, they were two different entities. Jesus on the Cross was meek and mild. This, however, was treated like a temporary feint. The “real” Jesus was the one who was coming again and there was to be nothing meek or mild about that coming. The Cross was past tense. The coming throne could be seen in Revelation 20, and this was taken to be the true and permanent revelation of Christ.

There is so much lost in this modern mis-reading of Revelation. The champion of that book is the “Lamb who was slain,” and it is this Lamb who is most closely associated with “Him who sits upon the throne.” The Great Irony of the Christian gospel, is that all of these images of power are most clearly manifest in the Crucified Christ. Thus St. Paul says that he is determined to know only “Christ Crucified.” (1 Cor. 2:2). St. Paul does not treat this as a temporary, passing image, but the very image of God: “Christ crucified…the power of God and the wisdom of God.” (1 Cor. 2:2-3). This is not a momentary diversion. The Lamb is slain from the foundation of the world. It is an eternal image and revelation.

It is Christ Crucified that reveals all things to be what they truly are. It unmasks every pretense of uprightness and self-justification. It welcomes the thief while the hypocrisy of others drives them away. This is the judgment that we avoid. Think back to the last argument you had. Perhaps you were in the right. Take that argument and stand before Christ on the Cross. For myself, I cannot imagine any such argument that I’ve had that isn’t revealed in its absurdity and emptiness in that context. Presently, we live in a world of arguments. Enslaved to our own shame and anger, we are slowly pulling each other down towards an abyss of meaninglessness. All of this is taking place in the presence of the Crucified Christ. It takes place before the dread judgment seat.

(For further reading about the judgment seat, check out this recent entry in our Hopelessly Devoted series. And for more on eschatology, don’t miss Will McD’s “Good News at World’s End.”)

3. Some welcome humor from The Babylon Bee: Angry Arminian Mob Pulls Down Statue Of John Calvin. A quick excerpt:

“We encourage all citizens to stay indoors as this dangerous gang of theological hooligans roams the streets,” police chief Ed Patterson said at a press conference. “When you get the Arminians going, there’s no extent to the depravity they can display.”

Also, from Sad and Useless: If Inspirational Posters Told the Truth. And from the ever-faithful McSweeney’s: I’m Cherishing All the Joys of Being a New Parent, the Laughs, the Love, the Likes on Social Media.

4. In the pop-psych dept, Louis Menand (in the recent New Yorker) explores why exactly Freud survives—why, despite being widely disputed and debunked time and time again, he continues to influence psychiatry even today.

Menand explains how Freud’s twentieth-century enthusiasts shaped the field, and how the fallout from their disillusionment led to his (almost!) universal rejection. A new, extremely thorough book by one such “revisionist”, Frederick Crews, is out this week, entitled Freud: The Making of an Illusion.

And the question drumming quietly behind Menand’s entire piece is this: Why would someone write an 800-page book about why Freud sucks? Isn’t that a little obsessive? Is something repressed coming to light…? You can see where this is going.

Even though Freud’s personal life remains contested, his work nevertheless asks important questions: Why do we do the things we do? Why can’t we just be good? Not all (or even most) of Freud’s theories hold up, but the answer to their questions, obviously, aren’t obvious. As Menand points out, “Even today, in many cases, we are basically throwing chemicals at the brain and hoping for the best. Hit or miss is how a lot of progress is made. You can call it science or not.” It is Freud’s view of the human condition that remains his legacy:

What is really going on are things that we are denying or repressing or sublimating or projecting onto the therapist by the mechanism of transference, and the goal of therapy is to bring those things to light…

For many years, Freud was written about as an intrepid scientist who dared to descend into the foul rag-and-bone shop of the mind, and who emerged as the embodiment of a tragic wisdom—a man who could face up to the terrible fact that a narcissus is never just a narcissus, that underneath the mind’s trapdoor is a snake pit of desire and aggression, and, knowing all this, was still able to take tea with his guests… That persona helped Freud to evolve, in the popular imagination, from a scientist into a kind of poet of the mind. And the thing about poets is that they cannot be refuted. No one asks of “Paradise Lost”: But is it true? Freud and his concepts, now converted into metaphors, joined the legion of the undead.

Another person whose virtues were at odds with their vices was everyone Ben Franklin. The following link, from the WSJ, shows what happens when a discussion group tries to implement age-old virtues: What Would Ben Franklin Say?

5. In another one from The Guardian, Why We Fell For Clean Eating, Bee Wilson vigorously affirms something we’ve noticed over and over and over: that we eat religiously no matter what our religion. Wilson traces the “messianic” tones of clean eating programs and uncovers the cult-like behavior of clean-eaters:

But why, [geneticist Dr. Giles] Yeo asks, do these authors not simply say “I am publishing a very good vegetarian cookbook” and stop there, instead of making larger claims about the power of vegetables to beautify or prevent disease? …

You can’t found a new faith system with the words “I am publishing a very good vegetarian cookbook”. For this, you need something stronger. You need the assurance of make-believe, whispered sweetly. Grind this cauliflower into tiny pieces and you can make a special kind of no-carb rice! Avoid all sugar and your skin will shimmer! Among other things, clean eating confirms how vulnerable and lost millions of us feel about diet—which really means how lost we feel about our own bodies. We are so unmoored that we will put our faith in any master who promises us that we, too, can become pure and good.

6. With the recent death of Jerry Lewis, NPR re-played an interview he did with Dave Davies on Fresh Air, about his childhood and career, which included several good examples of what we’d describe as a “low anthropology”: The first is about Jerry’s portrayal of Buddy Love in The Nutty Professor:

GROSS: One of your most popular movies is “The Nutty Professor.”

LEWIS: Right.

GROSS: And you play a college professor who’s (laughter) very nutty and very sexually afraid, even though he has this huge crush on somebody. But you swallow this potion. And…you become another character. And that character is Buddy Love, who’s this kind of suave but not very nice singer and pianist—who theoretically would have women lying at his feet…And in some people’s minds, like, in that movie, it’s like you’re Martin and Lewis, (laughter), you know? Like, you’re playing both characters. Did you see it that way?

LEWIS: Oh, absolutely not. What Buddy Love was…

GROSS: Because that character’s not nice.

LEWIS: Well, not only not nice but I wrote him with every recollection that I had in my life of rude, discourteous, ill-mannered people. I made a total combination of all the bad stuff that is within some kind of men…The thing that really shocked me was I hated the character. Buddy Love, to me, was something that was just too much. And then we’re getting all kinds of mail, women loved him. I couldn’t believe it.

I’ll let our friend Jason Thompson take it from here:

“What I see going on here is a classic example of how we tend to project evil onto other people, or we personify it as Lewis literally did in creating Buddy Love… Our self-righteousness leads us to identify ‘sin’ and ‘sinners’ as something/someone outside of us…as opposed to inside of us. Lewis was shocked firstly that he hated Buddy Love—like King David’s indignation at the man in Nathan’s parable, we too are horrified by the manifestation and caricature of sin so easily recognizable in and as ‘other people’… We have no idea that we are seeing a mirror of ourselves! Like comedy, we end up as the ones with egg (or maybe a cream pie) on our faces. The law makes us the butt of the joke, the punchline! Much like the lawyer in Luke 10 on whom Jesus used the law to confound: “Who is my neighbor?…” The law makes us and our absurdity the laughing stock…so that the gospel can give us the lightness and hilarity of not needing to take ourselves seriously (cf. Mockingbird’s Law & Gospel).

The second clip in the interview (below) equally reflects a low anthropology, as Jerry reflects on a 12-year period during which a malicious stalker terrorized and threatened him and his family. Insightful is his statement about how his deluded self-image as this compassionate human being was forcefully torn down…and how shocked he was again at his own depravity… There seem to be these moments in our lives where severe circumstances break through the veneer and defense of well-polished fortresses of beautifully written resumes. We are left with nowhere to run/hide…we are forced against our will to confess the wickedness in us… I like to think this is God using the law to do its perfect, damning, lethal work. We will/can never see or look at ourselves. Only an intervention from the Lord can free us from our self made prisons of self righteousness…”

LEWIS: I had five stalkers in my career. The last one, who we had legal papers, restraining orders and everything else—he wouldn’t give up. He threatened my daughter. And that was the last thing he was ever going to do. So we watched very closely. We got him put in jail. And I never thought I would see the day when I could be this compassionate human being who was happy to hear someone died. I don’t really believe that I ever thought that about anything other than Hitler. But the feeling was terrible—just the thought of someone’s life going away. But in truth, it was the only chance we had at peace of mind. 

Jason points out, “And there’s a better death that is your only chance at peace of mind…”

7. For social science, we’ve got a humorous one by Andy Kessler from The Wall Street Journal: Studies Are Usually Bunk, Study Shows (ht MM). This sounds like a joke, but it’s not (I don’t think). The paragraph (reproduced below) about Steph Curry and Malcolm Gladwell had me laughing out loud:

Can these studies be trusted? Doubtful. Hands down, the two most dangerous words in the English language today are “studies show.” …

Malcolm Gladwell is the master. In his 2008 book, “Outlier,” he argues that studies show no one is born better than anyone else. Instead success comes to those who put in 10,000 hours of practice. That does sound right, but maybe Steph Curry shoots hoops for 10,000 hours because he is better than everyone at basketball in the first place. Meanwhile I watch 10,000 hours of TV. Facing criticism, Mr. Gladwell somewhat recanted: “In cognitively demanding fields, there are no naturals.” News alert: Professional sports are cognitively demanding.

When reading people like Mr. Gladwell, you’re probably thinking many of the studies’ conclusions sound right but don’t really reflect your own experience. That’s probably because you’re not a hung-over grad student. Andrew Ferguson of the Weekly Standard studied behavioral economic studies and discovered many are done by grad students observing their peers doing trivial tasks. Then researchers draw hard conclusions from this. Rather than a study of human nature, behavioral science is, Mr. Ferguson observes, “the study of college kids in psych labs.”



2 responses to “Another Week Ends: The End of the World, the Illusion of Sigmund Freud, the Anthropology of Jerry Lewis, Clean Eating, Tech Panic, and the Hangovers of Young Behavioral Scientists”

  1. Josh Retterer says:

    Love this CJ!

  2. David Zahl says:

    What a weekender CJ, thank you. That Fr Freeman just keeps it coming…! Some day I hope we’ll hear his story. Love Jason’s comments on Jerry Lewis too and that McSweeneys article is up there with their best, to say nothing of GNR in Image. Def a week when I needed the reminder that the web yields some good along with the ugly.

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