Another Week Ends

1. Currently the most talked-about man in the world, aside from Anthony Fauci I suppose, […]

CJ Green / 5.8.20

1. Currently the most talked-about man in the world, aside from Anthony Fauci I suppose, might be Job — that long-sufferer from the land of “Uz” — because now, in this pandemic, aren’t we all Job? Fearing God, turning away from evil, rising early in the morning and making burnt-offerings on behalf of our children. No? Well, still. Suffering is at the forefront of our minds and its purposes remain a mystery. Yet taken at face value, the story of Job offers no answers and little comfort. The very basis of it, that God would conspire against an innocent man, is troubling enough, not to mention the book’s shaky resolution. But in the gospels, two of Job’s key characters merge: the presiding God above, and the suffering man below.

Today’s first link comes from would-have-been-a-Mockingbird-keynote Tom Holland, who in an article for the Telegraph, points out that Christianity offers a bold response to suffering. From the passion of Jesus, Christians came to believe that “there was no human existence so wretched, none so tortured or vulnerable, that it did not bear witness to the image of God.”

In the Roman Empire, hospitals had existed solely to prevent slaves and soldiers from malingering. In Christendom they served as practical manifestations of a far more compassionate conviction: that the attention of doctors and nurses should not just be a perk of the rich. The National Health Service has its roots sunk deep into Christian soil. No coincidence that the Prime Minister, when he fell dangerously ill, should have been rushed to a hospital named after one of Christ’s disciples.

Nevertheless, there is a paradox. Over the course of the millennia, the Church’s teachings on the obligation of the rich and healthy to care for the poor and sick have proven so successful that they no longer depend on the Church itself. Its ancient sense of mission — to care for the vulnerable and the weak — has been largely subsumed within the welfare state. The sense of calling felt by Christians to care for the victims of pandemics, one that reaches back to the terrible plagues that swept the Roman world in the first and second centuries, has been nationalised. The NHS is now the object of our reverence.

Holland continues that if Christianity is to serve any purpose during troubling times, it must do more than point people to, say, the CDC website. It must get comfortable being weird:

The welfare state can provide care for the sick, but it cannot provide what Christianity, over the course of the past 2,000 years, has provided to so many countless people, and to such transformational effect: an explanation for the existence of suffering that offers the assurance as well that all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well. Such a message, in a time of “noisome pestilence,” has historically proved a comforting one — and therefore, by rights, the sweep of coronavirus should present Christian leaders with an opportunity.

Yet it is one that all the mainstream churches in this country seem to be fumbling. Rather than speaking with the voice of prophecy, rather than explaining to a grieving and anxious people how the dead will rise into the blaze of eternal life, rather than proclaiming the miracles and mysteries that they uniquely exist to proclaim, church leaders seem to have opted instead to talk like middle managers.

Parroting the slogans of the Department of Health and Social Care may conceivably help save lives — but it seems unlikely to win many souls. If ever there were a time for the churches to wrestle with the questions that so tormented Job, a time of global pandemic would surely seem to be it. If they are not to seem merely eccentric branch offices of the welfare state, they need to recapture their confidence, and take a risk: the risk of seeming odd.

2. An example of the kind of oddness Holland has in mind comes from a recent report by Emma Green, at the Atlantic. In “Nuns v. Coronavirus,” Green describes a long-term care facility where one-fifth of the residents have died in recent months. The facility’s nuns and caregivers seem to be, in St. Paul’s words, “afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed.” In Green’s telling:

Both Flo and Karen are lifelong Catholics, and they believe firmly in the promise of Christianity. “When you’re people of faith, heaven is not a scary place,” Karen said. “It’s a place you’re looking forward to, that you’ve been working for all your life.” The residents encourage one another. They’re ready to go home, she said. “Just maybe not today.”

3. Related, and from the same publication, is James Parker’s stunning Coronavirus Prayer. The end I particularly loved:

Protect the bravest, the best we’ve got.
Protect the rest of us, why not.
And if the virus that took John Prine
comes, as it may, for me and mine,
although we’ve mostly stayed indoors,
well—then, as ever, we’re all Yours.

Until further notice,


4. At the New Statesman, journalists Sebastian Shehadi and Miriam Partington argue that “coronavirus is leading to a religious revival.” In March, the English-language Bible app reached almost two million downloads, the highest amount ever recorded, and global downloads increased as well. Searches for words like “prayer” and “Christianity” are also up, in addition to the purchasing of physical Bibles:

The pandemic has triggered a “historic spiritual moment”, says Dr Rowan Williams, the former archbishop of Canterbury, who is unsurprised by the growth in Bible-reading. He notes that engagement with online church services is also booming, and that it is a response to feelings of disorientation, fragility, and fear caused by the crisis.

“Online, one can preserve a measure of anonymity. You can tune into something without committing yourself, and expose yourself to something fresh,” he adds.

Not only has an interest in Christianity spiked, but so too have various other forms of spirituality, including meditation, Reiki, and religions that see the pandemic as divine punishment (like a subset of Christianity). Obviously no one knows what longterm impact the pandemic will have on organized religion, or whether it will have one at all. Either way, I appreciate Williams’ admitting that “the pandemic highlights other important issues in our world.” The pandemic, in Williams’ view, is a “‘remarkable moment of truth … Covid-19 shows us that we live in a world with limitations.’”

5. Another aforementioned coping strategy is psychotherapy. At the New Yorker, Rachel Syme interviewed famed couples-therapist Esther Perel, who, we learn, does not take out the trash but does unload the dishwasher.

We have mentioned Perel’s work in the past, but in March she launched a new podcast called “Couples Under Lockdown” which occasioned Syme’s interview. Lots of great advice there, but a personal favorite includes: “You need a dose of humor, or you are going to take each other by the throat.” Also:

I think that couples, by definition, go through harmony, disharmony, and repair. This is a dance that we do no matter what. By definition, we fight. What matters is how you fight. When you get really mad at something, can you afterward say, “O.K., got that out of my system — how are we going to solve this?” …

Begin by saying to yourself, “What are the one or two things that they have done that I can appreciate?” … And you can be all entitled about this and say, “Well, there’s no reason I should appreciate that, because I have done a whole bunch of things, and you haven’t appreciated them either.” But the productive thing is to start with you. You want to change the other? You change you.

Which reminds me of a recent headline from the Onion: Man Just Can’t Be With Someone Who He Projects So Many of His Own Flaws Onto: “Obviously, Sarah is nice, but when you get down to it, I really can’t see myself spending my life with a person who I subconsciously use to foist off all my insecurities, sexual inadequacies, and personal failings.”

6. More humor includes this one from McSweeney’s: Henry David Thoreau writes a letter to lit professors, gets the last laugh:

… yes, I did walk into Concord from time to time. Sometimes a man’s got to take care of bidness. And sometimes a man’s got to bring his dirty laundry home to his mother. Your students found that real funny. But they’re not laughing now that they’re back home in Bergen County.

Also from Nick Hornby at the New Yorker: “What to Watch During the Lockdown: Month 38”:

You are, I’m guessing, unfamiliar with the work of Macon McCalman, who died in 2005, with a hundred and fifteen movie and television credits to his name. I was unfamiliar with it, too, until I picked a random film on IMDb (“Smokey and the Bandit”) and a random character (Mr. B.), and set out to watch every single McCalman performance I could find.

…The pandemic gives us a chance to celebrate his work. There was so much of it that you’ll be watching forever.

7. Last but far from least (seriously, fire emoji for this one), conference speaker emeritus and occasional contributor Alan Jacobs wrote a hot take for Harper’s about the William Blake exhibit in London. In Jacobs’ view, the exhibit does a few things well but largely whiffs on the spirituality underpinning all of Blake’s work: the images’ accompanying texts “generally take some pains to avoid confronting Blake’s visionary experiences.” If you’re even remotely interested in Blake, I highly recommend the entire piece.

For Blake was a visionary not in the metaphorical sense with which we typically deploy that term: all his life he actually saw visions. Angels in a tree on Peckham Rye, the spirit of a flea manifesting before him in his sitting room—these were his common companions. And after his death, Catherine said that she sat and conversed with his spirit for several hours a day and that she could make no significant decision without first consulting Mr. Blake. …

A note on one wall of the exhibition tells us that Blake was deeply interested in “politics and identity,” and indeed he was; but he understood both politics and identity in ways wholly alien to our moment.

To their credit, I suppose, the curators are quite explicit about their disregard of this side, the “meet the Lord in the air” side, of Blake’s imagination, though in a very important sense it is the only side of Blake’s imagination. …

One may think Blake mistaken in his passions, or even mad—many of his contemporaries, including William Wordsworth, thought him mad—but it is worth knowing what he actually thought. Once [Blake] wrote to a friend, “What it will be Questioned When the Sun rises do you not see a round Disk of fire somewhat like a Guinea O no no I see an Innumerable company of the Heavenly host crying Holy Holy Holy is the Lord God Almighty.”


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One response to “Another Week Ends: The Odd Gospel, Esther Perel, William Blake, Alan Jacobs, Henry David Thoreau, and the Coronavirus Prayer”

  1. David Zahl says:

    Tom Holland – boom!

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