Another Week Ends

1. Appropriately timed for tomorrow’s 50th anniversary of the moon landing, our first link this […]

CJ Green / 7.19.19

1. Appropriately timed for tomorrow’s 50th anniversary of the moon landing, our first link this week is “First Men and Original Sins,” from the latest issue of Image (ht EKR). British sci-fi novelist Adam Roberts asks to what extent a religious impulse was involved in the space race as well as in the subsequent rise of science-fiction (e.g. Star Wars, which was in pre-production in 1975):

Is it foolish to suggest that the success of cinematic science fiction might be, in any sense, a religious phenomenon? It is, after all, powered by the “fans,” a word which derives (like “profane”) from the Latin for temple. […] Since 1977 humanity has, by some margin, spent more money on creating science fiction simulacra of space travel than it has on actually landing on the moon. Don’t misunderstand me. I love science fiction. But there’s something rather depressing about that fact.

Life (December 20, 1954). Cover by Chesley Bonestell.

I commend the entire essay, but it becomes especially trenchant in part two where Roberts digs into the mixed legacy of “the father of Apollo” (Wernher von Braun), who despite a “deep and abiding faith in God” was also a member of the SS and aided in the development of rockets for Nazi Germany. Roberts isn’t shy about his own feelings about this but also concedes, eventually, that von Braun was “a soul alloyed of real good and real evil, something that is true, after all, of every human being […] Maybe Apollo was always more about our fallenness, and therefore our need for grace.” Roberts draws these threads together in a concluding review of Damien Chazelle’s First Man (2018). This film, he says, fittingly addresses both the spiritual and emotional elements of the landing.

Grace seems to me a good way of approaching First Man; not the grace reserved for saints and the elect, but, on the contrary, grace as something available to all, and especially (according to the Sermon on the Mount) to the poor in spirit and to those who mourn, who shall be comforted. As a portrait of mourning, First Man moves its protagonist to an extraordinary place to stage its encounter with the comfort that comes after long grief.

Indeed First Man is, I think, saying something quite radical about the blankness of grace, its opacity and incomprehensibility, what Graham Greene, in a rather different context, called “the appalling strangeness of the mercy of God.” It is indeed about (fittingly for the moon) the lunacy of grace. We are not clean. Whether we profess faith or not, we are profane. We say we come in peace for all mankind, but we are actually warriors, killers, contaminated by something malign and grievous. But still we come. And who knows what release might be found, if we make that journey?

2. Next topic: burnout — I think many of us who have found our way to Mockingbird will relate? For America Magazine, journalist and speaker Kaya Oakes discusses causes and effects of “When professional Catholics burn out”:

The qualifiers for burnout include emotional exhaustion, depersonalization, feelings of incompetence, cynicism and a dwindling sense of professional efficacy.

Those who burn out are often highly skilled and specially trained. This can include people who work as doctors and nurses, but it also extends to people whose faith and professional life are intimately combined. For this group, the challenge can be particularly acute, because often the commitment to faith that compels a person to work for or on behalf of the church—whether studying and teaching theology, writing about the church or serving in its social services arm—suffers when this work becomes overwhelming. A challenging workplace can result in a desire to distance oneself from those things associated with it, even the church itself, thus potentially distancing a person from the very coping mechanisms or community that could help weather the storm.

This last claim bears repeating: the Church can and should be in the business of helping people — both believers and non — “weather the storm.”

When it comes to burnout, Oakes draws the distinction between professional Catholics and non-professionals. But across denominations “service” is regularly demanded without compensation; in fact, the absence of that is usually taken as a marker of self-giving love. Inevitably, then, you see burnout from believers of all stripes, most especially from environments where the gospel is equated with work.

Dr. Thomas Plante proposes that, from a psychological perspective, burnout requires a series of solutions. Employees need to have “reasonable expectations” of their employers, especially when it comes to working for members of the clergy, and understanding that their employers have “human issues and problems.”

In other words, lower the anthropology. “He must increase, but I must decrease”; clergy, and all of us, are “all too human.” Oakes assesses things this way: “…perhaps those of us who serve the church in a professional capacity can do more, and do better, when we have a handle on our mental and physical health. The high cost of burnout can ultimately be the loss of both.”

3. For humor, we have this particularly savage headline from The Onion:Man’s Crippling, Overpowering Need To Be Liked By Everyone Apparently Not Affecting His Behavior”: “Despite never once using his supposed people-pleasing nature to help another person, support anyone, or validate someone’s feelings, Chicago resident Ryan McCormack’s crippling, overpowering need to be liked apparently doesn’t affect his behavior, sources confirmed Tuesday.” Gulp! [Read the rest here.]

But hands down the funniest thing I saw this week was “Stuff I Do Anyway” in The New Yorker. “Feed the ducks” and “Swim immediately after eating” were perhaps my favorites, but I also love the lady eating the raw cookie dough with crumbs all over her face; been there, this week.

4. In Column Seculosity, we have SEVERAL links for you. If you’re unfamiliar with the term (secular + religiosity), begin at the beginning with the term-coiner himself, David Zahl, who was interviewed recently at Religion News Service: “‘Seculosity’ traces society’s search for righteousness outside of the church.” It’s a concise interview about Seculosity’s premise, noting, especially, its compassionate grounding:

…as a young parent, I would see codes of behavior, people clinging to something that’s righteous. There’s an orthodox way and almost like a heretical way of raising children. People were constantly at war with each other. You would see a parent at a playground correcting a perfect stranger. And it felt to me like what you would see sometimes in a church event…all the young parents around me always got so anxious, like they were being graded all the time. […]

And the comparisons that people make each other jump through, it’s pretty merciless. In the church, there was a backdrop of sin and the idea that people are not perfect. Without that you just have pressure to curate and put up a happy face or sophisticated face or effortlessly sophisticated face at all times.

As is becoming clear, this mode of living is everywhere, and churchgoers are far from exempt. Yet as a secular example take this seculosity monastery where six young, successful entrepreneurs live together to maximize output: “A huge benefit is accountability,” one of them says. “The house is checking in on you all the time.”

Cactus. Chesley Bonestell.

Along similar lines is this fascinating piece by tech reporter Nellie Bowles. Apparently consultants and coaches are being hired to help affluent families free themselves from screen addiction. Bowles takes note of a pledge (reminiscent, she says, of a 1990s “virginity pledge”) by which “parents band together and make public promises to withhold smartphones from their children until eighth grade… Parents who make these pledges work to promote the idea of healthy adult phone use, and promise complete abstinence until eighth grade or even later.” You get the sense that everyday technology use has become shameful or, at least, un-optimal — secularly sinful, you might say. Yet Bowles also consults psychologist Erica Reischer who observes something else:

To Dr. Reischer, the new consultant boom and screen addiction are part of the same problem.

“It’s part of the mind-set that gets us stuck on our phones in the first place — the optimization efficiency mind-set,” Dr. Reischer said. “We want answers served up to us — ‘Just tell me what to do, and I’ll do it.’”

In other words, the goals are the same: to be fully optimized, and beneath that, it seems, to serve a purpose in life. Limiting screen-time offers a framework for managing this element of everyday living which has the uncanny ability to reveal that we are, by nature, prone to wander. And for aspiring “creatives”, John Brownlee strikes a similar chord re: optimization and expectation; in “Why Productivity Gadgets Won’t Save Us,” Brownlee explains:

…the real thing that stands in the way of an artist’s creativity is, well, the near-certainty of disappointment. That in the translation of your beautiful idea from your head into corporeal form, it will inevitably seem less perfect, less good. And so creatives of all stripes dither and delay and procrastinate…

…despite what we tell ourselves, focus isn’t really what we want. It’s absolution.

Or, as David Zahl puts it, again from the preceding interview:

You realize that everyone already feels like a failure. We all have some sort of treadmill that we’re running on. People are suffering under enormous burdens of who they should be. And what would it look like for our houses of faith to be places you go when you mess up rather than places you flee from when you have?

5. For a snapshot of a church on a treadmill, look no further than “Hollywood’s Holy Hipster Scene.” Had mixed feelings while reading this. The celebrity voyeurism and [seemingly] inescapable materialism is, at first, annoying if not outright yuck. The mixed messages, also, are confusing — that Hollywood’s holiest proselytize SoulCycle and say things like “Your best life is not for sale. You have to earn it”; none of that sounds like Jesus to me.

Yet despite it all, the crowd’s reluctant atheist, Joel Stein, suggests that something gets through. What Stein identifies as “authentic” seems to be something deeper even than that — a craving to be known beneath the surface and, even so, loved:

…people are thirsty for both authenticity and spirituality. They have access to their heroes and know that they’re disconnected too. “We are going, ‘Jeez, if Kanye is not happy being Kanye, we’re all screwed…’”

I grab a delicious Ritual coffee in the lobby, and within a few minutes pastor Judah Smith appears in glasses and a tan corduroy jacket designed by Drew House. He takes a stool, prefacing Luke 7:18–23 with, “This is so Jesus!” After he finishes, a band sings out, “Even when I can’t feel it, you’re working.” I close my eyes and raise my palm outward to heaven, along with everyone around me, hoping to feel something. And I do.

Stein notes a lot of humorous ironies throughout — i.e. when he need not feel anything, he finally does — yet it’s ultimately a touching glimpse at what must surely be the spirituality of nearly everyone, celeb or no: amidst the flurry of our preoccupations, the good news is good today, yesterday, and always; and especially for those of us who seem most unworthy of it.

Collier’s (April 30, 1954). Cover by Chesley Bonestell

6. Last week I stumbled across this next link, Susan Sontag’s 1963 review of Simone Weil in The New York Review of Books. Sontag remarks that what is significant about Weil is not her specific beliefs — which, she says, probably only “a handful” of readers actually stand by — but her deep suffering. Weil sought and heralded “affliction”, first by working in a “deadening” auto factory and eventually dying on a hunger strike. Sontag, who distances herself from nearly everything Weil believed, nevertheless concludes, “anything from Simone Weil’s pen is worth reading,” and for this reason, primarily:

Ours is an age which consciously pursues health, and yet only believes in the reality of sickness. The truths we respect are those born of affliction. We measure truth in terms of the cost to the writer in suffering — rather than by the standard of an objective truth to which a writer’s words correspond. Each of our truths must have a martyr.

Compare Sontag’s comments here to Sam Bush’s recent post on comparative suffering — or justification by suffering — and the ultimate martyr, who opened his arms to everyone, Christ. In conclusion, Sam quotes Isaiah 53: he “bore our suffering….and by his wounds we are healed.”

7. For a final, cathartic note: In memoriam of the late Scott Hutchison, lead man of the Scottish band Frightened Rabbit, last month a cover album was released including songs featuring Chvrches, The National, and Daughter; but my favorite is (of course) Julien Baker’s cover of “The Modern Leper.” I wasn’t familiar with Frightened Rabbit until their 2016 album, and it is a fairly sad experience to listen back through their discography at this time. Still, this one is worth sharing.

Lyrics start, “Cripple walks amongst you, all you tired human beings. He’s got all the things a cripple has not, two working arms and legs…” Calls to my mind “The Newcomer” begging to be healed in Thornton Wilder’s “Angel That Troubled the Waters”: “Surely, O, Prince, you are not deceived by my apparent wholeness. Your eyes can see the nets in which my wings are caught…” Mainly what I love about this song is, despite everything, the unconditional love at its heart, and the conclusion that is personal, individual, and a gracious reminder of what it might mean to love day-by-day.



One response to “Another Week Ends: The Space Race (and Grace), Professional Christian Burnout, Screen Addictions and Abstinence, Truth and Martyrdom, the Holies of Hollywood, and the Modern Leper”

  1. Bryant Trinh says:

    Dude, that Frightened Rabbits cover album is fantastic.

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