Another Week Ends

1. High Profiles this week featured a fascinating in-depth interview with history writer Tom Holland […]

Todd Brewer / 7.24.20

1. High Profiles this week featured a fascinating in-depth interview with history writer Tom Holland about his intellectual journey, personal beliefs, Islam, secular liberalism, contemporary news, and Christianity more broadly.

I think I am naturally conservative. I think I’m more moved by things that have been than things that might be. I feel the power of what’s happening now as something that is rooted in the past.

So, essentially, what has happened is that I have lost my faith, and my faith was liberalism. I just don’t think it has any secure foundations at all. As Western power retreats, we’ve come to realise that these values that [we] had assumed were universal — human rights, the inherent dignity of Man, the obligation of the rich to the poor — are actually very culturally contingent. Our assumption that there are universal values is itself very culturally contingent — and specifically Christian, I think. I can find no basis for believing in any of this stuff at all that does not involve a conscious leap of faith.

I also feel that the legacy of Christian writings, of Christian experience, of Christian activism, of all the things about Christianity that stir and move me, [is] richer than anything that my secular liberal assumptions have to offer. I find it rich and beautiful and exciting in a way that as a child I found the Romans rich and beautiful and exciting. […]

Sometimes I think: This is just a fascinating cultural expression of something that’s been going on for hundreds of years. And then there are other times when I think: This is the key to why I think the way I do. Perhaps I just need to stop overthinking it.

Maybe I should just ‘surrender to the Spirit’. One of the things that really struck me writing Dominion was the vast [impact] that the idea of the Spirit has had — the idea that you can read something and suddenly the Spirit enables you to see things afresh, the idea of this fire that blazes and spreads across the world. There’s this tension between head and heart, between thought and Spirit.

2. On the subject of personal narratives, in Esquire novelist Raven Leilani delves headfirst into the cult of fandom at Comic Con. The experience of attending the spectacle provided for her the precise thing she was lacking after leaving organized religion: a sense of community, shared values, and acceptance by others. Fandom and Church aren’t all that different on those fronts. [Cue the shameless plug to pre-order the new chapter on fandom in the upcoming paperback version of Seculosity!]:

The decision to go to Comic Con was a hail Mary of sorts, a means to feel the kind of joy I felt when I was younger and more pious, and it took nothing at all to suspend my disbelief. This is a crucial part of fandom, a willingness to treat the imagined as meaningful, the decision to eschew skepticism and engage earnestly. My primary belief system had collapsed, but I missed the communion, the part of both religion and fandom that is based not in isolated practice, but in a fervor to share the good news. […]

At Comic Con, much like a concert where you make it to the stage and see the frontman’s bare feet, the distance between creator and audience is collapsed. I had been unable to feel this kind of proximity to God, but at a panel in the Hammerstein Ballroom, I listened to one of my heroes go into great detail about why he couldn’t shit. He couldn’t shit because of Comic Con, because the bathrooms were hell, and because he had been anticipating questions from fans about a character who he had no intention of bringing back. Everyone was exactly this familiar, the overlap between the panel audiences occasionally breeding inside jokes — the shared looks between veteran voice actors, the one enthusiastic fan who always makes it to the mic. Occasionally you are a few steps behind, as I was during a Mark Hamill panel, when I, a person who had at that point not seen Star Wars, thought everyone was there for the same reason I was: to see what the voice of the Joker had to say. But eventually you catch up, and at the end of my first Comic Con I knew my way around. The crowd became a thing that moved me instead of a thing I was moving against.

I was surprised by how much I felt, but all around me, fans were peeking behind the curtain or in the throes of make-believe. We had all come for that contradiction of fandom — the need to tend to your most beloved imagined world and the urge to understand it so totally you are willing to seek out the seams. We had taken the fiction seriously enough to find the authors who were right alongside us, eating the same bare convention hotdogs, often fans themselves. For a while, I would describe Comic Con in the language I was most familiar with. I’d use words like church and epiphany to describe the four days I’d spent smelling the armpits of cosplayers and harried press. I’d tell the story of meeting the voice actor and try to describe the uncanny valley of a familiar, displaced voice, an accidental manifestation of what I’d been looking for and hadn’t been able to find through faith, proof that the fantastic can be made real.

3. The last few months have seen Robin DiAngelo’s book, White Fragility, soar to the top of bestseller lists. If you haven’t read it, you probably know someone reading it right now. It’s become something of a cultural phenomenon, leading New York Times columnist Ross Douthat to speculate about the book’s appeal to white America. Douthat argues that the book’s popularity is driven (in part) by a weariness with the whole system of meritocracy readers have benefited from and secretly despise. In other words, White Fragility offers an escape hatch that might paradoxically bolster white privilege. He writes:

Imagine yourself as a relatively privileged white person exhausted by meritocracy — an overworked student or a fretful parent or a school administrator constantly besieged by both. (Given the demographics of this paper’s readership, this may not require much imagination.)

Wouldn’t it come as a relief, in some way, if it turned out that the whole “exhausting ‘Alice in Wonderland’ Red Queen Race of full-time meritocratic achievement,” in the words of a pseudonymous critic, was nothing more than a manifestation of the very white supremacy that you, as a good liberal, are obliged to dismantle and oppose? If all the testing, all the “delayed gratification” and “perfectionism,” was, after all, just itself a form of racism, and in easing up, chilling out, just relaxing a little bit, you can improve your life and your kid’s life and, happily, strike an anti-racist blow as well?

And wouldn’t it be especially appealing if — and here I’m afraid I’m going to be very cynical — in the course of relaxing the demands of whiteness you could, just coincidentally, make your own family’s position a little bit more secure?

For instance: Once you dismiss the SAT as just a tool of white supremacy, then it gets easier for elite schools to justify excluding the Asian-American students whose standardized-test scores keep climbing while white scores stay relatively flat. Or again: If you induce inner-city charter schools to disavow their previous stress on hard work and discipline and meritocratic ambition, because those are racist, too — well, then their minority graduates might become less competitive with your own kids in the college-admissions race as well.

Not that anyone is consciously thinking like this. What I’m describing is a subtle and subconscious current, deep down in the progressive stream.

Using anti-racism education to feel better about oneself is nothing new, particularly for those inclined to read a whole book about the subject, but there is another way to cope with burn-out, one where self-worth doesn’t depend upon earned success, but the unearned gift of mercy.

4. Along the same lines, Kat Rosenfield notes the connection between White Fragility and the self-help industry in her Tablet article, “Master Cleanse: Why Social Justice Feels Like Self-Help to Privileged Women.” While self-help books for men tend to direct their (misguided) self-confidence toward nobler pursuits, self-help for women tends to emphasize “fixing something that came broken,” with a heavy dose of guilt and shame. Which is another way of saying that the self-help industry preys upon the insecurities caused by sexism to reinforce that insecurity and provide a solution to those who pay up. Is White Fragility any different? Apparently not …

Self-help has always been a woman’s game. Not that men don’t also seek to improve themselves, but the books targeted to them tend to assume an existing state of self-confidence: You’re great as you are, you could just be a little better. Men learn optimization, life hacks, the power of thinking without thinking: four-hour work weeks and other highly effective habits that are meant to help them build upon their innate perfection, like a software upgrade. Women, on the other hand, have faulty wiring that needs ripping out. Our most beloved self-help books are all about fixing something that came broken, delving into the psyche and excavating everything that’s wrong with you […]

But if that’s true of wellness in our late capitalist moment, it’s equally true of wokeness. Diversity, an $8 billion enterprise back in 2003, exploded in the wake of Donald Trump’s election into one of the nation’s fastest-growing industries. Colleges funneled millions of dollars into diversity and inclusion efforts; in 2019, a survey found that 63% of working diversity trainers had been hired within the past three years. And it’s not just corporate strategy that’s up for sale: you can buy diversity in the form of books, movies, merchandise, and $2,500 dinner parties where white women pay to confess their racist complicity. Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility seminars — at which the attendees are overwhelmingly white, female, and highly educated — cost as much as $165 per person. Her keynote speaking fee is $40,000. Whatever is being sold, be it a jade vagina egg or a ticket to an anti-racist workshop, there’s a great deal of money to be made off the guilt, anxiety, and insecurities of financially secure white women. […]

Self-help social justice doesn’t just offer privileged white women the comfort of a permanent passion project; it fuels the pleasant, ego-driven delusion that nothing is more important to the cause, to any cause, than the innermost minutiae of your own thoughts, attitudes, and feelings.

Meanwhile, as antiracist reading lists proliferate and book sales surge, the primary benefit is not to the marginalized communities who suffer most from oppression, but to the finances of the privileged class of professional diversity educators whose guidance is required, forever, to help you do the work. This may partly explain the dearth of solutions in books like White Fragility; after all, an anti-racist training program that actually made people not racist would ultimately render the author, and her entire industry, irrelevant.

The absence of solutions in the book feels like a whole lot of “law” with no possibility for redemption and release. The solution, as Bonnie Kristian suggests, is perhaps we need less shame and more forgiveness of sin.

5. There was a fascinating post last week over at Canon Fodder that outlined the ways early Christianity was mocked by the Romans for how many woman were Christians. Sociologist Rodney Stark estimated that around two-thirds of of the early Christians were women. Yet another reminder that the broadly egalitarian view of Christianity was not well received:

Women pop up all over the place in our earliest Christian sources. They are persecuted by the Roman government, they are hosting churches in their homes, they are caring for the poor and those in prison, they are traveling missionaries, they are wealthy patrons who support the church financially, and much much more.

And it is this reality that sets the stage for the critics of early Christianity. If they were looking for a way to undermine this new religious movement (and they were!) then the involvement of women is an easy target. Why? Because it was standard fare in the Greco-Roman world to attack religions with women (see the way Livy denigrates the cult of Dionysus).  There was an ideal of masculinity for the Romans that such religions just did not meet. Thus, they were targets of their ridicule.

He concludes:

So, what do we make of the fact that early Christianity was mocked for being pro-women? Well, it certainly turns the tables on the over-used criticism in the modern world that early Christianity was a patriarchal, misogynistic religion that was hostile to women. While that claim is repeated over and over, it is hard to sustain in the context of the ancient world.  Indeed, it seems more true of the non-Christian, Greco-Roman elites.

In short, if early Christianity was a bad place for women, then apparently all the women who joined the movement never got the memo.

6. There have been many articles on cancel-culture over the last few weeks, including some high profile resignations and a recent David Brooks column. But what I find most interesting is the underlying fear of it all. According to a recent national survey by The Cato Institute, 62% of Americans have political opinions they are afraid to share. This fear cuts across the left-right political spectrum and many other demographics. People are afraid of the cost of saying what they think, leading most to censor their opinions. Politics has always been taboo, of course, but I wonder how much this fear leads to an increase in polarization as people seek out communities where they can avoid social retribution and speak their mind. Which is say that judgment is a poor tool when it comes to changing minds (and hearts):

Although strong liberals are the only group who feel they can say what they believe, the share who feel pressured to self‐​censor rose 12 points from 30% in 2017 to 42% in 2020. The share of moderates who self‐​censor increased 7 points from 57% to 64%, and the share of conservatives rose 70% to 77%, also a 7‐​point increase. Strong conservatives are the only group with little change. They are about as likely now (77%) to say they hold back their views as in 2017 (76%).

Self‐​censorship is widespread across demographic groups as well. Nearly two‐​thirds of Latino Americans (65%) and White Americans (64%) and nearly half of African Americans (49%) have political views they are afraid to share. Majorities of men (65%) and women (59%), people with incomes over $100,000 (60%) and people with incomes less than $20,000 (58%), people under 35 (55%) and over 65 (66%), religious (71%) and non‐​religious (56%) all agree that the political climate prevents them from expressing their true beliefs. […]

This large number from across demographic groups suggests withheld opinions may not simply be radical or fringe perspectives in the process of being socially marginalized. Instead many of these opinions may be shared by a large number of people. Opinions so widely shared are likely shaping how people think about salient policy issues and ultimately impacting how they vote. But if people feel they cannot discuss these important policy matters, such views will not have an opportunity to be scrutinized, understood, or reformed

7. In humor, McSweeney’s perfectly captures the quandary of quarantine outrage and self-justification. Everyone else’s actions are irresponsible and sickening, while we repeatedly let ourselves off the hook:

When we got outside, we put our masks on and strolled down to the beach. Dozens of people in masks were enjoying the break in the heat in little clumps — it was disgusting. We turned around and left. We came back with a blanket from the car and found a spot by a family we knew from Janey and Petey’s school. We hadn’t seen them in months, except at Janey’s drive-by birthday, when they briefly got out of the car and the kids played in the family room while us parents sat six feet apart in the yard, and that time we all met up at the playground because the police tape had blown away. It was so good to finally see them! […]

A bunch of us neighbors positioned our chairs six feet apart and blocked off the street with cars so the kids could ride bikes and play tag — an impromptu socially distanced block party. We talked about how scary the virus is and how we can’t wait for school to start so we can work from home in peace. After the kids were in bed, it started to rain, so we all got hammered in the Petersons’ basement, six feet apart. I wish more people understood how much fun you can have while socially distancing.

And The Reductress has a hilarious quiz for those who have ever thought a 9-5 job isn’t quite for you.

Do you want to speak your mind without fearing retribution or stifling of your perspective from unexamined workplace hierarchies?

a. Sorry average American, but that’s a yes from me.

b. Yeah, okay, I think we’re done here.

8. The influential and beloved theologian J. I. Packer died this past week and I wanted to close by highlighting some of the better reflections on his writing. Christianity Today deemed him to be a “Robin Hood of Evangelicalism,” offering a broader vision of evangelical belief that was distinct from the anti-intellectual and ahistorical brand of American evangelicalism in his day. Or in Packer’s words:

As an Anglican, a Protestant, an evangelical, and … a ‘small-c’ catholic, I theologize out of what I see as the authentic biblical and creedal mainstream of Christian identity, the confessional and liturgical ‘great tradition.’

Better still are Packer’s words on the subject of death, the last enemy to be defeated:

We do not know how humans would have left this world had there been no Fall; some doubt whether they ever would have done so. But as it is, the separation of body and soul through bodily death, which is both sin’s fruit and God’s judgment (Gen. 2:17; 3:19, 22; Rom. 5:12; 8:10; 1 Cor. 15:21), is one of life’s certainties. This separating of the soul (person) from the body is a sign and emblem of the spiritual separation from God that first brought about physical death (Gen. 2:17; 5:5) … Naturally, therefore, death appears as an enemy (1 Cor. 15:26) and a terror (Heb. 2:15).

For Christians the terror of physical death is abolished, though the unpleasantness of dying remains. Jesus, their risen Savior, has himself passed through a more traumatic death than any Christian will ever have to face, and he now lives to support his servants as they move out of this world to the place he has prepared for them in the next world (John 14:2-3). Christians should view their own forthcoming death as an appointment in Jesus’ calendar, which he will faithfully keep. Paul could say, “For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. … I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far” (Phil. 1:21, 23), since “away from the body” will mean “at home with the Lord” (2 Cor. 5:8).


  • Comedian Mike Birbiglia interviewed Hasan Minhaj on his podcast and about 14 or so minutes in the conversation turned to why they started doing comedy in the first place. Doing comedy, for them, provides a kind of religious fulfillment — as Birbiglia says, “thank God for jokes.”
  • Surprise! Like the second coming of Christ, the new Taylor Swift album came like a thief in the night while we were all asleep. Reinventing herself again, she trades driving pop beats for laid-back melodies with acoustic guitar accompaniment.
  • Ahead of the upcoming Season Three of “Well of Sound,” DZ and Lex talk about Supergroups.


One response to “Another Week Ends: Tom Holland, White Fragility, Religious Fandom, J.I. Packer, and Cancel-Culture Fear”

  1. Brian says:

    Indeed, politics has always been taboo. Now, Western Civilization is taboo.

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