Another Week Ends

1. “Are We Having Too Much Fun?” asks Megan Garber, in this week’s Atlantic. She’s […]

CJ Green / 5.5.17

1. “Are We Having Too Much Fun?” asks Megan Garber, in this week’s Atlantic. She’s examining the objections of renowned tech-skeptic Neil Postman (1931 – 2003) who cautioned against a society focused too heavily on entertainment — a bitter pill to serve this Golden Age of TV that so often leaves us viewing our lives as well-crafted Emmy winner.

Moreover, Garber argues, when our entertainment is also our news (think late-night comedy-satire-journalism), politics become part of the joke, and apathy is sure to follow. Consider, too, all of those Harambe memes, and the more recent ones inspired by the United fiasco. On the one hand, should we be taking these things more seriously? On the other hand…

Scrolling through Instagram to see the pictures from the March for Science, I marveled at the protest’s display of teasing American wit. (“Remember polio? No? Thanks, science!”) And then I thought of Neil Postman, the professor and the critic and the man who, via his 1985 book Amusing Ourselves to Death, argued preemptively against all this change-via-chuckle. Postman wasn’t, as his book’s title might suggest, a humorless scold in the classic way—Amusing Ourselves to Death is, as polemics go, darkly funny—but he was deeply suspicious of jokes themselves, especially when they come with an agenda…

[Were Postman alive, he] might whisper that, in politics, the line between engagement and apathy is thinner than we want to believe. He might suggest that fun is fun, definitely, but, given its amorality, a pretty awkward ethic. He might warn, with a Cassandric sigh, that there is something delightful and also not very delightful at all about a trio of Tyrannosauri who, in the name of saving the world, try their hardest to go viral on Facebook.

Garber then highlights Postman’s astute distinction between the dystopian visions of George Orwell (beloved in 2017) and Aldous Huxley: Orwell envisioned an external force (the government) descending and monitoring our lives and minds. Scary, for sure; but in 1984, we looked around and thought, ok, there are some things we could work on, but it’s not that bad:

They surveyed themselves, and they congratulated themselves: They had escaped.

Or perhaps they hadn’t. Postman…talked about the freedoms enjoyed by the Americans of 1984—cultural, commercial, political. And then he broke the bad news: They’d been measuring themselves according to the wrong dystopia. It wasn’t Nineteen Eighty-Four that had the most to say about the America of the 1980s, but rather Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. “In Huxley’s vision,” Postman noted, “no Big Brother is required to deprive people of their autonomy, maturity, and history.” Instead: “People will come to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think.”

Depressing though it may seem, this is a somehow refreshing reminder that the cages we must be freed from are not [merely] systemic/societal; they are, fundamentally, our own selves. For this the gut-level language of the New Testament is a balm: “Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid” (Jn 14:27).

2. And so, because we are definitely having too much fun, here’s McSweeney’s list of Famous Authors’ Tinder Openers. Also humorous: Kenny G knows what it is to be alone. Also, below: a deflating Pikachu is rushed out of Hairspray (around the 1-minute mark):

3. In this vein of pleasant surprises, Jonathan Garrett’s article, “Soundtrack to Salvation: How Elevation Church Uses Rock’N’Roll to Get Closer to God,” is a wonderful stereotype-breaker, especially considering the source. It’s a sympathetic profile of Elevation Church in Charlotte, NC. Perplexed by their capacity to rock, Garrett investigates their musical roots, discovering to his surprise that they owe much of their sound to Green Day, Guns N’ Roses, and — most of all — U2. (The church’s name is a “nod to” U2’s 2001 tour.)

If you’re anything like me before I started attending Elevation worship experiences—that is, a non-religious person who has attended just a small handful of church services with friends or extended family—you’d probably call Elevation’s music “Christian rock” after a cursory listen. And while that might work broadly-speaking, insofar as it is music made by Christians primarily for a Christian audience, it’s sort of like saying emo is rock’n’roll—it’s technically correct but misses a critical level of specificity that would explain some important distinctions.

Worship music, as opposed to the broader banner of Christian rock, is written specifically with a Sunday service context in mind. It is designed to foster connection to Jesus through communal, collective effervescence…

The roots of this welcoming philosophy can be found in a telling passage in Furtick’s most recent book, (Un)Qualified, where he discusses his earliest efforts at conversion, trying to convince his brother, Max, that he should turn off the local rock station and “Beavis and Butthead,” and tune into Christian rock and a local preacher instead. The experience apparently had the opposite of its intended effect on his brother, who rebelled.

“We talked for a while, and I apologized to Max,” he writes. “I told him I was sorry for making it look like the starting point of a relationship with God was buying into a list of restrictions. I told him I had learned over time that the gospel isn’t about what God wants from us but what he wants for us… God seems to be saying, ‘Come as you are.’” Given Furtick’s pop culture literacy, as well as the numerous direct quotes from musicians like Leonard Cohen and Prince throughout his books, it’s probably safe to assume the Nirvana reference is not a coincidence…

Elevation Church’s stated mission and reason for existence is “so that people far from God will be raised to a life in Christ.” When I first came across this idea, I thought “far from God” meant reaching people who had never had much use for God, or even religion more generally—agnostics or atheists. However, I’ve come to learn that the phrase is intended to reference an individual’s internal feeling about their relationship with the Lord at a particular moment in time, not a set system of beliefs…

It’s this idea of reaching those “far from God” that helps explain the strange paradox at the heart of Elevation—using one of the most notoriously profane styles of music to soundtrack weekly services and act as a beacon for faith in God.

4. More on the music front: Nick Cave released his compilation album Lovely Creatures today. An artist who wrestles with the deepest themes, Cave’s work often lends to thought-provoking reviews. I’ll include two here: This first comes from Jason Heller, who wrote “Nick Cave Is Still Looking For Redemption,” for The Atlantic:

…the new collection forms a vivid mosaic of the artist, even without his latest, most confessional material. In a way, it’s a reminder of the broad range of Cave’s voice, lyricism, and themes. Sure, he sings of debauchery and decay, of temptations and end times. But as heard throughout Lovely Creatures, the choirboy in him may still yearn for some kind of salvation—even if it’s more artistic than religious…As dark as Cave’s music has often been over the years, it’s just as apt to illuminate.

Much of Cave’s recent life has been shadowed by the tragic death of his son, Arthur — though critics couldn’t help but question whether or not Cave, with his history of heroin addiction, felt responsible for Arthur’s death.

Chris Heath did a wonderful write-up in GQ, called “The Love and Terror of Nick Cave”: It’s certainly worth reading in full, especially if — like Harry and Hermione — you’re a fan of his. Here are a few quotes about dealing with grief:

“Most of the time, Susie and I try to stay clear-eyed about the whole thing, that it was a terrible, senseless, tragic accident, that could happen to any high-spirited, curious young man. We definitely don’t attach any sense of morality to it. But grief has a way of turning you against yourself and you can find yourself indulging in all sorts of irrational and self-destructive thoughts—self-pity, self-blame—because they form a direct connection to the small but present part of you that just wants to die…

“I think that Susie and I both just stepped into an alternate reality, you know, but that you could slip a cigarette paper between the two worlds, both in terms of the time that it took for us to change and its closeness to reality,” he reflects. “It was just this sort of netherworld. There’s definitely a kind of recognition of the life that we used to lead, and almost a shame that we could live a life, and worry about certain things that we worried about back then, that just seem absolute luxuries in this new world. You know, indulgences. And that is a big change for us. I think we are not really concerned about a lot of things that we were concerned about before, and have a much more acute fellow feeling, let’s say, than I think either of us, me in particular, have ever had. I think for both of us, it has something to do with not wanting to cause any more suffering in our day-to-day lives than we possibly can. So everyone’s more gentle with each other. And we’re nicer people, I guess, to put it one way, I suppose. And conflict doesn’t have the same sort of seductive energy that it used to.”

Cave isn’t the only major voice coping with grief: the C.O.O. of Facebook, Sheryl Sandberg, recently released Option B, a book about coming to terms with the sudden death of her husband. For the New Yorker, Rebecca Mead discusses Sandberg’s book and “The Facebook Way To Grieve“:

“I have learned that I never really knew what to say to others in need,” [Sandberg] wrote… “Option A is not available. So let’s just kick the shit out of Option B.”

Kicking the shit out of things is Silicon Valley’s preferred mode of operation, and the rhetoric of productive violence peppers the tech industry’s vernacular. As Sandberg reminds her readers, when she arrived at the Facebook offices in the company’s early days, the walls were plastered with posters that read, “Move fast and break things.”…

Thus the book is in part a moving memoir…[but] it is also a chronicle of Sandberg’s efforts to wrest certainty back from uncertainty. It shows her in the face of tragedy behaving like the data-driven A-student type she acknowledges herself to be: seeking out the supporting studies and statistics that show how best she might serve her kids in order for them survive, and even thrive, in the context of their mutilated family unit. It offers readers aspirational bereavement: ideas on taking, as Davey Alba wrote in Wired, to “the hacker way through grief.”

Sandberg’s offerings, according to Mead, “ring hollow,” and we can see why this might be the case.

5. Whether from tragedy or just the everyday hum of “fallenness”, pain pursues us, and we like to avoid it. Richard Rohr’s daily meditation is a perceptive analysis of how we do so.

The zealot—and we’ve all been one at different times—is actually relieved by having someone to hate, because it takes away our inner shame and anxiety and provides a false sense of innocence. As long as the evil is “over there” and we can keep our focus on changing or expelling someone else (as the contaminating element), then we feel at peace. But this is not the peace of Christ, which “the world cannot give” (see John 14:27).

Playing the victim is another way to deal with pain indirectly. You blame someone else, and your pain becomes your personal ticket to power because it gives you a false sense of moral superiority and outrage. You don’t have to grow up, let go, forgive, or surrender—you just have to accuse someone else of being worse than you are. And sadly, that becomes your very fragile identity, which always needs more reinforcement.

This gets to the heart of what DZ talked about in his closing NYC remarks, “10 Years in Flight,” in which he discusses the “Strange Persistence of Guilt.” (Look for the video soon.) This theme, first written about in the Hedgehog Review, was also mentioned in Will’s weekender last week.

6. For your weekenderly dose of behavioral science, check out this, from NY Mag’s Science of Us: “Wishing for More Self-Control Can Backfire“:

There are some things that, by definition, become harder to attain the more you want them. Contentment, for example. Or coolness (there’s nothing less cool than being visibly thirsty for it). Or, it seems, self-control: In a study recently published in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, psychologists found that wishing you had more of it is enough to diminish what you do have.

…when people are forced to confront the gap between their ideal and actual levels of self-control, they end up psyching themselves out: “Performance suffers because people with a strong desire for self-control sometimes disengage and withhold effort,” they wrote. “A demanding self-control challenge emphasizes their (perceived) current incapacity, which diminishes their motivation.” In this respect, at least, the quickest path to self-improvement may be to abandon the quest.

This is a good example of how, when we’re given a standard to live up to, all we can do is fall further from it: As Paul says in Romans 5:20: “But law came in, with the result that the trespass multiplied; but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more.”

7. Lastly, a great one from Christ and Pop Culture: 13 Reasons Why: When Only Grace Will Do (h/t RS). About the much-talked-about Netflix show:

The characters of 13 Reasons Why don’t need justice. They need forgiveness. They need to stare down the truth of who they are—broken, pained, greedy, reckless creatures—and then let it go. This, of course, demands sacrifice—someone has to absorb the full shock of trauma without throwing it back out into the world. But it’s the only way to break the cycle of pain. Face the truth about the world. Accept it, with all of its struggle and agony. Extend love anyway.

The most shocking thing about our lives is not the summation of horrors wrought by our own hands. Instead, it is the possibility of joy in the midst of unspeakable darkness. It is the fact of grace, the merciless grip of forgiveness. It is the opportunity to love imperfectly, to handle vulnerability, to wreak havoc and then begin again.