Another Week Ends

1. A happy ending for a recovering alcoholic who was rescued from drowning by Paulist […]

Bryan J. / 9.11.20

1. A happy ending for a recovering alcoholic who was rescued from drowning by Paulist priests sailing by on a tiki bar pontoon. Not everything about 2020 is awful, folks!

2. In the first of two book reviews for your consideration this week, Judith Shulevitz reviews The WEIRDest People in the World: How the West Became Psychologically Peculiar and Particularly Prosperousby Joseph Henrich. The thesis of the book is that one particular culture, the Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic nations of the world, owe their cultural heritage to Pope Gregory I and his instructions on marriage given to Augustine of Canterbury.

Throughout most of human history, certain conditions prevailed: Marriage was generally family-adjacent — Henrich’s term is “cousin marriage” — which thickened the bonds among kin. Unilateral lineage (usually through the father) also solidified clans, facilitating the accumulation and intergenerational transfer of property. Higher-order institutions—governments and armies as well as religions — evolved from kin-based institutions. As families scaled up into tribes, chiefdoms, and kingdoms, they didn’t break from the past; they layered new, more complex societies on top of older forms of relatedness, marriage, and lineage. Long story short, in Henrich’s view, the distinctive flavor of each culture can be traced back to its earlier kinship institutions.

The Catholic Church changed all that. As of late antiquity, Europeans still lived in tribes, like most of the rest of the world. But the Church dismantled these kin-based societies with what Henrich calls its “Marriage and Family Program,” or MFP. The MFP was really an anti-marriage and anti-family program. Why did the Church adopt it? From a cultural evolutionary point of view, the why doesn’t matter. In a footnote, Henrich skates lightly over debates about the motivations of Church leaders. But his bottom line is that the “MFP evolved and spread because it ‘worked.’ ” (Henrich’s indifference to individual and institutional intentions is guaranteed to drive historians nuts.)

Forced to find Christian partners, Christians left their communities. Christianity’s insistence on monogamy broke extended households into nuclear families. The Church uprooted horizontal, relational identity, replacing it with a vertical identity oriented toward the institution itself.

It sounds like a remarkable volume for those who subscribe to the Tom Holland “everything we love about Western Civilization comes from Jesus and St. Paul” school of history. In those eyes, one might see in Henrich’s theses how Jesus’s teachings on family, now considered relatively humdrum, were both explosive and world changing for we WEIRDos. Another thing to ask Holland about if we can tap him for a non-COVID conference!

3. In our second book review of the day, Max Read reviewed The Twittering Machine by Richard Seymour in Book Forum, and as the invisible man behind Mbird’s Facebook and Twitter, I feel both “seen” and also “called out.” Unlike most reflections on the topic, Seymour outlines how the mental health and social issues surrounding social media can’t be pinned on Silicon Valley algorithms or preening virtue signalers. Instead, the blame lays squarely on the users, and Seymour even goes so far to suggest that social media use may indeed be a manifestation of Freud’s theory of the death wish:

What if the urge lurking behind our compulsive participation in the Twittering Machine is not the behavioralist pursuit of maximized pleasure, but the Freudian death drive — our latent instinct toward inorganic oblivion, destruction, self-obliteration, “the ratio”? What if we post self-sabotaging things because we want to sabotage ourselves? What if the reason we tweet is because we wish we were dead?

On the one hand, that sounds like Freudian mumbo jumbo. On the other hand, speaking as a frequent user of social media, that . . . seems about right to me. What the Twittering Machine offers is not death, precisely, but oblivion — an escape from consciousness into numb atemporality, a trance-like “dead zone” of indistinguishably urgent stimulus. Seymour compares the “different, timeless, time zone” of the Twittering Machine to what the gambling-addiction expert Natasha Dow Schüll calls the “machine zone,” in which “time, space, and social identity are suspended in the mechanical rhythm of a repeating process.” You might say that “Twitter is not real life,” a line intended as a kind of cutting warning, serves equally as an advertisement for the platform. But what is at stake here is not “reality.” It’s time. Seymour compares the Twittering Machine to the chronophage, “a monster that eats time.” We give ourselves over to it “because of whatever is disappointing in the world of the living,” but we do so at great cost. “Given the time this addiction demands of us,” Seymour writes, “we are entitled to ask what else we might be doing, what else we could be addicted to.”

Social media, then, is quite the analgesic (opioid?). It takes away the pain of waiting for death to arrive by distracting us. Perhaps now is a good time to remind everyone of The Mockingbird App for iOS! All the best of Mbird at your fingertips without the need to follow us on social media!

4. I am often haunted by St. Paul’s admonition to “live a quiet life, mind your own business, and work with your hands” (1 Thes 4:11). Paul considered such a life good because it was a witness to those outside the church, and it didn’t put a strain on the church’s benevolence fund. This is something like the hope that Mbird fav Chris Arnade has for working-class Americans. In this recent Labor Day reflection, he suggests that America’s workaholic culture cannot comprehend the joys of a quiet life, and so it creates systems to make the quiet life impossible. After sharing a number of anecdotes from his interviews with workers across the U.S., Arnade articulates specifically how careerism has made the political class blind:

These are the images I have of work and workers in America. It doesn’t take place in cinematographic settings and the work doesn’t define who they are. Not by them at least. Work is something to endure, and most do endure it, with an impressive resiliency.

Our technocratic class, politicians, and the elite media rarely see this, and if they did most would be hard pressed to understand it, because their resume and career define who they are. They are careerists, so they assume everyone else must be a careerist, and they look at everyone else working, including the guy in dirty clothes driving the F150, and assume he is a careerist as well, just one in a different and mostly icky career.

Or if they do acknowledge careerism isn’t for everyone, they end up romanticizing manual labor, because they are also policy people and believe with enough changes all work can be made uplifting, when the reality is a lot of work just sucks, and is drudgery, no matter how it is structured.  They do this because the alternative is too uncomfortable: That their comfort and lifestyle requires the labor of people who are not enjoying the laboring. At all.

Our elites misunderstand work, and how most people deal with work, so they assume something must be wrong with the people who want to live a life without being dedicated to building a resume, and then writing a poem, or singing a song, or whatever, about their job or the dignity of work. Or something is wrong with our public policy when it doesn’t turn everyone into the happiest most efficient worker they could be.

Yes there are some lazy people out there, but most everyone is hard working, and tries the best they can. Yes there is something wrong with our policy, but it is mostly that it can’t imagine some people don’t define themselves only through their work and that some work really really sucks, and at best is endured.

I have strong political opinions on this as a relatively new father (Maternity leave in the U.S.? Am I right folks?). But moreover, Arnade’s line about “lazy people” sounds remarkably similar to everyone’s favorite heretical boogeyman, antinomianism. The overlap between work and identity and the pearl-clutching fear of freeloading lazy people is as much a spiritual matter as it is an economic fear. Squint hard and you’ll see the ghost of Max Weber’s Protestant work ethic floating in the background.

5. In the PG category of humor this week: Nation Could Really Use A Few Days Where It Isn’t Gripped By Something and also, for the musically inclined, Manowar Member on Date Looks Nothing Like His Album Cover Pic. In the TV-MA category of humor this week, fans of HBO’s The Vow will get a laugh out of this. Speaking of TV-MA, Julie Nolke is at it again. Turns out you can get away with a lot as long as you’re “living your truth.”

6. In music, let’s check in with Lana Del Rey. Do yourself a favor: pair her recent conversation with Interview Magazine with last month’s music leak (embedded below), and have your curiosity piqued:

DEL REY: What’s insane is that the pandemic has brought up all of these mental health crises and domestic crises that were always there, that I always sang about, that people had so much to say about in terms of, “She’s just feigning emotional fragility.” And it’s like, “Well, not really. You’re feigning emotional togetherness despite the fact that you’re a wack-job Monday through Friday.”

ANTONOFF: Do you feel like you’re doing okay because you’re sort of always in touch with some sort of underbelly?

DEL REY: I don’t feel like I’m doing okay. I just know now that I was always right.

ANTONOFF: That’s interesting.

DEL REY: I subscribe to the idea that what’s going on in the macrocosm, whether it be in the presidency or a virus that keeps us isolated, is a reflection of what’s going on in the individual home and inside bedrooms and what people intimately talk about. I think there’s been existential panic for a long time, but people haven’t been paying attention to it because they’ve been too busy buying shoes. And shoes are cute. I love shoes. But now that you can’t go shopping, you have to look at your partner and be like, “I’ve lived with you for 20 years, but do I even know you?” You realize maybe you’ve only ever allowed yourself to scratch the surface of yourself because if you went any deeper, you might have a mild meltdown for no reason, just out of the blue, and no amount of talking could explain why. It’s just a part of your genetic makeup. You could just be prone to panic. I think a lot of people are that way. I got a lot of shit for not only talking about it, but talking about lots of other things for a super long time. I don’t feel justified in it, because I’m not the kind of artist who’s ever going to get justified. I will die an underdog and that’s cool with me. But I was right to ask, “Why are we here? Where did we come from? What are we doing? What happens if this insane, crazy, sci-fi crisis happens, and then you’re stuck with yourself, and you’re stuck with your partner who doesn’t pay attention to you?” I’m not saying it’s more relevant than ever, but my concern for myself, the country, the world — I knew we weren’t prepared for something like this, mentally. I also think it’s a really good thing that we’ve gotten to this point where we have to bump up against ourselves, because it’s not going to be the same when the Beverly Center reopens. …

I’m not trying to say I’m a holy roller because I’m not, but I think people are looking up to the sky a bit more and being like, “Why? What’s the reason?”

7. On the devotional front, Eric Robinson makes a compelling case for King David’s Son, Absalom, to be understood as a type of Jesus in the Old Testament. But we’ll give the last word this week to (one of) the church’s newest clergy, Wesley Hill:

One of the greatest living theologians we have is a German professor named Jürgen Moltmann. He was drafted into the Nazi army as a young man and was sent to the front lines. He surrendered to a British soldier and spent the next three years in POW camps, and one of the things he says he felt at the time (he wasn’t yet a Christian) was a profound shame. He says it took time for he and his fellow German soldiers to realize the evil of the cause they had been conscripted to serve. But once they understood about the death camps, the wave of remorse that washed over them was often too much to bear. “For me,” Moltmann writes, “every feeling for Germany, the so-called sacred ‘Fatherland,’ collapsed … The depression over the wartime destruction and a captivity without any apparent end was exacerbated by a feeling of profound shame at having to share in this disgrace.”

Where do you turn after failure like that, when it’s part of your story, when you can’t escape that the thing you swore you’d never do is now, in fact, what you’ve done?

Your and my failures are probably more mundane than Jürgen Moltmann’s. We may feel remorse over the phone call we refused to return, the apology we felt we just couldn’t make, and now the relationship is gone. Maybe one day in a fit of rage we said the words to our teenage daughter or son that we promised we’d never say, and now there’s a lost closeness that we’re not sure we can ever get back. Maybe we gambled with our health or our savings or our grades or our retirement or our boss’s goodwill — and lost. Whatever your particular failure may be, the thing that they all share in common is that they’re done. Our failures are just there now, as a permanent fixture of our past, ready to be recalled, ready to shame, dismay, and maybe even kill us.

Because the thing about past failure is that it seems to stubbornly intrude on the future. It isn’t just that we regret the past; it’s that the failure that is there seems to foreclose hope for the days we have left. We feel that we’ve not only ruined our history; we fear that we’ve sullied the time ahead

One of the constant refrains throughout the entire ministry of the prophet Ezekiel is this: “The word of the Lord came to me.” The word of the Lord came to me. This is the same word that gave what it commanded in the beginning: God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. There is no gap or hiatus between what the word of the Lord decrees and what actually takes place: the Lord’s word is powerful, effectual, creative. So if the word of the Lord says to Israel that the Lord takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked but instead desires that His people’s future be open, then it is.

Christians know that this powerful word of the Lord isn’t an abstraction: “And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.” The Word of the Lord is Jesus Christ who has pitched His tent among us and made our life His own. He has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows. He says to us, “Let me have your past. Let me have all your failures. Let me take them and bear them — and bear them away.” He has suffered the curse of Israel’s exile in His own body on the cross and brought it to an end. And on the third day God raised Him from the dead. Now Jesus is alive. He goes before us, opening the future to us.

“As I live, says the Lord God, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from their ways and live.”

“Live!” the risen Christ says to us this morning. And because He lives, we do.



  • The crew at 1517 is going online and gratis for their HWSS 2020 gathering. Do I see a pair of Mockingbirds on the speaker roster?
  • Parents of young kiddos — you’re not alone on the mental health front.
  • Also: a new book from Alan Jacobs: Breaking Bread with the Dead. See this sample from the Atlantic. So many good books to read!
  • COVID stress is for athletes, too. The Mockingcast trio talks about this article on Paul George and the struggles of playing NBA basketball during quarantine.
  • PZ’s over at The Living Church, writing about “Hopeful Movies During a Pandemic.”

And finally — the latest episode of the Mockingcast is up, where they talk about everything from NBA players, to Frederick Douglas, to Julian of Norwich!

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2 responses to “Another Week Ends: WEIRDos in the West, Feigning Wack-Jobs, the Twittering Machine, Enduring Work, and Lana Del Rey Talks to Jesus”

  1. David Zahl says:

    Great round-up, as per usual, B. And wow that Lana interview! She is a wonder.

  2. Adam Morton says:

    Love that Lana Del Rey bit. Perfect.

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