Another Week Ends

Am I then really that which other men tell of? Or am I only what […]

Todd Brewer / 3.26.21

Am I then really that which other men tell of?
Or am I only what I myself know of myself?

Theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote these words while sitting in a Nazi prison, awaiting his execution for a failed coup attempt. Was he a traitor, worthy of death? A promising young theologian who squandered his gifts? Or a freedom fighter living out his principles? Beset by failure, tragedy, and circumstance, Bonhoeffer was held captive against his will and bombarded by the insults of the guards. He was left to wonder who he had become as his life drew to a close.

1. Working from home or directing Zoom classrooms for children (or both) may not be a literal prison, but it can certainly feel that way. Hemmed in by necessary restrictions for just over a year now, who were before the precautionary siege fades from view. If this is the new normal, then who are we now?

A few weeks back, the journalist Anne Helen Petersen wrote about the fear it’s almost taboo to say out loud: “No, I’m Not Ready” to return to normal. After “a year of sustained, slow-motion collective trauma,” the prospect of resuming the life we left behind will likely be hindered by the pandemic traumas and habits formed over the last year. Like a kid on the first day of school,

You’re probably going to feel exhausted when you want to feel exhilarated, panicked when you thought you’d feel safe, combative when all you want is to feel soothed. Your social skills have atrophied and you’re probably going to get in some big fights that will seem like they’re about nothing but are actually about everything. You’re going to crave some of the parts of quarantine life you swore you never would. You’re probably going to over-plan and over-schedule and feel an alarming and unexpected need for solitude and have to pull back and re-evaluate.

It’ll probably be more than weird to be in a crowd of people again. We’re not the same people as we were a year ago. I see it in my extroverted daughter’s anxiety at a playground overflowing with children and my own awkward conversations with neighbors. The confinement, changes in routine, weight loss/gain, and overall lack of social interaction have rewired us in fundamental ways. Re-entry might take some adjustment (in more ways that one, ha).

2. The tools (or coping mechanisms) we’ve developed to sustain ourselves through Covid life will persist after vaccination. Nowhere is this more readily apparent than the realm of technology. As outlined in Corinne Purtill’s New Yorker interview with sociologist Sherry Turkle, our dependence on social media, Zoom, and other distanced communication may not abate with herd immunity:

In thrall to efficiency, we remember mainly the inconvenience of the old ways, and forget what’s been lost. As more of these substitutions occur, we live, increasingly, through the limiting channels of our devices. What was once normal — an in-person meeting or conversation, say, instead of a video chat — becomes inconvenient and even off-putting once the “friction-free” alternative has taken hold.

In her book, Alone Together, Turkle documented how quickly the new technologies of text messaging and email took hold of our interactions. Their ease and perfectibility made for more frictionless interaction, less awkwardness and more control. She predicts that video calls will follow the same trajectory:

During the pandemic, many people have been forced to make do with technological substitutions for in-person life: Zoom Thanksgivings, FaceTime funerals. Many of these workarounds will be set aside once it’s safe to gather in person again. But we might also be surprised by how difficult it is to abandon some of our new habits. One of Turkle’s worries is that, once it is possible to interact face to face, we will find ourselves gravitating toward the frictionless options with which we’ve grown comfortable.

As vaccinations steadily climb and life nudges toward normalcy, we probably won’t return to the normal we left behind. We won’t pick up where we left off. What it all means remains to be seen.

3. Our identity, despite the widespread belief to the contrary, is a not stable substance we mysteriously possess, what theologian Hans Frei derisively termed a “ghost in the machine.” We are highly malleable to circumstance. As provocatively argued by Shayla Love in her outstanding essay this week in Vice, “Why Your ‘True Self’ Is An Illusion,” there is no hidden you lurking beneath the surface.

[T]he true self is an example of a “folk intuition.” It almost certainly doesn’t exist. What we know from neuroscience and psychology doesn’t provide evidence for a separate and persisting morally good true self buried deep within.

And yet the belief in a real you persists, ubiquitously woven into our cultural fabric: whether it be movies, music, or politics. We operate according to what philosopher Charles Taylor called the ethics of authenticity, aka “you do you.”

Love argues that the belief that people’s identities are unchanging and fundamentally good shapes how we view others. We can disassociate actions from identity by excusing or explaining away wrongdoing. Not assuming the worst of others sounds a whole lot like love and perhaps imputation. But when it comes to ourselves, the results can be disastrous, leading to the anxiety of “finding yourself” in order to be happy. It also leads to self-righteousness:

Some people might respond to the distress by denying that they’re acting immorally and getting defensive. Others might rush out to do a good deed to reestablish their goodness […] moral credentialing and moral cleansing. Stichter said that these actions aren’t the same as engaging in actual moral development — they’re quick fixes that make a person feel better.

4. Of course, when the sin can’t be rationalized — or when the desire for explanation is absent — the belief in an inherently good identity excludes notions of forgiveness and mercy. What’s left to do? Cancellation and expulsion. Which leads me to Graeme Wood’s article in the Atlantic, “America Has Forgotten How to Forgive.” Before this past week I’d have wagered that few people knew that Vogue had a teen magazine, but the forced resignation of Alexi McCammond, its newly hired 27-year-old editor, has made the headlines. The internet never forgets, even if you’re 17 at the time. Wood argues,

A world in which McCammond apologizes for her old tweets is better than one in which she sees nothing wrong with them. Possibly worse than the latter, though, is one in which the highest aspiration of racial pride is to slam the doors of repentance permanently in the faces of your enemies. In many religious traditions, expiation of guilt is an earthly process; you can confess your sins to a priest, or wander Earth in sackcloth and ashes. For the sake of today’s Teen Vogue readers, I hope that by the time they are McCammond’s age, the current culture has developed its own process of expiation.

Wood believes that sin is not simply mistaken self-expressions or the product of bad circumstances. No, sin requires purgation, a “cleansing bonfire” of forgiveness. The sincerity of McCammond’s apologies are beside the point if the stain of wrongdoing can only be wiped clean by someone else. Meriting forgiveness is an oxymoron.

5. It may be awhile before America learns to forgive sinners, if indeed it ever knew how to begin with. But until that day, we’re all better off reading Rhina P. Espaillat’s outstanding poem published by Plough, “Mary Magdalen Responds to the Harsh Judge.”

Be honest, please: I long to know
why judging others makes you glad:
does my uncleanness make you sad,
or lift you high as I am low?
Do you intend to heal the bad?
Or is it, rather, your delight
to humiliate and slight
those who are used and spoken of
with cruel contempt and never love,
though they may well please you by night?.

I’ve heard a man from Bethlehem—
a man of peace, both good and humble—
steadies the fallible who stumble,
and if they fall he raises them,
rather than scornfully condemn.
Because he has known pain and fear,
that youthful carpenter holds dear
not just the virtuous but the rest;
at love and counsel both, the best,
by far more tender than severe.

6. In the place of contrition (performative or genuine), the dynamics of grace — and for that matter, love — decisively place the emphasis on the mercy offered rather than the worthiness of the recipient. In this way, grace bypasses identity altogether, and this ingenious insight lay at the heart of Martin Luther and the Protestant Reformation.

The Christian does not become more virtuous, a better version of themself, or the truest version of themself. According to Nick Comiskey’s recent piece in the Living Church, Luther counseled his readers to “form the habit of leaving ourselves behind.”

Luther wanted to hear a word from God that consoled rather than accused. His theological achievement involved making faith unreflective while remaining deeply personal. This allowed him to bypass his unbelief and be certain God’s promises applied to him. […]

Taking Luther’s insights seriously might mean responding to skepticism with declarations of promise. For his great insight is that faith needs external things to cling to in the struggle with unbelief. My job as a minister is not to persuade but boldly offer those things upon which faith is built: words, water, bread and wine. This may not silence every doubt, but it may very well still disquieted souls. It may not answer every objection, but it could help those discouraged by unbelief to “leave themselves behind” and attend to the Word of God as it addresses them in the life of the Church.

This life of faith is simultaneously personal and unreflective. It does not look at itself and its own value, but lifts up its eyes to Christ to find value, meaning, and stability. Who we are is neither malleable by circumstance, nor determined by sheer willpower or moral virtue, but is given by Christ and received in a faith that looks to him alone.

Sitting in his prison cell, Dietrich Bonhoeffer awaited a deliverance that would never come. He was executed just days before the Americans arrived. But the questions he raised about who he was would ultimately be answered. Amid the despair of death and the taunts of his accusers, Bonhoeffer took a page from Luther to find an identity that wholly depends on the unchanging word of another, prison cell or pandemic be damned.

Who am I? This or the Other?
Am I one person today and tomorrow another?
Am I both at once? A hypocrite before others,
And before myself a contemptible woebegone weakling?
Or is something within me still like a beaten army
Fleeing in disorder from victory already achieved?

Who am I? They mock me, these lonely questions of mine.
Whoever I am, Thou knowest, O God, I am thine!

7. In humor this week … Little Old Lady Comedy asks, “Is it COVID, Or Are You Just a Mom in a Pandemic?” From Belladonna Comedy, did you hear about the shrimp tale found in the box of Cinnamon Toast Crunch? The chef is none too please by your disgust.

McSweeney’s Flannery O’Connor Ruins Your Favorite Stories From Childhood” is as dark and hilarious as you’d expect, but top billing this week goes to “God’s Handy Guide To Making Your Writing Go Viral.”

Upend cultural norms. You can’t just offer up the same old same old and expect to go viral. For example, make a sex worker your heroine. That one worked so well I did it in my first book with Rahab hiding the spies and again in the sequel with Mary Magdalene.

Delegate the writing. You don’t have to do it all yourself. Have you seen how long the Bible is? Do what I did and hire some good ghostwriters. It’s still my work. I inspired all of it, but I didn’t have to carve each word into stone myself if you catch my drift.

Strays:

  • The latest issue of the Point magazine is out and it’s a doozy. Everything is worth a read, but Greg Jackson’s essay on the predominance of politics in social life takes the cake. “The Logic of the Like” is a close second.
  • Along the same lines as Anne Helen Petersen’s above article, returning to normal may require re-calibrating your brain.
  • David Zahl chatted with Mbird friends Russ Masterson and Scotty Smith on their Searching for Grace podcast. Keep an eye out for their upcoming book this May!
  • The latest episode of the Mockingcast drops early next week. I’m told it’s a doozy.