Another Week Ends

Click here to listen to this week’s episode of The Mockingcast, which features an interview […]

Ethan Richardson / 7.1.16

Click here to listen to this week’s episode of The Mockingcast, which features an interview with theologian Miroslav Volf.

Screen Shot 2016-03-08 at 3.18.52 PM1. J.D. Vance wrote an op-ed in the New York Times entitled The Bad Faith of the White Working Class. In it, Vance describes his own upbringing in not only a working class Southern Ohio town, but also an evangelical household and church community. He defends the hope and support his faith community provided, and he uses a lot of statistics to back up that this is true of a lot of children who grew up in similar circumstances.

Vance also argues that these communities are drying up across America, especially in working class communities, the very communities that need it most. While the voices of political pundits and ‘values voters’ tend to cast a larger shadow than their actual presence, Vance argues that many ‘communities’ are tied to Facebook prayer circles or quasi-religious tv personalities. In short, the meaning of ‘church,’ or American ‘Christianity,’ has been co-opted by a narrower meaning of faith.

This deinstitutionalization of the faith has occurred alongside its politicization. It’s hard to believe that in 1976, evangelicals helped deliver the White House to the liberal Democrat Jimmy Carter. But fueled by social issues like abortion, the religious right soon began to exercise broad influence among American Christians. By 2004, “values voters” became so synonymous with the Republican Party that George W. Bush’s re-election was largely attributed to them.

While it’s hard to fault people for voting their conscience, this fusion of religion and politics necessarily forces people to look externally. The sometimes tough love of the Christian faith of my childhood demanded a certain amount of self-reflection and, occasionally, self-criticism. While faith need not be monolithic — it can motivate both voting behavior and character development — focus matters. A Christianity constantly looking for political answers to moral and spiritual problems gives believers an excuse to blame other people when they should be looking in the mirror.

That second paragraph invites a very difficult question about the purpose of church, one that draws a dividing line between many American churches today—between soul savers and world changers. Much like DZ’s article on the Benedict Option in this most recent issue of our magazine, we are prompted to ask what the church’s role is in a finger-pointing milieu. Too good not to quote:

How a Christian approaches cultural hostility will depend on how they understand not just human nature but Christianity itself. What is the primary purpose of our religion? The salvation of souls or the transformation of the world? Forgiveness or inspiration? Is the Christian faith fundamentally a message of absolution or is it primarily a way of life? The two are not mutually exclusive, of course, but different Christians understand the relation, or chronology, of the two differently.

35BCC07D00000578-3663232-Selfie_time_Chris_Martin_right_even_copies_the_outfits_and_draws-a-19_1467086902575From this desk, it seems that J.D. Vance is discussing a Christian faith that delivers absolution for those who are burdened, rather than a way of life that must be preserved. It does so first by showing him that those burdens come from within—that he cannot project a villain any greater than the one within him. Christianity offers sustenance, as surely as it offers community, and even transformation, but does so by first showing a person that he cannot sustain himself. This, after all, is the essence of the “evangelical” project:

Mr. Trump, like too much of the church, offers little more than an excuse to project complex problems onto simple villains. Yet the white working class needs neither more finger-pointing nor more fiery sermons. What it needs is the same thing I needed many years ago: a reassurance that God does indeed love us, and a church that demonstrates that love to a broken community.

[Speaking of American Christianity and a sense of cultural hostility, on the Podcast we also talked about new Brookings research findings that “Most American Christians Believe They’re Victims of Discrimination.” The Atlantic article seems to prove that point, ironically. The findings themselves are interesting, but what is more interesting is the inability to take the findings at face value. There’s a lot of qualifying going on in Emma Green’s discussion of the study, a lot more than one suspects would be permitted if the group in question were a host of other “discriminated” groups. Sigh.]

2. For the culture vultures out there, today is the last day of the Toast. And besides a guest post from Hillary Clinton, here is a final link round-up Nicole did. Thanks, ladies!

Also. Seinfeldia.

Also. Jeff Bridges on right side of the law?

And did you see the story of the dad who really met his daughter where she was?

And that Adnan Syed was getting a re-trial?

3. The Mighty (a site dedicated to mental illness, disease, and disability) posted this great reflection by Sarah Schuster about “High-Functioning Anxiety,” which certainly defines me, but I think it might define every single person alive right now. What she gets at is the duck syndrome we’ve talked about before, of life between the roiling, panicked person beneath and the smiling, competent person performing above.

High-functioning anxiety looks like…Achievement. Busyness. Perfectionism.

When it sneaks out, it transforms into nervous habits. Nail biting. Foot tapping. Running my fingers through my hair.

…High-functioning anxiety sounds like…You’re not good enough. You’re a bad friend. You’re not good at your job. You’re wasting time. You’re a waste of time. Your boyfriend doesn’t love you. You’re so needy. What are you doing with yourself? Why would you say that? What if they hate it? Why can’t you have your shit together? You’re going to get anxious and because you’re going to get anxious, you’re going to mess everything up. You’re a fraud. Just good at faking it. You’re letting everybody down. No one here likes you.

All the while, it appears perfectly calm.

4. Writing for the New York Times, Steven Paulikas, an Episcopal priest in Brooklyn, wrote an article about our culture’s working definition of evil, particularly in the political sphere. In it he describes the danger of using the term to define a group of people, especially in its propensity to invoke retribution. Evil, instead, as it has been understood by theologians and philosophers for millennia, has been an elusive no-thing. It is more defined by its formlessness than its form. Which is perhaps, according to Paulikas, why we find it so enchanting:

For most of Western intellectual history, the study of evil was reserved for theology. From Augustine and Aquinas to Luther and Calvin, Christian thinkers were preoccupied with the “problem of evil,” or the question of how a good God could allow bad to exist in our world. When Immanuel Kant introduced the concept of a radical evil that exists outside the limits of reason and will, the eternal problem of evil was released from the church’s exclusive grasp.

Screen Shot 2016-03-08 at 10.25.56 PMPerhaps because of its hybrid religious and secular credentials, our concept of evil exerts an almost mystical power over society’s impulse to make order out of chaos and despair. As Susan Neiman writes in her landmark study, “Evil in Modern Thought,“The problem of evil can be expressed in theological or secular terms, but it is fundamentally a problem about the intelligibility of the world as a whole.”

Paulikas thinks this need to make unintelligible things intelligible is also what provokes us to define evil with nations and ideologies. It makes a ‘solution’ possible. He finds comfort in the wisdom of Paul Ricoeur, who writes that, in the face of evil, a response is better than a solution. A response, for Ricoeur, is the wisdom of turning to the sufferer:

In the common conception, solutions to evil require retribution, and the most obvious way to achieve retribution is through violence. Responses, on the other hand, engender what Ricoeur calls “wisdom,” an unwavering commitment to relieve and prevent suffering. Any violence used in a response to evil would, therefore, be focused on the alleviation of suffering rather than the attempt to stamp out evil where we think we see it.

5. Speaking of evil, who would ever feed their kids Cheetos, anyways? Might want to make two copies of this essay and file one away under “Mommy Pharisee” and the other under “Play Becoming Work.” It discusses a new book written by Tamara Mose about the art of the “playdate” and all the social climbing the event portends.

Emily, a well-off Brooklyn mother, once took her daughter to the birthday party of a less-well-off classmate—an event that took place at a neighborhood Chuck E. Cheese’s restaurant. As Emily recounts to the sociologist Tamara R. Mose: “The only drink available was soda and the food was nothing that I would ever feed [my daughter]. . . . It was like being in a kiddie casino.” As for the partygoers and surrounding clientele, they were “not my people,” Emily confesses. Needless to say, she plans to avoid future such excursions into the less polished areas of New York City.

Like many of the interviewees who populate “The Playdate: Parents, Children, and the New Expectations of Play,” Emily sounds like a parody, but of course she is not, which makes Ms. Mose’s field reporting especially revealing. As for her analysis, she argues that playdates—a word that seems to have come into widespread use in the past couple of decades—are a means by which the upper and upper-middle classes “reify inequality.” Which is to say, parents of a certain income level and social aspiration arrange playdates both to serve their own purposes—e.g., to network with other parents for professional reasons—and to ensure that their children are exposed to the right kinds of friends.

6. Bravo to Image for an amazing list: The Top 25 Films on Mercy.

7. Last but not least, in appreciation to The Toast, let’s go out to their Great Expectations Alternate Endings. “Round about, roundabout.”

cf15b1b2ca107fed0120b0aef3c502a6Many readers familiar with Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations are aware that he originally wrote an ending where Pip and Estella meet years after their painful parting only to solemnly shake hands and go their separate ways again:

It was four years more, before I saw herself. I had heard of her as leading a most unhappy life, and as being separated from her husband who had used her with great cruelty, and who had become quite renowned as a compound of pride, brutality, and meanness.

I had heard of the death of her husband (from an accident consequent on ill-treating a horse), and of her being married again to a Shropshire doctor, who, against his interest, had once very manfully interposed, on an occasion when he was in professional attendance on Mr. Drummle, and had witnessed some outrageous treatment of her. I had heard that the Shropshire doctor was not rich, and that they lived on her own personal fortune.

I was in England again — in London, and walking along Piccadilly with little Pip — when a servant came running after me to ask would I step back to a lady in a carriage who wished to speak to me. It was a little pony carriage, which the lady was driving; and the lady and I looked sadly enough on one another.

“I am greatly changed, I know; but I thought you would like to shake hands with Estella, too, Pip. Lift up that pretty child and let me kiss it!” (She supposed the child, I think, to be my child.)

I was very glad afterwards to have had the interview; for, in her face and in her voice, and in her touch, she gave me the assurance, that suffering had been stronger than Miss Havisham’s teaching, and had given her a heart to understand what my heart used to be.