Another Week Ends

Un-Miraculous Christmas Movies, Humanism’s Errors, the God of Lowliness, and the Upsides of Feeling Small

David Zahl / 12.16.22


1. The new season of Last Chance U: Basketball which dropped on Tuesday is the only present I need this year. Thank you, Netflix. I cannot wait to spend more time with Coach Mosley and his amazing staff (and am still tickled that he endorsed Low Anthropology). Here’s hoping the East Los Angeles College marching band gets a bit more air time this go-round.

Now, I get that basketball doesn’t exactly scream yuletide blessings. For that, we turn first to Nadia Bolz Weber, who sent out some inspired thoughts on grace, failures, and the soul feeling its worth in her newsletter earlier this week:

When Mary sings of God in the Magnificat, she didn’t say that God looked with favor on her virtue. She didn’t say that God looked with favor upon her activism. She didn’t say that God looked with favor on the fact that she had tried so hard that she finally had become the ideal version of herself.


God looked with favor on her lowliness.

And yet then what do I do but constantly curse my own lowliness. Obsess about my flaws and shortcomings. Berate myself for my failings and defects of character; for not trying hard enough to become my ideal self.

But our failings and weakness and mistakes are God’s perfect entry points. It is our lowliness and our humility, not our strength and our so-called virtues where God does God’s very best work. Which makes me wonder if perhaps our obsession with self-improvement is really just a form of atheism disguised as spirituality.

Someone asked me the other day what a Low Anthropology Christmas might look like, and at the risk of being (very) cheeky, I’d say it looks like an infant in a feeding trough and the blessed lowliness of the woman girl who put him there. If Bethlehem feels too far afield, then by all means picture East Los Angeles. Or even better, a refugee camp in a near-future, war-torn UK:

2. Speaking of lowliness being exalted rather than disdained, UnHerd published an abridged version of Tom Holland’s 2022 Theos lecture, “Humanism is a heresy,” and man oh man does it pack a punch. Much of it will be familiar to those who attended our NYC Conference in April — or have read Dominion — but there’s a rhetorical forcefulness to the lecture that feels downright rallying:

That we are all of us possessed of certain fundamental rights, simply by virtue of being human, and of a dignity that embraces our entire species, are doctrines so widely accepted in contemporary Britain that many of us barely recognise them as doctrines at all […]

But how common, in antiquity, are the fundamental tenets of humanism: that humans — no matter their sex, their place of origin, their class — are all of equal value; and that those who walk in darkness must be brought into light? Not common at all, I would say. Indeed, I would go so far as to say that their fusion was pretty much a one-off […]

To live in a Western country is to live in a society that for centuries — and in many cases millennia — has been utterly transformed by Christian concepts and assumptions. So profound has been the impact of Christianity on the development of Western civilisation that it has come to be hidden from view.

That the rich had a duty to give to the poor was, of course, a principle as old as Christianity itself. What no one had thought to argue before, however, was a matching principal: that the poor had an entitlement to the necessities of life. It was — in a formulation increasingly deployed by lawyers in medieval Christendom — their ius: their “right” […]

It was not from reason that the doctrine of human dignity derived, but rather from the very faith which humanists believed themselves — in their conceit — to have banished. Proclamations of rights were nothing but flotsam and jetsam left behind by the retreating tide of Christianity: bleached and stranded relics.

Certainly, the humanist assumption that atheism and liberalism go together is plainly just that: an assumption. It is not truth that science offers moralists, but a mirror. Racists identify it with racist values; liberals with liberal values. The primary dogma of humanism — “that morality is an intrinsic part of human nature based on understanding and a concern for others” — finds no more corroboration in science than did the dogma of the Nazis that anyone not fit for life should be exterminated. The well-spring of humanist values lie not in reason, not in evidence-based thinking, but in history: the history of Christianity.

Can’t help but notice that, on the wall next to the table where I’m writing this weekender, a poster is advertising a seasonal food drive for the underprivileged, put on annually by a civic organization. All the power to them, of course, but the fact that the poster’s copy does cartwheels around the C-mas-word sure seems to bear out Holland’s thesis. I still count his beaming in to our NYC conference in April as one of the year’s out-and-out highlights. Not solely because the man split the difference so perfectly between Bond villain and Big Brother. If you haven’t had the chance:

Tom Holland – ‘Behold, This is a bright star’: History, Horror, and Hope from Mockingbird on Vimeo.

3. Of course, using the word “Christmas” doesn’t necessarily signal an allegiance to (or familiarity with) what Holland describes. Exhibit A-Z being the advent (ha!) of the made-for-TV Christmas movie, of which I’m told 153 were released this year(!). In a brilliant bit of cultural criticism for Vox, Alissa Wilkinson asks, Why are Christmas movie “miracles” never miracles at all? Touché:

“Holiday” magic. “Christmas” miracles. Hot single business women find hot single dads to date. Small businesses on the verge of bankruptcy are saved at the eleventh hour. Children wish for family togetherness, and the wish is granted.

These are wonderful things, but not actually miracles … A miracle is definitionally an unexplained occurrence that people believe is the work of some divine entity … But in the gentle made-for-TV Christmas movie, they refer to ordinary events that many people experience in their lives — securing a home, finding love, discovering a profitable and sustainable business model — now made sparkly and near-supernatural simply because they occur in the midst of snow and holly. These not-quite-miracles live a double life of divinity and inevitability, because they’re also an expectation. If something is going wrong, it’s okay — once Christmas rolls around, it will be fixed.

I was raised in an environment that took the idea of Christmas as a religious holiday very seriously … [Its] true meaning was, in fact, framed as a miracle: God became a baby born in a barn to a virgin, angels appeared to shepherds to announce it all, and for Christians, history pivoted on its axis around that event.

It was not really a sweet story, though, at least not as we learned it. Christmas also included tyranny and forced occupation, the terror of babies being murdered by a desperate king, and a small family fleeing for their lives to Egypt. Even Santa was less a jolly grandpa in the sky and more a warrior; we learned he was based on St. Nicholas of Myra, who stood for justice and, reportedly, rescued girls from forced prostitution by dropping gold down their chimney (you see the connection) […]

[In made-for-TV holiday movies] it seems sometimes like “Christmas” itself is the god of the machinery, the being to be worshiped and celebrated and prayed to.

In the end, that’s the unsettling part of watching all of these movies: … If you’re feeling downtrodden on the holiday, or if you don’t feel like singing that carol or decorating that cookie, the problem would have to be with you. In the movies’ world, not getting in the Christmas spirit is not just unforgivable — it’s unthinkable. A religion that understands the inherently disturbing nature of the holiday could be helpful in moments like these, but it’s been squeezed out of Christmas entirely.

I’m reminded of the recent McSweeney’s imagined monologues, “Small-Town Mayor Is Done with Visitors Looking for Love at Christmas Time” and “I’m the Dad in this Christmas Movie and Despite Overwhelming Evidence, I Still Don’t Believe in Santa.” Heh.

If those whet your appetite for some top-drawer Xmas viewing, don’t forget that The Muppets Christmas Carol turns thirty this year. The Conversation pays tribute to its genius here — and if you’ve never read Lanta Davis’s reflection on how that film helps her contemplate mortality, I’d recommend it. Also on the movie front, Aja Romano observed that, in 2022, nothing horrified us as much as old age.

4. Before we leave the big day alone, over at the New York Times, Kate Murphy gave us a primer on the psychology of gift giving, looking into what makes the practice so stressful for many of us. A healthy refresher for those of us interested in understanding Christmas itself as Gift — rather than obligation. We spoke about this a bit on the Mockingcast we recorded yesterday (out on Mon/Tues):

Good gifts — such as the old window frame a college student’s first serious boyfriend gave her, with a photograph of her favorite view mounted inside — show that you have paid attention. Bad gifts make you wonder if the giver knows you at all — like the floral china teapot given by a mother-in-law to a daughter-in-law whose tastes ran midcentury modern, and who had (she thought) made it clear that she preferred brewing tea in a mug. Even worse are gifts that imply criticism, such as a flat iron given by another mother-in-law to a daughter-in-law who always wore her hair curly.

“People tend to fall into the trap of not fully putting the recipient first,” said Dr. Julian Givi, an assistant professor of marketing at West Virginia University’s John Chambers College of Business and Economics.

Giving a gift, especially one you want to make a statement, can be a vulnerable experience. “That’s why some people get so stressed out giving gifts, because it feels too exposing to express their emotions and like they won’t do it right,” Dr. Buchele said. People can also have a hard time accepting gifts, particularly if they have an avoidant attachment style or fear intimacy. They might subconsciously resent being known in that way, or feel unworthy or even envious because they are not as thoughtful.

How receivers react depends on how secure they feel in themselves and their relationship with the giver, said Dr. David Goldberg, a psychoanalyst in Birmingham, Ala., who, like Dr. Buchele, encounters a lot of gift-related anxiety this time of year. He added: “A thoughtful and generous gift can stir up all kinds of conscious and unconscious fears, longings and desires. What does it mean to accept it? Do I now owe the person something? What does it mean for me going forward? Do I need to respond in kind? If I respond in kind, does it mean going to the next level?” No wonder some gift givers tend to err on the side of caution and just buy something generic like a scented candle or a gift card, rather than run the risk of going personal and getting it wrong.

5. In humor, the Hard Times got biting with “Woman Embraces Body Positivity for Everyone but Herself” but Cases in Point made me laugh hardest this week with its obscenity-laden “I Am F$*%ing Begging You Not to Buy This 2023 Planner“:

Don’t buy me. Why not? Well, we planners have all heard the rumors about what happened to your 2022 planner. We talk… I don’t want my fate to be disappearing behind a shelf only to be discovered when you’re evicted from your apartment. It is my destiny to shine!

Oh, and we all know what happened to your 2020 planner. Oh, yes, WE ALL KNOW.

That was a difficult year, especially for us planners. Sorry that all of your plans were ruined that year, but we didn’t cause the pandemic, okay?…

Look, I get it. When you see me, you see a new you. But just write shit on the back of your hand like you’ve done since high school. There’s nothing wrong with that. Stop looking at me. Don’t ask for me for Christmas. It is the rare soul who can engage with me for the full &$@#ing year. You ain’t it.

6. Next, the Words of the Year were announced this week and they certainly seem like appropriate choices for my own personal year of #LowAnthropology. Merriam-Webster gave the top nod to “gaslighting” — the history of which was new to me! — and Oxford’s was “goblin mode”. The Atlantic’s Caleb Madison took the opportunity to reflect on the, er, good and unifying effect that dispensing with facades of togetherness can have. In “We’re All Capable of Going ‘Goblin Mode’” he casts the phrase as a roundabout euphemism for grace:

The 2022 Oxford Word of the Year, chosen for the first time ever by public vote, went to goblin mode by a 93 percent majority. Oxford defines goblin mode as “a type of behavior which is unapologetically self-indulgent, lazy, slovenly, or greedy, typically in a way that rejects social norms or expectations.” It’s a gloriously evocative phrase — and it tells a concise story about how many of us are doing these days.

Goblin mode represented a full aesthetic rebound from immaculate self-presentation — perfect for a time when people were returning chaotically to public life from the madding bowels of pandemic isolation.

Goblins represent the impish un-self-consciousness of our private lives. They’re ugly little monsters who love making mischief around the home. They have more fun than trolls because, instead of waiting under a bridge to hurt someone, they’re just chilling at the crib, looking nasty and getting up to no good. Maybe they haven’t showered in a few days, but they’re not evil. They just want to stay in and play. Sound like anyone you know?

I don’t see going goblin mode as “self-indulgent, lazy, slovenly, or greedy” at all. It’s refreshingly authentic and deeply cathartic. In goblin mode, we can become our true wild selves, unkempt and offstage, triumphantly invisible to the public eye.

I might define goblin mode as “unbridled domestic liberation” or “a complete shedding of the mask of public life” or, my personal favorite, “staying home and getting weird.” Whatever you call it, I’m grateful for my newfound ability to go goblin mode.

7. Finally, by way of introducing their new series on Immensities, the BBC reported on “The Upsides of Feeling Small,” looking to recapture the category of the Sublime, aka when we experience something so vast, either in nature or elsewhere, that it exceeds our brain/heart’s ability to grasp it. Feeling insignificant, it turns out, has a variety of mental health benefits, not the least being its relation to the emotion of Awe, #youknowwhat.

“Awe is the feeling of being in the presence of something vast that transcends your current understanding of the world.” Various studies have shown that experiencing awe can reduce stress, discourage rumination, and enhance well-being. It also fosters greater attention to detail,  boosts memory and encourages critical thinking. Then there are the pro-social benefits: people in awe are more likely to show generosity, become less individualist, and emphasize a greater sense of connection to others and the world.

If that’s not an encouragement to seek out the Star of Wonder next week, I don’t know what is. The California raisins know what’s up, pun intended:


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