Another Week Ends

Impractical Christianity, WFH Loneliness, the Gospel of Sly Stone, and the Gift of Dependence.

Todd Brewer / 1.6.23

1. Leading off this week with a bit of a quick-hitter from Plough, who published an excerpt of Clarence Jordan’s book, “The Inconvenient Gospel“:

You can’t put Christianity into practice. You can’t make it work. As desperately as it is needed in this poor, broken world, it is not a philosophy of life to be “tried.” Nor is it a social or ethical ideal which has tantalized humankind with the possibility of attainment.

For Christianity is not a system you work — it is a Person who works you. You don’t get it; he gets you. Jesus said, “I am … the life” (John 14:6). Now life isn’t something you try out for a while and then exchange for something else if it doesn’t prove practical. You either have it or you don’t. And if your Christianity is the kind that has to be “worked,” you don’t have the real thing.

For when you look long and deeply into the face of Jesus, that compulsion of love falls on you, and you find yourself vowing that you would follow him and serve him — practical or impractical, wise or foolish, for better or worse — unto the death. […]

Christianity is more than a scheme to be tried — it is a guiding star. Christians are those who locate and direct themselves by Christ, just as a navigator takes bearings from a fixed star. What Jesus taught and accomplished among us has given us our knowledge of God. His word and way are more dependable than the North Star, and whenever we navigate by him, we can be sure of arriving. By getting our sight on Jesus, we get our bearings; we are no longer “lost,” for we know where we are and where we are going. And it isn’t the star that is practical or impractical, but the navigator who accepts or rejects its guiding light.

Happy Epiphany day? But in all seriousness, the impracticality of Christianity is often overlooked or underappreciated (perhaps most especially by Christians). Forgiveness without limits, love of enemies, dying daily to ambition or conceit … none of these make any sense if you try and implement them as a system without diluting them with caveats and exceptions. Christianity is meant to be impractical in order to push you toward the Person who makes sense of everything.

2. It’s no easy thing discerning what God is up to in one’s life. The moment you sift through the noise and pin down something that seems undeniably God, circumstances can shift or the meaning you thought was so clear changes over time. Unexpected and impossible healings from disease, though, are a different class of miracles. From Jesus to Paul to St. Francis of Assisi, Christianity has always been a religion of miracles. For us moderns, with our fancy medicines, the miraculous is usually deemed the unexplained. But even then, the possibility of a miracle can’t easily be ruled out. That’s probably at least one reason why Jesus did so many healing miracles — they are far less attributable to our ingenuity. But as outlined in a recent New York Times article, that doesn’t stop us from trying.

Scholars estimate that 80 percent of new Christians in Nepal come to the faith through an experience with healing or deliverance from demonic spirits. Perhaps as many as 90 percent of new converts who join a house church in China credit their conversion to faith healing. In Kenya, 71 percent of Christians say they have witnessed a divine healing, according to a 2006 Pew study. Even in the relatively skeptical United States, 29 percent of survey respondents claim they have seen one.

You can quarrel with the exact figures, but we are talking about millions of people who say something otherworldly happened to them. Yet most secular people — and even many religious believers — are oblivious to this or shrug off miracle stories on principle as motivated reasoning, hallucination or fraud. […]

God instituted prayer “to communicate to his creatures the dignity of causality,” according to Blaise Pascal, the 17th-century French philosopher. But for those whose prayers are answered, there is a temptation to take credit. Dr. Chinedozi told me that his family and friends address him as “man of God,” but he stressed that the woman’s recovery proved he has no special powers, not even superhuman faith. “People say God only works when you have faith,” he told me. “I don’t think that’s true. God sometimes overrides our unbelief and high-mindedness and proves himself to be God. He doesn’t need our faith to be God.” […]

Western skeptics have disregarded witness testimony from places like Nigeria at least since David Hume complained in his 1748 essay on miracles that “they are observed chiefly to abound among ignorant and barbarous nations.” Such dismissal is more awkward for 21st-century secular liberals, who often say that Westerners should listen to people in the Global South and acknowledge the blindnesses of colonialism. […]

For Christians, it also takes spiritual maturity to remember that miracles are not the point. Miracles are signs meant to help humans see the greatest miracle of all, the incarnation and resurrection of Jesus Christ — God’s ultimate intrusion into ordinary life, by which he eventually “shall wipe away all tears,” according to the Book of Revelation.

3. On the never-ending debate about the proper work-life balance, perhaps we were too dismissive of quiet-quitting last year. Taking a far more generous view on the issue is Cal Newport, who notes in the New Yorker:

Quiet quitting is not a life philosophy or policy proposal that needs logical scrutiny. It’s also not a political weapon to be wielded to prove how much more woke or conservative you are than everyone else. It’s both more incoherent and essential than all of that. Figuring out how work fits into a life well lived is hard, but it’s an evolution that has to happen. Quiet quitting is the messy starting gun of a new generation embarking on this challenge. The specifics of what a young engineer says in his TikTok video might annoy or confuse many of us, but it shouldn’t. The content here isn’t that important. What matters is that Generation Z is waking up to the fact that the unnatural melding of self and work induced by an adolescence lived within online spaces isn’t sustainable. They’re finally — thankfully — ready to ask what should come next.

4. While we’re on the topic of work/life questions, these next couple are worth keeping an eye on. In the New Statesman, Marie Le Conte argues that “Working From Home Is Killing Our Social Lives.” For now, at least, there are far fewer opportunities for the WFH crowd for random, chance meet ups.

Which leads me directly to Arthur Brook’s latest for the Atlantic: “How We Learned to Be Lonely,” who pulls at something about which I’ve long wondered. As much as loneliness has been a watchword for decades now, the post-pandemic reordering seems more acutely lonely and isolated:

In a poll that the Pew Research Center conducted in May 2022, 21 percent of respondents said that socializing had become more important to them since the coronavirus outbreak, but 35 percent said it had become less important.

Some people are probably seeing their loved ones less because of continued fear of disease. But when I’ve pressed friends for an explanation, the typical response has been, “I just got out of the habit.” This anecdotal evidence is backed up by data: Most respondents in a spring 2022 survey of American adults said they found it harder to form relationships now, and a quarter felt anxious about socializing. … Many of us have simply forgotten how to be friends.  […]

Loneliness, like homelessness or poverty, tends to be self-perpetuating: … If you’ve been seeking remote work instead of in-person work for convenience, choosing solitary activities over group ones because of awkwardness, or electing not to reestablish old friendships because of sheer torpor, you may be stuck in a pattern of learned loneliness.

Now, Brooks thinks the solution to loneliness is to get in the practice being social. Good luck with that… But it is worth nothing in passing at just how vital other people are for our own wellbeing — even at the most basic level of casual friendships.

Looking for a bright spot? One study found that the post-pandemic unhappiness of the the unreligious rose, while those who attended church were comparably more happy.

5. This lecture from Cornell West making the rounds recently caught my eye. He takes a bit to dive into his topic, but the preacher had so many zingers:

[On the blues] First you want to sing in tune — get your key right — then you want to connect your soul and allow yourself to explore the dark corners of your own heart with your wounds and your scars and your bruises and transmute and transform it into a sound that can touch someone else with them wrestling with their wounds and scars and bruises. So that they can straighten their backs up. And another Baptist named Martin Luther King Jr said, “anytime everyday people in the language of Sly Stone straighten their backs up they’re going somewhere, cause folk can’t ride your back unless it’s bent.” […]

Whatever forms of intellectual critique, that’s fine with me. But in the end, I know where I stand. I stand on a love that lifted me, I stand at the bottom of a cross — of a blood — that transformed me in such a way that I could try to love my crooked neighbor with my crooked heart. No matter how dark the situation is.

6. Staying with the broader theme of West’s lecture for a bit, Comment published an Epiphany-themed article on late Medieval depictions of one of the wise men (traditionally named Balthazar) as African.

The blackening of Balthazar allowed the African to exit from the realm of the European social imagination and to take on flesh. Balthazar is important not just because he acknowledges that Christ is Lord, or that he offers gifts to a child who would be beneath him in the social hierarchy; what makes the African Balthazar so important is that he represents a school of thought that argued that black, the colour of sin, could be sanctified. He represents the reconciliation between sin and love while also showing the tension inherent in using the physical appearance to judge an individual’s spiritual purity.

7. For humor this week, if you read to the end of Points in Case’s,Come On Man, Just Let Us Adore Him” you’ll be rewarded with with some elite-level Bible humor. For New Years resolutions laughs, there’s “Motivation to Make 2023 ‘Your Year’ Dead After Reading Just Three Work E-Mails” from NewsThump.

But non-holiday humor really stands out this week, first with the Hard Times’ Dad Keeps Calling Son’s Hopes and Dreams ‘A Hobby’” and Reductress’ “REPORT: Man Needs Some Imposter Syndrome“:

Jack is resolute in his commitment to not self-reflecting.

“You have to believe in your mission 100%,” Jack says. “When I came to my dad with the opportunity to invest capital into my business, he never would have done it if there were a hint of doubt in my voice. And due to that confidence, I’m proud to say I now employ four of my Tufts buddies who otherwise would have had to go work for Google or something.”

It’s statements like these that support the claim that Jack could stand to gain a little internalized fear that he is a fraud and an interloper.

8. Rowan Williams, writing for ABC Religion, celebrated Christmas by noting the joy and freedom of the dependent life and how starkly different such dependence is from our usual insistence upon personal autonomy at all costs:

I can hear voices from my parents’ and grandparents’ generation saying they don’t want charity, they don’t want to be beholden, they don’t want handouts from the state or anywhere else. […]

One of the worst effects of this culture of impatience and pride is what it does to those who are most obviously dependent — the elderly, those with physical or psychological challenges and disabilities, and, of course, children. We send out the message that if you’re not standing on your own two feet and if you need regular support, you’re an anomaly. We’ll look after you (with a bit of a sigh), but frankly it’s not ideal. And in the case of children, we shall do our level best to turn you into active little consumers and performers as soon as we can. We shall test you relentlessly in schools; we shall bombard you with advertising, often highly sexualised advertising; we shall worry you about your prospects and skills from the word go; we shall do all we can to make childhood a brief and rather regrettable stage on the way to the real thing — which is independence, turning you into a useful cog in the social machine that won’t need too much maintenance.

God’s gift at Christmas is relationship — not just another human relationship but relation to God the Father by standing where Jesus stands, standing in the full torrent of his love and creativity, giving and receiving. To come into that place and to be rooted and grounded there means letting go of our fear of dependence and opening our hearts to be fed and enlarged and transformed. And that in turn means looking at how we handle dependence in ourselves and others, how we accept the positive dependence involved in lifelong learning and growing, and help one another deal with it positively.

So the important thing is not that everyone gets to stand on their own two feet and turns into a reliable “independent” consumer and contributor to the GNP. What we expect from each other in a generous and grown-up society is much more to do with all of us learning how to ask from each other, how to receive from each other, how to depend on the generosity of those who love us and stand alongside us.

I once had a seminary professor who, well-known for his brutally true hyperbole, thought the best thing in life is to be a burden to someone. He was actually looking forward to old age when physical limitation required dependence upon the charity and care of others. Whether he would agree now or not, who knows, but his broader point still stands. Dependence is not a momentary departure from our usual autonomy, but fundamental to being human — whether that’s following a star, having friends to survive, or if you find yourself sitting at the foot of a bloody cross waiting for a miracle.



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