Another Week Ends

Leftovers, New Years Gratitude, Moral Hobbies, Ethical Fads, and the Grace of the Illegal Lottery

Bryan J. / 1.7.22

1. Happy New Year to you and yours, dear reader! It’s great to be back in the saddle after a lovely holiday. Our first roundup after the New Year often has a bit of belated yuletide flair to it, as we single out the best finds we read over vacation to make sure you didn’t miss them. So, if you’re the type to celebrate all 12 days of Christmas (and maybe Epiphany too!), here are a few strays we heartily recommend to you:

2. New Year’s resolutions are such low hanging fruit for low anthropology, so much so that we had to impose a Mockingbird moratorium on bashing them about a decade ago. Too many articles on the subject made for boring reads, even if they were all good. But watching a secular publication wrestle with that same low anthropology is refreshing and clarifying, as Faith Hill does in the Atlantic when she proclaims that “Resolutions Are Not the Vibe in 2022.”

This year, the [Failed New Years Resolution] cycle feels intolerable to me. My experience of the pandemic has been one of great luck and privilege — but like many people, I’m worn out anyway. My 2021 resolutions went unattended while I worked from the couch, donning sweatpants and blue-light glasses, and wondering why, two years into this, I still don’t feel normal. How 2022 will unfold is so uncertain that choosing new goals feels like setting forth in a snowstorm, squinting into a great blurry expanse. So I’ve resolved to not make any resolutions this year. And I don’t think you should either. […]

I don’t know what 2022 will look like. But I’ve started putting together a list of small good things from the year that ended: I got to visit home and bake tomato bread pudding with my family; my roommates and I decorated our new apartment, each adding a piece of ourselves to the whole; I grew even closer to my best friends, shivering through long conversations in triple-layered socks when we still couldn’t meet inside; the weather got warmer; I got vaccinated; I read some beautiful poetry. These aren’t accomplishments — they’re more like gratitudes, or bright points, or road signs for my future self to follow. They remind me that my life can be beautifully inconsequential, and the things that make me most human are not particularly unique or impressive.

Low hanging fruit, for sure. But if we understand more about the limits of human capacity as a result of our failed self-promises, that will only drive us closer to God. And thank goodness that The Big Man does his best work with our gratitude and not our accomplishment.

3. Maybe your New Year’s resolution involved picking up an old hobby again. Julie Beck over at the Atlantic asks hard questions about our seemingly innocuous desire to collect stamps, garden, or bake sourdough bread.

A hobby was not always something to aspire to. Up until around the 1880s, the word was used to refer to any sort of preoccupation, which could be positive but could also be an obsessive fixation, as in “riding a hobby horse.” The word evolved, and a hobby came to be understood as a wholesome, enriching form of leisure and the most virtuous way for a person to spend their free time.

The moralization of hobbies followed a major shift in how Americans spend their days. During the Industrial Revolution, the nascent labor movement advocated for reduced work hours, eventually leading to the eight-hour workday and the five-day workweek. Some people saw the resulting increase in leisure time — and the saloons, theaters, and amusement parks that popped up to fill it — as a threat. The thinking was that leisure “led to both delinquent activity and deviant ideas,” Gelber writes. The solution to the moral depravity of cotton candy and Ferris wheels: hobbies.

But the way American culture glorifies and promotes hobbies also serves to reinforce the notion that idleness is wrong — what Gelber in his book calls “the folk wisdom of capitalism.” Gelber believes that hobbies reinforce the values of achievement, productivity, progress, and hard work, even as they provide a break from people’s actual jobs. “If capitalism is culturally hegemonic then productive leisure is surely one of the instruments of its continuing domination,” he writes.

The more I follow Beck’s reasoning, the more convinced I am that the law of “thou must hobby” really does fly in the face of God’s sabbath insistence to “do nothing.” “Do you have any hobbies?” is a minefield of a question for a romantic partner on a first date, and a curveball question on a job interview. Better just answer cooking and travel, because the real answer of browsing make-up Instagram tutorials or playing freemium smartphone games won’t cut it in this dating or job market. I’m also shocked at how often “thou must have a hobby” applies to clergy, as if having a distraction is a silver bullet that reduces the stress of an already stressful job. When the answer to being overworked is to stop working and do different unpaid work, the problem is probably work, not idleness. Perhaps Cal Newport’s call to a “slow productivity” movement in the New Yorker would help:

The central goal of Slow Productivity is to keep an individual worker’s volume at a sustainable level. A natural fear is that by reducing the amount of work each employee tackles at any given time, it might reduce the total amount of work an organization is able to complete, making it less competitive. This fear is unfounded. As argued, when an individual’s work volume increases, so does the accompanying overhead and stress, reducing both the time remaining to actually execute the tasks and the quality of the results. If you instead enable the individual to work more sequentially, focusing on a small number of things at a time, waiting until she is done before bringing on new obligations, the rate at which she completes tasks might actually increase. […]

The issue I raise here is not whether a shorter workweek is an entirely bad idea but whether it will sufficiently solve the narrow-but-urgent problem of rising burnout among office workers. I don’t think it will. The autonomy that defines the professional lives of those who toil in front of computer screens has led us into a trap of excessive work volume. We cannot escape this trap by expanding the weekend. We must ultimately brace ourselves for the larger challenge of slowing down the pace of the workday itself.

And we’re back to works righteousness. The problem is not necessarily capitalism in the abstract, but any system that requires us to prove our value through our work will by necessity lead to exhaustion. So pick up that hobby if you absolutely must to justify your idle time. Anything, of course, but Netflix or TikTok. May I recommend learning to play up the latex glove bagpipes?:

4. If your hobbies include musicals or fantasy novels, fair warning. The hit is out for some of your old favorites. Constance Grady at Vox outlines as much in her essay from last week, noting how beloved pop-culture hits like Harry Potter, Hamilton, and Parks and Rec haven’t aged due to a shifting moral consensus. It’s Carl Truman reflection on her essay at First Things that drew our attention, however, as he observed a greater cultural trend at play. Unmoored moral consensus will default to moral fads and trends, which are impossible for anyone to keep up with, inside or outside the church:

Years ago, when teaching at seminary, I used to tell the students that moral relevance in the modern world was a cruel and fickle mistress. However much Christians accommodated themselves to her demands, sooner or later she would want more. Christian morality and the morality of the world simply could not be reconciled in the long term.

Apparently, this no longer applies simply to Christians and other moral traditionalists. It also applies to the artistic class. Last week, Constance Grady at Vox noted how so much pop culture of recent vintage has dated so rapidly. Hamilton, the hit musical of 2015, now appears, in 2021, to glorify “the slave-owning and genocidal Founding Fathers while erasing the lives and legacies of the people of color who were actually alive in the Revolutionary era.” The TV series Parks and Recreation is now considered “an overrated and tunnel-visioned portrait of the failures of Obama-era liberalism.” And the Harry Potter franchise is now “the neo-liberal fantasy of a transphobe.” […]

Of course, the moral tastes of culture have always changed somewhat over time. What is notable today is the speed at which they change and the dramatic way they repudiate the immediate past. It took forty years for John Cleese’s Hitler impersonation to be deemed offensive (and then, oddly, by a generation for whom Hitler was little more than a name in a history textbook). But now, jokes that were unexceptional five or ten years ago might well cost a comedian his career today. The moral shelf life of pop cultural artifacts seems much shorter now and the criteria by which they might be judged far less predictable.

The real problem underlying the phenomenon Grady observes is that the moral tastes of popular culture are just that: tastes, and thus subject to fashion and, in our social media age, to easy manipulation. Society has no solid foundation on which to build its moral codes. Decades ago, Alasdair MacIntyre noted that the loss of any shared metanarrative rendered constructive moral discourse impossible, as all moral claims were reduced to expressions of emotional preference. Philip Rieff made a similar point when he argued that the loss of any transcendent order upon which to build society meant that the moral framework of any given culture had to justify itself on the basis of itself. And that is an inherently unstable task.

Let’s set aside the fact that some of the obituaries referenced here have been written prematurely. There’s a Harry Potter reunion coming to HBO and Hamilton tickets are still unaffordable for plebeians like me. Maybe the best example I can point to is Dave Chappelle and the dustup over his recent stand-up special. It’s a bit of whiplash to see someone transition so quickly from moral hero to moral zero, and this is, of course, happening outside of any church context. Sacred or secular, following moral fads is a losing game. It reminds me of something I wrote about Lance Armstrong’s public comeback tour a few years back: better the law you know you have no chance of keeping than the law that says you can keep it, but changes the rules any time you get close.

5. The biggest laugh of the week goes to the Hard Times with “First Chair Violinist Playing Bach in London Philharmonic Orchestra Suddenly Realizes He’s In a Cover Band.”

“It hit me during the final notes of ‘Jesu’ — I had nailed a perfect performance yet again, when I suddenly realized that I’ve never played a note of original music in my life,” lamented first chair Kriegsman, who left his Bavarian village at the age of six to pursue the violin. “I … I am no different from Van Playin’, a Van Halen cover band who play every Monday night at the bar near my apartment in Notting Hill. I’m just a drone, a hack, a human Bluetooth speaker for bygone eras. Please, leave me be …”

And from the Weekly Humorist, “I’m Your Housekeeper and Yes … I Judge You“:

I can’t decide if that splotch on your nightstand is self-tanner or SpaghettiOs sauce. How anyone can create a stain that resists the power of a Mr. Clean Magic Eraser™ is beyond me.

See also: “Local Congregation Braces For Way-Too-Long Christmas Eve Service, Mass Starts Today,” and for the budding homesteaders in our readership, “How to Care for Chickens Without Getting Caught Up in Their Drama.” Also, the above scene from The Book of Boba Fett had me in stitches /s.

6. Of all the holiday reflections not to be missed, Esau McCaulley’s grand slam in the New York Times is at the top. A gracious parable of God’s love coming through unexpected places, his sermon on the three wise men is the perfect Epiphany reflection. Happy New Year, Happy Epiphany, and stay tuned for tons more Mockingbird fun coming in 2022.

When I was growing up, one toy captured my imagination: a Power Wheels Jeep. It was the Christmas present that seemed out of reach of my family’s limited finances. The commercials during the Saturday morning cartoons were a constant reminder of what I would never have. In those 30-second segments, the tiny Jeeps and Corvettes were driven by blond kids zooming through neighborhoods filled with green grass and nice homes.

But every Christmas, I woke up to find that we were still, in fact, poor and I would not be driving my Power Wheels through the hood. Until the Christmas that changed everything. One year my mother, my siblings and I made our way to my grandmother’s house to enjoy Christmas dinner with our extended family. As we approached the home, I saw a red and blue Power Wheels Jeep sitting in the driveway with a red bow attached.

My grandmother had a gambling addiction and played the illegal lotto that operated in the Black neighborhoods of Huntsville, Ala. This particular year, things had apparently gone quite well. She had used her winnings to buy many of her numerous grandkids the gifts of our dreams. That is how I got my Power Wheels.

I have always considered that lottery a Christmas miracle, evidence that God had not forgotten the little Black boys and girls in my corner of the world. But as I have aged, I have been tempted to reconsider. Are these merely the pious memories of a naïve child looking for hope wherever he could find it? Is it wrong to see God’s presence in a gift bought with money of questionable origins?

When my doubts about my Christmas miracle surge within me, I am somewhat comforted by the story of the Magi, the wise men who visited Jesus sometime after he was born.

Scholars are divided on just who these Magi were, but there is unanimous agreement (a rarity among scholars) that they were not Jews or worshipers of the God of Israel. They seemingly had no business anywhere near the holy child. […]

The Magi were probably Babylonian or Persian religious leaders whose expertise ranged from interpretation of dreams to astrology. They made their way to Bethlehem by means of an astrological sign. To make a modern analogy, it might be the equivalent of someone showing up at church on Sunday after her horoscope suggested that she try new things. The story of the Magi is religiously odd.

But the oddness appears to be the point. The birth of Jesus was not an event that celebrated the insiders, the people who had it all together. The Gospels of Luke and Matthew depict the birth of Jesus as the gathering of not the rich and powerful but the lower class (Mary and Joseph), the common workers (the shepherds) and the religious outsiders (Magi).

And so it is not so unexpected that God would reach into my neighborhood through the gamblers and the addicts, drug dealers and misfits. They were the ones who shoved $20 bills into my hands when I didn’t have lunch money. They told people to leave me be because they saw potential in me when I didn’t see it in myself. Besides, they were the only ones there. The respectable people — the city officials, mayors and governors — had abandoned us long ago. We were the forgotten ones, left to make our way through the land of trauma, helped along often only by miracles. […]

Christmas is, in the words of the Gospel of John, the light that shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. The path to that light has taken many forms. For the Magi, it was an astrological sign with roots in a religion far outside the Jewish world of Jesus and the first disciples. For a little boy in Alabama, it was the right three numbers pulled out of a metal cage full of bouncing lotto balls. In both cases, these odd incidents led us directly into the presence of a child who filled our hearts with wonder.

Strays:

  • A remarkable exploration of work, habit, routine, anthropology, and AI from Meghan O’Gieblyn in Harpers. A ton of threads woven together here that challenged my thoughts on the humanness of habits.
  • Reviewing the Lularoe documentary on Amazon Prime: “LuLaRich, available for streaming on Amazon, doesn’t just retrace familiar dangers about MLMs, a “business model” that has for decades been subject to scrutiny. It also examines what motivates women to participate in businesses that consistently fail to deliver on their promises.
  • ICYMI, or if you found a broken link, David Zahl reviewed Jonathan Franzen’s latest novel Crossroads for Christianity Today. “In fact, I cannot recall another work of recent fiction that captures the experience of answered prayer with such accuracy. Or has the audacity to include an actual foot-washing, free of sentimentality and satire.”
  • As Mockingbird’s resident Star Wars nerd, I don’t think The Book of Boba Fett is as bad as polio, but I agree with Rob Bricken at Gizmodo: I hate Tatooine.

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