Another Week Ends

Bob Dylan, Enneagram Righteousness, Kid Sleepovers, Mental Health Apps, and Rick Rubin Connects to the Source

David Zahl / 1.27.23

Pro wrestling is the most accurate representation of real life because pro wrestling is made up and rooted in real life, and real life is made up and rooted in real life. So wrestling is a more honest depiction of the real world than everything else that acts like it’s not made up.

1. Ha! Those are the words of legendary music producer Rick Rubin (Public Enemy, Tom Petty, Johnny Cash, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Adele, etc. etc. etc.), who put out a wonderful new book this month, The Creative Act. Rubin’s been making the rounds — the wrestling riff comes from this cast — and I Cannot. Get. Enough. Wish I’d had this book on hand when we recorded the “Creativity” episode of the Brothers Zahl last year. If you’re looking for a place to start, his recent conversation with Malcolm Gladwell is a good place.

To say Rubin’s book is about creativity is a red herring. The Creative Act deals with life and art and love and connection and listening and healing, and yes, God. Perhaps it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the man who brought Johnny Cash’s career back to life is so unabashed about his spiritual leanings. Those leanings run in the more Buddhist direction, but not in a doctrinaire or flaky way. So his language may be a little unfamiliar, but it is (at least to my ears) not antagonistic. For example, he doesn’t use the word “abreaction,” but that is clearly what he’s after.

Rubin seems to understand his role as producer to be that of a facilitator of freedom. An agent of connection with what he calls the “Source” (which is not to be confused with our inner spark or some such thing). He functions as a priest-therapist-guru as opposed to, say, a technician. He also displays an instinctual grasp of “the law” as inhibitor and grace as motivator that brings this writer to tears.

By some miracle this man has been able to strip away false loyalties to ideology and ego, which allows him to advocate on behalf of What is trying to get through the broken vessel before him. It’s all pretty incredible, and you can see why he’s been able to bring out such amazing work from such a wide array of artists. There’s some overlap with Nick Cave, to be sure, but more as a complement. I find Rubin’s perspective inspiring, and hope you do too. Here are a few tidbits from his wide-ranging interview with the hip-hop magazine Complex:

There’s a big flow of creative energy that we can tap into and be a part of, and it’s the reason we make the choices we make. Even when we don’t know it, that’s what we’re doing. But when you know it and can recognize it, you can tune yourself to really be part of it. And it takes away a lot of the anxiety of, “Oh, this is on me.” It’s not really on us. There’s a part of it that’s on us, and that part of it is a full-time, huge, exhausting job. And then there’s something else. There’s something that’s coming from beyond us, and hopefully we can find a way to dance with it and have it pull us through.

[Interviewer: Do you think artists generally get too caught up with overthinking creative decisions?]
Absolutely. Especially in success. Once you’ve been successful, there’s a lot of pressure to continue that, whereas usually when you were doing the thing that made you successful in the first place, nobody was looking and nobody cared. Then when you get successful, there’s all this pressure. It’s like, “Oh, now I’m making something and everybody’s going to see it.” You start treating it differently. It’s important to do anything you can do to get back to that original state where the stakes were low.

[Interviewer: Do you ever have conversations with artists before they even start working on an album, and it ends up being more impactful than any hands-on work you could provide in the studio?]
Absolutely. I don’t always know about it when it’s happening, but often years later, someone will say to me … “You said this thing, and it completely changed the way I did everything I did. That was the key to everything.” And it’s like, “Really?! That’s amazing.”

None of it is premeditated. I’m present. I really listen to what the artists say, and I share whatever really comes up in me. And it’s real. We’re talking about real stuff. Any criticism is very matter-of-fact. If I say, “I don’t know if this line’s as good as the rest,” that’s not me saying, “Your writing isn’t good enough.” It’s not combative. It’s, “I’m on your team to notice anything that I think could be better. And let’s talk about it.”

2. I love what Rubin says about low stakes instilling the sense of wonder and play that tends to make for great art. Yet I suppose there’s something to be said for high stakes as well, especially when it comes to ministry. To that end, I’ve been greatly enjoying Richard Beck’s newsletter Experimental Theology (that Todd Brewer engaged with so brilliantly earlier this week), and was struck by something he sent out the other day about another artist I adore, Bob Dylan.

Some of you might have seen this quote from Bob Dylan in a recent interview:

“I’m not a fan of packaged programs, or news shows, so I don’t watch them. I never watch anything foul smelling or evil. Nothing disgusting; nothing dog ass. I’m a religious person. I read the scriptures a lot, meditate and pray, light candles in church. I believe in damnation and salvation, as well as predestination. The Five Books of Moses, Pauline Epistles, Invocation of the Saints, all of it.”

I was mostly struck by Flannery O’Connorian tone of Dylan’s quote. O’Connor and Dylan share an apocalyptic spiritual vision, painting the world in stark moral contrasts. It’s this aesthetic that draws me to their art. Both O’Connor and Dylan play a high stakes poker game. Life and death. Salvation and Damnation. Saints and Sinners …

That is the deep paradox of my theological vision, a progressive Christian who prefers fire and brimstone tent revivals. I like the Holy Rollers, snake handlers, and prophets of doom, because among them you feel that something is at stake.

For my part, none of this imagery makes me feel afraid, guilty, or judgmental. I makes me feel alive. It wakes me up. It makes me feel that everything I do today matters. Life feels full of adventure, significance, and portent. Today has an edge. My heartbeat is eschatological. My pulse is apocalyptic.

Amen to that. I read a different, equally thoughtful newsletter the other day, this one by Canadian priest Ben Crosby, that raised this question of “stakes” when it comes to church decline, and it’s a question Christians would do well to consider, regardless of ecclesiology. (I confess that my answer to the second one of Crosby’s criteria is pretty half-hearted at this point.) Call me old-fashioned but I happen still to believe, as per last weekend’s stellar conference in Orlando, that there’s a life-and-death urgency to the grace of God.

3. Let’s not move on from Dylan quite yet. Because when it comes to humor, nothing made me laugh harder than “Bob Dylan’s The Philosophy of Modern Sitcoms.” To give you a taste:

Full House. This is a show about the hell of modern life. The milkman, the paperboy, the evening TV — where did it all go? Vanished into the endless vacuum of time. You once had San Francisco in the palm of your hand. Now your wife is dead, and you’re a widower with OCD and three daughters to raise. Your Windex can’t save you now. Your best friend needs to move in to help you. Your brother-in-law moves in. Still, you can’t cope. Your daughter drives a car through your kitchen wall, which seems to symbolize the pointlessness of it all, the inevitability of disaster, the futility of trying. The hilarious goddess of chaos laughs in the corner.

Also in humor, I felt nailed with the Hard Times, “Man Who Liked Band Before They Were Cool Fails To Mention All The Shitty Ones He Liked That Never Got Popular” and News Thump made me laugh with “Woman who deletes over half her Facebook comments still planning to get a tattoo.” And the following New Yorker cartoon felt like some prime #LowAnthropology bait:

4. Fine, I’ll take the bait. I invite you to turn, if you are able, to page 164 of my book, Low Anthropology, to the section entitled “Confessions of an Enneagram Type 3 ENFJ Taurus”:

I wonder if we’re looking for more than just the clarity of categories when we urge our preferred personality test on everyone we meet. It could be that we are looking for a common language of acceptance, a way to say, “I’m not as rude as my mother always implied; I’m just an introvert in a family full of extroverts.” Such a discovery would be a relief to someone who has never felt like they fit. And it might help their loved ones love them better.

Of course, what starts out as a tool of acceptance can become a tool for self-justification. “I didn’t mean to ignore your feelings or steamroll your input; I’m just an Enneagram 8.” “You can’t blame me for acting so hastily — this is just how ESFPs are wired.”

Labels so often become cages, even the ones we choose for ourselves. A low anthropology frees us from those cages by means of generous self-skepticism. It understands that labels have limited utility at best and can be actively harmful at worst. In this way, a low anthropology tills the soil for true self-acceptance.

When I no longer expect myself or others to be consistent or consistently admirable, I might stop resenting them for failing to be so. Because a low anthropology locates the foundation of our identity in our weakness, it dispenses with the endless, worried quest to find yourself — or at the least reconceives such quests as play rather than purpose.

5. Next up, Meaghan O’Gieblyn continues her hot streak as Wired’s “Dear Cloud” advice columnist with a piece weighing the utility of mental health apps. We talked about this quite a bit on the new episode of the Mockingcast, which should be out early next week. A reader wrote in to ask if, in lieu of expensive in person therapy sessions, a mental health app might do the trick. Whatever the opposite of pulling a punch is in an advice column, O’Gieblyn did that:

Freud once pointed out that new technologies merely solve problems created by other technologies. To the common refrain that without the telephone, we’d be unable to hear the voices of our adult children who live hundreds of miles away, he replied, “If there had been no railway to conquer distances, my child would never have left his native town and I should need no telephone to hear his voice.” Civilization, Freud believed, was nothing more than a repetition compulsion, humanity’s attempt to replicate and reinscribe its fundamental disunity with nature through the very tools that created that alienation in the first place. Psychoanalysis may be a somewhat outmoded therapeutic framework, but it’s one that takes human irrationality seriously, and perhaps offers insight into the absurd belief that we can use digital tools to solve a health crisis that is, at least in part, exacerbated by them.

The contemporary brand of unhappiness that stems from excessive self-consciousness can be partly dispelled by immersing oneself in a throng of other people. Go to church, or to a 12-step meeting. Join a community sports league or attend a concert. While group activities may not address the underlying cause of your malaise, they will surely offer a reprieve. You’ll momentarily forget your heart rate, your REM stats, and your wellness history and remember the existence of fellow human beings who are suffering, most likely, in similar ways. At some point, I suspect, you’ll find that your breathing is taking care of itself.

6. On the cast, we went so far as to laud one specific form of face-to-face relating that appears to be on the wane. No, not church attendance. I’m referring to the sleepover. Apparently the practice has come under attack in recent years, particularly post-pandemic. That is, parents on TikTok have some reservations, and they’ve been voicing them. So much so that Erika Christakis decided to lay out “The Case for Sleepovers” in the Atlantic. She describes the sleepovers of her youth as “an opportunity to be silly and a touch subversive, and to get a glimpse of how other families lived their lives” and I cannot say I disagree. She goes on to ask:

After the threshold for safety has been met, why does it matter if our kids eat junk food for a night, or hear unwelcome political views, or sit through the wrong kind of prayers (or no prayers) at dinnertime? Why would we want to deprive a child of the occasional strange or uncomfortable experience at another family’s house — even one that might directly conflict with our values or our preferred practices? Isn’t an understanding of human differences a bulwark against frailty and narcissism?

Sleepovers offered a window into something mysterious and occasionally unsettling: other families’ emotional lives. It’s often hard for families to contain arguments, rivalries, and mood swings at nighttime. Fathers were usually the wild card, prone to nonsensical outbursts that occasionally scared me, but mothers could be weird too: cranky, depressed, flighty. Sometimes the weirdness came from how utterly normal other kids’ parents seemed, or from the suspicion that other people’s families might be just a little better than my own.

In our polarized world, where people now view the smallest differences as grounds for ostracism, it seems to me that there is more need than ever to allow our children to play and eat and, yes, sleep in another child’s home.

7. Zooming out a bit (okay, a LOT), author-journalist-theologian Tara Isabella Burton was interviewed on the Neurohacker Collective’s podcast, and what a fascinating and expansive episode. Most of the conversation revolved around Burton’s upcoming book Self-Made: Creating our Identities from Da Vinci to the Kardashians (out in June), which sounds like a tour de force. They touch on everything from Harry Potter to Anglo-Catholicism to Kurt Cobain to 19th Century Dandyism to 21st century forms of #seculosity, outlining some of the assumptions about the self that shape our lives without our awareness. The title of the transcript, “The Quiet Despair at the End of the Gospel of Self-Realization,” will give you a sense of things, even if it lacks the hope that Burton gestures at throughout re: the spiritual-religious landscape of the future. A few soundbites:

It’s completely understandable that when institutions have failed and they failed to keep public trust, that tendency to look inside the self, you think, well, anyone else could be lying to me, at least hypothetically speaking, I know I’m not lying to myself. People lie to themselves all the time.

Nevertheless, I think that that’s the thought process that gets us into solipsism, that it’s a combination of, as you say, this cultural tendency towards narcissism alongside a deep pessimism about what organizations, civic organizations, political broadly construed as polity organizations can do or achieve. We don’t have that trust.

On the subject of her own embrace of Christianity as an adult:

The biggest shift, again speaking purely personally, was a sense that narratives of personal freedom or personal fulfillment became less important to me than questions of what does the good life look like.

What are our obligations to one another, and how do we live those out? I became, I think, hopefully, less focused on myself and what I wanted. Obviously, everybody focuses a little bit, everybody focuses on themselves and what they want. I didn’t suddenly elevate myself to sainthood or anything like that, but I think that the questions I was asking myself, the way that I thought about the world became, I believe more focused on and interested in the ways in which I do not choose who I am or I do not choose what my life is going to look like.

I became more interested in what I would call givenness.

I think that for me, again, purely personally, organized religion has been a really fulfilling, to use a word I’m not sure how I feel about using, corrective or counterweight to a culture that all too often I feel tells me that I should be out there looking for some mysterious actualization that may or may not exist.

8. In closing, as an example of organized religion acquitting itself in the way Burton references, here’s a wonderful sermon from Drew Colby, “Ladder Day Saints“, inspired in part by Matthew Milliner’s brilliant video devotional from a couple years ago. The image he included is one for the ages:

There’s the corporate ladder, the perfect parent ladder, the perfect student ladder, the college acceptance ladder, the 401K ladder … and each ladder has its own rungs like the right skin care regimens, and social media likes, and self-care practices, and workout routines, and weight loss plans.

Every round goes higher, higher. If we can just do the right stuff, eat the right stuff, avoid the right stuff, say the right stuff, believe the right stuff, do enough, make enough, try hard enough, perform well enough, believe enough, then we will reach the top of the ladder and be holy, be happy, be enough.

This is the heart of human religion, the tendency to make anything into a ladder. We do this to established religions too, some of you came to church today because you think that’s one of the rungs on the ladder that you have to climb in order for God to love you.

Like all climbing, there can be a rush to it, the rush that we have the power to climb our way to heaven or happiness. There’s also a relentless pressure to it, that can leave us weary of the climb. And there’s also of course the fact that often the higher we climb, the farther we fall.

It makes me wonder, when Adam and Eve reached for that forbidden fruit, do you think they used a ladder too? […]

Right as Jacob began to imagine himself climbing the ladder to heaven, lo and behold, heaven was standing beside him whispering a word of a promise.

The same promise offered to us in the flesh of Christ ..: I have come down to you, I am with you, I will remain with you, and, I promise, I will bring you home. This is Good News for barren broken climbers, God is not waiting for you at the top of some ladder. God is not commanding you to climb to him. God is here, with you, at the bottom. Thanks be to God.


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2 responses to “January 21-27”

  1. Mike Ferraguti says:

    David, this is all so good that I had to stop three-quarters through it to share some thoughts. On creativity, I’d like to add, as copywriting has been my career for the past 40+ years (I like to say that I am a “fake” writer lol), that, going back to Ecclesiastes, there is nothing new under the sun. Sure, there are those talents who seem to break thru with amazing, original art. But in my experience in advertising, I see this quite often, that as soon as the direction has been given from a client, us creatives are all scrambling to the internet to find SOMETHING that will point us in the right direction. And, as a writer for a food service organization, there is only so much one can write about a chicken nugget. On sleepovers, gosh, back in the 60’s we loved staying at friend Mark’s house because he had all the great toys like electric football and Mouse Trap and Operation. On the pressure to perform, son Luke is going thru that now. He created a music art series at his church to rave reviews and now he is tasked to top each one. Ugh. Dang, we just LOVE Mockingbird. Ya’ll are SO very creative! And I do mean that.

  2. Mike Ferraguti says:

    …and I just read about ladder climbing. Wow. Serena just said, “And I thought I was the only one who thought like that.” Amen to Pastor Colby!

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