Another Week Ends

Flying Cars, a Sociology of Rules, a Decade of Business, the Perils of the Inner Search, and a Providential Storm.

Bryan J. / 7.8.22

1. In the New Yorker this week, Rivka Galchen asks “Why Do We Obey Rules?,” profiling the research of science historian Lorraine Daston. Datson set out to explore a sociology of rules, so to speak, combing a history of rules and disobedience for human patterns and predictions.

Daston analyzes rules as diverse as those for making pudding, those for regulating traffic, and those governing the movement of matter in the universe. In considering a series of historic anecdotes and texts, Daston helps us see rules (and their neighbors, such as laws and regulations) through the concepts of thickness and thinness, paradigms and algorithms, failures (it was nearly impossible to get eighteenth-century Parisians to stop playing ball in the streets), and states of exception. She writes, “Cultures notoriously differ as to the content of their rules, but there is no culture without rules … A book about all of these rules would be little short of a history of humanity.

Don’t skim past Daston’s understatement here: a history of rules is certainly a history of human thought, behavior, and value. The Ten Commandments make an appearance, as does St. Benedict and his monastic “rule.” One of the key patterns Daston finds in her history of rules is the question of strictness and leniency. The Ten Commandments leave little wiggle room in their moral admonition, but the Order of St. Benedict allows an abbot to make modifications to the rule as best fits the situation. It turns out, according to Daston, neither approach to rules makes them totally satisfying:

By the end of Daston’s book, one feels a sense of clarity about how to think about rules, alongside a gentle sense of despair concerning what kinds of rules to hope for. Rules that leave a ruler, or a judge, in charge of interpreting them feel at once humanized and corruptible. Rules that allow no exception seem free of human frailty but alien, and unable to admit properly of complexity. Despair as a response to the ever-present weakness of laws seems intuitively honest, the abbot inside of us might say, and it also scans as accurate to our inner computing algorithm; algorithms are biased toward the quantifiable, and the Tin Man is right to worry that he has no heart.

When it comes to rules, there is no winning. Bend the rules to incorporate human frailty, and we are accused of favoritism and corruption. Hold fast to the rules without bending, and accusations of heartless arise. It’s enough to drive you on from that “gentle sense of despair” into asking the deeper question — if rules don’t work, then what will? Maybe this “gentle sense of despair” will help us reevaluate a total declaration of amnesty, especially if it comes from that impartial ruler or judge in charge of the universe.

2. Back in 2012, Tim Kreider penned a widely shared opinion with the New York Times called “The Busy Trap.” The article outlined how, a decade prior, people described themselves as “busy” and meant it as an unironic virtue. It was shared and widely read, even earning a write-up from David Zahl and an invite to speak at our 2014 NYC conference. Ten years later, the Times asked him back to reflect on that essay and how things have changed. Between economic turmoil, racial strife, and a growing acknowledgment of “gilded age” class inequality, what was once toasted as a virtue is now a sign of existential panic:

A decade later, people aren’t trying to sell busyness as a virtue anymore, not even to themselves. A new generation has grown to adulthood that’s never known capitalism as a functioning economic system. My generation, X, was the first postwar cohort to be downwardly mobile, but millennials were the first to know it going in. Our country’s oligarchs forgot to maintain the crucial Horatio Alger fiction that anyone can get ahead with hard work — or maybe they just dropped it, figuring we no longer had any choice. Through the internet, we could peer enviously at our neighbors in civilized countries, who get monthlong vacations, don’t have to devote decades to paying for their college degrees, and aren’t terrified of going broke if they get sick. To young people, America seems less like a country than an inescapable web of scams, and “hard work” less like a virtue than a propaganda slogan, inane as “Just say no.” […]

Of course, everyone is still busy — worse than busy, exhausted, too wiped at the end of the day to do more than stress-eat, binge-watch, and doomscroll — but no one’s calling it anything other than what it is anymore: an endless, frantic hamster wheel for survival.

Some of Kreider’s anecdotes may be a bit overstated, but his observation stands. Last decade’s striving for virtue has led to this decade’s burnout and resentment. Work, particularly the way we do work in the U.S., cannot provide the basis for a happy and fulfilling human life. The more we ask it to do so, the more happiness and fulfillment it will take from us. But Nobody’s really sure how to get off the hamster wheel of survival.

In the next decade or so, I think we’ll find that the Christian idea of separating someone’s worth from their works will have a unique gospel moment. As David Clay articulated on the site last week, there are other callings in life besides one’s job, and those other callings may actually be more important to God’s purposes. Or, as Yale Divinity School’s Kathryn Tanner observed in the Money Issue of The Mockingbird magazine, Martin Luther stops short of asking what the socio-economic implications are of having an “anti-works” stance, and it might be time to extend that light of thought in the years to come.

3. Speaking of things that are not working, Brian Rosner offers a unique critique of the admonition “be yourself.” While the pop-wisdom of our age is ubiquitous, Rosner offers a number of downsides to the admonition and advice to look inward and find one’s authentic self. In an age defined by mental illness, anxiety, and general unhappiness, Rosner doesn’t place all the blame on this sage piece of secular wisdom, but he’s right to suggest that it it doesn’t seem to be helping anyone.

Knowing who you are and being true to yourself have never been more important than in the West in the twenty-first century. They are said to be signs of good mental health and wellbeing, the keys to authentic living and true happiness. […]

So, are there any downsides to looking inward and being yourself? I can think of three pretty big ones: it seems to produce fragile selves; it’s failing in terms of outcomes for individuals and society; and it is faulty in its assumptions about human nature. […]

Though there have always been life experiences that can [destabilize] a person’s identity, the rise of expressive individualism, aided by the powerful tools of social media, means that more people than ever are unsure who they really are and consequently have a fragile sense of self. Defining yourself by means of social media is fraught with dangers and can lead to projecting an inauthentic self. Because, along with the exciting opportunity to find yourself comes the daunting possibility of not succeeding, or of not liking what you find. The cruel irony is that, while it’s never been more important to know who you are, it’s rarely been more difficult. […]

Expressive individualism is also failing to deliver on its promise of the good life. Anxiety, depression, narcissism, anger, and resentment are all on the rise. And happiness, by any measure, is actually in decline. While we cannot lay all the blame for this on looking only inward to find yourself, it would hardly be surprising for such a self-focussed approach to personal identity to produce selves that are self-deceived, self-absorbed, and self-centred. Francis Fukuyama writes: “The problem is that the inner selves we are celebrating may be cruel, violent, narcissistic, or dishonest. Or they may simply be lazy and shallow.” […]

Along with looking inward to find yourself, we look around to others; we know ourselves in being known by others, especially those who know and love us intimately. We also look backwards and forwards to our life stories. Human identity does not exist in isolation, and it cannot be defined without reference to the narrative in which it finds itself.

4. It was a quiet week for humor, but “Father Of 9 Elon Musk Admits He’s Only Going To Mars To Get Some Peace And Quiet” is relatable. The real discovery from this week was the Glacierview Alaska Independence Day car launch event. Can’t really do fireworks when you get nearly 24 hours of direct sunlight in the summer months. God bless America:

5. You know what are funny? Minions — the ubiquitous yellow goombahs from the Despicable Me franchise. I probably don’t have to tell you about them: you’ve seen them on your nephew’s school supplies and your over-social aunt’s Facebook memes. But not everyone is laughing, so Shirley Li makes space in the Atlantic to address all hubbub surrounding the release of The Rise of Gru, whether its critics handwringing the plot with no morals or the #gentleminions TikTok trend of attending a showing wearing a suit and tie.

Why are these annoying yellow sidekicks so popular, despite their absurdist helium-inhaled antics? According to Li, it’s the power of play, and to oppose the blue and yellow pop culture fad is to oppose the very idea of unstructured chaotic childhood fun:

To be clear, the Minions’s latest triumph is not unearned in artistic terms. The Rise of Gru’s story is instantly forgettable, but the film looks great, moves briskly, and boasts the vocal stylings of a cast that sounds like they’re having the time of their life. (Jean-Claude Van Damme plays a villain named “Jean-Clawed.” Let him have his fun.) For me, an adult attendee with a drink in hand, getting tipsier and tipsier while the children around me hooted and hollered at every glimpse of a Minion butt was a reminder to not resist childlike impulses. That’s the thing about Minions, in the end: In their gobbledygook-infused antics, they somehow reach inside your soul and extract the sense of humor you had as a 5-year-old, so that when you watch Stuart the Minion (voiced, as are all the other Minions, by Pierre Coffin) make fart noises over a plane’s PA system, you can’t help but let out a giggle. Does it matter that there’s no reason for the Minions to be piloting a flight in the first place? Please. Sometimes it’s better to just laugh.

So there’s more to it than just “harmless fun,” I think, even though the memes have left the irony station for an on-time arrival at Dadaist nonsense. I think we’d all be better off letting our inner preschooler take the wheel every once in a while. Just don’t ask them which villain they served between 1933 and 1945.

6. David Brooks was with the folks at BioLogos back in May, and his comments on human anthropology and politics are spot on (and encouraging!). “Some sort of confident projection of a superior human anthropology, and a superior set of how you be a moral person, is within the Christian world.” The video is below (start at 31:10) and the transcript is here. Understand people, and the gospel begins to make radical sense.

7. This week marks the 517th anniversary of a very particular storm, one that would change the course of history. I’m speaking, of course, about the thunderstorm that drove a young Martin Luther to parlay a monk’s life for St. Anne’s protection. Over at 1517, Samuel Schuldheisz reflects on the consequences of this unexpectedly beautiful storm for Luther and the whole world:

St. Anne, however, could not help Luther. Only Christ could do what Luther asked: “Help me.” And he did, even though Luther’s misguided, misunderstood vow to become a monk, which he eventually made when he joined the black cloister of the Augustinians on July 17, 1505. [Note: a mere 15 days after the storm!]

Like storms past and present, this storm changed Luther and, in time, changed the world for generations to come. Like Elijah in the cave, however, it was not the raging winds over Stotternheim that ultimately changed Luther, though God used that storm to set him on a new course. Rather, it was the still small, Spirit-filled voice of Jesus in the Scriptures that soothed, consoled, and brought joy to Luther’s troubled conscience. Through the Psalms, prophets, and letters of Paul, through his lectures, teaching, and preaching, Luther came to see that he was not alone in the storm, but rather that God was in the storm with him.

Through Martin Luther, God would unleash a far greater storm than the one which overwhelmed Luther on July 2, 1505. God caused a good storm to fall upon the heart and mind of Luther and those who heard, and still hear, his teaching and preaching that we are saved by grace through faith in Christ crucified for sinners. In time, Luther discovered that the gospel was an EF 5 tornado swirling with comfort and consolation of the free forgiveness of sins for Christ’s sake.


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One response to “July 2-8”

  1. Dan E. says:

    The problem is not that we today are working harder than our parents or grandparents, it’s that the work that we do is increasingly divorced from any clear connection between our job and an outcome worth celebrating. And in some cases, it’s so disconnected as to be meaningless.

    We can’t mentally sustain work that has no clear payoff or result that allows us to say proudly, “I made that,” or “My family immediately benefits from using what my job manufacturers.” The rat race cannot bear all the blame, because in many cases, our predecessors worked harder than we do. It’s that rat race compounded by the loss of purpose, meaning, and a shared narrative to bind it all together.

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