Another Week Ends

Gentle Parenting, Performancism, Counterfeit Cheerfulness, and Hot Takes in Church

David Zahl / 8.5.22

In all truthfulness, I’m having a tough time picking my heart up off the floor after reading what Chad wrote this morning. Such a staggering loss — and so much love, courage, grief, and just plain reality in the words he offered us, I want to let them sit undisturbed. So please, if you haven’t already, read that post instead of this. And if/when the time comes and some diversion or uplift might be of value, take the following with an extra grain of salt. Lord have mercy.

1. On her substack yesterday, Nadia Bolz-Weber penned a brilliant essay on how “our drug of choice right now is knowing who we’re better than.” Nadia discloses a couple recent blood-boiling experiences on social media that turned out to be generated not by actual critics or trolls but by … bots. These were fake accounts spouting inflammatory content, boosted by the algorithm because of how successfully they induce a reaction. It’s embarrassing to admit that you’ve “fallen for” this sort of thing, so I admire the guts. Not she’s not alone! Far from it. Pretty sure we’ve all been had infinite times on this score, whether or not we’re aware (*especially if we’re not aware!). The cost of such non-stop, ever-optimized (diabolical?) prodding is very real, and Nadia outlines some of the fallout she sees in relationships IRL. But it’s more than another anti-social media screed. After confessing that “my soul just can’t afford the dehumanization of those we believe to be dehumanizers anymore” (amen!) she asks the deeper question: what exactly in us are these bots weaponizing? What makes us such sitting ducks for these sorts of manipulations?!:

So what interests me is this: what exactly is it inside of us that is being hooked by these manipulated messages? Or to state it more theologically – what sin is operative here? For those who are put off by the term “sin” — I am using Francis Spufford’s definition, HPTFTU (the human propensity to fuck things up), or Simeon Zahl’s idea of sin as a flaw in the human system — a flaw that consistently causes errors in our relationships with each other, ourselves, the planet, and even God.

This sin is like a loop inside of us that manipulated messages on social media hooks into and then pulls us apart – from our best selves and from each other. Were I to name the “loop” — the thing inside of us that is so easily exploited — I would say it is our need to think of ourselves as “good”. More specifically, our need to think of ourselves as better than others. I know I myself devour anything that gives me that little self-righteous dopamine bump. I love that shit like chocolate. Delicious.

Maybe this is why Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, the Gospel is frankly hard for the pious to understand. Because the Gospel confronts us with the truth saying you are a sinner, a great and desperate sinner. Now come as the sinner you are to the God who loves you madly. […]

God has the uncanny ability to reach past our photo-shopped profile picture and into the stark reality of our actual hearts. Into every hidden motive, into every xenophobic thought, into all our secret self-loathing and fear, into every dark thing that we hide so well. None of it is safe from the terrible mercy of God.

2. Have you heard about the new social media app BeReal? The idea is simple. At a random time of day, you receive a notification to take two pictures: one of what’s in front of you and another of yourself (and what’s behind you). You have two minutes to post it. No filters, no re-takes, no exceptions. Sounds like the ultimate anti-performancism social media app, eh? Not so fast. Molly Roberts of the Washington Post weighed in with a review, claiming BeReal Isn’t Actually Real at All:

Zoom out for a moment (also, incidentally, not allowed on BeReal) — and maybe BeReal is asking us to curate just as much as any of the apps it’s trying so hard not to be like. Just being on BeReal is itself a performative act: an opportunity to tell everyone we know, “I am authentic.” The whole point is to prove that you’re not seduced, like the rest of society, by the appeal of a false persona.

Alas, self-presentation — like it’s parent, self-justification — is a game that has no end (and no winner). Wired has more here.

3. Performative self-righteousness, of course, isn’t limited to individuals on social media apps. If you’re a large corporation, it’s become almost obligatory to issue a statement after every national news story. This has naturally prompted a fair amount of cynicism (and hilarity).

But what of the church? Should the church join in the statement-making chorus? Writing in Christianity Today, Chris Nye argues that such hot takes don’t belong in church, and I can’t say I disagree:

In today’s landscape, we hear “what the Chipotle founder has to say about gun violence” or about “Bass Pro Shop’s commitment to anti-racism.” Like the political statements of corporations, we look to our church’s social media accounts, seeking a finely crafted statement that matches the capitalist model of placating our emotions to drive our pecuniary interests.

The church is many things: a body, a bride, and a family, as well as a social organization, religious institution, and community hub. It is also a lot more. But it might be important to consider what the church is emphatically not: a PR representative […]

Pastors are … different from celebrities or social influencers. Like heads of corporate brands, pastors are often viewed as “thought leaders” and “representatives” of Christianity. As celebrities mention their disgust over police violence or abortion, it makes many wonder, Shouldn’t my pastor say something as well? But this fundamentally misunderstands the pastor’s shepherding and teaching role.

The pastor differs from the celebrity in that he or she is a teacher of God’s Word, a steward of a mystery (1 Cor. 4:1–2). The pastor is there to pass down what has been told to him or her (2 Tim. 1:13; 2:2; 3:14). Pastors are not in churches primarily to “offer some thoughts” on any given subject; they are there to announce a message that is not their own. [ed note: a bit like a … m-m-m-mockingbird]

Good pastors are slow to speak, while effective celebrity personalities are first to prove they are insightful and aware. For the celebrity, to not say anything is to allow the “other side” to win, but the careful pastor knows that silence is sometimes God’s most effective language.

As awkward as it might appear for L.L. Bean to have more to say about an issue than an ostensible moral authority like the church, there’s something to be said for not being too consumed by whatever publishers or politicians are selling at the time — for providing a refuge from those things even. Also, let us not forget: “sometimes noise is violence, too.”

4. In February Sam Bush wrote a great piece about toddler tantrums and the gospel of gentle parenting. A month later,  Jessica Winter surfaced the flipside of the coin, surveying “The Harsh Realm of ‘Gentle Parenting’.” In short, Grace for children often amounts to Law for parents, and vice versa. Our distinguishing of law and gospel often depends entirely on the position of the hearer.

“Gentle parenting” is a catchall for variations that include “respectful parenting,” “mindful parenting,” and “intentional parenting.” In its broadest outlines, gentle parenting centers on acknowledging a child’s feelings and the motivations behind challenging behavior, as opposed to correcting the behavior itself. The gentle parent holds firm boundaries, gives a child choices instead of orders, and eschews rewards, punishments, and threats — no sticker charts, no time-outs, no “I will turn this car around right now.” […]

[And yet,] a fatigue is setting in: about the deference to a child’s every mood, the strict maintenance of emotional affect, the notion that trying to keep to a schedule could be “authoritarian.” Sometimes, the people are saying … you just need to put your freaking shoes on.

One of the major themes in “Brain-Body Parenting,” and in gentle-parenting discourse generally, is that children don’t defy for the sake of defiance, but that their challenging behavior is a physiological response to stress and should be seen as essentially adaptive. The assumption unto itself is questionable: if little Timmy is on the front lawn tossing gardening implements at traffic, his motivations are probably obscurer than stress. This is one of the most confounding dilemmas of parenting, especially as kids exit the toddler stage: that sometimes a child tests or destroys boundaries for the thrill of it. Under the gentle-parenting schema, a child’s every act must be seen through a lens of anxiety and threat-detection — which heightens the parent’s dual role of child psychologist and emotional-security guard.

In #lowanthropology terms, you might say this approach well understands that children are emotional creatures, subject to all sorts of conflicting and overwhelming forces, inside and out, are limited in their ability to self-regulate — and need a parent’s help in coping. But it fails to account for the reality of, well, sin, whether that be the imp of the perverse, or the dark side of human nature, or the excitement we get when we pinch our sibling just to see them squeal. Moreover, as with the discourse on mental illness, the attempt to circumvent judgment of any kind leads to a different sort of fallout:

When [gentle parenting guru Janet] Lansbury counsels the mother of a child who hits, there is no acknowledgment of the little sister’s experience being hit, even though she may also feel “attacked”; there is no expectation of her mother “being really curious about what’s going on” inside the girl after she’s been hit, no recognition that the girl may wonder why her brother hitting her should not be “judged,” no thought given to the social consequences of being known as a hitter or of how those consequences might adversely shape a child’s self-perception.

If members of Gen X can blame their high rates of depression and anxiety on latchkey parenting, and if millennials can blame their high rates of depression and anxiety on helicopter parenting, then perhaps a new generation can anticipate blaming their high rates of depression and anxiety on the overvalidation and undercorrection native to gentle parenting.

In sum, perhaps the Onion said it best.

5. Next, almost on cue, in humor, Reductress gave us “Child of Tolerant Parents Already Feeling Pressure to Be Her Authentic Self.” Ha! Then, Some Complaints I Have with the Garden of Eden on Points in Case was very clever (the Climate section made me laugh out loud). The Babylon Bee finally got me to chuckle again with “Wife Calms Down After Wise Counsel From Husband.” Ooof.

6. Scholar Timothy Hampton just authored a history of cheerfulness of all things, which the Atlantic reviewed this week. Hampton defines cheer, by the way, as a “temporary lightness, a moderate uptick in mood.” The review, written by Ian Beacock, may not inspire the mood in question. It turns out that public expressions of cheer are no less immune to performacist co-option than public expressions of rage (or authenticity):

Hampton would like us to see cheerfulness as a rich moral sentiment, not just a fleeting psychological gimmick. Yet what he has really done, brilliantly if inadvertently, is reveal cheer’s shadow side: the way it lures us into valuing surfaces over substance, the peculiar degree to which it can be conjured and wielded at will…

Feeling spontaneously, genuinely cheerful no longer matters — if it ever did. What’s crucial is that you put on a convincing show, for others as much as for yourself. As Hampton explains, modern life has stripped away cheer’s authenticity and made it fully performative: “To act cheerful is what it means to be cheerful.”

But Hampton’s own book reveals that cheerfulness was never really so pure. From the start, cheer’s earnest and best self has coexisted with its phonier twin. Medieval French nobles realized that by responding to hostile neighbors and potential threats by putting on a “good face” (bonne chère), they could avoid violent feuds … And many popular etiquette guides in the 18th century advised young women to carefully perform “constant cheerfulness,” as one called it, a kind of “innocent deceit” that would help them succeed in the world of men and manners. Counterfeit cheer, in other words, is not so modern an affliction as Hampton would like us to think.

Emotions are usually defined by their ungovernability, experienced as forces that wash over us and challenge our sense of agency. That quality is what makes most seem authentic and trustworthy to us. Fake anger or love feels like a betrayal. But fake cheer? It’s hard to say how it’s so different from the real thing. Cheer has always been perched on a knife’s edge between truth and falsity, making it especially vulnerable to political manipulation and abuse.

7. Finally, speaking of ungovernable emotions, the recent episode of Malcolm Gladwell’s Revisionist History (that CJ mentioned in last week’s strays), “I Was a Stranger and You Welcomed Me,” is a gem of grace in practice. When Gladwell was growing up in Canada, his parents and other members of their church took in several refugees from Vietnam, and it made a big impression on him and his siblings. Years later, his brother Geoffrey would become principal of a Canadian elementary school whose enrollment consisted of 20% Syrian refugees. Malcolm interviewed his brother in the episode, who told him that one of the first things you learn when dealing with refugee children is to look for trauma, i.e., to identify which behaviors might be learned responses to growing up in the most troubled parts of the world. You go Gentle, you might say.

Geoffrey then relates the story of his interaction with one six year old girl, what he calls “the pinnacle of his career”. It’s much more moving if you simply listen to it. Start at the 31:30 mark. Suffice to say, when it comes to a rebellious and inconsolable child, love and welcome accomplish what punishment, reward, and discipline cannot. You may notice that the remarkable act of kindness isn’t the result of a calculation on Geoffrey’s part but an instinctual instance of “kindness producing kindness producing kindness” over generations. Beautiful.


  • Meaghan O’Gieblyn’s latest advice column for Wired, this time on the allure of “dumb devices”, did not disappoint.
  • On Substack, Dhananjay Jagannathan’s “On telling our stories” is a fascinating #lowanthropology-tinged response to David Brooks’ recent life-as-story-vs-life-as-game column: “Stories require a story-teller. We are not, however, apt story-tellers of our own lives and neither is anyone else. But it makes little sense if our lives are stories that cannot reasonably be told by anyone. So we should jettison the idea that our lives are stories.”
  • Music-heads, The Well of Sound podcast launched a Patreon last week and could use your help. A new episode of the cast (on Genesis and Phil Collins 1980-2010) just dropped, too. Right now it’s just for subscribers but will hit the wider airwaves next week.
  • I’m LIVING for Better Call Saul right now, marveling at Gilligan and Gould’s supreme confidence (and genius), and thought this post from Alan Jacobs on “two varieties of human frailty” — as evidenced in BCS and Breaking Bad — was enlightening.
  • Lastly, the launch team for my new book, Low Anthropology, is open for business! Not only do you get to read the book early, I’ll be doing some FB live stuff and doling out all sorts of related content (playlists, reading recs, alternate endings, etc). Should be fun and lord knows we need all the help we can get spreading the word. I think the only obligation is that you pre-order a copy and agree to review it somewhere, esp on Amazon or Goodreads. Apply here.

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