Another Week Ends

Cult Brands, Finding Confidence, Waffle House Grace, the God Who Loves Creation, and More

Todd Brewer / 6.11.21

1. Leading off this week, we have the latest in many articles sounding the Seculosity alarm, “We Choose Our Cults Every Day,” which reviews the book Cultish, by Amanda Montell. Cultish details the way brands employ cult-like religious language for consumerist ends. Brand-cults create insider language that reinforces devotion (and therefore dollars spent).

I read Cultish, Amanda Montell’s savvy, enlightening new book about the sort-of-cults people join every day and the linguistic patterns those cults and cultlike brands use to reel us in. Not every cult or cultish organization is necessarily pernicious: Alcoholics Anonymous and charity fundraising campaigns both manipulate language to energize their participants and create a sense of hopeful community. But the demands of modern living, Montell argues, has left many people looking to brands and “gurus” for the kind of guidance and meaning they used to find in religion. I know more people who worship at the altar of Peloton than I do who go to church. And with anything that engenders devotion and financial commitment alike, there’s space for exploitation to occur. […]

Cultish brands, without coercing people or enabling abuse, rely on the same linguistic coding to hook customers and engender a sense of belonging. The “words and intonation” of a cult fitness class such as Peloton or SoulCycle can “put exercisers in a transcendent headspace,” Montell writes, while the multilevel-marketing company Amway characterizes any kind of negativity as “stinkin’ thinkin’.” Consumerist influencers have tapped into the holes in the American health-care system, mixing medical terms and psychobabble into an enticingly frothy “wellness” cocktail. (Goop, Quartz article pointed out in 2017, hawks some of the same pseudoscientific supplements that Infowars’ Alex Jones does.) Many cults and cultish communities … also rely on expressions called “thought-terminating clichés,” which affirm positivity while shutting down debate. … Thought-terminating clichés, Montell writes, are “semantic stop signs,” and a cue that everyone present should halt independent inquiry and accept the party line.

[…] we choose our own cults every day, and cultish language is what helps, encourages, or coerces us into doing so. We select political candidates whose polished manifestos often get much less meaningful coverage than their unfiltered sound bites. (“Malarkey” and “C’mon, man” are as fundamental to Joe Biden’s brand as “Lock her up!” was to Trump’s.) Our jobs, our leisure activities, our purchases, and our fitness regimes are informed by linguistic tricks and tics that aren’t so far off the ones that more nefarious cult leaders employ to control their followings. 

Having laid bare the rhetorical mechanisms cults deploy to control our lives, Montell offers the straightforward advice of choosing wisely between good and evil. If only it were that simple. The power of the rhetoric used is more than we can bear — intentionally so. Perhaps we don’t need to select healthier cults for our devotion, but to be rescued from our faulty decision-making?

2. In capital “G” Grace-in-Practice news this week, “Waffle House Employees Band Together to Help Co-Worker Attend his Graduation” provides a fitting sequel to the Parable of the Wedding Banquet. A story of imputation and clothed-in-righteousness grace that covers shame:

On May 27, Woodlawn High School was holding commencement across town at Birmingham CrossPlex. Harrison didn’t have a ride so he headed to work.

“That’s when I said why aren’t you going to graduation?” said Cedric Hampton, Harrison’s manager at Waffle House. “And he said ‘I don’t want to miss work.’ So I was like, you’re going!”

“I thought you were supposed to graduate today?” said Harrison’s coworker Shantana Blevins. “What do we need to do?”

The Waffle House employees put everything on hold. They had a new mission — to make sure this promising young man made it to graduation. The Waffle House team banded together, buying Harrison dress clothes including slacks, a new shirt and a tie. They headed over to the high school to make sure he could get his cap and gown.

When Timothy put on the new clothes and his graduation robe, it was a transformative experience.

“When I put on clothes, that was a different feeling,” Harrison said. “I don’t even know the words. A million dollars? It was the best feeling.”

3. In humor verging on morosity, McSweeney’s imagines what poet T. S. Eliot might write about his trip to Planet Fitness and (see above) “My Personal Brand Is I Don’t Want to Die” is the perhaps perfect low-anthropology and “branding” culture mash-up.

But the funniest parody this week comes via the Hard Times‘ account of a men’s “Facebook Thread About Antidepressants Getting Weirdly Competitive.”

“I’d love to help the guy out, as long as I can mention the side effects of every drug I’ve ever taken and how existence is a struggle to maintain sanity and function within human society. I mean, some of the people in that group are still talking about Zoloft. Christ, I remember washing that down with formula when I was like eight months old. I take adult medications now, because I have real problems.

Not technically satire, but I found this story of an apple left in a climate-controlled office for 15 months to be a hilarious allegory.

4. Sometimes an article says more than it intends to. That’s exactly what happens in Mark Manson’s “The Only Way to Be Truly Confident in Yourself.” Or perhaps not. In either case, the optimism implied by the title — that there is a way out of arresting low confidence — is quickly undermined by Manson’s acute diagnoses and paradoxical solution. Confidence is one of those ephemeral personality characteristics that seems to unlock a hidden world of success. And those who are plagued by self-doubt and insecurity (pretty much everyone) feel left on the sidelines of life. He begins by noting the “confidence conundrum”:

… in order to be happy or loved or successful, first you need to be confident… but to be confident, first you need to be happy or loved or successful.

So it seems like you’re stuck in one of two loops: either you’re already in a happy and confident loop […]

It’s like a dog chasing its own tail. Or Domino’s ordering its own pizza. You can spend a lot of time cuticle-gazing trying to mentally sort everything out, but just like with your lack of confidence, you’re likely to end up right back where you started.

The quick and cheap solution to low self-esteem proffered by brands (and, I’ll add, certain quarters of gospel-less Christianity) has to do with self-empowerment. You are already perfectly fine and just need to realize how awesome you already are. You know, the kind of pep talk Jack Donaghy gave himself to combat fear:

Manson dismisses this solution out-of-hand as a road that leads to insufferable narcissism. Others attempt to solve self-doubt through incremental changes which eventually build a pyramid of confidence: have more eye contact, dress better, exercise, etc. And yet,

this type of thinking only focuses on external sources of confidence. And remember, deriving your self-confidence from the world around you is short-lived at its best and completely fucking delusional at its worst.

So no, external improvement is not a sustainable solution to the confidence conundrum. And feeling as though you lack nothing and deluding yourself into believing you already possess everything you could ever dream of is far worse.

The answer lies in the easier-said-than-done and strangely Christian practice of down-is-up humility:

The big charade with confidence is that it has nothing to do with being comfortable in what we achieve and everything to do with being comfortable in what we don’t achieve.

People who are confident in business are confident because they’re comfortable with failure. They realize that failure is simply part of learning how their market works. It’s a reflection of their lack of knowledge, not a reflection of who they are as a person.

People who are confident in their social lives are confident because they’re comfortable with rejection. They’re not afraid of rejection because they’re comfortable with people not liking them as long as they’re expressing themselves honestly.

People who are confident in their relationships are confident because they’re comfortable with getting hurt. They’re not afraid to be vulnerable and tell someone how they feel and then establish strong boundaries around those feelings, even if it means being uncomfortable (or leaving a bad relationship).

5. Switching gears entirely … The Bible is a strange book, rife with reports of odd rivalries, purity laws, and so many songs. Even the New Testament has its moments: genealogies, church feuds, and yet-another-miracle of Jesus (yay!). Some might call these kinds of stories boring, but perhaps there is more to be gleaned if we ask different questions. Writing in Christianity Today, Kaitlyn Schiess offers a step in the right direction:

At the beginning of his famous 1917 lecture, “The Strange New World within the Bible,” theologian Karl Barth asks, “What is there within the Bible? What sort of house is it to which the Bible is the door? What sort of country is spread before our eyes when we throw the Bible open?

These are questions foreign to the youth groups I grew up in. We asked questions such as “What does the Bible mean for my life?” or “Which of these rules do I have to follow?” And those questions are the kinds that large swaths of “boring” Scripture do not make much attempt to answer. Their truth and beauty are not always easily translated into propositional statements, and the way they affect the faithful reader cannot always be articulated as an “application.”

Many of us evangelicals are pragmatic to a fault, proudly wearing our “high view of Scripture” like a badge. But we deny that reality in our handling of the weird, difficult, or boring passages. When everything must boil down to an applicable moral principle, relate in a straightforward way to substitutionary atonement, or outline the way to “get to heaven,” it makes sense that large portions of Scripture would seem ultimately unnecessary.

Barth goes on in his lecture to describe the reader of Scripture as a traveler entering a new world … If you look for boring, irrelevant stories, you’ll find them. If you look for the strange new world of God, you’ll find that instead. As Barth writes, “the hungry are satisfied by it, and to the satisfied it is surfeiting before they have opened it.”

Schiess goes on to offer “story” as the key to not make scripture boring, but I’d suggest that Barth’s emphasis on “God” is more constructive — one that sees the Bible as the disclosure of God in relation to humanity (one might even say Law and Gospel). Stories can be pretty boring, even big ones, but the God that kills and makes alive … well, that one’s a zinger.

6. Speaking of God … theologian Samuel Wells, writing in the Christian Century, details an exchange he had in what I assume to be a pastoral context. In it, he almost goes toe-to-toe with an angry virtual parishioner as each of his usual theological answers are (understandably) met with increased skepticism. That is, until he is eventually spurred to offer what I take as a beautiful reflection on John 3:16: “For God so loved the world …” He writes:

Imagine eternity from God’s point of view. Imagine God having all that love pent up like you have right now. But the difference is, God’s got that love all pent up potentially forever. God’s like you. God’s thinking, ‘Where’s my love to go?’ So God creates the universe. But God’s got still more love to give. So God creates life, and makes humanity, and calls a special people. But that’s still not enough. God’s got yet more love to give. So God comes among us as a tiny baby. God’s question ‘Where is my love to go?’ is perhaps the most important one of all time. Half the answer is the crea­tion of the universe. The other half is the incarnation. On Christmas Day we find out why the universe was created. It was created for us to be the place where God’s love could go.

Strays:

  • When is a satire no longer funny? When people believe it to be true. That’s at least one lesson from the Eric Carle media storm over the fake story that the publisher insisted the Very Hungry Caterpillar include a page about overeating and nausea.
  • In church craziness this week, the one about “The Murder Scandalizing Brazil’s Evangelical Church” takes the cake.
  • Elizabeth Bruenig’s inaugural essay in the Atlantic, “Not that Innocent,” is refreshingly contrarian. Arguments about the death penalty are as stale as they are controversial, but her conclusion is at least spot on:

Killing never reduces moral risk; there’s no cosmic ledger it can, by subtraction, set right, and no slate it can wash clean with the right amount of blood.

  • The latest PZ’s Podcast episode just landed  and it is NOT to be missed.
  • And finally, here’s the June Playlist for your toe-tapping pleasure: