Another Week Ends

Keller, Tina, Grief Comedy, Postrats, Anti-Fans, and the Worst Graduation Advice

David Zahl / 5.26.23

Christianity’s unsurpassed offers — a meaning that suffering cannot remove, a satisfaction not based on circumstances, a freedom that does not hurt but rather enhances love, an identity that does not crush you or exclude others, a moral compass that does not turn you into an oppressor, and a hope that can face anything, even death. (Making Sense of God, p. 216)

1. If that distillation was the only thing that Tim Keller had given us, the gratitude would still be warranted. I mean …!

Tributes to the famed preacher have been coming fast and furious in the days since his death, as well they should, and there’s not much I could say that Stephanie, Todd, Jeb, Meaghan or a hundred others haven’t already said. But I did want to add my voice to those expressing gratitude for Keller’s ministry, as I count myself fortunate to have logged some hours in the Hunter College auditorium in the 00s.

In fact, I would credit that venue with the single coolest church experience I ever had. Tim preached a grace-drenched sermon, followed by an easy listening jazz band that led us in some Reformed hymns, and then during the offertory, some hipster-looking guy with a banjo warily approached the center of the stage to play. His song started softly but as the verses kept coming, other instruments joined in, and the drama built to a fever pitch. Six or so minutes later my mind was legitimately blown. I looked at the bulletin and jotted down the guy’s name: Sufjan Stevens, and the song was “The Transfiguration.” He didn’t have any records out at that point, but I did some digging and made sure I was first in line at the Virgin Megastore when Michigan came out a few weeks later. A friend of a friend was writing for Pitchfork at the time, and I talked a blue streak until he agreed to give it a listen. Who knows if it made any difference, but I enjoyed some bragging rights for a bit.

Thankfully, Tim Keller’s ministry did more than make me look cool in snobby indie-rock circles for a fortnight. But it wasn’t because he preached the cross in every sermon. Nor did it have anything to do with his intrepid references, or his facility at incorporating the psychological dimension of life, so rare in a Presbyterian of his vintage. Those things are great, but I’d been raised with all of that.

No, I’d boil his impact down to three main factors. First, Tim made me excited about, rather than afraid of, the Bible. He brought the text alive in a way that I hadn’t heard before, especially the strange parts that never got read at the mainline churches of my youth. No small feat. Forty-five minute expository preaching may not be my cup of tea these days, but Tim remains the single strongest argument for it.

Second, as has been noted pretty much everywhere, he demonstrated how the Gospel operates outside the political binaries that were calcifying even then. In sermon after sermon, he hammered home how Jesus is neither liberal or conservative, capitalist or socialist, and so on. Instead, Jesus represents a third way — one that confounds our categories and allows a person to stay above, or get below, the culture-war fray, albeit with compassion and hope rather than superiority or judgment.

It seems so obvious in retrospect, but I cannot overstate how vital this untangling was for a twenty-something who’d been raised in the Northeast. You never got the sense Tim was eschewing political labels for the sake of big city relevance, though. The man was a masterclass in keeping the main thing, the main thing.

I found it convincing then, I find it convincing now, and I like to think those fingerprints are all over our project here at Mockingbird.

Lastly, and I haven’t seen this noted anywhere, he taught me the importance of tone. Tim spoke without a ‘preacher voice’ — that over-annunciated, measured inflection I can only assume a certain generation of seminary homiletics professors mistake for reverence (but really just places the preacher at an emotional remove). It drives me crazy, and Tim didn’t have a trace of it. Perhaps that was just his natural disposition, in which case, I’d call it a spiritual gifting. The times I saw him preach, it was just him in a blazer and khakis, standing in front of a solitary microphone, holding a few note cards that he never looked at. He wasn’t reading or performing. He was communicating in as unmediated a way possible, and people responded. I responded.

Maybe some of that is projection on my part, but whatever the case, his affect never scanned as phony. And that is rare, precious, and very much worth emulating.

So I thank God for Tim Keller’s life and ministry. What a loss, but what a treasure.

Speaking of lost treasure, Tina Turner died this week after a long and storied life. Those looking to immerse themselves in her music — and find out where Jagger copped all his best moves — should check out the Well of Sound episode we did on her. Talk about a force of nature:

2. Not moving on from death yet. Writing in the NY Times Magazine, Jason Zinoman explored why so many stand-up comedians are mining their grief for material. It would appear, in part, that they’ve stumbled on a “third way” of their own. That is, loss is universal, a tie that reliably binds us together (#lowanthropology), and talking about it more, in any venue, can only help us. Combine this openness with what Tim Keller told Stephanie was his favorite line from Luther (“you have as much laughter as you have faith”) and something potent results:

Another reason grief is an unexpectedly great subject for comedy is that in a fragmented, polarized culture, with a shrinking common collection of references, it’s universal and relatable in a way few other topics are. Even if we don’t know someone who has died, we will. Or as Kayne explained to his audience: “We’re all pre-dead.”

When someone dies, the conversations follow a tight script. Sorry for your loss. There are no words. We are all afraid of saying the wrong thing, and those suffering don’t entirely know how to respond. It’s a relief to hear comics not just poking fun at the stale jargon of condolences, but also demystifying the hidden world of the grieving, which can be messy and petty. The competitiveness of grief is a frequent subject. Who suffers most? The consensus is it’s parents of children who die, but only in these shows might you hear someone weigh the levels of pain of a parent of a 2-year-old versus that of a 10-year-old (as Colin Campbell does in “Grief: A One Man Shitshow,” about the gutting experience of losing two teenage children in a car crash).

While it might seem counterintuitive, the popularity of joking about death represents a welcome shift from pessimism about comedy that was popular among performers like Gadsby and Michelle Wolf during the Trump era. These more recent comics generally share a faith that comedy helps — even if only a little. There’s a joy in the performances that takes you by surprise.

3. Elsewhere in the article Zinoman observes that, “one way to look at the final season of Succession is as a cringe comedy about people who are terrible at grieving.” Ha. Can’t say I disagree. As we brace for the series finale, let’s admit that the show is a masterpiece — from the dense, razor-sharp writing to the virtuoso ensemble to the piercing emotional gravitas to the undeniably moral core, evidenced most recently by Ewan’s prophetic (in the Old Testament sense) eulogy. Woof. The jokes also keep me laughing for days. FWIW, Tom is my favorite character, with Carl a close second.

Fortunately, the closing season of Barry has almost kept pace, with the Lynchian turns paying dividends. Noho Hank will go down as a character for the ages, but Fred Melamed cracks me up every time he opens his mouth. Oh and speaking of uncomfortably moral finales, I enjoyed Maya Salam’s short column about how reality is catching up with Seinfeld:

Despite the nihilism suggested by its “no hugging, no learning” motto (and by much of the characters’ behavior), “Seinfeld” did exhibit a worldview and priorities that were refreshing and, for me, far more aspirational and inspirational. Not despite the fact that these were flawed people uninterested in perfection, but because of it. Even with their abundant neuroses, they lived in the present, sought fun and were loyal to the tightknit, pretense-free friendships at the show’s heart, the kind where your people know your bad parts and love you anyway.

4. While we’re in the humor realm, kinda slim pickings this week. But I suppose “Undergraduate Excuses, Used in Other Contexts” was pretty clever in Shouts & Murmurs. NewsThump hit close to home with “Everyone in household convinced they are the one who always takes the bin out.” So did “‘Or You Could Just Get Takeout,’ Reports Little Voice That Already Knows It’s Won” in the Onion. But my favorite single headline is probably Reductress’sTraumatic Experience Really Taking Its Sweet Time Turning into Art.”

And I could not be more excited about what Greta and Noah have cooked up for us in this:

5. Social Science Study of the Week has got to be the one highlighted by Sapna Cheryan and Therese Anne Mortejo in their article “The Most Common Graduation Advice Tends to Backfire“:

In two surveys — one of more than 500 undergraduates nationally and the other of about 150 undergraduates at the University of Washington who had recently declared their majors — we found that “follow your passions” was the most common advice American college students heard and used when selecting their majors.

But following your passions often turns out to be a bad idea. New research that we and our colleagues conducted found that when asked to identify their passions, women and men tend to cite stereotypically feminine and masculine interests and behavior. Women are more likely to say they want to make art or help people, for instance, while men are more likely to say they want to do science or play sports.

In other words, when asked to identify their passions, people seem to do precisely what following their passions is supposed to discourage: They conform to societal expectations.

The fact that the researchers, in their interpretation of the data, conform to societal expectations of their own — defaulting to an all nurture, zero nature script — probably goes without saying. Perhaps a deeper critique of the self as a coherent thing to be actualized (or else) is in order, #lowanthropology.

But it’s still pretty interesting. I wouldn’t be the first to note that ‘follow your dreams’ is a counterproductive and potentially oppressive burden to throw around a 22 year old’s neck, but I’m not sure the answer lies in its joyless prohibition, either. Maybe holding it all lightly under the aspect of eternity would feel more like freedom. Pretty sure Keller has a pamphlet on self-forgetfulness worth referencing here.

6. Adam Gopnik surfaced a related distinction this past week in his NY Times column “What We Lose When We Push Our Kids to Achieve.” He draws a line between achievement and accomplishment, and one cannot help but notice a few spiritual-religious overtones (of the Apostle Paul variety). The former has to do with earning and the checking of boxes, the latter with learning and the love of an activity. One flows from extrinsic motivations (fear, proving), the other from intrinsic one (curiosity, passion). I know exactly which one Jesus is more interested in:

Achievement is the completion of the task imposed from outside — the reward often being a path to the next achievement. Accomplishment is the end point of an engulfing activity we’ve chosen, whose reward is the sudden rush of fulfillment, the sense of happiness that rises uniquely from absorption in a thing outside ourselves.

We drive these young people toward achievement, tasks that lead only to other tasks, into something resembling not so much a rat race as a rat maze, with another hit of sugar water awaiting around the bend but the path to the center — or the point of it all — never made plain.

Self-directed accomplishment, no matter how absurd it may look to outsiders or how partial it may be, can become a foundation of our sense of self and of our sense of possibility. Losing ourselves in an all-absorbing action, we become ourselves.

The hobbyist or retiree taking a course in batik or yoga, who might be easily patronized by achievers, has rocket fuel in her hands. Indeed, the beautiful paradox is that pursuing things we may do poorly can produce the sense of absorption, which is all that happiness is, while persisting in those we already do well does not.

7. On the #Seculosity front, Aja Romano penned an illuminating if disturbing essay on how “Puritanism took over online fandom — and then came for the rest of the internet” for Vox. If, like me, you’ve been wondering what the words “pro-ship” or “anti-ship” mean, look no further.

To understand how we got here, we have to look at the wellspring from which much of the internet’s creative impulses flow: online fandom, where superusers gather to celebrate, write fanfiction, and create fan art about the media and characters they love. On Tumblr and Twitter, where so much fandom discourse happens, this conversation about sexual content in media has spawned an entire movement called “anti-fandom.”

This trend would be bad news in any online community, but it’s been especially heady and unwieldy in fandom, an entire culture built around feeling things strongly, not rationally. The result is one of the unlikeliest fronts of the culture war: an internet community, once the bastion of delightful deviance and subversion, being completely overtaken by a new form of purity culture often spearheaded by people who would otherwise describe themselves as politically liberal.

Though this may sound like a niche fandom issue, this modern puritanism has spread far into the wider culture, intersecting with both a broader media illiteracy and a moral panic that crosses the political spectrum.

8. Finally, also firmly in the #Seculosity vein, the Long Read of the Week would have to be Tara Isabella Burton’s “Rational Magic” in the New Atlantis. She profiles the emerging (online) phenomenon of postrationalism, or, as the tagline suggests, “Why a Silicon Valley culture that was once obsessed with reason is going woo.” While I share her reservations about the ultimate goal of rationalism and postrationalism being, well, identical, it’s hard not to welcome any movement that holds out spiritual transcendence as a necessary ingredient of human existence (and claims to mourn the loss of enchantment). Anyways, Tara says it all much better, and Alan Jacobs produced an annotated version of the essay that’s quite fun, too:

Whether you call it spiritual hunger, reactionary atavism, or postliberal epistemology, more and more young, intellectually inclined, and politically heterodox thinkers (and would-be thinkers) are showing disillusionment with the contemporary faith in technocracy and personal autonomy. They see this combination as having contributed to the fundamentally alienating character of modern Western life. The chipper, distinctly liberal optimism of rationalist culture that defines so much of Silicon Valley ideology — that intelligent people, using the right epistemic tools, can think better, and save the world by doing so — is giving way, not to pessimism, exactly, but to a kind of techno-apocalypticism. We’ve run up against the limits — political, cultural, and social alike — of our civilizational progression; and something newer, weirder, maybe even a little more exciting, has to take its place. Some of what we’ve lost — a sense of wonder, say, or the transcendent — must be restored…

The movement’s defining maxim — according to at least one person familiar with the movement I spoke to — might be a proclamation by writer Sarah Perry: “It is better to be interesting and wrong than it is to be right and boring.”

If there is a doctrine underpinning both rationalist and postrationalist thought, it is this quintessential liberal faith in human potential, combined with an awareness of the way in which human imaginal power does not merely respond to, but actively shapes, the world around us. The rationalists dreamed of overcoming bias and annihilating death; the postrats are more likely to dream of integrating our shadow-selves or experiencing oneness. But both camps evince a profound faith in what we might call human godliness: the idea that we are not only the recipients of the world around us but also its creators.


  • Super fascinating response from Meaghan O’Gieblyn to the question “Does AI Have a Subconscious?” in Wired. In short, “Yes, I do believe that AI has a subconscious. In a sense, they are pure subconscious, without a genuine ego lurking behind their personas.” Someone should probably tell these people.
  • Last Mockingcast before our summer hiatus will be up middle of next week!
  • The #LowAnthropology train thankfully keeps on huffing and puffing. I was privileged to talk about the book this past week on Fuller Seminary’s Spiritual Life and Leadership podcast, hosted by Markus Watson, which you can find here. Also, my friends at the Compelling Light project put together a beautiful short video about Low Anthropology as it relates to (my own) mental health, embedded below. I feel exposed! Hopefully it resonates with someone.
  • Finally, we sent out our big semi-annual fundraising appeal this week and would relish your support. Everyone on our physical mailing list should be getting a copy, and it’ll go out on Wednesday via email. Bottomline: if the work of Mbird is a help to you, please consider making a gift so that we can keep at it! You can also sign up for automatic monthly support here, which entitles you to a subscription to our print journal.
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5 responses to “May 20-26”

  1. Eville Resident says:

    As a semi-retired adjunct prof who is closer to 70 than 60, I always find an opportunity to refute “the follow your dreams” mantra in every class that I teach. Cal Newport is the source of this perspective. While Cal is not divine, his perspective is spot-on. As the Amazon summary puts it:
    In this eye-opening account, Cal Newport debunks the long-held belief that “follow your passion” is good advice. Not only is the cliché flawed-preexisting passions are rare and have little to do with how most people end up loving their work-but it can also be dangerous, leading to anxiety and chronic job hopping.

  2. JT says:

    If I may add to the ‘strays’….Pertinent to the topic of death (and sanctification)…

  3. Todd Brewer says:

    Amazing, Jason. That’s some Saint Cuthbert-level weird.

  4. Nancy S Rights says:

    Love this post re: Tim Keller (and the amazing Tina). I was there at the beginning of Redeemer when attendees (fewer than 30) met on the Upper East Side in the 80s block in the 80s decade at a 7th Day Adventist Church. I dropped in that first Sunday night only because a relative had reached out to advise Tim had been their pastor and was starting a new church in NYC and suggested that if I did not have a church (I did not) I might want to check it out. I was so arrogant and my view of God so small that I attended from pity; I thought it charity on my part to shore up the numbers to encourage the benighted soul tilting at Manhattan windmills who would shortly discover he had been on a fool’s errand. It’s likely I was in the Hunter College auditorium when you were. We’ve never met (although I have now met your brother at St. Matthews) but your reflections resonate. And, Tina, God bless that woman! Thank you.

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