Another Week Ends

Amazon’s Mindfulness Coffins, DMX, Motherly Love, Houseplant Absolution, Chaplaincy Boom, and Martin Luther’s Unreflective Faith

Bryan J. / 5.28.21

1. AmaZen, the phonebooth sized mindfulness space that tech giant Amazon announced for its warehouses this week, is a sign of the apocalypse.

Not four-horsemen, St. John, Book of Revelation apocalypse, but the kind of apocalypse that David Zahl spoke about in Tyler a few weeks ago. The word apocalypse in Greek means “a revealing,” or “an uncovering of great knowledge.” Think of a lightbulb clicking on or a mental paradigm shift. By that purview, AmaZen is certainly part of a growing apocalypse, the great revelation being that the technocracy of our times cannot solve a growing crisis of spirit. 

It’s not an understatement to say that the press surrounding AmaZen has been a riot, with sympathetic voices nearly non-existent. Gizmodo called the “coffin-sized box” a “tiny capitalism panic room.” Vice had this observation on the mindfulness booth:

“With AmaZen I wanted to create a space that’s quiet, that people could go and focus on their mental and emotional well-being,” Leila Brown, the Amazon employee who invented the booth said in the video. “The ZenBooth is an interactive kiosk where you can navigate through a library of mental health and mindful practices to recharge the internal battery.”

Brown is giving away the game by using the language of machines. A worker is not a robot with a battery that needs to be charged. A worker is a human who needs things Amazon simply does not provide its workers. Amazon drivers piss in bottles and [defecate] in bags. Amazon drivers sued for being paid less than minimum wage and fought against an initiative to install surveillance cameras in their cars. 

See also this note from New York Magazine:

Perhaps a little robot can deliver a mild electric shock in the middle of workers’ exhausting megacycle — sorry, Single Cycle — shifts. Or nap pods, cleverly arranged in a dormitory layout, so that workers never have to leave the site at all. A vending machine could dispense catheters and thus reduce the time workers must spend in the bathroom. And when a worker finally reaches the point of exhaustion, a conveyor belt could deliver a replacement. Human beings are a problem for innovation to solve! Amazon certainly has the resources to imagine new and exciting horrors for everyone. With time and a bit of hard work, it can create a reality so strange and inhuman that no written dystopia would compare.

2. Can the technocracy provide its employees with spiritual meaning and fulfillment? I’m not sure that AmaZen is the way to make that happen. It’s a theme that popped up this week in the Mockingcast, when our dynamic trio discussed this article from Vice about a rise in chaplaincy positions as churches continue to close:

Over the last few decades, chaplaincy has become increasingly secularized and professionalized, focusing more on general “spiritual health.” They “give a human touch to a difficult and fraught moment,” says Skaggs — serving as a universal presence that doesn’t aim to evangelize or convert. Chaplains in the U.S. follow religions as diverse as Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism, and Wicca. But perhaps the biggest indicator of chaplaincy’s centrality to the spiritual needs of America is the arrival of humanist chaplains, who don’t believe in a higher power or deity, but instead aspire to contribute to “humanity’s greater good.” 

“We live in a time of existential crisis, as a result of both environmental changes and political and technological changes,” Sullivan said. “And the phenomenon of the proliferation of chaplains is partly a response to pain and to suffering on a huge scale.”

On the one hand, it’s great that organizations have trained clergy nearby to call when life is hard and questions of life and death and addiction transcend secular explanation. The article has its own moving anecdote about the on-call chaplain giving last rites to a NYC subway worker who fell in front of a train, and the comfort it gave him and his family. But in the case of a tech giant, a chaplain could likely find their words of wisdom at odds with the values of their employer. What happens when the spiritual problems are a direct result of their bosses, or company policies? One imagines that Amazon won’t be hiring chaplains any time soon. Mindfulness boxes are cheaper and don’t talk back to their superiors.

3. Our techno-spiritual apocalypse also seems to be manifesting itself in the form of houseplants. Which is, on its face, a ridiculous sentence to type, but give Megan Garber a chance in her Atlantic essay “The Dark Side of the Houseplant Boom.” After a long reflection on why Millennials love houseplants, and after a well traveled look at climate change psychology, Garber suggests that the ubiquitous white-vase-green-leaf-neutral-bland-look is more than just the new style. It may be an attempt at apocalypse absolution:

Target calls the trend “the new naturals.” The look is the latest iteration of what might be called botanist chic: banana-leaf wallpaper, living walls, flourishes of design meant to give even the most drab rooms the humid lushness of the jungle. The style is distinct from, yet spiritually similar to, the trend so efficiently skewered by Carrie Brownstein and Fred Armisen in Portlandia: “Put a bird on it!” It attempts an easy absolution. It recalls the way Americans in the 1950s made sense of the space race, and the atomic bomb, by turning futurism into decor.

In Target’s ongoing scroll of home goods — items that celebrate nature and consume it at the same time—you can almost feel the old paradigms at war with the new. Design is a matter of accommodation; the “new naturals” aesthetic is home design that hints at an environmental reckoning. Many other elements of American culture do too. “Plant-based” is quickly becoming a catchall sales pitch. Fast-fashion brands are turning Zion and Yosemite into wearable goods. Gorpcore is a thing. The desire to take in wildness in this way — to commercialize nature in the guise of celebrating it — carries shades of the old Romanticism. But these sanitized sellings of nature are also intensely modern. They allow people to do versions of what I’ve been doing in my own home: pruning my plants as the world burns.

The idea that eco-conscious fashion and decoration is born out of anxiety and absolution is a helpful diagnosis. As climate change realities continue to be understood on more complex and global levels, there are plenty of ways one can say, “It wasn’t me,” or at least, “They were worse.” Again, the question of technology and spirituality come together: people are responding to an ecological crisis, caused by their own technology use, through spiritual channels.

[Note: PG-13 Genesis Humor]:

4. More of the best humor of this week comes courtesy of an apocalypse, too. The New Yorker imagines “Biblical Travel Ads“:

The Garden of Eden

“No shirt, no shoes, no service”? Yeah, right! Our garden is adults only and clothing optional. Anything goes here! Just don’t eat the fruit.

Noah’s Ark

Beautiful couples’ cruise with onboard petting zoo. Great for the whole family, and only that family. Forty-day-and-night-stay minimum!

The Inn at Bethlehem

Don’t believe what you read about us on Yelp — we rarely turn away guests, and only when we’re at full capacity, which is a totally reasonable business practice.

The Garden Tomb

Temporarily closed while we figure out who rolled away our largest stone, and how the hell they did it. [Editor’s note: Amen]

Over at Flexx, “Woman Shocked To Discover Self-Care Routine Is Cause Of All Her Health Issues” is low-hanging fruit:

“All the self-care bloggers and books say the same thing, ‘Say yes to what you want!’” says Minsel. “That’s what I did, and then, out of nowhere, my doctor tells me I have Type II Diabetes and a K2 addiction?”

See also the unexpected left turn found in the Onion’s headline: “Class-Action Suit Against God Pays Out 45 Extra Seconds Of Life To Every Creature.”

5. New music this week from the posthumous DMX album, Exodus. May I refer you to Sam Bush’s exploration of the late rapper’s faith that we published last month?

6. Another common response in line with the apocalypse of the time has been antinatalism, a value system that views the procreation of the species with existential and ecological opposition. Why have kids when the world they will inherit is falling apart, etc.? See Cora Frazier’s sardonic meditation on the matter in her satire, “A Letter to My Future Child.” While explicit antinatalism is more of a Reddit user philosophy instead of a public policy position, the precipitous drop in global birth rates over the pandemic hints at a wider audience than we may think. Pushing back against the trend was Elizabeth Bruenig’s Mother’s Day note in the New York Times, which featured a remarkable insight on identity worth sharing below.

What I didn’t understand — couldn’t have, at the time — was that deserting yourself for another person really is a relief. My days began to unfold according to her schedule, that weird rhythm of newborns, and the worries I entertained were better than the ones that came before: more concrete, more vital, less tethered to the claustrophobic confines of my own skull. For this member of a generation famously beset by anxiety, it was a welcome liberation.

Being young, or young enough still not to know yourself entirely, and then feeling the foundation of your nascent selfhood shift beneath you — perhaps that’s exactly the sort of momentous change that makes the whole enterprise so daunting. Yet there I’ve given up the game: With the exception of — perhaps — a few immutable characteristics, you are not something you discover one day through trial and error and interior spelunking; you are something that is constantly in the process of becoming, the invention of endless revolutions. You never know who you are, because who you are is always changing.

You catch glimpses of yourself in time, when life shines through your inner world like a prism, illuminating all the sundry colors you contain. It isn’t possible to disentangle the light from the color, the discovery of change from the change itself. And I think that’s all right. At 25, I nursed my newborn daughter at sunrise in a fifth-story apartment in Washington, dreamily wondering what had become of me, an erstwhile child myself. I searched her beautiful face. It’s hard to discern much in their features at that age, young and unformed as they are. But she peered up at me from the shadow of my shoulder, and I could see the umber of my own eyes taking shape in hers. There I am, I thought, there I am.

In a world obsessed with identity, Bruenig’s observation is insightful, and the pushback she faced was probably inevitable. Who wants to have their whole identity upended with the arrival of a child, especially after the decade long quest of identity that people embark on after they leave high school? Bruenig’s vision of an ever changing identity, one that is formed and shaped by external forces instead of imposing itself on the outside world, sounds closer to real life. It also sounds a lot like a story I heard once about a God who enjoyed working with pottery.

7. For those of us living in this great techno-spiritual apocalypse, there may be yet a word of hope. In Marginalia, Wesley Hill reviews the latest volume from Phillip Cary, The Meaning of Protestant Theology, which traces a specific, gracious vein of Christian history and theology between Luther and St. Augustine.

As my fellow student and I emerged into the fall air and traversed campus on the way back to our dorms, she turned to me and said, with real anguish, that she had been losing sleep since reading in preparation for that day’s class. “I don’t think I’m a Christian,” she told me. “By these criteria, I’m not a genuine believer, and I’m afraid I’m going to hell.”

The reading was Jonathan Edwards treatise on Religious Affections, which was drafted in the heat of the Great Awakening that gripped his Northampton, Massachusetts church. The eighteenth-century pastor, theologian, and revivalist offered some diagnostic tools that would-be believers could use to “make certain about [God’s] calling and choosing [them],” as the second epistle of Peter put it centuries earlier. Although Edwards conceded that only God could peer into the depths of the human heart, he believed it was possible, even with the limitations of human finitude and proneness to faulty judgment, to gain confidence that one had had a genuinely saving encounter with God. He proposed a dozen signs one could look for in one’s thoughts, emotions, and behaviors that would indicate God’s grace had indeed been at work, the chief of which was an enthrallment with the glory of God: “True saints [are] inexpressibly pleased and delighted with… the things of God.” […]

Cary takes Luther to be the archenemy of what he terms “reflective faith,” and throughout he polemically sets Luther’s insights over against the Calvinist tradition represented by Edwards and others. Knowing that faith is necessary for a proper reception of the sacraments, you might be tempted, in the moment of receiving, to ask yourself, “Am I really approaching the altar in faith? Is my faith real? Am I really believing what I’m hearing?” Such a self-assessing turn is entirely unnecessary, not to mention spiritually disastrous, says Cary’s Luther. […]

Listen instead to the gospel in the Word preached and the sacrament administered which always includes the promise that it is for you. As one of the most memorable lines in Cary’s book has it, “Luther’s concept of the Gospel [is] the promise of God authorizing a sacramental word that says ‘you’ and means me.” Believing genuinely in Christ is thus not a precondition for hearing the word of absolution and receiving the Eucharist “because believing I am absolved when I hear the word of absolution simply is believing Christ.” What happens when the public reading of Scripture and the preaching of the gospel reach your ears, what happens when you receive the bread and the wine in the Eucharist, is none other than Christ promising you again that he cancels your debt and makes you perfectly righteous in God’s sight. […]

Cary is profoundly, existentially, homiletically in touch with the agony of my Edwards-reading classmate. He knows the skin-prickling agony of lying awake wondering if one is among the elect. And he wants a theology that can rescue us from that misery by redirecting our gaze to Christ alone—the Christ who comes to us from beyond our heads and hearts—as the ground for hope.

Which is to say, for those of us swept up in the techno-spiritual apocalypse, who need more than the AmaZen and corporately funded chaplains, the word preached and the sacraments administered may be just the trick. Or, I guess we could just buy more houseplants.

Strays:

Our half-year appeal letter is hitting mailboxes next week! Are you on our mailing list? We’d love to send you a letter with updates on our work behind the scenes. Add your address here.

Our friends at Think Christian just released a series of Taylor Swift essays in e-book form. We certainly dig the title: “You Belong to Me — Taylor Swift and God’s Transforming Love.”

Mbird friends Chris White (director of the film Electric Jesus) and Jason Micheli chatted together on the Crackers and Grape Juice podcast.

Limited Incentives“: worth a quick read for the story of the volunteer trading Bible memorization for money. Calling Alfie Kohn!

People have been laughing at death, plagues, and other macabre situations for a very long time. So don’t feel so bad about it.

Two political pieces for your spiritual consideration: the Left needs to take religion more seriously, and the Right should probably stop reading Foucault.