Another Week Ends

Beatles Breakup Fiction, Grace After a Terrible Childhood, Mall Nostalgia, and the God of Chronic Suffering

Todd Brewer / 12.3.21

1. The finale of Peter Jackson’s Beatles documentary “Get Back” has aired and the looming question, “what broke up the Beatles?” seems largely unanswered. The previously unreleased footage from the recording of the band’s last album, a few months before the band broke up, was supposed to shed light on what happened to cause the rift. Was it really Yoko? Or perhaps Paul is to blame. Even now, it still seems to be a matter of debate. On the one side, James Parker’s analysis is representative:

It’s like watching six different marriages fall apart: John-and-Paul, Paul-and-George, John-and-George, Ringo-and-John, Paul-and-Ringo, etc. Froideur, awkward jokes, jabs of insight. What’s the problem? Is it the owlish presence of Yoko at John’s side? Not really. Is it George, who shortly after sharing his hymn to mutability “All Things Must Pass” and getting not much reaction, takes off in a huff? Not really. It’s just the second law of thermodynamics. The inevitability of entropy. […]

Subversive, countertextual John; managing-the-situation Paul; nodding Ringo; brooding George; and a scarpering Peter Sellers … They really couldn’t carry on like that indefinitely, could they?

Parker feels the Beatles were doomed to break up and the film shows it all in painstaking detail. Bickering like an old married couple that’s headed to court. End of story, right? Not quite. Over a Observer Sasha Frere-Jones has a different take altogether.

All the band had to do was write fourteen songs in two weeks, do their first live show in ages, and return to each other as friends and musicians. The official story is that they barely managed, as they stumbled toward an end that seems as inevitable now as it did unthinkable then. Get Back suggests they did exactly what they set out to do, efficiently, and mostly in good cheer. […]

I don’t see beef. I see a family. They got weary, them Beatles they did get weary, wearing that same old shaggy hair, but they didn’t abandon each other. The band ended because the project was over and they were about to hit the runoff groove. The point here is that it didn’t — they killed it until the last minute. If you know these sessions by the album and film assembled in the aftermath — Let it Be — then this plays as revelation.

How could the same conversations result in two widely disparate interpretations? For Parker, it a sign of the beginning of the end. For Frere-Jones, this is just the creative process at work. At work here, Frere-Jones suspects, is a retrospective retelling that colors our perceptions (with the help of some tabloid coverage at the time).

People projected their sadness onto the Beatles, who became easier to let go of if they were guilty of something.

The story ends, yes, but Frere-Jones’s insight here is deep. After-the-fact retellings of events are laden with all kinds of self-serving justifications. The narratives we tell ourselves might be more fiction than fact, riddled with exaggerations and falsehoods to prove blame. Perhaps our need to blame someone or something is misguided. Perhaps the Beatles weren’t married to each other, but a collaborative creative partnership whose permeance was more presumed than given.

2. When was the last time you went to a mall? I walked around one recently (on a pit stop before heading to the adjoined Cheesecake Factory for dinner) and the whole experience felt, well, nostalgic. The echoes reverberating on the hard time and glass walls, the smell cinnamon wafting from the candle store, the piercingly white lighting — it was like walking into a memory from when I was a teenager. But malls, with a few rare exceptions, are largely a thing of the past. Many have closed for good, replaced by Amazon and Wal-Mart. Writing in Tropics of Meta, Jason Tebbe offers a nostalgic eulogy for the mall:

Our idea of what the mall represents has been radically softened. Malls used to be a stand-in for the shallow culture of Reagan-era consumerism, hence alternative rock artists of the day like Mojo Nixon penning the likes of “Burn Down the Malls.” After all, there could be no firmer statement in the 80s of rejection of the era’s dominant ethos than by rejecting the decade’s dominant cultural form, the shopping mall. Little did we know then that much worse was coming down the line.

It is indeed correct that “the mall before the internet” was “the one place to be.” While it was meant merely to be a centralized location for money to be blown on consumerist flotsam, young people repurposed it to their own ends. We had to because there was literally nowhere else in public to go, especially in small towns. […]

Just about everything in my hometown growing up happened at the mall. My tae kwon do school did demonstrations there. (Breaking a board in front of a crowd was a big thrill for 11 year old me.) My cub scout troop solicited for charity there. Spider-Man (or someone in a Spider-Man costume) showed up there to do an event to raise awareness of child sexual abuse. (The 80s were a strange time.) There were craft fairs, baseball card shows, and “sidewalk sales” too. Some of these public events may still go on in my hometown nowadays, but there’s no nerve center for the community anymore.

From this vantage point, the demise of the mall feels like a microcosm of modern life, one marked by increasing fragmentation and social estrangement. Malls replaced the old town square as the natural place for people to gather together. They were were, in the words of sociologists, “Cathedrals of Capitalism.” With their demise at the hands of the internet, where is there left to go? The obvious answer is the dog park, I mean, church.

3. Speaking of consumerism and religion, it hasn’t gone unnoticed that the colonization of Christmas by commercialism has slowly been extending to Advent (of all things!). It seems that everyone is selling Advent calendars, from Hot Wheels to Godiva to Tiffany and Co. (to the tune of $150,000). But is this something to celebrate, or should there be a “Put John the Baptist Back in Advent” campaign? Michelle Slatalla in the Wall Street Journal takes a peak at the more recent history of Advent celebrations:

Advent calendar inventor Gerhard Lang was a businessman selling a product. “Advent calendars were for children originally, but now many are for adults,” Prof. McClelland-Nugent said. “Today a lot of people don’t have children of their own or want something to treat themselves with during what has become a very stressful season.”

As adults, we long for a Christmas that evokes nostalgia — even if the so-called traditions date to our childhood home alone.

I’m a historian, and I see traditions come and go. But one thing that is fascinating about Christmas is that there’s a constant when it comes to fighting about it and how it should be celebrated — we all want the merry old thing we remember,” Prof. McClelland-Nugent said.

Being a purist in these matters probably isn’t helpful for anyone. Ebenezer Scrooge was likely a Christian, after all. So if daily chocolates remind you of the grace of God in the coming of lord, then by all means have yourself a merry little advent.

4. In Plough Quarterly, the NY Times columnist Ross Douthat writes of how he came to a greater, and far more personal, sense of faith in God through his struggles with chronic Lyme’s disease.

One of the curiosities of the modern era is the way that the debate about whether a good God would allow human suffering, the eternal question of theodicy, has become a persuasive argument for atheism (or at least against Christianity) at the same time that actual physical suffering has in many ways declined. The world of mass infant mortality, rampaging disease, and endless toothaches had more confidence in God’s ultimate beneficence than the world of increasing life expectancy and effective pain-management techniques.

Before sickness took me, I tended to assume this was because in a world with less everyday pain, the experience of suffering felt more outrageous, more unjust, than it did in a world where pain was too ubiquitous to be concealed or filtered out of everyday experience. And I still think there’s something to this idea, since entering a permanent-seeming sickness did seem like an impossible outrage to my modern self at first — like some sort of ridiculous bureaucratic mistake.

But what I learned from my illness is that chronic suffering can make belief in a providential God, if you have such a thing going in, feel essential to your survival, no matter how much you may doubt God’s goodness when the pain is at its worst. To believe that your suffering is for something, that you are being asked to bear up under it, that you are being in some sense supervised and tested and possibly chastised in a way that’s ultimately for your good, if you can only make it through the schooling — all this is tremendously helpful to maintaining simple sanity and basic hope. If God brought you to it, He can bring you through it, read an aphorism in one of the doctors’ offices I frequented: a neat distillation of what I wanted — and, more important, needed — to believe, in order to get up every morning and just try to hold my world together for another shattered-seeming day.

What Douthat calls providence could just as easily be termed a theology of the cross. Douthat doesn’t try to excuse God for his suffering or blame himself for his disease. Suffering and God are mysteriously intertwined in ways that gave him a light in the darkness. Douthat might not phrase it precisely this way, but it was Luther who contended that, “Whoever does not know God hidden in suffering does not know God at all.”

5. Philip Yancey, author of the popular What’s So Amazing About Grace? has just published a memoir and, judging from a recent interview he gave to the Atlantic, the book looks to be fantastic. It seems that Yancey was something of an exvangelical before it was cool and the childhood stories he tells are enough to make one wonder how he remained a Christian through it all. The answer he found is one familiar to Mbird readers: grace.

Grace is so important to Yancey, he told me, because he was late to discover it. “I didn’t really feel it or taste it growing up,” he told me. “Not in the church, not in the family. And I went to a Bible college for a few years. Not there, as well.”

When you look at Jesus’s stories about grace, according to Yancey, they’re astonishing, because almost every story turns an unexpected person into its hero. In the parable of the Good Samaritan, the person who helps a wounded traveler on the road to Jericho is not an influential priest but a hated foreigner. Jesus taught the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector as a corrective to those who, in the words of Luke, “were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else.” The Pharisees showed discipline, took God seriously, and were willing to risk their lives for their faith. The tax collector, meanwhile, was unwilling even to look up to heaven. But his beating his breast, declaring, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner,” and receiving it, is grace in a nutshell, Yancey said. So, too, is the story of the prodigal son, in which the father unreservedly welcomes back the younger son, who has squandered the wealth of the father in wild living.

“As Henri Nouwen used to say, grace is a free gift,” he said. “It’s who God is. It’s extended to all of us all the time. Some people have open hands to receive it, and some people don’t. And often the religious people are the ones who close their hands tight in a fist because they’re not looking at God, they’re looking at the people around them: ‘I’m better than they are. I’m not perfect, but I rank higher than they do.’ And as soon as you do that, you miss grace.”

6. Garrison Keillor once remarked that, “A lovely thing about Christmas is that it’s compulsory, like a thunderstorm, and we all go through it together” — which means that this time of year we get some fantastic Christmas-themed satire. The Belladonna offered an Advent Calendar for Writers to endure the season. The Hard Times is on to something with, “Christmas is simply a better holiday for giving thanks.” But Reductress wins the prize this week for “Historians Discover Three Wise Men Completely Ignored Mary’s Baby Registry“:

“Sure, it was pretty cool that the three wise men located their position solely using the North star,” Johnston said. “But that doesn’t make it any less annoying that they all blatantly ignored the registry — even the really cheap stuff that was easy to find pretty much anywhere.”

New findings point to the fact that Mary was really annoyed at the three men, but she was pretty occupied with the birth of the Lord to really say anything about it in the moment.

“She didn’t show it, but Mary was actually super pissed,” Johnston told us. “She didn’t talk to any of them for a long time afterwards.”

Mary had originally asked for a crib, a stroller, a bottle, a few sets of clothes, and a changing mat, but it seems that no one got the memo, or they all just deliberately ignored it.

And for Thanksgiving humor from last week, there’s a “Post-Dinner Interview With a Twelve-Year-Old Who Sat at the Grown-Ups Table for the First Time at Thanksgiving.”



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