Another Week Ends

Halloween Frivolity, Long-Suffering Fans, Celebrity Prisons, and the Joys of Reading

Todd Brewer / 10.28.22

1. Leading off this week with a bit of fun, Meghan O’Gieblyn has decisively answered the long-standing debate over whether listening to an audiobook really counts as “reading” the book. To take an entirely chosen at random example (heh), can someone who has listened to the over 127 hours of the Happy Potter series audiobook (splendidly performed by Jim Dale) claim to have read the books? Or must they suffer their entire lives with the awkward phrasing, “I enjoyed listening to Harry Potter“? O’Gieblyn not only answers in the affirmative — listening is reading — but goes further to undermine the all the snobbery inherent in the distinction.

I wouldn’t put too much stock in what your “literary” friends say; they sound like bores. When it comes down to it, people who think about reading in terms of what “counts” — those who piously log their daily reading metrics and tally up the titles they’ve consumed on Goodreads — don’t seem to actually enjoy books all that much. Their moralistic gloom is evident in the extent to which reading has come to resemble exercise, with readers tracking their word-count metrics, trying to improve their speed, and joining clubs to keep them accountable. […]

The larger problem, however, is in viewing books as a means to some other end. Many people who aspire to read more are motivated by the promise that doing so will prevent cognitive decline, improve brain connectivity, or increase emotional intelligence. Even the obsession with retention assumes that the purpose of reading is to absorb knowledge or nuggets of trivia that one can use to demonstrate cultural literacy or being “well read.” What all of this obscures is the possibility that books might be a source of intrinsic pleasure, an end in themselves.

Reading should be fun, of course, but that doesn’t stop high minded, elitist, literary types from boasting in their conquest of Augustine’s City of God.

2. On the subject of fun this Halloween weekend, more than a few appreciative articles were written about the spooky holiday. In the Atlantic, Faith Hill argued that adults need the holiday for the same reasons we need playful fun: “The holiday presents a fleeting chance to stop taking ourselves so seriously.” The WSJ ran an ode to cemeteries: “Cemeteries serve as reminders of the past: murmurs that tell us we must die, and that the dead are still among us.”

I was surprised to see even Christianity Today join in the revelry of the season. Ok, “join in” is probably an overstatement, but Hannah King doesn’t dismiss the festivities outright:

Americans spend 10 billion dollars annually on Halloween. In a culture that usually ignores death and dismisses the supernatural, the holiday stands out as a pressure release. Once a year, we express our repressed need to talk about these things.

King goes on to contend that, “Christianity answers the questions that Halloween asks,” which is undoubtedly true — but this feels like a sophisticated defense of those ridiculous “evangelistic” Hell Houses Sarah Condon wrote about a couple years back.

For a more sympathetic take on Christianity and Halloween, see any of Ian Olson’s annual reflections (here, here, here, or here).

3. In keeping with the “fun” theme, this next article finds some nobility in cheering for a losing sports team. As a card-carrying Steelers fan, I should probably take note (this season isn’t looking too good). Writing in the Atlantic, Ken Budd argues, “We Could All Learn a Thing or Two from Fans of Lousy Sports Teams“:

Maybe winning matters less than we think — even for die-hard fans who react to each loss with a primal scream. In one 2019 study, fans of a college football team felt a two-day rise in self-esteem after a victory. But self-esteem levels didn’t drop significantly among losing fans. One of the reasons: Even if your team loses, you can raise your self-esteem simply by commiserating with friends, Billings, a co-author, said.

Yes, suffering sucks, but suffering together has some upsides. It can be a social glue that intensifies bonds with the team and fellow fans. “Going through this hardship with your sports team makes you much more likely to stick with them,” Omri Gillath, a psychology professor at the University of Kansas, told me. Fans don’t just bask in reflected glory, or BIRG, as psychologists call it; they also BIRF — bask in reflected failure. “It’s about having a community of people that understand you and like the same thing that you do,” Gillath said. […]

Even though I know better, I’m optimistic this season won’t be a #SoWizards year. Maybe the team will jell. Maybe the young players will develop. Maybe the veterans will stay healthy. Or, you know, maybe not. A struggling sports franchise, I’ve decided, is like your idiot brother or jackass uncle. Despite all their obvious flaws, you still love them. 

On this front, cheering for a perennially bad sports team is a bit like being a Christian who goes to church, whose failures over the course of millennia are plain to see. Fairweather fans are fine for a season, but the line between church fandom and toxic fandom is a thin one. Even for his most devoted followers, God will be a disappoint at some point. Just ask St. Peter.

4. Lots of top-shelf humor this week. For some requisite Halloween laughs, Belladonna Comedy’s the House of Inner Torment terrifies far more than any haunted house:

You bolt into a dark corridor as flashes of lightning outside disorient you. You’re in the Hall of Jump Scares, where your most ill-advised life decisions pop out in rapid succession: Dental x-rays showing preventable gum loss because you’re too lazy to floss. Ninety-four rejected job applications because you majored in theater. Photos of you in low-rise jeans.

For those prone to self-sabotage and failing to live up to your own ideals (i.e. everyone) there’s “Woman Risks Entire Career, Livelihood for 15 More Minutes of Sleep” from Reductress and Points in Case’s I’m Done With Personal Growth“:

I feel like I’ve been chasing this mythical high-being of the best version of myself, one who makes green smoothies and has a skincare routine more than two steps long. For years I have been breaking my back and spending hard-earned American dollars for her, and what do I get in return? A few talking points and marginally better pores.

For the politicos out there, the Onion has published a biting, but not altogether wrong, study: “Report Confirms Anyone Who Really Likes A Politician Is Insane.”

5. Next up is an astute article on the Try Guy debacle. If, like me, you don’t follow YouTube personalities all that closely, the Try Guys are known for videos of them “trying” anything for the first time. Boasting eight million subscribers on YouTube, or more than twice the number of people who watch the Major League Baseball playoffs(!), they are kind of a big deal.

Recently, YouTube stars have crossed into the mainstream recently because one of its members had an affair. He was kicked off the show, and an awkward apology video and a divided fanbase followed. Even SNL weighed in on the ridiculousness. YouTubers falling from grace isn’t anything new, but the story is still a cautionary tale on the perils of likability. Because, as Willy Staley argues in the New York Times, the fame one cultivates online eventually becomes a prison.

Over the years, that audience has developed an oddly codependent relationship with YouTube. According to Google’s research, the platform is especially popular for young people seeking to de-stress; some 69 percent of Gen Z say they often return to “comfort” channels that they find soothing. The Try Guys, like everyone making a living online, were inevitably shaped by their audience’s desires: They and their fans all had their hands on the Ouija board, and together they conjured a nontoxic brand of masculinity — until Fulmer flicked the lights on, exposing the fantasy. […]

It is often reported that some astonishing share of American children would like to become YouTubers. It’s not hard to imagine kids peering into their screens and seeing something like freedom — the dream of getting paid just for being yourself. Yet the bizarre tone of the Try Guys’ video suggests a more disturbing dynamic: that as young people congregate, separately and alone, seeking comfort from strangers, they are in fact constructing a prison for their idols, one fashioned out of eyeballs, anxiety and BetterHelp ads. Maybe fame has always been this way. But fans’ emotions are no longer filtered through ticket or album sales; they’re heard directly, constantly, at all hours, on all the platforms people visit to generate and extinguish bad feelings in a never-ending cycle. You can imagine Ned Fulmer watching the video, seeing his former friends solemnly tamping down the freshly laid dirt, all in an effort to mollify an audience of strangers, and realizing that however badly he may have messed up, he was also finally free.

For those of us who don’t aspire to become celebrities, the Try Guys fiasco illustrates on a larger scale the kind of feedback loop most people experience everyday. The celebrity maxim, “Give the people what they want,” isn’t all that different from “put your best foot forward.” The camera might not be rolling, but people are still watching. The hard lesson here isn’t that you’ll always fail to meet other people’s expectations, but that relationships built upon likability cannot bear their weight of inevitable human failure.

6. Speaking of failure, two articles this week touched upon the transformative power of forgiveness. How letting go of one’s grievances can bring healing where there was hurt, life where there was death. Religious News Service delved into the research done on the benefits of forgiveness: “When it comes to forgiveness, faith and science agree on the benefits.”

But the more interesting article of the two comes from Plough and the story of Johann Christoph Arnold who, after 26 years of holding a grudge against the dad who left the family, was somehow (miraculously) able to show mercy:

Seeing my dad like this brought to the surface my own pain and regret and longing to set things right. I asked myself, “How can I deny love to my dad, when I myself have been such a jerk, hurting other people, and standing in need of forgiveness myself?” I had never seen him so broken and lonely and vulnerable, as he pled with me to show some understanding.

Here I stumbled on a mystery I still haven’t figured out. Up until that point in my life, it was like there was a lock on my heart; but that moment unlocked something. Up until then I would never, ever have considered having any kind of relationship again, because of what had happened in my family and in my own life. But today I am happily married, and my wife and I have three children. There are many other ways, too, that my life has become peaceful and filled with joy, because of forgiveness.

So this is what I always try to leave people with when I tell them my story: if you’re carrying grudges, especially in your family, go find the person you think you hate, and hug them and tell them you love them. Try it.

To be clear, forgiveness of others isn’t just another means of self help. Transactional forgiveness replaces animosity with the shackles of passive aggression. But as Arnold’s story well shows, unforgiveness destroys everything it touches, extending far beyond the periphery of our awareness.

The touching thing about Arnold’s reconciliation with his dad is how the forgiveness that reconciles the two arises from a realization of their shared sufferings and failures. “How can I deny love to my dad, when I myself have been such a jerk, hurting other people, and standing in need of forgiveness myself?” Or, as Jesus once said, “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?”



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One response to “October 22-28”

  1. […] esp their “Week in Review” that looks at cultural trends with Christian eyes.  See this weeks here—esp. on Halloween and losing Sports teams.  I also appreciate this reflection on Halloween […]

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