Another Week Ends

Preaching to the King, Smaller Social Media, the Impending Dark Age, Martin Luther’s Depression, and Homer’s Editor

Todd Brewer / 10.29.21

1. Leading off this week with some gems from the psychotherapist Sheldon Kopp. Oliver Burkeman riffs on one of Kopp’s aphorisms for his latest newsletter: “You are free to do whatever you want. You need only face the consequences.” Which seems to be a clear echo of 1 Cor. 10:23: “All things are lawful, but not all things are helpful.”

The longer list from Kopp (published in 1974) is somewhat hit and miss, but several items sound all the right low-anthropology notes:

  • You don’t really control anything.
  • You can’t make anyone love you.
  • No one is any stronger or any weaker than anyone else.
  • Everyone is in his own way vulnerable.
  • There are no great men.
  • If you have a hero, look again: you have diminished yourself in some way.
  • Everyone lies, cheats, pretends (yes, you too, and most certainly I myself). […]
  • All important decisions must be made on the basis of insufficient data.
  • Yet we are responsible for everything we do.
  • No excuses will be accepted.
  • You can run, but you can’t hide.
  • It is most important to run out of scapegoats.
  • We must learn the power of living with our helplessness.

Strong medicine to swallow, but the “power of living with our helplessness” is the doorway to actually asking for help and (importantly) hearing a word of grace.

2. For those keeping track, Sunday is … Reformation Day! To commemorate the event, I submit for your consideration Skylar Spradlin’s “How Luther Helped My Depression.” Spradlin recounts reading Luther amid a sharp downswing in his mental health. Luther, for his part, suffered his own bouts of what we might call depression. For Spradlin, what began as a curiosity in the reformer quickly turned to identification with him. Luther’s journey became Spradlin’s own:

As I meandered through the first few chapters I became enamored with this German friar. I read of his struggles, his fear, his anxiety, his failures, and more. His question, “How can a holy God forgive sin?” was my exact question. His feelings were my exact feelings. All of a sudden, I found my experience being described and articulated in the life of a man who had been dead for 500 years. In short, I identified with Luther.

As I continued to read of him, I began to mimic his methods to try and find the same alleviation for my fears. Like Luther, I read the Psalms, I read Romans, and I wrestled with his deep internal questions. Little did I know, God was driving me to the same discovery of faith that He gave to Luther almost 500 years earlier.

As Martin began to have a break through, so did I. The same understanding of justification that led him to question his religious upbringing, nail his thesis to the church door, and lead the Protestant Reformation, also became my understanding of justification. In other words, Luther had led me to meditate upon and understand what it meant to be right with God through faith in Christ. He taught me that true faith in Christ was a balm for the broken soul. Consequently, as his struggles began to dissipate, so did mine.

I made it through that summer by reading the Psalms and dwelling on faith. It wasn’t my perfection or my knowledge that would please God. It wasn’t my works or my contributions that would earn God’s approval. It was only my faith. Eventually, just like Luther, this turned in to my inward liberty.

Today, my church knows the depth of my depression and the importance of Luther for my life. He was a man that I could never agree with on every point. But he was a man that I could identify with. We struggled through the same things. And his previous experience and wisdom led me through the darkness of the night to the light of Christ and the warmth of God’s love. Seeing God liberate a fellow human being brought me hope that God could do the same for me. His example helped me to see Jesus as my only solution.

I missed those warm summer days in 2016. But by God’s grace, through the help of an old German reformer, I’ve enjoyed the warmth of Christ’s love ever since.

I think the takeaway here isn’t that reading Luther will offer a silver bullet for mental health problems. But it is a testimony to how grace (and justification by faith specifically) can have a tangibly positive effect in real life — that the despairs that lead one to darken the doorstep of a church might feel less burdensome when laid at the foot of the cross.

3.  In another Reformation-theme article for this week’s roundup, we turn to the Lutheran Reformation in England aka the writings of Thomas Cranmer. Quoting a recently published book by Gerald Bray, Ad Fontes recounts the time when the Archbishop attempted to preach to his King (Henry VIII) about justification by faith. It was an uncharacteristically bold moment for the politically savvy bishop. Those who offended Henry tended to lose their jobs (and their heads).

Archbishop Cranmer replied to the king in detail, so we have a clear idea of where the two men differed in 1537, and it is evident that the archbishop was even then moving closer to Luther than Henry VIII ever would. To get an idea of this, consider what the Bishops’ Book says about the first article of the Apostles’ Creed: ‘And I believe also and profess, that he is my very God, my Lord and my Father, and that I am his own son, by adoption and grace, and the right inheritor of his kingdom.’ Henry VIII altered the words ‘the right inheritor’ to ‘as long as I persevere in his precepts and laws, one of the right inheritors.’

Cranmer responded to this alteration at great length, saying among other things:

There is a general faith, which all that be Christian, as well good as evil, have: as to believe that God is, that he is the Maker and Creator of all things, and that Christ is the Saviour and Redeemer of the world, and for his sake all penitent sinners have remission of their sins… And all these things even the devils also believe, and tremble for fear of God’s indignations and torments, which they endure and ever shall do. But they have not the right Christian faith, that their own sins by Christ’s redemption be pardoned and forgiven, that themselves by Christ be delivered from God’s wrath, and be made his beloved children and heirs of his kingdom to come.”

… Justification by faith is not merely an intellectual assent to the power and love of God, important though that is. It is also a new life in Christ, made possible by the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit. Cranmer was too politic to say so, but his lengthy exposition of this theme suggests that he doubted whether the king had had that experience. In effect Cranmer was using his theological responses to the king’s ‘corrections’ of the Bishops’ Book as a means of preaching the gospel to him without saying so.

4. Over at the Atlantic, Ian Bogost offers a big-picture commentary on social media and online life in general. His thesis? People Aren’t Meant to Talk This Much. Before the internet, “we talked less frequently, and with fewer people. The average person had a handful of conversations a day, and the biggest group she spoke in front of was maybe a wedding reception or a company meeting, a few hundred people at most.” This might sound like a Luddite appeal to a bygone era, the sort of thing people might have said about the invention of the telephone. But it’s a helpful starting point for comparing where we are now and how life have changed. For Bogost, the change of audience size has changed how we think about relationships more broadly.

The gospel of engagement duped people into mistaking using the software with carrying out meaningful or even successful conversations. A bitter tweet that produces chaotic acrimony somehow became construed as successful online speech rather than a sign of its obvious failure. All those people posting so often seemed to prove that the plan was working. Just look at all the speech!

Thus, the quantity of material being produced, and the size of the audiences subjected to it, became unalloyed goods. The past several years of debate over online speech affirm this state of affairs. First, the platforms invented metrics to encourage engagement, such as like and share counts. Popularity and reach, of obvious value to the platforms, became social values too. Even on the level of the influencer, the media personality, or the online mob, scale produced power and influence and wealth, or the fantasy thereof.

Because of its wide reach, social media promotes an abundance of “weak ties,” i.e. acquaintances who we might or might not speak to if we bumped into them at the airport. Social media turns out to not be all that, well, social.

As people shift their attention from strong to weak ties, the resulting connections become more dangerous. Strong ties are strong because their reliability has been affirmed over time. The input or information one might receive from a family member or co-worker is both more trusted and more contextualized. By contrast, the things you hear a random person say at the store (or on the internet) are—or should be—less intrinsically trustworthy. But weak ties also produce more novelty, precisely because they carry messages people might not have seen before. The evolution of a weak tie to a strong one is supposed to take place over an extended time, as an individual tests and considers the relationship and decides how to incorporate it into their life. As Granovetter put it in his 1973 paper on the subject, strong ties don’t bridge between two different social groups. New connections require weak ties.

Weak ties can lead to new opportunities, ideas, and perspectives—this feature characterizes their power. People tend to find new job opportunities and mates via weak ties, for example. But online, we encounter a lot more weak ties than ever before, and those untrusted individuals tend to seem similar to reliable ones—every post on Facebook or Twitter looks the same, more or less.

Bogost isn’t arguing for a radical end to social media, or likening it to drug addiction. Rather, it’s a compelling case to make online spaces smaller and therefore more genuinely social. A place where you could stay connected with actual friends and make new ones. Of course, Facebook and Twitter aren’t tweaking their algorithms anytime soon, but a liberal use of the “unfollow” button might make the whole experience more rewarding.

6. Speaking of Facebook, if I had read Ephraim Radner’s article “Dark Age Theology” a week ago — before the weirdly dystopian rebranding of Facebook to “Meta” — I would have probably dismissed its foreboding tone and prognostication out of hand. Radner contends that we are moving toward a disintegration of North American Society (how fun!), akin to Europe’s descent into the Dark Ages of the 6th to 10th century.

It’s a bleak idea, but embedded within this alarmist comparison is a splendid appreciation for a forgotten era of Christianity, with some salient remarks on the life of the church — Dark Ages or not.

Life during these centuries was stark and wrenching. Disease, accidents, violence, and famine made life brutish and short. … In the face of the fragmentation and “decentering” of social purpose during these centuries, there emerged a localized and personalized response to the world, a search for a simplified, clearly marked path through life’s burdens to salvation. It was an age sensible of God’s often painfully felt judgments, yet marked by glimpses of divine love’s powerfully tender embrace. In this landscape, theology was saturated with Scripture. In the Word of God, it cleaved to Christ, through life and then through death, so as to enter into God’s unveiled presence. […]

This period did not celebrate the ­impresario, creative artist, or towering genius. “Its ‘ego-ideals’ were the preacher, the spiritual guide, and the teacher.”

… recognize in the Dark Ages a remarkable vitality, a “staying alive” that was very far from grim cultural survival. The endurance of those centuries was a dazzling divine grace in the face of death—indeed, of darkness—a testimony to the unconquerable power of life in Christ. The Dark Age ahead will be terribly dark if this grace is not received anew.

7. The Halloween-themed humor was a bit of a miss this week, with the except of Hard Times‘s “5 John Milton Quotes To Write in Blood on the Wall To Let the Police Know You’re Smarter Than Them.” Elsewhere, there’s Reductress‘ “Cult Leader Hoping Group Can Rise Fast Enough for Hulu Docuseries in Her Lifetime.” And Flexx found the only father who has ever said they’re sorry.

But to this editor, the Antigone Journal‘s “If Homer Had My Editor” is 100% perfect satire:

THE TEN-YEAR WAR

I’m having a little trouble buying that the Greeks would all sit on the beach for ten years without someone thinking of cutting off Troy’s supply lines. Any chance wily Odysseus (love that epithet!) could invent siege warfare instead of a big wooden horse? Just a thought  […]

STYLE

Your imagery is STUNNING (rosy-fingered dawn!!!) but beware writing tics. You have a habit of repeating entire sections of dialogue verbatim as characters relay conversations — consider summarizing instead? Easy way to bring down your word count, which is creeping up here.

Strays:

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