Another Week Ends

Bono’s Surrender, Empty Shopping Malls, Boundaries vs. Etiquette, and the Moneyball Fallacy

David Zahl / 11.4.22

1. It’s Bono’s world this week and we just live in it. Or maybe that’s always been the case. The U2 singer’s long-awaited memoir, Surrender, finally hit shelves and Mike Cosper got to pick the man’s brain for a cover feature in Christianity Today (jealous!). Early on in the piece he quotes this gem from the book:

The Bible held me rapt. The words stepped off the page and followed me home. I found more than poetry in that Gothic King James script. … I’d always be first up when there was an altar call, the “come to Jesus” moment. I still am. If I was in a café right now and someone said, “Stand up if you’re ready to give your life to Jesus,” I’d be the first to my feet. I took Jesus with me everywhere and I still do.

PtL. U2 has been such a fixture for such a long time that it’s easy to take them for granted. For most guys of my generation, especially those in or around the church, U2 is all caught up in our identity formation. Our first favorite band, the one that accompanied us through adolescence, the first band we got to be too cool for, and then return to, sometimes secretly, in times of need.

In other words, I get that when it comes to U2, it’s “complicated.” I’ll never forget when I wrote a glowing review of Songs of Experience a few years ago — a review I stand by, fwiw — being on the receiving end of a few condescending tweets about how on-brand it was for a man of my age (and profession) to reflexively laud any new U2 release as their “best since Achtung.” My response then is my response now, a hearty “What-EVER, man.” It’s a lot easier to roll your eyes than be honest and, you know, surrender.

The truth is, I love Bono, and I’m not afraid to say so. I love his passion and his restlessness. I love his self-importance, his self-effacement, his too-muchness. I love his voice, his melodies; I love the way his lyrics turn from cringe-worthy to profound in the same verse sometimes (often). I love Joshua Tree and Achtung Baby but I also love POP and No Line on the Horizon and a hefty number of the b-sides. The world is a much more interesting place with him in it, and we all owe him a debt of gratitude, even if it’s just for his willingness to serve as a hipster punching bag. Here’s Mike:

“Even in the darker threads in your lyrics,” I say, “they don’t read like despair. They read like lament. And underneath lament, there’s always a certain kind of hope. Punk music is the sound of rebellion. You have all this trauma in your background, this sense of loss. It seems like hope itself was a rebellious act in your world at that time.”

He thinks about it for a moment, repeating a phrase. “Behind lament lurks hope. Yeah, grief becomes a kind of invocation, doesn’t it? A prayer to be filled?” He laughs. “Yeah. Punk rock prayers. That’s probably what they were.”

“It was an amazing time, punk rock,” he says. “They really inspired me. I suppose what we rebelled against in U2 was something a little more elliptical, maybe harder to follow for some, but we were rebelling against ourselvesI think what U2 probably got right was we just we picked a fight with a much more interesting enemy than the more obvious for punk rock.”

He takes a slow breath. “But I will tell you, deep down, there is an anchor,” he says. “I’m fixed to a rock, and that rock is Jesus.”

2. Speaking of self-importance, while reading the latest installment of Oliver Burkeman’s Imperfectionist newsletter, “Everyone Is (Still) Winging It” I kept waiting for the #LowAnthropology reference. Alas … ! You can see why he was top of my list for an endorsement once the book was written:

It seems to come as an immense relief to many people to be reminded that it’s not just them — that the reason they always feel like they’re making things up as they go along is because everyone is always making things up as they go along. And not just relief, actually, but something more like liberation. After all, if everyone’s just winging it, that’s not merely a reason to feel better about yourself. It’s also a reason to get on and do whatever it was you’d been holding off from doing until you felt ready: to make the career move, launch the creative project, have the difficult conversation you know you’ve been needing to have for years. You might as well act – because now you realise that “feeling ready” is a fantasy, based entirely on what you used to imagine was going on inside other people’s heads.

Quite a few readers seemed astonished (and relieved, and maybe rather pleased) that I ever have days [where i’m in a motivational rut] in the first place. Which, to me, only goes to show the sheer tenacious grip of the idea that other people are better at handling life than we are: you can literally call your newsletter The Imperfectionist, and write endlessly about universal human flaws and limitations — yet people who don’t know you personally are still inclined to suspect you’ve found a secret way to live with more calm, grace and effortlessness than anyone else.

That’s why I don’t much like the term “imposter syndrome” to describe what’s going on here. It makes it sound like an acute and debilitating psychological disorder, and maybe sometimes it is. But far more widespread, I think, is a sort of barely conscious background assumption that other people must have a better idea of what they’re doing than we do.

3. Amen x a million trillion. Actually, wait a second. Let’s not overdo it. Maybe excessive enthusiasm is a little, I don’t know, improper? Cue “The Decline of Etiquette and the Rise of ‘Boundaries’” in the Atlantic, courtesy of Michael Waters.

In 2022, the idea that we should carefully control what personal information we share — and take in — might seem outdated, even dystopian. Or maybe it doesn’t. Today, a disconcerting question seems to be on many people’s mind: Do we know too much about those around us? Advice columnists are fielding questions about how to protect against overshares, as well as what constitutes TMI (“too much information”) in the first place; TikTokers are accusing their peers of divulging life details to the point of “trauma dumping.” As society-wide norms have loosened, individuals have taken on the burden of navigating their own boundaries — and it isn’t always easy.

The result, it seems, is a new backlash against oversharing. More and more, people seem eager to reinstall some boundaries.

In an era of instant, abundant communication, how do you step back when you’re feeling overwhelmed? If it feels like there isn’t a clear answer, that’s because we’ve left behind the era of strict, clear etiquette. We’re entering a new one, in which the rules are bespoke and the arbiters are each and every one of us.

We talk about this article quite a bit on the Mcast we recorded yesterday (out Monday). Lord knows one hears a lot about “boundaries” these days, and it makes sense that their popularity (necessity?) is a response not just to internet-fueled oversharing but the lack of anything approaching a common metaphysics. At their best, I suppose that boundaries are a way of enforcing courtesy, and courtesy usually involves the recognition that you and I, in order to love well, need to be protected from each other a little. Buffered from the full extent of one another’s need, lest we go insane or run screaming for the hills.

Yet in religious circles, I find that “boundaries” tend to function as a sanctioned form of self-involvement just as often as self-preservation. At least, as pushback against the radical other-centeredness we see in scripture. ‘Course, they can also be a gracious way of acknowledging one’s limitations, especially for those who’ve been made to suppress their own needs/humanity (in a way that ultimately serves no one — more on that in the cast). All I know is that I hope that God has poor boundaries when it comes to me.

4. Next up, in her newsletter for the Cut, Kathryn Jezer-Morton looks at what it means to be an ‘adult orphan’ — whether that’s even a thing, given that all parents die eventually. Far from ‘oversharing,’ Jezer-Morton uses the term, and her own mother’s death, as a jumping off point for reflecting on the nature of reality itself. Grief, she observes, puts a lie to our insistence that life is linear. It is not. While she blames capitalism for this misapprehension, I’m pretty sure the idea of life as a series of ladders to climb predates Adam Smith. Anyhoo.

It could be that ladders aren’t for climbing so much as falling off. This applies not just to loss and love, but to sanctification itself. Death-resurrection, confession-absolution; these are the deeper paradigms of how the human soul (and God!) operates:

Not only do we live in a spiritual vacuum that precludes any real philosophical entanglement with mortality, but when we do confront death, we make it into a special badge of identity. Like a bumper sticker. Adult Orphan on Board.

One way grief is processed on social media is with the increasingly popular reminder that “grief is not linear.” I see it everywhere, resonating like a desperate plea: Please, people, stop thinking of grief as linear! We are in constant need of this reminder because linear thinking, borrowed from a neoliberal logic of the marketplace, plays a big part in how we conceive of our lives. Our careers progress, our children grow, we chart our goals and accomplishments at leisure and work. We tick items off our “bucket lists”; we compare our progress to where we were this time last year.

None of this takes death’s inevitability into account, and when death comes, we are unprepared for its elliptical influence on our lives. The death of a parent makes you a child again, but also an elder, and you keep going back and forth between those two states, possibly until you yourself die.

Free-market economies demand progress, and we’ve all applied the imperative to improve on ourselves to varying degrees. This worldview is incompatible with the fact of our mortality. Grief sends us off a cliff, pumping our legs into thin air like the Roadrunner. Grief is not linear, and neither is love nor joy nor work, but we’ve managed to wrestle everyday survival into a series of units and badges, so now we experience our lives that way.

5. Moving on, if you’ve ever ventured into your local mall and found it hollow, or gone to an abandoned church and felt the weight of its emptiness, this next piece describes the eerie, pregnant sensation you experienced. Often these so-called liminal spaces are also beautiful, if unconventionally so, as my favorite new Instagram account demonstrates. In the Atlantic Jake Pitre writes of “The Eerie Comfort of Liminal Spaces” and what they suggest about modern life.

Liminal spaces seem to acknowledge that the world is in a state of transition, dragging us along with it. The pace of modern life seems impossible to keep up with, yet our lived reality does not change. So as society waits for the breaking point to come, liminal spaces make the anticipation of those fears visible, and reaffirm that other people are looking at the world the same way.

The liminal-spaces subreddit’s rules are very clear: “Liminal doesn’t mean creepy,” nor does “surreal” or any sense of “nostalgia” too personal to be understood by anyone else.

Yet the inability to nail down a definition of liminality also speaks to the slipperiness of the emotion it tries to represent. In 2018, the artist and writer James Bridle described our contemporary stuckness as the “New Dark Age,” in which we struggle to understand a world that technology is making ever more complex, leaving us alone and confused. He explains the crisis, though, in almost hopeful terms: “Through acknowledging this darkness,” he writes, we can “seek new ways of seeing by another light.”

“Acknowledging the darkness” does seem to be the way forward. At least if Bono is our guide:

6. In humor, Reductress made me laugh with their “Phew! This Woman Was Jealous of Someone’s Career but Remembered They’re Six Weeks Older Than Her.” Then, the Hard Times nailed a recognizable subset of us once again with “Local Man Begins Month-Long Process of Listening to Cooler Music to Achieve Presentable Spotify Wrapped.” Oy. Finally, the New Yorker gave us “Helicopter Parents Are Last Year’s Model.” A couple favorite new models being:

Air-Fryer Parents
Either completely shut down or blasting intense heat, causing a protective crust to form around their children. Are considered healthier, since they don’t use conventional methods, but end up being just as bad for you as every­one else.

iPhone 6 Parents
Old, sluggish, and often slow on the uptake, although sometimes more reliable than more up-to-date parents, despite being quirky and often cracked.

7. On the episode of the Mockingcast we recorded yesterday, we also touched on Derek Thompson’s newsletter on “What Moneyball-for-Everything Has Done to American Culture.” He takes the World Series as a fresh opportunity to interrogate the sport’s decline, positing that “baseball was colonized by math and got solved like an equation.” ‘Course, our (erstwhile) national pastime is merely one area in which the push for optimization/algorithmization seems to be undermining the richness of human experience, a richness that is less related to precision and efficiency but, well, failure, imperfection, and error, #lowanthropology. That‘s where excitement and interest and edification lie. The observation about the composition of recent blockbusters is bracing, to say the least:

The analytics revolution, which began with the movement known as Moneyball, led to a series of adjustments that were, let’s say, catastrophically successful. Seeking strikeouts, managers increased the number of pitchers per game and pushed up the average velocity and spin rate per pitcher. Hitters responded by increasing the launch angles of their swings, raising the odds of a home run, but making strikeouts more likely as well. Smarties approached baseball like an equation, optimized for Y, solved for X, and proved in the process that a solved sport is a worse one.

blockbuster movies look a lot like a solved equation. In 2019, the 10 biggest films by domestic box office included two Marvel sequels, two animated-film sequels, a reboot of a ’90s blockbuster, and a Batman spin-off. In 2022, the 10 biggest films by domestic box office included two Marvel sequels, one animated-film sequel, a reboot of a ’90s blockbuster, and a Batman spin-off. Blockbusters are kinda boring now, not because Hollywood is stupid, but because it got so smart.

Cultural Moneyballism, in this light, sacrifices diversity for the sake of familiarity. Its genius dulls the rough edges of entertainment. But It is definitely worth asking the question: In a world that will only become more influenced by mathematical intelligence, can we ruin culture through our attempts to perfect it?

8. In music, don’t know about you but with the exception of the gorgeously re-orchestrated version of “November Rain” the Gunners dropped this morning (see above), my Spotify has been completely overtaken by estrogen of late. I’m talking about the stellar new records from Plains/Waxahatchie, Weyes Blood, The Beths, TSwift, and, most of all, Alvvays (Blue Rev is a masterpiece as far as I can tell). That said, I generally agree that Taylor Swift’s Best New Songs Aren’t Technically on Midnights, i.e., the 3AM tunes are abreactive with a capital A. Good grief. Maybe a fresh U2 phase, induced by Bono’s book, will redress the imbalance, who knows. If not, then those looking for some absurdly over-the-top testosterone in their earbuds might also check out the brand new three-hour episode of The Well of Sound on the phenomenon known as Meat Loaf/Jim Steinman. It’ll take the words right out of your mouth, promise.


  • Three more #LowAnthropology podcasts dropped this past week! The first was with Justin Ariel Bailey on his In All Things podcast. Justin is an accomplished writer and theologian in his own right, and his engagement with the book exemplified the kind of rigor (and generosity) that every author hopes for. Next came a conversation with the deeply thoughtful Patricia Clarke for her Lifted by Love cast. I was so encouraged to hear how much the book speaks to her own context and phase in life – and that of her Why We Can’t Sleep peers. Super encouraging and accessible conversation (her book is great btw.  Finally, Jason Montoya was kind enough to have me on his terrific Share Life podcast, and we got to talk about a ton of different topics, Elon Musk being just the tip of the iceberg.
  • All of the recordings from the recent Tyler conference just dropped. Have a listen! You won’t be disappointed.
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