Another Week Ends

A “Harsh Mercy,” Generational Resentment, Digital Tombstones, Travel Freedom, and Purity Culture

David Zahl / 10.15.21

1. I hope you have some Kleenex handy, ’cause this first one destroyed me. It happens to be one of the more beautiful pictures of God’s work in the world that I’ve come across in some time. I’m referring to the recent episode of the Heavyweight podcast that features John Green, best-selling author of The Fault in our Stars. You may be aware that Green almost went into the ministry but decided against it after a traumatizing stint as a hospital chaplain. The apex of that experience was the night John spent with the parents of a boy who had suffered severe burns and was likely to die. He talks about not being able to see or point to God in that moment, and realizing that he would have to bail on divinity school.

As the years go by John wonders about what happened to the boy in question, whose name was Nick. He finds himself praying for Nick every night, despite his ambivalence about/toward God. Fast forward 20 years and John decides it is time to find out if Nick lived or died. Spoiler alert: he lived. So John decides to reach out. I would transcribe some of what transpires but truth be told, it’s just too powerful not to listen in. Suffice to say, the grown-up Nick is a devout Christian — precisely as a result of the “harsh mercy” of his accident. Start at the 19:24 mark. Just remarkable, ptL:

2. Next up and equally heavy (sorry), an item of supreme interest to those who deal with mortality in their 9-to-5, clergy especially. Sara Reinis wrote an essay for Real Life called “The Great Beyond” on the subject of “paranormalsociality” — AKA the process of communicating with the dead. She explores how this is playing out in the age of “digital remains” and the very complicated questions that arise when a person’s online footprint becomes a defacto memorial:

It’s been almost a decade since my brother passed away suddenly, while he was a college student. Since then I’ve been intimately attuned to the comings and goings of his Facebook profile. Though I’m far from his burial site and the family photo albums, don’t often speak to his friends, and I’ve lost the shirt of his that I once kept, I can always pick up my phone and scroll until my thumb hurts and get to the place where he used to be able to write back. His profile is a part of him that feels less frozen in amber; there’s still movement there, something dynamic.

The page is now an archive that makes visible that impulse to continue communicating with the dead on social media, to a degree normalizing and socially validating spiritual practices that have largely been neglected as society has become more secularized.

The Oxford Internet Institute predicts that by 2100, the dead will outnumber the living on Facebook. Such intermingling will likely continue to fuel and mainstream the growing practice of paranormalsociality. The Western approach to grieving may move from something largely private and ceremoniously finite (attend a funeral and move on) toward something more public, continuous, and socially oriented

This, in turn, means that tech companies have become custodians of the dead, whether they wanted to be or not. Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and Google control crucial aspects of the contemporary experience of death and grieving.

Don’t know about you, but while I’m all for death and grief becoming more public in the West, the notion of transforming our social media profiles into actual monuments to Self may not bring out the best in our species. Just ask the Pharaohs.

3. Writing in Christianity Today, Rachel Joy Welcher ponders “What Comes After the Purity Culture Reckoning,” and her diagnosis of the pendulum swing we’re witnessing struck me as helpful:

My fear is that, in our attempts to reform past teachings, we could easily fall into trading the old rules for another set and treating them as the new definition of wisdom, obedience, and Christianity for all believers.

Our new rules might look different, but they can quickly become just as dogmatic and extrabiblical. Plus, black-and-white regulations on these topics—things like whether to kiss outside marriage or when teens can start dating — can diminish our need to study God’s Word, practice discernment, and develop our own convictions.

Discernment is the long-game. If we replace purity culture with a new series of how-to or how-not-to books and conferences, we are falling right back into the same practices.

I am reminded of another podcast episode, This American Life’sThe End of the World As We Know It“, which tells the sad story of one father’s passion about climate change and how it blew his family apart. It is a palpable and painful illustration of #seculosity — almost too much to bear. Lost in the conversation is the fact that the father was ‘converted’ to radical climate change activism from Evangelicalism. To these ears it sounds like he imported all the worst tendencies of that tradition and none of the constructive ones. Talk about trading one fire-and-brimstone eschatology for another! Or in rock n roll terms, meet the new boss, same as the old boss (rhymes with “raw”). This may be an extreme case but it’s hard not to see versions of it everywhere.

4. Speaking of oppressive forms of activism (that begin laudably before metastasizing into something other), Louis Menand’s essay “It’s Time to Stop Talking about ‘Generations’” suggests that we make a mistake when we attribute this phenomenon disproportionately to Generation Z. In fact, all of the generational lingo we throw around so casually today may be flawed. It’s a challenging, if fascinating, piece and one that we discuss on the new episode of The Mockingcast (that drops Monday):

The term [“generation”] is borrowed from human reproductive biology. In a kinship structure, parents and their siblings constitute “the older generation”; offspring and their cousins are “the younger generation.” That is how the term is used in the Hebrew Bible. Around 1800, the term got transplanted from the family to society. The new idea was that people born within a given period belong to a single generation. There is no sound basis in biology or anything else for this claim, but it gave European scientists and intellectuals a way to make sense of something they were obsessed with, social and cultural change.

Today, the time span of a generational cohort is usually taken to be around fifteen years. People born within that period are supposed to carry a basket of characteristics that differentiate them from people born earlier or later. This supposition requires leaps of faith. For one thing, there is no empirical basis for claiming that differences within a generation are smaller than differences between generations … People talk as though there were a unique DNA for Gen X — even though the difference between a baby boomer and a Gen X-er is about as meaningful as the difference between a Leo and a Virgo.

Bobby Duffy, the author of “The Generation Myth” (Basic), says yes, but they’re not as helpful as people think. Generations are just one of three factors that explain changes in attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors. The others are historical events and “life-cycle effects,” that is, how people change as they age. He says that attitudes about gender in the United States correlate more closely with political party than with age, and that there is “just about no evidence,” that Generation Z (1997-2012, encompassing today’s college students) is more ethically motivated than other generations.

In so far as generational labels function as law (i.e., shorthand for accusation), I take Menand’s point. We have far more in common with people of other generations than we would care to admit — and these labels can easily serve as buffers against our less savory personality traits. The non-surface problems of the 19-22 year olds I work with are remarkably similar to the ones I dealt with when I was their age. And yet, as far it relates to prevailing values, they are dealing with a very different kettle of fish from when I was in college, when it was cool not to care about, well, anything.

You might say that our values divide us, but our inability to live up to those values unites us. We are separated by our various gifts, yet united in shared weakness. Someone really ought to write a book about that …

5. In humor, The Onion’sWhite House Warns Supply Chain Shortages Could Lead Americans To Discover True Meaning Of Christmas” is one of their best in years. And “Things That Are OK in Addition to ‘Not Being OK,’ According to Your Newly Minted Chief Wellness Officer” in McSweeney’s nails the seculosity of work in a very amusing way.

6. If you can gloss over the patronizing commentary, Brain Pickings compiled some amazing quotations from Hannah Arendt on forgiveness. Two favorite paragraphs, both taken from The Human Condition (1958), would be the following ones:

Forgiveness is the exact opposite of vengeance… In contrast to revenge, which is the natural, automatic reaction to transgression and which because of the irreversibility of the action process can be expected and even calculated, the act of forgiving can never be predicted; it is the only reaction that acts in an unexpected way and thus retains, though being a reaction, something of the original character of action. Forgiving, in other words, is the only reaction which does not merely re-act but acts anew and unexpectedly, unconditioned by the act which provoked it and therefore freeing from its consequences both the one who forgives and the one who is forgiven. The freedom contained in Jesus’ teachings of forgiveness is the freedom from vengeance

Forgiving and the relationship it establishes is always an eminently personal (though not necessarily individual or private) affair in which what was done is forgiven for the sake of who did it It is the reason for the [Christian] conviction that only love has the power to forgive. For love, although it is one of the rarest occurrences in human lives, indeed possesses an unequaled power of self-revelation and an unequaled clarity of vision for the disclosure of who, precisely because it is unconcerned to the point of total unworldliness with what the loved person may be, with his qualities and shortcomings no less than with his achievements, failings, and transgressions. Love, by reason of its passion, destroys the in-between which relates us to and separates us from others… Love, by its very nature, is unworldly, and it is for this reason rather than its rarity that it is not only apolitical but antipolitical, perhaps the most powerful of all antipolitical human forces.

7. Next, another one we discuss on the Mcast, “You’re a Different Person When You Travel” by Jen Rose Smith, which looks at travel as potential form of grace/freedom.

In her book, “Getting Away from It All: Vacations and Identity,” sociologist Karen Stein… argues that travel is a chance to try out alternate identities — a temporary respite from ourselves.

“Travel is a time that is sort of set aside from our everyday lives,” said Stein. “It can create a flexibility, both mental flexibility and flexibility of social structures, that allows us to see things in a different way, have different experiences or do things a little bit differently.” In Stein’s view, people don’t have just one identity. Instead, they have many, a collection of possible selves that alternate and evolve over time. One version might be familiar to co-workers, another best suited to our roles as parents, children or friends […]

Of course, hopping on a plane — or many planes — doesn’t mean you’ll find yourself. “Travel can be really transformative, but it’s not guaranteed,” said psychologist Jaime Kurtz. Although spending a boozy week in Las Vegas or Cancún, Mexico, might express a side of your identity unfamiliar to family and co-workers, it’s not exactly a fast track to personal growth.

8. Finally, and in tandem with the travel piece, Vox interviewed Matthew Stewart about his new book The 9.9 percent: The New Aristocracy That Is Entrenching Inequality and Warping Our Culture, and it sounds like a worthy addition to the sociology of #lowanthropology, especially as it relates to ladders getting longer the higher we climb (see also “What the Gospel Means for Rich People” this week on Mbird). Interviewers questions in bold:

One of the things you write about in the book is how much this 9.9 percent are willing to invest in their children — in nannies, in schools, in extracurriculars. Where does this pressure come from, this urge people have to make their kids the best?

I think the driving motivation is fear, and I think that fear is well-grounded. People intuit that in this meritocratic game, the odds are getting increasingly long of succeeding. They work very hard to stack the odds in their kids’ favor, but they know as the odds get longer, they may not succeed.

That’s coupled with another one of the traits of this class, which is a lack of imagination. The source of the fear is also this inability to imagine a life that doesn’t involve getting these high-status credentials and having a high-status occupation. This life plan looks good, and it certainly looked good in the past when the odds were more sensible. But it’s not a great deal. It’s something that isn’t just harmful to the people who don’t make it, it’s also harmful to the people who get involved and do make it, in some sense.

Even if people are on paper wealthy, they often don’t feel wealthy. They’re always looking at someone who has a little bit more than them. How does that play out here?

That’s almost the defining aspect of life in a high-inequality world. And the important thing is that it affects people all the way up.

I know people who are in the top 1 percentile of the wealth distribution who just feel incredibly poor and stretched because they’re looking around and see other people who have got just that much more and can do that much better. That insecurity is what runs throughout the system. Just because you’re in the top decile, or 9.9 percent, that doesn’t mean you escape it. In some ways, you’re more subject to that insecurity. That drives people to do crazy things to stay where they are and to avoid falling.


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