Another Week Ends

Cursing Christians, Stories We Tell Ourselves, Redeeming Time, and Hilarious Advice

Todd Brewer / 9.16.22

1. “There are stories that save us, and stories that trap us, and in the midst of an illness it can be very hard to know which is which.” So writes Rachel Aviv in her book, Strangers to Ourselves, profiled recently by Jordan Kisner in the Atlantic. Aviv’s book profiles different people whose experience of psychological treatment have left them more wounded than before. But more than a medical account, Aviv seeks to examine the broader way that beliefs about ourselves can inform our overall wellbeing. As Kisner notes, this process is far from one of pure self-determination:

When we become strangers to ourselves, we are compelled to narrativize. And then we need to know what others make of that story, how they understand us, so that we can understand ourselves. The question “Who am I now?,” while directed at the self, cannot be answered only by the self. It requires traversing between the meaning we make inside ourselves and the meaning we encounter in community.

Whether it be a diagnosis from a doctor (or perhaps from a newly released book explaining the doctrine of sin in a winsome fashion), it is a powerful and potentially freeing thing to know who we are. To be given words for the limits we know all to well, words that recast one’s perceived anomalies into something like normalcy. Diagnoses should not be mistaken for a cure, but they might just become a new beginning. For Kisner, this kind revelation came in the form of an OCD diagnosis at a young age. He writes:

I am not the person I feared I would become after my diagnosis at 13, and the diagnostic language and medication I was offered at that time allowed me, paradoxically, to feel less defined by my experience of anxiety.

2. While we are on the subject of newly released books, after Low Anthropology, the next item on your wish list should be Nick Cave’s upcoming Faith, Hope and Carnage (released this Tuesday). To promote the book, the musician and writer of the Red Hand Files sat down for a wide-ranging and brilliant interview with the New York Times on drug addiction, grief, art, touring, and the new Elvis movie. Here are a couple of highlights:

[On faith and doubt] Sometimes I feel more spiritually activated than others, but there’s always been this struggle between religious belief and my rational self’s skepticism of that, which I saw as a religious failing on some level. Something turned around in me so that I can now see that not as a failing but rather that the whole energy of my creativity was within this struggle. That struggle is perhaps the religious experience itself.

[On “cancel culture” and art] I get a little tired of this casting around for bad actors and exposing them. It doesn’t make any sense to me. It feels like the ideal of it is justice and mercy, but the weaponry being used is injustice and mercilessness. That is very uncomfortable to watch, and quite obviously it’s creating a lot of boring, self-important and morally obvious art.

[On the Un-importance of career] This is going to sound sad and extreme, but there’s that description of Satan in Dante’s “Inferno” trapped up to his waist in ice and self-absorbed in his own misery and waving his bat-like wings and gnawing on his resentments with his three mouths. It’s this terrible picture of your self-interest, fanning your coldness onto other people. There’s something about that idea that I see all the time with people, especially young people, in regard to their work. I’m happy to have let that go. All the love songs that you write, all of this stuff that you manufacture — how little tending of that part of your life actually goes on? When you think of yourself on your deathbed, you generally feel there’s someone next to you. Maybe that’s just me. I’m not going to hold my wife’s hand and say, “Darling, I wrote ‘The Mercy Seat.’”

3. After Adam and Eve ate the forbidden apple er, pomegranate? fruit, God addresses the guilty parties with a series of curses: the serpent loses his legs, child-bearing becomes painful, everyone will now fight with each other, and ground itself will be cursed. God goes into great detail with that last one, almost belaboring the point. Thorns, thistles, pain, and sweat, until death comes and we return to the ground. It’s been a few thousand years since that text was written, but we still don’t know what to do with a ground that’s been cursed.

Cue Oliver Burkeman’s latest newsletter, “Nothing to Prove,” which I think put its finger on one place where our relationship to work can easily spoil: the productivity debt, or the idea that what we accomplish with our work is what makes us fulfilled. That if we check off enough boxes and keep the weeds at bay, we’ll finally justify our existence and not be a failure. He writes:

What if — just for the remainder of this week, say — you were to proceed on the basis that the quest salvation-through-productivity was never going to work (it hasn’t done so far, after all). And that it might never have been necessary to begin with?

In his interesting book Redeeming Your Time, the Christian writer Jordan Raynor points out that in Christianity, this idea takes the form of grace: the principle that God “offers you peace before you do anything.” You don’t accomplish things in life in order to attain peace; that’s unnecessary, indeed hubristic. You accomplish them as “a response of worship” to the peace you’ve already been given, deservedly or not.

I don’t share Raynor’s religious convictions, so I’m not bringing this up in order to suggest that anyone else adopt them. But when I think about it, I’m obliged to concede that the opposing view — the culturally dominant one that says you do need to accomplish things in order to achieve a baseline level of OK-ness — is certainly no more rational or logical or scientific. There are no real grounds for it. Letting go of it, at least for a little while, is as easy as remembering that I can do so.

4. An unexpected find this week in an article by Jordan Calhoun in the Atlantic on Christian doublespeak — a sort of weirdly, niche Christian way of lying. Calhoun defines it as, “a way of saying something kindly to disguise its insidiousness. It includes phrases like ‘bless your heart,’ ‘I’ll pray for you,’ and ‘love the sinner but hate the sin.'”

Christian doublespeak is a way of cursing without actually speaking the expletive (“eff you”!) or saying the exact opposite of what you actually mean. Most people do this all the time, but Christians have perfected the practice into an art, something Calhoun realized while watching the new movie Honk for Jesus, Save Your Soul:

In the Christianity I was raised in, piety is a performance. I was taught that we were saved by grace and Jesus’s sacrifice for our sins, but at the same time, that being a “good” or “bad” person is partly determined by how you talk. […]

I learned that cursing is a sign of a corrupted soul and one of the basic antitheses of performing righteousness. And I had to learn the hard way: My first time ever being suspended was after I transferred to a new school and was caught using profanity … I curse anywhere from “casually” to “frequently” as an adult, but after a childhood of practice, I can still easily switch from vulgarity to the fruits of the spirit. To this day, no elder Christian in my family has ever heard me curse, and I’ve never heard them do it either.

Calhoun then quotes from Kristen Howerton’s book Rage Against the Minivan:

Code-speak is rife in Christian circles, and it can range from annoying to downright toxic. Christians can rely on God-speak to distance themselves from personal responsibility or owning their own decisions, and they can also use it to avoid vulnerability.

The article ends by commending honesty and outright cursing over duplicitous doublespeak. On this front I’d 100% agree: impiety is probably better than performative piety, particularly in the long run.

But I wouldn’t commend profanity because it’s somehow “kinder and more respectful.” No, Christians should curse because they believe in forgiveness. Saying what you really mean is better than dishonesty because it provides the opportunity to be forgiven in a way that performative piety is implicitly meant to forestall. It was the prodigal son who cursed out his father, while his brother kept his resentment to himself. Neither was more righteous than the other, but only one of the sons found mercy.

5. If “the law increases the trespass” (Rom 5:20), then a 30-second countdown for Emmy acceptance speeches will do this:

6. Lots of humor about giving advice this week. A study published by Reductress discovered that “There’s No ‘Right’ Way to Be Single, but What You’re Doing Isn’t Great.” There’s no official word yet on their findings in follow up studies on hygiene, diet, career choice, or parenting style, but preliminary results appear similar.

It’s been a while, but the Onion finally returned to what they do best with, “Friends So Grateful To Have Morally Perfect Woman Around To Correct Them“:

Friends of local 33-year-old Taylor Huntsman reportedly expressed deep gratitude Wednesday for having the morally perfect woman around to correct them. “It’s incredible that whenever we falter, even in the slightest, we have Taylor — a person who has never made a single mistake in her life — to set us right,” said Alexis Pearson … “What’s even more impressive is that she attained perfection at such a young age … Thankfully, she repeats her advice many times, or else lesser beings like us would probably never understand its incredible depths.” At press time, the close acquaintances added that the ethically flawless woman’s husband must feel especially lucky to always have her around.

Speaking of which — “You do you,” “Live and let live,” “God has a plan,” and “Battan Down the Haches!!“?

7. And finally, Plough ran a classic selection of Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s, The Brothers Karamazov on the withholding of judgment at all costs. It’s as relevant today as it was then:

No one can judge a criminal until he recognizes that he is just such a criminal as the man standing before him and that he, perhaps more than all men, is to blame for that crime. When he understands that, he will be able to be a judge. Though that sounds absurd, it is true. If I had been righteous myself, perhaps there would have been no criminal standing before me. If you can take upon yourself the crime of the criminal whom your heart is judging, take it at once, suffer for him yourself, and let him go without reproach.

And even if the law itself makes you his judge, act in the same spirit so far as possible, for he will go away and condemn himself more bitterly than you have done. If after you kiss he goes away untouched, mocking at you, do not let that be a stumbling block to you. It shows his time has not yet come, but it will come in due course. And if it doesn’t come, no matter: if not he, then another in his place will understand and suffer, and judge and condemn himself; then justice will be fulfilled. Believe that, believe it without doubt; for in that lies all the hope and faith of the saints.


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One response to “September 10-16”

  1. […] this year, we’ve been more than happy to have led the Nick Cave bandwagon. We featured him here, and here, and here, and here, and here, and here, and here, and […]

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