Another Week Ends

Evil Everywhere, Franzen’s Crossroads, Self-Objectification, Cleansing a Bookstore, and Rick Steves Goes to Westeros.

Bryan J. / 10.1.21

1. The broad theme for this week’s review is this: many people have discovered a bunch of things that just aren’t working. Take, for example, the research recently published that says our digital pandemic church services just didn’t work:

… by almost every metric, the experience of pandemic rituals have been worse than those that came before them. They are perceived as less meaningful, less communal, less spiritual, less effective, and so on.

Fair enough — you don’t need to be a social science researcher to figure that one out, though those with disabilities and geographic disconnects enjoyed the season more than others. This insight may be more surprising to us: it turns out a growing body of data also suggests that trigger warnings are not only ineffective at reducing trauma, but in some cases, may make the anxiety of those with PTSD worse:

Perhaps what is called for is a more neutral and humble stance, in which instructors don’t approach pedagogy as if it were an adjunct of psychological care. We could accept uncertainty about the psyches of individuals, disclaim the conceit of exerting control over triggers, and avoid confident assumptions about anyone’s trauma. That might help move teaching in a direction that attempts first to do no harm.

Maybe it’s because I am the parent of a toddler, but I am reminded of an earworm of a song from the 1971 The Cat in the Hat TV special. The titular Cat in the Hat has lost his beloved “moss-covered three-handled family gredunza,” and observes “the way to find a missing something is to find out where it’s not.” Consider today’s weekender, then, to be an exercise in Dr. Seuss’s “Calculatus Eliminatus,” additions to the catalogue of where happiness, joy, mercy, forgiveness, and grace are not found.

2. Arthur Brooks has been on a tear with us these past few months, including, of course, his contribution to The Money Issue of The Mockingbird magazine. In the Atlantic this week, Brooks parses out the many problems that come when we try to find identity and meaning in our jobs. If we are looking to find happiness in identifying ourselves as work “objects,” it just won’t work:

When it comes to happiness, Marx was right: Objectification lowers well-being. Research shows, for example, that when people are reduced by others to physical attributes through objectifying stares or harassment, it can lower self-confidence and competence in tasks. The philosopher Immanuel Kant referred to this as becoming “an Object of appetite for another,” at which point “all motives of moral relationship cease to function.” […]

The case against objectifying others is fairly straightforward. Less obvious but equally damaging is when the objectifier and the person being objectified are one and the same. Humans are capable of objectifying themselves in many ways — by assessing their self-worth in terms of their physical appearance, economic position, or political views, for example — but all of them boil down to one damaging core act: reducing one’s own humanity to a single characteristic, and thus encouraging others to do so as well. In the case of work, that might look like judging one’s self-worth — positively or negatively — based on job performance or professional standing.

Just as our entertainment culture encourages us to self-objectify physically, our work culture pushes us to self-objectify professionally. Americans tend to valorize being driven and ambitious, so letting work take over virtually every moment of your life is concerningly easy. I know many people who talk of almost nothing besides their work; who are saying, essentially, “I am my job.” This may feel more humanizing and empowering than saying “I am my boss’s tool,” but that reasoning has a fatal flaw: In theory, you can ditch your boss and get a new job. You can’t ditch you.

A worthy warning for all of us who find validation in our work identities (something Christians can be particularly prone to). After all, as valuable as it is to say “I am my boss’s [i.e. God’s] tool,” perhaps we might find a divine corrective in being called God’s any-non-work-related-Bible-imagery. The flip side of Brook’s equation is true too, of course: your boss (or, erhm, your God!) can always find a new tool, but he will not find a new friend, or child, or beloved.

3. Over at the Wall Street Journal Lance Morrow notes how everything today called “evil” particularly political opponents. The practice, he argues, epitomizes our hysterically polarized times. But more than that, it leads to a confusion our moral bearings entirely. If the politician who you won’t vote for is evil, what word is there for those who commit actual atrocities.

The word evil has suffered from severe grade inflation in the 21st century. Just as every college student must now get an A, so, in the hysteria of social media, the most ordinary pipsqueak may now be flattered with the grand honorific. Evil, once an august item in the range of human possibilities, has been reduced to a cliché of political abuse. […]

Politics (essentially a media performance in the 21st century) has taken over the work of organizing our moral lives — distorting them, trivializing them and making them hysterical. The reckless use of absolute language freighted with old religious toxins causes political disagreements between fellow citizens to become invested with ultimate meanings. Idiots start talking about “the end of days.”

If you are serious about evil, talk about consequences. You can’t call a person evil unless — as with Hitler or Stalin or Mao or Pol Pot — the evidence is there: the body count. Evil once belonged to the realm of reality. But the 21st century has lost its appetite for objective proof. Feelings are enough. If you feel that something or someone is evil, why then it is so. What you feel (the mirage of your emotions) acquires the status of reality. You must, after all, “speak your truth.”

The Salem witch trials proceeded on the same premise

4. Public theologian (and cancer patient) Kate Bowler lives the dream in the Washington Post this week, regaling us all with the tale of her futile attempt to cleanse the hospital gift shop from prosperity gospel heresy. Who hasn’t dreamed of pulling a Joel Osteen tome off the shelf and putting it in the “fiction” section? Bowler’s essay is very much in line with Jesus’s attempt to cleanse the temple of money changers during holy week:

I stopped living my best life in a hospital gift shop.

It was probably alarming for the teenager at the counter to see a patient in a blue cotton gown wheel her own I.V. into the store, mutter loudly at a carousel of books and begin to pull titles off the shelf. Not one by one. But by handfuls.

“I’d like to see the manager,” I say. The teenager produces an older woman in an embroidered sweater and presents her to me with eyes that tacitly suggest minimum wage doesn’t cover this scenario.

“Can I help you, ma’am?” the manager asks gingerly.

But I am coming in hot. “Yes! Thank you. I need you to know that these books are not suitable to be sold in a hospital.” I point to the pile of Christian bestsellers I’ve made on the floor, books that I had carefully studied and documented in a comprehensive history of the movement known as the prosperity gospel. I spent years interviewing their celebrity authors and pulling apart their promises for divine happiness and healing with gentleness. And that’s not what I am after today.

The manager only stares.

Bowler’s attempt to cleanse the hospital gift shop was a laudable effort, but as Jesus also learned on Good Friday, driving out the money changers doesn’t make suffering go away. That’s a reality Bowler is fully aware of, of course. The prosperity theology doesn’t work, but also, neither does raging against the machine.

5. Much has been made over the past few weeks about Facebook’s internal realizations that its social media platforms are not working for teens and adolescents. New leaks, published at MIT Technology Review (which we found by way of Relevant), show that 19 of the 20 largest Christian Facebook groups in 2019 were run by troll farms based in North Macedonia and Kosovo. They were able to engage with 75 million users in the runup to the 2020 election, positioning themselves to send misinformation and potentially sway political matters.

For the most part, the people who saw and engaged with these posts didn’t actually “like” the pages they’re coming from. Facebook’s engagement-hungry algorithm simply shipped them what it “thought” they want to see. Internal studies revealed that divisive posts are more likely to reach a big audience, and troll farms use that to their advantage, spreading provocative misinformation that generates a bigger response to spread their online reach. […]

Our platform has given the largest voice in the Christian American community to a handful of bad actors, who, based on their media production practices, have never been to church,” wrote the report’s author, Jeff Allen, who used to be a senior-level data scientist at Facebook.

The study also profiles how these same troll farms had also infiltrated the Black and Native American communities as well, so the problem is universal, not simply ecclesiological. Between this and the psychological damage that the company’s apps are causing in teens, it’s safe to say that the algorithm as it currently stands isn’t working. Whether that applies to all social media remains to be seen.

6. In humor this week, “Will You Marry Me (No Pressure)” will either make you laugh out loud or raise your blood pressure, as will “Parenting Advice from a Smug Childless Person.” Be sure to also check out the “Guide to Making Friends As An Adult, According to Hades, Greek God of the Underworld” and “Rick Steves Casually Reviews Dangerous Fantasy Locations“:

The Shire used to be the best-kept secret of Middle Earth, but tourists have been flocking there lately because of their famous “second breakfasts.” Even still, there are lots of must-sees for first-time visitors. Join the Hobbits in a dance of the jig, but try to avoid stepping on their big hairy feet. Resist the urge to try on any rings, no matter how tempting that may be, since it could transform you from the inside out. It’s not worth leaving the Shire for any quests to Mordor; it’s wrought with deadly predators from the underground and takes a tremendous amount of time to get there.

There seems to be a never-ending list of places to experience when visiting Westeros, so you can’t go wrong as long as you aim for a summer visit. Winters here are absolutely brutal. Throughout your trip, you’ll encounter many well-preserved and battle-scarred houses and hopefully some mystical beings. You’ll definitely want to follow the local rules closely as some of the fines and punishments are more severe than you can imagine. The views will provide everything you’d expect in a harsh medieval landscape: picturesque backdrops, fiery dragons, and horrific ritualistic executions. Wear comfortable shoes.

See also: are Duck Stamps the new King of Kong? A niche world where perfection and beauty belie the cutthroat competition and need to win? John Oliver thinks so. [Trigger Warning: Crude Humor]

7. Reviews are starting to arrive for Jonathan Franzen’s latest novel, Crossroads, a high moral drama infused with matters of middle class faith and virtue. The author is well respected for depicting how moral improvement comes at the high cost of suffering and humiliation, and it sounds like Crossroads is a success to that end, according to Kathryn Schultz in the New Yorker:

Franzen is not Dickens, which I mean here as a compliment; he does not do moral pageantry, doling out impossible quantities of virtue to some characters while withholding it entirely from others. Instead, in “Crossroads,” the desire to be good is broadly shared but alarmingly ephemeral, dissolving with equal ease in the face of forces as potent as addiction (for Perry), as insidious as self-pity (for Russ), and as trivial as a traffic jam (for Marion). Yet it is also strangely persistent, readily rekindled by an encounter with another person, an experience of the ineffable, or the banked heat of some mysterious inner fire. This combination of fragility and tenacity renders the old-fashioned question of virtue interesting again, by rendering it suspenseful. Like real people, the characters in the book go to therapy every week and attend worship services every weekend because their will to be good is in constant need of renewal, which is to say that it is in constant jeopardy. […]

To ethicists, that is a question about whether right thinking matters more than right action—that is, whether we should judge people’s goodness based on what they are doing or on why they are doing it. Most of them agree that motives matter: in a perfect world, we would all do the right thing simply because it is the right thing to do. But we don’t, and Franzen repeatedly exploits the gap between what we do and why we do it—which, in fiction, is the gap between plot and character. […]

Do these motives matter to the rest of the story? You can imagine. In the end, the ostensibly good acts in “Crossroads” are only slightly less disastrous than the overtly bad ones, and virtue seems less like a living possibility than like a trap or a phantasm. There is no Dorothea here, no steadfast moral center to rouse our admiration. Instead, the most generous take on human nature to be found within “Crossroads,” and the final summation of all its characters, might be that desperate claim Perry makes at the Christmas party, rendered strikingly pitiable by how sincere it is, and how little it avails: “I’m doing the best I can!”

I’m no Franzen expert, but my experience is that his writing is very good at conveying a number of middle class sensibilities that, when seriously considered, cannot work to provide a good life. Over at Vulture, Franzen got a chance to talk about the role of Christianity in the novel, adding this intriguing commentary: 

My approach to religion, or the way I was thinking about it in Crossroads, was as an experience, particularly an emotional experience. That will come with certain structures like for the character of Marion: a notion of good and evil, a notion of being punished for your sins, a notion of the reality of sin, which was part of the attraction of Catholicism for her. She early on contrasts that Catholic notion of guilt with Protestant guilt, which is something like just liberal guilt. It’s kind of a watered-down thing, like: Try to be nice to poor people.

I, for one, am excited to read Franzen’s take on the matter, especially since the book supposedly plumbs Franzen’s own time in a church youth program.

8. Finally, Eberhard Jüngel, an elder statesmen of academic theology died on Tuesday at age 86, counting famous names Jürgen Moltmann, Hans Küng, and the future Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (aka Pope Benedict XIV) as his academic peers. Jüngel was never a “popular” theologian in a published sense — he was much more of an academy man in his writings — but his influence was important for many in the Mockingbird orbit.

Below is a selection from a 1985 interview (translated from German). Referring to the “Is God Dead” hubbub from Time Magazine in 1966, he called the episode “superficial, journalistic, fashionable, headline-grabbing theology.” The man was not known for holding back! Here he is talking Martin Luther, theology, and philosophy:

Where the word of the cross has been taken seriously, Christian theology has taken a decidedly critical position vis-à-vis metaphysics; a high point of this development was Luther.

Luther’s criticism of Aristotle’s metaphysics has its roots here. In one of Luther’s early disputations, it says – too bluntly, I think, but characteristic: “One cannot be a good theologian if you swear by Aristotle.” That is either in the Heidelberg Disputation or in the Disputation Against Scholastic Theology, I don’t know exactly. Luther did not say that out of  hostility to Aristotle — Luther himself had taught Aristotle for a long time — but he said that because he understood that the word of the cross means that God himself suffers, something the metaphysical concept of God does not permit.

According to Aristotle and already according to Plato, God should indeed be loved, but he should not himself love. If the god would love, he would lose his divinity, says Plato in the Symposium and Aristotle in his own way. Luther realized this, that talk of the suffering God, of the crucified God, is incompatible with the metaphysical concept of God. Metaphysics lived by its concept of God: in this it had its axiom. From this concept of God, everything else was understood, as Spinoza later sees again quite clearly at the end of classical metaphysics — Spinoza begins his ethics again with a definition of God. Everything was deduced from this. With Spinoza you might perhaps have the last major exponent of classical metaphysics. Accordingly, he is then also allergic to Christian theologoumena [statements about God]. Spinoza never understood the talk of the incarnation and said that it can’t be understood.

Strays:

  • FWIW, as Mockingbird’s resident Star Wars humbug, the Visions series that dropped on Disney+ last week has my full approval. You can see that the animation studios were overflowing with creativity once the franchise’s canon restrictions were lifted. It may be the most fun I’ve had with a Star Wars property since the extended universe novels of the mid 90’s. SO good!
  • A new, well reviewed translation of the poetry of St. John of the Cross
  • Tara Isabella Burton’s alternative take to the Benedict Option: the Florentine Option.
  • Rocky IV – the Stallone Cut?
  • New Music from ACDC (of all bands) — check the above video, a metaphor for embracing age and the desire for immortality.