Another Week Ends

Our Best Finds on the Web From This Past Year

CJ Green / 12.27.21

If you’re a regular reader of this site, you may know that every Friday we round up a list of links for weekend reading. Below, find essays and articles that have stayed with us long after publication and somehow represent the year overall. Happy reading, and happy 2022!

1. On forgiveness — Elizabeth Bruenig’s interview at Vox hit us between the eyes. Speaking to Sean Illing at Vox, Bruenig talks about one of the most crucial tenets of the Christian faith (and one which is always getting shade online), forgiveness! To read this on a secular platform was both exciting and inspiring, and Bruenig offers a masterclass in sharing good news in practical, everyday terms. Repeatedly tried to cut down this excerpt, but it’s really too good to:

Forgiveness doesn’t undo the fact of the offense, nor does forgiveness suggest that the offense wasn’t really that bad. So a lot of the time when you read people thinking through forgiveness, what you actually see them doing is trying to find ways to mitigate the offense. People will say, “Well, I wanted to forgive this person, and so I took into account that they didn’t really mean it. They were young, they were ill,” etc., etc.

But the truth is that forgiveness pertains to a situation in which the person is guilty and culpable. That is when the question of forgiveness actually opens. It does not open up when you have a situation where somebody is not responsible for the offense. That’s not forgiveness. Forgiveness is when you decide to permanently forgo seeking restitution or vengeance — or however you want to think about it — for an offense that someone really did commit. […]

Whatever forgiveness is, and I do think it is a personal virtue as well as a social virtue, it’s certainly not something you do for your own pleasure or your own health. The person doing the forgiving isn’t getting a lot of bang for their buck. The person who benefits way out of proportion to what they’ve done is the offender. But that raises an important point: Forgiveness is not deserved by definition. It’s not something somebody earns. It’s something that’s freely given […]

I definitely think that the Internet is very good at inflaming our worst tendencies. And one of those is the tendency to discipline and punish and prosecute, not for safety, not for the preservation of community, but just for fun […]

It’s also hard to be forgiven. There are so many issues with respect to pride and ego and accepting fault, and there are feelings of condescension and suspicions of having something lorded over you. So part of forgiving is to stand humbly and say, “I’m not kidding. I’m serious. It’s forgiven.”

2. On the mess we’ve made of this world — In James K. A. Smith’s remarkable essay for the Christian Century, he demythologizes the power of “thinking correctly” to solve problems. As a young philosopher, he says, he initially believed that if “we could think more carefully, the truth would come out. Good arguments would save us.” Smith feels differently now, having suffered depression, a problem for which proper thinking was no match.

I’m less confident we’ll think our way out of the morass and malaise in which we find ourselves. Analysis won’t save us. And the truth of the gospel is less a message to be taught than a mystery enacted. Love won’t save us either, of course. But I’ve come to believe that the grace of God that will save us is more powerfully manifest in beloved community than in rational enlightenment. Or, as Hans Urs von Balthasar has put it, “Love alone is credible; nothing else can be believed, and nothing else ought to be believed. […]

Needless to say, I’ve abandoned all hope that we can think our way out of the mess we’ve made of the world. The pathology that besets us in this cultural moment is a failure of imagination, specifically the failure to imagine the other as neighbor. Empathy is ultimately a feat of the imagination, and arguments are no therapy for a failed, shriveled imagination. It will be the arts that resuscitate the imagination.

3. On feeling like you’re not doing enough — Consensus seems that, on the whole, 2021 was not as bad as 2020, but that doesn’t mean it was good. It was a year when the world felt “all too much,” global crises becoming visible at an alarming rate. With that in mind, this newsletter from Nadia Bolz-Weber still resonates today. She writes,

when I check social media it feels like there are voices saying “if you aren’t talking about, doing something about, performatively posting about ___(fill in the blank)___then you are an irredeemably callous, privileged, bigot who IS PART OF THE PROBLEM” and when I am someone who does actually care about human suffering and injustice (someone who feels every picture I see, and story I read) it leaves me feeling like absolute shit. I am left wondering: am I doing enough, sacrificing enough, giving enough, saying enough about all the horrible things right now to think of myself as a good person and subsequently silence the accusing voice in my head? No. The answer is always no. No I am not. Nor could I. Because no matter what I do the goal of “enough” is just as far as when I started.

And yet doing nothing is hardly the answer.

So I wanted to share something with you. Every day of my life I ask myself three discernment questions I learned from one of my teachers, Suzanne Stabile:

What’s MINE to do, and what’s NOT mine to do?
What’s MINE to say and what’s NOT mine to say?

And the third one is harder:
What’s MINE to care about and what’s NOT mine to care about?

4. On finding hope in a time of grief — Around Easter, the New York Times columnist Esau McCaulley wrote about “The Unsettling Power of Easter.” McCaulley paints the resurrection as an unsettling, even frightening event—which in fact sharpens the hope it offers for a world of disaster. He talks about the end of Mark’s Gospel, when Jesus’s female followers went to his tomb on Easter morning:

The women did not go to the tomb looking for hope. They were searching for a place to grieve. They wanted to be left alone in despair. The terrifying prospect of Easter is that God called these women to return to the same world that crucified Jesus with a very dangerous gift: hope in the power of God, the unending reservoir of forgiveness and an abundance of love. It would make them seem like fools. Who could believe such a thing?

Christians, at their best, are the fools who dare believe in God’s power to call dead things to life. That is the testimony of the Black church. It is not that we have good music (we do) or excellent preaching (we do). The testimony of the Black church is that in times of deep crisis we somehow become more than our collective ability. We become a source of hope that did not originate in ourselves. …

As we leave the tombs of quarantine, a return to normal would be a disaster unless we recognize that we are going back to a world desperately in need of healing. For me, the source of that healing is an empty tomb in Jerusalem. The work that Jesus left his followers to do includes showing compassion and forgiveness and contending for a just society. It involves the ever-present offer for all to begin again.

5. On death and faith — This year, we were deeply saddened to read of Tim Keller’s pancreatic cancer. For the well-known NYC pastor, the diagnosis resulted in a period of introspection, about which he wrote in a poignant essay for the Atlantic. Despite his ministering to people about the resurrection for more than 45 years and having even written a book called On Death, his own terminal diagnosis prompted him to look directly at the Grim Reaper and, consequently, his own faith.

As the early American philosopher Jonathan Edwards argued, it is one thing to believe with certainty that honey is sweet, perhaps through the universal testimony of trusted people, but it is another to actually taste the sweetness of honey. The sense of the honey’s sweetness on the tongue brings a fuller knowledge of honey than any rational deduction. In the same way, it is one thing to believe in a God who has attributes such as love, power, and wisdom; it is another to sense the reality of that God in your heart. The Bible is filled with sensory language. We are not only to believe that God is good but also to “taste” his goodness, the psalmist tells us; not just to believe that God is glorious and powerful but also to “see” it with “the eyes of the heart,” it says in Ephesians.

On December 6, 1273, Thomas Aquinas stopped writing his monumental Summa Theologiae. When asked why by his friend Reginald, he replied that he had had a beatific experience of God that made all his theology “seem like straw” by comparison. That was no repudiation of his theology, but Thomas had seen the difference between the map of God and God himself, and a very great difference it was. While I cannot claim that any of my experiences of God in the past several months have been “beatific,” they have been deeper and sweeter than I have known before. … Since my diagnosis, Kathy and I have come to see that the more we tried to make a heaven out of this world — the more we grounded our comfort and security in it — the less we were able to enjoy it.

6. On church — Pair the above with Keller’s interview in World magazine, in which he considers the “success” of his ministry in New York City. This came as a refreshing counterweight to the commentary on Mars Hill which dominated the year’s church-related discourse:

I … learned not to build a ministry on leadership charisma (which I didn’t have anyway!) or preaching skill (which wasn’t so much there early on) but on loving people pastorally and repenting when I was in the wrong. In a small town, people will follow you if they trust you — your character — personally, and that trust has to be built in personal relationships, not through showing off your credentials and your talents […]

[Successful Manhattanites] had lived their whole lives with parents, music teachers, coaches, professors, and bosses telling them to do better, be better, try harder. In their view, God was the ultimate taskmaster, with unfulfillable demands. To hear that He Himself had met those demands for righteousness through the life and death of Jesus, and now there was no condemnation left for anyone who trusted in that righteousness — that was an amazingly freeing message.

I came to see how the theology of grace freed them (and Christians too) from the modern-day idolatries that Manhattanites struggled with.

7. On family — In Heather Havrilesky’s advice column for the Cut, someone wrote that “I just want my family to love me unconditionally.” Instead of being able to do this one simple thing, the writer’s family seems to be doing x, y, and z wrong. The letter encompasses many of the family-related trends of the year. With her typical empathy, humor, and wisdom, Havrilesky responded:

You can feel less shitty immediately, by putting all of your intellectual efforts and your narratives aside for a minute and opening your mind to one thought:

What if I’m wrong about everything?

This is (not coincidentally!) the most terrifying thought you could ever have. As someone who’s carefully constructed a detailed list of what’s gone wrong in her life, as someone who uses those delineations to explain herself (why wouldn’t you?), as someone who experiences other people as misunderstanding her and rejecting her based on her peculiarities (anyone in your shoes would do this!), as someone who feels like she’s alone on an island a lot of the time (it would be almost impossible not to feel that way, given your circumstances), the worst possible thing you could think or believe is that YOU MIGHT BE WRONG ABOUT EVERY SINGLE THING YOU’VE CONCLUDED ABOUT YOURSELF AND THE WORLD. …

You don’t seem to be adjusting your expectations of others based on reality. You still want the imaginary loving cousins of your dreams. And as long as you’re focused on that one desire, you’re going to block a lot of other paths to joy and satisfaction that are available to you.

8. On value systems that don’t depend on performance — It may feel like every year is Justin Bieber’s year, but this year really was. Dude’s currently Spotify’s most streamed artist in the world, following the March release of his album Justice (received half-heartedly by critics). Zach Baron’s Bieber profile in GQ was weird, uplifting, interesting, and pastoral. Bieber details the exhaustion of success, his feelings of lostness amidst media obligations and image management, and his desire to sabotage it all.

Two things brought Justin Bieber back, ultimately: his marriage and his faith. What they had in common was that they were value systems that didn’t depend on him performing in exchange for money. Bieber talks a lot about “have to” versus “want to” — his life has been mostly shaped by the former, in the sense that from a young age, he was brought up primarily not by his parents but by managers and bodyguards and label executives, whose purpose and presence, however benevolent, was to keep the business on track. What he wanted, beyond money and further success — for instance, to stay in Toronto with his friends instead of performing on the Today show — was something he learned not to think about too much […]

It is beautiful to hear Justin Bieber talk about God. “He is grace,” he says. “Every time we mess up, He’s picking us back up every single time. That’s how I view it. And so it’s like, ‘I made a mistake. I won’t dwell in it. I don’t sit in shame. But it actually makes me want to do better.’” (And perhaps this is convenient: Bieber has done a lot in his life that needs forgiving, and an ethos of total acceptance can be alarmingly close to an ethos of total impunity, of being right in your deeds, no matter how bad or dark or selfish they are. But hear him out.) I am not a believer myself. Bieber doesn’t care about this. “My goal isn’t to try and persuade anybody to believe in what I believe or condemn anybody for not believing what I believe,” he says. “If it can help someone, great. If someone’s like, ‘Hey, I don’t believe that. I don’t think that’s true,’ by all means, that’s their prerogative.”

9. On suffering and sickness — In Plough Quarterly, the NY Times columnist Ross Douthat writes of how he came to a greater, and far more personal, sense of faith in God through his struggles with chronic Lyme’s disease.

One of the curiosities of the modern era is the way that the debate about whether a good God would allow human suffering, the eternal question of theodicy, has become a persuasive argument for atheism (or at least against Christianity) at the same time that actual physical suffering has in many ways declined. The world of mass infant mortality, rampaging disease, and endless toothaches had more confidence in God’s ultimate beneficence than the world of increasing life expectancy and effective pain-management techniques. […]

But what I learned from my illness is that chronic suffering can make belief in a providential God, if you have such a thing going in, feel essential to your survival, no matter how much you may doubt God’s goodness when the pain is at its worst. To believe that your suffering is for something, that you are being asked to bear up under it, that you are being in some sense supervised and tested and possibly chastised in a way that’s ultimately for your good, if you can only make it through the schooling — all this is tremendously helpful to maintaining simple sanity and basic hope. If God brought you to it, He can bring you through it, read an aphorism in one of the doctors’ offices I frequented: a neat distillation of what I wanted — and, more important, needed — to believe, in order to get up every morning and just try to hold my world together for another shattered-seeming day.

10. On the intersection of Reformation theology and mental health — Skylar Spradlin’s heartfelt essay, “How Luther Helped My Depression,” pairs reformation theology with a mental condition far too many will be familiar with. Spradlin notes that Luther, too, suffered from what we might today call depression. Spradlin testifies to the power of justification by faith, not works, to powerfully impact a person’s life, spirit, and wellbeing.

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. […]

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. …

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. … 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.

11. On creativity — Probably our most quoted writer of 2021 was the musician Nick Cave. His online archive the Red Hand Files is a treasure trove of grace and wisdom. You could choose any link at random and find something worthwhile there. Here’s one for good measure: In response to the question, “How do you know when you have written something worthwhile? What is your process?” He begins with his favorite line from the New Testament: “Mary Magdalene and the other Mary remained standing there in front of the tomb.” Cave explains:

A large part of the process of songwriting is spent waiting in a state of attention before the unknown. We stand in vigil, waiting for Jesus to emerge from the tomb — the divine idea, the beautiful idea — and reveal Himself.

Often, the beautiful idea that has formed is at first unrecognisable to us. We don’t see it for what it is, because it is new and implausible. Just as Mary Magdalene does not recognise Jesus when He first appears to her outside the tomb, the beautiful idea may emerge dimly and appear peculiar to us, not announcing itself but standing, half hidden and improbable, in the shadows. …

One day, you will write a line that feels wrong, but at the same time provides you with a jolt of dissonance, a quickening of the nervous system. You will shake your head and write on, only to find that you come back to it, shake your head again, and carry on writing — yet back you come, again and again. This is the idea to pay attention to, the difficult idea, the disturbing idea, shimmering softly among all the deficient, dead ideas, gently but persistently tugging at your sleeve — the Jesus idea.

Humor

Things Fully Vaccinated People Are Not Allowed to Do by Eli Grober at the New Yorker

Flannery O’Connor Absolutely Ruins Your Favorite Stories from Childhood by Leslie Ylinen at McSweeney’s

Leaked Emails from Simon Peter to the Alpha Omega Fraternity by Steve Smith at McSweeney’s

How to Use the Phrase ‘I Need to Set Boundaries’ in Order to Not Compromise at All Ever in Any Situation by Rachael Mason at Reductress