1. We’ve given him a rest for a few months, but the break is over! David Brooks wrote an another incisive column for The NY Times this week, “The Moral Diet,” reflecting on Dan Ariely’s new book on dishonesty. Brooks isn’t afraid to cast the research in historical-religious terms; indeed, the shift in Western self-perception, from fundamentally bad to fundamentally good, is one of his favorite subjects. But in this column he also touches on our proclivity for self-justification, questioning the unquestioned assumption that a good life is simply one where the good outweighs the bad, i.e. where the moral/political/achievement (bank!) account ends up in the black. Smart stuff, WG:

For the past several centuries, most Westerners would have identified themselves fundamentally as Depraved Sinners. In this construct, sin is something you fight like a recurring cancer — part of a daily battle against evil.

But these days, people are more likely to believe in their essential goodness. People who live by the Good Person Construct try to balance their virtuous self-image with their selfish desires. They try to manage the moral plusses and minuses and keep their overall record in positive territory. In this construct, moral life is more like dieting: I give myself permission to have a few cookies because I had salads for lunch and dinner. I give myself permission to cheat a little because, when I look at my overall life, I see that I’m still a good person.

The Good Person isn’t shooting for perfection any more than most dieters are following their diet 100 percent. It’s enough to be workably suboptimal, a tolerant, harmless sinner and a generally good guy.

The key job in the Good Person Construct is to manage your rationalizations and self-deceptions to keep them from getting egregious. Ariely suggests you reset your moral gauge from time to time. Your moral standards will gradually slip as you become more and more comfortable with your own rationalizations.

2. Bruce Hood’s new book The Self Illusion: How the Social Brain Creates Identity has been making some similar waves this past week. He essentially argues that, you guessed it, the “self” (singular) is entirely a construct of the mind, and a flimsy one at that. That is, it’s not real in the way we might like to think it is (“go find yourself” etc). We are instead multitudinous creatures, whose identities are social facades put together for the sake of efficiency and survival (curiously, no mention of fear). To the extent that there is an “I”, it is divided, and sub-divided, you might say. Ring any bells? Jonah Lehrer interviewed the University of Bristol psychologist on Wired last week, which produced a number of provocative little insights. It’s also amusing to watch his materialism betray itself:

LEHRER: Let’s say the self is just a narrative. Who, then, is the narrator? Which part of me is writing the story that becomes me?

HOOD: This is the most interesting question and also the most difficult to answer because we are entering into the realms of consciousness. For example, only this morning as I was waking up, I was aware that I was gathering my thoughts together and I suddenly became fixated by this phrase, “gathering my thoughts.” I felt I could focus on my thoughts, turn them over in my mind and consider how I was able to do this. Who was doing the gathering and who was focusing? This was a compelling experience of the conscious self…unless you believe in a ghost in the machine, it is impossible to interrogate your own mind independently. In other words, the narrator and the audience are one and the same.

LEHRER: I get the sense that not all of your colleagues agree with your deconstruction of the self. Some argue, in fact, that the self is a bit like a wristwatch. Just because a watch is a bundle of different parts doesn’t mean it is an illusion. How do you respond to these critiques?

HOOD: For me, an illusion is not what it seems and for most of us, we consider our self as some essential core of who we are. Most of us feel our self is at the center of our existence responding to everything around us – that notion of an integrated entity is what I am challenging, not the experience of self. Most of us, including myself have that experience but that does not make it real. For example, most us think that we see the world continuously throughout the waking day when in fact we only see a fraction of the world in front of us, and because the brain blanks out our visual experience every time we move our eyes in a process called saccadic suppression, we are effectively blind for at least 2 hrs of the day. This is why you cannot see your own eyes moving when you look in a mirror! So conscious experience is not a guarantee of what’s really true.

3. On Grantland, Wesley Morris approaches the question of identity from a different, more upbeat angle, reflecting on the joy exuded by the wardrobe of NBA announcer Craig Sager, “Does This Suit Make Me Look Insane?” It’s a beautiful little study in vocation, ht RB:

It’s true that prolonged exposure to him might impair your vision. But even more now than he did five years ago, he imparts a kind of joy — in being on TV, in being alive. That’s ultimately what these clothes are. They’re terribly, terribly alive. And Sager is so happy and comfortable in them. The only man who could wear nonsense of this caliber and seem as remotely full of mirth is Payne Stewart, a star who played golf in attire that most other men would wear only as the entertainment for their 5-year-old’s birthday party. But Stewart was always kind of pleased with himself. He was so … put-together. What I love about Sager — what I think we all begrudgingly love — is that this is the only self he has, and it feels utterly, inarguably true. He spent some of March Madness in a marbled suit with the brackets printed on his black necktie. Would anyone else dare? Should they?

Sager is unembarrassable. He knows what he’s doing, and he’s thrilled to be doing it. The occasional highlight of some of his sideline stuff is that way he coolly shares that thrill with whoever’s to his right and then with us.

4. Next, we have CollabCubed to thank for bringing Igor Scalisi Palminteri’s clever Superhero Saints to our attention (and giving us some great image fodder for future posts!), ht JD. And Maria Popova did us a similar favor with these gorgeous vintage Soviet propaganda posters, an alcoholism-related example of which I included above.

5. Then there’s the graduation speech that Liar’s Poker author Michael Lewis gave at Princeton last week, which attempted to expose the illusion of a one-to-one relationship between success and deserving/control. Nice try!

Success is always rationalized. People really don’t like to hear success explained away as luck — especially successful people. As they age, and succeed, people feel their success was somehow inevitable. They don’t want to acknowledge the role played by accident in their lives. There is a reason for this: the world does not want to acknowledge it either.


6. At long last, the LIBERATE website is here! Run don’t walk over to liberatenet.org and then save it as a bookmark. The tagline couldn’t be more sympathetic, “God’s two words for a worn out world.” Congrats to the whole team (Jono Linebaugh, Tullian Tchividijian and Dan Siedell, among others) – it looks absolutely amazing. And yours truly may or may not make a cameo in one of the video conversations… Here’s the wonderful little description they sent out:

LIBERATE’s message is defined by Jesus’ mission: “I have come to set the captives free” (Luke 4:18).

Through the demand of his law, God confronts and condemns people in their bondage and sin; through the declaration of his gospel, God comforts and forgives people with the liberating love of Jesus Christ. We want sufferers to hear these “two words” (law and gospel) so they can believe the promise that frees us from our past of guilt and shame; frees us from the present bondage of bitterness, insecurity, self-reliance, and fear; and frees us for the joy of worshiping God and serving our neighbor.

Our mission is to announce (and then announce again and again) this liberating word to a wounded and worn out world, hoping that the burdened and burnt out, the Christian and the non-Christian, will hear and rest in the freedom that Jesus came, died, and lives to give.

Amen to that! And amen to this:

7. The reviews for Prometheus are in and lordy b’gordy if they don’t have some of us non-acidically salivating. Roger Ebert’s glowing (pun intended) review is particularly exciting. The A/V Club’s too. This is clearly a no-spoiler pre-viewing situation if ever there was one, but to say that there’s a strong theological dimension in the film would be an understatement. Can’t wait to hear what people think of it. On a related note, Slate asks the question of “Why Are Academics So Obsessed with the Alien Franchise?” and some of the answers may surprise you.

Also in film, I got to see Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom last night and am thrilled to report that it is just as fanciful and child-like as the critics have been saying. A special film, folks. And that the beautiful, touching, and utterly non-cynical climax takes place at a church (“St. Jack’s” aka Trinity Episcopal in Newport, RI!) was not lost on this viewer. Cannot wait to see it again! The same applies to Whit Stillman’s Damsels in Distress, the DVD release of which was announced a few days ago for July 31st. I promise that the conspicuous absence of an Mbird review will be dealt with then — Stillman films always warrant multiple viewings before reliable opinions can be formed.

8. I don’t know about you, but I had no idea the Crystal Cathedral started out as a Drive-In. The Atlantic tells us How The Drive-In Movie Theater Helped Create the Megachurch. Wild! (And let’s face it, pretty cool.)

9. In music, the moment we’d all been waiting for did indeed arrive this past Tuesday, when The Beach Boys’ That’s Why God Made the Radio hit the shelves (currently $4.99 on Amazon). The record is pleasant as can be, occasionally even inspired, “From There to Back Again” and “Isn’t It Time” being the two gems which genuinely conjure up some of the old magic. But even the worst tracks are the guilty-pleasure variety. There’s even one truly spine-tingling moment, when the guys sing “Goodbye” in unison on “Pacific Coast Highway.” Later this year apparently brings a boxed set with another round of unreleased rarities–that particular ocean is endlessly deep, it would seem–but as with everything involving the extended Wilson clan, I won’t be counting my chickens til their hatched. A surer bet is the just-announced 3-disc reissue of Michael Jackson’s Bad, coming at the end of September (just in time for the Cville Mbird conference!). The sessions for that record have long been described as incredibly prolific ones, with the more conservative estimate being over 20 unreleased songs in the vault. And if you’ve heard “Streetwalker” you know how good this news is… Don’t be messin’ around!