1. Over at The Daily Standard, writer and lecturer Joseph Epstein asks, “Who Killed the Liberal Arts?” With pre-professional education and a degree of liberal-arts relativizing on the rise, Epstein finds a central problem with American higher education to be the same kind of achievement cult that recent films like Waiting for “Superman” have criticized. Epstein’s phrasing is particularly succinct:

Trained almost from the cradle to smash the SATs and any other examination that stands in their way, the privileged among them may take examinations better, but it is doubtful if their learning and intellectual understanding are any greater. Usually propelled by the desires of their parents, they form a meritocracy that, in Delbanco’s view, as in that of the English sociologist Michael Young whom he quotes, comprises a dystopia of sorts, peopled by young men and women driven by high, but empty, ambition.

2. As a great follow-up to this week’s thoughts on “what it means when misery is meaningless“, Liberate posted an unusually insightful article on the “why” question in suffering – and how the Gospel frees us from it. The article is an excerpt from Tullian Tchividjian’s fantastic new book entitled Glorious Ruin: How Suffering Sets You Free:

…when true suffering comes, all our speculations fall flat. The Why’s of suffering keep us shrouded in a seemingly bottomless void of abstraction where God is reduced to a finite ethical agent, a limited psychological personality, whose purposes measure on the same scale as ours…

Thomas Merton once said, “The truth that many people don’t understand, until it is too late, is that the more you try to avoid suffering, the more you suffer, because smaller and more insignificant things begin to torture you in proportion to your fear of being hurt….

The good news of suffering is that it brings us to the end of ourselves—a purpose it has certainly served in my life. It brings us to the place of honesty, which is the place of desperation, which is the place of faith, which is the place of freedom.

For more on suffering, grace, and meaningful meaninglessness, be sure to check out the Charlottesville conference at the end of this month on Hope Amidst The Ruins.

3. In pop culture, The Master is a week away – and reviews are pretty positive so far. In terms of critical acclaim, it perhaps scores best on the acting duo of Joaquin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman. Grantland is celebrating the two performances in the very human forum of competition: an amusing and timely bout of Hoffman vs. Phoenix as actors, from Boogie Nights and Gladiator to Walk the Line and Punch Drunk Love.

4. Continuing our HBO theme for this week, it turns out that The Wire is really a Victorian novel by the then-popular H.B Ogden. An essay examining the themes of Ogden’s The Wire went viral over a year ago, but The Atlantic this week featured an interview with the essay’s authors, who are also writing a parody of the HBO show, set in Victorian England. There’s an interesting discussion of HBO’s The Wire itself, its relation to tradition, and the economics of the TV series medium:

…there’s no doubt that The Wire is an incredibly complex piece of fiction, that uses narrative in a lot of really interesting ways, and that manages to be persuasive without being didactic. Those are incredibly rare things in any art form, and deserve to be celebrated as high achievements….

So, there are lots of places, particularly visually but also occasionally narratively, that The Wiredoesn’t hold up as well as one might hope for an aspirant to the category of timeless art, but many of those things are a function of the economic necessities of television—quick turnaround, the massive amount of individual hands needed to create filmed media, all of the tens of thousands of decisions that must be made every day a show is in production. So if the show isn’t as visually consistent or flamboyant as a David Lynch film, or occasionally took narrative detours that don’t have payoffs, I think those are forgivable sins…

I also do think that The Wire is bleaker than most of the novels of [Victorian England]. It offers no solutions. Dickens had no solutions for how to change the social structure of London, but he did suggest that kindness and charity had a direct correlation to the improvement of the life of an individual. In The Wire, solutions are a lot less direct and visible than that, which I think is closer to the way real life works.

5. In music news, Bob Dylan’s new album Tempest is finally out! Reviews are predictably positive, and we couldn’t recommend more blogger Lloydville’s track-by-track analysis over at Mardecortesbaja. Also, for a more big-picture review that brings out Dylan’s religious sensibilities, check out Christianity Today’s “The Dark Side of Dylan.”

6. The New York Times Book review has taken on a new book about anxiety by Daniel Smith, entitled Monkey Mind. While the book itself may be a little bit of a mixed bag, it’s encouraging to see the contemporary problem of massive, latent cultural anxiety increasingly brought into the spotlight. Smith’s book oscillates between wit, refreshingly honest personal anecdote, and questions about the nature of anxiety itself. The review is mostly positive, but it’s the most insightful in its doubts, which themselves compose some seriously good observations about anxiety:

The last part of “Monkey Mind” follows Smith as he advances professionally [and personally]…It also recedes a bit from the book’s early mania, though Smith’s resolution of his internal conflicts starts to feel slightly pat. Does he, still in his mid-30s, really believe he has overcome his anxieties to any significant degree? He is only partway through life’s journey and sometimes seems to think he is coming out of life’s darkened, dense wood.

A more interesting issue, perhaps, is how readers, having been trained to accept the author at his most extreme, will feel about the version of Daniel Smith who is older and calmer, or who at least affects calm. This is complicated by the fact that his affliction spurs him to nearly all of his achievements. There’s a tour-de-force section about his fear of writing in which he careers across a field of faintly connected thoughts — a memory of his daughter’s delight regarding her bowel movements, an observation about his graying hair, a quotation from Charles Darwin — insisting that he’s not getting any writing done, all the while producing one of the most satisfying set pieces in the book. Here, and nearly everywhere else, anxiety becomes its own end. That raises a moderately disturbing question: To what degree is Smith’s anxiety a way of rationalizing an aggressive desire that the spotlight not be moved off him until he is done talking? Readers may start to fear that if Smith ever rights himself, he’ll be wronging himself as well, so completely does he depend upon his anxiety for protective cover. It even seems, paradoxically, to produce whatever creative momentum he has, and whatever pleasure he feels: do worry, be happy.

It’s amazing how the bias toward always believing oneself to be coming out of “life’s darkened, dense wood” manifests itself precisely when we’ve been given the gift of confession, introspection, and humility about the past. These narratives of progress themselves have to be adding to our anxiety, don’t they?

7. Wenatchee the Hatchet recently did a piece on “The Sexing Up of Guilt”, an examination of guilt assignation in the public sphere with his characteristic depth and candor. We post it at some length here, but the entire thing is well-worth reading:

The sexing up of guilt is something that has been on my mind a lot over the last six years.  Longtime readers won’t have to wonder very long as to why.  What I am getting at particularly is what I have called a practice of imputing comprehensive guilt by tangential association.  If something angers you then anyone and everyone who doesn’t explicitly oppose that thing in the terms you would prefer has to approve of what has gone on that you disapprove of or, worse, been an active supporter or conspirator in the thing.

The trouble with that is that is that there are times when, as certain prophets used to put it, no one has clean hands.  When Christians cite biblical texts that say “All we, like sheep, have gone astray” or “There is none that is righteous, not even one.” we seem to mean that in some abstract sort of way in which we academically acknowledge that this would be true about us, too, but not in the particular situation in which we found ourselves and opted to exercise our moral indignation.  One person’s legitimate advocacy can be perceived as another person’s cronyism.  One person’s legitimate exercise of authority for the benefit of a community gets perceived as another person’s abuse of illegitimate authority.  One person’s desire to defend due process and review gets described by another person as defiantly working against the interests of an organization.  One person’s desire to have serious discussion of problems in proposed structural changes gets, somewhat notoriously, described as “sinning through questioning”.

One substantial reason the bromide of “there are two sides to every story” rings so hollow for me this year is that if we appreciate the warnings of scripture as being as significant as they are then we should  know better than to automatically put ourselves on the side of the righteous.  The sliding scale version of the law will always exonerate us if we choose to only measure ourselves on a curve while measuring everyone else by the unadjusted standard. I’ve seen more than a few cases in which people who were upset about injustice through cronyism, weight-throwing, judgment, and exclusion were themselves remarkably prone to these things themselves.

8. Bonus: For those who are Herzog-minded, have existentialist leanings, or enjoy watching penguins:

Conference Update: For those looking for free, local housing, it’s still available! Please be in touch with us by this coming Monday if you plan to take us up on the offer – space is running out.

Additionally, Dan Siedell’s session on Hearing Grace in Modern Art will now happen twice, at the 2:30 and 3:30 slots on Friday. Ministry with Little Children will be morning-only.