Another Week Ends: One Way Love, Platonic Tennis, Curmudgeon Law, Downton Anti-Snobbery, Ecumenical Shipwrecks, Dr. Hook, House of Cards and Justifiedby David Zahl on Feb 8, 2013 • 5:19 pm 4 Comments
1. The hits just keep on coming. Spring Conference speaker and friend Tullian Tchividjian announced his next book this morning and the title will be familiar to some of you, One Way Love: The Power of Inexhaustible Grace for an Exhausted World. Tullian, of course, is paying tribute to the definition of grace that PZ coined in Grace In Practice. If the rest of the book is at all like the intro (and I have a strong feeling that it is, wink wink), then this is something to be very excited about:
The good news of God’s inexhaustible grace for an exhausted world has never been more urgent… What I see more than anything else is an unquestioning embrace of performanicism in all sectors of life… Performancism casts achievements not as something we do or don’t do but as something we are (or aren’t). The colleges [our] teenagers eventually attend will be more than the place where they are educated – they will be the labels which define their value as a human being, both in the eyes of their peers, their parents and themselves. The money we earn, the car we drive, isn’t merely reflective of our occupation, it is reflective of us, period. How we look, how intelligent we are, and what people think of us is more than descriptive, it is synonymous with our worth. In the performancist world, success equals life, and failure is tantamount to death. This is the reason why people would rather end their lives than confess that they’ve lost their job, or made a bad investment.
This is not to say that accomplishments are somehow bad, or even that they aren’t incredibly important. It is simply to say that there is a difference between taking pride in what we do and worshiping it. When we worship at the altar of performance—and make no mistake, performancism is a form of worship—we spend our lives frantically propping up our image or reputation, trying to do it all, and do it all well, often at a cost to ourselves and those we love. Life becomes a hamster wheel of endless earning and proving and maintenance and management and controlling where all we can see is our own feet. Performancism causes us to live in a constant state of anxiety, fear and resentment, until we end up heavily medicated, in the hospital, or just really, really unhappy.
The Christian church has sadly not proven to be immune to performancism. Far from it, in fact. It often seems that the good news of God’s grace for those who don’t measure up has been tragically hijacked by an oppressive religious moralism that is all about rules, rules, and more rules; doing more, trying harder, getting better, and fixing, fixing, fixing–ourselves, our kids, our spouse, our coworkers, our boss, our friends, our enemies. Christianity is perceived as being a vehicle for good behavior and clean living—and the judgments that result from them—rather than the only recourse for those who have failed over and over and over again. Believe it or not, Christianity is not about good people getting better. If anything, it is good news for bad people coping with their failure to be good. Ask any of the “religious nones” who answered differently in past years, and I guarantee you will hear a story about either spiritual burn-out or heavy-handed condemnation from fellow believers, or both…
It is a terrible irony that the very pack of people that God has unconditionally saved and continues to sustain by his free grace are the very ones who push back most violently against it.
It is high time for the church to honor its Founder by embracing sola gratia anew, to reignite the beacon of hope for the hopeless and point all of us bedraggled performancists back to the freedom and rest of the Cross. To leave our “if’s” “and’s” or “but’s” behind and get back to proclaiming the only message that matters—and the only message we have—the Word about God’s one-way love for sinners. It is time for us to abandon once and for all our play-it-safe religion, and, as Robert Farrar Capon so memorably put it, to get drunk on grace. Two hundred-proof, unflinching grace. It’s shocking and scary, unnatural and undomesticated…but it is also the only thing that can set us free and light the church, and the world, on fire.
2. On a less prophetic but still very relevant note, one of the better philosophical essays I’ve read in ages has got to be Mark Rowland’s “Play the Game: Tennis with Plato” that appeared on Aeon. It starts with a quote from St. Paul and just gets better from there, expounding on the difference between work and play, deferred and intrinsic reward. It’s as articulate and unwitting a description of the difference between a life lived according to the Law (this for that) and one according to the Spirit (this for…nothing)–or in Malickian terms, Nature and Grace–as we’re likely to find, ht MS:
Today’s world is a deeply utilitarian one, where everything must have a use or be ‘good for something’. Our lives are dominated by work and, unless we have been extraordinarily lucky, we work not because we particularly enjoy it but to get paid — payment that keeps us and our loved ones alive for a while and, if there is anything left over, allows us to do something more interesting than the work. Our lives are spent, largely, doing one thing for the sake of something else, which is in turn done for something else.
This is a kind of instrumental thinking. Something has instrumental value if its worth lies not in itself but in something else that it can get you… But there are still some things we do just to do them — for their own sake and not for the sake of anything else. If the former category is work, then the latter category is play. Work is activity directed at an external goal. Play is activity whose goal is internal or intrinsic to it. In its pure form, play has no external purpose or reward.
A life that is taken up with work and nothing else is a life where everything is done for the sake of something else. Value is never found in the here and now. The things that have value lie always just a little further down the road. Such a life would resemble the punishment of Tantalus: condemned to stand in a pool of water, underneath branches of fruit.
3. This morning, George Packer posted “Loose Thoughts on Age and Youth” on The New Yorker site. It’s a beautiful little piece about getting older and the cultural Should’s and Shouldn’ts involved. His observation about parents being at once the most and least selfish variety of human hit home too:
Something unusual stopped me in these sentences from a Times article about a state-by-state study of flaws in the American electoral system: “A main goal of the exercise, which grew out of Professor Gerken’s 2009 book, ‘The Democracy Index,’ was to shame poor performers into doing better, she said. ‘Peer pressure produces horrible things like Britney Spears and Justin Bieber and tongue rings,’ Professor Gerken said. ‘But it also produces professional peer pressure.’”
It almost took my breath away: Professor Heather Gerken, who is in her early forties, felt free to tell a reporter that Britney Spears and Justin Bieber, not to mention tongue rings, are horrible. Gerken broke one of the unwritten rules of being middle-aged: don’t go after the young and what they love. Not in print, anyway. Don’t open yourself up to the charge of curmudgeonliness, because the inevitable retort—“You just don’t get it, Professor! You sound like your parents!”—is probably accurate, certainly unanswerable, and absolutely devastating. Few things in America are less forgivable than getting older.
One of the biggest problems with getting older, other than the place where it’s headed, is a massive projection about the state of the world: by fifty, the obvious fact of your own decline is easily mistaken for an intimation of the world’s. And, since there’s never a shortage of evidence that things are, indeed, worse than they used to be, it’s incredibly satisfying to indulge the idea, and easy to confuse it with a veteran’s seasoned judgment. That’s the impulse you have to resist if you want to retain your credibility while you lose other features.
James Wood’s “Becoming Them” that appeared in the same publication a few weeks ago is another open-hearted reflection on how one’s understanding of and empathy with one’s parents changes with age (as well as, tangentially, the ‘sins of the father being visited upon the son.’)
4. The Wall Street Journal published an interview with Downton Abbey main-man Jullian Fellowes that bolstered my flagging affections for that show, ht BG:
In Britain, he says, “we’ve had a century of being encouraged to dislike each other. And I suppose ‘Downton’ is in a different position to that.” This nonjudgmental embrace of the highborn life has exposed the show to the criticism, leveled widely, that it celebrates Edwardian opulence without due regard for the period’s inequities. Lord Fellowes disagrees. ” ‘Downton,’ I think, has achieved its success for the opposite reason, which is that all the characters are taken seriously,” he says. “I don’t think we patronize the servants, we don’t make them comedic. Nor do we automatically hate the family or regard them as selfish and mendacious and so on.”…
So is Julian Fellowes a fantasist or a fabulist? Does “Downton” offer comfort or critique? I suggest to him that his show is of a piece with the recent slew of stylish TV dramas set in rigid, patriarchal societies: “Mad Men,” “Game of Thrones,” “Deadwood.” “A lot of these stories are about how to achieve your own personal goal within the rules,” he says. “Most of us don’t want to be outsiders. . . . We want our achievements, but we want still to be inside the tent. And you can make that impulse clearer in a world where the rules were clearer. I think it’s still true, actually. But our rules are so nebulous. None of us quite know what they are. It’s like ‘casual chic.’ We don’t know what it is.”
I think the truth of the matter,” he continues, “is either you’re interested in social history or you’re not. The minutiae of behavior, the motives that change our behavior, why we follow certain patterns, the preconditioning of class, the attitudes that are class badges as opposed to the areas where there’s a free vote—all of that I find very interesting, and I’m happy to say, so does the public. Or enough of them. But what I never really understand is the accusation of snobbery. Because I would have thought it was the exact opposite of snobbery. Once you’re analyzing it and trying to understand why people do this and why they are persuaded of that, I would have thought that was anti-snobbish.”
5. Social psychology-wise, The Chronicle of Higher Education published a very interesting article about the controversy surrounding John Bargh’s legendary research on priming and the power of suggestion. There’s quite a bit in there about identity too, ht BZ.
6. Rod Dreher’s “Ecumenicism and Life’s Shipwreck” caught me off guard, casting the recent scandals of the Catholic Church and ecclesiology in general through the lens of this extremely gracious sentiment, ht AZ: “Life is a shipwreck, and we’re all staggering around on the beach, trying to help each other make sense of it all, and get through this catastrophe and find our way back home.”
7. In music, Gawker’s “Dennis, We’ve Been Crying Too Much: Dr. Hook and the Untold Story of the Best Rock Movie Ever Made” is my nomination for best music writing of the year. A story of desperation, beauty, and German television, regular Mbird readers will also pick up on the remarkable Nazareth and the simul iustus aspects. It was a thrill to see Sons of Bill featured in Garden & Gun. Nick Cave’s terrific new album, Push The Sky Away, is being streamed on The Guardian. The AV Club finally took my cue and put together a list of great songs with parentheses in their titles. They missed the boat on the Kings of the Parenthesis: The Chi-Lites. Also on The AV Club, one of their best new columns, Hear This, has highlighted two fantastic songs over the past few weeks, The Muppets’ “I’m Going to Go Back There Someday”, aka the saddest and most absurd song ever sung by a Muppet, and Fleetwood Mac’s “Tusk”.
8. TV round-up: Speaking of “Tusk,” maybe you heard the ridiculously awesome remix of it that soundtracked the opening of the pilot for FX’s The Americans? Somehow the show, thus far, has lived up to that inspired beginning. Highly recommended. Also on FX, Justified is cooking with gas!! Not a single false move yet this season, even in how they handled the Pentecostal scenes (mark my words: that storyline is far from over). The other great pilot of 2013 is the one for Netflix’s House of Cards. Think of it as a slightly more wholesome version of Boss, set on the national stage, and with the rare twist of a husband and wife who actually respect each other. Kevin Spacey is pretty magnetic as Congressman Frank Underwood. Having devoured the first eight episodes in three days, The AV Club, God bless their souls, rightly asks the question, “Could Netflix’s Programming Strategy Kill the Golden Age of TV?”. Finally, I can’t believe we haven’t mentioned the amazing commentaries that Andy Jones of Faith and Geekery has been doing on Firefly this past year.
9. Finally, a couple of Onion articles we almost missed (vulgarity warning in effect): “God Freaks Self Out By Lying Awake Contemplating Own Immortality” and “Horribly Depressed Zookeeper Has Always Had Special Connection With Animals” and “Ask A Boyfriend Who Just Might Dig Himself Out Of Trouble If He Plays This Perfectly“.
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Or get in touch.