1. First off, a timely rejoinder to our many social-media-is-making-us-lonely posts from Paul Miller on The Verge, entitled “I’m Still Here: Back Online After A Year Without Internet”. As the title suggests, Miller unplugged for a solid year, partly as an assignment to try to discover how technology, and the Internet in particular, had affected him (and us) over time. He reports that while the experience was initially incredibly freeing, he eventually found himself right back where he started, i.e. his new habits became just as constraining as the old ones. In theological terms, you might say that Paul’s story is an indelible testament to the fact that one cannot escape the law (or the human condition) by merely changing one’s circumstances. The very thing we once experienced as freedom (at conversion) can often turn into its opposite over time. Technology may exacerbate our tendencies and compulsions–it may make certain appetites easier to indulge and certain gifts more difficult to cultivate–it may even succeed in changing our behavior to an extent, but it doesn’t have the power to purify or corrupt a heart. Turns out that it is not the things outside a man which defile him, ht BPZ:
Everything started out great, let me tell you. I did stop and smell the flowers. My life was full of serendipitous events: real life meetings, frisbee, bike rides, and Greek literature. With no clear idea how I did it, I wrote half my novel, and turned in an essay nearly every week to The Verge. In one of the early months my boss expressed slight frustration at how much I was writing, which has never happened before and never happened since. I lost 15 pounds without really trying. I bought some new clothes. People kept telling me how good I looked, how happy I seemed…
Then, for some reason, even going to the post office sounded like work. I began to dread the letters and almost resent them. As it turned out, a dozen letters a week could prove to be as overwhelming as a hundred emails a day. And that was the way it went in most aspects of my life. A good book took motivation to read, whether I had the internet as an alternative or not. Leaving the house to hang out with people took just as much courage as it ever did… By late 2012, I’d learned how to make a new style of wrong choices off the internet.
It’s hard to say exactly what changed. I guess those first months felt so good because I felt the absence of the pressures of the internet. My freedom felt tangible. But when I stopped seeing my life in the context of “I don’t use the internet,” the offline existence became mundane, and the worst sides of myself began to emerge…
What I do know is that I can’t blame the internet, or any circumstance, for my problems. I have many of the same priorities I had before I left the internet: family, friends, work, learning. And I have no guarantee I’ll stick with them when I get back on the internet — I probably won’t, to be honest. But at least I’ll know that it’s not the internet’s fault. I’ll know who’s responsible…
2. On the other side of the equation, John Lanchester produced some reflections on Google Glass and other so-called “wearable computing” devices for the London Review of Books. As you may know, Glass is capable of recording everything one says or does while wearing it. Your own personal Big Brother in other words, an omniscience which delivers the opposite of the empowerment it might promise, ht CE:
“The whole point of these devices – the reason they work, insofar as they do – is they make you self-conscious about how you’re behaving, and prompt you to behave differently. They notice your being virtuous, where no one else notices (or cares), and so prompt you to be more so. Being self-conscious about how well you’re sleeping surely can’t help you sleep…
The cruder and more obvious problem with Glass is less to do with the user’s self-engagement, and self-withdrawal, and self-whatever, and more to do with the effect on the rest of us. Imagine a world in which anyone around you can be recording anything you say, filming anything you do. We already live in a version of that world, of course – especially in Britain, global capital of the CCTV camera. But you can see a camera or a phone or a tape recorder when it’s held up in front of you. Glass is different. William Gibson tried on a pair briefly at a conference, and tweeted: ‘Expect Google Glass to be reworked into less obvious, more trad spectacles, sunglasses etc, for covert use.’ A racing certainty, I would have thought… It’s hard to get one’s head around the disruptive potential of this omnipresent recording. At the end of an hour’s general chat in a newspaper office the other day, the conversation turned to Glass, and we all replayed the talk in our heads, editing out the bits we wouldn’t have said if it had been possible someone present had been recording everything. The conclusion was we’d have managed about five minutes’ small talk about the weather, followed by a 55-minute silence.
3. Next, as Ethan alluded to in passing last week, Kim Wong Keltner’s Tiger Babies Strike Back, has just hit the scene, and it is exactly what you might think: a first person account of the devastation that Perfectionist Parenting can produce. But it would be of limited consequence if it weren’t accompanied–rather serendipitously–by a new psychology study of “400 Chinese American families in the Bay Area, which seemed to show that children of Tiger Parents had both poorer emotional health and lower GPAs than those of parents who embraced warmer and fuzzier child-rearing strategies.” The correlation to certain attitudes about/responses to religious legalism are uncanny. The Wall Street Journal reports, ht RT:
“All this chasing of straight As, this pushing, pushing, pushing for academic excellence, in a lot of cases, it makes kids start to think their parents only care about who they are on paper,” says Keltner. “And ultimately, they may just decide, ‘If nothing is ever going to please you, why should I even try?’”
[The book includes] Constant. Pressure. To. Succeed. Academically. Do better than your siblings. Do better than your classmates. If no one else is around to serve as a handy rival, do better than you did the week before. And when you’ve reached the theoretical maxima of 100%…do extra work in hopes of encouraging the teacher to add underscores and an exclamation point to the 100%!
“[Shame] actually may be the key to why some of these kids are doing well scholastically,” says [Univ. of Texas psychology professor Su Yeong] Kim. “They may not be close to their parents, but they’re being constantly reminded of the sacrifices they’ve made, and of their filial obligations to bring honor to the family.”
As a result, they may end up succeeding academically. But for some, like Keltner, that can come at the price of self-esteem and psychological well-being. “I got good grades just to get my parents off my back,” she says. “I got top test scores, but I was never encouraged to make connections with other people. And I never felt like I could separate myself from them: They would always say, you’re a part of me, what you do reflects on me.”
4. While we’re on the subject of legalism (and shame), Anthony Bradley’s take on one of its more seductive current Christian guises, “The New Legalism: Missional, Radical, Narcissistic, and Shamed”, struck me as remarkably sound, ht KW:
The combination of anti-suburbanism with new categories like “missional” and “radical” has positioned a generation of youth and young adults to experience an intense amount of shame for simply being ordinary Christians who desire to love God and love their neighbors (Matt 22:36-40). In fact, missional, radical Christianity could easily be called “the new legalism.” A few decades ago, an entire generation of Baby Boomers walked away from traditional churches to escape the legalistic moralism of “being good” but what their Millennial children received in exchange, in an individualistic American Christian culture, was shame-driven pressure to be awesome and extraordinary young adults expected to tangibly make a difference in the world immediately. But this cycle of reaction and counter-reaction, inaugurated by the Baby Boomers, does not seem to be producing faithful young adults. Instead, many are simply burning out.
5. Of course, reactivity is not just limited to the religious world–and it doesn’t get much more outrageous than Gawker’s recent report, “Georgia Man Burns Down Neighbors House Over Unkempt Lawn.”
6. On a completely unrelated note, The Atlantic uses the recent hubbub over David Bowie’s new video to revisit that classic of sacrilegious art, Andres Serrano’s “Piss Christ”, and I was caught off guard–in a good way–by writer Noah Berlatsky’s observations about that controversial piece. I know this isn’t the most appetizing subject, but the closing line is worth the disgust, ht SMZ:
Folks who have never seen the photograph tend to assume, I think, that “Piss Christ” was simply a provocation… The actual image, though, is surprisingly ambiguous. The liquid appears, not green, but red; and the light going through the urine creates a kind of halo around the crucifix. While the title makes it clear that Serrano is mocking Catholicism, the image also suggests that there is something there that the mockery can’t reach. Christ triumphs in his defilement—which seems like a summation of, rather than a repudiation of, the Christian message.
7. In sports, get the tissues ready if you plan to watch ESPN’s story on Landon Powell, a catcher for one of The Mets AAA farm teams. While the network can’t seem to resist a little Oprah-ization, the statement at the 13 minute mark from Landon’s wife Allison is as moving (and credible) a testimony of counter-intuitive Christian joy as one is likely to find, ht WK.
8. As graduation weekend arrives for many schools around the country, the By Way of Beauty blog imagines what novelist Walker Percy might have had to say about David Foster Wallace’s ur-graduation speech, “This Is Water–Or Is It?”
9. Humor-wise, Louis CK’s instant classic “Of Course But Maybe” bit from his recent special Oh My God may be a tad too colorful to post on here comfortably, but the insight and hilarity is undeniable. Elsewhere, the Wes Anderson Bible tmblr is worth checking out, the tagline of which reads “If Wes Anderson wrote the Bible, it would sound like this.” And if the whole “rise of funny women” angle seemed a bit too transparently designed to sell magazines (and boost ratings) when it was initially trotted out a couple of years ago, it is now simply a description of reality, and not just because Frances Ha came out this week. As far as I’m concerned, the three best comedies on television this Spring have been Veep, Happy Endings (sob) and New Girl–all of which are anchored by incredibly talented comediennes–and the highpoint of HBO’s Family Tree pilot was definitely the puppet-handed Nina Conti, as well as this hilarious little gem:
Finally, we were beyond privileged to host esteemed poet and writer Christian Wiman here in Charlottesville this week. It is not often that one gets to spend time with such a great artist and man–I’m not sure how he could have possibly given us more to think about or digest. So an enormous thank-you to everyone who helped make “Wiman Week 2013” such a blast. The recordings of his talk will be up next week, and we hope to post our interview with him by the end of the month. Stay tuned. For those who can’t wait, I don’t think we posted the wonderful profile that the Texas Monthly did of him recently. Or the fascinating little Q&A one of our local weeklies ran.
Also, Mockingbird sent out its big Spring newsletter and appeal today. If you would like to find out more about how you can support what we are doing, please sign up for our mailing list. We need your help! (She, on the other hand, seems to be doing just fine…:)