1. First off, Larry Taunton at The Atlantic has spent the last few years working through the whole “New Atheist” thing from the perspective of traditional Christianity, in particular listening (!) expansively to many committed, thought-through atheists. A nice round-up of his observations appeared this past week, with lots of food for thought, ht EB:

deconstructing_harry_ver2Slowly, a composite sketch of American college-aged atheists began to emerge and it would challenge all that we thought we knew about this demographic. Here is what we learned:

They had attended church

Most of our participants had not chosen their worldview from ideologically neutral positions at all, but in reaction to Christianity. Not Islam. Not Buddhism. Christianity…

They felt their churches offered superficial answers to life’s difficult questions

When our participants were asked what they found unconvincing about the Christian faith, they spoke of evolution vs. creation, sexuality, the reliability of the biblical text, Jesus as the only way, etc. Some had gone to church hoping to find answers to these questions. Others hoped to find answers to questions of personal significance, purpose, and ethics. Serious-minded, they often concluded that church services were largely shallow, harmless, and ultimately irrelevant. As Ben, an engineering major at the University of Texas, so bluntly put it: “I really started to get bored with church.”…

The decision to embrace unbelief was often an emotional one

With few exceptions, students would begin by telling us that they had become atheists for exclusively rational reasons. But as we listened it became clear that, for most, this was a deeply emotional transition as well. This phenomenon was most powerfully exhibited in Meredith. She explained in detail how her study of anthropology had led her to atheism. When the conversation turned to her family, however, she spoke of an emotionally abusive father:

“It was when he died that I became an atheist,” she said.

First, there’s the myth of rationality, exposed – the journey toward the belief system based on rationality was still fraught with emotional difficulties and biases and past hang-ups; then again, the journey toward Christianity isn’t always as rational as we’d often like to believe, either. It just goes to show that emotional biases and rational limitations (Rm 1:21, 7:15) are evenly distributed.

To play Dawkins’ advocate, though, the Church is certainly complicit, at times its own worst enemy. The story Taunton presents isn’t the familiar Christian tale of parents not taking kids to church and giving them too secular an education; no, in most cases Christianity had several years as a voice of authority in their lives, and then they turned away:

If churches are to reach this growing element of American collegiate life, they must first understand who these people are, and that means listening to them.

Perhaps the most surprising aspect of this whole study was the lasting impression many of these discussions made upon us.

That these students were, above all else, idealists who longed for authenticity, and having failed to find it in their churches, they settled for a non-belief that, while less grand in its promises, felt more genuine and attainable. I again quote Michael: “Christianity is something that if you really believed it, it would change your life and you would want to change [the lives] of others. I haven’t seen too much of that.”

Of course, Taunton’s implicit point seems a cut against what one might call “Liberal Protestantism” [not in the Am. political sense], and his solution seems to be taking the Bible and its creeds and moral imperatives more seriously. Which is all well and good, except Church inauthenticity can take the form of moralism, too – not just disinterestedness. All that to say, even in the realm of apologetics, grace might just triumph over judgment, if the sources are to be trusted…

2. Speaking of irrationality, we at Mbird used to frequently cite irrationality expert Jonah Lehrer… until he become enmeshed in a scandal about plagiarism and fabrication. But being a corner-cutting expert on human corner-cutting–there’s something delightfully authentic about it. And his latest book, perhaps unsurprisingly, takes his low anthropology to the next level:

Jonah Lehrer, the disgraced writer who resigned from The New Yorker after he was discovered plagiarizing and fabricating material, has sold a book to Simon & Schuster that uses his journalistic misconduct as a case study of the mysterious and redeeming power of love…

“I feel the shiver of a voice mail message,” he wrote in the proposal, “A Book About Love.” “I listen to the message. I have been found out. I puke into a recycling bin. And then I start to cry. Why was I crying? I had been caught in a lie, a desperate attempt to conceal my mistakes. And now it was clear that, within 24 hours, my fall would begin. I would lose my job and my reputation. My private shame would become public.”

“Careers fall apart; homes fall down; we give away what we don’t want and sell what we can’t afford,” he wrote. “And yet, if we are lucky, such losses reveal what remains. When we are stripped of what we wanted, we see what we will always need: those people who love us, even after the fall.”

His reach toward a language of grace is just-palpable here, and the shift from low anthropology to personal confession/breakdown to the power of love “after the fall” couldn’t be more promising.

3. In the most thought-provoking pop culture piece this week, The Atlantic reports that “Icons matter, people don’t.” Our fascination with movie/book/TV characters and celebrities is always one of the most interesting daily-life examples of the human impulse toward vicarious substitution (c.f. JMG’s wonderful piece on “Imaginary Meaning“). According to this piece, modern superheroes don’t allow for as much empathy as we may think, ht WTH:

escapist3…the fiction and art that is at the center of much of our current pop culture experience doesn’t lead, and doesn’t seem intended to lead, to a better understanding of real people. Rather, this fiction and art seem designed to supersede real people…

Stories like Dark Knight Rises or Star Trek Into Darkness teach the same lessons that Siegel and Shuster learned, or that the guy who plays Thor is learning. You don’t matter, and your neighbor doesn’t matter, and the folks way over there on whom you occasionally drop bombs don’t matter either. What matters are these soulless, hollow, fungible icons, and the assurance that they will continue forever as around them all the mere humans effervesce like ghosts. This art isn’t about empathy or love. Instead, it’s about worship, about pledging fealty to our invented, charismatically uncaring, gods. Our corporate fictions offer the blank joy of not caring, whether about creators, actors, strangers, or ourselves.

“The blank joy of caring.” There’s a lot to this article, and in a largely post-religious, in some ways post-nationalistic age, sources of meaning must come from largely uncomplicated, simple good-vs.-evil narratives of triumph (for what it’s worth, Argo’s triumph beating out Zero Dark’s moral complexity could be symptomatic of this). But the article perhaps misses the moral complexity of the most resonant modern superheroes… Batman’s aestheticization of weakness partly explains his contemporary commercial success, as opposed to the simple, near-invincible, wholly-good Superman. So where’s the line between empathy and an ultimately fungible worship? We’ll all be watching with bated (sub-zero) breath for Man of Steel reviews…

4. To backtrack to the whole New Atheism thing, it seems the Church’s task (if there is one) is to navigate between a slide into total relativism and indifference, on the one hand, and taking-ourselves-too-seriously self-righteousness, on the other. And for this, cue Christian Wiman, whose timely, beautifully-written My Bright Abyss recently received an insightful review in the New York Times. If there’s a way forward… there’s a good chance this is it:

Wiman is relentless in his probing of how life feels when one is up against death. In his desire to “speak more clearly what it is that I believe,” he recounts how, after long wandering, he sought to reclaim his religious faith. He understands that he is not recapturing the faith he had as a child, noting that “if you believe at 50 what you believed at 15, then you have not lived — or have denied the reality of your life.” With both honesty and humility, Wiman looks deep into his doubts, his suspicion of religious claims and his inadequacy at prayer. He seeks “a poetics of belief, a language capacious enough to include a mystery that, ultimately, defeats it, and sufficiently intimate and inclusive to serve not only as individual expression but as communal need.” This is a very tall order, and Wiman is a brave writer to take it on…

The idea of the artist as heroic loner, he decides, is for him merely an anxiety that has become dangerously useful. Coping with his cancer has drawn him closer to other people, and also to the Jesus who suffered on the cross. “The point,” he writes, “is that God is with us, not beyond us, in suffering.”

In reflecting on the meaning of Christ’s passion for his own life, Wiman finds that it reveals that “the absolutely solitary and singular nature of extreme human pain is an illusion.” It is the resolutely incarnational nature of the religion that draws him in. “I am, such as I am, a Christian,” he writes, “because I can feel God only through physical existence, can feel his love only in the love of other people.”

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5. In the just-can’t-make-it-up department, NY Daily News reported Wednesday that “Co-hosts of radio show ‘The Pursuit of Happiness’ committed suicide.” There’s a lot there, obviously, about the spuriousness of self-help… but these are real people, and it would be tremendously insensitive to extract prematurely any theological messages (though ironies are apparent). For more on the epidemic, go here and here.

6. In humor, Law, and confessionals, Jen Hatmaker at The Huffington Post admitted to being the “worst end of school year mom ever.” In a burst of candidness, she admits the stress and paralysis from the spillover of demands on children into demands on mothers, ht MS:

Teachers, we need to make a deal that after April testing, we don’t have to do anything else. You don’t. I don’t. I don’t care if you watch movies in class five days a week and take four recesses a day. I mean, Caleb had to bring an “About Me” poster with five school days left in the year. In September, this might have produced something noteworthy, with pictures, perhaps, even some thoughtful components to describe his winning qualities, but as we’ve used up all our bandwidth, we yanked trash out of our actual trash can, glued it to a poster, and called it a day. I am not exaggerating when I tell you this is the very most we can do on May 29th. This is our best work:

2013-06-03-Calebsfavorite-thumb

I want to live in your imaginary world where my failure to do the School Stuff doesn’t mean our kid is the only one not wearing a purple shirt or didn’t have his pictures in the slideshow or didn’t bring in a handmade card for his teacher like every other student. I’ll just ‘blow it off’ and our kids can work it out with their therapists later.

7. In music, The New York Times Magazine interviewed Billy Joel about Elton John, Joel’s career, rehab, and a dozen other topics. It’s a must-read for Joel fans and, well, still a pretty interesting piece if you’re not one. Some highlights:

A.G.: Do you miss writing popular music?

B.J.: No.

A.G.: Why not? Is it too much effort?

B.J.: No, no, no, it’s not because of the effort. I got tired of it. I got bored with it. I wanted something more abstract, I wanted to write something other than the three-minute pop tune even though that’s an art form unto itself. Gershwin was incredible, Cole Porter was incredible, Richard Rodgers, great stuff, Hoagy Carmichael and John Lennon, the three-minute symphony. For me, it was a box. I want to get out of the box. I never liked being put in a box.

A.G.: Nice box to be in.

B.J.:Very nice box to be in for a while, but then it becomes like a coffin [c.f. Axl Rose]…

A.G.: Over the years you talked a lot about being angry about how critics responded to you and would even on occasion read and rip up bad reviews onstage.

B.J.: That never went away. I read things, and I didn’t think they were fair or true. I would get my back up. There could be seven other very good reviews, but I only paid attention to the bad ones. I would say, “Did you see what this guy said about me?” Maybe it was a Long Island thing. We had a chip on our shoulder…

8. Check out our own DZ’s talk on LIBERATE, on “Law and Grace in Culture”, with Dan Siedell below.

And, also at LIBERATE, there’s Nick Lannon’s wonderful article on competition.

Bonus: Danish musical performance has really outdone itself this time, taking top honors in the absurd, immensely entertaining Eurovision 2013. Mind the drummers.

And the latest vintage ribbon-dancing disco video, featuring Trinita, ht JAZ: