1. First off, an excellent essay on Apocalypticism over at The Chronicle looks at the psychology behind end-times expectations and fascinations. There’s something endearing about a professed “secularist” having both a real understanding of Christianity and a penchant for pointing out how secular humanists fall prey to the same end-of-history temptations as Christians do (read: William Miller, Family Radio):
I find it harder to mock false prophets, because of the very real fear (of death, nothingness, irrelevance) to which their prophecies speak, and because I’m not at all convinced that secular culture is above their form of self-flattery. We’re living through a dystopia boom; secular apocalypses have, in the words of The New York Times, “pretty much owned” best-seller lists and taken on a dominant role in pop culture. These are fictions of infinite extrapolation, stories in which today’s source of anxiety becomes tomorrow’s source of collapse.
All of this literature is the product of what the philosopher John Gray has described as “a culture transfixed by the spectacle of its own fragility.” Call it dystopian narcissism: the conviction that our anxieties are uniquely awful; that the crises of our age will be the ones that finally do civilization in; that we are privileged to witness the beginning of the end.
Of course, today’s dystopian writers didn’t invent the ills they decry: Our wounds are real. But there is also a neurotic way of picking at a wound, of catastrophizing, of visualizing the day the wounded limb turns gangrenous and falls off. It’s this hunger for crisis, the need to assign our problems world-transforming import, that separates dystopian narcissism from constructive polemic. And this hunger, too, has its origins in a religious impulse, in particular, the impulse called “typology.”…
Typology would be a theological relic were it simply a means of reading Scriptures. But as the literary critic Northrop Frye wrote, it is a far-reaching “mode of thought,” built on the “assumption that there is some meaning and point to history, and that sooner or later some event or events will occur which will indicate what that meaning or point is … that despite apparent confusion, even chaos, in human events, nevertheless those events are going somewhere and indicating something.”…
To a surprising extent, our secular stories of dystopia and collapse rehearse the old story of apocalypse. We own a slate of anxieties that would have been unimaginable to older generations with fears of their own; but much of our literature of collapse suggests that the future will fear exactly what we fear, only in exaggerated form. In this way, our anxieties are exalted. Yesterday’s fears were foolish—but today’s are existential. And today’s threats are revealed to be not some problems, but the problems. Dystopias can satisfy the typological urge to invest our own slice of history with ultimate meaning…
His invocation of typology is especially interesting: if we do have some sense that our struggles lack the world-historical importance we wish to assign them, then we can at least see them as types of things to come. Christianity’s original typology looked backward and forward – Christ the Lamb recalls the Hebrew Exodus, which itself will be fulfilled by the New Exodus of Revelation, etc – but to my mind, at least, ‘secular’ typologies are a bit more shaky because they merely refer to present and future; that is, they’re less explicitly anchored in concrete history. All that to say, the projection of meta-narratives into the future is a self-justification that gives us meaning, and Christianity’s view of the endtimes has often been co-opted by this impulse. It’s surprising how many bestsellers reprise this narrative – The Hunger Games, for instance, projects our materialism and need for entertainment into a morally horrific scenario, only to offer redemption through an avatar who dies and rises…
2. Speaking of Apocalyptic scenarios, but on the absolute opposite end of the spectrum, playing the video game Panzer Dragoon Saga (Sega Saturn, 1998) could answer the age-old Christian question, “How is God present in the World” (alternately, “what does the Holy Spirit do?”) A surprisingly sympathetic, charming, and lucid article on the role of the Spirit this week from The Gameological Society, ht DZ:
Human virtues perfect man insofar as man is naturally moved by reason in the things that he does within or without,” wrote Aquinas on the Seven Gifts of the Holy Spirit. “Hence, in those things in which the impulse of reason is not sufficient, but the impulse of the Holy Spirit is necessary, then a gift is also necessary.” You are the flame inside Panzer Dragoon Saga’s bush. [Really, the whole piece is this good].
3. On a less theological note, Sean Thomas at The Telegraph asks, “Are Atheists Mentally Ill?” About as loaded a question as you could ask for. I’d be hesitant to say that Christianity is a magical recipe for mental normalcy (one of my theological heroes famously did his spiritual warfare in the bathroom), but the point here is just that atheism isn’t a magical recipe, either. In other words, “stop worrying and enjoy your life” is easier said than done:
And I mean that literally: the evidence today implies that atheism is a form of mental illness. And this is because science is showing that the human mind is hard-wired for faith: we have, as a species, evolved to believe, which is one crucial reason why believers are happier – religious people have all their faculties intact, they are fully functioning humans.
Therefore, being an atheist – lacking the vital faculty of faith – should be seen as an affliction, and a tragic deficiency: something akin to blindness. Which makes Richard Dawkins the intellectual equivalent of an amputee, furiously waving his stumps in the air, boasting that he has no hands.
Again, it’s probably a little more nuanced than that – but the Dawkins image was irresistible.
4. In the lit/theology geek-fodder department, a really interesting Internet project contains Melville’s Marginalia, some annotated books by the great author himself, featuring some regional history, another author’s whale tale, a Matthew Arnold volume and, interestingly enough, the New Testament. As far as I can tell so far, faith and predestination seem like interests of his, but it’s probably not the most thoroughly-annotated Good Book out there.
5. In sports, Alex Rodriguez got some attention from the Episcopal Bishop of Georgia, Scott Benhase. ESPN last week ran a segment pointing out the absurdity of choosing A-Rod for the scapegoat of a much wider problem (did anyone see him take that hit in the Red Sox game?), but Bishop Benhase’s (brilliant) observations go further:
While not a psychologist, I would think that someone like Mr. Rodriguez, upon being told his baseball acumen was worth $252 million would find that anxiety-producing. How could he possibly prove every day that he was worth that much? The “law” (in the Pauline sense) crashed down on him. Could he ever be good enough (perfect?) to justify such compensation? The performance enhancing drugs were his solution…
Mr. Rodriguez’ life were the internal fear that he’d never be good enough and the external demand from a voracious public that he prove he was worth his contract. Those two combined to produce a predictable outcome…
Alex Rodriguez merely reflects back to us in our own Narcissus pool the world we’ve created for ourselves. The “law” that tells us we will never have/be enough is simply killing us. Only grace can save us.
6. Speaking of “law” and atheist mental illness, my favorite headline of the week comes from The Daily Beast’s book review: “Barbara Fredrickson’s Bestselling ‘Positivity’ Is Trashed by a New Study.” Of course, self-help’s a little too easy a target but, since we’re all self-helpers to some degree or another, might as well hear the Beast’s thoughts on it:
If you take the “positivity self-test” on the website for Positivity: Top-Notch Research Reveals the 3-to-1 Ratio That Will Change Your Life, a book by psychologist Barbara L. Fredrickson, the results page will tell you that “Dr. Fredrickson’s research indicates that a positivity ratio of 3 to 1 is a tipping point. This ratio divides those who merely get by in life from those who truly flourish.” My “positivity ratio” wasn’t even close to 3 to 1. It wasn’t even 1 to 1. I’m a bit negative. I’m merely getting by.
(A standard for flourishing? We may’ve heard this one before…)
The authority and allure of mathematical specificity is great, and it’s doubtful that Fredrickson and Losada’s 2005 paper would have racked up such a huge citation count without it, or that Random House would have been so keen to ink a book deal with Fredrickson, or tout the “top-notch research” about the “3-to-1 ratio” in the subtitle of the paperback edition of Positivity…
The rest of the article is pretty interesting, too – a good bit about the current (and perhaps perpetual) impossibility of quantifying emotions, but I think an equally interesting direction would be exploring why we want to quantify in the first place, and maybe admitting that positivity is, for the time being at least, well-beyond our abilities to either predict or control.
7. Hard to escape theology this week! But in pop culture, Nick Pinkerton gives a deeply thoughtful (and positive!) review of Paul Schrader’s new film, The Canyons. The article as a whole is remarkably insightful and sheer pornography (ha) for any film buffs, so well-worth a read, with the warning that the article’s profanity is apropos to its subject matter:
A far more esteemed movie-of-the-moment, 2010’s The Social Network, ended with Jesse Eisenberg’s Mark Zuckerberg left alone in his triumph, waiting for an ex-girlfriend to confirm his Facebook “friend” request, anxiously refreshing the page. It’s a poignant little “Rosebud” reveal explaining the lonesome secret of Aaron Sorkin and David Fincher’s Web 2.0 Kane, but the line “She seems happy, even if she’s, like, totally faking it” and The Canyons itself, get deeper into our fear of what we’re becoming. “Transparency” is just another word for reflection, a narcissist’s hall of mirrors. A culture of “reconnecting” and “keeping in touch” becomes a surveillance culture where, when being happy ceases to seem like an attainable goal, we settle for reassuring ourselves that no one else is any happier. It’s true the movie is cold; true it’s populated with self-serving dolts. So why, here, is it suddenly so heartbreaking?
Bonus: Some classic Mbird-y psychology of law in parenthood and child-raising would be one way to read The Atlantic’s account of the Craigslist serial killer (ht GP), The Chronicle gives death, and the need for immortality, another look (ht WP), a very provocative article asks if young neo-Calvinists are the new religious right, and The Atlantic reexamines workaholism.
Girls takes a step toward promotional self-parody (but we’re still really excited for season 3):
And, to wrap it up, a (somewhat violent) trailer in which Christopher Walken’s character devises a thoroughly ridiculous way to bring in the endtimes: