1. Reflections on Pope Francis continue, with the increasingly-familiar tension between acclamation for the Pope’s compassionate, grace-focused tone and suspicion, from another camp, concerning his lack of doctrinal rigidity. Enter Rod Dreher, the prolific ex-Catholic writer, who published a while back in Time an essay saying the following:

I fear his merciful words will be received not as love but license. The “spirit of Pope Francis” will replace the “spirit of Vatican II” as the rationalization people will use to ignore the difficult teachings of the faith. If so, this Pope will turn out to be like his predecessor John XXIII: a dear man, but a tragic figure.

But just this past week, Dreher demonstrated a somewhat Francis-can humility in re-publishing a letter sent to him by a reader in reaction to the Time essay, in which Rod’s willingness to bridge the ideological gap is almost as touching as the letter itself, and we move pretty quickly beyond political/Roman Catholic territory and into a moving personal reflection, ht DZ:

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You might remember earlier this year reading an essay on this blog, sent in by a reader who wished to remain anonymous. It was his response to my Timemagazine online essay about Pope Francis, in which I said that it was nice that the Pope talked about love a lot, but that what seemed to me like his lack of doctrinal firmness in our Moralistic Therapeutic Deist world. The reader responded with a lengthy letter that was startling and wonderful and knocked me back. I re-publish it below in tribute to the reader, Charles H. Featherstone, who yesterday reached an agreement with a publisher to turn this essay into a book. It will be a great book, I’m certain, and will change lives for the better. What a blessing it is for this blog to have played a small role in bringing this about. What a pleasure it is to bring this news to you:

But there was a dismissive tone to [your Time essay], to your “Yes, God is love, but…” And that bothers me. Because it is no small thing to say, “God is love.” Or “God loves you.”

But they made an outsider of me, those kids, those teachers, those places. High School wasn’t abusive, but I didn’t have many friends. Truth is, I felt unwanted. Really, truly, horrifically unwanted.

And I was angry. Perhaps you know angry, perhaps you don’t. I don’t know. But given all the violence I found myself receiving, I blamed the world I was in, the people who surrounded me, hypocrites all, believing themselves to be so good and yet being so cruel and so callous. I was lucky, neither of my parents was particularly religious, and so God was never a part of abuse. But the Christians I met, meh, most of them were cruel in one form or another. Being Christian didn’t make them kinder human beings…

It was in the midst of that crowd, in the midst of the terror [of 9/11], the death, the destruction, that I heard, not in the way you would hear a voice, but inside my head, “My love is all that matters. And this is who I am.”

I’ve had God in my head before, twice during times of solitary prayer in masjids, and it is terrifying, overwhelming, engulfing…

But you know what? It is no small thing to hear, and to say, in a violent and brutal world, in a world where many easily use others for pleasure and profit, “God is love.” When there has been no real love in your life — and my wife has another such story, for being a pastor’s daughter means little — then the most important question you will ever ask, and you will ever want answered, is “will someone ever love me?” It may be tawdry and sentimental and demand little from far too many comfortable folks who fill churches… In many of the churches I have been in — in rough places, hard places, places full of broken, unwanted people — there is nothing more important than to grab hold of that love and know that despite all the world does and has done, that love is yours.

Apologies for the length, but I wish we could just post the entire thing. It’s incredibly honest and touching, as were Rod’s gracious words about it. It’s certainly a book we’ll be looking out for.

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2. At Salon, Eileen Jones ruminates on the Coen brothers’ new film, Inside Llewyn Davis, and what the film says about the American (cough, human) resistance to failure, our continual need (be it socioeconomic or moral-religious) to be on an upward arc, to project ourselves into narratives of progress and our resistance to the facts which threaten that arc, ht RW:

[Answering a suggestion that Llewyn Davis would succeed after the events of the film], Oscar Isaac laughed at the very idea.  “Llewyn’s stuck on the hamster wheel,” he said cheerfully, adding that maybe he’d wind up giving guitar lessons in Greenwich Village.

Nobody laughed in response. Even the suggestion that a fictional character would fail to make it in America is, apparently, deflating. It was a tough crowd for a Coen brothers film.

Because unlike most other American directors, Joel and Ethan Coen have always been interested in depicting failure. Their new film Inside Llewyn Davistakes such a steady, unblinking look at continuous humiliating defeat, it’s hard to see how the film can find an audience of any size, at least in the USA. Here, we don’t like to think about failure, though it stares most of us in the face every day.

We’ve been conditioned to believe in the power of positive thinking. If we can’t convince ourselves we’re moving Onward and Upward toward success, we’d rather not contemplate our lives at all…

Here is an alternate vision of America in its great era of prosperity. The Coens have made a movie about failure in an era when, the standard pop-histories tell us, nobody really failed. They continue to look at the struggle of those on the margins, at failure among bungling strivers with grandiose dreams. The directors somehow maintain their faith that we’ll actually be interested enough in our own lived experience to appreciate their black comic vision of it.

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And while we’re at it, if anyone ever wondered what Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut has to do with Christmas… well, I still don’t really know. But USAToday’s guide to “Alternative Christmas Movies” is worth a look, especially in some of the movies’ eerie juxtapositions between the idyllic vision of the family of Christmas-time and the weirdness/dysfunction which sort of persists below the surface – even at this ‘most wonderful time of the year’. Before we go to Brene Brown for some relief, this week’s darkest Christmas headline ( /ammunition for lamenters of commercialism) was posted at Gawker.

3. Mbird-hero Brene Brown is at it again, in a particularly Christmas-y video of a bear “emptying himself, and taking the form of a fox”… it’s easy to see grace and com-passion all over her thoughts on empathy, though perhaps her take on ‘sympathy’ is a little strange:

4. This is incredible (can’t wait for the A Song of Ice and Fire version – “Night Moves“? (- “with autumn closing in”…)):

5. The New Statesman published a wheelhouse article yesterday critiquing our obsession with work, which invades even our leisure (speedhikers/powertourists, anyone?) and has become such a constitutive part of identity:

We are everywhere enjoined to work harder, faster and for longer – not only in our jobs but also in our leisure time. The rationale for this frantic grind is one of the great unquestioned virtues of our age: “productivity”. The cult of productivity seems all-pervasive. Football coaches and commentators praise a player’s “work rate”, which is thought to compensate for a lack of skill. Geeks try to streamline their lives in and out of the office to get more done. People boast of being busy and exhausted and eagerly consume advice from the business-entertainment complex on how to “de-fry your burnt brain”, or engineer a more productive day by assenting to the horror of breakfast meetings…

One modern anti-work crusader who cleanly abandons any notion of productivity is Federico Campagna, whose recent book The Last Night is an exercise in poetic dissidence. In seeking their existential justification in work, Campagna writes, “Humans elected their very submission to the throne as their new God.” Those who resist the siren promises of labour are therefore the true “radical atheists” and should be glad also to call themselves “squanderers”, “egoists”, “disrespectful opportunists”, “parasites” and most of all “adventurers”. Campagna explains: “Adventurers, like all humans, live within a dream, in which they try to be the lucid dreamers.” Something like dreaming or idling, it turns out, is also now sanctioned by another arena whose popular rhetoric often lays claim to a kind of religious authority: that of neuroscience.

According to Andrew Smart’s book Autopilot, recent (but still controversial) brain research recommends that we stare vacantly into space more often. “Neuroscientific evidence argues that your brain needs to rest, right now,” Smart declares on the first page. (It took me a long time to finish the book, because I kept putting it down to have a break.)

6. A new Christmas tune came out today by our own Sam Bush – first recording below:

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7. Speaking of productivity, in the self-help category this week we bring you, first, Slate.com’s advice for managers to “Eliminate embarrassment, increase sales.” Rather like 50 Shades of Gray’s less noticeable Kindle version being a hit, recent researchers have found that online ordering for pizza might help because, well, none of us want to look a real human being in the eye and ask for double bacon:

Even in situations where the potential for social embarrassment would appear to be low, fear of embarrassment led consumers to sublimate their true desires, whether for a rarefied French wine or a pizza with extra bacon.

Look for our sister blog, Lutheran Business Tips for Management, sometime around Q3 2014. Just kidding. Also in practical wisdom, The Atlantic gives us “A Psychologist’s Guide to Online Dating“, which looks some at  online dating’s broadening of potential matches while potential reinforcing of surface-level connection. And rounding out our life-advice section this week is the brutal Onion, reporting that “Alarming New Adult Trend ‘Plateauing In Your Career And Relationship’ Sweeps Nation“:

Sources confirmed that plateauing in your career and relationship is merely the latest fad to grip adults in recent years, following on the heels of popular trends such as giving up on your dream of writing a novel, having kids because it’s a box to check, and gradually feeling alienated in your own body after steady weight gain.

8. And at The Federalist, in an illuminating piece, Chad Bird laments the death of the funeral, the need for ‘celebration of life’ services that seem so on the rise, ht TB:

To guarantee that the Celebration of Life dovetails with the desires of the departed, pre-death planning is strongly encouraged. Indeed, it’s almost a must. What better way to have the celebration you want than to plan it yourself? In fact, this is a large part of its appeal. This possibility resonates especially well with that aging, voluminous generation for whom self-determination is the spice of life:  the baby boomers…

Although they may initially appear innocuous, or even attractive, these celebrations represent a dual danger: they perpetuate and even formalize our culture’s egocentrism, and they rob life of its true value by refusing to address its end and the meaning thereof…

If you fast-forward to the end of life you will find euphemisms galore, along with the relatively new formalization of death’s disguise in the Celebration of Life. Whereas a funeral, at least in traditional Christianity, takes death seriously, and balances the truth of grief and loss with the hope of life and resurrection, the Celebration of Life looks neither to the present of grief nor the future of hope, but solely to the past. Its focus is neither faith nor hope but only love of what was lost. And in this case, the greatest of these is not love. Call it a celebration all you want; life is not so much celebrated as death is ignored. Therein lies a great tragedy, for a Celebration of Life is a missed opportunity to understand death aright.

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Further reading: David Foster Wallace biographer D.T. Max writes a brief reflection on DFW as grammarian (ht KW); The Weekly Standard discusses the evolution of profanity and its relationship to various puritanism; people still don’t like Malcolm Gladwell (I for one am uncomfortable with how sympathetic toward him some of his critics make me); Augustine biographer and late-antiquity historian Peter Brown contributes a fascinating (if a bit broad-brush) scan of Christianity’s impact on Roman sexual mores; lululemon psychology is a pitch over the plate for imputation (sort of); and finally, in perhaps the most important piece of new of the week, the entire universe may be a giant hologram.

Very funny, but some profanity: