1) A particularly Lenten roundup this week, starting with this very beautiful, concise reflection from Will Willimon over at OnFaith, called “Good News! You’re a Sinner and Lent Is Here,” which deals primarily with the deep relief that comes in knowing yourself as a sinner. (Reminds us a little of someone we get to meet in NYC this spring, who has spoken quite frankly about the “cruel optimism” of our contemporary world.) The truth is, more often than not, the scandal of the Christian faith is not merely the nature or existence of God, but the sin of humankind—and the tremendous relief that that brings. I’ll leave the rest to Dr. Willimon, who has an amazing Karl Barth nugget in there (ht MS):
Years ago, we had the popular spiritual writer Thomas More come to speak at Duke. More is a very nice man who believes that we are all rather nice people, and if we just learn to think about ourselves as he thinks about us, we would be ever so much happier. On the way out of More’s rather vague self-help homily, I encountered a woman who said to me, “I’m so glad next week is Ash Wednesday.”
Glad for Ash Wednesday? I pressed for more. She responded, “You don’t know me that well, but I was the victim of sexual abuse by a relative when I was a young teenager. Spent years in therapy trying to get over it. Pop-spirituality and feel-good religion were just no help to me. That’s why I’m glad that we are coming to that time of the year when the church makes us put all the injustice, sin, blood and guilt on the altar and forces us to look at it and let God deal with it.”
Rejoice. It’s Lent. This is when the poor, old, bumbling church courageously reminds us of the joy of letting go of our illusions about ourselves. We offer our lives not to a God with high standards of conduct, but to a God who loves us as we are and forgives the worst in us.
My favorite theologian, Karl Barth, said that “only Christians sin.” He meant that only Christians know the joy of a God who forgives and thus can be frank about their sin. There is a sense in which awareness of God’s grace comes before, and not after, true and honest repentance. The person who doesn’t know a gracious God can never be truly honest about sin.
Sit quietly for a moment and dare to delve into today’s horrific headlines – or, if you really want to be bold, consider your own selfish, cheating little heart — and you are liable to be overwhelmed, defeated by guilt and shame. An honest look at yourself leaves you only one option: self-deceit.
Outside the academic/ecclesial realm, the offending philosophy is often called the “self-esteem movement,” of which Medium provides us a history, starting with the anthropological optimism of Carl Rogers and Abraham Maslow and Nathaniel Branden, and moving to a story of American psychologist Roy Baumeister, and the reality of his own family’s life that impelled him to work and study against it (ht TB).
It was then that his critical break with the movement came. “Everybody said low self-esteem was a big cause of violence because people with low self-esteem were aggressive,” he says. “But I knew from my lab work that they’re actually shy and unsure of themselves. They don’t want to take chances or stand out. They do what other people tell them. None of that sounds like they’re going to be aggressive.” Intrigued by the apparent contradiction, Baumeister attempted to chase down the source of the idea that people who hit out do so because, deep down inside, they feel bad about themselves. “Everybody who said it cited somebody else, so I’d look up the previous source, and they’d also cited somebody else. That’s when I realized there was no evidence for it.”
He remembers feeling surprised: “It would be easy to do that experiment. The fact that there was nothing made me suspicious.” He began to wonder; to theorize. “It’s not thinking badly of yourself that causes aggression. It’s when other people think badly of you. That’s where it all goes horribly wrong.”
In 1996 Baumeister, now teaching at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, co-authored a review of the literature that concluded that it was, in fact, “threatened egotism” that lead to aggression. Evil, he suggested, was often accompanied by high self-esteem. “Dangerous people, from playground bullies to warmongering dictators, consist mostly of those who have highly favorable views of themselves,” he wrote.
It was an astonishing theory because it ran counter to everything that society and the experts who inform it had been saying for years. It wasn’t low self-esteem that caused violence: It was when self-esteem was artificially high.
2) The guys at Grantland sat down with Jason Katims to talk about, you know, how much we cry watching his shows, and why that is. And his answers are remarkable. Turns out, Mockingbirds, there’s a lot of crying in the writer’s room, too. Full hearts:
The stories in Parenthood are so much the stories of of our lives. And the people who have worked on the show feel very connected to these characters. And so much of the writers — and the actors and the directors — are in these characters. It’s that kind of show. It feels very personal. So absolutely, when people are pitching stories in the room — including myself! — you know, it’s not atypical for someone to get emotional. And when that does happen, I think those tend to be stories that I gravitate to.
By the way, it also happens in the About a Boy room. Obviously, About a Boy tonally is different. But people get emotional. There’s a ton of laughter, but we want to find the emotion and the heart in these stories. I want the stories for About a Boy to always be relatable and about something, even though it’s totally in a different world than Parenthood. It’s something that we aspire to, to find these stories that people connect to. And, inevitably, that happens when writers connect to them, too.
Two Oscar voters privately admitted that they didn’t see “12 Years a Slave,” thinking it would be upsetting. But they said they voted for it anyway because, given the film’s social relevance, they felt obligated to do so. The film’s distributor anchored its awards campaign around the line “It’s time,” easily interpreted as an attempt to exhort members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences into voting for the movie because it was the right thing to do.
3) Pope Francis, at it again. This New Yorker piece confronts the superheroic aura given to the man, and the “man” he still wishes to be, a pastor of a parish. Amy Davidson remarks, though, that the expectations are stacked upon him.
“I am a priest. I like it,” Pope Francis said in an interview with Corriere della Sera, ahead of the first anniversary of his election. He likes calling ordinary people on the phone—he mentioned an eighty-year-old widow he talks to every month. But does he like being Francis? There are more people to embrace; that appeals to him. The first year of his reign has been about the shock of the Pope—one who seemed holy in the way that people like best. He wanted the poor to have more; he didn’t just love the idea of them. He didn’t think he could judge gay priests. He has been embraced as a figure of fascination and celebrity; that can be disorienting and, perhaps sooner than one would like, disappointing on both sides. “You have said that the Francis-mania will not last long,” the Corriere della Sera interviewer said. “Is there something in your public image that you don’t like?” The Pope replied, “I don’t like the ideological interpretations, a certain ‘mythology of Pope Francis’”:
If I’m not wrong, Sigmund Freud said that in every idealization there is an aggression. Depicting the Pope to be a sort of superman, a type of star, seems offensive to me. The Pope is a man who laughs, cries, sleeps calmly and has friends like everyone. A normal person.
4) If last night’s Community was any indication, this season is bringing back seasons 2 and 3-like glory. Greendale gets to beta test the new hot social media ranking app, which lets users rank anything and everything, and all of our favorite law-based tropes come out to play. The pressure to perform and maintain a high ranking, the fear that being yourself will result in a low ranking, addiction to control and image manipulation—they’re all there! (ht BJ)
Oh, and did you always wonder what you had missed out on with Little Feat? Not to worry.
5) Rod Dreher brings some profound (and, yep, Lenten) reflection on the Auden piece we highlighted last weekend, that was released in the New York Review of Books. He uses the story to talk about humility, but mainly the “icy clarity” of the contradiction of the human heart that accepts it.
It seems to me that when you are face to face with the reality of human beings, it becomes hard to judge with icy clarity. The genial grandfather who was a terrorist in his youth: his character is both things. His gentleness and kindness in old age does not obviate his ferocious villainy in his youth, but nor does that villainy obviate the sweetness in his late character. One has to hold both things in one’s judgment simultaneously, and that is hard, and even painful. So we come down on one side or the other to dispel the anxiety. Doing so also relieves in ourselves the anxiety that comes from examining our own character, in humility. Sure, we think, we have our faults, but at least we’re not like Them.
Auden seems to have been afraid of this moral complacency and capacity for deception within himself. About ourselves, so should we be. What is so unnerving about the genial grandfather who was once a terrorist is his palpable humanity. If he can be both things, and be unaware of the contradiction, then what, absent humility, is to prevent us from the same fate?