1. In TV: Game of Thrones continues with a strong fourth season, despite some controversy on Sunday as it plumbed the worst of Martin Luther’s incurvatus in se (sin as being “curved-in on oneself”) in a scene horrific even by GOT standards. In animated television, it’s recently come to our attention that Rick and Morty on Adult Swim is absolutely brilliant, ht SA, if you have a high threshold for (lots of) ribaldry. Its first season has been perhaps the most creative in recent TV memory, as a boy (Morty) is dragged along into bizarre sci-fi escapades by his grandfather (Rick), a mentally damaged man whose search for meaning impels him into a desperate search for what Walker Percy called “news from across the sea” – in this case, from across the boundary of the dimensional plane, or something like that. I’m reminded of JAZ’s remarkable post on Italo music, which finds theological significance in synthetic vocals: “the voice of a robot obviously represents the (foreign/alien) word of the Gospel, a revelation, the word from outside.” All of which to say, even for a show with little theological content, it can draw the viewer – along with Rick - way outside her/himself. If that’s not enough by way of advertising, Community showrunner Dan Harmon is a co-creator.

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While we’re on the subject, conferring “most creative” title on any animated show besides Adventure Time is tough to do. Just this week, The New Yorker‘s Emily Nussbaum weighed in on the brilliant cult animation:

Adventure Time” is one of the most philosophically risky and, often, emotionally affecting shows on TV. It’s beautiful and funny and stupid and smart, in about equal parts, as well as willing to explore uneasy existential questions, like what it means to go on when the story you’re in has ended.

If that sounds pretentious, there’s definitely a simpler way to watch the show: as a cartoon about a hero who fights villains, with fun violence, the occasional fart joke, and a slight edge of Bushwick cool-kid hipness…It’s a dreamlike experience, and a druglike experience, and we all know how much people enjoy hearing other people describe those. (Luckily, each episode is eleven minutes long, so this is not the same as when your friends were nagging you to watch “The Wire.” Five late-season episodes should suffice.) But that’s part of the show’s most freeing quality: childlike, nonlinear, poetic, and just outside all the categories that the world considers serious, it’s television that you can respond to fully, without needing to make a case for why. 

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At worst, people could accuse these shows of being absurd, distracting, and utterly untethered from real life. Such an accusation would be mistaken: these shows are certainly “foolishness to the world”, as Nussbaum points out. But sometimes it takes something truly liminal to break through the daily ruts of Luther’s homo incurvatus, and – as with Rick and Morty, sometimes you don’t even realize you’re dealing with your own need to distract yourself with space aliens until you see (spoiler alert) that Rick’s been dealing with it all season. By cloaking themselves as the farthest possible thing from the real world, these shows gain a strange freedom to explore gut-level issues. The Gear Wars, it turns out, were never about the gears.

Rounding out TV, by far this week’s most Mbird-relevant phenomenon was Wednesday’s episode of The Americans. What happens when a brutal Soviet spy has an unexpected run-in with a mild-mannered Jesus? Apart from bringing up echoes of Philip Wylie’s Opus 21well, it’s a startling episode of grace in practice, ht HE:

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Philip wanders between despair…until he shows up at the church, not in disguise, but looking like a man who means business. And we know already what tends to happen to people who see Philip Jennings’ face after he has done something bad, and it seems not impossible at all that he might do some fatal harm to Reverend Tim, or anyone else unfortunate to cross his way…

There’s a moment where Philip comes to look at the painting of Christ on the church wall, and it seems like we might be in for some “Two Cathedrals” action of Philip taunting the great and powerful Christian deity. But that’s missing the point. Philip does not believe in the existence of God, of an afterlife, of any of the concepts that his daughter is, to his great frustration and bewilderment, turning to for comfort. He has no need to vent his anger at a character who is as real to him as Bugs Bunny is to you or me. But he is looking for… something, anything, to become the outlet for all fury, and instead all he finds is the gentle, patient clergyman, who speaks to him of God’s forgiveness but also of the more earthly matter of getting Philip’s temper under control. And the words don’t do a thing to ease Philip’s pain, but they at least seem to break the spell he’s under and send him out of the church without incident.

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2. In religion, three worthy posts. First, Nick Lannon at Liberate delivers a reflection on Portlandia‘s trendy-church parody, “Church Is an Option“:

The woman at the well in John 4 came there because she was thirsty. She knows she’ll have to come back the next day, and the day after, and so on. Jesus, though, offers her living water which, if she drinks it, means she will never be thirst again. To her credit, the woman says, “Sir, give me this water!” (v.15)

In the video, Father Timothy puts church on the same list as “massage, yoga, spa, acupuncture, exercise, Chinese medicine, meditation, reflexology, therapy, reading, vitamins, colonics, sleep, and rolfing.” Those things can be sources of peace, and he wants you to know that church is an option, too. What Jesus is saying to the woman at the well, though, is that all those other things will leave her thirsty again. Those waters for her soul will provide peace and tranquility…for a time. But then, she’ll need to come back for more. The peace and tranquility that the church offers—the Good News about Jesus Christ and his atoning sacrifice for sins—will satisfy forever.

A massage can make you feel great; but can it make you feel accepted? A colonic can make you feel clean, but can it wash your soul? Only knowing that your worth, value, and identity are secure in the perfect righteousness of another can provide peace that can’t be shaken by the circumstances of this world.

The New York Times also provided an interesting piece on Barbara Ehrenreich, a veteran journalist born into a rationalist, hyper-scientific family who had strange mystical experiences as a child. Her new book, Living with a Wild God, sounds fascinating; unfortunately, the Times‘s coverage unintentionally exposes some less-than-helpful traits of the public conversation about religion, ht DZ:

living-with-wild-god-ehrenreich“Try inserting an account of a mystical experience into a conversation, and you’ll likely get the same response as you would if you confided that you had been the victim of an alien abduction,” she says. One of these reverberating experiences occurred in her early teens at a horse show in Massachusetts. “Something peeled off the visible world,” Ms. Ehrenreich recalls, “taking with it all meaning, inference, association, labels and words. I was looking at a tree, and if anyone had asked, that’s what I would have said I was doing, but the word ‘tree’ was gone, along with all the notions of tree-ness that had accumulated in the last dozen or so years since I had acquired language.”…

Ms. Ehrenreich, an atheist and a skeptic, goes in search of what these early experiences — they mostly stopped as she grew into adulthood — meant and mean. She becomes “intellectually prepared,” she says, “to acknowledge the possible existence of conscious beings — ‘gods,’ spirits, extraterrestrials — that normally elude our senses, making themselves known to us only on their own whims and schedules.” We have, she declares, “made ourselves far lonelier than we have any reason to be.”…

Yet this book contains some of her loopiest writing as well. “You have to admire rocks,” she writes, in a not atypical passage, “holding out as best they can against all the forces of dissolution, the wind and sea spray, and I was determined to establish some sort of intimacy with this one.”…

Kingsley Amis once said that religion and masturbation were alike in one regard. Feel free to practice them, that is, but no one really wants to hear you go on about it.

It’s heartening to see a skeptic trying to make room for mystical experience; unfortunately, her decades of credibility-building writing more traditional books doesn’t quite seem to have earned her the credence/patience to write a book like this. Telling someone to read Charles Taylor has become an annoying cliche in religious circles, but still… if Ehrenreich wants to find beauty in rocks, reenchant or reanimate things of the world, make space for something beyond human empiricism, possible or theoretical, I’m not sure why anyone should cast doubt on her, or insist it’s a private affair. At the very least, her strange teenage experiences do suggest our intellects or powers of deduction aren’t unlimited, and that could be comforting. It seems a glimpse into some higher reality than the world we live in should no more be kept to oneself than a scientific breakthrough should… but most likely, few will be convinced.

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And finally, Rod Dreher wrote an introspective, confessional, and touching reflection on Dante’s Divine Comedy, charting the movements of repentance in the Commedia and how Dante, reaching across the centuries, reprised those movements in Dreher, the reader. For the short version, refer to the unfortunately-titled WSJ adaptation, “The Ultimate Self-Help Book: Dante’s ‘Divine Comedy’”, ht DJ:

I read on in that first canto, or chapter, and stood with Dante the pilgrim as wild beasts—allegories of sin—cut off all routes out of the terrifying wood. Then, to the frightened Dante’s aid, comes the Roman poet Virgil:

‘It is another path that you must follow,’

he answered, when he saw me weeping,

‘if you would flee this wild and savage place.’

So Dante follows Virgil—and I followed Dante. I did not know it in that moment, but those were the first steps of a journey that would lead me through this incomparable 14th-century poem—all 14,233 lines in 100 cantos—through the pits of Hell, up the mountain of Purgatory, beyond space and time to the zenith of Paradise—and out of my own dark wood of depression…

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What neither Dante nor the reader yet understands is that even though the damned concede that they belong in Hell, they all refuse blame for their downfall. As the pilgrim and his guide move through Hell, Dante must learn not to fall for the self-justifying stories of the condemned because to do so is to minimize in his own understanding the seriousness of sin. Francesca’s explanation of her fate is self-serving and self-deceiving.

3. This: arguably the best TED talk in a few months, in which David Brooks asks, “Should you live for your résumé … or your eulogy?”. Some choice quotes (full video below), ht WL:

Adam I wants to conquer the world. Adam II wants to hear a calling and obey the world. Adam I savors accomplishment. Adam II savors inner consistency and strength. Adam I asks how things work. Adam II asks why we’re here. Adam I’s motto is “success.” Adam II’s motto is “love, redemption and return…

We happen to live in a society that favors Adam I, and often neglects Adam II. And the problem is, that turns you into a shrewd animal who treats life as a game, and you become a cold, calculating creature who slips into a sort of mediocrity where you realize there’s a difference between your desired self and your actual self…

Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone;therefore we must be saved by love. No virtuous act is quite as virtuous from the standpoint of our friend or foe as from our own standpoint. Therefore we must be saved by that final form of love, which is forgiveness.”

4. In pop culture, yesterday Vince Mancini for Uproxx penned a devastating review of Heaven Is for Real (the movie), pointing out the sad correlation between religious credibility and moral fiber, ht MS:

[The film's characters suffer] a broken leg and kidney stones. At first I couldn’t figure out what… these plot points had to do with anything, but I now suspect they were a way to tell us that “God never gives you more than you can handle.” And who better to deliver this message than a guy with no real problems!? Even his son’s near-death experience seems little more than another way for Todd Burpo to demonstrate his will to overcome adversity…

At one point, Todd’s daughter, Cassie Burpo is playing jacks or catching butterflies or engaging in some other… Rockwell pastime at school when a couple of young toughs hit her in the head with a rubber ball. “Hey, Burpo!” they goad. “We heard your brother got to ride on Jesus’s pony!”

To which the young Burpette screws up her face, rolls up her sleeves, and decks them both. Later, at home, when Todd gets the phone call from the angry principal, he turns to his daughter asking, “Cassie, haven’t we talked about turning the other cheek?”

“I did turn their other cheek. When I hit ‘em,” she says.

At this, people in the theater cheered with delight. This entire film is wish-fulfillment not for Christians, but for Christians with an intense persecution complex. And if there was any doubt that the filmmakers shared my fellow theatergoers’ point of view, Todd Burpo’s wife asks him, “Todd, are you going to talk to her?”

“Yeah,” he says, “I’m going to teach her how to punch so she doesn’t hurt her hand.”

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If the existence of that scene isn’t the most depressing thing I’ve heard all week, then I don’t know what is. Todd may well have been granted a vision from God – I have little knowledge of the complex criteria Christians have historically used to assess the validity of these experiences, but as far as I know, there’s no compelling reason to disbelieve him. The New York Times columnist criticizing Barbara Ehrenreich’s book (above) expresses skepticism about her mystical experiences. But scientifically-motivated skepticism seems less of a threat to the credibility of mystical experience than the way Christians weaponize those experiences for service in culture wars.

Also in pop culture, this week’s dark humor award goes to the recently released Everybody Dies, a mock kids’ book for adults. Jillian Steinhauer at Hyperallergic has the definitive take, ht JF:

Everybody Dies, published by HarperCollins, is clearly inspired by the children’s classic Everyone Poops, which was first published in Japan in the late 1970s (Tanaka was, according to his self-stated biography, raised in Japan). That book is a lovable and plotless compilation of text-and-picture pages featuring animals and humans, designed to teach children about pooping; Everybody Dies generally follows the same format, except its goal is hammering home the reality of death. ”EVERY living thing must someday die,” proclaims the first page (a worm crawls underneath, saying, “I’m not afraid”). Both books make you laugh, but the latter does it with an added twinge of despair…

It is actually quite fun, though. The art is bright and colorful (most pages are washed in yellow, orange, or some combination of the two), with a goofy comics-meet-illustration style that perfectly complements — by undercutting — the content of the book. And the periodic whack of sadness or existential angst you might feel can be offset by marveling that, yes, they went there.

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5. Wilhelm Keitel was a top-ranking German Field Marshal sentenced to death during the Nuremberg trials for Nazi War Crimes. When read his sentence in the courtroom, he kept his composure: as a professional soldier, he was familiar with capture and imprisonment and trial. Death in the line of duty – as German top brass would likely have considered it – was an occupational hazard. So Keitel, either convinced he had just been following orders or, perhaps, more cognizant of his guilt, kept his poker face up until the moment a chaplain offered to pray with him in prison, ht JD:

They sank to their knees in Keitel’s cell, and [Chaplain Henry] Gerecke began to pray in German. Andrus’s words must have triggered in Keitel the realization that his life was over, because his soldierly demeanor was suddenly shattered. His voice faltered. His prayer trailed off. He began to weep, then sobbed uncontrollably, his body jerking as he gasped for air. Gerecke raised his hand above Keitel’s head and gave the general a final benediction. Most likely it was Martin Luther’s favorite, from the book of Numbers: “The Lord bless you, and keep you; The Lord make his face shine on you, and be gracious to you; The Lord lift up his countenance on you, and give you peace.” Then the chaplain was called to the next cell, and he rose to his feet.

The uncanny ability of a chaplain, especially one bearing a word of grace, to break through a stolid, long-ingrained military demeanor is one of several remarkable stories about Henry Gerecke, profiled this week in Religion and Politics. The article’s account of Gerecke’s role in the Nuremberg trials is by turns a word of comfort to sinners, an account of a St. Louis pastor placed in extreme circumstances, a model for evangelism, and a moral stumbling-block difficult to circumvent:

article-2577470-1C16B8E600000578-238_634x679The U.S. Army was asking one of its chaplains to kneel down with the architects of the Holocaust and calm their spirits as they answered for their crimes in front of the world. With those images of Dachau fresh in his memory, Gerecke had to decide if he could share his faith, the thing he held most dear in life, with the men who had given the orders to construct such a place.

Fritzsche wrote later:

“Pastor Gerecke’s view was that in his domain God alone was Judge, and the question of earthly guilt therefore had no significance so far as he was concerned. His only duty was the care of souls. In a personal prayer which he once made aloud in our queer little congregation he asked God to preserve him from all pride, and from any prejudice against those whose spiritual care had been committed to his charge. It was in this spirit of humility that he approached his task; a battle for the souls of men standing beneath the shadow of the gallows.”…

After studying the sacrament during the first months of the trial, Keitel asked Gerecke if he could celebrate Communion under the chaplain’s direction. The general chose the Bible readings, hymns, and prayers for the ritual and read them aloud. He kneeled by the cot in his cell and confessed his sins. “On his knees and under deep emotional stress, [Keitel] received the Body and Blood of our Savior,” Gerecke wrote later. “With tears in his voice he said, ‘You have helped me more than you know. May Christ, my Savior, stand by me all the way. I shall need him so much.’” After reaching the top of the thirteen steps of the gallows, Keitel was asked if he had any last words. “I call on the Almighty to be considerate of the German people, provide tenderness and mercy,” he said. “Over two million German soldiers went to their death for their Fatherland. I now follow my sons.”

6. Miscellany: This week’s Flannery O’Connor award for religious grotesquerie goes to The Huffington Post‘s account of a young man in Italy’s tragic death following the collapse of a gigantic crucifix erected for the canonization of Pope John Paul II. Meanwhile, the A.V. Club reports that the forthcoming Ben-Hur movie will be “extra Jesus-y“, The New Yorker illustrates the power of the subconscious with regard to lie detection, and Christian Rap moves “from one degree of glory to another” (second below), ht JAZ .