1) Our friend at The Dish, Matt Sitman, gave a poignant response to the question of Christianity in modern life. As opposed to Rod Dreher’s “Benedict Option”, where stalwarts of Christian virtue create a new community devoid of distractions, Sitman prefers the “Jeremiah Option,” as described by Samuel Goldman, that life as God intended is meant not in escaping Babylon, but in building our houses there. Sitman (hat-tipping our beloved Thornton Wilder) looks to what makes Christianity fundamentally unique anyways—not the stringency of time-honored virtues (many religions honor them) but the power of God to forgive.

Goldman gets at something important here when he notes that adherents to the Benedict Option look forward to “a triumphant restoration of virtue,” rather than the simpler and more humble desire to help the society in which they live. I certainly harbor no longings for Christendom. There’s no golden age I’m trying to restore. While not being uncritical of modern life, I’m not in rebellion against it – and thus don’t seek to escape it. I also resist the notion that Christianity is fundamentally about morality, at least not in the ultimate sense. Christianity is premised tumblr_eastofthegardenon our inability to be moral, and it’s most important idea is that of grace, or God’s one-way love for us, which isn’t premised on how much we have our acts together. So I’m suspicious of religious movements that value purity above all else, which, in a way, I think the Benedict Option does. Withdrawal from mainstream culture can only mean that a desire for purity has trumped the risks of engagement.

But most of all, Christianity teaches us that God is love, that God loved the world and so should we – a notion that I find difficult to square with retreating into a remote community waiting for the world to burn. I actually am hopeful about Christianity’s place in modern life, and seeing the brutality, violence, and indifference to suffering all around us, I can’t help but think the message of Jesus will retain it’s power. But that hope is premised on living in the world, not apart from it, while also letting go of apocalyptic rhetoric and the acute sense of persecution so many Christians feel. One of my favorite passages comes from a letter written by the novelist and playwright Thornton Wilder, where he argued that “The revival in religion will be a rhetorical problem — new persuasive words for defaced or degraded ones.” I’m far more interested in that project, in finding ways to think and talk about Christianity, as well as live it, that avoid the well-worn tropes of American religious life, than I am in waiting out the supposed new Dark Ages.

Sitman’s project, which I’d heartily agree is also my project, reminds me of what we’ve also called the Nazareth Principle, the odd biblical phenomenon that God tends to be found more illuminated in the crap towns and hopeless cases and wretched citizens, than in the likely modalities of what we consider order. In scandalizing mainstream culture, and selecting a way of life that is only liveable in evasion of mainstream culture, one begins to sound a little bit like Jonah, more fearful than faithful, redeemed nonetheless—albeit shockingly—in the belly of the beast.

2) It’s back to school time, as you’ve noticed. We have a couple things here, one funny, one not (supposed to be) funny. The first, funny, from the New Yorker Daily Shouts, a parent’s cover letter to the school registrar regarding any “irregularities” in the health form. Parents, are you anxious? (ht BFG):

In June, Willy took the C.D.C. allergy evaluation at the joint Department of Defense-Homeland Security Facility for Endemic Allergen Testing and Development. Willy is allergic to Korean wailing grass, Georgia red-clay mold, Oxygestocorticol-10, and flan. In your absence, we consulted the school compliance coordinator and, on her advice, had Willy irradiated for Oxygestocorticol-10 and taken to the Tokyo Allergy Institute for a two-week flan-immunity and geisha treatment.

awan_final2…The school-wide Anonymous Bullying and Othering Survey revealed that five students experienced Willy as a trigger. Willy’s presence in school caused classmates to experience trauma in the categories of olfactory insult, uncanniness, and masculinity. We have completed the educational video and workbook “When Your Child’s A Trigger.” Willy will no longer use Axe body spray or the word “ball” during school hours.

My wife and I have decided to participate in two parent-volunteer tracks. The required résumé and statement of purpose are enclosed. Grade-seven mom Radikha St. Clair has already scheduled our orientation for Track D, Road Surfacing and Asphalt. We look forward to learning more about Track F, Human Composting, and have activated our ankle tracking devices to insure the Compliance Bot is able to log our thousand required volunteer hours for the upcoming school year.

The validation overshares go on like this, but I’ll leave it to you to keep reading.

Speaking of which, Slate’s talking a lot about the college trend towards “bloated syllabi”, which is really just another way of saying that the helicopter generation hath come to college. For children of the Age of Affirmation, 50-page syllabi are necessary legal insurance for a professor’s hold on the student’s “optimal educational experience.”

Syllabus bloat is more than an annoyance. It’s a textual artifact of the decline and fall of American higher education. Once the symbolic one-page tickets for epistemic trips filled with wonder and possibility, course syllabi are now but exhaustive legal contracts that seek to cover every possible eventuality, from fourth instances of plagiarism to tornadoes. The syllabus now merely exists to ensure a “customer experience” wherein if every box is adequately checked, the end result—a desired grade—is inevitable and demanded, learning be damned. You want to know why, how, and to what extent the university has undergone a full corporate metamorphosis? In the words of every exasperated professor ever, “It’s on the syllabus.”

… With corporatization came prioritization of the student “customer experience”: climbing walls, luxury dorms, and coursework that is transactional rather than educational. To facilitate the optimal experience for these customers, administrators began to increase oversight of their faculty, which, with an ever-adjunctifying professoriate unable to fight back, became ever easier to do. And so the instructors—wary of lawsuits and poor evaluations that would cost them their jobs—had little choice but to pass that micromanagement on to the students.

3) A new trailer for Better Call Saul!

And, if DZ’s five reasons didn’t convince you, another noteworthy review of Whit Stillman’s Cosmopolitans.

4) A really, well, surprising piece over at The Atlantic about the constraining (liberating?) vow of marriage, in the context of the recent secret Brangelina wedding. Megan Garber talks about the Monomythic trope of the temptress that is Fate (Mr. and Mrs. Smith), of undeniable love (Angelina) that comes frighteningly in the face of commitment. She looks back at Brad Pitt’s marriage to Jennifer Aniston as the subject, but really it could have been Johnny Cash’s love affair with June Carter, or Humphrey Bogart with Lauren Bacall. What is the answer in the oft-times parallel universes of commitment and passion? As much as modern love has often applied the blusher to our expectations, through rom-coms and People features, that when we meet the right one, our spouse is that one-and-only, the Brangelina marriage draws an interesting picture between our mythology of marriage and our mythology of the soul mate.

tv18sun4-07-11-2012-11-11-48-283-We don’t often talk about it, because it’s nicer to emphasize the passion stuff over the practicality stuff, but weddings are paradoxical things. On the one hand—the hand that tends to be emphasized by the literature of religion, and of rom-coms, and of the commercial Wedding Industrial Complex—marriage represents potential: potential for family, potential for the continuity of companionship, potential for, generally, The Future. “‘Til death do us part.” “For the rest of our lives.” “Forever.” Wedding bands are circular not just because of the shape of our fingers, but because of the shape of infinity.

On the other hand, of course, weddings represent the exact opposite of potential. They are, as traditionally imagined, about the foreclosure of possibilities—and, particularly, of the possibility of romance with other people. “The one.” “Forsaking all others.” Etc. This is the subtext of the marriage vow, whether it follows a time-honored script or a unique one: “I am choosing you above everyone else.”

… Which brings us back to that weird photo essay in US Weekly—the one that came after Brad and Angelina were engaged, but before they were actually married. You could argue that what the magazine’s readers really wanted, in their ongoing interest in the couple’s marriage, was a kind of penance from Brangelina. They had forgiven them for what they had done to Jen; they had given them permission to do something they may not be able to have done themselves: to prioritize love over marriage. But they wanted something in return. They wanted the pair, having found each other—having built a family based on each other—to make the same come-what-may commitments the rest of us do. They wanted Brad and Angelina to stand up in front of their family, their friends, and the world to say, “I am choosing you, now. No matter who else comes along later.”

This is highly evocative of the Modern Love bit we covered just this week, of the No-Divorce-clause kind of thinking, the kind of binding decision that allows a deeper kind of love to grow. The columnist wrote that she learned, in twenty-three years of marriage, to find “a soft place to land between the rules we make and the reality we live.” In the fires of Fate, as we Westerners like to think of love (a la First Aid Kit), the vow-less tempers of intimacy have no control gauge, and often the territory seems as wild and unmappable as the Wild West. And yet the world hopes for the loving couple to promise what we hope is promised to us: “You, and no one else, from here on out.” And Graber seems to be saying that that is still the modern hope: Fine, no Aniston, but we want a married-kind-of love, the choosing of someone despite the storms threatening to blow you off course.

We’re out of the office on Monday. Happy Labor Day weekend! Before you grab one last catnap by the pool, or your first bowl of queso before College Gameday, here’s some further reading for extra credit:

Jim McNeely Has a New Book Out!

Infinite Jest by Lego

The Narcissism of Small Differences, Culinary Edition

DZ on Liberate: The Challenges Facing Young Adults

A New Report on Retirement

Oh…and come to Texas with us!