1. If anyone thought that medical records couldn’t be riveting and deeply touching, you’re not alone. But George Scialabba, an acclaimed thinker, writer, and book reviewer, voluntarily posted his psychiatric medical history in the current issue of The Baffler. Apart from the courage and vulnerability  such a move shows, as well as the compassion for fellow sufferers which presumably undergirds his release, Scialabba’s post offers a curious mixture of elements as a reader: self-reproach for such intimate voyeurism combined with a feeling that you’re really seeing yourself; wonder at how far short even highly accomplished people can fall far short of the mental health ideal; anger at a church which seems to have contributed to his problems, but regret at the loss of faith, purpose. Anyway, the entire thing is very well-worth a read, especially if you sometimes get that Wednesday afternoon feeling of existential aimlessness or struggle with doubt (read: everyone), but some relevant quotes below, ht MS:

‘He describes his mother as having been dominating, although very nervous, and his father as a timid, weak man. Father held an office job and mother was a stitcher. There is one brother who is taking night school courses at Suffolk Community College and works in the Public Works Department. Thus, the patient greatly exceeded the level of the success of his family, simply by going to Harvard and doing well there.’

‘I wonder whether part of his subsequent decline is attributable to oedipal fears which his success represented. He now has multiple fears of losing control, which he fantasizes would result in his becoming passive, being unable to hold a job, going on welfare or into a hospital and not being able to take care of himself. This may be a regression prompted by his earlier successes.’

He describes having wanted to be a priest from second or third grade, and such a role was highly respected within his community…

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‘He has come across a number of articles that say cognitive therapy has the highest success rate, he has read Feeling Good and one or two books by Aaron Beck, although he was rather scornful of these and still is. He is sympathetic to psychoanalytic ideas, but he has been humbled by these depressions…’

‘For the past 15 years, he has been in literary criticism, written about 150 book reviews, won a national award. However, it is not the same as having a career, and he still feels kind of disabled. On a micro-level, he has always been very obsessive, fretful, replaying decisions, defensive, and feeling he has to defend himself against imagined threats, although he has never been delusional or psychotic…’

[Scialabba now, commenting]: Since early 2013, I’ve been depression-free. A good therapist has helped, as well as a few sweet professional successes. A doctor once cautioned me that after three major depressions the probability of a recurrence approaches 100 percent. She didn’t say how soon, though. Hope springs eternal.

One can imagine how surreal it would be to read an objective (or, at least, much more objective than one’s own self-scrutinies) account of one’s own problems, dysfunction. And the perhaps-implicit parallel between the therapist’s office and the Church here isn’t the first one that’s been made: come out of need, receive a diagnosis, be prescribed a treatment, and… run the other way. The fear of downward meritocratic mobility looms large here, the child of promise / Harvard contrasted with a “timid, weak man” one wants to avoid becoming… you see the forces of self-expectation producing paralysis, etc. But there’s also the notion of the both-and: “For the past 15 years, he has been in literary criticism, written about 150 book reviews, won a national award…. On a micro-level, he has always been very obsessive, fretful, replaying decisions, defensive, and feeling he has to defend himself against imagined threats, although he has never been delusional or psychotic.” Cracked vessels, indeed, and articles like this which help normalize persistent, ongoing and far-reaching psychological problems should be deeply valued. You wonder if his Opus Dei mentor is proud.

2. That really was the best thing on the ‘Net this week, so sorry to dwell on it, but Damon Linker, one of the few talented and sympathetic writers on religion out there, published a great meditation at The Week occasioned by Scialabba’s confessional. “Is Devout Faith a Blessing – or a Curse?” – and we’d have to say it’s a blessing but, well, a complicated one.

For one, faith can serve as a crutch – I know someone who had trouble talking to girls and found in a then-fashionable preacher’s gender-heavy message the means to disarm them of their intimidation, to banish his own self-consciousness. Sometimes, too, it inhibits growing-up in general; people spend their lives in a nice cocoon, with easy answers to all the deep problems, and then faith drops away – they’re floundering and lost. Some, like Scialabba, suffer immensely at the hands of ‘Catholic guilt’, even though Evangelical guilt dominates more and more headlines. Linker describes the seeming ambiguity well:

The experience of devout faith is naturally very different from the inside. Relieved of the lonely burden of individual choice and decision, shielded from anxiety and ambivalence, released from the need to reflect from scratch on every moral quandary, confidently oriented in all aspects of life toward steadfast, clearly enumerated metaphysical truths — living and thinking and acting from such a standpoint can feel like its own form of liberation…

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But what about a third group — the one in which George Scialabba is an unhappy member?

This group is filled with people who are unceasingly restless for God, whose deepest and highest hopes point toward transcendence of the merely mortal world, but who either never manage to acquire faith — or, perhaps even worse, enjoy it for time but then lose it…

For someone like that, unable to reconcile himself to the disenchantment of his own world, faith — its promise, its withdrawal, its absence — can become a source of the purest misery. Even a curse.

Worse, a curse backed up by a taunt, echoing continually in the former believer’s mind: “You’ve seen the Truth. If you now reject it and turn your back on God, the fault is yours alone, and you will suffer for your sins. Indeed, your depression is merely a finite taste of the agony you will reap in a hellish afterlife of eternal punishment.” [Or a less specific, more nagging guilt, absent hell.]

Against these existential-spiritual agonies, modern medicine deploys talk therapy and Prozac. No wonder the results are mixed.

As for the rest of us, secularists seemingly so much more content than George Scialabba with our lack of faith, we are left with a puzzle worth pondering: Was Augustine deluded about the ultimate source and aim of our unceasing, anxious restlessness?

Or are we?

It seems that no one chooses to lose faith; it’s almost oxymoronic, as is choosing to develop faith. The first is suffering and the second, as Christian Wiman (and Jesus- Mt 10:39, 19:21) points out, is a form of suffering, too. And anyone, it seems, who has developed faith can remember that dizzying time when all lesser anxieties faded in the face of a higher purpose, a new calling, a freedom… and then the old feelings come creeping back in, and the member of the “third group” (less discrete than Linker implies, one guesses) is surprised to find that though the heart has found “rest in thee”, the restlessness keeps on. (Sidenote: Augustine’s famous quote should always be read in regard to the eschaton or afterlife; though it’s commonly misconstrued.) But even as a curse of discarded faith hanging over one’s head, you wonder: Jonah found God’s pursuit terrifying and vengeful, but the pursuit, and the overtaking, were marked by mercy. Yet another ambiguity to defer til (much) later. And since we’re overdoing the commentary already, it’s also worth remembering that blessing/curse aren’t inversely proportional; for the those far along in faith, that “inarticulate pang” of yearning for “the same receding shores” (Stevens) is greater, not less – with Mother Teresa’s confessions as the best recent example.

3. While we’re doing the Christian thing (and the sympathetic secular writers thing), Emma Green’s latest at The Atlantic, a profile of ‘Evangelical’ (read: super-Ev.) Christian wives and sex, is pretty interesting, and almost as voyeuristic as Scialabba’s piece:

But “how you have sex, when you have sex, the amount of sex you have, when you have children—even the smallest act within an evangelical marriage can have these larger-than-life meanings,” said DeRogatis. “How you have sex within marriage is incredibly important for you as a Christian, and also as a form of witnessing.”…

In much of the evangelical literature DeRogatis explores, the tone defies stereotypes about Puritanical sexual mores in the Christian community. “…Many American evangelicals have come to believe that good marital sex is not just ordained by God, but is healthy and leads to strong self-esteem, financial prosperity, and heightened spiritual awareness,” she writes… One author, Marabel Morgan, suggests women should try setting up different scenes and creatively using props, such as a trampoline, to initiate sex.

“The message of this multi-million dollar publishing industry is clear: Evangelical Christians have the best sex,” DeRogatis writes.

Green relies a little more on ‘DeRogatis’ than she should; the only thing worse than Evangelical Christians being castigated as self-righteous puritans would be the sort of patronizing ‘ant farm’ (Stillman, below) view that DeRogatis seems to be taking. But some of the description still holds true: the seeming attempt to overcorrect for decades of repression and denigration of the body, a more pop form of the increased focus on bodily resurrection, working with one’s hands, and cultural engagement that’s current in many seminaries and pulpits. DeRogatis may be wrong to sharply divide between this new embrace of sex and the old puritanism; though there’s a change in tone, one can almost hear the Law of Good Sex, as well as that same ‘us vs them’ (the best sex) creeping in. There should be better ways to celebrate something good than linking it up so closely with Christian identity and that old preoccupation with ‘ought’ – still, the willingness to converse about it and the openness on the topic is welcome.

4. At Vanity Fair, author Bret Easton Ellis penned an unusually caustic essay about ‘millennials’ – a typecasting buzzword I apologize for reinforcing here – which he calls ‘generation wuss’, critiquing us as a Gen-Xer. But for an angry person treading well-trodden ground, it’s surprisingly good. A few highlights below:

Our reality compared to Millennial reality wasn’t one of economic hardship. We had the luxury to be depressed and ironic and cool. Anxiety and neediness are the defining aspects of Generation Wuss and when you don’t have the cushion of rising through the world economically then what do you rely on? Well, your social media presence: maintaining it, keeping the brand in play, striving to be liked, to be liked, to be liked. And this creates its own kind of ceaseless anxiety. This is why if anyone has a snarky opinion of Generation Wuss then that person is labeled by them as a “douche”—case closed. No negativity—we just want to be admired. This is problematic because it limits discourse: if we all just like everything—the Millennial dream—then what are we going to be talking about? How great everything is? How often you’ve pressed the like button on Facebook? The Millennial site Buzzfeed has said they are no longer going to run anything negative—well, if this keeps spreading, then what’s going to happen to culture? What’s going to happen to conversation and discourse? If there doesn’t seem to be an economic way of elevating yourself then the currency of popularity is just the norm now and so this is why you want to have thousands and thousands of people liking you on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Tumbler—and you try desperately to be liked…

Ellis is certainly right about the allergy to negative feedback, the silence after your reply-all opus on an email thread or the occasional blog post which the Web treats with stonefaced indifference. Not that his luxuriously ironic ‘Gen X’ (again, these labels are annoying but unavoidable) is off the hook – if anyone pioneered simpering disaffection as a substitute for sharing suffering; if anyone pioneered irony as a substitute for real engagement with hard truths, it was those guys. Still, it does seem like we’re in a cultural quandary, and we may be in a bigger one once my generation’s running the show. The content is actually pretty sympathetic, despite his tone. In particular, the connection to needing to prove oneself, absent the old economic security (was that actually a thing?), brings the question around to even more well-trodden territory: identity, self-justification, validation.

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5. Apologies for all the negativity. Falling back into a comfortable irony, The Toast contributes a list of Reformational videogame wordplays (Grand Theft Auto-Da-Fé! Mass’s Effect!) (ht JD), as well as a list of Songs You’ll Never Hear on a Sufjan Stevens Album (“The Gender Of The Person I’m Singing About Isn’t Ambiguous At All”, “This Dying Bird Is Not A Christ Figure”) (ht MS). As far as comfortably post-modern irony goes, Mallory Ortberg’s as good as it gets, and a recovering fundamentalist, to boot. The Onion also made us laugh with a classic study on self-justification, our aversion to criticism, and how it impairs relationships: “Man Tentatively Takes Shot At Bad-Mouthing Girlfriend’s Family For First Time”:

MANCHESTER, CT—Following an evening out at a local restaurant with his girlfriend, Emily Lynch, and her parents, 27-year-old Jeff Platt reportedly worked up the courage Thursday morning to tentatively take a shot at bad-mouthing her family for the first time. ‘So, your mom’s kind of got a lot of strong opinions,’ said Platt with an audible note of hesitancy in his voice, anxiously sitting on the edge of his seat as he waited for any reaction that might indicate Lynch’s receptiveness to the criticism leveled against her mother for dominating the dinnertime conversation and refusing to admit she was wrong—traits that Lynch herself had vocally condemned numerous times before. ‘She’s definitely, you know, never afraid to say what’s on her mind.’ Sensing from her nonverbal cues that he had crossed a line, a panicked Platt is said to have quickly spun his assessment of Lynch’s mother into a positive, saying that his girlfriend and her sisters were lucky to be raised by such a strong-willed woman.

6. At CT’s Behemoth, Mark Galli writes an excellent article about Christ as the friend of sinners, trying to steer a middle course between hedging the grace of God (‘a Christian should only spend time with sinners if they aren’t actively sinning’ – ??) and making grace into a new law (examples probably abound a very few clicks away). Highly recommended in its entirety, but excerpts below:

Let’s remind ourselves about grace, with no ifs, ands, or buts. While we were sinners, Christ died for us (Rom. 5:8). Not repentant sinners. Not sinners open to hearing the gospel. Sinners—just sinners—were died for, none of whom had a clue about it. For God so the loved the world (as it is—sinful) that he gave his son (John 3:16). The Word become flesh and dwelt among us sinners (John 1:14).

Some conclude that if Christianity is mainly about following Jesus, then of course, we have no choice now but to fellowship with notorious sinners and in the most sinful of places.

But contrary to popular assumptions, Christianity is not about following Jesus’ example. That is not the defining characteristic of Christian ethics. Loving your neighbor as yourself is the essence of Christian ethics, according to Jesus…

He notes calling Peter Satan, atoning for our sins, and cursing the fig tree Christ-like things we probably shouldn’t attempt, among others. Anyway, continuing:

The gospel is good news. It is the announcement that God loves us, has become one of us, has died in our stead, has forgiven our sin, has reconciled us to him—is indeed the friend of sinners! Why should we not form friendships so that we can share this revolutionary news? To enter into a relationship to convert someone to my way of thinking, yes that’s a problem. To enter into a relationship to get another to adopt my religion, yes that’s a problem. But if in befriending someone we tell them the most extraordinary news in history—that strikes me as about the most loving thing one can do. It’s to be a friend to sinners…

In the meantime, we can let Jesus be Jesus, and grace be grace. And we can trust that when we too fall into a judgmental spirit, or try to hedge the gospel with a new law, there is grace to cover that as well.

In terms of evangelism, it might be worth adding that the Good News has acquired a rather bad reputation, and mostly for good reason – the newsmen have over-editorialized, laid claim to more authority and power than a messenger should have, the newsmen have lined the page with ads in the marginalia selling all manner of bizarre ideas and agenda, much of it (directly or indirectly) self-serving. Which isn’t to say we shouldn’t evangelize, only that a parallel task is disassociating the News from the moralistic gunk that has accreted. Sometimes, the best way to do that may be not to evangelize at all. Anyway, Galli’s appeal makes room for all that; for the messengers, as well as their opponents and putative listeners, all starts and ends with forgiveness, and we still need that news as much as anyone.

Bonus links: Social psychologists, who study behavioral bias, aren’t (surprise) immune to it, argues Jonathan Haidt; Stephen King still mostly believes in God (and wants electric guitar in church), according to an NPR interview (ht SZ); Anglophones finally have an approved rite of exorcism; and the Onion delivers more dour goodness with a parody of throwing compliments at sufferers. A news Sainsbury’s Christmas ad has received some criticism for commercializing war memories, but I daresay it still works as a powerful illustration of grace in practice (ht TB), and a new H.R. Giger documentary looks cool, albeit weird:

 

ALSO, our book store was having some technical struggles for a while there, but it’s back up! Check it out here.