“Pot-bellied pigs have been wildly unfashionable since 2005. Owning a pot-bellied pig is frowned upon almost as much as being a Christian.”

1. These are the words of Erlich Bachman in the most recent episode of HBO’s Silicon Valley, perhaps the funniest show on television at the moment (Veep being its main competition). They come after Erlich has heard a pitch from a tech start-up that he’s considering investing in, a Christian dog-sharing company(!). Before launching into the pot-bellied pigs riff, he tells the two would-be entrepreneurs, “Besides, I’m sure you know that Christianity is borderline illegal in Northern California”. It’s a lot funnier in context than it sounds on paper. No persecutory intent or unattractive self-pity, just shoot-from-the-hip business-speak. If you’re looking for a more family-friendly version, the pilot of Jim Gaffigan’s new show revolves around this same stigma–and includes some truly top-notch Bible/church humor. Healing even.

gaffiganBachman’s words and Gaffigan’s jokes have been echoing in my mind this week, following the report of the new Pew survey on religious affiliation. The findings are arresting but not surprising. The one that’s naturally made the most headlines is the continued rise of the religiously unaffiliated in the US. According to the survey, 70% of Americans identify as Christian in 2014, down from 78% in 2007. But the majority of new “nones” are not in fact disenfranchised Evangelicals (those numbers have held solid), but former mainliners, Protestant and Catholic alike. One of the better breakdowns of the data I’ve read is from Ed Stetzer over at CT. His main finding being:

Christianity isn’t dying and no research says it is; the statistics about Christians in America are simply starting to show a clearer picture of what American Christianity is becoming—less nominal, more defined, and more outside of the mainstream of American culture.

For example, the cultural cost of calling yourself “Christian” is starting to outweigh the cultural benefit, so those who do not identify as a “Christian” according to their convictions are starting to identify as “nones” because it’s more culturally savvy.

A few thoughts of my own on the findings:

  • All of the data revolves around how we self-identify, and if ever there was a quagmire, it has to do with identity politics in modern America. All of the terms that we use to label ourselves are more loaded than they ever have been. Certainly there is a shift going on, but part of it could be that people are retreating from capitalized identifiers across the board.
  • That said, and this could just be my experience, but I find that people in mainline circles are much more likely to identify as Presbyterian or Episcopalian than “Christian”. That word has clearly come to signify something more than Gentile or baptized or even churchgoer. The political connotations are well-known.
  • Interesting implication that mainline churches no longer include Evangelicals. You’re either one or the other. Which has not always been the case. I’m sure the blame for this perception/reality is shared by both sides, but I’d wager it’s not a good development in terms of overall church health.
  • I know it’s a useful term, but the word “nominal” rubs me the wrong way. It suggests gradations, as though we aren’t all “nominal” in some sense (Mk 9:24). The more accurate way of phrasing what is meant is that Christianity has lost whatever social cache it once had. Except for a handful of select locales, people no longer come to church or identify as Christian to get ahead or fit in. In fact, more often the opposite is true, as Bachman’s words and Gaffigan’s sketches indicate. Power as a driving factor should not be discounted. Neither should generational differences.
  • EP5_BTS_452_RMany within the church spin this decline as a good development–that people are simply being more honest/precise, and the church gets healthier as those who are coming for the wrong reasons take off. “A smaller but more engaged core is better for all involved”, etc etc. Certainly that’s true in some cases, but it also sounds like a rationalization. A casual connection to Christianity is not necessarily a bad thing, so it’s sad if that’s no longer seen as an option. I for one know more people who have gone from “nominal” to committed than from “none” to committed. Lay aside the moral and literary (and musical!) framework someone gains via “cultural Christianity”, when we spin this as a positive thing–the church is only for the “committed”–we belie a deep concern for internal purity as opposed to, you know, reaching people. Then again, I’d rather have people come to church freely than because they feel they compelled to. So who knows.
  • While the increasing disinterest in mainline worship probably has as much to do with vapid theology and high-anthropology sermons as anything else–to say nothing of larger cultural and intellectual trends–I wonder how much of the decline is a function of busyness as well. Busyness that not only crowds out schedules but prevents people from ever thinking about, well, death. The pronounced age-ism of our society may not be wholly at fault here, but it certainly isn’t helping things.
  • Also, while more doctrinally diffuse churches can provide a safe entry for seekers/sufferers, one wonders if any church where people go primarily for “a sense of community” will be able to inspire much commitment over the long haul (or rebellion, for that matter). Inertia is more likely to be the rule of the day.
  • That said, from where I’m sitting, the Christmas/Easter Christian seems to be alive and well. Thank God–since those are two days when we are most likely to hear Good News. Regardless of how someone identifies themselves, I’m grateful the Story has a power of its own and always will. God isn’t put off.
  • Speaking as someone who works in and around (and cares about!) mainline denominations, what I lament most about these developments is the decline of verticality in worship. And yet, it’s an encouragement, perhaps, that Mockingbird is right where we need to be. I don’t have any solution to this other than the one we’re pursuing at the moment: engaging people where they actually live, which, by and large, is online. A renewed emphasis on Law and Gospel can’t hurt either.
  • Of course, none of these polls say anything about practical religiosity, and seeing that graduation weekend is upon us, it’s worth remembering that Everybody Worships.

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2. Got a little carried away there! But Exhibit A of that last point would have to our relationship with work. In an interview with The Atlantic about her new book The Tumbleweed Society: Working and Caring in an Age of Insecurity, Allison Pugh spelled out what’s outstripping religion as the most important identifier in our land. No surprise here:

Rebecca J. Rosen: A central premise of your research is that work is about more than money—it’s also about identity and relationships, particularly within a family. How does work shape us beyond our bank accounts?

Allison Pugh: Work is a wellspring of identity in the United States. There’s been a lot of good research showing that Americans use the notion of hard work to separate themselves from others. It’s how rich people distinguish themselves from the middle class, how the middle class distinguishes itself from the working class, and how men distinguish themselves from women, particularly care-giving women. It’s like each of these different social groups is looking at others and saying, “Yes, but we work really hard.”…

What that does is it makes involuntary job loss all the more painful. Because it’s not just about interruptions to your income. It’s not just about, “Oooh, wow, we had plans to save for retirement, or to buy a boat, or to put our kids into school.” Yes, it’s impeding those dreams, but it’s also chipping away at how we think of ourselves—as honorable people, as people who can stand up as full citizens in our social world and say, “I belong here. I’m a contributing member. I work hard.”

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Just once, I’d like to be accepted for who I’m not.

3. Also on the subject of works righteousness (and its perils), a heart-wrenching but important long-read on ESPN about Madison Holleran, the gifted Ivy League athlete who made headlines last year when she ended her own life. Her death brought fresh attention to the rise in self-harm in our country’s most affluent and high-achieving environments. While it may not tell us anything we don’t already know–for instance, the role social media played in Madison’s internal agony would appear to be unavoidable (not because of the technology itself, but because of the condemnation and loneliness it seemed to exacerbate in someone already given toward depression)–the article is still valuable for the way it humanizes an issue that can easily become fodder for theorizing (pot kettle black warning). Lord have mercy:

“Madison’s high school friends had told her they were also struggling. Emma Sullivan was running track at Boston College and having a hard time. Another friend, Jackie Reyneke, was playing basketball at Princeton and feeling overwhelmed. They had all shared some form of their struggles with Madison, yet in her mind, the lives her friends were projecting on social media trumped the reality they were privately sharing. This confused them, and it still does.

Checking Instagram is like opening a magazine to see a fashion advertisement. Except an ad is branded as what it is: a staged image on glossy paper. Instagram is passed off as real life.

Yes, people filter their photos to make them prettier. People are also often encouraged to put filters on their sadness, to brighten their reality so as not to “drag down” those around them. The myth still exists that happiness is a choice, which perpetuates the notion of depression as weakness.

Life must be Instagrammed — in more ways than one.

4. Social Science Study of the Week would have to be the data coming out of OKCupid about “The Psychology of Self-Appointed Genius”. It would appear that 2 out of 5 of their users consider themselves geniuses (half of all men!), an impression that has more than a little to do with an evaluative atmosphere, ht TB:

When asked to rate themselves, most people say they are more virtuous, honorable, capable, competent, talented, compassionate, understanding and sympathetic than others. These self-assessments correlate extremely loosely to objective or peer assessments of their skills or abilities. “In general, people’s self-views hold only a tenuous to modest relationship with their actual behavior and performance,” they write.

This effect is often called the “better than average effect.” It’s also called the “above average effect,” “superiority bias,” “leniency error,” and the “Lake Wobegon effect” — named after Garrison Keillor’s fictional Minnesota town where, “all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average.”

Overestimating your abilities can do wonders for your ego, at least temporarily. But how illusory superiority survives repeated evidence to the contrary is a better question. As one paper puts it: “One puzzling aspect […] is how the incompetent fail, through life experience, to learn that they are unskilled.”

“The [better than average] effect increases in magnitude after participants experience a threat to their feelings of self-worth.

5. Over at The Federalist, Leslie Loftis covered the new book, Is Gwyneth Paltrow Wrong About Everything?: How the Famous Sell Us Elixirs of Health, Beauty & Happiness, particularly as it relates to food. Needless to say, her conclusions resonate:

In our world that shuns rules and standards, we need easy ways to pretend control. Food is both easy to control—for those with sufficient money and a stable society which allows for endless choice—and visible to everyone else. We can assure ourselves about our goodness and advertise it to society at the same time.

6. On a more upbeat note, just when you thought you were Lewis- and Tolkiened-out, The Chronicle of Higher Education publishes a terrific article about the Inklings and their legacy. I for one learned quite a bit. Here’s a tasty section toward the end:

-1The Inklings were, one and all, guilty of the heresy of the Happy Ending. A story that ends happily is, some believe, necessarily a sop to wishful thinking, a refusal to grow up. In “On Fairy-Stories” — the closest we come to a manifesto for the Inklings’ aesthetic — Tolkien turns this charge on its head, arguing that our deepest wishes, revealed by fairy stories and reawakened whenever we permit ourselves to enter with “literary belief” into a secondary world, are not compensatory fantasies but glimpses of an absolute reality. When Sam Gamgee cries out, “O great glory and splendour! And all my wishes have come true!” we are not in the realm of escapism, but of the Gospel, in all its strangeness and beauty.

Yet although the Inklings were guilty of the heresy of the Happy Ending, they were not optimists; they were war writers who understood that sacrifices must be made and that not all wounds will be healed in this life. Their belief in the Happy Ending was compatible with considerable anguish and uncertainty here below. One may be as gloomy as Puddleglum or as convinced as Frodo that “All my choices have proved ill” without losing hope in a final redemption.

Strays

  • Surprisingly great article in Rolling Stone about “Country Music’s Conflicted Relationship With Religion.”
  • On the arbitrary photoessays front, Pizza in the Wild is either a masterpiece or, well, something completely different (ht BC).
  • Carl and Blake were kind enough to have me on their podcast Impossible to Say (sponsored in part by Mbird) and we had a blast talking about Brian Wilson and Kula Shaker.
  • Just updated our Events page with a number of new events and speaking engagements, including the dates for next year’s conference in NYC (April 14-16, 2016).
  • Very excited to be making it to the West Coast finally! I’m honored to have been invited to be one of the presenters at The White Horse Inn Weekend in Pasadena on July 30 and the Love, Suffering and Creativity conference in Costa Mesa on August 1st (along with Dustin Kensrue and Brett McCracken). Registration for that second event went live this week, and I’m told that space is limited.
  • Finally, we’re in the midst of sending out our big spring newsletter and appeal. If you’d like to receive a copy, be sure to sign up for our mailing list. As the letter mentions, all new monthly givers to Mockingbird will not only receive an automatic subscription to The Mockingbird, but also we will send you a copy of the “conference version” of Law and Gospel. We need your help.