Couple quick announcements before diving in: The Technology Issue is officially out the door! The last batch went out on 11/12. So if you haven’t received yours by the end of next week, drop us a line at info@mbird.com. Two new episodes of The Mockingcast are up too, one covering the post below and another dealing exclusively with the new issue of the magazine.

1. While the most exciting thing I’ve read this week, far and away, is THIS, the best thing has to be Mbird fave & friend Francis Spufford’s new article on “Spiritual Literature for Atheists” that appears in the current print edition of First Things. In it, he takes up a pair of recent books by renowned atheists, Sam Harris’ Waking Up and Barbara Ehrenreich’s Living With a Wild God, both of which find the committed non-believers copping to spiritual experiences and grappling with their implications (or apparent lack thereof). While Spufford’s description of Harris’ work is amusing to say the least, it’s Ehrenreich that incites the stronger response. (Referring to both the risk and artistry involved, Francis tells us that “Ehrenreich wrestles with an angel. Harris puts together some instructions for a ready-to-assemble couch.”). The conclusions, though, are what struck me most, where he identifies the core failure evinced in both books, a failure he himself went a long way toward addressing in Unapologetic. But still:

If someone as open as [Barbara Ehrenreich], with such a strong working sense of the tragic possibilities of existence, recognizes nothing in the descriptions of faith she has encountered, then we are not describing it rightly. If the “rage of joy” she has felt seems to have nothing to do with goodness, then we have been misrepresenting virtue. If what we have managed to extend in her direction seems to be only an offer of authoritarian parenthood, or a resistible politics, then we have made a mistake of our own about the place we allow for the wildness of God. Those of us who have a positive theology, populated with the items of the catechism, often treat negative theology—the term for what we don’t and can’t know about God—as an optional afterthought. But on the strength of this book, negative theology should be getting a much louder say in the public presentation of faith…

61W-JBsllaL._SX326_BO1,204,203,200_If God is universal (if God is God), then he is the God of liberals and radicals as much as of conservatives. Christianity is not just a religion for those temperamentally inclined to be reassured by firm systems, rigorous rules. It is also for the wild at heart. God himself is both rule-maker and rule-breaker. He is therefore the ground on which human rule-makers and rule-breakers ought to be able to meet…

Anyone who has had anything resembling Ehrenreich’s experience, and such an experience is surprisingly common, will tell you that the presence they met did not so much contradict their religious expectations as stand in a kind of orthogonal relationship to them, so much more than and other than expectation that expectation seemed almost beside the point. Wild justice—justice unmediated and unfiltered—is different from the thing we painstakingly try to make in courtrooms. Wild charity—love unmixed and uncompromised—is fearfully unlike the adulterated product we are used to. It is a terrible thing to fall into the hands of the living God. To call the presence you meet “amoral” [as Ehrenreich does] is at least to acknowledge its difference—to allow awe, bafflement, and uncertainty their honest place.

The full article is behind a paywall, but trust me when I say it’ll be the best $1.99 you’ve spent this week. (At least for those of you who’ve already bought the Technology issue!). Doubles as an excuse to link to Strange Notions’ list of 10 Atheists Who Engage Religion Charitably.

2. Next up, no one has been covering the escalating ideological fracas on college campuses more dutifully than Conor Friedersdorf at The Atlantic. This past week, a video of an outrageous, depressing confrontation between a student and a faculty member at Yale over Halloween costume policies went viral (I’ll spare you the link – it’s all over Google if you haven’t seen it). Conor summarized the event, and the national response it garnered, in a terrific article entitled “The New Intolerance of Student Activism”. I especially appreciated his efforts to avoid vilifying the students themselves but to instead focus on the corrosive ideology they appear to have swallowed, which seems to be fostering more and more infighting and exhaustion among progressives (i.e. “with friends like these…”). He also highlights the remarkable graciousness exhibited by the faculty member in question, Nicholas Christakis:

In the face of hateful personal attacks like [the ones in the video], Nicholas Christakis listened and gave restrained, civil responses. He later magnanimously tweeted, “No one, especially no students exercising right to speech, should be judged just on basis of short video clip.” (He is right.) And he invited students who still disagreed with him, and with his wife, to continue the conversation at a brunch to be hosted in their campus home…

As students saw it, their pain ought to have been the decisive factor in determining the acceptability of the Halloween email. They thought their request for an apology ought to have been sufficient to secure one. Who taught them that it is righteous to pillory faculty for failing to validate their feelings, as if disagreement is tantamount to disrespect?

“We are not asking to be coddled,” the open letter insists. “The real coddling is telling the privileged majority on campus that they do not have to engage with the brutal pasts that are a part of the costumes they seek to wear.” But no one asserted that students should not be questioned about offensive costumes––only that fellow Yale students, not meddling administrators, should do the questioning, conduct the conversations, and shape the norms for themselves.  “We simply ask that our existences not be invalidated on campus,” the letter says, catastrophizing.

This notion that one’s existence can be invalidated by a fellow 18-year-old donning an offensive costume is perhaps the most disempowering notion aired at Yale.

Fernando Soberania uses a tool to scrape layers of gum from Seattle's famous "gum wall" at Pike Place Market, Tuesday, Nov. 10, 2015. Tourists and locals have been sticking their used chewing gum on the walls of a section of Post Alley for the past 20 years, and although the walls will be cleaned down to bare brick, officials expect the gum-sticking tradition will quickly return. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

Fernando Soberania uses a tool to scrape layers of gum from Seattle’s famous “gum wall” at Pike Place Market, Nov. 10, 2015. Tourists and locals have been sticking their used chewing gum there for the past 20 years, and although the walls will be cleaned down to bare brick, officials expect the gum-sticking tradition will quickly return. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

Sympathetic as Friedersdorf’s observations may be, I’m not sure how much more I have to contribute to the whole conversation without getting wearisome. Suffice to say, what we’re seeing has as much to do with 1. a crisis of meaning (& the almost narcotic rush of righteousness/justification) amplified by 2. the cyclical nature of power among a fallen race in which the bullied always become the bullies and vice versa–as it does with any -ism (real and awful as those things may be).

One wonders if this is simply what happens when original sin becomes a dirty word: the language of grievance crowds out all other forms of moral currency, enabled and exacerbated by a culture of performanicst-driven helicopter parenting that cannot help but produce the kind of fragility that boils over into rage at the slightest provocation, legit or not. It’s just extra bizarre when it happens in the name of safety. Or something like that.

Anyway, as we reach what feels increasingly like a tipping point on all this, I suspect the temptation will be to bully right back, i.e. by telling these kids to “grow up” in louder and louder ways. It’s sage advice, and yet, no one has ever grown up that way

The only path forward I can see at present is the one of, well, grace. Or at least, compassion–an access point right for which was outlined by Daniel Drezner in the Washington Post. He reminds us that the majority of these protestors are 19-21 years old–which has never been all that wizened an age range, but in a culture of prolonged adultescence it’s even less so. In fact, it was the peak of bratty self-importance long before the words “political correctness” existed, or smartphones caught our every outburst on tape. It sounds patronizing perhaps, but who of us would have wanted our 21-year-old self broadcast anywhere? Not me: 

One of the purposes of college is to articulate stupid arguments in stupid ways and then learn, through interactions with fellow students and professors, exactly how stupid they are. Anyone who thinks that the current generation of college students is uniquely stupid is either an amnesiac or willfully ignorant. As a professor with 20 years of experience, I can assure you that college students have been saying stupid things since the invention of college students.

The difference today is that because of social media, it is easy for college students to have their opinions go viral when that was not the original intent.

I suppose the main difference today is the brick-and-mortar clout a virtual mob can wield, that people’s jobs are actually on the line. Lord have mercy (on the merciless)!

3. The NY Times published a testimonial on “Defeating Anxiety” last week, courtesy of writer JJ Cowles, and surely I’m not the only one who was surprised by the contents. Story goes like this: After the economic downturn of 2008, the 70 year-old finds himself in the grip of serious anxiety, and goes to see a therapist, who prescribes not just medication and mindfulness but… faith. This comes as a shock to the lifelong agnostic, and as much as Cowles might couch things in the language of “choice”, if you can overlook the mild syncretism, the irony is both beautiful and undeniable.

I started going to Catholic Mass every Sunday. I went because of the way it made me feel. I recalled happy days of early adolescence when I loved God. I now saw children making their first holy communion, the little boys in their white suits, and I longed to be one of them, to go back to those days of pure innocence. I was aware of the irony that I had taken control of my ability to choose to have religious feelings which, in turn, required me to relinquish control to the notion of a higher power. And a funny thing happened: I found joy in being part of the congregation, a group which I had previously not respected because I thought of them as mindless sheep being led around by a questionable liturgy. Now I was one of the flock. Relinquishing control felt wonderful.

Seattle, Washington State, USA --- Pike Place market with close-ups of gum wall down alley in Post Alley Seattle Washington State --- Image by © Philip James Corwin/Corbis

Seattle, Washington State, USA — Pike Place market with close-ups of gum wall down alley in Post Alley Seattle Washington State — Image by © Philip James Corwin/Corbis

4. Over on The Federalist, Luma Simms writes about how Essential Oils Won’t Save Your Soul (or Your Body), looking at the underlying religiosity of the trend. How the word “natural” has come to serve as a euphemism for “pure” or “divine”–selectively, that is. You might even call it a mode of self-salvation (Cue Mary Karr). Also, the factoid about the placebo effect warrants a deeper look at some point:

Essential oils were just starting to take off when I was coming out of this period that I’ve called “Gospel Amnesia”. Although I don’t have direct experience with them, I recognized them right away as a new god in the natural polytheistic constellation

Something else very curious is a new study showing an increase in placebo effects. After 84 clinical drug trials between 1990 and 2013, data analyzed by researchers at McGill University showed an increase in the placebo effect seen in study participants. Most interestingly, the increase was seen in the United States only

5. Social Science Study of the Week would have to be that “Busy People Are Actually Not That Productive“. Take that, Zeitgeist!

6. Music-wise, while we’re waiting on the night-train to paradise city to leave the station, it might be worth reviewing 5 Reasons Guns N’ Roses Will Reunite and 5 Reasons They Won’t. If the inevitable does happen (i.e. if God has any mercy), I vow to post the full Axl Rose chapter from A Mess of Help. The (very) rough draft can be found here. Also, today marks the release of the first Electric Light Orchestra record in fourteen years, Alone in the Universe. This is major, and for a refresher on why, click here.

7. Addie Zierman wrote an affecting post “On Learning to Love My Cynic Voice”, especially in regards to her/any faith. Inside Out serves once again as a terrific jumping-off point, ht RW:

Maybe it’s the evangelical version of Christianity that I grew up in…or maybe it’s just the American flavor of life and faith – but I can’t seem to stop believing in this kind of narrative arc where you get past things and then you are past them. For good. You pass through the valley; you navigate through the five stages of grief. You get through and you are done.

And so, at some point, I drew a circle around this part of myself, this Cynic Voice. You’ve had your say, I told her. You’re done now. I’m moving on. You stay here. But of course, we know that no one puts Baby in a corner. She will not stay in the circle I made for her.

My faith has turned out not to be a straight path at all but a spiraling mountain road full of switch-backs and turns

8. In the expectations department, there’s the teaser for “Later That Same Life”, in which a 56 year old is interviewed by his 18 year-old self. Seriously:

9. Humor-wise, it was slim pickings for once. But these new compound German words cracked me up. “Buchschuldgefuehl” may be my favorite.

Strays