Couple of quick announcements before we dive in: This coming Wednesday (6/22) in Stamford, CT, we’re kicking off our summer series of “Religious Hope from the Movies” screenings at the Avon Theater. Very excited about this! The first selection is Whit Stillman’s Barcelona, and my father and I’ll be tag-teaming a short intro before the curtain lifts at 7:30pm. The following day, I’ll be speaking at Christ Church Greenwich (7pm) about Mockingbird and A Mess of Help. Spread the wordwould love to see you! Lastly, click here to listen this week’s episode of The Mockingcast, which features an interview with novelist Jonathan Levi.

1. Always nice when we get to start these columns off on a genuine grace-note. To wit, a stop-you-in-your-tracks testimonial the Wall Street Journal, in which Dr. E. Wesley Ely relates a truly profound story of (death-)bedside full-immersion baptism, “A Swimming Pool in the ICU?”. It’s short and worth every second it’ll take you to read. The second half goes like this:

Len gently took his father, the man who’d shown him how to farm, into his arms. Following the cherished Christian tradition, we slowly submerged Bennie’s head completely under the water saying, “Dad, I baptize you in the name of God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.” On cue, the palliative-care social worker began belting out “Amazing Grace.” The rest of us stood frozen in time.

First out of the water was blue corrugated ventilator tubing. Then his face appeared around the breathing tube. Bennie’s huge smile seemed to say, “Better late than never.”

When he died a week later, Laura implored me to tell other people about her Dad, hoping his experience would show them that “we can all become strong through our weakness.” In fact, I have seen scores of patients and families use profound “outer wasting” as a catalyst for deep inner renewal. The two most important “frames” of our life are birth and death. We typically associate baptism with the former, yet Jesus spoke of his death as a baptism to indicate the formative next step that dying represents for our journey.

The ICU team’s bold yet careful response to Bennie’s unusual request taught me an enduring lesson regarding sympathy versus empathy. Sympathy is feeling sorry for someone; empathy is feeling “with” someone. In all the surrounding insanity of the hospital that day, diving deeply into Bennie’s life through his baptism on the breathing machine allowed all of us to be reborn, too.

2. In the bonkers department, the long read of the week would definitely have to be “The Unbelievable Tale of Jesus’ Wife” in The Atlantic. Holy mackerel. If you’re looking for the missing link between the East German secret police, the Harvard School of Divinity, and the Sarasota swingers’ scene, look no further. Ironically enough, the whole thing amounts to a more compelling story than the novel (by Dan Brown) that helped inspire it. Of course, one can’t help but wonder how many cons have managed to exploit the motivated reasoning that doubtlessly lurks behind other higher criticism. You can also click here to read the refreshingly humble response from Dr. Karen King, the scholar with whom the ‘Jesus wife’ fragment of papyrus is most closely associated.

3. Next, the Betjeman poem we posted earlier today (“Original Sin on the Sussex Quote”) was brought to our attention via Alan Jacobs’ masterful essay for Comment, “Habits of Mind in an Age of Distraction”, in which Dr. Jacobs works his way up to our present moment via not only Betjeman but the exquisite and never-been-bettered “Prayer for Persons Troubled in Mind” from The Book of Common Prayer. While I’m not sure I fully ‘swallow’ his closing argument re: preaching sin, still, the essay is really something else. I reproduced the Betjeman commentary under that post (must-read!); it would be remiss of me not to do the same for his description of our current cultural predicament:

If you ask a random selection of people why we’re all so distracted these days—so constantly in a state of what a researcher for Microsoft, Linda Stone, has called “continuous partial attention”—you’ll get a somewhat different answer than you would have gotten thirty years ago. Then it would have been “Because we are addicted to television.” Fifteen years ago it would have been, “Because we are addicted to the Internet.” But now it’s “Because we are addicted to our smartphones.”

All of these answers are both right and wrong. They’re right in one really important way: they link distraction with addiction. But they’re wrong in an even more important way: we are not addicted to any of our machines. Those are just contraptions made up of silicon chips, plastic, metal, glass. None of those, even when combined into complex and sometimes beautiful devices, are things that human beings can become addicted to…we are addicted to one another, to the affirmation of our value—our very being—that comes from other human beings. We are addicted to being validated by our peers…

4. Along similar lines in The New York Times, Teddy Wayne reflects on, well, “The End of Reflection”:

-1The last remaining place I’m guaranteed to be alone with my thoughts is in the shower… If the data is any indication, most of us use our phones more than we think: Participants estimated an average of 37 uses throughout the day (anything that turns on the screen, from hitting snooze to making a call), but the actual number was around 85. The slight majority took less than 30 seconds. (Participants also underestimated duration of use by about an hour — the real total was 5.05 hours — which included phone calls and listening to music when the screen was off.)…

It seems counterintuitive to say that we are entering an unreflective cultural phase, as our time tends to be criticized for its self-absorption. But our solipsism is frequently given outward expression rather than inward exploration, with more emphasis than ever before on images.

He concludes with a sobering quote from renowned journalist Nicholas Carr (who we had the pleasure of interviewing for our Technology Issue), which hints at the direction of the underlying worship:

[Carr] sees our current direction as indicative of “the loss of the contemplative mind,” he said. “We’ve adopted the Google ideal of the mind, which is that you have a question that you can answer quickly: close-ended, well-defined questions. Lost in that conception is that there’s also his open-ended way of thinking where you’re not always trying to answer a question. You’re trying to go where that thought leads you. As a society, we’re saying that that way of thinking isn’t as important anymore. It’s viewed as inefficient.”

5. While we’re on technology, though, something a tad more upbeat (if also pretty out there). At the Code Conference a couple of weeks ago, Silicon Valley guru Elon Musk entertained–in all seriousness–the question of whether or not we are all living in an elaborate computer simulation a la The Matrix. The exchange got Joshua Rothman of the New Yorker pondering the theological implications, which would not be insignificant:

barcelonastill3The simulation argument is appealing, in part, because it gives atheists a way to talk about spirituality. The idea that we’re living in only a part of reality, with the whole permanently beyond our reach, can be a source of awe. About our simulators, one can ask the same questions one asks about God: Why did the creators of our world decide to include evil and suffering? (Can they change that setting in the preferences?) Where did the original, non-simulated world come from? In that sense, the simulation argument is a thoughtful and expansive materialist fable that is almost, but not quite, religious. There is, of course, no sanctity or holiness in the simulation argument. The people outside the simulation aren’t gods—they’re us.

Considered as a parable, the simulation argument is essentially ironic. In the end, it’s a story about limits. On the one hand, we maximize human potential by creating worlds of our own; on the other, by doing so, we confirm the impossibility of ultimate knowledge about the universe in which we live. Transcendence enforces humility.

Speaking of transcendence:

6. Moving on, a couple of weeks ago on The Mockingcast, Scott was fortunate enough to interview film critic Alissa Wilkinson about her excellent new book (co-authored with Robert Joustra), How to Survive the Apocalypse. Last month Christianity Today ran an excerpt of the book–terrific reading for anyone interested in our current end-times fixation (The Walking Dead, Battlestar, etc). Not only do the authors make a compelling case for there being no such thing as a ‘secular’ apocalypse, they make a distinction that I found personally helpful, especially on the heels of Carr and Jacobs’ remarks above (really items 3-5). I refer to the difference between classical apocalyptic literature (Revelation, etc) and neo-apocalyptic, or what’s popularly come to be known as “pessimism porn”. To clarify, they quote a humdinger of a paragraph from author Elizabeth Rosen:

“Where the underlying message of the original [apocalyptic] narrative was optimistic, anticipating God’s intervening hand to make things right, the altered version has more in common with the jeremiad, a lamentation over the degeneracy of the world, and when God intervenes in this newer version of the story, it is not to restore order to a disordered world and reward the faithful, but rather to express a literally all-consuming, punishing anger… If these [neo-apocalyptic] tales exhibit judgment, it is of the sort that assumes that no one deserves saving and that everyone should be punished.”

7. Humor. Pretty funny one from McSweeney’s,  “Guide to Lesser-Known Religious Affiliations”. My favorites are probably Plane Ride Religious/Spiritual and OCEOCDOBX. While The Onion seems to have hit a bit of an election-induced slump, The Babylon Bee keeps on trucking with “Couple Follows Their Hearts; Billions Dead” and “Local Calvinist’s Sense of Superiority Visible From Space”. And then there’s the following video, the gist of which will have (far too) many a churchgoer laughing along and nodding their heads:

8. A terrific article appeared on The Covenant Blog today, parsing our alligator- and gorilla-related furor, Jody Howard’s “The Malice of Perpetual Outrage”. I especially appreciated the comforting words addressed to parents re: living in fear. (The references to our work were pretty cool/generous too). A favorite passage:

We talk about helicopter parents, but society has become filled with helicopter observers willing to presume that they have information and understanding, that tragedy would be averted if they were in control. That’s a mythical world, filled with hubris.

9. Finally, the Social Science Study of the Week (sort of) is the one Julie Beck wrote up for The Atlantic, “Regret Is The Price of Free Will”. The research in question is twenty years old, but hey, that doesn’t mean it isn’t true, and besides, the intro linking the findings to the Bob Ebeling story is pretty touching. A couple of tidbits that stuck out:

This is the very essence of regret—we can only regret things we think we have control over. If we had no choice, no agency, if we were but tossed about on the tides of fate, there’d be nothing to regret. And so, regret ends up being the emotional price we pay for free will.

It’s also well-known that people tend to say they regret things they didn’t do more than things they did… Gilovich’s study also found that “the passage of time often brings with it increased confidence that one could have performed an earlier task successfully.” That confidence may be misplaced; people do tend to overestimate how much they can control situations.

Seems to imply that people who don’t believe in free will have the, uh, free will to integrate that knowledge emotionally (negatory!) and are therefore at greater peace. Hmmm… I think it’d be more accurate to say that while ‘agency skeptics’ may not–theoretically–regret the things we don’t have any control over, that doesn’t mean we don’t mourn them all the same.

On that note, time for another laugh: