First, if you haven’t seen our latest newsletter, check it out here–some very exciting things in store for the year ahead! And click here to listen to this week’s episode of The Mockingcast (“The Ecumenical Apocalypse”), featuring an interview with writer/scholar Liel Liebowitz.

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1. Let’s start off with this lovely piece from The Wall Street Journal:

There is a Japanese word, kintsukuroi, that means “golden repair.” It is the art of restoring broken pottery with gold so the fractures are literally illuminated—a kind of physical expression of its spirit. As a philosophy, kintsukuroi celebrates imperfection as an integral part of the story, not something to be disguised. The artists believe that when something has suffered damage and has a history, it becomes more beautiful….In kintsukuroi, the true life of an object (or a person) begins the moment it breaks and reveals that it is vulnerable. The gap between once pristine appearance and its visible imperfection deepens its appeal.

First thing to note: We probably shouldn’t take this idea of beautiful brokenness as a symbol of how suffering makes us better. In the face of serious life damage, some tragedies are not “for the better” but are just that: tragedies, for the worse, which we would have been better off without. But “kintsukuroi” nevertheless remains a wonderful illustration for the Christian life, which holds symbols of both life and death in one ruddy old jug. St. Paul (and Leonard Cohen) uses a very similar image:

For God, who said “Let light shine out of darkness,” made His light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. Now we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this surpassingly great power is from God and not from us. We are pressed on all sides, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed.  We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body. (2 Cor 4:6-10).

From Grace in Practice: “Sin is a disease that is never healed. It is forgiven.” Importantly, we can’t erase the cracks in our broken jars, but we can let that person who lives inside us, who is obsessive and controlling, who likes smooth, shiny objects, die; then we can get used to the rough remainder of what once seemed to be a masterpiece. 

The rest of the article takes a different turn, focusing in on a chef who is more emotionally responsive to his coworkers than others in his field tend to be–it’s moving to read alongside coverage of the recent suicide of the “world’s top chef.” Once again, ultimately, all roads lead back to Otis Redding: try a little tenderness.

2. Over at The Cut, this week’s Ask Polly column (written by Heather Havrilesky, who we just interviewed for the upcoming Mental Health Issue!) responds to a young woman, aliased Trainwreck, who repeatedly seeks the attention of unavailable men–and then ends up heartbroken. Polly points out that Trainwreck’s behavior is a result, not of unlovability, but of her own personal brokenness.

Almost everyone is broken in one way or another. Broken people still thrive and love and do great things. But in the years before they realize that they are broken, they behave in ways that are out of sync with the world around them. They make odd or arbitrary-seeming choices in order to manage their needs and expectations. Or they power down their emotions completely. Or they drink too much. Or they create fantasy worlds and they get angry at anyone who won’t adhere to those fantasies…. Join us in the real world, Trainwreck…. You wanted to control reality, to turn water into wine. But you are not Jesus Christ. You couldn’t do it.

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Havrilesky points out that Trainwreck is fishing for some affirmation of her own rightness–she wants to be told that her ex was wrong. But her real issue was in her misinterpretation of her life, first and foremost sourced in her implicit sense of rightness. Even though she was offered water, she expected wine.

Havrilesky continues that Trainwreck isn’t “bad” but just broken; on this, we would differ slightly because of our understanding of sin. Barring a righteousness imputed by Christ, the good/bad paradigm cannot work in our favor; “None is good but God alone” (Lk 18). A low anthropology, however, doesn’t translate to worthlessness; we don’t believe ourselves to be leptospirosis-carrying rats held at arms legths by God–we are fearfully and wonderfully made, but there is something not-quite-right about us now–a dash of badness snuck into our pizza dough and turned us into an utterly depraved pie.

All that said, it’s a fantastic article: “Trainwreck, I am 46 years old,” Havrilesky writes, “and I still sometimes compulsively walk over sharp rocks when I could walk on soft sand instead. This is a very human thing!”

3. Speaking of sharp rocks, The Atlantic posted an article on the impossibility of living up to the standards of beauty in contemporary culture.

Beauty, with its hazy, heady mix of aspiration and anxiety, tends to be both excessively documented and poorly understood, in part because of a culture-wide confusion when it comes to beauty’s various, often unspoken, mandates. (The word “beautiful,” Whitefield-Madrano points out, shares a proto-Indo-European root with bene, the Latin for good; we still, on some level, read moral messages into appearances, though we are now generally self-conscious enough to preface any such readings with a palliative “not to be superficial, but …”)

The messy relationship women, in particular, have with beauty derives in part from another paradox: The beauty imperative sees attractiveness on the one hand as a goal to be strived for, but on the other as something that must be strived for silently and with a degree of embarrassment. The current culture demands that women work for compliments when it comes to our appearance, but also that we not, for the most part, accept them—to be obsessed with our looks, but also, per the delicate dance that must be done between “ego” and “egotism,” to hate them. “The assumed marriage of insecurity and beauty,” Whitefield-Madrano puts it, “creates an expectation that we stick to a particular storyline—we can admit we look good only if we’ve already paid our dues of not liking how we look.”

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It’s a perfect case of the un-understandable law, which is one of the problems with mandates of any kind–interpretations of them are a toss-up. To one person, “Thou shall not commit adultery” may mean “don’t sleep with your neighbor’s wife”; to another (Jesus; cf. Mt 5:27) it means “don’t look at another person with lust.” And neither interpretation makes us pure.

The difference between the Law of Beauty and the Law of God is that God’s law is good. The law described in the Atlantic article, borne out of all sorts of human ingredients (insecurity, comparison, etc.) is–definitively–bad. The link between the two is how they make us feel; both kinds of laws, whether good or bad, have the capacity to drive us to despair, or exhaustion. Grace, on the other hand, arrives in a more concrete form–a person–and always brings relief.

Since we live in such a visual culture, a la social media and Netflix, for example, the expectations of how we should visually present ourselves (whether heavily make-uped or all-natural) are insidious and consuming; at the same time, these expectations can seem too silly to talk about out loud, or not worthwhile. As a culture, the article argues, we should start teasing out the nuances, undoing the knot into which we have tangled ourselves. But the practical answer, and the real one, is that these expectations of beauty run so deep, they can’t be fixed or undone. It’s not just a knot; it’s an example of the cracks in our cultural jar. And, as mentioned above, cracks like these can’t be erased; only forgiven.

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4. I think this article, however, one-ups the above article. From The New Yorker, this one explains how the fame and fortune of Kim Kardashian is the result of a highly organized workaholic. Whereas in a more romantic age, fame was the result of good looks and privilege, now celebrities run fame like a corporation, which takes many long hours of upkeep. Beyond this, they boast in hard work over privilege. Neither is necessarily healthy in the extreme. At the end of the day, fame is still the object, but the means of attaining it has become sleepless nights.

Female celebrity, for years, was rooted in a luxury and beauty culture. Slowly, it is moving toward a work and achievement culture, and such re-narrativization requires active reinforcement in the public eye…

Being a workaholic is probably healthier than being an alcoholic, a type that thrived in so many previous celebrity generations. Thanks to Organization Celebrities such as Fey and Schumer [and Kardashian], fame has become a newly virtuous pursuit.

But is mere productivity the key to happiness? Recently, I reported a piece at Oberlin, and the students I spoke with kept saying how tired they were; exhaustion seemed to wear them to the breaking point in more ways than one. They did it all, and dexterously. But the multitasking and the lack of sleep were smothering their resolve. It seemed like a shame; a lot of them weren’t even twenty-two. It struck me that what they needed, perhaps, was a patient hero. So let’s get going—or, rather, not going. Here’s to the generation of celebrities that will come along and teach us how to rest.

For more on the cult of productivity, check out these Mockingbird archives.

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5. Malcolm Gladwell started a podcast last week, and the topic of the first episode was “moral licensing,” the strange way humans justify bad deeds by racking up their good deeds. The Guardian reviewed the first episode:

The episode spans more than a century of “moral licensing” – the idea that when a door opens for an outsider, it usually just “gives the status quo justification to close the door again”. It happened in Gillard’s case, says Gladwell, when her election as the first female PM of Australia was followed by an unbelievable and unstoppable display of blatant misogyny. It happened in the case of the Nazis’ love of poet Berthold Auerbach, he explains, “because they think they’ve demonstrated their open-mindedness by loving this one Jew, they feel free to act in the most despicable way to other Jews.” And it happened after Barack Obama’s US presidential election, where for many, having elected a black president gave free rein for racism.

In short, Gladwell is tackling the million-dollar question: “when does doing good lead to doing bad, and when does doing good lead to doing more good?”

I haven’t finished the episode yet, but it all sounds very Lutheran to me.

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6. And for humor! “Heathen Driver Spots Jesus Fish Eating Darwin Fish, Repents”– from The Babylon Bee.

7. This article, a look at the theology of CrossFit, makes for a wonderful follow-up to DZ’s foodie and fitness talk at “Shaped By What You Love.”

Indeed, Plank suggests that Calvinism and CrossFit may be particularly compatible:

“No matter how good you are, you never don’t need grace. And no matter how fit you are, you’re never at a point where you don’t miss reps. That’s just gonna happen!”

One thing is clear: CrossFit is shaping the way people show up in their lives and the lives of others….Constance Tillett of Brooklyn — one of the oldest CrossFitters at 78 — remembers how her box members carried her through grief:

“When my husband died and the word spread, in my wildest dreams I never thought they would be there with me, and they were there with me to his grave site. And they are still with me and they will be with me till I leave here. South Brooklyn CrossFit is my family, my children — and I mean it with the bottom of my heart.”

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8. And here is a brilliant law-and-gospel analysis written by Liel Leibowitz (who is our guest interviewee on The Mockingcast this week!) about Seth Rogen’s new show “Preacher.”

Too frequently dismissed as not much more than an affable stoner, [Rogen] is quickly becoming one of our more emotionally generous filmmakers and one who grapples with faith not as symbol or theory or abstraction but as experience, which, really, is the only path to meaning, to transcendence, to awe. Rogen wrestled with this theme in his excellent 2015 movie The Night Before, a meditation on loss and guilt and communion masquerading as a gross-out buddy comedy, and he’s doing it again in Preacher, a theological tract underscoring its weighty questions with a liberal dose of ass-kicking.

Which, really, is what religion ought to do. Custer is the rabbi we all wish we had, and not only because he’s a supreme being who is also ridiculously good-looking and a really handy with a gun. He’s the preacher who understands that it’s not enough to be told what to do, sethrogenmantis-funny-f69c4ae0c0cbb6ecbe3cf312783f8ad6-large-1045027that you have to feel it in your heart and that to feel it in your heart you need to be surrounded by people who love you and accept you even if you’ve done very regrettable things. He’s the man of God who knows that it’s not enough to follow halakha, or the law; you also have to follow aggadah, the essence of our spiritual thriving, the reason we want to believe. Few of us are blessed with such a shepherd in shul, but all of us ought to be grateful we can find these sparks of the divine in Preacher.

Strays: