1. Well, you just can’t make this up. An urban cowboy riding through the gang-ridden streets of Fresno, California, preaching the gospel of Jesus? On a horse named Grace? Aeon covered the story here, with a video. This below is not the full video, but you’ll get the picture. Totally cool.

2. Shakespeare scholar Stephen Greenblatt is working on a new book project about the legacy of Adam and Eve, which led to his New Yorker piece this week on Augustine, a less-than-judicious reading of the man he claims “invented sex” (and sex as sin) to the literary world. Greenblatt argues that Augustine’s understanding of original sin was tainted with the guilt of his lusty past, and that this long-treasured orthodoxy of the church has created centuries of guilt-mongers and moral pessimists. Greenblatt, perhaps predictably, favors instead the school of Augustine’s contemporary, Pelagius, the known “moral optimists.”

They believed that human beings were born innocent. Infants do not enter the world with a special endowment of virtue, but neither do they carry the innate stain of vice. True, we are all descendants of Adam and Eve, and we live in a world rife with the consequences of their primordial act of disobedience. But that act in the distant past does not condemn us inescapably to sinfulness. How could it?

Elizabeth Bruenig wrote a really powerful response as to how—and why—Augustine’s understanding of human sin has less to do with religious shame/moralizing, and more to do with a greater emphasis on the mercy of God, and its perpetual need in the lives of the “ordinary Christian.” In doing so, she says this also means that the idea of original sin is a far more liberating understanding of humankind, and the God who created them.

Dostoevsky was able to sense what Augustine did: That fallenness isn’t as much a historical phenomenon as a spiritual one, and that the fallen state has its own beauty, in that God loves those more who need it more. It’s a paradox, but it’s the source of the compassion that permeates Augustine’s work, and it’s the reason he was willing to pour his heart into writing for a church of not-altogether-good people: Because God loves them all the more, offers his grace that much more freely the more we, twilight persons rendered incomplete by sin, need his grace. In my view, this is the far more optimistic vision, and the far more realistic one.

Alan Jacobs, too, jumped in on the conversation, referring back to his own book on the subject. He points out the exhausting intensity of a Pelagian understanding of oneself, and, on the contrary, the relief that comes in simply being a sinner. I’m quoting in full because it’s so good:

No doubt the spiritual and moral standards for the Christian life had relaxed quite a bit since the days of persecution, when even the hint of Christian faith could cost a person his or her life; no doubt some restored tension, some call for a renewal of holiness, was surely needed. But Pelagianism, like many zealous movements of moral and spiritual reform, writes a recipe for profound anxiety. Its original word of encouragement (You can do it!) immediately yields to the self-doubting question: “But am I doing it?” It makes a rigorous asceticism the only true Christian life — as [Peter] Brown points out, “Pelagius wanted every Christian to be a monk” — and condemns even the most determined ascetic to constant self-scrutiny, a kind of self-scrutiny that can never yield a clear acquittal. You might have missed something; and in any case you could sin in the next five minutes and watch your whole house of cards crash down.

By contrast, Augustine’s emphasis on the universal depravity of human nature — seen by so many then and now as an insult to human dignity — is curiously liberating. I once heard a preacher encourage his listeners to begin a prayer with the following words: “Lord, I am the failure that you always knew I would be.” It is the true Augustinian note. Pelagianism is a creed for heroes; but Augustine’s emphasis on original sin, and the consequent absolute dependence of every one of us on the grace of God, gives hope to the waverer, the backslider, the slacker, the putz, the schlemiel. We’re all in the same boat as Mister Holier-than-Thou over there, saved only by the grace that comes to us in Holy Baptism. Peter Brown once more: “Paradoxically, therefore, it is Augustine, with his harsh emphasis on baptism as the only way to salvation, who appears as the advocate of moral tolerance: for within the exclusive fold of the Catholic church he could find room for a whole spectrum of human failings.”

3. A provocative piece the New York Times put out this past weekend about the shifting cultural tide of American angst over the past 30 years. From the depressive age of slacker rock, coffee, and Prozac in the 80s and 90s, we’re now fully enmeshed in the fidget-spinning, wired-and-tired age of anxiety, the age of Xanax. Anxiety, Alex Williams writes, is now our cultural identification card—it’s the way we have come to describe our plight. And while Williams perhaps places too much of this anxiety pattern upon the Twitter-happy President, the point about the “always-on” nature of life is right on.

“In our always-on culture, checking your phone is the last thing you do before you go to sleep, and the first thing you do if you wake up in the middle of the night to go to the bathroom,” Mr. Harris said. “Just today, I got an alert on my phone about the collapsing Arctic ice shelf. That’s scary as hell.”

And speaking of the anxious-making demands, Quartz just posted one the other day about mandatory euphoria. And while this is not new turf for us, the social psychology piling up behind the claim continues to confirm it.

Bastian proposes that in a clinical setting, psychologists can make their patients aware of this societal pressure to be happy so that they can better choose how to react to it. When scrolling past all the smiling faces on Instagram, they can remind themselves that others are also trying to present themselves in a positive light. On a societal level, Bastian would like to see education programs that de-stigmatize feelings of sadness and anxiety and challenge people’s prejudice towards mood disorders.

4. Awesome, from The Bee: “Report: Anything That Challenges Your Worldview Is Fake News”

“If a news piece causes you to have even a brief moment of reflection on whether or not your worldview can accommodate the information being presented, it’s definitely fake news,” the head of the groundbreaking research study told reporters Thursday. “By way of contrast, real news will make you feel good about what you already believe and reaffirm your ideas, no matter how incorrect they are.”

And while we’re on the subject of cognitive biases, and our ridiculous brains, Aeon published a piece about Plato’s inner-social scientist, and the intellectual humility of the Ancient Greeks.

Similarly, the cultivation of intellectual humility is, in part, the cultivation of an ethical virtue. Many of the early Socratic dialogues end in uncertainty: the characters are reduced to what in ancient Greek was called aporia, and is often rendered in English as ‘perplexity’, ‘bafflement’, or ‘confusion’. Socrates’ interlocutors search for a satisfying answer to some question only to find that every proposed answer fails to satisfy tests of logical consistency. Characters react in different ways to this process – some become flustered, some threaten violence, some run away, and a few recognise that they have been improved, and express gratitude to Socrates. Their false steps in the arguments dramatise errors in reasoning, but their emotional reactions are the stuff of literature: they reveal hubris and arrogance, modesty and generosity, and the dynamic struggles between these opposed impulses – what the novelist William Faulkner in 1950 called ‘the human heart in conflict with itself’.

5. The Economist reported this week on an art installation taking place in a Wittenberg prison, in celebration of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. The city got some big names (Ai Weiwei, Marzia Migliora) to produce an installation within one of the jail cells, making something that represented a modern translation of the Lutheran legacy. More than one sounds very Martin Luther:

Other works examine the power of images and their potential for viral dissemination (Luther himself exploited new media to “go viral” in his own time). In “Casting Jesus”, a video installation from 2011 by Christian Jankowski, 13 actors perform various scenes as Jesus Christ in front of a Vatican jury, with individuals eliminated in each round. By using the language and format of television game shows, Mr Jankowski questions the media’s addiction to spectacle.

6. Finally, Father Freeman over at his blog. The guy’s got some gospel to share, people, and doubly so this week. The first one is his take on the age-old grace-v.-works shenanigans. Freeman, who is Eastern Orthodox, does not sound like one at all, if I’m being honest. He seems to planting his flag very much on a Protestant, “grace-heavy” side of the equation. And while “synergy” is not necessarily a word I use every day when talking about the Holy Spirit, “work” is nothing more than “grateful thanksgiving,” a definition of sanctification I can certainly resonate with.

There is a highly moralized version of synergy, in which God is seen to give us grace, but we must do something in our lives to make it effective. In this model we are always judging the “results” of our “cooperation” with grace, and assuming that the lousy outcomes we see are simply our fault. This experience becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy of failure and remorse. It is a distortion of grace-filled synergy.

I have written (and been criticized for it) about the “unmoral Christian.” My intention has been to unmask and disarm a false notion of synergy. We indeed are not saved through the “works” that Protestants tend to criticize. The “work” we do is largely a state of heart from which all subsequent grace-empowered actions flow. That state of heart is best described as “grateful thanksgiving”…

And then there’s this one, from yesterday: “Weak, Sick, Poor, Tired: A Story for Losers”.

And our weakness can be found in places where our brokenness most resides: weak, sick, poor, tired, handicapped, dysfunctional, awkward, incompetent, inadequate – these all describe the place where Christ intends to meet us. The good news is that despite the popularity of the American Dream, even those who find it most successfully remain weak. Their success can make them blind to their weakness, or can be so alluring that their weakness remains unacknowledged. But the very best of the successful remain broken enough to be capable of salvation.

STRAYS:

1) Dylan’s Nobel Speech, definitely worth listening to the audio. Like the best three book reports you ever heard. The Odyssey section, especially.
2) Eco-friendly, life-affirming, death-denying funeral urns.
3) If you didn’t get enough Wendell Berry this week, and you’re interested in his Christian convictions, here.
4) Didn’t come to us this week, but it was the first I heard of it: sologamy? Seriously?