1. First up, an insightful opinion piece from Mary Laura Philpott in the NYT: “My Adventures with Accountability” (ht MM). Philpott explains how, as a driven writer, healthy-eater, and generally savvy twenty-first century woman, she uses accountability groups to aid her in achieving her goals. Hey, I’ve heard of that before. But I first learned of accountability partners, not from slick businesspeople or competitive entrepreneurs, but from Christians, of all people, with whom I shared an interest in living my best life now. Since we considered ourselves good people, on Jesus’ team, we needed friends who would help us achieve our goals of reading the Bible everyday, praying for the children, and not doing…other things…

But if Philpott’s confessional is any indication, the desire to live the Good Life, the Best Life, is not something unique to Bible-believers:

Accountability is all the rage, and not just in our own lives. Whenever something bad happens, people insist on finding someone to hold accountable — as if that will undo anything. It’s a buzzword in the business and political worlds, code for “responsibility” and “the buck stops here.” Being accountable means you reply promptly to emails at work. It means you submit your actions to checks and balances, especially if you’re president. It means being watched as you spend money. It means every move you make counts toward something.

Here’s where Christianity may actually offer something unique: the cross declares moot every move we make. On Good Friday Jesus utters, “It is finished,” and we are absolved and forgiven, and nothing we do or don’t do can change who we are in God’s eyes. So what’s with all the accountability? The pressure? At the end of the day, isn’t it just exhausting?

Personally, I’m glad I’m not an elected official or chief executive, because I can’t take any more accountability. I’ve brought it on myself, of course. But the more people and forces I have to answer to, the more “held accountable” starts to feel like “held underwater.” Some days I want to spend an afternoon online looking at pictures of dogs with eyebrows, and I don’t want to have to report it to anyone. Some nights I want to spend $9.99 to buy a movie on demand even though I could wait a week and rent it for $2.99, and I want to revel in that foolish splurge by myself…

Sometimes I feel ill-equipped to do all this accounting. There are days, even weeks, that I don’t check in with my groups, even though, of course, I have voluntarily joined them. I pull back when I feel the tail is wagging the dog, that I’m putting more energy into my anxiety over reporting what I’ve done than I would have put into simply doing it.

With too much accountability, we will likely find ourselves performing and pretending. Just because somebody asks me, “So have you gone to the gym this week?” doesn’t mean that I have, or will; ask too often, and I’ll start to lie. In short, the law cannot produce what it demands.

All that said, Philpott does suggest, in the end, that accountability can be useful; sometimes it may make practical sense. It’s easier to train for a marathon, for example, with a friend; there’s nothing wrong with asking for help.

2. Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt’s follow-up article to their incisive “Coddling of the American Mind” (which we mentioned several times) was published this week in The Atlantic (ht EKR). In this one, they discuss the tribulations of iGen, the generation born after millennials, around 1994. It’s these guys who are most wracked with mental illness (depression, anxiety, et al) but who are also, Lukianoff and Haidt point out, the most concerned with word policing, political correctness, and safe spaces. Lukianoff and Haidt argue that those attempts to manufacture safe spaces have actually harmed (or contributed to the harm of) a generation. They quote Van Jones, a guest at UChicago’s Institute of Politics, who said, “I don’t want you to be safe, ideologically. I don’t want you to be safe, emotionally. I want you to be strong. That’s different. I’m not going to pave the jungle for you. Put on some boots, and learn how to deal with adversity. I’m not going to take all the weights out of the gym; that’s the whole point of the gym.” I make mention of that here, not to inspire you (who are you kidding?) but to point out the oddly Christian paradox of it: in weakness, we find strength. In adversity, joy. In death, life. The avoidance of these harder things does not prevent the hard things in themselves; but going for them headfirst, we can see their transformation: cf. theology of the cross.

3. From the Onion: “God Falling Under the Influence of Powerful Spiritual Guru“:

THE HEAVENS—Increasingly worried by the changes they have noticed in the supreme deity’s behavior, heavenly sources expressed concern Thursday that God, Our Holy Father, was falling under the influence of a self-styled spiritual guru calling himself “the Rishi.” […]

“The Rishi makes all of us pretty uncomfortable, but whenever anyone speaks up about him, God just casts them out of His kingdom, so I’ve learned to keep my mouth shut,” said the archangel Azrael, who acknowledged that he and several seraphim briefly considered holding an intervention for the Almighty after observing the Rishi coaxing Him into a particularly strenuous and unnatural-looking yoga position earlier this year.

4. Here’s a good one from Lori Gottlieb, whose column I’ve come to appreciate over at NYMag: “What Your Therapist Really Thinks.”

On receiving a message from someone who simply asks, “Am I normal?”, Gottlieb responds at length:

It’s the same question people ask, directly or not, in therapy. Is this normal? Do other people do this? Feel this?  Think this? Struggle with this? Is my partner, mother, boss, roommate abnormal … or am I? […]

The funny thing about “normal” is that people tend to worry that they aren’t while simultaneously claiming it’s the last thing they want to be. Normal is boring, they say, which is like saying they never wanted the job they got rejected from in the first place. While I don’t know how typical you are, I’ll bet you share the very typical human need to belong, or you wouldn’t care so much about how normal you are.

5. The suicide of Chester Bennington, of Linkin Park, has rightly yielded countless online remembrances, eulogies and, profoundly, what seems to be a widespread cultural meditation on emotions that begin with “ang-.” One of the better articles comes from Amanda Petrusich at The New Yorker: The Cathartic Anger of Linkin Park. It may be easy for us to wrinkle our noses at earnest expressions of angst, anger, and anguish, but so often (in my experience) this is just a defense mechanism, preventing us from getting in touch with those harder emotions that actually do take residence somewhere in us. As Petrusich points out below, it may be more enduring to approach these emotions slantwise, with irony or self-consciousness, but the straightforward “reverse lightning-rod” method of Linkin Park obviously struck a chord. Bennington’s tragic death has forced us to reconsider what this band has meant to us: a lot, it turns out.

The culture has a way of revising and reasserting certain narratives, even historical ones; now, when tasked with evoking the sound and aesthetic of rock music circa 2000, it is simpler to recall a cabal of fashionable, New York City-based bands (the Strokes, Interpol, LCD Soundsystem, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs) whose aesthetic and ironic posturing has endured and blossomed. Yet Linkin Park’s breakthrough LP, “Hybrid Theory,” from 2000, sold thirty million copies worldwide. (Its follow-up, “Meteora,” from 2003, sold twenty-seven million.) Those numbers are staggering: it’s treacherous to conflate commercial success with other triumphs, but to deny Linkin Park its cultural significance feels egregious. It was easily the most popular and omnipresent new rock band of its decade.

…The crowd hollers when he pushes into his upper register at the end of the chorus—“Hung-ryyyy!” Bennington himself seems to prefer this bit—the part where he gets to bend and wince, to embody and release whatever pain he’s internalized. Relief, when it comes, is a spasm.

6. Here’s an interesting one from Autostraddle, written by Frances Lee, who grew up Christian and gave it up, it seems, because the demands were too high: Excommunicate Me From the Church of Social Justice (ht KW). Lee compares that early religious upbringing with the social activism in which they are currently involved. Will we ever get out of church?

When I was a Christian, all I could think about was being good, showing goodness, and proving to my parents and my spiritual leaders that I was on the right path to God. All the while, I believed I would never be good enough, so I had to strain for the rest of my life towards an impossible destination of perfection.

I feel compelled to do the same things as an activist a decade later. I self-police what I say in activist spaces…I am always ready to apologize for anything I do that a community member deems wrong, oppressive, or inappropriate—no questions asked. The amount of energy I spend demonstrating purity in order to stay in the good graces of fast-moving activist community is enormous. Activists are some of the judgiest people I’ve ever met, myself included. There’s so much wrongdoing in the world that we work to expose. And yet, grace and forgiveness are hard to come by in these circles. At times, I have found myself performing activism more than doing activism. I’m exhausted, and I’m not even doing the real work I am committed to do.

Lee frames this activism as a quest for purity; the good news of Jesus is that we’ve already lost that quest. “There is no such thing as a ‘pure’ Christian. There are only Christians. By calling ourselves this, we identify with a crucified outcast who has given all that we might not have shame” (Kris McInnes, The Mockingbird Devotional, June 16).

7. Last week, the NYT ran one called, When Your Doctor is Fitter Than You Are, by Lauren C. Howe (ht TSH), which describes how doctors who advertise their healthy lifestyles actually intimidate potential clients, who may be ashamed of leading less healthy lifestyles:

This research documents that promoting that you practice what you preach can backfire. Doctors who advertise their commitment to fitness in their own lives can seem critical of patients with less-than-perfect health, and inadvertently threaten patients who are struggling. Well-meaning doctors who are proud to be leading by example could be repelling exactly the people they may hope to inspire. As a result, many individuals may be avoiding doctor visits and not getting the care they need.

A cutting illustration, potentially, for clergy. How effective it is to flaunt virtues at your parishioners? As Nadia Bolz-Weber told us, in her interview in The Mockingbird, “To preach well, you have to have some skin in the game.” Meaning, not that you live above and beyond the issues people are dealing with, but that you are in them, with them.

8. A really fantastic one from The Other Journal: “The Unbearable Weight of Trash” by Ruthanne SooHee Crapo (ht RS). She begins by discussing trash (garbage, waste, etc.), and how the upper-middle classes have managed to ignore it—that which is so fundamental to existence.

When we abandon self-preoccupation, we realize that trash is part of us. For much of the history of Western philosophy, we have been able to other trash and its associates by declaring ourselves as having inherent value, identifying ourselves as belonging to a designated category of beings who have the capacity or propensity for rationality. We venerate the ability to think, placing our thinking selves in opposition to our material bodies…

Environmentalists lament when we discover trash in places of natural beauty or witness animals suffering in the wake of chemical runoffs or foul waste. Such scenes are the opposite of the purity many of us seek in our natural quests for wonder, beatific visions, and the relief of leaving human waste. We don’t want to deal with the foulness of the waste we create in our quest to live a happy modern life. To be blunt, we don’t want to deal with our shit. Instead, we seek nature as a commodified resource to distract us from our isolated modern lives.

Yet again, we’re faced with the way of glory versus the way of the cross.

Yet shit and its analogues—crap, discharge, refuse, waste—are the necessary byproducts of being a part of the life cycle. When things are alive they decompose, decay; they become foul; they go to waste. Our psychic state of fear and dread toward decay is most likely an evolutionary compulsion toward survival. These instincts have kept us alive but not immortal.

It is exactly in regard to this quest for immortality, for the complete absence of waste and decay, where Christian theology ought to have much to say. I suggest that the quest to never die, to never decay, to never become worm food, is a vain and fruitless quest. Of course, it is our destiny to decay—ashes to ashes, dust to dust. But in the Christian narrative, it is also in dying that we find life. In letting go of one life, we may now be reborn.

On that note, may I also plug the latest issue of the magazine, The Love & Death Issue, with an especially pertinent essay by Ethan Richardson on Ernest Becker’s classic, The Denial of Death. Get it while it’s hot!