1. Another week, another opportunity to get jealous of Norway. In Mother Jones’ July/August Issue, Dashka Slater reports that North Dakota is experimenting with Norway’s “humane” prison system (which has been mentioned on our site before, here and here. Also, don’t forget the interview Ethan did with Norwegian prison warden Arne Nilsen for The Forgiveness Issue. Amazing stuff.)

Needless to say, humane prison procedures are beautiful examples of grace in practice and “left-handed power,” which Robert Farrar Capon defines as “precisely paradoxical power: power that looks for all the world like weakness, intervention that seems indistinguishable from nonintervention” (Kingdom, Grace, Judgment).

In North Dakota, “left-handed power” seems to be catching on:

The Norwegian principle of “dynamic security” posits that warm relationships between inmates and staff reduce the potential for violence. American prisons typically try to create safe conditions by means of oppressive rules, random searches, and the threat of additional punishment. Transitioning from one approach to the other requires a profound paradigm shift and the ability to sell front-line prison workers on a brand new mindset. “How do you get somebody who thinks they’re in law enforcement to figure out you need to be more of an empath, more of a social worker, a friend, and a mentor?” Jackson asks.

The correctional officers I met at the state penitentiary, ex-military all, weren’t outwardly hostile to the idea of cultivating relationships with prisoners, but it clearly didn’t come naturally to them.

On one level, Norway’s system is more dignifying to the people involved; on another (and this, of course, is the justifying factor for America), it’s also more cost-effective:

Bertsch and Jackson are convinced that their quest to treat prisoners like human beings jibes well with their state’s conservative goals: Be nice. Be fiscally responsible. Be a good neighbor. “The most I can do with the Legislature,” Bertsch tells me, “is get them to understand that incarcerating more people is not a good investment. If we had the same incarceration rate as Norway, we would have the resources to do a really good job with the people in our system.”

So this exercise of “left-handed power” may in fact work. “But then again,” as Capon writes, about the general concept itself, “it might not. It certainly didn’t for Jesus; and if you decide to use it, you should be quite clear that it probably won’t for you either. The only thing it does insure is that you will not—even after your chin has been bashed in—have made the mistake of closing any interpersonal doors on your side.”

Following that, here’s another real-world story of grace: Japan aims to reduce suicides by implementing measures to curb overwork.

2. “Work and play” proves to be a timeless theme—here’s an article from the NYT, “The Bushmen Who Had the Whole Work-Life Thing Figured Out,” by James Suzman (ht CB). Suzman compares the unrelenting demands of modern society’s 40+ hour workweek to that of the Ju/’hoansi, a group of hunter-gatherers from southern Africa who, in Suzman’s view, have long had this “whole work-life thing” figured out. They work approximately 15 hours per week and otherwise find purpose in recreation:

…they had an unyielding confidence in the providence of their environments and the knowledge of how to exploit this. As a result, they only ever procured enough food to meet their immediate needs confident that there was always more available, much like busy urbanites with empty refrigerators who get food on the go when they are hungry…

Or, like the who the Israelites were supposed to be when God asked them to trust him and to gather only as much manna as they needed for the day ahead; or, like who we are supposed to be when Jesus tells us not to worry about tomorrow. It’s lightyears from who we really are: technologically advanced, but unyielding in our devotion to work.

…many environmental economists warn that we have reached the limits of growth and that our continued productivity risks cannibalizing our future. Yet mainstream strategies for dealing with problems like climate change and biodiversity remain firmly rooted in the core assumptions of the economic problem — they aim to find more sustainable ways for us to continue to produce, consume and work as much as we do. Likewise strategies proposed to manage the impacts of automation tend focus mainly on the question of how to find replacement work for those made redundant.

But if our working culture is an artifact of the economic problem, then perhaps we would do better to embrace automation as an opportunity to reimagine our relationship with work so that we may, as Keynes put it, “look forward to an age of leisure and abundance without dread.”

I find that if I work when I have the option to play, it is often an attempt to keep myself “on the hook,” so to speak. When we relax, when we play, it’s hard to feel like we deserve it. That, or we find self-importance in “doing” (an illusion, it seems).

All that considered, the following video is a must-watch re: automation, machines, and Christian living. A master work, its themes are countless. “If there’s no love inside of you, then you must be a robot too… Efficient! Hardworking! We’re programmed for working!!” (ht JZ). Buckle up!

3. From The Onion: “God Excited About First Trip To Japan”:

THE HEAVENS—After years of talking about visiting the East Asian country, God, Our Lord and Heavenly Father, told reporters Monday that He was excited to finally be taking His first trip to Japan. “It seems like such a fascinating culture, and I’m excited to try sushi in the country that started it all,” said the Divine Creator, adding that while He only knew a few words of Japanese, He had read online that the people there were generally happy to help out a visitor, even if they didn’t know English themselves. “I have to do the bullet train—I think it goes 200 mph or something like that—and maybe I can get tickets to a sumo match. I also think it’ll be fun to just wander around and look at interesting stuff. I’ve heard you can get pretty much anything from a vending machine.” At press time, God had booked a two-week vacation and was researching tips for minimizing jet lag.

Japan is definitely becoming a cultural enchantress. It’s about time God took a visit.

4. Pew’s research about the decline of organized religion sparked a lot of concern in Christian communities. It’s always been an interesting question because, when it comes down to it, so much depends on how you define “religion.” You may, for example, define religion as “our quest for significance,” as does Clay Routledge in this NYT article: “Don’t Believe in God? Maybe You’ll Try U.F.O.s” (ht RS). He brings some fascinating stats to our attention:

…evidence suggests that the religious mind persists even when we lose faith in traditional religious beliefs and institutions. Consider that roughly 30 percent of Americans report they have felt in contact with someone who has died. Nearly 20 percent believe they have been in the presence of a ghost. About one-third of Americans believe that ghosts exist and can interact with and harm humans; around two-thirds hold supernatural or paranormal beliefs of some kind, including beliefs in reincarnation, spiritual energy and psychic powers.

These numbers are much higher than they were in previous decades, when more people reported being highly religious. People who do not frequently attend church are twice as likely to believe in ghosts as those who are regular churchgoers. The less religious people are, the more likely they are to endorse empirically unsupported ideas about U.F.O.s, intelligent aliens monitoring the lives of humans and related conspiracies about a government cover-up of these phenomena. […]

When people are searching for meaning, their minds seem to gravitate toward thoughts of things like aliens that do not fall within our current scientific inventory of the world. Why? I suspect part of the answer is that such ideas imply that humans are not alone in the universe, that we might be part of a larger cosmic drama. As with traditional religious beliefs, many of these paranormal beliefs involve powerful beings watching over humans and the hope that they will rescue us from death and extinction.

A great many atheists and agnostics, of course, do not think U.F.O.s exist. I’m not suggesting that if you reject traditional religious belief, you will necessarily find yourself believing in alien visitors. But because beliefs about U.F.O.s and aliens do not explicitly invoke the supernatural and are couched in scientific and technological jargon, they may be more palatable to those who reject the metaphysics of more traditional religious systems.

Now, if all of this has got you jonesing for a sci-fi rabbit-hole, you might want to check out Jon Bois’s 17776 (what football will look like in the future), a piece of multimedia online fiction that has garnered rave if perplexed reviews from the likes of Quartz, Wired, and The New Yorker. Telling the story of immortal humans playing an eternal game of football, it raises the Big Questions about life, death, and the very essence of humanity. Over at Mere Orthodoxy, Jake Meador wrote a fantastic review that references…wait for it…Robert Capon!

5. Here’s a wonderful piece by Alan Jacobs, “Writing by the Always-Wrong” (ht KW). This one is a bit tricky getting into, since Jacobs immediately references one article, which references another article, but if you buzz to the bottom of it, you’ll love it. Swear. He starts off by engaging a debate brought up by Sara Hendren, on the correct way of writing about people with disabilities/disabled people/differently abled people…you get the idea. Sara concludes that any single writer’s perspective will inevitably be limited, and from there Jacobs takes off:

…I applaud this statement by Sara, which comes just before the passage that I’ve already quoted: “Lately I’m thinking that I can only write what I can write, knowing that it will be incomplete and partial in its rendering.” Exactly. Riffing on Emily Dickinson: Tell the truth that you can tell, even if you can’t help telling it slant.

But it takes courage to do this because there are always critical panthers tensed and ready to pounce. […]

In one of his most powerful poems, Auden writes,

Beloved, we are always in the wrong,
Handling so clumsily our stupid lives,
Suffering too little or too long,
Too careful even in our selfish loves …

We are always in the wrong. It’s the human condition. If people remembered it, remembered that it’s their condition too, they might be a little more forgiving of the limitations of others.

Though many don’t acknowledge their own always-in-the-wrongness, they know, they can’t help knowing, that if they speak from their fund of knowledge and experience, others will censure them in the way they have censured. (“By what measure ye mete….”) And so it becomes ever easier to take refuge in the tweet-sized dismissal of what others venture, and in the bogus rectitude of silence. That’s why Auden notes that we respond to our always-in-the-wrongness by becoming “too careful” — “Too careful even in our selfish loves.” But if you’re always wrong already, why not sin boldly? Why not risk greatly?

6. Along similar literati lines, this one, from The New Yorker, tackles the age-old science v. faith debate (or something like that). In it, Dan Piepenbring reviews a new book, which reports the stats of famous writers’ particular styles (word usage, syntax, etc.), effectively quantifying the previously mysterious writing process. It’s called Nabokov’s Favorite Word is Mauve, by Ben Blatt. Fun and interesting, Piepenbring’s review will be especially good for avid readers and writers: “The Heretical Things Statistics Tell Us About Fiction.” Heretical, why? Because, in his view, reducing fiction to statistics takes the spiritual mystery out of it. The non-quantifiable is quantified. It’s a bit like reducing God to science.

By reminding us that literature is just strings of words and punctuation, Blatt has taken the whiff of the godhead out of it…Even in great books, [his data] says, one word follows another, all of them slaves to grammar, sequence, and probability.

He reports famous writers’ favorite words (Woolf: “mantelpiece”; Nabokov: “mauve”; Melville: “sperm.” Uh…as Piepenbring points out, that last is misleading). (And before I forget, here’s McSweeney’s “20 Literary Would-You-Rathers”).

[As] the figures pile up, claustrophobia sets in. I caught myself wishing I worked in a less quantifiable medium. Ceramicists, for instance, never seem to answer to the Blatts of the world… “Mauve” and its number-crunching can feel joyless—the equivalent of an architecture critic who counts the number of bricks in a façade. At his weakest, Blatt sounds like a tour guide over a loudspeaker. “It’s by noting the role of each word and punctuation mark,” he writes, “that the greats are able to hone their writing”—an observation that at once understates the act of revision and ignores the ecstatic, almost compulsive sloppiness that makes some writers great.

“The written word and the world of numbers should not be kept apart,” Blatt writes, and I think he’s right; what’s frustrating is that no one has yet figured out how they might productively collaborate.

Once again, it’s an age-old debate, but both Blatt and Piepenbring’s perspectives are refreshing. While the world of numbers is not always the most exciting, the written word should not necessarily fear it.

7. Regarding everyday little-l laws, we can thank writer Teddy Wayne for unmasking the unspoken performancism of Venmo. For the uninitiated, Venmo is an app that allows you to easily exchange money with friends. It’s great if, for example, you need to pay someone back because you forgot your wallet before going out to the movies. Things gets a little weird, though, because it’s like a social network, and all of our acquaintances can see our transactions (ht MM): “Thanks to Venmo, We Now All Know How Cheap Our Friends Are”:

…by making it so easy to pay someone back for purchases as trifling as a coffee, the app arguably promotes the libertarian, every-user-for-himself ethos of Silicon Valley.

“It’s making people less generous and chivalrous,” Ms. Pennoyer said. “It used to be you’d go to a restaurant, and you’d put down your credit cards and split it 50-50, even if one person had steak and one had chicken. But now people pay exactly to the cent.”

“It’s never done.” Wendy MacLeod in The New Yorker

To assist with record-keeping, the app also requires users to write a short memo declaring what the money is for. The memos are sometimes bluntly functional — “drinks,” “rent” — but, perhaps to mitigate the businesslike feel, are often whimsically annotated…Yet, as with anything emoji-speckled or exclamation-point-riddled, there is a performative aspect to the memos, especially since the default mode is that transactions (though not the dollar amount) and contact lists are publicly viewable…It is possible to make one’s ledger and contacts private, but many users overlook these options, don’t care, or might even desire the visibility: both to document their own experiences as though in a photo album and to broadcast their curated lifestyles to others. Venmo, meet FOMO.

“A part of me wants people to see that I’m doing stuff,” Mr. Auchincloss admitted. “I kind of like that people say, “Oh, James went out to a baseball game or got drinks with people.’”

Strays:

  • This past Wednesday, The Toast returned to the blogosphere for one day only, “for literally no reason.” Co-founder Nicole Cliffe, who delivered a laugh-and-cry kind of testimony at our recent conference, is currently doing a humorous advice column over at Elle, along with weekly Game of Thrones recaps.
  • Runners take note: you may want to join the Church of the Long Run (ht SZ).
  • Fugazi and the Law in punk rock.
  • No One Is Safe from Wendy’s Tweets (ht MM).
  • Our friend Mark Galli from Christianity Today is releasing a new book in September, Karl Barth: An Introductory Biography for Evangelicals. You can pre-order here.
  • If you find yourself in the San Diego area in October, check out the Here We Still Stand conference where our own David Zahl will be a featured speaker. Use the code “MBIRD” for $50 off your registration!
  • Yesterday was the 30th anniversary of the following, dare I say, ‘gospel’ song. Enjoy!