1. This week brought some fantastic revelations, not the least of which was Bob Dylan’s bootleg (gospel-infused) song, “Making A Liar Out of Me”:

Needless to say, we’re eagerly awaiting this collection’s release. From Andy Greene at Rolling Stone:

Bob Dylan began writing gospel songs at such a furious rate in late 1978 that there was no way his record company could put them all out, even if they let him release two albums of Christian music just 10 months apart. Many of the songs that never made it on record were played live on the gospel tours of 1979 to 1981 and soon circulated within the fan community via bootleg, but others never surfaced outside of the rehearsal room. One of those songs is “Making a Liar Out of Me.” It was mentioned as a known song title in Clinton Heylin’s book Still on the Road: The Songs of Bob Dylan, 1974–2006, but absolutely nothing was known about it.

2. On this site, we’ve mentioned before the growing rates of anxiety and depression, particularly among what psychologist Jean Twenge has come to call “iGen,” but this extensive piece in the NY Times Magazine, “Why Are More Teenagers Than Ever Suffering from Severe Anxiety?”, was both heart-wrenching and perceptive—definitely worth a read (ht CB). Describing the debilitating case of anxiety in a high-performing high school student (which hits a little too close to home), Benoit Denizet-Lewis writes: “The therapists had quickly figured out that Jake was afraid of failure above all else, so they devised a number of exercises to help him learn to tolerate distress and imperfection.” Such techniques proved effective but also taxing and not easily reproducible.

“These kids are incredibly anxious and perfectionistic,” [Suniya Luthar, a professor of psychology at ASU] says, but there’s “contempt and scorn for the idea that kids who have it all might be hurting.”

For many of these young people, the biggest single stressor is that they “never get to the point where they can say, ‘I’ve done enough, and now I can stop,’ ” Luthar says. “There’s always one more activity, one more A.P. class, one more thing to do in order to get into a top college. Kids have a sense that they’re not measuring up. The pressure is relentless and getting worse.”

It’s tempting to blame helicopter parents with their own anxiety issues for that pressure [but]… “Now so many students have internalized the anxiety. The kids at this point are driving themselves crazy.”

This ever-present anxiety is a general cry from the depth of human need, and it can’t (always) be blamed on external circumstances.

Denizet-Lewis goes on to describe special classrooms which cater to students suffering from these disorders—naturally, these accommodations are controversial:

Some schools have taken drastic measures to accommodate what one administrator called “our more fragile students.” At Roxbury High School in Roxbury Township, N.J., there are two dedicated classrooms for anxious teenagers, including one next to a mural of Edvard Munch’s painting “The Scream.” These students typically avoid the mammoth school cafeteria in favor of eating lunch in one of the classrooms… Some of the programs’ teenagers hoped to go to college, where no special classrooms would await them. How was this preparing them for that?

“Some will say that this feeds the monster,” concedes Patricia Hovey, director of special services at Roxbury High. “But you’ve got to start where the kids are, not where you are or where you want them to be. We’ve got to get them in the building. Many of our students simply don’t come to school if they have to spend all day in” general-education classes. Once the students are in school, Hovey explained, staff members can help them build the confidence and skills to eventually transition to Roxbury’s regular classes—and stand a chance at navigating college or a job once they graduate.

I get the feeling that this isn’t just good strategy for dealing with anxious students. Seeing people for who they are, not who they ought to be, seems to be a huge part of effectively interacting with the world, of doing life. Consider church: parishioners are so often slammed with who they ought to be that the message of who they are—beloved in God’s eyes—never actually lands. Maybe catering to needy peoples’ specific needs is one way of getting through to them.

I don’t know about you, but for me, these students’ utmost fear of failure is all too familiar. I totally get it. Along those lines, Carl Richards recently provided the following (gracious) commentary for the Times (ht LP):

“Isn’t it interesting that when others fail, we tend to admire them for trying? Yet when we fail, we beat ourselves up for the very same thing. Not only that, but isn’t it also amazing how quickly we forgive and forget other people’s mistakes and how long we hold onto our own?”

Perhaps this is what’s behind much of our pervasive self-justification. Holding onto our own mistakes, we need every excuse to make ourselves feel worthy.

3. An interesting story from from Katharine Q. Seelye discusses the alarming rates of overdose-related deaths, but, perhaps more surprisingly, a profile of a man dealing with death head-on in the wake of an epidemic (ht JZ):

After laboring here as the chief forensic pathologist for two decades, exploring the mysteries of the dead, [chief medical examiner of New Hampshire Dr. Thomas A. Andrew] retired last month to explore the mysteries of the soul. In a sharp career turn, he is entering a seminary program to pursue a divinity degree, and ultimately plans to minister to young people to stay away from drugs.

“After seeing thousands of sudden, unexpected or violent deaths,” Dr. Andrew said, “I have found it impossible not to ponder the spiritual dimension of these events for both the deceased and especially those left behind.” […]

Dr. Andrew said he developed an appreciation for the essence of life by seeing its fragility. Most of the nearly 5,800 people he has examined on his stainless steel autopsy table, he said, “woke the day they died oblivious to the fact that it would be their last on earth.” […]

For him, there is comfort in the concept of an afterlife.

“I’m very, very hopeful for what comes after this, because this —” he said, gesturing toward the woman he had just autopsied — “is pretty awful.”

I guess it’s hard to look death in the eye and not change, somehow, significantly.

4. Which brings me to Season 2, episode 4 of NBC’s The Good Place, which last night found Ted Danson contemplating death and (naturally) undergoing an existential crisis.

The first season (a 13-episode snack-pack of slapstick comedy and pseudo-spirituality) is on Netflix now. Do yourself a favor and begin at the beginning, and don’t even think about googling spoilers! Season 1 alone offers enough twists and turns to shock your socks off. (Mild spoilers follow, but curiosity won’t kill you…here.)

The Good Place follows Eleanor Shellstrop (Kristen Bell) into the afterlife, which is approximately 5% like most major religions imagined it would be. You get to live in the house of your dreams, with your soulmate, where there’s fro-yo on every corner. Most importantly, you’re surrounded by good people. The problem? Eleanor Shellstrop is not a good person. By some happy accident, she makes it into the the Good Place in spite of being, by all accounts, a selfish motherforker. Which reminds me: you can’t cuss in the Good Place, because, well, it’s the Good Place. You get autocorrected in real time…to which Eleanor says, “That’s bullshirt.” I mean, is there a better picture of the Christian message? (“Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God before you.”)

The following scene from the first season (episode 11) shows Eleanor trying to earn her spot in the Good Place. She needs to get enough points to save herself.

Here, when Eleanor says, “I know what I have to do,” she means: I have to get out of the game. I have to stop trying to be a winner. Remember this? “I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” Jesus is talking about motivation, about the heart-level, the things unseen. Are you a good person if you do good things for the wrong reason? As The Good Place makes clear, the answer is “no”—we need something else.

Well, in other TV news, it’s Friday the 13th, which means…the final trailer for Season 2 of Stranger Things has arrived…and it is awesome:

5. A bit of humor from the Onion: “Online Activists Unsure About Offensiveness Of Article, Figure They’ll Destroy Author’s Life Just In Case.”

Also, as a follow-up to Howie’s recent post on the almost-Christian nature of Austin Rogers’ Jeopardy! victories, here’s this (“…no one calls Alex Trebek ‘dude’”):

6. Really looking forward to Alan Jacobs’ forthcoming book, “How to Think.” In an interview with Jonathan Merritt over at Religion News Service, Jacobs makes some compelling remarks, foremost among them:

Christians of all people ought to be attentive to our own shortcomings, and the ways our dispositions of mind and heart and spirit can get in the way of knowing what’s true. After all, we’re the people who are supposed to believe that “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God,” and “the heart is deceitfully wicked above all things” and that sort of stuff. If we want to think better, then the first step should be to take those beliefs as seriously as many of us say we do, and to turn a ruthlessly skeptical eye on ourselves—before we turn it on our neighbors. There’s a line about specks in our neighbors’ eyes and logs in our own that applies here.

Wham bam—Jacobs’ friend David Brooks gives a similarly impressive review of the book here:

Jacobs makes good use of C. S. Lewis’s concept of the Inner Ring. In every setting—a school, a company or a society—there is an official hierarchy. But there may also be a separate prestige hierarchy, where the cool kids are. They are the Inner Ring.

There are always going to be people who desperately want to get into the Inner Ring and will cut all sorts of intellectual corners to be accepted. As Lewis put it, “The passion for the Inner Ring is most skillful in making a man who is not yet a very bad man do very bad things.”

People will, for example, identify and attack what Jacobs calls the Repugnant Cultural Other — the group that is opposed to the Inner Ring, which must be assaulted to establish membership in it… Jacobs nicely shows how our thinking processes emerge from emotional life and moral character. If your heart and soul are twisted, your response to the world will be, too.

7. Fr. Stephen Freeman is back at it again with the white Vans a beautiful piece about what it means to be yourself:

Hidden within almost every new experience, I think, is the lure of the “new self.” The new self, of course, is wiser than the old and will not make the same mistakes. The new self starts with an imaginary clean slate with the baggage of the past left behind. The new self presumes collective amnesia on the part of everyone else. […]

The invention of the self (and its reinvention), much like my childhood fantasies, is delusional. It is a wasted effort in which everything runs in the wrong direction. We can, in truth, never be other than we are; everything else is a façade, a psychological Potemkin Village. Such efforts never hold up to examination.

The greater task is the journey towards the true self. The Elder Sophrony said quite succinctly: “The way up is the way down.” The mindset within our modern culture is one of constant progress, of striving to be something other than what we are. The classical pattern within the Church does the opposite—it moves towards a deeper and deeper realization of the truth of our being. On the one hand, this is the heart of repentance. Repentance in the modern mind is distorted into just one more model of progressive change. True repentance is not found in being what we are not, but in confessing and confronting what and who we truly are. […]

In the paradoxical life of true Christianity, striving to be better often feeds the darkness of our shame. We become angry at our failures, judgmental of those around us, suspicious of others, anxious and depressed. The Cross provides the pattern for the Christian life. It is the great counter-intuitive march towards glory, a glory that is crucifixion itself. […]

That new creation begins in the very depth of the soul. The journey to that depth is marked by weakness, shame, loneliness and what might even feel like failure. It is the difficult work of bringing into the light what we would often prefer to remain hidden. Christ has not come to improve us, but to remake us from the inside out.

Strays:

Ruden may have to defend her retranslation of the name of God from “Lord” to “Master.” But her approach is a thoughtful one. It is governed by a determination to present Augustine’s relations with his God as endowed with the full emotional weight of a confrontation between two real persons. She takes no shortcuts. Small departures from conventional translations show her constant effort to capture an unexpected dimension of tenderness (very different from that of the slave owner) in God’s relation to Augustine and in Augustine’s to God.

To take small examples: … When Augustine looks back at his first mystical awakening, he cries: Sero te amavi: “Late have I loved you!” It is a famous cry. But it is a little grand. You and I would say: “I took too long to fall in love.” And this—the less dramatic but more human turn of phrase—is what Ruden opts for. Repeated small acts of attention to the humble, human roots of Augustine’s imagery of his relations to God enable Ruden to convey a living sense of the Being before Whom we find him transfixed in prayer: “Silent, long-suffering and with so much mercy in your heart.”

  • Needing more weekend reads? There are some great thoughts (especially towards the end) in Kathryn Schulz’s recent New Yorker article, “How To Be a Know It All
  • If you haven’t yet signed up for our upcoming conference in DC (Oct 27-29), you can do so here! It will be a fun, relaxed opportunity to meet some new friends and hear the message that matters most—along with some fascinating talks by Daryl Davis, David Zahl, and Sarah Condon (among others). You won’t want to miss it! Newcomers are especially welcome.
  • One final announcement—our website will be down part of the day on Sunday due to web maintenance on our bookstore. Stay tuned!