1. First up, it’s not every day you come across the theology of the cross in The Washington Post, so you’ve got to hand it to Michael Gerson for taking the risk in his brief rumination on How We Should Pray After Las Vegas earlier this week. He writes:

The Christian faith involves a whisper from beyond time that death, while horrible, is not final — that the affirmations of the creeds and the inscriptions on tombstones are not lies. And for many, this hope is a barrier against despair.

Yet faith also encompasses something deeper and more difficult — what theologian Jurgen Moltmann has called “God’s terrible silence.” In that silence, only the scarred God, the weak and victimized God, the God of the cross seems to communicate. Not in words, but in a shocking example of lonely suffering. Christians turn to a God who once felt godforsaken, as all of us may feel in the nightmare of loss.

2. Following the same thread, The Babylon Bee bared its teeth appropriately in its “Tragedy Forces Every American To Ask How They Can Bend The Facts To Support Their Preferred Narrative”, with “narrative” here serving almost as a euphemism for “self-justification”… (Or is that a case in point? Sigh):

“There’s a time for weeping with those who weep—that comes later. But immediately after an unspeakably horrific act such as this, we must look inside ourselves for the strength and courage to distort the facts about what happened, if need be, and then come together as Americans and argue as though our lives depended on it,” the man being interviewed added to reporters. “Just like we did after the last national tragedy, and just like we’ll do after the next one.”

Even so, I haven’t been able to shake Russell Brand’s response to the situation (below), namely, how coverage of incidents like the shooting in Las Vegas differs from those where Islam is a factor, and what that difference reveals about our collective coping. Meaning, our kneejerk classification of every white perpetrator as a “lone wolf” (and/or our immediate jump into 2nd Amendment debates) may cloak an aversion to looking at the deeper psycho-spiritual roots of these acts–which is frankly the opposite of what we’re so eager to do when there’s an “other” pulling the trigger. Restricting the narrative exclusively to mental health or political factors (however legit they may be) prevents us from ever having to look at ourselves and our own spiritual bankruptcy, despair, and pain. Translation: I think Russell is right.

3. While we’re on the subject of Russell Brand, his new book Recovery arrived this week and let’s just say it could very easily tout the same subtitle as our own Grace in Addiction (i.e., “The Good News of Alcoholics Anonymous for Everybody”). If in that book we were trying to bring Bill Wilson’s Gospel of Disempowerment out of church basements and into the church itself, Russell is attempting to carry it into the most (ostensibly) secular corners of Western society imaginable. It’s an ambitious project, yes, but also a bracingly honest, predictably hilarious and most of all, deeply helpful one. Since most of the publicity thus far tends of focus on subjects other than what’s in the actual book, here’s a snippet from the chapter on the 3rd Step:

“I have heard 12 Step support groups referred to as a cult and it could be argued that any group with a system of beliefs is a cult. In working a 12 Step program I don’t feel like I’ve joined a cult, but that I’ve been liberated from one. The cult that told me that I’m not enough, that I need to be famous to be of value, that I need to have money to live a worthwhile life, that I should affiliate, associate and identify on 
the basis of color and class, that my role in life is to consume, that 
I was to live in a darkness only occasionally lit up by billboards and screens, always framing the smiling face of someone trying to sell me something. Sell me phones and food and prejudice, low cost and low values, low-frequency thinking. We are in a cult by default. We just can’t see it because its boundaries lie beyond our horizons”

4. Can’t move on from addiction quite yet. Not when the long read of the week reports that the main architect of Facebook’s “Like” button, Justin Rosenstein, has recently forsworn his creation, as has his erstwhile colleague Leah Pearlman who first announced it to the world. This may be startlingly familiar ground, but as we like to say, that only makes it more urgent. A crash course in the unfortunate profitability of the bound will, via The Guardian:

[Justin] Rosenstein purchased a new iPhone and instructed his assistant to set up a parental-control feature to prevent him from downloading any apps. He was particularly aware of the allure of Facebook “likes”, which he describes as “bright dings of pseudo-pleasure” that can be as hollow as they are seductive. And Rosenstein should know: he was the Facebook engineer who created the “like” button in the first place…

It was Rosenstein’s colleague, Leah Pearlman,… who announced the feature in a 2009 blogpost. Now 35 and an illustrator, Pearlman confirmed via email that she, too, has grown disaffected with Facebook “likes” and other addictive feedback loops. She has installed a web browser plug-in to eradicate her Facebook news feed, and hired a social media manager to monitor her Facebook page so that she doesn’t have to…

[Ex-Google Strategist James Williams] epiphany came a few years ago, when he noticed he was surrounded by technology that was inhibiting him from concentrating on the things he wanted to focus on… “Isn’t technology supposed to be doing the complete opposite of this?”

“Eighty-seven percent of people wake up and go to sleep with their smartphones,” he says… “The attention economy incentivizes the design of technologies that grab our attention,” he says. “In so doing, it privileges our impulses over our intentions.” That means privileging what is sensational over what is nuanced, appealing to emotion, anger and outrage.

5. Okay, time for something a bit more lighthearted, don’t you think? The New Yorker’s “Don’t Even Think About Talking To Me Til I’ve Had My Second La Croix“, written in pitch-perfect fratspeak, destroyed me. Literature buffs will get a kick out of “Cormac McCarthy’s Toys “R” Us Restructuring Analysis” in McSweeneys. And last week’s SNL episode with Ryan Gosling yielded a couple of knockouts, most notably “Papyrus” (at bottom) and “Levi’s Wokes”:

6. Moving further in the redemptive direction, our friend Matthew Sitman over at Commonweal published an interview he did with author Marilynne Robinson several years ago, and it’s well worth your time, especially those with an interest in her refreshing if idiosyncratic take on John Calvin. They also discuss the influence of DeCartes (not her favorite!), but only after dealing with Thornton Wilder’s increasingly well-known prognostication re: “new persuasive words”:

I really don’t know why people have so much trouble now writing about religious faith. It is true that clichés can override more interesting impulses. But the desire to find meaning, to be generous, to live well in an ethical and spiritual sense, is so widespread that it should not seem alien to people when it is expressed in the terms of traditional religion. Religion, if it is genuine, is so profoundly interwoven with individual thought and experience that it is no more exhaustible than consciousness itself. And fiction, whose purpose is didactic, is bad no matter whether the matter to be “taught” is Christianity or the world view of Ayn Rand. It seems often to be assumed by writers that religion is a pose, meant to deceive oneself or others, or that it is a bad patch on doubt or complexity. This is only convention, however. The writers I know have a much deeper engagement with the real issues of religion…

It is a grander thing altogether to be a Calvinist sinner than a Freudian neurotic, for example.

This comes the same week that Francis Spufford extolled Robinson’s approach to (fiction) writing about faith in a characteristically sharp excerpt from his forthcoming essay collection, True Stories & Other Essays. Out later this month!

7. One of Richard Rohr’s Daily Meditations this week contained a couple of stirring lines about 19th century mystic Thérèse of Lisieux’s parsing of perfection:

She showed many of us that Gospel holiness has little to do with moral achievements or the elimination of defects (those are ego needs). It is almost entirely about receiving God’s free gift of compassion, mercy, and forgiveness.

8. Amen to that. And amen to this too: a couple of weeks ago, CJ mentioned some of the responses to Eli Finkel’s wave-making new book The All Or Nothing Marriage. Today, thought I’d reproduce a couple paragraphs from Finkel himself, who quotes some of our favorite people in an excerpt at The Cut:

More recently, the psychologists Roy Baumeister and Michael MacKenzie argue that the self has become a fundamental value base, an entity “that is itself accepted as an inherently positive good on its [own], without reference to other, even more fundamental values.” Religious people typically view God’s will as a value base; they don’t feel compelled to ask why it’s important to prioritize God’s will. As Western societies have secularized, “the self has taken on ever more luster as a powerful value base.” The pursuit of self-expression has become a moral good in and of itself.

The moral righteousness of achieving authenticity has powerful implications for marriage. “Not long ago,” observes the sociologist Eric Klinenberg, “someone who was dissatisfied with his or her spouse and wanted a divorce had to justify that decision. Today it’s the opposite: If you’re not fulfilled by your marriage, you have to justify staying in it, because of the tremendous cultural pressure to be good to one’s self.”

Sound familiar? Hardly bears pointing out that the “self” in question is presumably the ego/Old Adam/what have you, loyalty to which, at least if you ask Russell Brand, may not be so righteous (or straightforward!) after all. Certainly this “new model” remains just as subordinated to our self-justification as the one that preceded it, if not more so, the Cult of Authenticity being one of our more exasperating replacement religions (of law).

9. Finally, a few pop culture notes: Saw Blade Runner 2049 last night and won’t give anything away (it’s beautiful!), just thought I’d encourage those who are so disposed to see it on as big a screen as possible. Next release-night outing I’m planning is for Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird, which looks fantastic. In TV, the Curb premiere left something to be desired, but not enough to dampen my optimism (after listening to the superb Origins podcast about it). Fortunately, the Rick and Morty finale was incredible. I keep hearing amazing things about the new season of The Good Place.

Music-wise, I’ll say it loud and proud, The Killers’ Wonderful Wonderful more than lives up to its name–as does pretty much everything those guys do (the studio version of “The Calling” has the intro!). And I’ve been mighty relieved at how much I’ve been enjoying Liam Gallagher’s solo debut thus far. Oh and don’t know where I was when Chvrches second record hit, but that one is pure gold. Last but not least, The AV Club rounded up some of the more memorable Tom Petty covers that’ve been played this week in tribute. For myself, I’ve always been partial to his collaborations with Jeff Lynne, even if all my favorite actual songs of his come from other albums. Top five off the top of my head would be “The Best of Everything”, “Square One”, “Hung Up and Overdue”, “Keeping Me Alive”, and “Last DJ”. The Wilbury story itself stands an indelible testament to the spirit of freedom and grace (as opposed to expectation) in creativity, a beautiful example of something that didn’t have to exist but did, almost by a will of its own. I thank God for it.

Strays

  • Dan Meers (of the Kansas City Chiefs) is a mascot with what can only be called a ministry.
  • Scott Jones had the considerable privilege of interviewing author/thinker Alan Jacobs for his Give and Take podcast. So excited that Alan will be speaking at our NYC Conference next year (April 26-28). Alan’s new book, How to Think: A Survival Guide for a World at Odds is out on Oct 17th.
  • Final talk titles and schedule for the DC Conference are up over on the conference site! This thing is going to be terrrrrrrrific. And we still have some scholarship funds available, just email us at info@mbird if that could be a help.
  • New Englanders take note: our good friends at Calvary St George’s in NYC are hosting their annual Stephen Tyng lectures in a few weeks (10/20-21), and their keynote will be Kevin Vanhoozer. Click here to find out more and be sure to press play on the video invitation below: