Before I dive in, I want to extend a heartfelt thanks to everyone who made the DC event last weekend such a smash, especially the wonderful people at All Saints Episcopal Church in Chevy Chase and the super talented Meaghan Ritchey. It was everything we could have hoped for! The audio files should be up in the next few days. They’ll drop first on the Mockingcast feed, so be sure you’re subscribed (speaking of which, the program itself is coming back! More soon).

Okay, a ton of strong material this week. At the top of the pile…

1. “Happiness is Other People” by Ruth Whippman, author of America the Anxious (a recent fave), which appeared in The NY Times. The column expands on one of her main findings in that book, namely, that the more we’ve pursued happiness as a solo journey of (self-)discovery–rather than something that involves relationships–the more anxious and unhappy we’ve become. She’s essentially pushing back against the notion that “the answer lies within”, a refreshing caution against the allure of self-sufficiency (and inflated anthropology). And all the power to her, albeit with one notable reservation that I’ll spell out below. But here’s how she frames her thesis:

In an individualistic culture powered by self-actualization, the idea that happiness should be engineered from the inside out, rather than the outside in, is slowly taking on the status of a default truism. This is happiness framed as journey of self-discovery, rather than the natural byproduct of engaging with the world; a happiness that stresses emotional independence rather than interdependence; one based on the idea that meaningful contentment can be found only by a full exploration of the self, a deep dive into our innermost souls and the intricacies and tripwires of our own personalities. Step 1: Find Yourself. Step 2: Be Yourself…

The way she phrases the situation highlights the imperative(s) at work and prompts a big “easier said than done”, right? No wonder this ‘system’ is backfiring.

My reservation has to do with the wholesale endorsement of an outside-in approach to personal happiness, which would imply that we can manufacture happiness by manipulating our circumstances. Anyone who has struggled with depression or even mild anxiety (and/or malaise) knows that internal negativity is pretty inventive when it comes to finding fresh targets, that a change in context/externals can only do so much. This certainly resonates with a New Testament conception of soul-life, namely, that our real problem is within, not without (Mark 7). In other words, we dismiss inside-out at our own peril.

Course, as the alarming statistics on loneliness Whippman cites make clear, no one can mediate grace to themselves. Love, forgiveness, respect, belonging–these things only hit home when other people are involved:

Nearly half of all meals eaten in this country are now eaten alone… The Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Time Use Survey shows that the average American now spends less than four minutes a day “hosting and attending social events,” a category that covers all types of parties and other organized social occasions. That’s 24 hours a year, barely enough to cover Thanksgiving dinner, and your own child’s birthday party.

…far from confirming our insistence that “happiness comes from within,” a wide body of research tells us almost the exact opposite.

Study after study shows that good social relationships are the strongest, most consistent predictor there is of a happy life, even going so far as to call them a “necessary condition for happiness,” meaning that humans can’t actually be happy without them. This is a finding that cuts across race, age, gender, income and social class so overwhelmingly that it dwarfs any other factor…

The most significant thing we can do for our well-being is not to “find ourselves” or “go within.” It’s to invest as much time and effort as we can into nurturing the relationships we have with the people in our lives.

Given all that, the next time you have the choice between meditating and sitting in a bar with your friends complaining about meditation class, you should probably seriously consider going to the bar, no matter what your happiness app says.

I’m reminded of the massive study conducted by the Harvard School of Public Health we mentioned in the Mental Health issue of The Mockingbird, the pertinent section is worth paraphrasing here (not to mention a bit poetic in light of this past week’s quincentennial). I’m referring to the research that found that women who attend religious services once a week are five times less likely to commit suicide than those who don’t. The most common ‘secular’ explanation is that people who go to church have more social ties. They are less lonely, and more contented as a result.

This may be part of the truth, but it is not the whole truth. To deny that hope—and its regular cultivation—plays a substantial role strikes me as willful ignorance, engineered, one presumes, to minimize the faith component (and pacify atheistic doubts), or more charitably, to avoid galvanizing the ideological divisions that are fostering loneliness in the first place. Hope lies at the center of the communities these ladies are a part of, but it is not hope in community.

You could say, then, that community itself matters less than the type of community, or relationships. Are we talking about a community of competing individuals or a community of forgiven ones? A community that builds hierarchies of performance (consciously or not) or one that breaks them down?

What sounds like a strawman may not be as far-fetched as you might think. To wit, the Federal Reserve bank in San Francisco recently reported that if “you make 10 percent less than your neighbor, you are 4.5 percent more likely to die by suicide.” Needless to say, our neighbors are not outside our communities. We relate to them on a daily basis.

Alas, when it comes to suicide, just as not all communities are created equal, not all religious communities are created equal. A deeper dive into the Harvard research finds that while women who attended religious services weekly as a whole were far less likely to take their own lives than those who seldom or never attended services, Protestant women were seven times more likely to die by their own hand than their Catholic sisters.

So, lest we start pitching church as being “good for your health/happiness” (and once again confuse means with ends), let us remember: while church can indeed be beneficial, its potency depends on a variety of factors—and as much as I hate to say it, churches that explicitly appeal to our desire for results and/or personal progress tend not to be the kind that are ultimately helpful. (They also tend to be Protestant rather than Catholic.) You might say that when church becomes yet another venue for comparison and expectation—even the expectation of “radical community”—most of the benefits it might provide by virtue of the relationships one forms there are negated.

2. Thankfully, our friend Jason Micheli unpacked this very discrepancy between Protestants and Catholics (today) in a post bearing the provocative title, Hauerwas Is Wrong About the Reformation.

During his time at Union Seminary, Dietrich Bonhoeffer famously remarked that Protestantism in America had never gone through the Reformation; that is, the dominant ethos of American Christianity was pietism. Stanley is wrong, I think, about the continuing relevance of the Reformation because Bonhoeffer continues to be correct.

Pietism continues to be the dominant key in which both Evangelicalism and Mainline Protestantism perform the Gospel, preaching the Law without distinction from the Gospel in ways that manifest as either moralism on the one hand or turn-and-burn brimstone, which forgets Christ has already closed the abyss between God and us, on the either.

What most Protestants hear proclaimed week in and week is one of two flavors of pietism. From Evangelicals it’s Become a Better You. From Mainline Protestants it’s Build a Better World…

Hauerwas is wrong, I think, because all over America, in red and blue churches alike, Mainline and Evangelical both, we’re exhausting people on the treadmill of the Law, exhausting them with expectations that, by their very nature, grate against the good news of the Gospel that they are justified by grace and reckoned righteous through Christ alone and always.

As we tried to say in DC, the sad irony of the quincentennial–and the reason why fears about the inherent ‘anti-Catholicism’ of the occasion don’t keep many of us up at night–is that contemporary Protestantism actually has a lot more in common with medieval Roman Catholicism than with the church of Pope Francis.

3. Okay, shifting gears, long read of the week comes from Joshua Mitchell in City Journal, “The Identity-Politics Death Grip”. Before you groan and roll your eyes at another ‘IPTP’ (Identity Politics ThinkPiece), give it a shot. What begins as a better-than-average investigation of the topic vaults into a decidedly higher category once Mitchell starts talking about MLK and Neibuhr, ht RS:

Identity pertains not simply to the kind of person that we are. People have been sorted (and self-sorted) into kinds throughout history. Identity is different. First, it carries a determination about guilt or innocence that nothing can appreciably alter. Its guilt is guilt without atonement; its innocence is innocence without fault. No redemption is possible, but only a schema of never-ending debts and payments. Second, this schema is made possible because identity politics is, tacitly or expressly, a relationship—something quite different from sorting (and self-sorting) by kinds. In the identity-politics world, the further your distance from the epicenter of guilt, the more debt points you receive…

[Martin Luther] King and [Reinhold] Niebuhr were Christian theologians who spoke to the never fully healed wound of human suffering in history. They grasped that the problem of suffering operates on a different plane, in which the central issue is the broken human condition and its sorrowful reverberations in history. Suffering cannot be fully understood, in other words, without reference to human fault and guilt. That is the important insight of the Democratic Party—now gone horribly astray.

Identity politics shares with King the insight that fault and guilt must be addressed, but it rips them from their Christian theological context... King knew, of course, that sin has worldly consequences and that groups often sinned against other groups. But he would not have rested there, satisfied with a permanent debt that could never be repaid. God did not place man in the world so that he would dwell forever on his faults, but rather so that he would respond to them with repentance and forgiveness. Within the identity-politics world, there is only the permanence of debt. Within King’s Christian view, the worldly impossibility of paying back debt is superseded by the Christian possibility of repentance and forgiveness. Only through these can debts be canceled and life be renewed; only in this way can the balance sheet be zeroed. That such a re-balancing is possible, for King, was evidence of an awesome religious mystery, which gave hope and counseled patience.

4. Next, file this one under the cult of productivity, Ginia Bellafonte’s report in The NY Times on Lord & Taylor, WeWork and the Death of Leisure. Oh the humanity, CB:

With the rise of the internet, shopping came to look like work, and work, in many instances, came to look like leisure, which is why WeWork’s purchase of the Lord & Taylor building has a resonance beyond the obvious…

“WeWork’s mission is to help people make a life, not just a living,’’ as one of its executives recently explained in a news release. The tech sensibility, which has leaked into so many other industries, imagines distinctions between work and private life as benighted. You are always working — posting to Instagram your vacation pictures in Bali, where you also happen to be sourcing materials for your new app-distributed small-furniture line — and you are always living.

5. Social Science Study of the Week Month is definitely Caroline Beaton’s wonderful compilation for the Atlantic on the phenomenon of ‘unrealistic optimism’, the title of which pretty much says it all, “Humans Are Bad at Predicting Futures That Don’t Benefit Them”. Lots of gold in them hills, ht BJ. Runner-up would have to be “The Reminiscence Bump: Why America’s Greatest Year Was Probably When You Were Young”.

6. Humor-wise, I just got the joke about who KFC follows on Twitter. Sad and Useless’s collection of funny gravestones made me chuckle. And their feature on Swedish Pixel artist of Johan Karlgren is a classic example of what the Internet does best. And Bryan J rightly reminded us earlier this week that the Luther Insult Generator still exists.

7. Elsewhere, Ross Douthat’s musings in The Times on “The Misery Filter“–how we filter it out, not in–may be the best thing I’ve ever read from him, at least on the topic of little-l law. It’s got the makings of a solid book:

“A strong [misery] filter… creates real problems, because it effectively lies about reality to both the healthy and the sick. It lies to the healthy about the likelihood that they will one day suffer, hiding the fact that even in modernity the Book of Ecclesiastes still applies. It lies to the sick about how alone they really are, because when they were healthy that seemed like perfect normalcy, so they must now be outliers, failures, freaks.

And this deception is amplified now that so much social interaction takes place between disembodied avatars and curated selves, in a realm of Instagrammed hyper-positivity that makes suffering even more isolating than it is in the real world…

In America we have education for success, but no education for suffering. There is instead the filter, the well-meaning deception, that teaches neither religious hope nor stoicism, and when suffering arrives encourages group hysteria, private shame and a growing contagion of despair.

8. Finally, in music, Sasha Geffen’s review for Pitchfork of Julien Baker’s new record, Turn Out the Lights, is worthy of its subject. Baker’s a major talent and from what I’ve heard of the new album, it’s Grace in Addiction to the max, ht GP:

On “Happy to Be Here,” [Baker] confronts her maker directly: “I was just wondering if there’s any way that you made a mistake… I heard there’s a fix for everything/Then why/Then why/Then why not me?” Her voice climbs each time she repeats the question, until it breaks and hangs in the air around her. By the end of the song, she ameliorates her frustration by opting to “grit my teeth and try to act deserving/When I know there is nowhere I can hide from your humiliating grace.”

Also, today’s a big day for Dylanophiles around the world, especially the non-sermon-averse of us, with the release of Vol 13 of The Bootleg Series, Trouble No More, AKA the long-awaited Gospel Years boxed set. We’ve got a full review coming next week, but while you wait, Howard Fishman’s “Never Ending Bob Dylan” in The New Yorker is a great read. Or you can peruse our own BD archives here. Oh and did I mention we’re t-minus two weeks from Low in High School? Cause we are.

Strays

  • Since most of the items above are a little on the sobering side, do yourself a favor and check out our Podcast Recommendation of the month: Gimlet’s Heavyweights. In each episode, host Jonathan Goldstein takes a different person on a journey of reconciliation with someone or something from their past Amends are made, confusion dispelled, empathy discovered, forgiveness extended, tears cried. But without undue melodrama or manipulation. The most recent episode about Christina is a great place to start. Oh and for the theologically inclined, Theocast‘s recent live recording “You’re Not Crazy” is balm for the soul. Well done, guys.
  • Let me echo what CJ wrote about The Good Place a few weeks ago. That first season (in particular) is one sermon illustration after another–and Kristin Bell turns in a comic performance for the record books. Also, while I’ve enjoyed Stranger Things season 2 thus far, I’d be lying if I said it hadn’t lost a step somewhere. Yes, Hopper continues to rule and Wynona dialed it back thank God, just wish the core group of kids had more screen-time together. Still a few more episodes to binge, though, and still better than 95% of what’s out there.
  • NPR talking “The Other Reformation: How Martin Luther Changed Our Beer, Too”
  • Why millennials are ditching religion for witchcraft and astrology. Sigh.
  • The Most Revealing Moment in the New Joan Didion Documentary, ht JR.
  • Last but not least, when I was out in San Diego a few weeks ago for the Here We Still Stand conference, I got to sit down with Scott Keith for an episode of 1517’s fantastic podcast, Thinking Fellows. You can listen to it here.