1. This week brought some good news from the Old Country… In response to the increasingly acknowledged correlation between loneliness and physical deterioration/illness, the UK has appointed a minister for loneliness. I don’t know about you guys but, having grown up with a deep-seated appreciation for self-reliance, I couldn’t help getting a little smirky at this headline. But then, you can’t deny the humility in play here. Publicly admitting that not only is loneliness a legitimate problem but also that an entire nation is dangerously affected by it? That’s a pretty powerful admission of human need—which is in no way specifically British—and a humble reminder that what we need is not words or policies but presence, the actual presence of a person who both knows and loves us. Which of course reminds me of God, who, I’ve heard, has an invested interest in relationship. This weekend, may you be comforted by his unabating presence:

They urged him strongly, saying, “Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over.” So he went in to stay with them (Lk 24:29).

2. All of that is a swan dive into this piece by Mark Galli in Christianity Today. He highlights the ‘personhood of God’ in his defense of substitutionary atonement. That is, the belief that on the cross Jesus suffered the violent punishment we deserve, in order to set us free. Galli argues that from a distant, intellectual standpoint, this ‘model’ seems troubling. But for those engaged with their faith on a very personal level, certain evangelicals for example, substitutionary atonement can be extremely moving:

[Evangelicals] have “an urgent sense of man’s predicament…a mood so deep that it could never be completely articulated.” The mood is despair, and the urgency comes from a foreboding: If the reason for this despair isn’t addressed, one is doomed. The despair is grounded by guilt and shame for transgressions against divine law, which evangelicals recognize not as an impersonal and arbitrary law, but one that is a direct expression of the Personality behind the law. When we sin, we are keenly aware of the connection between the law of God and person of God. We have not merely violated a law but a person, and as such we are subject not just to punishment but also wrath, not merely just consequences but also rejection.

Interestingly, the same culture that says divine “punishment” is antiquated is also often demanding retribution for, say, sexual assault and other obstructions of social justice—so, sure, forgiveness is nice, but what we really want, in the end, is closure.

…take the trope that Hollywood regularly relies on in revenge movies. The screenwriters are appealing to something deep and basic in the human heart: When a great injustice has been done, retribution is due. The villain rapes and murders a series of teenage girls; all through the movie, the viewer wants the villain not merely caught but punished, usually in some violent scene that leads to the villain’s death. In spite of the predictable fireworks and excessive violence, we keep coming to such movies precisely because we are deeply satisfied by the punishment of offenders. […]

Yes, the model [of substitution] has been abused. Some have explained it as if Jesus appeased the wrath of an angry Father who gleefully watched his Son tortured to death—as if the Father and the Son had two different wills about what was going on. Not quite. Substitutionary atonement grounded in good Trinitarian theology insists on the unity of purpose of the Father and the Son, since “God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself” (2 Cor. 5:19, NASB). That is, God was enduring in his own self the divine wrath that we deserved—that I deserved.

The last point is one existential reason evangelical Christians remain deeply committed to this model of atonement. It is the one atonement model more than the others that reminds us of the personal investment of God in each one of us. Where [another model] Christus Victor, for example, is a wonderful model to describe cosmic redemption, substitutionary atonement is about my salvation: Christ died for me. It doesn’t get any more personal than that. And evangelical religion is nothing if not personal.

At any rate, substitutionary atonement isn’t the only way to understand the cross. But it’s personal and can be incredibly helpful, even if it sounds primitive. But perhaps, when you really consider it, that’s just what we are.

3. Which brings me to the opinion piece by Elizabeth Bruenig, from The Washington Post, regarding the recent twist in the sexual misconduct headlines—that fateful night with Aziz Ansari. (Sarah wrote a powerful response earlier today, and so I need not say much.) But, ICYMI, Bruenig writes:

…it seems we have these sorts of public airings of female sexual misery all the time now, which suggests to me that something is wrong with our sexual culture that can’t simply be explained by positing that women are insufficiently aware of their rights and liberties. One of the principal outcomes of the sexual revolution was to establish that sex is just like any other social interaction — nothing taboo or sacred about it, no big deal…The trouble is that sex is clearly different, as the lasting unhappiness of so many women attests.

Instead, we ought to appreciate that sex is a domain so intimate and personal that more harm can be done than in most social situations, and that given that heightened capacity for harm, we should expect people to operate with greater conscientiousness, concern and care in that domain than in others. In all domains of life, but especially where it comes to sex, we must insist that people consider one another’s interior lives, feelings, personhood, dignity.

A lot of law—i.e., great expectations—in the above sentiments, but this may be a case in which the little-l law is actually good, even if it remains powerless to enact the change it’s demanding. (Meaning, from the male perspective, the most immediate response is likely fear and/or anxiety and/or self-righteousness—”Am I being respectful enough? Am I being aware of other peoples’ interior lives?”—questions which emerge from a spirit of self-centeredness/preservation.)

Still, something true is being illuminated here, which is that we are all unspeakably valuable and embarrassingly fragile! And what we know, both from experience and from Scripture, is that respect, dignity, and love are born from respect, dignity, and love…not from our expectations of those things, which tend to produce the opposite.

In any case, I recommend Scott Larousse’s prescient piece from 2015, Sex is Nothing, Until It Isn’t, which said all of this before it was cool:

…the removal of a moral context for sex, which acted as a ring-fence, was a choice by our culture and its universities in the service of autonomy. But when you’re dealing with bad people, autonomy has its costs. And this is the heart of our culture’s inability to deal properly with sex: that we are hard-wired to believe that we are better than we are, that we are not bad people. […]

Everything’s not quite okay, but there is a “love that covers a multitude of sins.”

4. But now, humor! I really laughed at “Just Google It” from The New Yorker’s daily shouts. Also, theology enthusiasts will love “David Bentley Hart’s Grocery List,” by Alan Jacobs (who, need I remind you, is a Mockingbird conference speaker at NYC this year); for those who need some context for this one, look no further.

Also:

5. Renowned poet and former Mbird speaker Christian Wiman is all aboard the good humor/lightheartedness train. His recent piece in the Times, The Poet of Light, is a beautiful reflection on the value of conveying good, wholesome things in art. It’s mostly a tribute to the late Richard Wilbur, who wrote poetry that didn’t sacrifice joy for authenticity, or vice versa; instead, he rendered both. Wiman discusses the genuine challenge of this, given the way poets generally find inspiration from—and even seek out—various sufferings, often neglecting the good gifts (from God) of humor and joy (ht KW):

A poet who feeds on pathologies eventually becomes their food. But the issue is larger than that. A culture, too, is a work of imagination, or a failure of it. We are meant to be in a golden age of the television drama, and perhaps we are. But just consider how thoroughly so many of these shows equate misery with authenticity, and how many rely on violence and degradation (usually toward women) to establish character and intensity. And now consider the broader culture we have found ourselves in for the past year or so.

It kinda reminds me of the time Anthony Burgess said, “Unfortunately there is so much original sin in us all that we find evil rather attractive.” The artist who can look at the dark, but also illuminate the light, may well be some kind of master. In any case, Wiman’s piece serves as a welcome check on defeatism writ large by the information age.

6. An interesting story from Vice, by Sebastián Serrano, describes how the increasingly popular ‘smart drug’ modafinil only enhanced his workaholism. Yes, the pill made him more attentive at work, but it also left him irritable and unpleasant (def want to try this one. Sike!):

I began getting extremely angry anytime my co-workers asked me for a synonym, sent me a video, or showed me a meme. The casual desk chat that I usually enjoy and promote suddenly seemed offensive—not against me, but, even worse, against my work. […]

The day after my initial experiment, I decided to take another pill. The effects were basically the same—pleasure and well-being in the library. Sweating outside. I even decided not to buy a water bottle at the cafeteria because I couldn’t stand waiting in line…

Modafinil may be the least fun drug there is (at least of the ones I’ve tried), but in the rat race that is modern life, it’s sort of the only one that makes sense. It’s weird, isn’t it? The same young people who enthusiastically welcomed love drugs like MDMA and pills are now into taking things like modafinil—which, ironically, only makes you love work.

7. Apparently, in 2018, a lot of folks are half-heartedly seeking spiritual answers via astrology. It makes sense—if the law increases the trespass, then the modern expectations of scientific thinking/rationality have resulted in a pendulum swing towards romanticism/spiritualism. Those of us who experience irrational worry or anxiety innately understand this “swing” given how rationality has time and again come up woefully short in the face of our maladies. Julie Beck, at The Atlantic, writes about the phenomenon in The New Age of Astrology:

Astrology offers those in crisis the comfort of imagining a better future, a tangible reminder of that clichéd truism that is nonetheless hard to remember when you’re in the thick of it: This too shall pass. […]

A combination of stress and uncertainty about the future is an ailment for which astrology can seem like the perfect balm. […]

“I think that almost as a counterbalance to the fact that we live in such a quantifiable and meticulously organized world, there is a desire to connect to and tap into that numinous part of ourselves,” Warrington says. “I see astrology as a language of symbols that describes those parts of the human experience that we don’t necessarily have equations and numbers and explanations for.”

And as “religious” as these impulses seem, there’s something distinctly impersonal about it all, too. To me, the lack of love and humanity on the other line seems a little unhelpful. Which may account for why so many baby astrologists keep their new field at arms’ length, or approach it with some hesitation.

While Christianity need not fear the cosmos (cf. A Potentially Massive Misjudgment About Dreams), I do find great peace in the compassionate person of God, who is, in the words of DZ, “so for us that he is against himself.”

Strays:

The Good Place has officially gone into the Bad Place! In this show, the way up is down. Talk about a theology of the cross.

New episode of The Mockingcast is up: “Humblebragging about Aziz and Atonement”.

RIP Delores O’Riordan:

…the wind might change
I will still remain
I will still be here