1. Let’s begin with a couple links to Alain de Botton’s (wellspring of a) website, The Book of Life. The first is about the importance of confession. A traditionally Christian practice, confession remains as necessary in 2018 as it ever was (ht JB):

…many of us feel like very bad people and have certainly done and thought some pretty odd things. But we are not, on that score, abnormal or beyond forgiveness, redemption and understanding. We are just operating with an overly narrow conception of normality and a desperately punitive idea of what is permissible… We need the opportunity to let another human being know the complex, peculiar and sometimes desperately unimpressive reality involved in being us.

Therapy or no therapy, there is something undeniably Christian about being known in all your deep-darkness—and being accepted.

A similarly powerful excerpt comes from “The True Cause of Dread and Anxiety.” Often when we are feeling anxious, waiting for the other shoe to drop, this is because we feel that we are bad people—and we expect bad things to happen to bad people (ht DB):

Those who don’t like themselves too much will automatically expect a lot of awful things to happen to them — and will worry intensely whenever, for some peculiar reason, they aren’t as yet entirely catastrophic, a mistake that is surely about to be corrected (few things are as panic-inducing to a self-hater as good news).

This is one reason so many people hear the gospel and immediately object: What about judgment? What about discipline and justice? The good news—that we are totally off the hook, forgiven and loved unconditionally—can be enraging before it is relieving.

To correct self-hatred and shame is a life’s task. We are back to an all-too familiar theme; that most psychological problems arise because people have not been empathetically cherished and reliably loved when it really mattered, and that if one could be granted one wish to improve the internal well-being of humanity, then it would be, with a wave of a magic wand, to do away with shame. The collective gasp of relief would be heard on distant galaxies.

2. From NY Mag Andrew Sullivan returns with yet another provocative think-piece (ICYMI: The Poison We Pick). This time he unpacks the paradox inherent in modernity’s “progress” (savvy technology, advanced medicine) alongside the heightened rates of depression, addiction, loneliness, etc. “The World is Better Than Ever. Why Are We Miserable?

Sullivan leans on a new book, by Patrick J. Deneen, entitled Why Liberalism Failed (“By ‘liberal,’ I don’t mean left-liberal politics; I mean the post-Machiavelli project to liberate the individual from religious authority and the focus of politics on individual rights and the betterment of humankind’s material conditions.”):

As we have slowly and surely attained more progress, we have lost something that undergirds all of it: meaning, cohesion, and a different, deeper kind of happiness than the satiation of all our earthly needs. We’ve forgotten the human flourishing that comes from a common idea of virtue, and a concept of virtue that is based on our nature. This is the core of Deneen’s argument, and it rests on a different, classical, pre-liberal understanding of freedom. For most of the Ancients, freedom was freedom from our natural desires and material needs. It rested on a mastery of these deep, natural urges in favor of self-control, restraint, and education into virtue. It placed the community — the polis — ahead of the individual, and indeed could not conceive of the individual apart from the community into which he or she was born. They’d look at our freedom and see licentiousness, chaos, and slavery to desire. They’d predict misery not happiness to be the result.

Being stripped of this cohesion leaves us feeling naked and ashamed, according to a new piece by Father Stephen Freeman (whom we’ve cited quite a bit in the past year or so) (ht RS). In that vulnerability, Freeman suggests, we actually turn toward tribalism, seeking a sense of belonging—which only indicates our need for greater spiritual healing.

…contemporary Americans are not highly individualized: we are tribal, in the extreme. It is the group, however constructed, that gives identity, for the identity that is sought is one that covers us, that hides our vulnerability and gives us the safety of those who agree. A tell-tale sign of this dynamic is found in our culture’s anger. Anger is largely driven by shame and we can affirm our tribal protection only by shouting at the outsider. Everything outside the group threatens to unmask us. To an increasing extent, the group to which we belong is that set of people who share our anger.

I think about this dynamic particularly in the context of religious conversion and belonging. The process of conversion strips us of many things. It can feel alien and alienating. That itself can bring on a variety of efforts to “clothe” ourselves in ways that are less than helpful. T-shirts, coffee mugs, buttons and lots of icons, announce our new affiliation in much the same manner as our loyalty to a football team. On the emotional side, it is possible to become argumentative and aggressive or overly concerned about the boundaries of the Church. These responses are driven largely by our own neuroses and reveal things that need healing rather than nurture.

3. The concept of groupthink features heavily in Alissa Wilkinson’s review of the new A Wrinkle in Time adaptation. (BTW, Wilkinson will be speaking at our conference in NYC. Very excited for that!):

…in the novel, IT [the antagonist] isn’t just an evil force that makes people experience “jealousy, judgment, pain, and despair,” as the film puts it. It’s a literal brain… The brain seizes hold of people’s consciousness, and its result isn’t just to make them bad. It actually makes them all the same. It erases the differences between them and makes them operate by preset manuals. Evil manifests as a kind of ideological groupthink.

L’Engle talked about this in her Newberry acceptance speech in 1962 (published in some editions of Wrinkle), saying:

There are forces working in the world as never before in the history of mankind for standardization, for the regimentation of us all, or what I like to call making muffins of us, muffins like every other muffin in the muffin tin. This is the limited universe, the drying, dissipating universe that we can help our children avoid by providing them with “explosive material capable of stirring up fresh life endlessly.”

For L’Engle, the power of evil is not just to make us bad and angry and violent, but also to put us to sleep to what is going on in the world by controlling us — the way we live, the way we think, the way we desire — until we are all the same…

In this regard, Wilkinson says, the film itself is weakened by excising some of its Christian uniqueness:

…it undercuts the story, preserving a more vague spirituality at the expense of any particulars in a tale that’s all about particularity. One wonders while watching the film if Disney underestimates young viewers’ ability to understand that there are different religions (something that L’Engle herself was clearly interested in), many of which are interested in the matters the film addresses, and whether the better choice for someone looking to make a religiously inclusive film might have been to preserve the film’s Christianity but add influences from other systems of belief, rather than smoothing them all out into a vague swirl of “love.”

4. A little early-trauma-related humor from The Hard Times: “Seasonal Depression No Match for Number Mom Did on Local Woman“—perfect for a chilly mid-March:

“Getting through the days has been really tough lately, I’m not gonna lie,” Kellison said. “But I’m pretty sure the cold weather isn’t the reason the longest relationship I’ve maintained was with the guinea pig I had when I was 12. I’ll be fine. I just need to be left alone…”

Also: The Entry for WebMD on WebMD.

5. Likewise humorous is this one from The Times: “The Nun in Loyola-Chicago’s Huddle Has a Few Things to Say”:

Each prayer begins the same way, with “Good and gracious God.” Sister Jean Dolores-Schmidt always makes sure of that.

But it is in the words that follow that Sister Jean, the 98-year-old nun who serves as the team chaplain for Loyola University-Chicago’s N.C.A.A. tournament-bound basketball team, really finds her voice. She asks for God’s protection for the players. She asks for the referees to call fouls “justly.” She asks that the Ramblers execute the plays the way they were intended.

The prayers are anything but bipartisan.

“I ask God to be especially good to Loyola so that, at the end of the game, the scoreboard indicates a big ‘W’ for us,” she said.

We’ll see what happens tomorrow. I didn’t pick Loyola myself but…Thy will be done.

After each Loyola game, Sister Jean sends emails to Moser, to his coaching staff and then to each player. She limits her written words to the team to only a few paragraphs, she said, but then always adds a personalized message congratulating a player for his performance or encouraging the downtrodden.

“There’s been days throughout my last four years when I had a bad game, a down game,” the Loyola senior Donte Ingram said. “We might have won. We might have lost. But at the end of the message, she always found a way to make me feel better.”

6. From James Parker at The Atlantic, here’s an ode to David Attenborough‘s work as a wildlife enthusiast and broadcaster. Beyond his trademark appreciation of nature—“…the earth is full of your creatures. There is the sea, vast and spacious, teeming with creatures beyond number, living things, both large and small” (Ps. 104)—there’s a distinctly spiritual dimension here:

Back in 2012, a TV interviewer asked him, “You do exhibit awe, the type of emotion perhaps someone might display entering a very grand Florentine cathedral, for example. But it isn’t—it’s not a religious awe that you are showing, is it?” “Isn’t it?,” Attenborough rejoined.

The concluding paragraph takes a twist. Parker admits that alongside the divine wonder, there is also a level of horror…at the impact humans are having on the environment:

Self-knowledge, if you’re doing it right, stings. Good old red-faced C. S. Lewis, teetering on the brink of conversion in 1930s Oxford and sensing that the scouring light of the Christian revelation would soon be upon him, decided to turn his professorial mind-beams inward. “For the first time,” he wrote in his memoir Surprised by Joy, “I examined myself with a seriously practical purpose. And there I found what appalled me; a zoo of lusts, a bedlam of ambitions, a nursery of fears, a harem of fondled hatreds.” … We need our guides, our Attenboroughs, to hold our gaze steady and help us face what we need to face: the truth, though we weep in our masks to see it.

The iniquity of mankind will be no surprise to Christians. Parker’s quip about self-knowledge serves as a nice introduction for Emily Hylden’s beautiful reflection in The Living Church:

If we would only look honestly at ourselves, our motivations, our places of power, each and every one of us would find our sin… No person has ever been able to escape the temptation of sin except for Jesus. We see that the joy of the Father is when each child slows down long enough to look at the slop in which he lives and to admit this disaster to his Father in heaven. This is the found coin, this is the recovered sheep. […] The last parable of chapter 18 lays the point bare in its introduction: “He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt.” The two who went to pray, the one who humbly cries for forgiveness, and the one who grandly gives gratitude for his elevated status.

I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.

7. Mockingbird contributor Jason Thompson sent along this clip with some moving commentary below:

Mason jokingly alludes to the tremendous pressure he feels to perform so as not to tarnish the legacy of his father, Richard Pryor. He’s got a heavy burden to bear: living up to his father’s reputation for insightful, thought-provoking, humorous antics about the kinds of social commentary prior (pun intended) comedians dared not approach in the 1960s.

He’s of course booed offstage per the format of Apollo’s Amateur Night protocol. Either be funny and/or talented…or suffer humiliating rejection and a special escort off stage from the Sandman.

It’s almost unbearable to watch the expression on Mason’s face when he’s backstage trying to process having failed in his first relatively big-time act. It’s like he’s in utter shock and near denial that he was weighed in the comedic scales and found wanting…i.e. he wasn’t funny. Correction: he wasn’t AS funny as…Richard Pryor.

Steve Harvey graciously intervenes, urging the crowd to consider who this young man’s father is…how he owes his very career to Richard Pryor. Harvey makes the appeal that they give the mediocre comedian one more shot…because of who his father is. Mason gets the stage again…and receives applause and cheers, not because his lackluster material merited praise, but because of who his father was.

Strays: