1. First up, there’s the jaw-dropping testimony that appeared in Christianity Today last week, in which Kim Phuc Phan Thi, the subject of one of the 20th Century’s most iconic photographs (above), outrageously confesses that “These Bombs Led Me to Christ”. She describes the anguish of the day in question, as well as the bodily fallout of the napalm to which she was exposed – Kim was left unable to sweat and is still receiving treatment for the burns 40 years later. By her own account, however, the physical ailments paled in comparison to the spiritual and emotional torment she endured. It turns out that the faith in which she was raised (Cao Dai) espoused a form of universalism, captured in the mantra “You are god, and god is you”, that proved of little comfort as she found herself set apart by nature of her injuries, a walking reminder of loss and tragedy. I’ll let her take it from there:

I was as alone as a person can be. I could not turn to a friend, for nobody wished to befriend me. I was toxic, and everyone knew it. To be near me was to be near hardship. I was alone, atop a mountain of rage. Why was I made to wear these awful scars?…

In her loneliness, Kim takes to the library and cracks open the New Testament. What she finds surprises her:

I had never been exposed to the side of Jesus—the wounded one, the one who bore scars…Perhaps he could help me make sense of my pain and at last come to terms with my scars.

How desperately I needed peace. How ready I was for love and joy. I had so much hatred in my heart—so much bitterness. I wanted to let go of all my pain. I wanted to pursue life instead of holding fast to fantasies of death. I wanted this Jesus. So when the pastor [at a 1982 Christmas service in Saigon] finished speaking, I stood up, stepped out into the aisle, and made my way to the front of the sanctuary to say yes to Jesus Christ…

Nearly half a century has passed since I found myself running—frightened, naked, and in pain—down that road in Vietnam. I will never forget the horrors of that day—the bombs, the fire, the fear. Nor will I forget the years of torment that followed. But when I think about how far I have come—I realize there is nothing greater or more powerful than the love of our blessed Savior.

My faith in Jesus has enabled me to forgive those who have hurt and scarred me. It has enabled me to pray for my enemies rather than curse them. And it has enabled me not just to tolerate them but truly to love them.

I will forever bear the scars of that day, and that picture will always serve as a reminder of the unspeakable evil of which humanity is capable. That picture defined my life. In the end, it gave me a mission, a ministry, a cause. Today, I thank God for that picture. Today, I thank God for everything—even for that road. Especially for that road.

2. Next up, a less overt but more pernicious brand of faith. Writing in The New York Times, renowned thinker Stanley Fish pushes back against the unspoken dogma that unfettered communication (or access to information) is by default a good thing. It’s a risky proposition, and one that you can see being easily twisted, but his unmasking of the piety that informs so much of our thinking about technology and education, unconsciously or not, stopped me in my tracks:

…Techno-utopians [espouse the] mantra [that] “information wants to be free” and… believe that the promised land predicted by the authors of every technological advance — the printing press, the telegraph, radio, television, the internet — is just around the corner. It is a land in which democracy’s potential is finally realized, with no one hoarding information or controlling access or deciding who speaks and who doesn’t…, that faction and difference will just wither away when distorted communication has been eliminated by unmodified data circulated freely among free and equal consumers; everyone will be on the same page. Back to Eden!

This utopian fantasy rests on a positive, vaguely perfectionist view of human nature: Rather than being doomed by original sin to conflict, prejudice, hatred and an insatiable will to power, men and women are by nature communitarian, inclined to fellowship and the seeking of common ground…

A memorable Facebook news release written by Mark Zuckerberg a few years back tells the happy and optimistic story: “By enabling people from diverse backgrounds to easily connect and share their ideas, we can decrease world conflict in the short and long run.” The idea is that… factions and conflict “are simply the unfortunate result of an imperfect communication infrastructure.” If we perfect that infrastructure, then communication would be perfect and undistorted, and society would be set on the right path without any further efforts required. Talk about magical thinking!… it is the doctrine that freedom of information and transparency are all we need.

Those who proclaim this theology can in good faith ignore or bypass all the usual routes of validation because their religion tells them that those routes are corrupt and that only the nonmethod of having no routes, no boundaries, no categories, no silos can bring us to the River Jordan and beyond.

In many versions of Protestantism, parishioners are urged to reject merely human authority in any form and go directly to the pure word of God. For the technophiles the pure word of God is to be found in data… In fact, what is found in a landscape where data detached from any context abounds is the fracturing of the word into ever proliferating pieces of discourse…

3. In this week’s long-read department there’s “I’m Not Black, I’m Kanye” by Ta-Nehisi Coates in which the celebrated author attempts to come to terms with Yeezy’s controversial recent tweets. But what starts as a reckoning on the state of the country (and inadvertent confirmation of Kanye’s paranoia) morphs into a reflection about the nature of fame and freedom, AKA the weight (of the law) placed on successful black artists in particular. He writes:

...humans were not built to withstand the weight of celebrity. But for black artists who rise to the heights of [Michael] Jackson and [Kanye] West, the weight is more, because they come from communities in desperate need of champions. Kurt Cobain’s death was a great tragedy for his legions of fans. Tupac’s was a tragedy for an entire people. When brilliant black artists fall down on the stage, they don’t fall down alone…

…The gift of black music, of black art, is unlike any other in America, because it is not simply a matter of singular talent, or even of tradition, or lineage, but of something more grand and monstrous. When Jackson sang and danced, when West samples or rhymes, they are tapping into a power formed under all the killing, all the beatings, all the rape and plunder that made America. The gift can never wholly belong to a singular artist, free of expectation and scrutiny, because the gift is no more solely theirs than the suffering that produced it… When West raps, “And I basically know now, we get racially profiled / Cuffed up and hosed down, pimped up and ho’d down,” the we is instructive. What Kanye West seeks is what Michael Jackson sought—liberation from the dictates of that we.

Point taken, albeit with one salient qualification: my sense of MJ is that what he actually sought was a broader definition of the ‘we’, rather than a wholesale rejection of it. Perhaps he could’ve used a dose of Coates’ cynicism, or perhaps that anger would’ve eaten him alive even faster than the Demerol, who’s to say. But I highly doubt that MJ would’ve ever attributed his gift solely to suffering and/or his blackness. G-O-D, however unrecognizable, was always a part of his constellation. That’s another post (or sermon). Coates’ words reminded me of something I’d read in Tad Friend’s recent profile of another supremely gifted Jehovah’s Witness (by birth at least), it-boy Donald Glover:

Glover said that, as he’d grown, he’d realized that being a savior was impossible to reconcile with being an artist. “Everyone’s been trying to turn me into their woke bae”—millennial slang for an enlightened boyfriend. “But that’s not what I am. I’m fucked up, too—and that’s where the good shit comes from.”

We talk more about Glover, Kanye and Ta-Nehisi (and MJ!) on this week’s Mockingcast.

3. As brilliant as that trio may be, the picture they paint is not exactly “hopeful” when it comes to black men in America. For something along those lines, we might turn to pastor Jeffrey Brown, and the TED talk he gave back in 2015 about “the miracle in Boston,” which NPR serendipitously re-ran this past week. The overlap with last week’s Craiglist Confessional is no coincidence:

4. Our friend Oliver Burkeman is at it again this week with yet another, er, exceptional column for The Guardian, “Think you’re special? That just proves you’re normal”. He begins by asking how it is that the recommendations we receive on social media (for books, friends, activities) seem to be getting more and more uncanny:

[There’s a] reason Big Tech knows us so much better than we think, which is that each of us is far more normal than we realize…

Your intelligence, your creativity, your tastes in culture or romantic partners, the degree to which the world has mistreated you: the chances are they’re much less quirky or extreme than you think, especially since we’ve each got strong ulterior motives to believe otherwise. Or to put it another way: thinking you’re special is just one more way in which you’re normal.

Both the positive and negative forms of thinking you’re less normal than you are lead to misery – either by convincing you you’re unusually bad, or by turning life into an isolating, adversarial exercise in maintaining your sense of being unusually good. The latter also means that any aspect of your life or experience that’s just ordinary – which, by definition, is going to be most of them – feels like an affront to your identity.

5. Social Science Study of the Week comes from 2008, “13 million Britons considered losing their phone or running out of juice to be among the most stressful things in their lives.” One wonders what that number would be today. The study came to my attention via Tripp Mickle’s report in The Wall Street Journal this week on smartphone anxiety, which introduced the overdue term “nomophobia”, short for “no-mobile-phobia”, AKA the fear people feel when their phone dies. There are support groups and, oddly enough, apps to help sufferers cope. Priceless stuff:

An app called Die With Me allows users with less than 5% battery life to enter a chat room where they can talk through their fears with others as their phones collectively head toward the great beyond. “Be quiet and save your strength,” Scotsman Jamie Dorman advised another app user who was feeling a moment of crisis.

Given the limited nature of their time together via the app, Marcel Klimo of Bratislava, Slovakia, said he quickly pressed others for the answer to a question he always wondered about: Which came first, the chicken or the egg? “That’s an 8% battery question, not a 4% battery question,” someone replied.

6. Humor-wise, “Scholars: Greek Word Translated ‘Repent’ Better Rendered ‘You Do You’” is another funny one from The Babylon Bee (click here for a lengthy profile of the guys behind that site). The Onion’s “Fitbit Releases New Tracking Collar That Gets Tighter Every Second You Are Inactive” is scorekeeping/performancism gold. And then McSweeney’s Quotes from Apocalypse Now or Thoughts I’ve Had as a Teacher During a Parent Conference? may be the best of the lot. Also, this looks rich:

7. Quick television breakdown: it’s a Donald Glover world right now and we’re just living in it. I’m referring to the amazing Childish Gambino video, sure, but also the astoundingly confident second season of Atlanta (our pick for the best TV of 2016). The show has surprised and impressed at every turn, not the least by delivering something relatively straightforward and hopeful in last night’s finale. I don’t care where it goes next, I just hope there’s more. Also in television, after reading some lackluster reviews of Mitchell Hurwitz’s “remixed” season 4 of Arrested Development, my initial optimism turned cautious. But I’m delighted to report that the new version goes a long way toward redeeming the mess that originally “aired” on Netflix. Yes, a few of the plotlines remain irretrievably flat and the ensemble still feels disjointed (due to scheduling constraints), but by and large, it’s a whole new hilarious beast, and one that gets this superfan super excited for the new episodes which hits later this month. As far as Westworld’s second season, while I could watch Ed Harris chew the scenery all day long, I’m starting to fear that Dwight Garner’s line about Michael Ondaatje’s new novel may apply:

Novels about storytelling are nearly always the ones to avoid, the way that one learns to steer clear of Martin Scorsese movies (“Hugo”) that are more or less explicitly paeans to the movies.

8. Finally, Elizabeth Breunig reviewed Stephen Greenblatt’s The Rise and Fall of Adam and Eve in the new issue of Harvard Magazine, and the whole thing is very much worth your time–the review I mean–especially the ending, where she writes:

Who are we, really? In Augustine’s view, human beings are bent toward sin but intended for something better, always leaning into wrongdoing, but made for the good and right. There’s something compelling in that narrative: it speaks to the daily struggle any person wages against selfishness and narcissism, and grants a noble heritage to the goodness in all of us. Perhaps more importantly, it counts the good in us as more real than the evil; our goodness is what is human in us, and our evil is what eats away at that.

Strays

  • Music-wise, I took a break from Juliana Hatfield’s incredible Olivia Newton John tribute record to give the new Dawes songs a listen and I’m glad I did. As good as anything they’ve done and thematically resonant. Also, very excited about the announcement of a new Suede record. But mainly I’m in shock that Appetite for Destruction is being re-released. If we get a Use Your Illusion boxed set, I can die happy.
  • Mentalfloss relays The Unbelievable Life of the ‘John 3:16’ Sports Guy – woah.
  • In case you missed the announcement last Friday: Charlotte Getz and I will be speaking next month in Orange County, CA! Friday June 8th in Costa Mesa to be exact (6:30-10:00pm). The event is called “Ordinary: The Power and Significance in the Overlooked” and it’s being hosted by our friends at Cross of Christ Church. Click here for more details, or to register. Hope to see you then/there.
  • New episode of The Mockingcast will be out later today: We talk Donald Glover, Michael Jackson, techno-utopias and Vietnamese conversions.