1. They say never talk religion and politics, so let’s increase the trespass and start our time this week with a discussion of religion and politics. Michele Margolis is a U Penn political science professor who specializes in the link between faith and government. She makes the case that we’ve got the chicken and egg backwards when it comes to the question of denomination and party choice:

Most Americans choose a political party before choosing whether to join a religious community or how often to attend religious services…

In 1965, M. Kent Jennings and Richard Niemi conducted a survey of over 1,500 American high school seniors, and then followed up with those people when they were in their 20s and 30s, and at 50.

Analyzing these data, I find that twentysomething Democrats and Republicans were equally secular: Most had pulled away from religion after high school, and Democrats and Republicans did so at similar rates. But nine years later, Republicans had become much more likely to attend church than their Democratic counterparts. In contrast, even those who bucked the secular trend and remained religious in their 20s were no more likely than less religious members of their cohort to join the Republican ranks in their 30s.

It may seem counterintuitive, if not downright implausible, that voting Democrat or Republican could change something as personal as our relationship with God. But over the course of our lives, political choices tend to come first, religious choices second.

It’s a study that fits well into the framework of our Surviving November series, a look into the unseen forces that drive our political motivations. That is to say, much of human decision-making (even our religious and political decision-making!) has less to do with rational thought and more to do with invisible forces like belonging and self-justification. Thankfully, God can forgive poor motivations as well as wrong decisions, even when those motivations and decisions are political.

2. As if parenting weren’t hard enough in the 21st century, it turns out that young kids really like to boss around smart speakers. The Wall Street Journal collected a series of anecdotes from parents and scholars addressing the strange relationships that young kids are building with their family’s smart devices. Here’s a few of the choice stories:

Hunter Walk, a San Francisco venture capitalist, worried that his family’s Amazon Echo “is turning our daughter into a raging asshole,” he wrote in a blog post in 2016, because of the 4-year-old’s tendency to boss it around. He has since set rules around how to talk to the device and said he hasn’t noticed any rude behavior by his daughter, who is now 6….

A Carnegie Mellon study confirms that some children order smart speakers around like servants. One grandmother told researchers she corrected her preschool grandson for telling Alexa it was stupid, instructing him, “That’s not nice.”…

Dr. Hill of the American Academy of Pediatrics adds, “If they practice rudeness at home with something they perceive to be their servant, then what is to keep them from being equally rude to the cleaning staff at school” or anyone in a service role.

Amazon recently offered new parental controls for its Echo speakers, as well as praise for children who remember to say “please.”

Alas, children are sinners too. I’m not too worried. Children figured out that there aren’t tiny people in the TV performing as our slaves; they’ll figure out that “OK Google” is a machine too. The speakers may be brainwashing our kids, but they’ve got a long way to go before they usurp our stand-up comics.

3. Earlier this week, our own C.J. Green wrote a review of the new novel from Ottessa Moshfegh, My Year of Rest and Relaxation. He’s not the only one enjoying it: the New Yorker also gave it a rave review. In their reflections, the ‘Yorker suggests that the novel’s engagement with a pharmaceutically induced year of stupor and disconnection isn’t just a solution for pre-9/11 New York.

Moshfegh’s merciless writing builds the case for her narrator’s solution. I momentarily considered giving up on human relationships after reading the sentence “She probably wanted to pretend to want to cheer me up.” A thin logic holds the narrator’s life together: she seeks out people, pills, and VHS tapes that “turned everything, even hatred, even love, into fluff I could bat away. And that was exactly what I wanted—my emotions passing like headlights that shine softly through a window, sweep past me, illuminate something vaguely familiar, then fade and leave me in the dark again.” There is something in this liberatory solipsism that feels akin to what is commonly peddled today as wellness. It also resembles a form of cognitive interaction induced by social media, which positions the user as the center of the universe and everything else—current events, other people’s feelings—as ephemeral, increasingly meaningless stimuli. And the relief this way of living brings Moshfegh’s narrator is powerful and undeniable even as it is transparent, flagrant, false.

A conscious uncoupling from discomfort isn’t all that different from 2018’s admonition to cut away negativity, release your inner strength, and find your tribe. It is, at the end of the day, an exercise in solipsism, Infermiterol in a non-pill alternative.

4. Elvis Presley’s famed 1968 “Comeback Special” turns 50 this year, and coming across this theologically attuned op-ed at the Dallas Morning News from Baylor professor Robert F. Darden was a real treat:

At bedtime on the night of the King’s particularly ignoble death, his biographers say that he lingered to play a few songs on the piano and sing “Unchained Melody” and particularly “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain,” making it perhaps the last song Elvis ever sang. The old Fred Rose tune, most notably recorded in a stark and plaintive version by Willie Nelson, contains this line, “Love is like a dying ember/Only memories remain.”

What were Elvis’ final memories? Of Gladys? Of Priscilla and their marriage? Of his struggle with his slowly dissembling religious faith? Of musical promises yet unmet and unfulfilled?…

Rolling Stone magazine in 2004 asked U2’s Bono — who himself knows a thing or two about fame and the price it demands — to analyze the impact of Elvis Presley on popular music and culture. Bono first repeats Schilling’s tales of Elvis always finding his way back to the piano, then offers this grace-filled observation:

“With no one else around, his choice would always be gospel, losing and finding himself in the old spirituals. He was happiest when he was singing his way back to spiritual safety. But he didn’t stay long enough. Self-loathing was waiting back up at the house, Elvis was seen shooting at his TV screens, the Bible open beside him at St. Paul’s great ode to love, Corinthians 13. Elvis clearly didn’t believe God’s grace was amazing enough.”…

The Jesus of the Bible forgave everybody. And so I’ve come to believe that Elvis was forgiven, whether he ever knew it or believed it. He would have had to forgive himself to get up and walk out of the Jungle Room. It didn’t happen.

It’s great stuff, and if you love this, you’ll love as DZ’s writing on The King from A Mess of Help: From the Crucified Soul of Rock and Roll. For an official Mockingbird take on Elvis, and for an in-depth look into the time he played Jesus Christ in a movie called Change of Habit, wooing Mary Tyler Moore’s nun character, look no further.

5. On the theology front, our favorite Orthodox blogger of late, Stephen Freeman, continues to inspire. Fr. Freeman recalls a time he was wrestling to give pastoral wisdom to a person with a narcissistic personality disorder, wondering if there’s any real way to help someone in that curved-in tailspin:

I once read a book that described a certain form of narcissism as the near perfect embodiment of evil. If so, the person suffering from such should be treated as though they were possessed. For the pain inside that world is even greater than the pain outside. Imagine a life without awe or wonder, without love for the other, with no sense of anyone other than yourself. It is a form of psychological hell.

I once pondered the question of how such a person could be saved (I had a pastoral possibility confronting me). I could not think of a means of repentance that such a personality could undertake. It was, for me, one of life’s unsolvable mysteries, perhaps a salvation that can happen within the depths of a soul trapped within the confines of its own endless shame. I have seen many “hate” pieces written about narcissists. They are probably the most poisonous relationships ever encountered. It is a test of compassion, I think, to put oneself in their shoes and to imagine the agony of such an existence.

On a similar psychological note, the crew at Mere Orthodoxy do a deep dive into the history of dualism that informs the church’s poor track record with mental illness. If you’re curious about how suicide became stigmatized as “succumbing to temptation,” and all the dark words of damnation that came with it, this is a helpful read. Mockingbird favorites Jurgen Moltmann and Brene Brown make cameos. See also Issue 8 of The Mockingbird Magazine.

6. A pair of world cup stories to wrap up the week: it turns out that Evangelicalism has arrived at team Brazil, and for all the folks who thought Roman Catholicism had troubles with religious synchretism, it looks like Evangelicalism isn’t faring much better:

As Protestantism has grown in Brazil, so has a certain cultural relaxation of the traditional values of Christianity. Nowhere is this clearer than with Neymar. When his nation won gold in its home Olympics in 2016, he took the podium to receive his gold medal with a headband reading “100% Jesus.” Yet this ostensible display of devotion caused controversy, given the star player’s out-of-wedlock son and public love life.

Consequently, Christian fans sometimes fear that the actions of some of the players undercut their God talk.

For the final word on Neymar, I defer to KFC (see below). As much flack as Neymar is getting, however, I’d much rather be him than Croatia’s Nikola Kalinic. Many of us will be hearing the story of David and Michal’s spat over dignity and decorum this week at church. Kalinic, a talented player, thought it was beneath him and undignified to sub instead of start the team’s first world cup match against Nigeria. When he refused to participate as a sub, he was sent home. Croatia is playing for the championship this Sunday at 11:00am, having succeeded thus far without Mr. Kalinic. Dignity is overrated, y’all.

Strays:

Over at Living Church, Leander Harding talks blues and church politics. A fine read for anyone with denominational woes in their life right now.

A fascinating look at the crushing laws of stardom, tabloids, and reinvention in this fresh profile of Lindsey Lohan. Did you know she moved to Dubai? Sharia inspired laws aside, there are no paparazzi there.

Just how beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news? Crimes Against ShoeManity.