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On Our Bookshelf (This Time Around)

As summer winds down, here’s what we’ve been reading over here at Mockingbird HQ (and on sabbatical), as published in the Love & Death Issue

Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

George Saunders’ widely acclaimed first novel addresses death, grief, and the afterlife. Narrated by a graveyard full of, um, lively ghosts, this novel is a roller coaster from start to finish. With humor and empathy, Saunders powerfully illustrates that “the truth will set you free.”

Hallelujah Anyway: Rediscovering Mercy by Anne Lamott

Published this spring, Lamott continues to sing the song of grace: “Mercy is radical kindness. Mercy means offering or being offered aid in desperate straits. Mercy is not deserved. It involves forgiving the debt, absolving the unabsolvable.” Pulling from St. Augustine and the Dalai Lama, she weaves her thoughts on mercy with such honesty and humor that you might feel like you’re sitting down as one of her Sunday School students.

The Kingdom by Emmanuel Carrère

Emmanuel Carrère’s new book (novel? memoir? biography?) on St. Paul and the early Christians often reads like a diary fused with historical fiction. Carrère, well-known in France for his unique non-fiction storytelling, believes that the only way he can really communicate a subject is by looking as honestly as possible at himself. In this book, then, that means capturing the New Testament through his own relationship with and (un-)belief in its God. A powerfully honest and captivating reimagining of both the nature of belief and the radical message Paul carried.

The Unmade Bed: The Messy Truth about Men and Women in the 21st Century by Stephen Marche

Stay-at-home dads get no respect, women are still almost never in the boardroom, and feminism has failed us. Why, Marche ponders, have we come so far and are still inundated with the same bizarre problems? Because women are still women and men are still men, and no one wants to make the damned bed. If you are in ministry, your premarital counseling couples should read this brilliant book alongside Capon’s Bed and Board.

My Utmost: A Devotional Memoir by Macy Halford

Halford, who spent several years working as a staffer at The New Yorker, writes with immense care and loyalty about the devotional that shaped (and continues to shape) her life, Oswald Chambers’ My Utmost for His Highest. Halford, who was raised in an Evangelical family in Dallas, uses the devotional (and Chambers’ own life story) as a way of excavating her own life and Christian faith.

Against Everything: Essays by Mark Greif

Greif is the co-founder of culture magazine n+1. This book synthesizes the strangeness of the modern world by challenging it and unpacking everyday taboos like exercise, hipsters, and punk music. Greif shows his cards as an Enneagram 8, but that doesn’t stop him from writing some real sizzlers on everyday life through a decidedly intellectual lens.

Abandon Me: Memoirs by Melissa Febos

One of our guests on The Mockingcast, Febos’ cutting collection of memoirs wrestles with addiction and sexuality and offers up a gratifying depth of spirituality. Her riff on the Jonah story and our innate calling towards “choose your own adventure stories” is one for the ages. She writes, “every love is a sea monster in whose belly we learn to pray.”

The Idiot by Elif Batuman

Ripping its title from a Dostoevsky classic, Elif Batuman’s debut novel follows Selin through her first year at Harvard. Upon arriving at school, she’s given an email address, her first. One night, she sends a snappy message to Ivan, the mysterious boy in her Russian class, and hilarity ensues. The romance would fit well in a 19th century novel—excepting Selin and Ivan’s preferred form of communication. Armed with a healthy suspicion of her surroundings and a sharp wit, Selin makes for a revelatory, refreshing narrator.

Why Won’t You Apologize? Healing Big Betrayals and Everyday Hurts by Harriet Lerner

This little book ranks up there with our other social science fave, Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me). Lerner gives us a powerful glimpse into all the strategies and self-deceptions we have around our wrongdoing–on what counts as an apology, and on what keeps us from giving (and receiving) it. She also insightfully keys in on the prime impulse that makes the non-apologizer a non-apologizer: the need to be perfect.

Phases: Poems by Mischa Willett

Poems playful, at times, epigrammatic, conscious of things Italian and incongruous—they are delightful and plain spoken, rhythmic and musical, at times difficult enough to slow the reader’s march through them, most times sufficiently welcoming and placed (e.g., the Pacific Northwest) to keep the reader coming back for more. The collection’s nine brief sections are laid out as though phases of a voyage. An exciting new volume in the Poiema Poetry Series (Cascade Books), curated by poet/editor D. S. Martin.

One Day At A Time Is No Way To Live: Love, Death, and Parenting Teenagers

One Day At A Time Is No Way To Live: Love, Death, and Parenting Teenagers

A first sneak peek into the Love & Death Issue, which you can order here. It comes from the one and only Emily Skelding. Remember, subscribers/monthly givers get a discount on the upcoming D.C. Conference!

I relish long-term planning and list-making. During this academic year, I planned to write a book, my son Sumner strategized to get into his first-choice college, and my daughter Ramona declared she wanted to take an extra math class in her free time. We broke our big goals into littler ones and scripted the things we had to do to get there. Looking ahead is my…

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An Ode to Print: The Mockingbird Magazine

An Ode to Print: The Mockingbird Magazine

A quick Google search will show that researchers have studied and continue to study the differences that exist between print and digital reading experiences. There are pros and cons of both mediums, and it looks like neither format will disappear anytime soon.

I love the physicality of real paper and definitely connect with Ferris Jabr’s words here from a 2013 Scientific American article “The Reading Brain in the Digital Age: The Science of Paper versus Screens”:

In most cases, paper books have more obvious topography than onscreen text. An open paperback presents a reader with two clearly defined domains—the left and right…

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Now Available: The Love & Death Issue

Now Available: The Love & Death Issue

Ladies and gentlemen, lovers and leavers, killers and killed, the time has arrived: The Love & Death Issue is at the printers and death is lovelier than ever. You are going to love it to death!
If you want to order a copy for yourself and all the people you love, go here. They will be shipping out late next week! Check out the magazine site for a look inside. And, as always, a subscription is always an option.
Until then, here’s the Table of Contents and Opener from Ethan.

 

Contents

When You Marry the Wrong Person by David Zahl

The Confessional

Memento Mori:…

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In Praise of Excess: The Beauty of Babette's Feast

In Praise of Excess: The Beauty of Babette’s Feast

Another sneak peek into the Food & Drink Issue, which will be on sale at the conference this weekend! Ethan’s essay is all about grace in the 1987 Danish film (and Oscar winner) Babette’s Feast.

Last winter, my wife Hannah found out she has celiac disease, the rare autoimmune disorder that means you can’t eat gluten. Contrary to the many gluten-free fads that have taken the nation by storm, people with celiac suffer a gluten intolerance that is microscopically comprehensive. The smallest gluten part per million—a dust particle in a vat of soup—can wreak havoc on her stomach.

The fact that we’re in…

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Mockingbird Asks Polly: Our Interview with Heather Havrilesky

Mockingbird Asks Polly: Our Interview with Heather Havrilesky

Another sneak peek into the Mental Health Issue, folks. Order up! They’re going going going…

We first came across the name “Heather Havrilesky” back in 2011, when The New York Times Magazine published a column under her name comparing two television shows set in high school, Friday Night Lights and Glee. She noted how the former found beauty in the fragility and uncertainty of life, and virtue in selflessness, while the latter seemed to revolve around the bold-faced pursuit of personal glory and vindication. Here was someone putting fresh words to some of our favorite themes, with a wit and compassion…

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Attachment Theory and Your Relationship With God

Attachment Theory and Your Relationship With God

Another sampler from the Mental Health Issue! Here’s a doozie from psychologist Bonnie Poon Zahl about the meaning of ‘attachment theory’ and its implications for the ways we talk about our faith. Of course, this is only to whet your appetite…

I am a psychologist of religion. This means that I use tools from psychological science to study, empirically, the manifold expressions of religion and spirituality in human lives. I am most interested in how people understand and relate to God, and in my research I adopt the methodological naturalism that is expected in my discipline; I try to understand people’s religious…

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Know Thy Bias! A Guide for the Delusional

Know Thy Bias! A Guide for the Delusional

Behold! A sneak peek into the Mental Health Issue that’s probably arrived at your (cooler friend’s) house this week. If it hasn’t, well, there’s still time…but they are selling out! 

In the midst of an election year, and in the middle of a mental health issue, we’d be remiss not to visit the wide world of cognitive biases. When it comes to finding a bridge linking Christian theology and cognitive psychology, there’s really no better place to look than in the descriptions of many our self-contained blind spots. Much of this list is brought to us by David McRaney’s You Are…

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Today Is The Day: The Mental Health Issue Is Here!

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Where’s Izzy CJ?

Great news: As of this afternoon, The Mental Health Issue of The Mockingbird is out the door! After months and months of hard work, we could not be more excited to get this thing into your hands. We poured our heart and soul into every page (the most yet in a single issue, but who’s counting), and we think it shows. Be sure to peruse the Table of Contents and/or read Ethan’s Opener if you haven’t already.

Subscribers and those who pre-ordered should be receiving their copies this week. All other orders will be processed as they come in–click here to place yours.

To celebrate the launch, we put together a special episode of The Mockingcast. It features a bunch of exclusive interviews, including one with self-justification guru Carol Tavris. Like the magazine itself, this is not something you’ll want to miss. Oh and by all means help us spread the word on social media!

thorntonOrder Your Copy Today

The Mockingbird, No 8: The Mental Health Issue!

At long last, the eighth (!) issue of The Mockingbird is now available. Click here to get the one issue…or here if you’d just like to go ahead and subscribe. (If you’re already subscribed, help us out and spread the word on social media!)

To whet your appetite, here’s Ethan’s Opener and the Table of Contents.

The Itch

8coverThere is a group of people whose entire lives have disintegrated because of an itch.

They share a rare, controversial illness called Morgellons Disease, where strange fibers grow beneath the skin, causing severe itching, which leads to more fibers, and more itching. The scientific term is formication—the sensation of insects crawling under the skin. While rare, Morgellons also happens to be extremely contagious.

Scientifically speaking, however, the disease does not exist. While it remains all too real for the sufferers involved—and for their loved ones—doctors are adamant that Morgellons is a figment of the imagination. They diagnose it as “delusional parasitosis,” a form of mental illness.

The essayist Leslie Jamison writes about attending a Morgellons conference in Austin, Texas. Sitting in a room full of anxious-maybe-delusional hypochondriacs, she fully expects to be able to suss out the real from the imagined. But she can’t. In fact, she kind of becomes one of them. The itch she has come to write about becomes an itch she’s pretty sure she has, too. “Itching that starts in the mind feels just like itching on the skin—no less real, no more fabricated—and it can begin with something as simple as a thought.”

After reading this I was itching for weeks! Can you feel it? Jamison argues that Morgellons, real or not, reveals the kinds of lines we draw between sickness of the body and sickness of the mind. But she goes further than that: when it comes to caring for those who are sick, we prefer bodily ailments. We prefer external agents of harm—germs, bites, viruses—because they are justifiable.

If someone is sick in the mind, though, the agents of harm lie within. Mental illness shows us an uglier side of illness: a person not only dependent upon outside help, but inwardly self-sabotaging. Rather than extend empathy for these crazies, we opt instead for moral litigation: only if someone hasn’t colluded with their misfortune are we willing to invest our care. Otherwise, no deal—which is precisely where Morgellons sufferers find themselves. Beyond the purview of doctors. Beyond the care of loved ones.

Jamison goes on to say that mental illness is a barb to the American understanding of self-reliance.

The abiding American myth of the self-made man comes attached to another article of faith—an insistence, even—that every self-made man can sustain whatever self he has managed to make. A man divided—thwarting or interrupting his own mechanisms of survival—fails to sustain this myth, disrupts our belief in the absolute efficacy of willpower, and in these failures also forfeits his right to our sympathy…

Jamison wonders if this fractured soul should not warrant more, not less, of our care. It also sounds an awful lot like a Romans 7 self—the kind in a perpetual state of civil war. Theologically speaking, this is the human being whose willpower is bound. Contrary to the American myth Jamison references, this divided self is the signature of Christianity’s across-the-board, sweepingly low anthropology: you are at odds with God, and at odds with yourself. Paradoxically, this sobering take on the human species is also the beginning of loving them.

Negotiating the divide between sick and well has proven to be the chief challenge in putting together a “mental health” issue. While we are quick to note the brain science, the aberrant trends reported by the APA, we simultaneously deceive ourselves about the ‘normal’ people, the mentally stable, i.e., me. In an effort to cover mental illness, we hoodwink ourselves about whom exactly that term defines. The Bible lays a wider net than the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual; as Nathan says to King David, “You are the man” (2 Sam 12:7). You, in fact, are the liar, the worrier, the narcissist. That line on the spectrum, which so nimbly dictates who is healthy and who is ill? Look closer. It is right there inside you.

I don’t mean to play down the diagnosable disorders with which many of us live. It is to say, though, that our diagnoses often prohibit the inclusive understanding of illness that might, in turn, include us. Jesus is perpetually doing this, flipping the script on who is and isn’t “ill.” The ones who “don’t need a doctor”—the ones who find themselves mostly capable, mostly virtuous, mostly sane—are for Jesus the ones who most desperately do need a doctor. Their virtue has obscured their need. For Christ, there is no distinction. If there’s a madhouse, we should all be living in it.8faces

In the small town of Geel, Belgium, there are no madhouses. Geel has been the subject of articles and books for centuries for its revolutionary care of the mentally ill. Instead of cordoning them off, Geel citizens became famous for welcoming them into their homes, making them part of the family. The families who host these “boarders” do so on average for 28.5 years! What characterizes the success of Geel’s system, which has been around for over 700 years, is the unconditional acceptance given to its residents.

Lulu Miller, of the podcast Invisibilia, tells the story of one middle-aged boarder in Geel who habitually twisted the buttons off his shirts, forcing his host mother to sew them back on every night. When a visiting American suggested that she perhaps use fishing line instead of thread, the host gave a surprising response:

That’s the worst thing you could do…I will never use fishing line because this man needs to twist the buttons off. It helps him to twist them off every day…Accept these odd behaviors, don’t try to make them go away.

Geel provides us with an alternative to the usual classifications between what’s crazy and what’s sane: grace. As opposed to the world of solutions, for which these boarders have received caseworkers and medications and cognitive behavioral fixes, Geel gives them the opposite. They have “let go of the mission to cure.” Sounds crazy to me.

In the modern framework of “mental health,” it is radical to ask what might be healed by the radicality of grace. But, let’s ask it: what might be healed by the radicality of grace? This is where we plot our course in this issue. As you might have guessed, it isn’t light fare—the landscape of the human psyche tends to prompt questions about our lives we’d naturally evade. But Jesus asks these questions. As the Great Physician, he gently addresses the wounds we’ve long kept covered. But in doing so, he also administers healing. He shows us that our wounds are carried in his.

In this issue we cover everything from self-help to suicide. We have psychopathic children and their pathological parents; we have pathological churches run by pathological pastors; we even have pathologies of pathologies! We have great interviews with “Ask Polly” columnist Heather Havrilesky and self-justification gurus Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson. Poems from the masterful Gray Jacobik. And so, so much more.

So, welcome to the cuckoo’s nest! There’s no need here to be anyone but you—we wouldn’t want it any other way. And if you need someone to sew your buttons on for you, we know just the person.

Ethan Richardson, Editor

Contents

Opener

The Epidemic by DAVID ZAHL

The Confessional

Mockingbird Asks Polly: Our Interview with HEATHER HAVRILESKY

Confessions of Parental Recidivists by BRIAN & DEBBIE SOLUM

For the Record: Cures of Yore

Overmedicated, Under God: Help in the Age of Antidepressants by ETHAN RICHARDSON

A Poem by GRAY JACOBIK

Justifying Our Lives Away: A Q&A with CAROL TAVRIS & ELLIOT ARONSON

Schemers, Clingers, and Frank Lake’s Schizoid Self by SCOTT JONES

For the Record: Bookshelf, Non-Self-Help Reads, Mental Health at the Movies

The Laws of the Megachurch by JOEL GREINER

A Poem by GRAY JACOBIK

The Psychology of Attachment in Our Relationship with God by BONNIE POON ZAHL

For the Record: Know Thy Bias!

A Word of Acceptance: An Interview with JOANNA COLLICUTT

Notes from the Funny Farm by KATHRYN GOURLEY

A Poem by GRAY JACOBIK

How to Cope with the Modern World: A Short Guide by WILL MCDAVID

Life in a Dark Place: A Sermon by DAVID BROWDER

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P.S. Don’t forget: everyone who signs up for any amount of monthly giving to Mbird gets a complimentary subscription.

Church of the Deconstruction

Church of the Deconstruction

This piece was featured in Issue 7 of The Mockingbird: The Church Issue. Issue 8 is well underway!

In a recent visit to Mexico, Pope Francis spoke to a congregation of Mexican bishops and clergy. His words were harsh, to say the least. Instead of decrying the social and political upheaval of the country, or its history of human trafficking and drug violence, the pontiff pointed the finger at his subordinates, warning them of their seduction by religious power:

Do not allow yourselves to be corrupted by trivial materialism or by the seductive illusion of underhanded agreements; do not place your faith…

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From the Magazine: Molly Worthen on Cultural Identity in the American Church

With the Church Issue out the door and hitting mailboxes this week, we thought it might be prudent to post a teaser edition of our amazing interview with religious historian and New York Times contributor Molly Worthen. 

If you want to order the Church Issue or subscribe, this is the place to do it.

Screen Shot 2016-04-20 at 9.15.30 AMIn the introduction to her 2014 book, Apostles of Reason: The Crisis of Authority in American Evangelicalism, historian and journalist Molly Worthen sets out to reappraise the term “evangelical”—both what it has meant and what it continues to mean today. She discusses the inherent distrust of American evangelical culture in the wider public sphere, where evangelicals on the whole are typecasted as hostile or anachronistic, too blinded by an authoritarian faith to confront the discoveries of science and reason. Yet Worthen argues that this characterization misrepresents wide swaths of evangelicals, that, on the whole, evangelicals are far more thoughtful and diverse than most critics realize. Worthen argues that evangelicals have been further from ‘authoritarian’ than the intellectual spheres that so readily spurn them:

The central source of anti-intellectualism in evangelical life is the antithesis of “authoritarianism.” It is evangelicals’ ongoing crisis of authority—their struggle to reconcile reason with revelation, heart with head, and private piety with the public square—that best explains their anxiety and animosity toward intellectual life. Thinkers in the democratic West celebrate their freedom of thought but practice a certain kind of unwavering obedience—bowing to the Enlightenment before all other gods—that allows modern intellectual life to function. Evangelicals, by contrast, are torn between sovereign powers that each claim supremacy.

In a way, this tension has been the story of the Church universal, perpetually buffeted between the unique revelation of truth in Jesus Christ, and the world of independent thought that also demands their everyday consideration. The Church, for better or worse, tends to operate in tandem with these powers, which has always led to tricky (and often, precarious) outcomes.

Worthen argues that evangelicals today are still searching for firm footing. As a journalist, the current moments of discord seem of particular interest to her. Her articles in the New York Times often engage the tension between the doctrines of tolerance given us by secular liberalism, and the exclusive truth claims made by the many we would call “evangelicals.” As a Professor at the University of North Carolina (Chapel Hill), she is also interested in how secular thought and identity politics on American campuses have tended to provoke similar kinds of exclusive truth claims on its students, though to a different end. As you will see in our interview, for Molly Worthen, evangelicals are a group of believers who have found it necessary to reconcile the constraints of the public sphere and the demands of their own personal belief.

Worthen spoke to us from Chapel Hill, North Carolina.

M

Are there contemporary issues today within the Church that are simply rehashings of an old issue from centuries ago?

MW

Sure, I’m often aware of continuities, and I try to stress them to my students. I teach a course on North American religion since European contact, and one of the themes is the way Christians have always struggled with the paradoxes that define their faith. These paradoxes are what give Christianity its majesty and brilliance, but they’re also what cause great frustration among believers. It has seemed to me that, over the millennia, people who are deemed heretics by defenders of orthodoxy are Christians who sought to resolve one or more of the key paradoxes of Christianity—whether it was to try to separate Christ’s human and divine nature or to try to rationalize the mystery of the Trinity or to push apart the paradox of free will and divine sovereignty.

41-xe2IErwL._SX327_BO1,204,203,200_And then there are the less Trinitarian paradoxes that continue to pop up in contemporary religion, that deal with culture—the paradox of the Christian calling to be ‘in the world but not of it’—that dilemma frames so many issues for Christians today.

The paradox whereby Paul calls Christians to be always alert to the way in which culture can become confused with the Gospel, and worldly identities blended with identity in Christ—that one is so apparent in the current presidential election. It certainly illuminates the appeal of Donald Trump’s xenophobic, nativist, essentially white supremacist language. Some evangelical leaders I’ve asked about this insist that evangelicals who support Trump are not real evangelicals because many of them don’t go to church, but the fact is that “evangelical” has become a kind of cultural identity that churches do not control.

One trend I’ve been following is the way in which more and more evangelical leaders are calling for American Christians to think of themselves as a “moral minority,” a Christian counterculture, to recognize that the ship has sailed on marriage equality and that they can no longer aspire to “take the country back.” And yet, at the same time, we have the evangelical grassroots rallying for a presidential candidate who is resurrecting the rhetoric of Jerry Falwell, speaking about how the “silent majority” is back to reclaim the country. I mean, this is what Trump says! So there’s a widening gap between the strategies and desires of many evangelical leaders, and what seem to be the sentiments of their constituents.

M

College students are certainly up against a lot, especially if they’re professing a faith that has exclusive truth claims. Your recent article in the New York Times, “Hallelujah College,” talked a little bit about that too, about the Christian student in a world of trigger warnings and what Jonathan Haidt called, “emotional coddling.” Can you share your thoughts there?

MW

I think that the general paradigm on most secular campuses is that of New Left identity politics, in which we all claim a certain set of identities based on our life experiences. We have authority to speak from those identities because of our experiences, and we must grant all respect and sovereignty to other people’s identity claims and adopt a posture of openness, but never confrontation or judgment. My students, even those who come from conservative Christian backgrounds, have been steeped in that culture for long enough that they obey its rules without really thinking about them. On one hand, pragmatically, it works. It produces a fairly civil conversation. Most of the time, it allows people with very different perspectives to coexist.

But the fact is that traditional Christianity has a different way of conceiving of human nature and truth claims than do modern secular liberals. I think that modern secular liberals have not worked through some of the inconsistencies in their own ideologies when it comes to the accommodation of traditional religions, Christian or otherwise. You know, this problem is really coming to the fore in Western Europe, as these secular European liberal democracies try to accommodate and acculturate huge numbers of conservative Muslim immigrants. For the secular liberal, it’s the old problem of, “How do you tolerate the intolerant?” What boundaries do you enforce?

It’s a conversation that liberals have been exempt from having for a long time, at least in this country, and what I find interesting is the way conservative Christian students are trying to compel that conversation. Although both sides sometimes fall prey to a sense of moral superiority, and the rigidity of their own assumptions can prevent them from totally hearing the other side, I think liberals have a lot to learn from the way religious conservatives have learned to articulate their presuppositions and understand the intellectual framework of their own worldview. I think liberals, especially at universities, where they do enjoy cultural dominance, have not always had to come to terms with the logic of their own ideas.

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