1. First up is this doozie of an interview from Christianity Today, about a woman recently released from a 30-year sentence in a California prison. Linda Barkman was sentenced with second-degree murder in 1979 after her boyfriend murdered her 2-year-old daughter. That devastating outcome, she says, came at the end of a string of abusive relationships and drug abuse, and at the beginning of an earnest prayer that God “do whatever he needed to do to make things right in my life.” While Barkman was already a Christian, she describes this as the moment that changed everything.

I wanted to die, and God said, No, you’re not allowed to die. I was so angry at God. I remember screaming out to him, “You say you can make a new creation out of me, so you have to turn me into somebody I can live with. I don’t know what part is good, what part is not. All I know is everybody who has ever loved me or been loved by me is now hurt, and I just don’t know what to do.”

After that, God started showing me that he could use me if I would let him, if I would stop fighting. It took a long time. I began to see Jesus and his love and mercy in the day-by-day things. Not long after I got to prison, I started helping with church services in the psychiatric unit. For 28 of the 30 years I was incarcerated, I was the lay pastor for that prison unit.

Prison is a pretty good seminary in a lot of ways. One of the women I interviewed for my dissertation told me, “I had a 27-year retreat. People don’t understand it, but you do. Jesus was with me every single day of those 27 years.”

At my church in Charlottesville, we have a jail ministry that I’ve written about a bit, and Barkman’s observation rings true for our experience. So many of the inmates we’ve met over the past few years have made similar observations, how getting put into a police car was a moment of divine intervention, how catastrophic loss was, somehow, a turning point towards new life. While no inmates I’ve known have called jail a retreat, countless inmates have similarly described their sentence as a much-needed time of waiting on and connecting with God.

While Linda is out, and has a thriving ministry and a loving husband, it’s not as though she’s a completely wrapped up redemption story. But she has come to see how God’s grace works powerfully through those who have known tremendous suffering and guilt.

I struggle. I’m in therapy. I have post-traumatic stress disorder from prison issues. I don’t know if I can believe in redemption for myself. But David was a murderer, and Saul consented to Stephen’s stoning, and Joseph spent a lot of time in prison. God has a special place for prisoners and can use us because of our brokenness…We know that knowing Christ in prison makes us freer than many people walking the streets who don’t know Jesus. So I pray for the strength to know that, every moment that he allows me to minister in prison is an opportunity to love to those that he loves.

2. Longread of the week goes to this one, published by the Point and written by Justin E.H. Smith, about the state of, well, just about everything being data-streamed and vector-plotted and money-balled, and what that does to identity, how we relate to one another, and how we relate to other physical objects which have more or less become predicted calculations of mathematical algorithms. It’s depressing, but it’s also true (and beautifully written). Who didn’t do some of this bingo-card-making during the holidays with their own family members?

There are memes circulating that are known as “bingo cards,” in which each square is filled with a typical statement or trait of a person who belongs to a given constituency, a mouth-breathing mom’s-basement-dwelling Reddit-using Mens’s Rights Activist, for example, or, say, an unctuous white male ally of POC feminism. The idea is that within this grid there is an exhaustive and as it were a priori tabulation, deduced like Kant’s categories of the understanding, of all the possible moves a member of one of these groups might make, and whenever the poor sap tries to state his considered view, his opponent need only pull out the table and point to the corresponding box, thus revealing to him that it is not actually a considered view at all, but only an algorithmically predictable bit of output from the particular program he is running. The sap is sapped of his subjectivity, of his belief that he, properly speaking, has views at all.

…This gutting of our human subjecthood is currently being stoked and exacerbated, and integrated into a causal loop with, the financial incentives of the tech companies. People are now speaking in a way that  results directly from the recent moneyballing of all of human existence. They are speaking, that is, algorithmically rather than subjectively, and at this point it is not only the extremely online who are showing the symptoms of this transformation. They are only the vanguard, but, as with vocal fry and other linguistic phenomena, their tics and habits spread soon enough to the inept and the elderly, to the oblivious normies who continue to proclaim that they “don’t like reading on screens,” or they “prefer an old-fashioned book or newspaper,” as if that were going to stop history from happening.

3. For those of you who, like many of us, have become KonMari disciples over the last five years, you won’t have missed the show about the joy-sparker that came out earlier this month. If the preview is accurate, Marie Kondo gently glides into the homes of many average, neurotic Americans and helps them shed about half of their weight in clutter, and everyone is happier for it. But this writer, Alison Willmore, seems to think the premise of minimalist virtue usually suppresses some uglier truths in life. She writes,

The aura of moral righteousness that has over time become attached to minimizing and to minimalism has always seemed unearned to me. Not that there’s anything bad about Kondo’s gospel of keeping only what you love and need, but it’s not actually about abstaining from things. When one of the Tidying Up episodes starts with parents telling their child that they’re not going to take him to Toys ‘R’ Us because they’re all going to learn about “being happy with how much [they] already have,” that’s their projection — Kondo, who of course peddles a few products of her own, does not actually go so far as to advise against consumerist impulses. She instead keeps to the more easygoing territory of having the right kind of stuff in the right place, which isn’t the same thing as making do with less, though it sounds close enough that it’s absorbed some of the halo.

Having just the right kind of stuff means being able to buy more or new things when you need (or want) them, so long as you make space. It’s about scaling down instead of doing without. It’s about having everything you really need to pursue what Kondo refers to several times as “your ideal life.” And that term really highlights the limits of tidying up, because it doesn’t make room for the idea that a mess can be a symptom of the greater issues affecting someone’s life, rather than just the cause of them. Having an organized home can be a wonderful thing, but neatness is rarely the only thing holding someone back from their life’s full potential.

And, while we’re at it, check out the Bee’s report: Christian Uses KonMari Method While Studying Bible To Remove All Verses That Don’t Spark Joy

4. Despite the gag-inducing title and a few suspect hypotheses, Edith Zimmerman’s “How to Change Without Willpower” drives some interesting questions about where change comes from. Zimmerman, who had been a heavy drinker for years, had tried several times to dial down her drinking. It failed every time. What she found worked was, instead, a $12 book (Allen Carr’s Quit Drinking) which helped her feel differently about her relationship to alcohol. In her desperation, she bought the book, and the book brought her to a new understanding. Zimmerman understands how trite this solution sounds:

Last night in the shower, I was thinking about this essay, which I’ve been trying to write for weeks. I was thinking about that $12 book I bought on Amazon and a dramatic way I might phrase what it had done for me. “I got my whole life back for twelve dollars.” That’s too simple. I don’t know how exactly the pieces fell. It cost a lot to get me to the point where I was ready to read the $12 book with an open heart and mind, but still I’m amazed at how it all went down. I try to be jokey and light and calm about most things, but this truly amazed me.

For me, it felt like for a brief moment, on a random Thursday, my real self peeked out from between the clouds, asking for something else. “We’re going to die,” it was saying. “Give us something better to believe.”

While my initial impulse is “snake oil,” I think there’s a different message at work here. No book, no fresh take, no convincing argument is going to work on a heart that is not open. But as the Good Shepherd taught us, lives are changed from the inside-out, not the other way. Zimmerman captures this beautifully—she was ready for something new to believe.

5. Speaking of (the lack of) willpower, if you’ve got kids, you’ve already eaten at this restaurant; but if not, a few fresh recipes to try from your neighborhood three-year-old.

Four very specific Oreos

Pizza, just the cheese

Applesauce through a straw

A cheese quesadilla dipped in maple syrup

Spaghetti bolognese with the sauce rinsed off in the bathroom sink after he pretends he needs to wash his hands

6. A great review of Wendell Berry’s Port William fiction over at Commonweal this week, just in time for the release of his Library of America edition. One of the common threads that reviewer Eric Miller notices in these stories is the “reign of love” throughout, how love flows through existence in a place, with all people, even despite their shortcomings. While Berry is often criticized as nostalgic, idealistic, even naive about “simpler times,” his stories about Port William argue otherwise. Berry’s characters are twisted by greed, murder, lust, and bigotry, just like any of us. But his stories are also bound up in and expressed through a greater, much older story of God’s love:

But Berry takes up Christian cosmology as a kind of dare, a dare that’s theological and aesthetic at once. In an essay that began as a speech at a 1994 conference on “Spirituality and Healing,” he made clear the confession from which his work springs: “I take literally the statement in the Gospel of John that God loves the world. I believe that the world was created and approved by love, that it subsists, coheres, and endures by love, and that, insofar as it is redeemable, it can be redeemed only by love.” But he wasn’t finished. “I believe that divine love, incarnate and indwelling the world, summons the world always toward wholeness, which ultimately is reconciliation and atonement with God.”

And it is God’s judgment and, finally, the light of God’s love which will one day come and find us all, as Berry imagines so well through his narrator Andy Catlett.

It is a light that is merciless until they can accept its mercy; by it they are at once condemned and redeemed. It is Hell until it is Heaven. Seeing themselves in that light, if they are willing, they see how far they have failed the only justice of loving one another; it punishes them with their own judgment. And yet, in suffering that light’s awful clarity, in seeing themselves within it, they see its forgiveness and its beauty, and are consoled. In it they are loved completely, even as they have been, and so are changed into what they could not have been but what, if they could have imagined it, they would have wished to be.

7. Tolkien nerds, assemble! Look what’s going to be happening in NYC in conjunction with our Conference this Spring (4/25-27)! Stay tuned for a pre-conference outing!

Strays

The Mysterious, Stubborn Appeal of Mass-Produced Fried Chicken

Terry Gross talks with Kevin Hart about the Moral Outrage of Hollywood

Why Millennials Are the Burnout Generation