1. Don’t shoot the piano player but another week, another flurry of #seculosity… This first item comes from Peggy Noonan, who hit the college admissions scandal nail on the head in her “Kids, Don’t Become Success Robots” column in The Wall Street Journal. She writes:

In the past decade or so I’ve observed a particular parenting style growing prevalent among the upper middle class and wealthy. It is intense. They love their kids and want the best for them, they want to be responsible, but there’s a degree to which one wonders if they don’t also see them as narcissistic extensions of themselves.

They aim their children at the best colleges, which are, to them, basically brands. The colleges too market themselves that way—“Well, we are Harvard.” Get in there and you’re branded too.

I believe a lot of parents do all this not only so their children will do well but so they will look good. They are status monkeys creating success robots. Which in one way is odd. Their family has already arrived! But there is something sick about America that no matter how much success you have it’s not enough, you must have more. And everyone must know you have it.

The kids pick up through cues the family ethos: The purpose of an education is to look good.

Which is another way of saying that the real engine of the college admissions arms race isn’t education so much as justification. And that’s what I tried to get across in a guest column for The Washington Post(!) this weekend, “When parenting becomes a religion, college admissions officers become high priests.” Also on the replacement religion front, we have “A Wild Night at Weed Church” by Jen Doll in Cosmo and a profile of Psychic Mediums as the New Wellness Coaches by Lisa Held in the NY Times. Homina homina homina!

2. Thankfully, Aeon is here to trace the history of how status can be gloriously upended in Pieter van der Horst’s essay “How the Poor Became Blessed”. I found the apologetic tone both amusing and revealing, i.e. “Much as we hate to admit, it looks like organized charity directed at the poor might in fact be a Christian innovation”. Still, that final quote from Julian the Apostate is one for the ages. We talk about it more on this week’s episode of The Mockingcast:

Ancient Greek moralists didn’t admonish people to concern themselves about the fate of the poor. While generosity was praised as a virtue, the poor were never singled out as its object; it was always directed to humans in general, provided that they deserved it. Honor was the driving motive behind Greek beneficence, not directed towards the poor but to fellow humans in general, especially those from whom one could reasonably expect a gift in return…

While care for the poor was a non-item in Greco-Roman antiquity, it is a central concern in the Jewish Bible. Caring for the poor is seen as a major duty and virtue not only in the Torah of Moses, but also in the Prophets and other biblical writings. Most significantly, God is seen as the protector of the poor and the rescuer of the needy. They are his favorites and the objects of his mercy, regarded as humble before God and therefore often as pious and righteous.

In spite of the fact that there is much concern for the poor in the Bible, there still is no record of organised charity among Jews of the rabbinic era.

The Christians had a system of poor relief right from the start, as indicated in the New Testament… In 362 CE, Julian the Apostate, the last pagan emperor of the Roman Empire, wrote in a letter to a priest in Asia Minor that lots of corn should be distributed to the inhabitants of Galatia; one-fifth of it should be given to the poor, and the rest to strangers and beggars. Notably, he then adds: ‘For it is a shame that, when no Jew ever has to beg and the impious Galilaeans [Christians] support not only their own poor but ours as well, everyone can see that our people lack aid from us.’

3. An absolutely fascinating introduction to “affect theory” appeared in The New Yorker this week, via Hua Hsu’s profile of famed critic Lauren Berlant. I’ve been hearing whispers of “affect theory” these past few years, mainly from a certain affect-in-Christian-experience studying brother, but had never had it spelled out for me. Suffice to say, it takes the classic Null-via-Cranmer formulation “what the heart desires, the will chooses, and the mind justifies” a few steps further than even Jonathan Haidt. Essential stuff:

In the past couple of decades, however, a different approach [to literary criticism] has emerged, claiming the rubric “affect theory.” Under its influence, critics attended to affective charge. They saw our world as shaped not simply by narratives and arguments but also by nonlinguistic effects—by mood, by atmosphere, by feelings.

Everyone has heartstrings. Over time, [Berlant] wrote, we had grown addicted to having them pulled, rather than focusing on what the pulling could accomplish by way of political change. We’d replaced tangible action with affective experience. “What does it mean for the theory and practice of social transformation,” she asked in a 1999 essay, “when feeling good becomes evidence of justice’s triumph?”…

“All attachment is optimistic,” Berlant argued in [her essay] “Cruel Optimism,” because it forces us out of ourselves. From there, we enter “into the world in order to bring closer the satisfying something that you cannot generate on your own but sense in the wake of a person, a way of life, an object, project, concept, or scene.” The challenge is finding configurations that don’t simply reproduce the same old patterns of life.

4. Next, Scientific American ran a trenchant interview with theoretical physicist Marcelo Gleiser in which he touched on the allure of scientism and why he’s not an atheist (hint: it has to do with “epistemological modesty”). A few highlights:

I honestly think atheism is inconsistent with the scientific method. What I mean by that is, what is atheism? It’s a statement, a categorical statement that expresses belief in nonbelief. “I don’t believe even though I have no evidence for or against, simply I don’t believe.” Period. It’s a declaration. But in science we don’t really do declarations… an agnostic would acknowledge no right to make a final statement about something he or she doesn’t know about. “The absence of evidence is not evidence of absence,” and all that…

There is a difference between “science” and what we can call “scientism,” which is the notion that science can solve all problems. To a large extent, it is not science but rather how humanity has used science that has put us in our present difficulties. Because most people, in general, have no awareness of what science can and cannot do. So they misuse it, and they do not think about science in a more pluralistic way. So, okay, you’re going to develop a self-driving car? Good! But how will that car handle hard choices, like whether to prioritize the lives of its occupants or the lives of pedestrian bystanders? Is it going to just be the technologist from Google who decides? Let us hope not! You have to talk to philosophers, you have to talk to ethicists. And to not understand that, to say that science has all the answers, to me is just nonsense. We cannot presume that we are going to solve all the problems of the world using a strict scientific approach. It will not be the case, and it hasn’t ever been the case, because the world is too complex, and science has methodological powers as well as methodological limitations.

5. Music-wise, right now I’m all about Fanny, the first all-female rock band to be signed to a major label back in early 1970s and self-appointed “Godmothers of Chick Rock.” Bowie was a big fan, Rundgren produced them, and they even backed up a young Barbara Streisand on one of her first big albums (their cover of “Space Captain” cooks). The stories are cool but mainly the music rules, as the video at the very top of the post attests. The other big discovery is Twin Feather a duo out of Portland, who have just dropped an EP of top-notch otherworldly electro-gospel. You can sample on Spotify (and below) but be sure to purchase if you dig, as indie musicians gotta eat. Oh and did you know that Andy Mackay of Roxy Music recently put out a disc in which he set three psalms to music, word for word?! And that it’s awesome? Phil Manzanera plays on it too. Turns out Mackay has a theology degree. Will wonders never cease!

6. Humor-wise, The Hard Times reports that “Punk Dad Bribes Community College Admissions With Billions In Exposure” and McSweeney’s list of “How to Take a Compliment in the Midwest” was clever. But probably the funniest thing I read was Luke Burns’ Daily Shout “Real Men Hate Toxic Masculinity.”

7. Lastly, now that Virtue in the Wasteland is off the air, we have to get our Dan Van Voorhis fix somehow, and this week that means his wonderful meditation on inter-religious dialogue “The Ones Who Don’t Do Anything.” Touched by his nod to #Seculosity too:

In a world chock-full of religions, from super spiritual to secular (check out Dave Zahl’s new book), people bustle around, buying and worshipping, and forever doing things. Whether they are the written or unwritten rules, we all make lists for a righteousness of sorts and go about doing them or damning ourselves for failing to do them. But just as all humans build these “little-r” religions based on “little-l” laws, we all draw suffocating orthodoxies to protect and sanctify our own beliefs and works. To all of us, both the religious and non-religious “doers,” Jesus pulls the carpet out from under us…

Some Christians can get hung up on this thing called “monergism” (the idea that God works alone in salvation) because it fits their theological and ideological grids. But monergism has been defended, historically, because it recognizes the great truth of Christianity: it’s not about what we do. We are the ones who don’t do anything. Be of good cheer; when it comes to the doing of salvation, all has been done for you.

Strays