1. Today is Good Friday, which means, if ever there were a time to consider the brutal instrument of death at the center of a major world religion, that time may as well be now. Off-putting and oft-baffling, the cross carries a multifaceted meaning that can prove elusive for onlookers and skeptics (and, much of time, believers). In a Times op-ed “What It Means to Worship a Man Crucified as a Criminal,” Peter Wehner beautifully and efficiently summarizes that meaning:

From the perspective of Christianity, one can question why God allows suffering, but one cannot say God doesn’t understand it. He is not remote, indifferent, untouched or unscarred.

Scott Dudley, the senior pastor at Bellevue Presbyterian Church in Bellevue, Wash., and a lifelong friend, pointed out to me that on the cross God was reconciling the world to himself — but God was also, perhaps, reconciling himself to the world. The cross is not only God’s way of saying we are not alone in our suffering, but also that God has entered into our suffering through his own suffering.

Scott readily concedes that there’s no good answer to the question, “Why is there suffering?” Jesus never answers that question, and even if we had the theological answer, it would not ease our burdens in any significant way. What God offers instead is the promise that he is with us in our suffering; that he can bring good out of it (life out of death, forgiveness out of sin); and that one day he will put a stop to it and redeem it. God, Revelation tells us, will make “all things new.” For now, though, we are part of a drama unfolding in a broken world, one in which God chose to become a protagonist.

Crucifixion (study), Picasso

2. So the cross is one response to the ancient complaint of mortality. In his Denial of Death, Ernest Becker wrote, “All historical religions addressed themselves to this same problem of how to bear the end of life. Religions like Hinduism and Buddhism performed the ingenious trick of pretending not to want what you really want most.”

This is the number many people are now calling as we approach a “death boom.” Given that baby boomers are “not getting any younger,” says Karen Heller, it is estimated that the death rate will outpace population growth by 2037. To soften a painful reality, many are reorienting funerals toward opportunities to celebrate life rather than mourn the loss of it. Heller explains:

An increasingly secular, nomadic and casual America is shredding the rules about how to commemorate death, and it’s not just among the wealthy and famous. Somber, embalmed-body funerals, with their $9,000 industry average price tag, are, for many families, a relic. Instead, end-of-life ceremonies are being personalized: golf-course cocktail send-offs, backyard potluck memorials, more Sinatra and Clapton, less “Ave Maria,” more Hawaiian shirts, fewer dark suits. Families want to put the “fun” in funerals. […]

Now, many families are replacing funerals (where the body is present) with memorial services (where the body is not). […]

“Services are more life-centered, around the person’s personality, likes and dislikes. They’re unique and not standardized…It makes it a celebration of life and not such a morbid affair…”

How to cope is something about which Christians, too, are split. Understandably, many are eager to look away from the “morbid” carnality of the crucifixion and focus only on the resurrection. Poet/memoirist Mary Karr memorably described this tension:

I remember [my mother] saying, when I became Catholic: “You go up, and there’s that gory, bloody, butchered body on the cross. I mean, I worship the resurrected Christ.” And I was like, well we all do, but where are we? … I suffer a lot, I just do. I have a dark mentality, I’m not a good-natured individual, I’m socially adroit but not particularly good-natured, not easygoing; I do want to kill everybody in the subway when it’s hot and they have my seat—and so I understand suffering.

In commemoration of the day, here’s few stanzas from Karr’s poem “The Grand Miracle”:

Jesus wound up with his body nailed to a tree—
a torment he practically begged for,
or at least did nothing to stop. Pilate

watched the crowd go thumbs down
and weary, signed the order.
So centurions laid Jesus flat

on a long beam, arms run along the crosspiece.
In each palm a long spike was centered,
a stone chosen to drive it. (Skin

tears; the bones start to split.)
Once the cross got propped up,
the body hung heavy, a carcass—

in carne, the Latin poets say, in meat.
(—The breastbone a ship’s prow . . .)
At the end the man cried out

as men cry. []

3. This Lent I read a short masterpiece called Lazarus Is Dead by Richard Beard, taglined “the greatest story about second chances ever told.” No kidding. Novelizing the biblical account, Beard writes Lazarus as a busy guy, estranged from his childhood friend Jesus. In his early thirties, Lazarus has become a little annoyed at all the attention Jesus is getting for so-called miracles. A savvy businessman, Lazarus is preparing for a smart marriage when he falls ill.

The book begins with this epigraph: “‘Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I’m going to wake him up,’” from John 11:11. The story, too, awakens, Beard’s words renewing it in a genuinely enlivening way.

When the book came out (2012), reviewers called it tongue-in-cheek, and maybe it is. On his own site, though, Beard has said, “The default assumption is that if a modern novelist re-writes a Christian story he must be mostly against… The Sunday Herald reviewer didn’t even ask. ‘Beard is not himself a believer,’ Chris Dolan decides.” Questions about the author’s beliefs are obviously not the most interesting thing you can wonder about at the end of a novel like this. The book may be, a little, irreverent; then again, it could be exceptionally reverent, as it works seriously within the claims of the story. “Faith-enriching” would describe its effect on me.

Toward the end, Lazarus attends the crucifixion and concludes:

“Death is a big episode, but it is not the end. It is, after all, only death, however spectacular. Death is not the climax it used to be, not for Lazarus.”

4. Around the periphery of Lazarus, Beard recasts a few other gospel stories, among them the scandal of Mary and the perfume: she “came with an alabaster jar of very costly ointment of nard, and she broke open the jar and poured the ointment on his head” (Mark 14:3). In Beard’s retelling, “Mary interrupts dinner, at last finding her role in the story. Everyone has to move and furniture must be shifted so that she can kneel at the feet of Jesus… Sometimes, Mary wants to say, words are not enough.”

In a sermon for the Episcopal Diocese of Oklahoma, our friend Erin Jean Warde picks up the thread:

In the telling of this passage from the gospel of Mark, [Mary] doesn’t just pour the nard out, she breaks the jar. I love it, because it isn’t meant to be put back together. It’s meant to be given away entirely. The precious gift cannot be salvaged or hoarded…

As people, and maybe especially as clergy, I think we feel like jars of nard, but we pray we won’t break. We pray we might not have to be poured out. We pray we might be spared, tucked away safe for the time when we “should” be used. But when we think this way, we live as Judas! And we betray not others, but ourselves, because we neglect to see that this moment is the life God has given us, and in this life it is in our best interest to get comfortable with breaking. We must get comfortable with breaking and dying, because no one gets out of here alive or with a body that hasn’t failed us.

5. Now for a laugh from McSweeney’s: “God, Does the Land of Milk and Honey Also Have Oat Milk?

On the next day, Moses emerged from his tent with a large belly.

The Lord asked Moses: “Did you drink it?”

Moses said: “No…”

Then the Lord sent another plague.

Very funny… Nevertheless, my all-time favorite re-telling of Exodus is still “Char & Steph Wander the Desert,” a play in four acts from the one-of-a-kind see-it-to-believe-it book Unmapped.

6. In the arena of social studies, a viral op-ed by David Brooks discusses the lies our culture tells. Among them are “Career success is fulfilling,” “I can make myself happy,” and “Rich and successful people are worth more than poorer and less successful people.” Regarding the last, Brooks says:

We pretend we don’t tell this lie, but our whole meritocracy points to it…

The message of the meritocracy is that you are what you accomplish. The false promise of the meritocracy is that you can earn dignity by attaching yourself to prestigious brands. The emotion of the meritocracy is conditional love — that if you perform well, people will love you.

The sociology of the meritocracy is that society is organized around a set of inner rings with the high achievers inside and everyone else further out. The anthropology of the meritocracy is that you are not a soul to be saved but a set of skills to be maximized.

Even among the religious, this outlook, while rarely expressed in explicit terms, is present. After all, rich and successful people can do a lot of apparent good, can give more, can make more refined cultural offerings. I once attended an event with “successful” Christian entrepreneurs who emphasized the importance of climbing the ladder as a means of magnifying their religion. A likely story.

David Zahl might see in all of this “performancism”, per this excerpt from his new book Seculosity: “Performancism is the assumption, usually unspoken, that there is no distinction between what we do and who we are. Your resumé isn’t part of your identity; it is your identity. What makes you lovable, indeed what makes your life worth living, is your performance at X, Y, or Z…just like the weight scale or the calendar, it knows no mercy.” Good religion, by contrast, knows mercy, sees you, in Brooks’ terms, as a soul to be saved, something more than a sum of accomplishments. For more, listen at Steve Brown, Etc., where David was interviewed this week:

7. A final vivid illustration of the way we might re-conceive the performance/identity dynamic: this one comes from Daniel van Voorhis at 1517. In “Cursed by Name,” van Voorhis discusses hometown heroes and the legacies of pro athletes. “For good or ill,” he says, “the name on your jersey will hang around your neck for your entire life.” Yet he also describes the biblical pattern of re-naming, now known as the ‘re-brand’:

In Genesis 32, the Angel of the Lord changed Jacob’s name from a curse (it meant ‘usurper’) to a blessing in Israel (literally ‘the one who strives with God’). He did so to change the very identity of the people of God from those who would try and usurp divine power into those who would contend and rule with God. Here, the would-be enemies of God become the friends of God…

We are renamed and need not live up to the expectation of anyone except our Father in heaven who has already told us that in Christ, we have been adopted as sons and daughters in whom He is well pleased.

8. As my colleagues Kendall and Margaret can surely by now attest, I love chill lofi beats to work to. If you’re unfamiliar with that particular string of words, take a trip to the Jazz Hop Café, order a “cup of lofi #2 [lofi / jazzhop / chill beats].” Amanda Petrusich will not be joining. The New Yorker journalist is no fan of lofi/chill, as revealed in “Against Chill: Apathetic Music to Make Spreadsheets To.

Characterized by breezy rhythms and background static, chill/lofi/jazzhop is a new, increasingly popular genre, especially in study/work-spaces. But like Taylor Swift on Reputation repeatedly referring to herself as “chill”, this word’s frequent invocation may indicate the opposite. Petrusich ventures: “The rise of chill as an aspirational state suggests that perhaps the best thing to feel is not much at all.”

I’m not sure its an entirely fair critique (do I observe some generational friction?), but she’s right to draw up the discordant fusion of art and productivity:

Although I recognize the utility of listening to non-distracting study music, I nonetheless find it disheartening to see art being reconfigured, over and over again, as a tool for productivity—and then, when the work is finally done, as a tool for coming down from the work. […]

The German philosopher Josef Pieper, in his signal essay “Leisure: The Basis of Culture,” from 1952, quotes the poet and critic Charles Baudelaire: “One must work, if not from taste then at least from despair. For, to reduce everything to a single truth: work is less boring than pleasure.” Pieper argues that Westerners in spiritual decline can’t “acquiesce to being,” but, instead, must “overwork as a means of self-escape, as a way of trying to justify our existence.” It makes sense that, in 2019, as we grow collectively more uncomfortable with our own quiet, inefficient sentience, we have also come to neglect the more contemplative pursuits, including mindful listening, listening for pleasure, listening to be challenged, and even listening to have a very good time while doing nothing else at all.

And there you have it—Seculosity strikes again. Get it while it’s hot, people.

Strays:

  • This week Stephen Freeman noted an interesting connection between justice and envy; justice, he says, is concerned with giving others “what they deserve”—language to be wary of in any case. He cites St. Isaac of Syria: “We know nothing of God’s justice.”
  • Our annual conference in NYC is next week! While we’re maxed out for meals, walk-ins and newcomers are always welcome. General registration is still open: more details here! In addition to many of the usual suspects, guest speakers include Leslie Jamison and Alfie Kohn—plus renowned yoyo-ist JWYOYO. Not to be missed.