A gift unwrapped.

Recently I have been thinking a lot about the gift of "growing up evangelical" and how I might be able to describe it in writing. Yes, I really do mean gift, not curse, even though growing up gay in the 1980s within a harshly conservative Christian environment fucked me up for years, to be blunt.

And yet, the fact is that I would not be a Christian today at all — I would not know enough about true Christian theology to understand how and why the religious Right are getting it so, so wrong — if I hadn't been raised an evangelical to begin with.

Then I read Alan Jacobs' blog post from last week:

"One thing that I almost never see in the current Discourse about evangelicalism is an acknowledgement by people who were raised evangelical that their upbringing might have provided something, anything to be grateful for. When I hear people denouncing their evangelical or fundamentalist 'family,' I remember something Auden said about Kierkegaard: 'The Danish Lutheran Church may have been as worldly as Kierkegaard thought it was, but if it had not existed he would never have heard of the Gospels, in which he found the standards by which he condemned it.'"

Which made me feel ashamed (especially as I read the rest of the post involving Jacobs' tragic upbringing by an abusive father), because I've been thinking about expressing such gratitude for a while and never really figured out how to do it in the right way.

The fact is, while my parents weren't perfect and my relationship with them has always been complex and somewhat estranged, I was given the gift of Christian belief that has sustained me through difficult times — even some difficult times when I would have told you point blank that I didn't believe any of it.

I always knew that given enough time I would eventually find myself returning to the church, even though I also knew that there was no way in hell that it would be the kind of church in which I was raised. Still, here I am, reciting the Creed, and finding that I actually believe it, every Sunday morning and most weekdays.

I'm not going to delve too much right now into how exactly my evangelical upbringing screwed me up for a couple decades, or how my faith differs now from what I learned about Christianity as a child. I do know that I wouldn't be a Christian now if I hadn't learned what I did, and I am grateful for that gift. (I do sometimes wonder if I would consider myself a Christian now if I had grown up instead in a liberal mainline denomination of the 1980s…)

Nothing to do with, all to do with.

Stephen Sondheim died yesterday, a mere nine years away from his centennial. I was never a "musical" guy growing up — I was the sort of young tiresome snob who claimed musicals were "unrealistic." I cringe to admit it. The first time I saw Company was on TV, maybe 2007 or 2008, in the early days of Netflix streaming; it was a recording of the 2006 revival with Raul Esparza. I watched it once (I was a little drunk at the time), and then found myself watching it again, and again, and again.

Perhaps it was the fact that I was around the same age as the Bobby character, and single, with no particular relationship prospects at the time, that I found the show emotionally overwhelming. To this day I can't listen to the soundtrack (which I adore) without tearing up multiple times throughout. Company accurately depicts the modern view of "marriage" (which at the time was not available to me, at least in a strictly legal sense) in all of its fragile limitations — its comforts and vexations, attractions and aversions.

By that point in my life I had decided that "singleness" would probably remain my lot, and felt comfortable with it, but it's clear to me now that I retained at the time an unrealistic view of what constituted "marriage," legal or otherwise. Now, fourteen or so years later, I find myself in a completely different place, living a (very married) life I don't think I could have even imagined back then.

This morning, in Sondheim's memory, I was listening to the Company soundtrack for the first time in a few years, and found myself both chuckling and tearing up (I told you, it's a thing) when "Sorry/Grateful" played. Even though I remember being moved by the song when I first heard it, there's no possible way I could have actually understood it the same way that I do now:

You're sorry-grateful,
Why look for answers
When none occur?
You'll always be what you always were,
Which has nothing to do with, all to do with her.

Sondheim's lyric nails the ambivalent state of being human, being alive — a reality of existence that I didn't understand when I was younger, and which I honestly don't understand any better now, but at least I've come to accept it. It's not an easy black-and-white existence, this life of ours, and though it is described in Sondheim's song in the context of relationships, it is quite simply the context of human lives in their entirety. We are always sorry, always grateful — always judged, always forgiven — always at the same time.

We want to believe.

David Bentley Hart, in Roland in Moonlight:

"[I]n an age of unbelief, everyone is an unbeliever to some degree. Belief now requires a decision, and a tacit application of will that never for a moment relents. That's why the fiercest forms of faith in the modern world are actually just inverted forms of faithlessness — forms of desperation masquerading as faith. … What's a militant Latin Mass Catholic or a white evangelical fundamentalist from Tennessee other than an atheist who has convinced himself that he truly, truly, truly believes by inverting his total, inescapable inward nihilism in the mirror of his despair? He doesn't believe. He merely believes that he believes. Or he tries to believe that he believes."

This quote puts me in mind of folks like Dreher or Ahmari, who make me sad with their never-ending quests to find the right religious system to support their extant cultural beliefs. (Whatever sect they may belong to at the present moment, they will assure you, is absolutely correct.) The same could be said of many on the left as well, of course. We all treat God like a social media meme or a cable news commentator: welcome and sage when he agrees with us, infuriating (and ignored or explained away) when he doesn’t.

It’s easier than you think.

In his newsletter this morning, Oliver Burkeman asks, "What if it were easy?" — "it" being just about anything that we perceive as difficult, which is, for some of us, everything:

"No question, life can be difficult – but when I really honestly examine why I don't always do the things I know I want to do, it's often not because they're difficult and I'd rather not experience discomfort. Instead, it's because I'm adding an additional level of difficulty, in my mind, that isn't objectively there at all. For me this frequently manifests in a perverse kind of absolutism: if I can't do some given thing fully, regularly, and excellently – if I can't become "the sort of person" who does that thing all the time – then I don't want to do it at all."

In my own life this same phenomenon often manifests in two ways:

  1. "Productive avoidance" of meaningful things I want to do, such as spending time trying to perfect a process before beginning it; constant fiddling with different software and apps to determine which one might be the absolute best choice for a particular situation (even when every choice is perfectly fine if I would only pick one); experimenting with different systems for a particular thing I want to do (say, Morning Prayer, or writing) in search of the one that I'm going to follow every day for the rest of my life, to the point that I never follow any for very long; owning literally hundreds of books about writing in all of the craft's aspects, which is kind of embarrassing to admit; etc.

  2. Sheer dread of things that I know I'm going to have to do, either because I've made an unavoidable commitment or because they really are necessary. These things — even pleasurable things, things that I know I'm going to enjoy, or learn from — loom in front of me like a tsunami of expectation.

While the productive avoidance is problematic, I am often able to rein in that particular bad habit by making commitments to other people, so that I absolutely must get something done. The problem, of course, is that this leads directly to #2, the whole "dread" angle.

I think that what I am dreading is difficulty, complexity, especially in terms of dealing with other people, or trying to accomplish something that meets some ideal of perfection that exists only in my head. This fear of impending deadlines or events has gotten much worse, and become an actual issue with which I have to wrestle, since my cancer experience. It's difficult to explain just how overwhelming and downright paralyzing it was to go through that whole ordeal, and now even the slightest sort of complexity — any event or project or appointment or task that I have to "get through" (even positive things, things I want to do!) — fills me with stress.

Which is why Burkeman's newsletter resonated so much with me. "What if it were easy?" Well, most things are easy, or easier than we think, certainly easier than horrible things like life-threatening diseases or depression or hunger or oppression. Yet I often forget just how easy most things are.

"What if it were easy?" Heading into the holiday season and beyond, I will try and ask myself that same question when faced with every task. Hmm, perhaps I need to write it down on a card and carry it in my wallet, or find an app that will let me keep the text as a widget on my phone or a virtual sticky on my computer screen, or you know what, perhaps there are other books on the subject I could read or online courses I could take …

It sort of makes sense.

“I will say that Christianity has this interesting compromise where we’re both divine and wretched, and there’s this Middle Man that’s the Savior, that through Him we can become divine, but we’re born wretched. I kind of like that one, because it sort of makes sense.”

Norm Macdonald. RIP.

I cannot wish for others to have more humility.

My first instinct before quoting the Litany of Humility, which is what I came here to do today, is to add a prefatory remark about how different (perhaps a little better) the world would be if people and nations — I mean especially privileged ones, like myself and America — prayed something like this every day. Certainly it would be a better country if politicians and partisans (and religious leaders) began and ended their day with it, or had any inkling of its value or meaning at all. Certainly I wish the United States, as a society and culture, understood that true strength can only be found in humility, even when humility is such a difficult thing to achieve.

But it shames me to write all that, because it obviously misses the point completely. I am the one who must pray for the strength to be humble, because that is all I can do.

Lord Jesus. Meek and humble of heart, Hear me.
From the desire of being esteemed, Deliver me, Jesus.
From the desire of being loved, Deliver me, Jesus.
From the desire of being extolled, Deliver me, Jesus.
From the desire of being honored, Deliver me, Jesus.
From the desire of being praised, Deliver me, Jesus.
From the desire of being preferred to others, Deliver me, Jesus.
From the desire of being consulted, Deliver me, Jesus.
From the desire of being approved, Deliver me, Jesus.
From the fear of being humiliated, Deliver me, Jesus.
From the fear of being despised, Deliver me, Jesus.
From the fear of suffering rebukes, Deliver me, Jesus.
From the fear of being calumniated, Deliver me, Jesus.
From the fear of being forgotten, Deliver me, Jesus.
From the fear of being ridiculed, Deliver me, Jesus.
From the fear of being wronged, Deliver me, Jesus.
From the fear of being suspected, Deliver me, Jesus.

That others may be loved more than I, Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it.
That others may be esteemed more than I, Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it.
That, in the opinion of the world, others may increase and I may decrease, Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it.
That others may be chosen and I set aside, Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it.
That others may be praised and I unnoticed, Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it.
That others may be preferred to me in everything, Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it.
That others may become holier than I, provided that I may become as holy as I should, Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it.

— Rafael Cardinal Merry del Val (1865-1930)

Things are not changing as fast as you think.

Our to-watch list has grown so long over the last several years, and our acceleration rate through it has so steadily declined, that we only recently managed to finish the first season of Atlanta, which was excellent, as promised.

Several of the storylines from this season — which was produced over five years ago now — revolved around the use of social media, particularly Instagram. I emphasize the age of the episodes in question because it struck me, as I watched, that none of the social media jokes had aged at all.

In fact, I remarked during one episode, in which a young wanna-be influencer tries to pick an online fight with Paper Boi for the sole purpose of attracting eyeballs, that a TV show being produced in 2021 would seem just as timely today if it used the exact same jokes and the exact same subplots (at least in terms of the technology and social media interactions), with perhaps just a couple of word or slang changes.

Yet, I could not imagine the same show being produced five years earlier (in 2011); at that point it wouldn't have made any sense. At some point in the first half of this decade, we reached a social media saturation point where the applications might change a little (emergence of TikTok, etc.) but the ways in which we Americans interact with each other, through phone apps, and the things with which we are obsessed, e.g. brand-focused "celebrity," haven't changed very much at all.

Nowadays, when most of us speak of "technology" (or "Big Tech"), we aren't really talking about technology; we are specifically referring to Facebook, Google, Twitter, Amazon. Sometimes Apple, although we still think of Apple as primarily a device manufacturer, while the other companies (even if they may dabble in devices) are primarily known for consumer software. (In a blog post today, Alan Jacobs quoted Dan Wang as saying, "I find it bizarre that the world has decided that consumer internet is the highest form of technology . . . A large population of people who play games, buy household goods online, and order food delivery does not make a country a technological or scientific leader.")

To me it seems obvious that smartphones, as devices, and the application ecosystems that emerged to serve them, were "innovative" in a very tangible sense. It's not surprising that a show from 2016 might have a different "technology" story to tell than a show from 2011. But it is surprising, or at least it was to me at first, to imagine that the same 2016 story could feasibly be told again in 2021.

As Jacobs also points out, "[t]he idea that Silicon Valley is meaningfully innovative" is merely the product (and a very successful one) of a PR machine.

The immorality of today’s literature.

Brandon Taylor’s definition of “moral art” is, in my opinion, much better than John Gardner’s version. From Taylor’s newsletter, “Sweater Weather”:

But for me, it comes down to this: moral fiction is not fiction that affirms your ideology about power systems and oppression. It does not make you feel like a good and righteous person. It may have no lessons for you to tweet about or put on Instagram or explain readily, wittily at dinner parties. You can’t wear it like a hair shirt and you can’t always articulate its particular force or power upon you. Moral art is, I think, hard to describe. Instable. It is art that implicates and complicates your notions of good and bad. Moral art may call you a liar to your face. It reveals the shallowness of your thought. It challenges you, but not in the way of an all-fiber diet. In the way gravity challenges you. In the way the thin air at the top of a mountain challenges you. In the way the pressure of the deep seas challenges you. Moral does not mean good or lawful. Moral means true. Moral means you take your finger off the scale.

To make moral art, moral fiction, is to get out of the way. To make moral art is to admit one’s humble place in the order of things. I think moral fiction is less about signaling to the reader that you voted for the right people or that you are able to listen to people who would have you destroyed. Moral fiction does not signal. That is propaganda. That is social work. Not that these are unimportant things, but they are not art. And they are not moral.

“To make moral art is to admit one’s humble place in the order of things.” Yes.

Why I do what I do.

From Mockingbird, a review of an upcoming book from free will skeptic Gregg Caruso. I will be returning here to struggle more with this concept at a later point. My younger induction into the cult of personal responsibility, despite the utter failure of those who preached it to practice same (not least of all me), still weighs on my conscience. Todd Brewer writes in Retributive Justice and Our Free Will Illusion:

Judgmentalism, in other words, correlates strongly with a belief in free will. Strange as it might sound, believing that people are basically good, perhaps with a few blemishes, can lead to more punitive responses. Where free will is espoused, legalism is sure to follow. If you think someone could have done otherwise, but didn’t, then they deserve punishment for their crimes. But if that very same action is explained by way of mitigating factors, then patience wins out.

A low anthropology causes one to search for the most charitable explanations — to look with the eyes of grace for causes and circumstances beyond appearances. This graceful gaze sees beyond the transgression itself, failing to linger on the hideousness of the offense, to a fellow sinner incapable of doing otherwise. It disentangles guilt from culpability — not to find some hidden quality that makes one worthy of love, but to reveal the universal defect from which misdeeds flow.

Far from an archaic doctrine with no relevance for modern times, the belief in the bound will is the birthplace of compassion. Understanding ourselves and others as equally powerless and out of control over our actions gives rise to sympathy. It is weakness that lies at the heart of another’s crimes, a feeble helplessness that mirrors our own.