Social Media Resolutions for 2017

  1. I will be less cynical. Sarcasm and withering criticism are to social media what static is to AM radio. There’s no need for one more person’s trying too hard to be funny.
  2. I won’t start or join a “pile-on.” If I wouldn’t publicly shame a person in real life, I shouldn’t do it online.
  3. I will tweet unto others as I would have others tweet unto me.
  4. I won’t be so preoccupied with my phone that I forget the people around me. If at any time I feel defensive when someone suggests I take a break, I should interpret my defensiveness as a sign they’re right.
  5. I will be more concerned with saying what is true and helpful than building my “brand.” If someone says something better than I said it, that’s not a problem.
  6. I won’t repost meanness or trollishness, not even to mock it.
  7. I will always feel free to not chime in.
  8. I won’t “hate-click” or “hate-share.” In the new writing economy, there is no such thing. (see resolution #6)
  9. I will actively seek out and share the wisdom of others, rather than see it as a threat.
  10. I won’t sneer at those who do the opposite of these resolutions, since I already know I myself will fail them.
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Latest Mere Orthodoxy blog: “Disappointed by Christmas”

A friendly reminder for those visiting this page that my main blogging has moved to Mere Orthodoxy.

My latest, just posted, is a reflection for those of us who struggle in the days after Christmas. Here’s an excerpt:

The realization that it’s possible to get exactly what you want and yet feel that hope has betrayed you is one of life’s milestones. We are all born believing that what really stands between us and joy is not getting what we want.  We have to be taught otherwise, and many never are. We have to be taught that peace and satisfaction are not the same thing, and then we even have to be taught that sometimes the two are opposed to each other. None of this comes naturally, because natural human nature does not discern it.

To feel disappointed by Christmas is to plunge headfirst into the truth that we are made for something even greater than hope. For the Christian, the hope of Christmas is not formless and void. It has a shape, a color, and a name.

Read the whole piece here.

Disappointed By Christmas

I’ve heard several people say the days and weeks after Christmas are one of the sadder and more melancholy times of the year for them. True for me as well. My parents have told me that when I was younger they watched as I emotionally primed myself for Christmas Day, only to seem sad and distant after the last present had been opened. Eventually they realized my mood had nothing to do with gifts; rather, I was “crashing,” reentering reality’s orbit after weeks of fantasy. Christmas didn’t let me down; my own hope did.

For many of us, the symbols and sounds of Christmas unleash an intense kind of longing. Sometimes we may not even articulate what this longing is for, but we feel it nonetheless. In American culture, Christmas is often talked about like an all-healing euphoric experience; advertisements and literature often acknowledge that the “holiday season” is a particularly good time to be happy, or childlike, or charitable, or even just alive. By the week after Thanksgiving, when the Christmas carols start to swell in our car radios and colored trees beam into the lengthening fall evenings, many begin to feel this inarticulate hope throbbing, like the memory of something long forgotten.

It’s no wonder then that for many of us, the days after Christmas inspire a dour kind of “Was that all?” True, sometimes our Christmas is difficult, or lonely, or sad. Sometimes its just not what we expected. But for me, I think what has disappointed me is not the holiday itself. It’s my hope for it. The reality didn’t “live up” to my expectations because it was never supposed to; the expectation was the point. And now, it’s gone.

The realization that it’s possible to get exactly what you want and yet feel that hope has betrayed you is one of life’s milestones. We are all born believing that what really stands between us and joy is not getting what we want.  We have to be taught otherwise, and many never are. We have to be taught that peace and satisfaction are not the same thing, and then we even have to be taught that sometimes the two are opposed to each other. None of this comes naturally, because natural human nature does not discern it.

To feel disappointed by Christmas is to plunge headfirst into the truth that we are made for something even greater than hope. For the Christian, the hope of Christmas is not formless and void. It has a shape, a color, and a name. It has blood and sinew. The hope of Christmas is not even the numinous experience we feel when we hear “O Holy Night” or see Gerard van Honthorst’s manger scene. In other words, the hope of Christmas is not hope at all. It’s a Savior, a Savior whose bloody birth stank of manger in a real place at a real time. To hope in some ethereal Christmas ebullience is not the same as to hope in Jesus of Nazareth. This is why the apostle Paul went out of his way to say that if the baby in the manger hasn’t actually been crucified and actually raised from the dead, then Christianity is an idiocy so extreme that we who name it should be pitied more than anyone.

The hope of Christians is that “If.” And that’s what all hope is at its essence: An “if” that means joy to us. Yes, Christmas will disappoint us if we return to the manger hoping to see a baby. He is not there, and so neither are we. On the Monday after December 25, the Christmas child is exactly where he was before: Preparing a place for those whose hope is in the light of the world.

C.S. Lewis on Christmas Gifts

From “What Christmas Means to Me”

…the idea that not only all friends but even all acquaintances should give one another presents, or at least send one another cards, is quite modern and has been forced upon us by the shopkeepers. Neither of these circumstances is in itself a reason for condemning it. I condemn it on the following grounds.

1. It gives on the whole much more pain than pleasure. You have only to stay over Christmas with a family who seriously try to ‘keep’ it (in its third, or commercial, aspect) in order to see that the thing is a nightmare. Long before December 25th everyone is worn out — physically worn out by weeks of daily struggle in overcrowded shops, mentally worn out by the effort to remember all the right recipients and to think out suitable gifts for them. They are in no trim for merry-making; much less (if they should want to) to take part in a religious act. They look far more as if there had been a long illness in the house.

2. Most of it is involuntary. The modern rule is that anyone can force you to give him a present by sending you a quite unprovoked present of his own. It is almost a blackmail. Who has not heard the wail of despair, and indeed of resentment, when, at the last moment, just as everyone hoped that the nuisance was over for one more year, the unwanted gift from Mrs. Busy (whom we hardly remember) flops unwelcomed through the letter-box, and back to the dreadful shops one of us has to go?

3. Things are given as presents which no mortal every bought for himself–gaudy and useless gadgets, ‘novelties’ because no one was ever fool enough to make their like before. Have we really no better use for materials and for human skill and time than to spend them on all this rubbish?

4. The nuisance. for after all, during the racket we still have all our ordinary and necessary shopping to do, and the racket trebles the labour of it.

Lewis’s distinction here between the “merry-making” of Christmas (which he endorses) and the actual commercial enterprise of Christmas cards and gift exchanges (which he disdains) is a good one. It’s worth reminding ourselves that “Christmas spirit” is not, contra the advertising, synonymous with spending money.

The Threat to Reading

One of the most widely quoted sentences of Sir Francis Bacon–it comes from his essay “Of Studies”–concerns the reading of books: “Some books are to be tasted, others are to be swallowed and some few to be chewed and digested; that is, some books are to be read only in parts; others to be read, not curiously; and some few to be read wholly, and with diligence and attention.” This is usually taken as a wise or sententious general comment about the worthiness of various texts, but Ann Blair shows that Bacon was making a very practical recommendation to people who were overwhelmed by the availability of books and couldn’t imagine how they were going to read them all. Bacon tells such worried folks that they can’t read them all, and so should develop strategies of discernment that enable them to make wise decisions about how to invest their time. I think Bacon would have applauded Clay Shirky’s comment that we suffer not from “information overload” but from “filter failure.” Bacon’s famous sentence is really a strategy for filtering.

Alan Jacobs, The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction, p. 110-111.

This is such an important, and liberating, point. You can’t read it all, and almost certainly shouldn’t try. Indiscriminate buying of books to fill out one’s “personal library” looks great on Instagram, but in practically every circumstance, it undermines the very intellectual pursuit it mimics. We instinctively guard the reading life against the threats of internet, TV, et al. But for some of us, the bigger threat to our intellectual formation may be our own vanity. Reading 1 book a month won’t buy many retweets. But between someone who digests 12 pleasurable, meaningful books a year, and someone who reads 1/6 of 50 different books, is there really a question which one is the actual “reader”?

Christmas and the Wrong Side of History

When you think about it, nearly everyone and everything connected to the first Christmas was on the wrong side of history.

Zechariah and Elizabeth were on the wrong side of history for sure. They were an elderly Jewish couple, living in an occupied land. They had no platform, no political clout. Even worse–they had no children. Their legacy would die with them: no son to carry his father’s name, no daughter to bear grandchildren. They were prepared to die unwept, unhonored, and unsung, an anonymous couple holding fast the religion of their ancestors. They were on the wrong side of the empire, the wrong side of culture, even the wrong side of fertility.

Mary and Joseph were on the wrong side of history too. Mary, a teenage girl with no husband, no dowry, and no way to explain the life inside of her, at least in a way that her family and her culture would possibly comprehend. There was to be no way around the scandal and shame of a baby born outside wedlock, scandal that would follow her and her child for many years. And Joseph, who did not avail himself of the clear permission that Moses’ law gave him to send his betrothed away in reproach. Joseph, who in the eyes of his father and brothers and friends now was the man willing to live with a whore. The reward for his trouble would be a life of labor, carpentry without a country, and a reputation as a man who had let himself be cuckolded.

Shepherds lived on the wrong side of history. Anonymous laborers who would make the term “blue-collar” seem extravagant. Their life’s hope was that enough of the flock would survive wolves and bears. No “opportunity for advancement” here, except wherever they would guide a foul-smelling herd on a particular night. How many believed their story about the night the angels came and told them about a baby, lying in a barn in Bethlehem? Did their children? Did their grandchildren? Did enough people laugh at them to convince them later in life that it must have all been an elaborate prank or mass hallucination? The word of a shepherd was to be taken lightly.

What about Simeon and Anna? I’m afraid they were on the wrong side of history as well. Two elderly, devout Jews, seemingly ignoring the Roman centurions around them so they could keep babbling about some Messiah. It was like they had never heard of someone called the emperor. Anna the widow never left the Temple; “Don’t listen to her, she’s crazy,” they would say. “Too heavenly minded and no earthly good.” Simeon and Anna, praying to a God who had not stopped an exile and an overthrow, talking about a king whose ancestral line had long been broken. Simeon and Anna, two more religious nutjobs who wouldn’t accept reality.

Poor, mute Zechariah. Poor cuckolded Joseph, poor philandering Mary. Poor daydreaming shepherds. Poor deluded Simeon and Anna. If they could have just accepted the Way Things Are, maybe their lives could have been more. Maybe they could have served in Herod’s palace, or been a confidant of Caiaphas.

If only they had just been on the right side of history, maybe the world would still be talking about them.

If only.

Movement and Location

A public-service announcement:

I’m very excited to announce that MereOrthodoxy.com, a terrific web journal of religion and culture, is now hosting my blog!

So what does this mean?

  1. First of all, it means that the primary website I’ll be blogging at is http://blogs.mereorthodoxy.com/samuel. Over at the new site, I’ll be keeping up my blogging in much the same way I’ve done here. The new site looks a little different, but otherwise nothing has changed.

2. At least for now, I’m going to keep this website running, but it won’t be updated as much as the new site. If you’ve been subscribing to my posts here via email, you won’t be getting much email from now on, at least until I figure out how to set up a subscription option at the new blog.

3. That’s it! It’s business as usual, just in a new location. As always, there’s no subscription or cost for anything.

If you’ve been a regular reader of this site, THANK YOU. Thank you for your reading and your support. I hope you’ll follow me onto my new blogging home.

It’s the Great Pariah, Charlie Brown!

Scene 1:

An online “journalism” site pretends to be utterly shocked to find that two evangelical Christians, hosts of a feverishly popular home renovation show, actually attend an evangelical church, pastored by an evangelical theologian. The site earnestly contends (with no witnesses) that the orthodox sexual ethics of the church’s pastor are “controversial,” and insists that they instantly create a PR crisis for the couple who have publicly endorsed evangelized discriminated said nothing.

Scene 2: 

The president elect’s nominee for Secretary of Education is a professing Christian, and believes that education is important to the life and culture of her faith. According to major journalism site, however, this necessarily indicates a frightening tendency toward theocracy. The website “exposes” decade-old quotes by the nominee using traditional language completely understood by everyone in her faith community, but apparently coded for nefarious purposes according to a journalist, who implicitly frames her as a threat to the separation between church and state.

Scene 3: 

A presidential nominee for a major American political party goes about the campaign without offering a single interview or outreach to an evangelical media outlet. The lack of any attempt to court evangelical voters is so glaring, in fact, that advisers of the party’s previous (victorious!) nominee voice near-disbelief at the campaign’s apathy. In a historically unprecedented move, the candidate’s campaign simply acted as if evangelical voters didn’t exist.

***

Now, I think it’s fair to ask a simple question here: What relationship does scene 3 have with scenes 1 and 2? What exactly can we glean from the fascinating intersection of journalistic hostility with political apathy? Is it possible that what we see happening in scenes 1 and 2 has more than a coincidental relationship with the very significant events of scene 3?

In other words, could it be that irresponsible journalism on religion and religious people actually has real sociopolitical consequences? I wonder. Speaking personally: If my conception of a group of Americans was formed significantly by the kind of coverage we see above, I honestly don’t know if I would see them as, well, real Americans, much less desire their vote. Evangelicals and those who know evangelicals won’t be suckered by the Buzzfeeds of the world, of course. But as religious affiliation ebbs and religious literacy withers, how many people in the next 30 years will know their evangelical neighbors enough to know that the Gaines family isn’t a subversive, anti-American cult? And how much, in the end, will this be attributable to journalists who create controversy and outrage out of thin air?

Unless there is a resurgence of religious literate journalism, it feels like progressive media will be out in the pumpkin patch with Linus, waiting for the Great Pariah to swoop down and expose itself. That’s a not a pleasant thought.

First thoughts on “Rogue One”

Some first impressions from tonight’s screening of Rogue One:

This is the Star Wars film that critics of George Lucas’ prequels wanted instead. I told my brother-in law-in the car heading home that Rogue One is a love letter to fans of the original series.

The comparisons to The Force Awakens are inevitable. But these are, I think, two very different films. The Force Awakens was a nakedly cyclical jumpstart to the Star Wars mythology, whereas Rogue One is more of a panache the series’ best (and sometimes its flawed) elements. Those who left The Force Awakens very satisfied may feel frustrated with Rogue One, and vice versa.

Rogue One stands on its own without having seen any of the other Star Wars pictures, but series devotees will get the most delight out of it.

This very well may be the most action-packed, most violent Star Wars film of them all. It is considerably more battle-oriented than The Force Awakens. Lovers of dialogue and character exposition will be disappointed.

Related note: Rogue One’s characters, outside of Felicity Jones’ excellent Jyn Erso, are not that interesting. This is a film of plot and event, not people (and all the Attack of the Clones bashers said, “Amen!”).

Without spoiling, I will say that the filmmakers here have perfected a remarkable technology that will likely transform the entire way movies, especially reboots and sequels, are made. I won’t say more, but you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about after you see the film. The accomplishment is serious, and audiences will leave Rogue One with their impressions formed significantly by this dazzling technological achievement.

All in all, I think this film’s best achievement is recapturing the energy and joy that the Star Wars franchise is known for. The Force Awakens did part of the work, but its nostalgia was often overbearing and rote. Rogue One isn’t as richly imagined as Awakens, but it might be more fun. And isn’t that what counts in the end?

A note of welcome

I’m terrible at making meaningful “welcome” or “About me” pages. But since this is the inaugural post at my Mere Orthodoxy blog, it’s probably fitting that I take a second and offer some preliminary welcome and thanks.

Firstly, welcome to this blog page. If you’ve followed me from my previous home blog at samueldjames.net, a special welcome to you. I’m very excited to be writing under the Mere Orthodoxy banner, and grateful to Jake Meador for his invitation to do this, and for Chris Krycho and others for making this happen.

This blog will be very similar to what I have been doing for the last couple years at samueldjames.net. Sometimes the posts will be very short, and other times they will push 1,000 words; in either event, my hope for this new site is the same as it was for the old one: To be a place to capture my wandering thoughts on whatever I happen to be reading/thinking/hearing about at the time.

If you’ve subscribed in the past to posts at SamuelDJames.net and you want to do so here, hang tight, I’m working on that. In the mean time the best way to keep up with my writing is through my Twitter; barring that, I invite you to just visit this page regularly. 🙂

Again, a big thank you to Jake and the Mere-O team for welcoming me here. I’m looking forward to what lies ahead.