Categories
Christianity culture

Kobe, Worship, and Us

It didn’t take long in the aftermath of Kobe Bryant’s death, and the outpouring of eulogies and sorrow that quickly followed, for me to hear what has become a popular refrain among conservative evangelical Christians. “Can you believe this amount of sadness for an athlete? This just goes to show what an idolatrous culture we live in. People worship Kobe. They should be worshiping God!”

Yes, it’s all true. The level of society-wide grief for the death of an athlete does point in some degree to how sports is its own quasi-religion. We’ve seen already how the floodgates of disordered love can obscure a person’s full, fallen humanity, and result in hagiography that may or may not punish those this person sinned against. And yes, what you’re seeing is indeed a form of worship. There is only One who’s worthy of it, and we ought never be embarrassed to say so.

Yes. But…

Listening to some evangelicals respond this way makes me wonder whether we fully appreciate our cultural moment, and whether we understand what’s really happening in a public spectacle such as Kobe’s death. As overwhelming as the media coverage and hashtags were, I came away not primarily irked at American idolatry of sports heroes but instead conscious of something I think is important. Our era of Western life is an era in which not just worship of the true God is scarce, but the idea of worship is implicitly and explicitly ridiculed. The mechanisms of life in our modern, mobile, digitized, secular age work against the very elements of worship, including admiration. Just as Lewis wrote that nature did not teach him that God was glorious but instead gave the word “glory” meaning for him, admiration—of created things, including fallen people—trains human beings to be able to respond in worship to what is actually worthy of it.

Admiration, the emotional response hardwired into the soul when it encounters something that moves it, is undermined often nowadays. Consider the transformation the smartphone has brought to the art gallery, as visitors stand in the presence of true greatness, snap a quick pic or selfie, and then quickly move on to the next exceptional piece. Anyone who has visited a national landmark in the last 10 years can attest to how modern people now “consume” awe-inspiring landscapes or architecture via their phones, rather than sit in silent admiration of them.

Admiration is the seed of worship because it teaches a responsive attention. To admire a sheer, deluging waterfall is to stand in its presence and know that not only is it beautiful, but that its beauty is good for me. Is the modern culture we see before us one that helps us to admire in this way? Or is it one that rapidly evaluates how well a particular beauty can help us get Likes, or make us “cultured,” or affirms our own self-esteem?

It’s often said that Americans worship celebrities. That’s undoubtedly true. But as cancel culture now demonstrates, even the most dazzling stars now fit in the palms of our hands or laptop screens. Admiration for actors, artists, performers, and even politicians is subject to how well they remain in the public favor, how well they say the right things at the right times and never run afoul of the “rules.” Besides, human admiration fades parallel to memory. Records are broken. Beautiful people get old. This too is the conditional admiration, the worship that ultimately depends on how much the worshipers can get out of the ceremony.

That’s why I found the cultural lament for Kobe Bryant somewhat hopeful. Where some evangelicals see idolatry, I see a flickering ember of something that looks like true admiration, the responsive attention to greatness that must exist in every heart that would feel this toward its Maker. That even people who never wore his jersey or cheered his team would feel sadness and a sense of “there’s-something-wrong-with-this-world” at his death is a sign that our technology and our politics have not fully extinguished our souls’ ability to stand in the presence of something and say, “This is good.” I suppose my thinking is that even love that is misdirected is better than love that is never directed anywhere at all. A room with a poor view still reminds us that there’s such a thing as outside; a hall of mirrors cannot do that.

It’s been reported that the morning of the crash, Bryant and his daughter Gianna went to Mass. I very much hope that’s the case, and I very much hope that they were at Mass for this very reason: to sit in the presence of who is truly worthy of worship, to receive his beauty and grace and truth, and to say, “Yes, this is good, and good for me.” We should all pray that the morning of our deaths would find us like that—and our lives, too.

Categories
culture journalism

A Cancel Culture Nightmare

While the vast majority of social media was lamenting the shocking death of Kobe Bryant, something very different was happening to Washington Post reported Felicia Sonmez. I’m writing about it only because how it illustrates the radical effect that online culture has on our perception of everything, even an untimely death of an athlete.

A couple hours after Bryant and his daughter Gianna were confirmed dead in a helicopter crash in California, Sonmez posted an article, not written by her, about the 2003 sexual assault allegations against Bryant. This appears to be the first thing Sonmez posted on Twitter related to Bryant’s death (an important point that I’ll explain in a moment). Within minutes of having posted the link to the article—titled “Kobe Bryant’s Disturbing Rape Case: the DNA Evidence, the Accuser’s Story, and the Half-Confession”—Sonmez was besieged with hundreds of angry replies, criticizing her for bringing the allegations up while everyone was reeling from the news. The replies kept coming and escalated in tone and viciousness, and Sonmez was quickly at the bottom of a social media pile-on. Clearly taken aback by the reaction, Sonmez doubled down, explaining why it was legitimate to talk about the rape accusation, and shaming her online critics by sharing a screenshot of her email inbox, which was filled with some pretty vile sentiments.

The next morning news broke that the Post had suspended Sonmez. Reputedly the suspension is due to her posting a screenshot of her inbox, which revealed the full names of some of her critics. I’ve got no idea if that’s really why she was suspended. It seems more likely to me that the Post did what a lot of employers have done in the social media age: Panic in response to a mob.

But here’s what I’ve taken from all this. This episode is one of the most thorough and illuminating examples I’ve ever seen of just how dysfunctional discourse is when it’s conditioned by technology like Twitter. Every single player in this story looks bad.

First, there’s Sonmez. Of course Sonmez has every right to link to a piece about Bryant’s rape allegations. And those allegations are important and remain important even in the aftermath of tragedy. But Sonmez knew exactly what she was doing by posting the article when she did. Everyone who knows the culture of social media at all knows why someone who had been absolutely silent about a celebrity’s stunning death to that point would post an article like that: in order to reshape the narrative. In the world of Twitter, not even news of someone’s death exists as an objective, actual thing. In the world of Twitter, something only matters to the degree that it participates in the story you want to tell. You know that this is a conditioning effect of social media by imagining someone marching to the middle of a vigil for Kobe Bryant, standing on a soapbox, and yelling about his rape allegations. Such an action would be considered unspeakably crude and unfeeling, not to mention stunningly foolish. Yet this kind of thing is common on social media (not to mention applauded). That’s how disorienting the digital timeline is.

Second, there’s the mob that came after her. Sonmez was unquestionably the target of horrific attacks. These sorts of shame storms tend to only get worse as time goes on and the angry crowd pivots from expressing outrage to trying to accomplish something with it (a firing, a doxxing, etc). How ironic is it that the vox populi of the internet sends death threats and slurs in defense of a celebrity’s reputation? But that’s the moral logic of the online jungle. It’s the same for conservatives and liberals alike, men and women alike, articulate and otherwise. There’s a gravitational pull to online nastiness that seems to cut through every kind of inhibition we have. It’s not enough to disagree. We must destroy. This sure sounds like the recipe for some kind of civilization collapse.

Finally, there’s the Washington Post. The decision to suspend Sonmez is ridiculous. Sonmez was insensitive and unwise, but at the end of the day the only transgression the Post really cared about was her being the target of an outrage campaign. Her suspension, like many other online-reactive disciplinary actions before it, does two lamentable things. First, and most importantly, it sends encouragement and affirmation to online bullies, especially ones that know how to effectively troll. Second, it now gives Sonmez a credible victim narrative and distorts the extent to which her ordeal was merely a twist of fate for someone who in a moment of volatile emotions tried to cancel and ended up getting canceled herself. Nothing excuses the harassment that Sonmez experienced. Nonetheless, there’s a valuable parable in the spectacle of a journalist miscalculating her ability to reshape a public narrative. But that lesson is lost in the aftermath of another bad decision to threaten someone’s livelihood over an unwise social media moment.

This is the state of journalism and of public discourse in 2020. This is the state of our culture’s ability to grieve the loss of life. God help us.

Categories
culture

Label Me!

Everyone who knows anything at all knows you must never attribute someone’s character or behavior to their identity. It is universally agreed in polite society that no person is ever good or bad at something because of their gender, or their race, their family, sexuality, etc. To indulge in this reasoning is at best a crude stereotype, at worst an expression of flagrant bigotry. A president of Harvard University was once forced to resign simply for observing that male students displayed more consistent interest in and aptitude for mathematics and science than female students (an observation which was backed up by all the relevant data, and still is). The unwritten law is clear: A person’s ethnic, genetic, or sexual identity must never explain anything about them.

This makes the cultural fascination with personality profiling all the more intriguing to me. To listen to people talk to one another about their Enneagram numbers is to listen to urbane, educated, and socially conscious people insist on being labeled. It’s not simply that the Enneagram is fun in the same way that all self-knowledge tools are fun. There will always be a market for figuring out the “secrets” about oneself. But the Enneagram fandom I’ve seen takes it quite a bit further. Your Enneagram number is not simply descriptive, it is explanatory and authoritative. Listen closely to enthusiasts talk about their experience with the test, and you will hear explicit appeals to one’s profile as an explanation for even the most trivial facts or behaviors. Their conversation is peppered with phrases like, “I’m such a 7,” or, “Yeah, that’s a very 4 thing to say.”

The same thing happens with in introvert/extrovert conversation. Depending on which you are, certain kinds of habits or tendencies can be expected from you, and it’s a matter of social decorum for others to recognize this. Introverts get nervous at invitations to gatherings; they’d rather watch Netflix at home. Thus, relating well to the introvert in your life means (among other things) not taking offense when they don’t show up. You should also learn how to work with introverts, date them, and recognize the dozens of signs you’re probably one of them.

It took me a long time to realize just how odd this kind of pathological self-categorization really is. For one thing, I’ve always believed myself to be an introvert, and I’ve claimed the label throughout most of my adult life whenever I was uncomfortable or wanted to protect my time. For me, introversion has often been permission: permission to not be like those around me, to make choices others didn’t understand, and to be my own person.

But then I started realizing that it no other aspect of life was I as ready to sort myself into a prefabricated category. Why did I so readily accept the logic of personality profiling when that same logic, if applied to my skin color, my childhood, or anything else about me, would likely deeply offend? More to the point, why did so many people around me — people who rejected all species of stereotypes and determinism — make an exception for their personality?

Here’s one guess: Personality profiling is the last politically-acceptable way of receiving an identity, rather than crafting one. And many people today are weary of crafting their own custom identity and would very much like to belong to something instead.

It’s not been that long since the most fundamental fact about you was considered to be your family. For most of human history an individual’s life was conditioned by their parents. You lived where your parents lived (likely until death). You worked at what your parents worked. Your marriage was in large part downstream from your parents’ relationships and community. You were born into a religion, you were born into a value system, and you would born into a social fabric.

When most of us hear this description of the past we drop down on our knees and thank God that unlike our pre-liberal ancestors, we are not consigned to a pre-written fate. Every Disney film ever made is at some point a story about a person remaking themselves into their own image, getting out from under the restrictive and unfeeling expectations of their family. That’s the kind of story that resonates with Western people who feel their individuality keenly.

You won’t find me arguing that upward mobility is a bad thing, or that people should have no option to improve their life. But something is definitely lost to our humanity when the only identity available to us is one we have to tirelessly craft. There’s something in most of us that tells us that to belong and to be received is better than self-determination. It’s not an accident that The Rise of Skywalker, in its pursuit of fan satisfaction, essentially re-wrote the story of Rey to give her a family name after all. After spending two films arguing that Rey’s anonymity was immaterial and that she could build her own identity through her actions, the filmmakers end the ill-fated trilogy with a scene in which Rey assumes the last name Skywalker. To belong is better than to self-determine.

I wonder then if personality profiling is a kind of refuge for those of us who’ve been catechized in hyper-individuality. A finite amount of Enneagram numbers means that you really can belong to a group. Who you are is not opaque, it is discoverable. Maybe there’s something deep within Western people that craves the kind of self-knowledge that comes from outside rather than inside. Weary of curating our own sense of self, sometimes we just need to be assigned a number and know who we are.

Categories
life

Not Magic, But Not Nothing

The sophisticated critic looks at Western people, coming up with their New Years resolutions and commitments and “fresh starts,” and decries it as arbitrary. “There is nothing about a calendar that makes personal change more likely or more desirable,” he might say. The fetishizing of New Years, he observes, merely fills gyms in the winter and empties them in May. Genuine personal transformation doesn’t wait for a date. It comes out of a deeper need or realization and is authentically now, awake to the realities of the moment, not tethered to vague ideas of yearly progress.

To which I would say: Yes, but also no.

A secular age is also a rhythm-less age. In the absence of spiritual practices deeply embedded into cultural fabric, we are left only with raw motivation. This is generation burnout, an era where the people most immersed in the language of self-care are the same ones likely to working 60 hour weeks, binging Netflix alone in the downtime. The tell is how the word “work” has been displaced by the word “hustle.” It’s not enough to work at something; now one must have a lifestyle of frenetic motion.

Smartphone technology has destroyed our sense of seasonality and place. Selfies at Holocaust memorials don’t indicate disrespect as much as they signal the blurring of life into overlapping lines. You’re supposed to be following up on email the same time you’re having dinner. Keep up the social media clout as you vacation with the kids. Take the artsy photo of the pastor preaching while you reflect and pray. Everything is an occasion for everything else. There is no rhythm, no seasons, and certainly no sabbath. For a people allegedly domineered by the tyranny of the clock, we increasingly have absolutely no sense of time.

This is why I would push back against the New Years critic. One can agree that genuine transformation and improvement has nothing to do with the Julian calendar, while at the same time giving thanks for the persistence of one of our final truly cultural seasons. That people look to the New Year as an opportunity is a testimony to how wired the human soul is for seasons. There is something about coinciding the rising of the sun to the turning of the page that resonates deep within us. A Christian would suggest this is the resonance of an image-bearer being in tune with the physical realm he was created to help subdue and fill with glory. New Years Day is not magic, but it very well might be spiritual.

Looking to a New Year as a chance to walk more confidently in those good works we were created for is good. Slavish devotion to self-help mantras don’t usually stick, for the same reason that New Years discounts on gym memberships look less alluring in May than they did in January. Without continual awareness of the season Giver, we will almost always blur the seasons into a morass, trying with finite, self-oriented strength to once again do everything at once, be our own savior, and receive validation from the idols that broke our hearts last year. One of the great realizations of walking with Christ is that as we keep closer and closer to him, we get rest, we get order, and we get strength. He knows what the human soul needs, and he gives it freely. It’s a mistake if we think we can only receive it once a year. It’s also a mistake if we miss an annual chance to remind ourselves of it.