Do You See What I See? or, Hallmark’s Curious “Heart of Christmas”

“There is no more dangerous or disgusting habit than that of celebrating Christmas before it comes, as I am doing in this article. It is the very essence of a festival that it breaks upon one brilliantly and abruptly, that at one moment the great day is not and the next moment the great day is.” -G.K. Chesterton, All Things Considered

“Monday is a day on the calendar. Christmas is . . . Christmas.” -Holly Jensen, “One Starry Christmas” (a part of Hallmark Channel’s approximately two-month-long “Countdown to Christmas”)

* * *

There’s a special kind of optimism to people who love bad movies. There’s another kind of optimism to people who hate them. When it comes to Hallmark Christmas movies, I believe I enjoy both.

The first kind of optimism is of the “so bad it’s good” sentiment. Like any aesthetic judgment, it is a matter of personal taste—really, of personal perception and attitude. It is both beneficent and haughty because it forgives from a place of temporary safety.[1] It laughs at and not with. If you are anything like me, watching such a movie makes you feel like a master of all realism, and a better director of yourself in general. You witness, as if from your own wishing, a delightful magic far rougher than Prospero’s playing upon the screen, creating for you a brave new world of innocuous failure. What fools these attempted “people” are, and what fun that you are not them (right now)! You may never stay in such a world for long, but you’re glad to have slipped in to see the spell of substandard filmmaking work otherwise functioning human beings into awkward aspects speaking clunky speeches.

The second kind of optimism is far more complicated and, therefore, more often misunderstood. It comes, I think, from a highly idealistic place in the human being—perhaps there’s even a certain part of the brain that, when seeing a bad movie, becomes especially enflamed in certain folks. It’s the kind of optimism that lies deep inside the heart of every sincere criticism. It’s the vision of the truth so absent in the falsehood. Whenever a person with this particular optimism decries a bad movie, they are mourning the missing goodness. The goodness that might have been. Such movies can provoke a near-prophetic outrage in such cases: everything could have been different, and this visionary viewer sees it all too well. These people could have avoided disaster. They could have told the truth.

Now, if it’s a particularly vacuous “bad” movie, and a heavy-handedly “Christmassy” one at that, you better believe such a viewer will be turning Jeremiads from the couch. But what if such a “bad” movie somehow found itself “in the family way,” growing fruitful and multiplying to such aggressively promiscuous extents that it waxed mighty on two whole channels? What if a profound holiday, once understood as a compound of “holy” and “day,” became watered down into a shallow widespread genre? What if that genre became the water people swam in? Well, then you might just feel yourself the only righteous and blameless one on the flooded earth, finding plenty to complain about with more than a month to go till Thanksgiving.

* * *

As many Americans (and, I presume, Canadians) know, it has apparently been the Christmas season for over a month now—the yuletide having started a few days before Halloween. As many Americans (and, again, Canadians) know, this is thanks to the Hallmark Channel(s). As many Americans may not know, they have been celebrating Christmas in Canada for much of this time, and this is thanks to Crown Media. This, and so, so much more.

Over the past “Christmas” season, I have come to a strange “appreciation” for Hallmark Christmas movies. Thanks to their extensive output over the past sixteen years or so, I have just this year already seen more holiday “films” than I can count white faces in a manger. Indeed, this body of, um, “work” is so large it’s literally in the hundreds[2]—they could populate a small, insufferable town with their Christmas catalogue alone.

I need not tell you about the two general “types” of Hallmark Christmas movies—the good folks at Gold Crown will be happy to inform you just about every commercial break, just in case you’re worried you’re getting too much mild, non-threatening drama and not enough bland, unconvincing romance, or vice versa. Needless to say, these people have by now made enough of both to fill nearly every hour of the day with their special recipe for snow that never melts and never makes a mess of immaculate hair and clean landscape architecture.

Because of this frosted superfluity, I have had the chance to see enough of these “holiday” movies to find some common elements, maybe even essentials. I’ve gotten my hands on the infernal snow-white formula.

Much like a peppermint syrup, it’s a sickly-sweet concoction, and if you drink it in small doses, and mixed with richer substances, you can get nice and sprightly, for a time. But have too much of it and it alone, and for too long, and it’s as good as poison—a weak, slow-working poison, but poison nonetheless.

* * *

There is much to appreciate in a Hallmark Christmas movie. Much to laugh at, much to loathe—much to love to loathe—and much to wonder bemusedly about. The phrase “once you’ve seen one you’ve seen ’em all” somewhat pertains here. There are indeed certain elements that almost invariably make up the Gold Crown chemistry of bubbly Christmas cheer. But these works are not without their variations, and much of the actual fun I’ve had in watching them has been in spotting the old types with new traits.

For example: in this new movie there may be yet another stubborn grinchly character, yes, but this one flouts the easy earlier stereotype of being a male from the city, for it’s a male from the city originally from the country. Like nearly every handsome Hallmark humbug, he’s somewhere on the right side of forty and of the clean-cut caste of humanity—the kind of man who is seemingly incapable of growing an errant hair below his eyebrows; nevertheless, this is a different Scrooge with a different haircut and different coloring and probably different modeling agency. He still wears the familiar blue—usually in sweater form—which signifies his not-yet-ness (which is practically Jewish); but coupled with his tepid but incessant interest in the spunky and festive female lead, this character’s blue presence represents a prevenient conversion experience to the “true meaning of Christmas” to come in about forty-five minutes.

[Hint: the true meaning usually entails romance and/or career success.]

In the interest of expediency, here is a list of some of the apparently required ingredients for making a Hallmark Christmas movie—a veritable recipe for the so-called “spirit of the season.” If you truly believe, you will consider it a Decalogue for Christmas purity. Just follow the stars below:

*All leads, and most supporting cast, will be ostensibly good-looking.

(Image courtesy of E! News Online.)

Everyone will have presentable, inoffensive facial features and perfect, ostentatious teeth—indeed, with the sound off, the picture should play like a teeth-whitening commercial that’s had dreams of stardom. Moreover, no actual, genuine emotion should mar the players’ faces. Men, for instance, will be made a little lower than the angels, and little better than mannequins. A solitary tear may stream down the leading lady’s cheek, but only if said tear has a twinkle to it. Such cases qualify as make-up.

*Older actors will not be too old in behavior or appearance.

Generally, they will fall into two categories: the funny and the wise. Goofiness may turn into wisdom, but the reverse is just dementia.

*Clothes will be perfect as a clothing catalogue is perfect.

Indeed, visually, the movie should come across as the cinematic equivalent of an L.L. Bean ad.

(This scarf now on sale for $39.95.)

*Conversely, all scenery will be likewise perfect.

No purportedly “old” or “abandoned” property will be too unsightly—i.e., truly derelict or run-down.

Any weathered materials, whether they be barns or houses or brittle-looking sleighs, should be of the most patterned, manufactured authenticity, and should make “Fixer-Upper” look like “Survivor” for reclaimed wood.

And there will always be just enough winter to fluff up the scene. This can’t be stressed enough.

*All star-power will be faded—i.e., the biggest names will be distant ones.

Any has-beens over forty will be mostly relegated to the dignified supporting cast. William Shatner, for instance, is and must be impervious to all holiday crises, lest the audience lose interest, or become abashed; and no one wants to see Wallace Shawn doling out Christmas magic for long—including Wallace Shawn. These movies are the media’s greener pastures, after all, where the shepherd of Tinsel Town hath put out his old and lame sheep.

*All star-power will be white—i.e., actors of color will hold positions of honorable periphery.[3]

While all protagonists and main characters will at least read as white, actors of visible difference will play characters of utmost dignity whose tangential presence alongside and/or service to the central cast, the fictional community at large, and the plot in general will form a kind of bland tokenism. Such characters will perform accessible functions in the world, and their respectable prowess over their respective professions will render them friendly, non-threatening, non-dramatic—and therefore subservient, impersonal, unrealistic—representations of their race/ethnicity. Indeed, these easy, ever-smiling characters, with their knowing looks and sing-song ways of affirming the main characters of their fictional importance, while seeming to have lives of their own, will have even less personal life and history than the main characters themselves—which is to say, hardly any existence at all. Should this subtle racism prove still too covert, think Uncle Remus in a double-breasted baker’s jacket.

Acceptable vocations for these characters: baker (see above); coffee shop server; short-order cook—really anything in the food service industry; the occasional modestly soulful minister or flatly benign teacher.

*The city will be a fun place to visit, and an evil place to live.

New York, Chicago, and most other major US cities will look surprisingly clean and Canadian from up-close. Indeed, “the City” should be by-and-large the same generic nowhere metropolis—charming, whimsical, surprisingly clean, and ultimately empty. Think cold, blank modernism, aggressively flat and linear, a sterile backdrop of concrete, glass, and metal. This is a place where Steve Jobs might have designed his sarcophagus.

Moreover, should “poor”-type people be shown living in “the City”—being strictly main characters who will eventually not be poor—their apartment/unspecified dwelling place should be impossibly large and unaffordable by contemporary American standards, as well as free of the inevitable mice and cockroaches and full of a cutesiness to rival, well, a Hallmark store. (Indeed, every angle of the place should read like a display window.) Needless to say, these characters’ clothes should appear clean, well-sized, and up with the latest fashions—as if they each had a personal shopper at the Gap. These plucky characters may be struggling, but through some invisible benefactor they have never had to look less than middle class. For these reasons—their essentially immaterial financial straits and their apparent occupation of the increasingly mythic middle class—such characters are perhaps the most fantastical of all in the Hallmark Canon, and therefore the hardest to pull off. Window dress your urban scenes with caution.

*Small town and countrified living are closest to godliness.

In fact, rural, so-called “middle” America in Canada is practically down the street from the pearly gates (atop of which, one presumes, there sits a Gold Crown, and dangling from that perhaps a Snoopy Keepsake ornament). Certainly they share the same county as the Heavenly Neighborhood. Indeed, I cannot over-emphasize the importance of setting in Hallmark Christmas movies. It is arguably the most ubiquitous trope in the oeuvre. And while it would be an insult to quality to call the setting “a character in its own right,” this essential recurring place-type does bear certain “characteristics” and does help to harbor a certain overall “personality” in the otherwise worldly world.

Like a genuine keepsake, these towns purportedly never change. The many faces and names that make it up will never leave—and if they do, they will surely return to it void from their mistakes of choosing career over family or love or sincerely baked goods, ready to be filled by those faithful, ambitionless stand-bys. Moreover, if they ever do leave, they will surely do so in their early twenty-thirties, and will return before they have had the chance to forget their past or to age beyond their attractiveness.

These humble, down-to-earth communities may be goofy or slow or even backwards, but they will surely thwart the outsider. They will make him to rage with a cheerful quirk. They will shatter his power-posing with sprinkles. They will cast burning cocoa upon his head.

*Quaintness is most of “what Christmas is all about.”

Though there will be two higher meanings than this (see the final star below), they will not be all that much higher after all. You see, the common “spirit” that glows to a glare through every Hallmark Christmas movie will be one of quaintness—that is, quaintness of a kind. It will not be quaintness in the original, now-obsolete sense, as in “expert” or “skilled.” It will be quite close to the more current usage, as in “pleasingly or strikingly old-fashioned or unfamiliar,” except that the “old-fashioned” will be modernized, and the “unfamiliar” will be assimilated into an embattled hegemony. It will be quaintness co-opted.

On a superficial level, this normative quaintness will be the true source of the thoroughgoing presentability and cutesiness I’ve discussed above. It will also come out in gags and jokes that offend no one and delight just as many. It will create novelty professions—jobs like woodworking, interior design, and jack-of-all-trades for the family ski lodge; the dual appointment to local innkeeper and mayor of the entire town; owner and proprietor of a whole slew of possible shops and restaurants; and, my personal favorite, the position of department store Santa for plucky single mothers[4]—and it will churn out a fair number of glorified hobbies—like ice sculpting, candy making, or gingerbread baking and architecture—all of which will serve to give the customary base an original seeming and easy to remember flavor.

“Which Hallmark movie do you want to watch?”

“Oh, how about the one with the firefighter who falls in love with the volunteer veterinarian who’s also a non-traditional student? You know, the one about the cat-lovers? You know, the one about the couple who connect in the grocery story while talking about paint shades?”

If all else fails, insert a Christmas tree farm.

However, on a deeper level, this quaintness will carry a greater moral import. It will be the image and likeness of plain goodness, giving all “wholesomeness” an absolute appearance. Through quaintness, the viewer will be able to locate the spiritual in the literal, and stop at the outward sign. There will be pre-selected schemes—of colors, of clothes, and, beneath it all, of inbred nationality and culture—that “the spirit of Christmas” must choose to dwell within, and they will be of the most standard and bland forms of the “pleasingly old-fashioned.”

Quaintness will take part in a light and frothy Manichean battle between good and evil—or good versus badness, anyway. After all, the recurring narrative in practically every Hallmark Christmas movie will pit the small town against the metropolis, the rural against the citified, the traditional against the modern. Like all genuine manifestations of quaintness, the good and pleasant people and places and things will stand apart from the big, bustling, bullying world. They will go on truly living and loving, forgotten by or simply risible to the hyper-professional, money-hungry, grudge-hugging, sorrow-loving masses, until “just the right moment” when their humble truth should appear like a CGI sparkle-swipe across the screen. But unlike truly quaint things, these small Hallmark towns will actually hold a broader populace beyond their modest cast of extras. Over these sleepy little villages will loom a large minority that often calls itself “majority.” For in these cozy zones you will find a dimension of forgotten values inhabited by 110 million viewers.[5]


*The movie will have no other gods but family and comfort.

These will be those twin highest meanings in every movie. They will be the source, power, and end to make these holiday cards live and move and have their blandest being.

First, “the family.” Christmas will almost invariably be about “being with the people you love”—i.e., the people you already accept, or the people you have come to fall in love with. All roads will lead to the family room. All paths will lead to where you come from, not to where you are going. Where you are needed is where there is no need. All Christmas dreams will come true—being about that togetherness of especially similar people. Indeed, the power of family and certain close friends will be a very special revelation. For in truth you need your family and friends more than the future and its potential strangers need you, and vice versa. For your family is proof that you are already saved, though you may not know it. Though the world may distract you, and though you may forget, the family (often under its tetragrammaton of “home”) will surely remind you. It will redeem you from the loveless world, and shut its door between you and it. The world should be so blessed to have a family like yours.

And yet, beyond this heaven of the family looms the ever-present eminence of comfort. For even the exalted family (and some friends) of the story will function as so much furniture for the site of comfort to arrive. Words like “home” and “family” and “love”—and, of course, the overarching label of Christmas itself—are really just symbols for the state of oblivious safety that is viewership. And beneath this obliviousness is that blessedness of the couch.

Thus, through the plenary power of all the sentimental moments and greeting card platitudes, these movies will make to viewers a bold, if covert, claim that not even the Bible dared—a claim that the Israelites were too busy with exile to pay any mind to, and that Jesus was too much of a careerist to admit: that TV ownership is, in some sense, ultimate.

Do You See What I See?

“To an open house in the evening / Home shall men come, / To an older place than Eden / And a taller town than Rome. / To the end of the way of the wandering star, / To the things that cannot be and that are, / To the place where God was homeless / And all men are at home.” -G.K. Chesterton, “The House of Christmas”

“We own Christmas and we are going to do it in a bigger way and a better way and really speak to the spirit of the season that I don’t think any of our competitors do.” – Michelle Vicary, Vice President of Programming, Hallmark Channel[6]

* * *

I hope that I have made clear enough why I occasionally enjoy and highly distrust Hallmark Christmas movies. Taken individually, they can be pretty good bad movies. Taken corporately, they are very terrible tradition. They may be occasionally acceptable as larks, but they would be totally unacceptable as liturgy. This may seem like a painfully obvious thing to say, but consider, again, the plainly Babel-sized public that frequents these channels, and in so doing has helped to build up Crown Media to the towering giant it is today. If “celebration” means to frequent or honor with time, these movies are well on their way to becoming new practice.

Now, I can imagine some people arguing that these superficially clean and family-oriented movies are “refreshing” and “a nice change” from the usual fare on television. I can attest that a soda sometimes is refreshing. In fact, I would go so far as to say that the Hallmark Christmas movie industry is very much like McDonald’s. For like McDonald’s, this industry provides easy, immediate pleasures with predictability and consistency. But just as it can play “comfort food” to our tired, hectic workaday selves, it can also bloat our sense of safety into a heavy, spiritless languor. In other words, in Hallmark Christmas movies I see a kind of situational consumerism, a craving for comfortable places and moments, which taken without moderation could one day contribute to a crisis in our inward health.

When I see a truly “good” movie, I see a new person or situation represented to me. I am “in a new place,” I am “transported,” as the platitudes go. When I leave a good movie, I take the new pattern of that represented person or situation with me, and so am a little newer myself. I come out of the theater changed in my thinking about what it means to be human, at least in some selective sense. I get up from the couch already stretched. Movies, in such cases, can give me safe opportunities for crisis, for challenge, even for intervention.

In the drama of a typical Hallmark Christmas story, one gets the feeling that nothing ever really was at stake, the endings being merely tidier versions of their beginnings. All loosening ends are simply tidied. The characters, as I’ve stated, make no real claim on our understanding of how life is lived, or might be. There are no real strangers in the Hallmark universe, and therefore no one is truly recognizable. There is no shock of likeness. There is only the nearly abstracted home and family, the alpha and the omega. Hallmark is in this airy heaven, and all is right with the world, because nothing was every really wrong with it. In effect, such movies call the viewer to stay on the couch.

Still, the biggest objection I can make against these movies is a necessarily particular one. It comes from my own personal understanding of tradition, which is maybe the most public form of privacy. When I speak from this perspective, I attempt to speak with others who seem to have seen the same Person from similar angles. This is all to say that my most effective criticism may not affect many besides the most likeminded.

But to me the story of Christmas is still too big not to try to tell. The Person of Christmas is someone I believe we can be, and the Place of Christmas is something I believe we can find and maybe even reserve. To call these two things “Spirit” is to ransom a stolen word, and to recall a reality beyond our elision.

But I do not find anything resembling the Person nor the Place of Christmas in Hallmark Christmas movies—unless it be through their absence. Indeed, if these movies can be said to have any sort of “spirit,” it is the same that suffuses every Thomas Kinkade painting. Everything is covered with that cottony kind of snow that seems to promise warmth, and everything glows with an empty light. The whole town is a shining surface, lacking depth, and nothing really lives behind those snugly shut doors.[7] At its worst, it is the illegitimate spirit that is born when a specious moral purity weds itself to an inveterate soulless prosperity. Hovering over every scene is a snow-white paraclete without any fire. When I am at my most prophet-like (or simply my sourest), I see these movies as playing Colgate to our enamel souls.

(The House of Christmas according to Thomas Kinkade. The electricity bill is astronomical.)

If I can speak of “we” with any good faith, I believe that we of the confessing sort have grown gradually silent—or muted, as it were. We have forgotten that we were called not to be comfortable, but to be comforted and to comfort. For the gift of Christmas is not a passive reception of ease or the confirmation of complacent safety. Nor is it a conceited privilege of irony. To say, “The gift of Christmas is the active stance of giving” sounds like an intellectualization of a cliché, so thoroughly have we turned the language of gift to selfish ends. To say, “The gift of Christmas gives us to further giving” sounds dangerously close to “the gift that keeps on giving”—or I am an abject cynic. Like all clichés, these statements are much too light, because they are too abstract—they do not tell us enough of how to give. They do not point so directly, like the Spirit of Christmas Present, and say, “This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want.”[8] It doesn’t say as plainly as Tiny Tim that to look at the crippled is “to remember upon Christmas Day, who made lame beggars walk and blind men see.”[9] But no matter how refractory we have grown to the words, this is the how of the “holiday celebration,” the holy day we are meant to frequent.[10]

Indeed, perhaps the greatest crime (in my mind anyway) that these movies are ultimately guilty of is the claim they almost all of them overtly make: that the “this” they present “is what Christmas is all about.” And, indeed, this sense of ownership over Christmas (see the second epigraph to this section) seems to run deep within the operations of Crown Media. It surely cannot be the attitude of that Vice President of Programming alone. They claim to have the key to the House of Christmas. In fact, they have even at times claimed to be its “Heart.”

And perhaps the greatest threat these movies pose is their success with a viewing, voting, and voluntarily praying public—stated otherwise, to American Christians. Now, this is a topic for another blog, and a blog for an entire book, but I will say here that over the past year or so, and in the form of many different quarrels and events, the so-called “Church” in this country has been faced with the crisis of its multiple allegiances. Some would say “dual,” but in truth the ties we have are much more legion—for within what it means to be an American (or a “Christian” for that matter) in the twenty-first century is actually less of a duplicitous service to two masters and—at least on our worst days—more of a subtle infection spreading over living hosts. Needless to say, we are casual celebrants of an empty church, the Church of Comfort. Such a congregation is too tasteful to approach the world’s mangers; such a sanctuary is too inoffensive to take up any kind of cross.

(This is not to say that every Christmas movie should necessarily feature a nativity scene, or even have one somewhere in the background. It is my belief that many if not most of these nominal visuals present an empty manger. Still, I appreciate—or I want to be able to appreciate—that these sites of churchly kitsch at least tell the lesser literal truth of the manger, no matter how caricatured their Incarnation might be.) 

I believe—which is to say that I have felt and thought, have experienced and considered, and finally have come to trust—that we find ourselves in a wonderfully difficult position. It is in fact that good old impossible position, which the church fathers and mothers knew long before Christmas ever stumbled merrily onto the scene. We bear the good news of knowing we must try to do justice to Justice itself when we ourselves are so unjust. We have the great joy of wanting, needing, to convey the Truth when we can sound so false to each other.

Perhaps that is why a self-acknowledging cartoon can say it so well—why, from the mouth of humbly two-dimensional boy with a blanket, standing alone in an awkward silence, the words of “what Christmas is all about” can still sound so convincing.

But then even this can fall under the Golden Crown.

* * *

Now, obviously Christmas has long been the victim of rampant commercialism—long before the earnest notice of that most humble cultural critic and schoolyard theologian, Charlie Brown. And it is in fact ancient hat to swap Christmas back for a popular, watered-down paganism. Some of this, I truly believe, stems from a quite sincere and wholly practical purpose in the long, dark winter months. Christmas is like fire to our created goodness when it has grown cold. Thanks to the medievals, the feast found in an old, heady paganism the older mirth of being creaturely. But Christmas warms more than the earthly body: it feeds deep into those roots we set in time called memory. And it was, after all, the most ultimate form of memory of this time-bound life that created “God-with-us,” just as it was the most devoted form of memory of the Word that dwelled in flesh “among us” that handed down to us the Christmas story.

Thus, to disallow any or all of the particular (and more than merely material) traditions and trappings we humans have built up in celebration around this central meaning would be to cut ourselves off from the light that powers our growth, which in turn connects us to others. We cannot feed if we are starving. We are not called to be iconoclasts to nature so long as we call it creation. After all, as the most original Christmas story goes, it was in the body in all of its desperate fragility and capacity for comfort that the Creator visited creation.

But there is a further conclusion to the Christmas story. Its conclusion is much like its beginning. It explodes our little star of understanding, and ranges a whole universe from it. It states that there is a bigger body than “my own,” a broader family than “my own,” a greater love than “my own.” There is a further comfort, and a deeper home, which may seem farthest from all human reaching, which nonetheless encounters us in very flesh. The true meaning of Christmas doesn’t destroy our understanding of good things—which, according to the story, the divine appreciated before we ever did[11]—but rather stretches and expands far beyond our limitations. It realizes our likeness with the Original.

This is what I meant when I talked about that second, deeper optimism. To see a world of exquisite disappointment, of consummate incompleteness and consistent falsehood, is, I hope, to see more than what it isn’t. Perhaps this is why Christmas movies are so especially scandalous to me, for the Nativity seems to me a story of a surprise certain women and men never expected but always hoped for.[12]

This is why the only mild thing about Christmas is called “mercy.”[13] It is that good old traditional mildness that means warmth and gentleness, and paired with mercy it is the greatest surprise the earth has ever seen. For the mercy we have so long sung our ears numb to was once and still can be the most utterly needed, utterly unexpected thing. It flouts all cold logic of inevitable disappointment, and flies in the face of fallen seeming. “For mine eyes have seen thy salvation, which thou hast prepared before the face of all people.”[14] To those who have the luxury of viewership in this existence[15], it covers the dead gray world with sudden brightness—indeed, not unlike the morning after snow; but this thief-like mercy would steal into even more of what we choose to view. For it seeks as family those whom we would leave unseen. It makes a home where no one ever would.

(The House of Christmas according to Rembrandt. While the baby Jesus shines quite strikingly, notice also how the humble lamplight serves to illuminate the rough surrounding of the stable even as it warms the soft faces of the people.)

We all know the beautiful phrase “good tidings of great joy” so well that it hangs in our air like a festive decoration. It has been a long time since many of us have had to hold a hope beyond optimism. It takes a true story to wake us up to the truth that is Ourselves beyond our current faulty copies and shameful mockeries, to that Humanity accomplished which we might attempt. May we soon find ourselves in the midst of such a story, all of us.


[1] This is what some have referred to as that often fun, sometimes snotty “ironic viewing stance” that younger people in particular love to take behind unisex glasses. The kind of “best worst movie” that inspires such a stance belongs to what some entertainment critics have called “paracinema.” For a brief discussion of these two topics (and how they relate to what many would deem the very best worst movie of all time), click here.

[2] And more where that came from:

[3] At least, all pre-the-year-of-reckoning-that-has-been-2017 star-power will be white. Perusing the latest line-up of Hallmark Christmas Movies, I have counted a record three movies featuring minorities in leading roles. The rest featured the usual exemplars of toothy, omni-manicured whiteness.

[4] This last and most peculiar vocation from my own particular favorite of the HCMs, “Christmas at Carwright’s.” It is, quite simply, the best of the “so bad it’s good” variety. There’s the wonderfully unbelievable premise—a buffoonish holiday As You Like It with bewilderment instead of wit working behind the gender-bending guise. There’s the novelty of seeing Wallace Shawn play an angel who talks to God on an outmoded cell phone. There’s the added appeal of seeing Shawn love his role as much as an aging man who’s been woken up mid-afternoon after working graveyard. There’s the joy of seeing a grown woman look constantly flabbergast behind a false beard, her eyes, caught between it and an over-furring wig, resembling those of a terrified Shih Tzu. There’s a lot here to fill a shamefully joyful season.


[6] Quoted in the E! News exclusive, “‘We Own Christmas’: How the Hallmark Channel Found Massive Success with the Holiday Spirit.”

[7] At least in terms of snow and landscape architecture, this comparison holds some water, I think. In a fair number of the Hallmark Christmas movies I’ve seen, there is a rather generous use of what might be called fow (as in fake snow, and pronounced just like faux), which gives off the remarkable impression of being an empty solid, like foam, and together with the shining, recently hosed-off pavements (which never freeze, despite the purported wintry air) looks like a live-action version of a Kincaid painting.

[8] Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol, from The Christmas Books, vol. 1, p. 108.

[9] Ibid., p. 94.

[10] These being the truer meanings of the words.

[11] Genesis 1:31.

[12] This is the world-weary, and therefore seemingly dogged, but actually childlike faith that Reinhold Niebuhr termed the “pessimistic optimism” of Christianity. See “Optimism, Pessimism, and Religious Faith” in The Essential Reinhold Niebuhr, Yale University Press, pp. 3-17.


[14] Luke 2:30-1.

[15] That is, that ontological spectatorship, having the time, the material wealth, and that peace of mind misnamed “comfortability”—in other words, all of those givens common in our “Christian” nation.


The Grace of Doing Nothing on Your Phone

America has never been an Eden—unless you’ve found an alternative history or Bible. At least as far as I understand the past 200+ years, this nation has never been too long without some form of conflict. We’ve waged a revolution to gain our independence. We’ve suffered a Civil War to save our union, as well as our claim to anything approaching actual equality. We’ve entered—and in some cases initiated—many contests overseas, and we’ve sustained many disputes at home. In every case we’ve never fully agreed on the right and proper course of action, or even why we should act in the first place. Indeed, at times our concerns are so disparate, and so diametrically opposed, and so asymmetrically proportioned, that in some very real sense it is absurd for me even to use the word “we.”

Still, by many countries’ standards, I think that the United States does excel at having a high volume of public opinion, and that volume may be said to represent a kind of consistency. “We” have tended to speak as if we were all directly involved in our country’s many doings. And this is good, and this is true, if we take our democratic ideals seriously. In some generic sense, at least, we have often communicated to each other with urgency and utmost concern, as if something deeper than our lives depended on it. This is also good and true. It is absolutely necessary: the moment we stop speaking to each other will inaugurate a kind of death not even the Civil War could accomplish.

And yet, lately I am finding, inside of myself and around me, a new sense of urgency and a new form of involvement—which is to say, a new form of communication. (By “lately” I actually mean the past decade or so, which is relatively “new” even in the American scheme of things.) As I’ve already mentioned, this past election season threw our new forms of democratic participation into stark relief for me, and I’ve spent many an idle moment and post mulling over what it means to be an American on 21st century social media. One commonality has stood out significantly to me. Now, I am aware of the dangers of neutralizing through generalization; and I don’t think equivocation is a productive way to solve a plurality of detailed problems. But by my lights, to be an American at this moment means (among multitudinous other things) to have a sense of urgency, and this urgency, as I see it, is to react—as quickly and clearly and absolutely as possible. It seems to me that we have a virtual sense of duty to a socially mediated nation.

Now, I want to make it clear from the get-go that I am not gainsaying the reality of our problems themselves. Indeed, it seems to me that one of the most bedeviling problems our national discourse faces is unfortunately the persistent debate about the veracity of many of our “issues” instead of any thorough discussion about possible strategies for approaching and ameliorating them. However, I believe that the habits of thinking that we have acquired through the employment and maintenance of social media as our major—perhaps our primary—venue for communication are novel, untested, and sometimes troubling, and therefore all the more in need of consideration. In myself in particular, I have noticed these habits influence my cognition and my decision-making with such an immediacy that they might as well be reflexes. And so, at the very least, I write in the hopes of seeing just how much of me has changed, and whether those changes reflect, enhance, or shatter that person I would like to call “myself.”


My Country, ’Tis of Me—Virtually

We have always had things we care about deeply, but now we have things we care about quickly, hastily, and flagrantly. We have had fervor before, but now we carry it in our pockets. I myself have felt the wriggling anger in my muscles at a person or post that flies in the face of my morals. Sometimes I truly believe that someone has broken with my understanding of our democratic code, and that person henceforth stands out in my mind as a real and present threat to my America—even though, being represented in their tiny picture and limited text, they are at most an icon of a threat. Now, there may be a real point to the notion that anyone who speaks an unconstitutional word stands in danger of representing a rhetorical threat, which we should oppose and resist rhetorically in order to protect the rights of ourselves and future others; but nowadays I find that the sense of duty, the sense obligation, to rebut any such speech has been intensified to the point of necessity. I don’t just want to rebut them—I want to rebuff them, completely, and within the panting seconds. Such a reply would be an immediate defeat of them—whoever they are. Such a defeat necessitates a more brazen language.

We wage a war of opposing reports all the time. We keep an uncountable tally of strident headlines everyday, sometimes by the hour. “Such-and-Such Politician CRUSHES Some-Other-Politician.” Or, in the place of “CRUSHES,” we’re just as liable to see “DEFEATS,” “BLASTS,” “HUMILIATES,” or “SLAMS.” (Or, in the case of today, “SCREWS.”) I confess that I have enjoyed a sense of smug satisfaction at seeing some individual or group called a name—and in our 2017 currency, many of our labels have the same value as epithets—even though my tradition and resources, not to mention my experience of myself, tell me this can’t sum up the full complexity they face (or choose not to face). No matter how aptly the term at this time may circumscribe their faults, and no matter how they in their faults may insist on reducing themselves, in the inalienable processes that they indisputably are, individually and circumstantially, they always retain the possibility of changing their minds.

With this unceasing reportage and this inveterate sense of embroilment, I have come to realize that I have my own virtual nation inside of myself, and I have a sense that others contain their own virtual nations as well. Really, mine takes the form of many versions, depending on how I feel and who I talk to, what I’ve read and what day of the week it might be. This virtual nation of mine materializes most on my screens, but it continues on in particular forms, colors, and textures (or lack thereof) inside my mind, and often behind my foremost thought-life. It has primed me to witness and respond to virtual national conflicts. It has even trained me to search for them.

Of course, we all have different narratives with which we veil the world. Sometimes the pattern will match some portion of the phenomena we come to face—perhaps we have woven it from carefully observed experience—but other times the images we’ve rendered and reinforced for ourselves prove all too turbid not to blind us to the facts, whatever they are, leaving us to wander disappointed and perplexed in search of the story we thought we were in. Often—too often—we become frustrated and grope after easy answers. These narratives can be temporary, like the anticipation of how a birthday party will go, or the fear of speaking to one’s in-laws or boss. Or they can be long-lasting, like the jagged figure a person cuts when they hold beliefs sharply opposed to one’s own.

But through this virtual national narrative—at least in my experience—reality roils with how I think or believe things should be and how they seem to be on social media. It is steady, turbulent type of cognition, an oil-and-water stream of consciousness. The shapes of my ideas may be constantly changing, flowing into new forms, but the pattern of the media is disruptive, yet statically so. I see too many people only as explosions of propriety or, perhaps more commonly, as furtive suspects of injustice. Either way, according to my socially mediated instinct, the people around me are probably complicit of something they should be abashed about. But most peculiar of all is that this newly born virtual nation of mine calls me to enact it, and react for it, constantly. I am duty-bound to do something about all these ideological fires people are setting; I have to rush out this instant to my finger tips and with a fervid tapping correct the erroneous-to-the-point-of-harmful opinions I will almost never hear in the waving tones of a human voice. I may be at a patio table, drinking an iced coffee, reclining with the sun on my outstretched feet, but I am living in an eveningland of strife.


Streamed Consciousness: The Not-So-Silent, Not-So-Private Reader

Social media has become a very personal concern for me, not just because it proposes to be news, but in large part because it has become such a pervasive form of reading. Like any reading practice, it can’t but influence the way we think and write, think and speak, think and see, think and behave. Thus, even as social media informs me of the world, it inevitably forms me like itself.

On emotional, epistemological, and relational levels, I struggle with the “information” delivered to me and with my handling of it. The things I want to click on and post and repost only serve to reinforce my hardening patterns. The people I want to affirm are a semi-conscious select society, and hardly a surprise to prejudicial thinking. I worry that I am in danger of depriving myself of the personal enlargement that can only happen when the self encounters and absorbs novel difference, whether through literature or through first-hand contact. In person, I have seen myself watch the stream of someone else’s speech for any resemblance to those unsayable infractions I have read about so often. I search the screen of their face already reading incorrectness or opposition. It is now an incipient habit of mine sometimes to regard family and friends as potential strangers to my uninhabited sphere of moral purity and to see strangers of certain seeming as known adversaries in an ongoing exchange we have never personally started.

Perhaps the most vexing aspect of this is actually the “reality”—really the realities—that these social mediations point to. The “content” of the reading, at the most basic level, is often indeed a real-world problem, and therefore right and proper cause for concern. However, the ways in which the problem is mediated is itself problematic. Each event is made a tiny object in the flowing stream of myriads. Upsets, scandals, and catastrophes rush alongside each other until they are replaced by the next hour’s surge. This is what we have now grown accustomed to calling “information overload.” But just how this reality affects our relationship to ourselves individually and collectively, both near and far, and to our devices, now closer to us than ever, should give us pause.

For me, the crisis has often been normalized. The situation, whatever it is, has been shrunk down to a story, which I in my haste often shorten to a headline, and the issue has been turned into a sensation. In other words, in this fast and furious war of images and text, far ranging but far from first-hand, the media is marching on.

To what degree does social media more often inform me of itself, of its unslakable thirst for attention, than it does about the world’s many goings-on? If I can hazard an overarching estimation, I suspect that the media is winning more than anyone else, certainly much more than “the people,” and that necessarily includes the executives who benefit so astronomically from the business of mediating everyone. Insofar as I can safely speak of “the media” as a monolith, I think this is true—and, really, we do entrust our synapses to some pretty big names behind the wires. Perhaps this is why ours is an increasingly singularizing culture. Single issues play the role of household names, until another issue comes to replace them a day or week or hour later; scandals unite people in chatter just like the new Coke. Single people often play the hero-villain to our sense of the many-storied world, setting verbal fires like Iago. When one person seems to charge across our screens, it is because the media has gladly followed the trail of misdeeds and the piles of ill-repute; for its food is pure attention, and it is by nature a scavenger. To what degree do we ourselves—we human beings who supposedly run or at least uphold the media—become scavengers of stories, regurgitating them for each other in some mash of vague verbatim?

Certainly the media is not merely a runaway juggernaut raging inside of a vacuum—there do remain real human beings behind it, who have created it and continue to run it. There remain the people like you and me who perpetuate its work. Theoretically, I think, the media could serve other incentives, should we ever show a corporate desire for depth and dialectic. We could readjust our systems to support further consideration and keener connection, if only we were not so geared toward fracture and estrangement. And so, yes, the media has run away with itself. But we are doing the chasing.

And I believe we are becoming more like it everyday. I can see the image of my screen reflected in myself. Take, for instance, my use of language to attempt to respond to some awful event or action. Back in the days before my smart phone ever possessed more than my pocket, a news story would loom in my thoughtlife for much longer a duration before I ever responded to it. Or, if I did respond to it, it was through that original “face time” with real people talking together in-person (look at all those qualifiers to point to basic conversation). Perhaps most striking of all, back then the thought never once crossed my mind to make some official statement to some personal public. I had none back then. Instead, I would store the story up inside my brain alongside other likewise tragic or frustrating or confounding memories. Consternation could make connections to King Lear; fear, if it was fear, could have a network through extended contemplation that would stretch out to Isaiah and the Psalms.

Now, I’m not saying that this doesn’t or can’t happen nowadays. But at least for me-myself it’s happening less often and, when it does, with much more time and effort. When I see something that I would find truly morally outraging if only I were to sit with it to think and feel it through—to honor it like the throbbing thing it is—my first instinct is to click, and post, and leave a two-word caption—an adverb and an adjective intended to denote real outrage that end up devoid of any impact through the oft-repeated formula. How deeply disturbing is “Deeply disturbing!” to a reader when they have seen it at repeatedly pedestrian times—while eating cereal, and also while waiting for a bus, and also while sitting on the toilet—and while doing other everyday mental tasks—while looking at movie times, and also while texting someone back, and also while thinking about a work thing? In my better moments, I have a passion enough for a will to actually refuse to let this sophisticated handful of sand reduce my language to mundanity. In my off-times, when my hands are busy and my eyes are free to open thinking, I contemplate being someday better able to pray and work and work and pray to keep the floods of social media from washing away the images of living people and their troubles in its anonymizing froth.


The Grace of Doing Nothing on Your Phone—Sometimes

It should be clear by now that I have major qualms about participating in social media, even if only as an on-looker. Indeed, I sincerely believe that it has a pernicious potential, both morally and cognitively, which is also to say relationally. If this present period is any indication, social media has the power only to exacerbate the more negative tendencies of human beings residing close to conflict. Within political disputes, this form of communication often seems best suited for divisive, retaliatory language, for the spreading of speedy comment about minimal information or thought. I personally have taken many a “social media sabbath” and considered myself far better off. I can often say to others with full impunity, “You could do worse than drop your phone in the toilet.”

And yet I hold inside of myself an abiding belief in “democracy,” and a firm conviction that this term requires discourse to be anything approaching a reality. Beside, behind, and below the many disembodied pundits I give internal ear to, I also hear the voices of certain principles I was taught to believe I shared with others. More ingrained than my American original sin of an Eden affronted, a lapse into pre-democratic hostility, even more inherent than the image of my virtual America, is the far older Image that I bear and share whether I know it or not. Both of these sources teach me to do more than watch and judge. Both teach me to speak and act when injustice, rhetorical or otherwise, is being done to the people and the Person. How then could I do nothing?

My internal dispute in a very small way resembles to me a much greater and much more public one that occurred last century between two famous brothers. They too subscribed to foundational American principles of democracy and freedom, union and independence; and these two men were already at this time figures of sterling theological reputation. Both were considered major authorities on matters of personal faith and the just society, and the relation between the two; neither one of them agreed with the other on the proper way to react to a major international conflict.

The two brothers were H. Richard Niebuhr and Reinhold Niebuhr. The conflict was the mounting war between China and Japan in the early thirties. The dilemma was the published debate in The Christian Century between the two brothers over intervention: should the US step in and put a stop to the enormities of the Japanese empire? What did it mean to be an American and a Christian reading a newspaper constantly reporting real atrocities?

In his piece, “The Grace of Doing Nothing,” H. Richard Niebuhr viewed the fighting across the Pacific as a quagmire untenable for foreign aid. He fully empathized with the heated desire to go and act in a real, effectual way—but what could an average citizen, or even a church congregation, or even a whole denomination, do? How could the proponents of human freedom and human salvation possibly do their work in the middle of literally dehumanizing contests? Thus, writing to a socially conscious, ethically motivated readership, and as a social ethicist himself, H. Richard gave voice to a prevailing sense of moral consternation.

“[W]e are eager to do something constructive; but there is nothing constructive, it seems, that we can do. We pass resolution, aware that we are doing nothing; we summon up righteous indignation and still do nothing; we write letters to congressmen and secretaries, asking others to act while we do nothing. Yet is it really true that we are doing nothing. Yet is it really true that we are doing nothing? . . . When we do nothing we are also affecting the course of history.”[1]

For H. Richard, there was nothing potentially liberative, either politically or religiously, that could come from spreading wider the violence of war. “The problem we face is [thus] between various kinds of inactivity rather than of choice between action and inaction.” To H. Richard’s lights, there were ways in which the church, both individually and collectively, could still embody the kingdom of God as Christ does in the Gospels. This was through faith in God. As H. Richard himself admitted, the option was not an attractive one for a modern American Christian. “It appears to be impracticable because it rests on the well-nigh-obsolete faith that there is a God—a real God.” How could one sit still when the press was running with the furies of the world? But for H. Richard, and for anyone who took the theology proper of Protestantism seriously (and really for anyone who took the claims about the total freedom of God in scripture—the God of the prophets and Jesus—seriously), there was always a living God working with or without human participation. Grace—that freest, fullest reality—could and would continue to create a very real connection between the life of the soul and the life of the world.

And so for H. Richard the duty of the Christian, American or otherwise, was at such a time as this to take up the cross of helpless inaction. From there the faithful could leave behind the often all-too-worldly impulse toward doing something and work quietly inside of the faith that something was “being done.” Such a faith opened up a worldview of “the total divine process” in human history, in which the tumultuous flow of events could hold a reciprocal communication with “human thoughts and prayers.”

For Reinhold Niebuhr, however, inaction was not the only possible option—and it was not, in fact, the most appropriate or crucial one. While he admired and largely agreed with the “pure love ethic” at the heart of his brother’s position, Reinhold nevertheless did not believe that such an ideal “can ever be made the basis of a civilization.”[2] No nation, no individual could realistically accomplish the impossible standard of a literal, Christlike “ethical perfectionism”:

“All this does not prove . . . that we ought to apply the words Jesus, ‘Let him who is without sin cast the first stone,’ literally. If we do we will never be able to act. There will never be a wholly disinterested nation. Pure disinterestedness is an ideal which even individuals cannot fully achieve, and human groups are bound always to express themselves in lower ethical forms than individuals. It follows that no nation can ever be good enough to save another nation purely by the power of love. . . . [T]he ethical and spiritual note of love and repentance can do no more than qualify the social struggle in history. It will never abolish it.”

For Reinhold, God did indeed move and work through the lived processes of history; but God did not surprise history out of its undeniable logic—or, at the very least, God did not participate in history without calling into it other participants. “[A]s long as the world of man remains a place where nature and God, the real and the ideal, meet, human progress will depend upon the judicious use of the forces of nature in the service of the ideal.” It was up to God to reveal the ideal of perfect love; it was up to human beings to perceive it, to adjust their failings in the hopes of coming a little closer to it, and to hope for the day when grace would finally achieve it. To Reinhold’s lights, the only option for the person hoping to avoid any actual fault or failing led to “asceticism or apocalypticism.”

In truth, the two theologian brothers agreed on a fair number of fundamentals. In their estimation of the situation, and their analyses of the divine and human places within it, they were thoroughly protestant. But where H. Richard emphasized divine sovereignty apart from human agency, Reinhold stressed immanent grace within and despite human endeavors.

I find that both positions are instructive for a consideration of how to act on social media. While there are obvious limits to comparing the grand-scale quandaries surrounding one nation’s potential military intervention in the Pacific theater with the more pedestrian issues arising from a casual-to-constant participation in socially mediated disputes, both circumstances yield the question of the benefits and detriments of involvement—to act or not to act (virtually or otherwise); and, indeed, in my mind at least, the sense on social media has been one of intervention—the confrontation with a somewhat threatful piece of news or rhetoric. To my mind, we very definitely do consider virtual things actionable, if only in a virtual sense.

This means, to me, that we must cultivate a virtual form of social ethics. We have long kept a skeptical eye on the Internet—and it has arisen to the forefront somewhat recently—but the question (or, for some, crisis) of our socially mediated morals should always be in our minds. I would like to submit—at least at this point in my life and thinking about the subject, and in my most current participation in the national, public moment—that we strive toward a more dialectical understanding of social media.

This means having a more critical awareness of the many ways in which we participate in social media and how it continues to influence our thinking and decision-making. I find the Niebuhr brothers, taken together, can illustrate a helpful balance of human possibilities on social media—perhaps some of them largely untried—and of human limits in any digital action, individually or collectively.

Already there are ways in which our social media has shown that “life in history,” even digital history, “must be recognized as filled with indeterminate possibilities.”[3] Some of the positive possibilities of this technology have long been documented—from its very beginning, for instance, it has been a place of rapidly successful connectivity. Without the collaborative formation of a “Broad Community,” the further sharing of information between disparate peoples across enormous distances would never have occurred. To take perhaps one of the most realistic (read: non-virtual) and positive applications social media has had recently (and maybe ever), the successful passage and settling of many refugee families have been thanks to the rapid spread of information between other newly displaced families. Refugee teens, who are facing an even greater threat to their whole selves at a time of already fragile identity, have been able to build a special kind of resiliency through social connections, many of which have been aided and enhanced through online communities.[4] And, not unrelated, the free spread of and access to information from across the globe has helped to “lift the veil” of stories that otherwise might have gone unnoticed or been kept covered up, giving rise to “new ways of understanding.”[5] Indeed, in these examples alone, social media appears to be a “place” of seemingly innumerable and potentially ameliorating possibilities.

And I do really believe it can be. I still believe we can turn our weapons back into tools, our screens back into lenses. In this glass we can find a peculiar kind of mirror. Its images can change if we do. On a national, public level, this could mean challenging ourselves to try heretofore unexplored ways of communicating with each other. We have shown ourselves plenty of what we can do with the speed and efficiency of the internet; but I wonder at how much further we could fill it with thought. Our technology has encouraged us to be clear and concise—about as perspicuous as caution tape, and about as thoughtful. Now we might encourage ourselves to be assiduous and self-examining. From the presses came both scandal sheets and Leaves of Grass. Thus, to speak on a very practical level, perhaps we could show ourselves more just, by affirming more than negating (when the time is right), by reminding more than renouncing, by asking, and listening, before we choose to react. Social media really could be a place where we connect with other selves, and find our own selves growing larger.

But this will have its limits, and I believe there are real dangers if we ever invest social media with anything like a salvific potency. As Reinhold, looking back on the failures and catastrophes of the twentieth century, recognized, “[E]very effort and pretension to complete life, whether in collective or individual terms . . . every desire to stand beyond the contradictions of history, or to eliminate the final corruptions of history must be disavowed.”[6] Just as we enjoy and can further explore the myriad possibilities of social media, we also increasingly risk ironic limitations to any thoroughgoing digital lifestyle. Our enhancement can become entrenchment. Our human powers can become post-human bugs.

I have already covered a number of ways in which this already has been true for me. But I would like to highlight some issues that I believe pose a problem for our very natures, and for our future being.

The first of these is obviously the baneful nature of our political discourse. Just a cursory Google search of “social media and political discourse” will bring up headlines like “The Toxicity of Online Political Discourse: How Platforms Are Poisoning Our Conversations” and “How Social Media is Ruining Politics” show just how rancorous and besetting our exercises in communication have been of late. The good news is that we are conscious of our failings. The bad news is that the consciousness of them will become banal to us—we may make the threat to online discourse anodyne by posting so much and doing so little about it.

Indeed, I worry that our hatred of each other has become too much like entertainment. There are real reasons to worry about this. Inherent in the operation of the media are the drives of curiosity and excitement, fear and scandal; more deeply inherent in all of these is a strong self-interest—we watch that news segment at the airport because it interests us, because knowing more about it will give us something to talk about, sound smart about, or feel threatened and therefore, by a more animal logic, feel provisionally safer from. Our instinct to know is not a bad thing—until it is mixed with pure spectatorship. We wouldn’t watch a movie (at least, most movies) and take it as a personal, actionable threat to our ideals or selves. But this is exactly what we do. And there are people who know this, and profit from it. They are in the business of our contempt; their success currently depends on our willingness to click on rancor.[7] They are what Reinhold called the wiser “children of darkness,” who prey on the foolish “children of light”:

“The children of darkness are evil because they know no law beyond the self. They are wise, though evil, because they understand the power of self-interest. The children of light are virtuous because they have some conception of a higher law than their own will. They are usually foolish because they do not know the power of self-will. They underestimate the power of anarchy in both the national and the international community.”[8]

I fear that we have somewhat of an “ideological taint” in us that keeps us believing in our current modes of discourse as effective, and from seeing the “moral cynicism” that often more truly propels it.

But even our ability to discourse itself and the deeper abilities behind it—of reading and thinking and expressing ourselves—are already showing signs of real change for the worse. A recent study from UCLA is but one of many waving a red flag about our self-consumption in digital culture: “As technology has played a bigger role in our lives, our skills in critical thinking and analysis have declined, while our visual skills have improved.”[9] The ability to think and imagine, that leaping of the mind beyond the eyes’ seeing, is what Calvin associated with the soul. We will have to think seriously, and work carefully, to prevent ourselves from losing it.

To speak again very practically, I believe (and this will come as no surprise to anyone who knows me) that we could do a hell of a lot worse than to make concerted returns to good old-fashioned book-reading. Studies continue to show that reading real books is the age-old, time-tested enhancement of consciousness. Certainly, as stories like those of the recent refugees illustrate (and a many million others), information is important, sometimes crucial, to how we freely determine ourselves. The spread of digital literacy may have similar socially liberating properties as standard literacy had in manuscript and print cultures.[10] But it will also always be the classic—perhaps even canonical—mode of private self-exploration and –expansion. In books we find a reciprocal relationship between ourselves and a person far away or long gone. We may disagree with what we find, but the mental investment of having to find in the first place precludes any easy or flippant response. We have already made the opposite person’s meaning by paying our mind to the incarnate print. (John Milton happened to think that a good book so much bore the imprint of the person that made it, that it could rightly be considered “the image of God, as it were in the eye.”)[11]

On an even more personal level, the benefits of private, silent reading of real books is really immeasurable. There is the growing perspicacity it affords. There is the mental clarity—what Samuel Johnson meant when he said, “My dear friend, clear your mind of cant.” There is extension of lived experience through imaginative identification. There is nothing quite like reading vivid fiction. Whether through large characters or flat shimmering types, through a vast and crowded panorama or one lonely solipsist, fiction gives us a safe unbounded space to inhabit unmet humanities. This of course has the very germane social benefit of fostering empathy in the reader. But it also has the neurological benefit of engendering “cognitive reserve,” that extra map of synapses so instrumental in staving off the effects and behaviors of Alzheimer’s disease.[12] In other words, reading in this mode nourishes our memory, which is, after all, where we do all of our thinking in this flow of time. In other words, reading may keep us from losing our souls—for at least a little longer.

Now, there are many, many other things we could be doing instead of staying on our phones—talking with our dinner companions, for one; going for walks and finding new birds, for another; taking a bath, learning guitar, even writing our name might be better, at times. But I hope it is clear that what I am looking for—first and foremost in myself—is a dialectic, a balance, in this technology to often going overboard. There is a grace to doing nothing on your phone—sometimes.

I would like to hold a more chastened view of social media, even when I affirm the viewpoints articulated in it. Both Reinhold and Richard hold a chastened appreciation for all human agency, and their writings help inform my thoughts on possible virtual actions. Certainly, neither one of them would deny that there resides a mysterious reality pointed to in the biblical phrase “the image and likeness of God,” a resemblance which should never be reduced and only all the more seen and portrayed. Both would second Calvin’s observation—really his proclamation—that “[m]anifold indeed is the nimbleness of the soul which surveys heaven and earth . . . Manifold also is the skill with which it devises things incredible, and which is the mother of so many marvelous devices.”[13] And yet both would aver that no matter how high humanity’s achievements may rise, now matter how far or much our devices may reach, there remains an unavoidable base “self-interest” behind even apparently high-minded endeavors. There can be an inescapable element of self-centeredness in every democratic program, virtual or otherwise, an inherent trait of fallenness in all religious works—again, virtual or otherwise. But beyond this arrogating self, there is also a vast, pluralistic universe whose multiplicity and complexity create conflicts that often thwart and dwarf any human enterprise. We will only continue to find limit at the end of our abilities. We will find that irony is, in Marilynne Robinson’s memorable phrase, only a little less pervasive in our universe than carbon.”

At his more pessimistic, Niebuhr believed that it was only after a real ironic experience of our limits had occurred that real productive change could happen. This change would originate in what he called “creative despair,” the real chastening. I hate to think of “the inducement of the ‘Godly sorrow’ which worketh repentance”[14] for the Internet—I cannot and do not want to imagine how that might happen. But my sources tell me that such points are unavoidable, and indeed history shows them to be fairly imminent. My sources also tell me that this is when hope and faith are most likely to be born into the world. We may only continue to hack ourselves to pieces of text, but we may be made new in our lowest points, by a Body and Breath and Word that we barely recognize.

My sources tell me that America, yours or mine, virtual or actual, is but another nation among many, that democracy is but another device of human making, and that actual freedom will one day be put to rest in the realest Freedom.

He rests wars to the end of the earth.

He breaks the bow and splinters the spear.

“Let go and know

that I am God.

I will be lifted in the nations,

I will be lifted in the earth.” (Psalm 46:9-10)

The word that I have rendered “rests” more technically means “causes to rest” or “makes rest,” and comes from the very same root as the word “Sabbath”; thus, the verse could in fact read: “He sabbaths wars to the end of the earth.” The verb famously translated as “be still” (from the Hebrew raphah) more literally means to “let go” or “let drop,” to relax one’s hold of something. It is often used in reference to the resting from work, the relinquishing of anger, or the weakening of might. Similarly, the verb often translated as “exalt” (from the Hebrew rum) more actually means to “be lifted” or “high,” to “rise” because of someone else’s doing.

My sources tell me of an end to conflict beyond human duty, but open to our participation. It is a time of letting go and raising up of a Peace surpassing all our devices.

(Photo credits: William Klein and Lisette Model.)


[1] H. Richard Niebuhr, “The Grace of Doing Nothing”:; originally published in The Christian Century (March 23, 1932). All subsequent H. Richard quotes are from this article.

[2] Reinhold Niebuhr, “Must We Do Nothing?”:; originally published in The Christian Century (March 30, 1932). All subsequent Reinhold quotes, unless otherwise cited, are from this article.

[3] Reinhold Niebuhr, The Nature and Destiny of Man: A Christian Interpretation, vol. 2, p. 207.

[4] See:; and also:

[5] From Crisis, Exposure, Imagination: Lifting the Veils, eds. Jordan E. Miller, Craig Condella, and Fred Abong, p. 1. A sample is available here.

[6] Reinhold Niebuhr, The Nature and Destiny of Man, vol. 2, p. 207.

[7] At least with certain “news” outlets, I am in no way exaggerating. I will not point any fingers, but I hope you know what I mean. There are other ways to write of the world, even when people are making themselves scandals. The times I have hazarded a comparison of different platforms this has proven true—as true as the verifiable difference between television news and a documentary.

[8] Reinhold Niebuhr, The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness: A Vindication of Democracy and a Critique of Its Traditional Defense, pp. 10-11.


[10] To give one more recent example: as Toni Morrison points out, “literacy was power” to the newly emancipated but still culturally sub-human slaves, “a way of assuming and proving the ‘humanity’ that the Constitution denied them.” Toni Morrison, “The Site of Memory,” from Inventing the Truth: The Art and Craft of Memoir, ed. William Zinsser, p. 189.

[11] John Milton, Aeropagitica.


[13] John Calvin, The Institutes of the Christian Religion, Book I, Ch. V, paragraph v.

[14] The Nature and Destiny of Man, vol. 2, p. 206.

Out of the Mouths of Pop Stars

There is something really special about the forwardness of kindergarteners. They are always going outward in the burst of their beliefs—only to do a candle’s dance at the breeziest response. Their honesty is often halfway to the truth.

As five and six year old human beings, they typically straddle a threshold of development between the fluid and the firm, the personal and the social, the intuitive and the factual, the feeling and the concept. They live in an era of personal cartography, drawing clear-cut boundaries on the newly charted maps of their own worlds—little Alexanders of cognition. Indeed, even though it’s usually at this time that a child will leave the nebulous but porous realm of “parallel play” and enter the wide, definite, transactional world of “socialization,” the egocentrism is still strong, and other egos come as a shock. Sometimes, the confrontation with another “me” can have the smack of scandal. Why, with the entire world still throbbing out to me, should this stranger-kid stab it with their standing in my place in line? Thus, still overflowing with their first four years’ intuition, they lap and splash over the levies they have started which will form those narrow canals we call “learning.” Sometimes, when the storm is just right, they fairly wash it over with themselves. Believe me: as an early childhood educator, I have done some wading. A couple times a month I may be baptized by the flood.

But this liminality in kindergarteners provides for so many strange new things, some of them baffling, some of them wondrous. Continue reading “Out of the Mouths of Pop Stars”

Marilynne Robinson: Making the Given Great Again (Part 1)

There are many books I love that I would almost never wish upon my loved ones. When asked about these volumes (the rarest honor), I embark on a high and glowing encomium, only to slow down with wary admonition, and stop with a shrug. I feel the need to protect my friends and family from getting caught in Dickinson’s webs, for fear those words which are to me like continents of light will read to them like nought after nought after nought. I feel guilty for the length of half of my favorites. I only mention War and Peace if I am feeling the need to arrogate to myself a more Napoleonic status in the conversation; the same goes for The Brothers Karamazov and piety (or philosophical seriousness). I am overly apologetic about the generosity of Dickens. Bleak House is excellent, but it’s crowded full of characters, and those characters are so aspill with their own words—as if his Victorian, literary excess should make a mess of others’ tidy, twenty-first century brains.

But there is one author I frequently find myself wishing more people had read. One reason for this is aesthetic: she is accessible in the optimal sense. Whether through novel or essay, she writes of things available to common perception. She appreciates the capaciousness of common language—for instance, the potential inclusiveness of a word like “thing.” Her work consistently seeks to show the huge in the small, the unsaid in the said, the cosmic in the everyday. In this sense, she is a distinctly religious stylist: a positive puritan of prose, an inheritor of a long American estate of seeing the grand (or the Grandest) in the plain which we know best through Cather, Anderson, and Hemingway, but stemming even farther back than the prose of the King James translators to the Hebrew narratives from which it came. She takes nothing for granted, because she sees everything as given. No detail is spare; every word bears the meaning of considerable attention. This is all to say that, in the mercenary terms of commerce, the reader of this author’s work can receive abundant compensation for so little time and expense—if they have eyes to read it.

But another reason is more particularly social, even moral—perhaps I should say humanistic. This author represents, in her upbringing and background, her education and continued reading (or self-education), in her interests and commitments, an assemblage of identifications becoming less and less common in our society (or at least in our discourse). The labels she has chosen for herself overlap peculiarly, and together bear no easy summary. Sometimes they seem to press against and out of our small, symmetrical, isolated picture of political, intellectual, and religious identity. She shares commitments and interests beyond our expected boundaries. Her terms, taken together, resist the unhealthy satisfaction of pert association. It is for all this variety and contradiction of belonging that she is an individual.[1]

I am talking, of course, about the individual in my title, Marilynne Robinson. For about the past two decades she has been exemplifying all (and more) of the qualities I mentioned above. Her work serves to continue the multiple traditions she finds formative and instructive. However, it should be stated that, for all of her diverse influences, Robinson first and foremost identifies as a Christian and an American.[2] For all of the things she finds formative, these two are in some deeper sense normative. Nevertheless, like the totality of her labels, Robinson’s own Christianity and American-ness bear no easy summary. Those swift and simple associations that form the mind’s lazier morals will likely swerve to a stall in a variety of synaptic dead-ends. (Incidentally, these are the kinds of cognitive cliffs that William James identified as moments of truth.) Robinson’s work attempts to give those dead-ends firm and effective connections.

The things Robinson seeks to connect her readers with can be summed up, I believe, as the given. As her latest book of essays shows, Robinson regards all things as endowed with the quality of givenness. This givenness of things may be the unifying theme of all her recent work. More important, this move of Robinson’s to give connection to the given may be an important departure for American discourse itself—a departure that is in fact a return.

Continue reading “Marilynne Robinson: Making the Given Great Again (Part 1)”

Thou Shalt Remember

Sickness unto Rest

There’s a certain memory I do not want to remember. As you can see from my distancing language, I don’t even want to call it mine. But lately it keeps coming back into my mind—interrupting my thoughts at odd moments, and filling my attention when I happen to slow down.

The phrase that just came to my mind is “brought low.” Knowing what I don’t want to remember, I can see why.

Before I lived in New York, the words “brought low” would have had a ring of quaintness to them. I might have said the phrase in a kind of affectation, a blandly dramatic gesture that made vague fun of my self-centeredness. But at twenty-seven, with a masters degree in old books and the paginal equivalent of two theses to my name proving useless to the job market and more and more fruitless to myself; with so many scores of books and names and thoughts that formed the often shaking, sometimes crumbling sky-castled future I had built up in my mind; with two-households’ worth of student debt and a wage below a living; with viral tonsillitis in my throat and rancidity in my heart, I was, quite literally, brought low.

It was a sunny afternoon, and I was miserable. I was taking a quick break—really a panting respite—between my two jobs at the time. I had just entered “the workforce” and had found—I thought quite luckily, at first—a job teaching mornings in a Gifted and Talented third-grade classroom at a “High Achieving” New York public school. To attempt something approaching “supplemental,” I also worked afternoons as a mentor/“manny”-type to a preschool-age boy. Being my first year working in the school system, I quickly felt as if I was toiling beyond-time and falling sick semi-monthly. But as anyone who has worked multiple part-time jobs knows, sickness in such cases can be a kind of curse: you cannot rest for long, because you do not have the “time” (i.e. money) allotted to you; at a certain point, you may have to tax your health and simply shoulder through it, or else you face the extra tax and insupportable burden of empty hours and a shortened paycheck. What I had been struggling to carry, through too-many weeks of fever and sweat and pus and pangs, had turned my time into a desperate thirst for numbers. I drained my well-being to fill my timesheet. Continue reading “Thou Shalt Remember”


[For my mother.]

In the past year or so the word “great” has gained a peculiar currency. That currency may be starting to wane, at present, but I have continued to wonder what the term means for myself and others. For at least nine months I have been asking myself what greatness really looks like.

And what have I found? Continue reading “Greatness”

Pocket Picking

Pocket Pic

“They tell us that on the last day the sea will give up its dead; and I suppose that on the same occasion long strings of extraordinary things will come out of my pockets” (G.K. Chesterton, “What I Found in my Pocket”).

This is what I found in my pockets this week: keys, a pen, a wallet (mine), my cell phone, two bark chips, several wrung out flower petals (of unknown origin), a blue plastic bead, a ladybug hairclip (not mine), a Lego hand, and two broken pieces of white sea glass.

Who thinks about pockets these days? We take these poor, repressed, underpantsed things for granted.

When I stop to think about it, my pockets have always served me well. Without them, I would not be literally going places; without them I would not get home. I am convinced that on innumerable occasions they have saved my brow from the sweat of remembering, just as they have saved my mouth from admitting my poverty. I actually trust in my pockets. (In the case of money, of course, I trust my wallet as well. It is a double-coverage kind of faith.)[1] After all, a pair of pockets is a steadfast second set of hands.

But over the past several years, my pockets have begun to surprise me. In them I have noticed a new dual-importance growing. The first is vocational; the second is technological; both, you might say, are trans-personal. My pockets are connecting me to people.

The first is this: my work has involved my pockets in carrying more than my own personal effects. In teaching preschool- and kindergarten-age children, my pockets have become a veritable treasury of trinkets. Many’s the time I get an importunate hand pressing on my arm, with two round eyes leaning ever closer to me, and a little voice urging, “Hold this for me . . . Hold-this-for-me-please.” I only accept these miniscule burdens if the child doesn’t have any pockets of their own—if they are wearing a dress or sweatpants, or have those shallow, sewn-in flaps that hardly count (so why bother, Gymboree?)—or if the gewgaw in question would be safer with me—especially if it turns out to be Johnny’s mommy’s credit card, or Jane’s dad’s Masonic ring. But most of the time, when I take these tiny things upon myself, it is for the good grown-up reason that they are not appropriate in the activity or at school at all.

But lately—in truth, over the past decade or so—I have also noticed a presence in my pockets even more importunate—and, if it can be believed, even more imperious—than the nimbuses flaring from the children’s treasures. It has been burgeoning to a great concern, beyond an ingrained habit or a necessary evil, to the point of actual bodily care. It is my cell phone.

It rests in my pocket, but it emanates such an aura of utter relevance and necessity that I forget my very personal attachment to my pants. If I were to plunge into a lake, my heart would cry out for my phone, not my clothes or my life. Certainly not my hair. Were I to fall from a bridge, I am certain I would use the duration of the plummet to check if my phone was indeed woefully trapped in my pocket. I cannot completely disavow that the thought wouldn’t cross my mind of flinging it to the safety of dry land.[2]

(It’s not just me, of course. Whenever someone drops their phone the room gasps and flinches. The world watches in silent hopes of survival. If we happen to misplace our device, we sense the phantom phone inside our pocket or purse, despite what our fingers say. Sometimes it seems to me that the seat of my pocket, that place on my leg where a pocket has always resided, has now grown a mass in the shape of a phone. A sensory tumor.)

But it would be false to talk about my cell phone as a presence in my pocket without discussing what it really represents: people. Or, people of a certain sort. Indeed, I act as if I hold many people in my pocket. Some of them I communicate with directly, over literally long distances, as if they were virtually in the room; most of them I merely watch and scrutinize, or read as literal proofs of human errancy. To my mind they are manifestations of our “current situation,” which is always changing and ever increasingly urgent, sometimes doomsdayish. Whenever I have a free moment—even if it’s only an idle minute better spent staring into some suggestive texture on the wall—I pull these people out and try to “keep up.” Most of the time, when I am working or with real enfleshed people, I feel my cell phone’s clutches on me—a kind of vague and unwitting obsession with a thing that is merely sitting inside my pocket, yet a screen that is always promising to show me sign-people and threaded wonders. Continue reading “Pocket Picking”

Perfect Strangers: On a Certain Nobility in Human Beings

Christ and the People Mosaic(Photo thanks to Picture Mosaics.)

Nowadays, we see people wherever we go–you might even say more than wherever we go. They follow us, and we follow them. They are virtually always with us, even in our most private moments. Oftentimes, without any personal connection, without ever hearing the sound of their voice, we watch their behavior, and scrutinize it, and display our own views on their persons to the rest of the “public.” We see what they’re up to while we sit in the bathroom. There was a time when we never would have thought of doing this. We have already seen them so often, so inveterately, that we no longer see just how we are seeing them. I myself have been as blind to this “seeing” as I am to the nose on my face.

I personally see them only as “them” and never as “we.” They are strangers I know everything about.

We live in an age of personally but digitally mediated people. This is the genesis of the “technoself.”[1] We have instant, individual alerts and updates of live events, brought about by people made into headlines made into capital letters. This is the viral-but-virtual, public-in-private complex of twenty-first century media. This is the current “BREAKING” on our 3.5-inch screens. Of course, picture and video more fully relate what has happened in real-time situations. But even then it is a clipped reality, a tiny square of our many quilted and rippling dimensions, narrowed to a focus, frozen out of time, and flattened for our screens.

We live in an age of platformed people. Continue reading “Perfect Strangers: On a Certain Nobility in Human Beings”

Overheard at the Bestiary


Gossip is a pretty primitive form of personal knowledge. At least, if one were to use the history of literacy as an analogy—and if one were to take a generically progressive view of history (which I currently will, as long as it serves my purposes)—then gossip is perhaps a medieval mode of understanding another person. In the optimal cases some kind of genuine knowledge, approaching mastery of the subject, has come passed down to new apprentices of the person in question, so that whatever was original and firsthand has become layered with many and sometimes untraceable adulterations. Scribal errors are inevitable. Indeed, at its worst, gossip is a verbal means of making someone handle-able, so that the person no-longer-in-question can be passed around and manipulated (notice the handy mani– in there) whatever way the gossips please.

Even at its most innocuous, gossip invariably leads to misunderstanding and therefore iniquity. This sounds like a judgmental statement—the kind of pronouncement found in any puritan code of conduct (see The Snake in the Grass, or Understanding the Satan in YOU, being a treatise on human suckiness and pursuant of at least something approaching God’s gracious indifference)—but think about it: any talk about someone will fall short of its subject, even if it comes from the subject him- or herself, and any brief talk will only fall shorter. Since gossip usually happens in those little corners and closets of time in the midst of daily life, I think it’s safe to say the arrow falls very close to our feet.

Oftentimes, in my experience, gossip leads to the making of monsters. I use the term in the more original, less sensational sense, meaning “an imaginary creature that is typically large, ugly, and frightening.”[1] Whenever I have overheard or participated in gossip, the persons of skewed interest become strange creatures indeed: beastly humans with elephantine flaws, alien habits, and devilish tempers. It’s an act of taking someone’s situational action (or reaction) as his or her permanent trait—and, at least within the confines of the conversation, his or her defining characteristic. It glosses over or plainly ignores the circumstantial nuances surrounding that person; it flattens the greater depth of him or her with a gargoyled appearance.

Continue reading “Overheard at the Bestiary”


Malapropism - Pledge

malapropism: ridiculous misuse of words, especially through confusion caused by resemblance in sound.[1]

I have a peculiar love of malapropism. Anyone who has known me for long—anyone who has spoken in front of me long enough to misspeak—anyone who has gambled in knowing me long enough to have had the bad luck of misspeaking in front of me—knows the childish glee I get from any verbal flub or infelicity. Around most strangers and acquaintances I am respectfully silent. But should a close friend or relative make the slightest slip, I’ll flash on them and smile in their face with wide-eyed wonder. Of course, I have to be in a good mood to lower another’s.

Now, to some degree this linguistic schadenfreude is a familial trait. Should someone mispronounce a word or trip on their own tongue within our hearing, my family will rear every one of its grinning heads like a herd of velociraptors. And yet my particular delight in malapropism, in particular words misused or mingled (but not quite mangled), is a little more specifically mine. It has become a kind of hobby of memory to remember the specific solecisms I’ve heard. Many a simple misstep has become a special moment to me.

And yet, I consider myself a kind enough person. An empathetic, or at least empathetically educated, person. I consider myself a person.

Now, one of the reasons I love a good malapropism is because it often says more about its speaker than it does about itself. It is more an expression of personality—temperament, interests, experience, thought-process—than it is an error in language. I think of this as a more universally acceptable appreciation of malapropism—which therefore makes the appreciator more relatable.

At surface-hearing, a malapropism is funny because of its incongruity. It strikes the well-trained ear as off-key with the rest of the pitched world. It’s funny the way a bad tuba note used to be funny. The most civilized, language-conforming speakers will laugh at a malapropism mostly out of spite or embarrassment: as a way of shaking the filthy thing off. I will certainly admit to succumbing to the less superior superficial perception of malapropism. Once, shortly after the third and thankfully last “Star Wars” prequel came out, I watched a preschool boy menace another with the vicious proclamation, “I AM JENNIFER GRIEVOUS!” The comedy was not only in the child’s insistent reminders to his playmate that he had another but unseen set of arms—which presumably stopped flailing every time he paused to point them out to his playmate—but also his bombastic confidence that he knew, owned, and was the dreaded general: a ruthless, thick-voiced, armor-plated, brain-skinned, snake-eyed, four-armed, lightsaber-wheeling monster who goes by the name of Jennifer.

But I sincerely believe that when I laugh at a malapropism I am not merely laughing at the person who speaks it. I am laughing because of them. I would be more than happy to laugh with them, but I am usually the one to laugh first, and that seems to be enough in most cases. Anyway, a malapropism is one potential source of what I have elsewhere called the comedy of acceptance. With a malapropism, the acceptance is often very one-sided, at least if the laughing is out-loud. When someone misspeaks around me, I would rather not correct them, because I wouldn’t want them any other way. At this point in my growing up, I try my best not even to laugh, because I do not want that raw person-essence to flee. Everyday so many humans are hiding behind saved faces, and who they are is far more good-and-pleasant than good diction.

Continue reading “Malapro”