Taking up the Cross in the Twenty-First Century

“Whoever will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me.” -Mark 8:34

We have now lived through another Easter—technically two. This Sunday marks the arrival of the pascha of the Eastern Orthodox Church. We who inhabit the Christian world (really worlds) have lived in some approximate way through the life and death and life-again of Jesus of Nazareth. Whatever we may think of him or his life or his death (or his life-again), the tradition and our calendars tell us it is all in some sense over. Complete. As the man himself said, it is finished.

In the East this means that everyone has said, and will be saying for some time, to their church and household and neighbor those great ancient words “Christos Anesti!” (“Christ is risen!”) and has heard, and will be hearing for some time, the great response, “Alithos Anesti!” (“In truth he is risen!”). In the West we do this as well. But nowadays to have celebrated Easter is also to have borne witness to a steady parade of Easter-related posts from friends and family. I myself a Friday ago saw my fair share of flowery tombs (empty, indeed) and crepuscular crosses (of the bloody sunset or rosy sunrise varieties). In fact, it is the crosses that show the most variety, and it’s this variety that shows the most interesting spectrum of interpretations. Where do we find the cross in our current place and time? Well, with the Russians—on Facebook.

But we’re long done with crosses now, aren’t we? Easter itself is over, but only because it has opened us up to spring in the largest sense, to the hope of renewed life even after death. Why should we go back to death, back to the cross?

Continue reading “Taking up the Cross in the Twenty-First Century”

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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. Continue reading “The Grace of Doing Nothing on Your Phone”

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

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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”