Sixty Hours I’ll Never Recover

But at least no naked actresses.

That is the general reaction in the Hart household to the completion of Mad Men, a tv series perhaps a tad better than Breaking Bad, but miles behind — wait for it — The Wire. (The atmospherics of Mad Men inch the series just barely ahead of Breaking Bad.) I had to go through 90 episodes to see Don practicing transcendental meditation, Peggy finding love, Joan being torn between love and career, Roger finding love appropriate to his age, and Pete landing in Witchita? Yes, it was uncomfortable to see Betty get sick, but not so much that you see a different side of her.

The morning after I read Louis Menand (who is emerging as someone worthy of a man-crush) on Charles Duhigg’s book, Smarter Faster Better: The Secrets of Being Productive in Life. Menand can’t quite understand why self-help books for business people sell. They are so obvious:

There is not much to disagree with here, and that is one of the intriguing things about the genre this book belongs to. Not dozens or hundreds but thousands of titles like “Smarter Faster Better” are published every year, and they account for a disproportionate percentage of total book sales. Yet they mainly reiterate common sense.

Does anybody think it’s unwise to be lean, nimble, and innovative? Who needs a book to know that rote behavior and fear of uncertainty are not going to take us very far? It’s not startling to learn that organizations that nurture a “culture of commitment” are more productive than organizations that don’t, or that setting ambitious objectives can jump-start innovation. “People who know how to self-motivate, according to studies, earn more money than their peers, report higher levels of happiness, and say they are more satisfied with their families, jobs, and lives.” I can believe that. “Determined and focused people . . . often have higher paying jobs.” I won’t argue. “An instinct for decisiveness is great—until it’s not.” An impregnable assertion.

In an uncanny way, Menand also explains the logic of Mad Men:

If you owned an advertising agency fifty years ago, on the other hand, you wouldn’t care how much pig iron your workers could carry in an hour. You would want your account executives to have winning personalities, to be able to bond easily with other people, to be likable. You would want them to have manners tailored to attract the patronage and retain the loyalty of your customers. Their task would be to persuade, not to push. You would therefore want them to be able to conceal, maybe even from themselves, the manipulative and possibly mercenary nature of their relationship with clients, and to transform a business transaction into a friendly quid pro quo. You would reward the most successful account executives with lavish expense accounts.

The series never goes beyond this (except when Don is being Don).

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Would You Let Your Wife Teach in Public Schools?

As one of our regulars here suggested off-line, Tim Challies should sound so nuanced about movies (or stop slandering actors and actresses):

However, if we were to begin again today, I am quite sure we would not enroll our children in public schools. What concerns me is that our decision would not be based on conviction but fear, fear generated by statements we have heard from others about public schools and, in particular, about public school teachers. Over the years we have encountered hundreds of statements about the dangers of such teachers. We have been assured that public schools are the breeding ground for every kind of social evil, that they are the lair of predatory teachers, that they are full of tenured and unionized employees who care nothing for children. We have heard that public school teachers care only for ideology, that they will allow no leeway for Christian beliefs, that they will do their utmost to undermine the hard training of parents who attempt to raise their children with biblical ideals. In many Christian circles, public school teachers are made out to be the enemies of the faith.

Our experience of public school teachers has been far different and far more positive. And I don’t think we are the exception, not from what I’ve heard when speaking to people in my church, in my city, in my family, and even as I’ve spoken to many of you at conferences or churches or events. Of course some have had bad experiences, but not all. Not nearly all.

So in some spheres, the antithesis doesn’t go all the way down. It does in movies that show skin, supposedly. But imagine if Challies could concede that some films and tv shows that reveal flesh are “far different” from merely being about lust and “far more positive” in their portrayals of characters and social contexts. What if my experience of movies has not been all bad? That despite all the skin-avoiders say about “dirty” movies, these films and shows are about far more than lust, sex, adultery?

In other words, if you can entertain shades of gray with public education — one of the great sins for a certain strand of Calvinism — why not with television and film production? Conflicted minds want to know.

The Sabbatarian Option for the Benedictines

Noah Millman legitimately wants specifics about the Benedictine Option (and here I thought it was an after dinner cocktail):

Ok, then: monasteries were communities of celibates who held property in common. Anyone from the outside could join the community by taking the necessary vows, and non-votaries could visit, even dwell with the community for a time. But the monastic community was constituted by rules of considerable complexity, and it played a unique economic role in the larger society by virtue of its distinctive legal status. So I’d expect discussion of the Benedict Option to center on what such communities such look like, how they should relate to the larger, less-tethered community of co-religionists and the larger society as a whole. Should Benedict-Option Christians found communities outside of major cities, so as to be able to fully express their ethos, and encourage non-Benedict-Option Christians to visit them there? What should the economic relationship be between communal organs and individual adherents? What should the rules be for joining – or leaving? What kinds of legal protections would such communities need as corporate bodies? And how should adherents behave when they are among “gentiles?”

These are the kinds of questions that actual ethical communities – groups like the Amish and Mennonites, yes, but also Orthodox Jews, Mormons, American Sikhs, utopian Socialists, kibbutzniks, all kinds of groups – have wrestled with at their founding. Communal organization for a self-conscious ethical group within a foreign society – not necessarily hostile nor necessarily friendly, but foreign – is not a new problem. I’d expect advocates of the Benedict Option to be particularly interested in such forerunning models, and to be discussing how they might or might not be applied to the specific challenges of small-o orthodox Christianity in a society that still retains the trappings of Christianity but, from their perspective, can no longer be called Christian in any meaningful sense.

That, however, doesn’t seem to be the center of the discussion about the Benedict Option, at least not so far as I have seen. Instead, most of what I’ve seen is discussion of how corrupt and threatening to Christianity the surrounding culture is becoming, and how small-o orthodox Christians need to recognize that fact and prepare for it, combined with repeated assurance that the Benedict Option does not mean withdrawing from the world or compromising the Christian obligation to witness, spread the gospel, be in the world while not of it, etc. In other words, I hear a lot about why the Benedict Option is important, and a lot about what the Benedict Option isn’t, but very little that I can grasp with any kind of firmness about what the blasted thing is in the first place.

Protestants were not (and still aren’t) big on monasticism. Protestantism was a piety for life in the world and the doctrine that undergirded that real life was vocation.

But Protestants were also big on sanctifying the Lord’s Day, as in setting it apart:

This Sabbath is then kept holy unto the Lord, when men, after a due preparing of their hearts, and ordering of their common affairs beforehand, do not only observe an holy rest, all the day, from their own works, words, and thoughts about their worldly employments and recreations, but also are taken up, the whole time, in the public and private exercises of his worship, and in the duties of necessity and mercy. (Confession of Faith, 21.8)

You could argue, then, that every Sunday is a kind of monastic retreat from the world and that’s certainly how many Protestants practiced it. Even my Baptist parents knew this and so when the prospects of Little League came, I had to decline because I would be compelled to play baseball on Sundays. Why my brother and I could watch the Phillies on Sundays thanks to the television was a question we didn’t ask. We wanted to watch. We weren’t in charge.

What if the wider Christian world (Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Protestant) treated Sunday as a day for a kind of monastic existence? No work, no inappropriate reading, no sex, lots of bread, even more beer. Couldn’t this be a way to set Christians apart without having to become celibate and so see Christianity go the way of the Shakers?

Radio Worship

Yesterday’s call to worship came from Hebrews 12:

For you have not come to what may be touched, a blazing fire and darkness and gloom and a tempest and the sound of a trumpet and a voice whose words made the hearers beg that no further messages be spoken to them. For they could not endure the order that was given, “If even a beast touches the mountain, it shall be stoned.” Indeed, so terrifying was the sight that Moses said, “I tremble with fear.” But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel. (Hebrews 12:18-24 ESV)

You could, if you were not a Protestant or were flirting with trying to find the old Roman mojo, try to capture this gathering by doing what television does, that is, you could actually try to depict it in statues, paintings, priestly garments, high end liturgy. That is, you could try to show this visibly. And you would give a lot of work to artists. Let’s hope you paid them well.

But if you took the radio approach and let your imagination do the work without the aid of images, you might simply read the passages and not try to prescribe for the gathered who still live on planet earth how this assembly of the living and dead, of angels and God himself should picture such a meeting. It would be like listening to Phil Hendrie or Jean Shepherd (no relation to Norm) and letting your imagination supply the images.

Of course, radio isn’t as refined as high art. But if high liturgy winds up doing to the imagination what television’s images do, how great is that if you are merely a plumber?