Non-Trump News; Grease is the word?

Trump foes have enjoyed a week of Schadenfreude, but whether his fortunes are good or ill, we should all exercise the discipline of restraint.  One of the most disturbing powers of his candidacy is its confirmation of the power of shock over the wisdom of nuance.

So, only one week out in my break from sermon-writing (which has been glorious) I find myself with the time and inclination to assume a pulpit and bloviate; here are some thoughtful articles.

Why does the world economy appear to be stagnating?

The whole top-tier economic world seems caught in what one study described as “secular stagnation.” (Love the phrase, although the article didn’t explain it.)  The article advances the argument that the problem is not only supply-side (our ability to make stuff) but also on the demand side.  It appears we lack the desire to keep buying and buying.  I am tempted to interpret the situation as the inevitable failure of our attempt to ground the meaning of life in a purely economic way.  People are waking up, as if in a hangover, to the reality that a life of producing and buying is emptier than it was supposed to be.

At the same time, they are also very angry.  The possibility of perpetual stagnation undermines much of the mythology we’ve been telling ourselves for generations–that life will just get better and better.  There’s something quasi-religious about that myth, the myth of progress.  The economy held out a promise of “abundance,” a word churches have used recently to combat the fear-inducing perception of scarcity.  (Nice example from Brueggemann, who naturally still assumes the myth of more and more money.)  Meanwhile, the environmental price of endless growth was always kept in the shadows.

But now we seem to be on the way to permanent modest growth; as it has been for 10,000 years, the future turns out to be more of the same.  Naturally, I am drawn to the implications for the church.  Ironically, I think the future is bright.  However, no one can yet tell what destructive consequences the failure of the myth of progress will have on our world order.  It has already given us Brexit and Trump, and global terrorism probably owes something to the same cause as well.  Life is going to get a lot uglier in the near future, it seems.  People will have a hard time being nice, cheerful, optimistic–the virtues of the post-WWII era of high-growth–when there is no actual grounding for those feelings.

But with the failure of economic promises, hopefully people will turn in other directions for their life projects than simply their own prosperity.  Sadly, the death of endless growth will probably also kill the dream of a government-administered safety net of care and decency for all.  I’m afraid we missed the boat on that one, unless you are Sweden or the like.  But perhaps the result of all of this is that people will take much more seriously the imperative to create a shared life of meaning in community here and now.  And the church will be a prime candidate for where this happens.

You Don’t Have as Many Mutual Friends as You Thought

Another thoughtful piece on studies showing that people’s friendships turn out to be mutual only 50% of the time or less.  The author has some interesting reflections on the nature of friendship.

I just can’t help commenting tangentially on the token evolutionary psychology bit thrown in.  This one concerns the “vagus nerve” (which sounds like a parody already).  This theory is included to show the dangers of lacking true friends; we will lose the capacity for friendship.  Seems rather obvious, but it’s a helpful observation.

The theory itself is dubious in a typical way: “In the presence of a true friend, Dr. Banks said, the smart or modulating aspect of the vagus nerve is what makes us feel at ease rather than on guard as when we are with a stranger or someone judgmental.”

Hmm.  I thought it was the true friend who made us feel that way.  This sounds like an example of a typical rhetorical shift in brain science: the real-world cause of something disappears behind some brain mechanism, which now assumes the place of the “cause” (rather than it’s rightful, humble place as “conveying the cause”).  It’s like saying that neurohormones “cause” an orgasm, rather than what this fantastic creature is doing to me in bed.  (Pardon the earthiness.)  So instead of marveling at the human reality of friendships and trying to decode this great mystery, we pat ourselves on the back for having comprehended it all by attending to the vagaries (its “smart or modulating aspect”) of the vagus nerve.

I am sure that the biology of it all is, indeed, fascinating.

Finally, with Jessica and Silas away visiting her family, I watched Grease last night.  Wow, was it bad, particularly the production values and its depressingly empty and misogynistic depiction of high school, garishly cloaked in an air of nostalgia–all these guys scamming to achieve one or the other body parts of girls, and otherwise without any other hopes or dreams in the world.  This identity, this way of life is somehow blessed and made profound by the Barry Gibb theme song’s call: “We have to be what we are.”  Grease is the word, indeed–more so than I initially thought plausible.

Sorry to sound so negative today.  But please, dear audience, tell me why you love this movie!  I must have missed something, probably because of my lonely home.


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