Another Week Ends: Purity Spirals, Plague Theology, Talking Horses, New York Grace and the Golden Girls of Super Bowl XIV.

Purity Spirals, Plague Theology, Talking Horses, New York Grace and the Golden Girls of Super Bowl XIV.

Bryan J. / 2.7.20

1. Of all the ballyhooing over Super Bowl LIV’s halftime show, Jennifer Weiner wins for the hottest take on J.Lo and Shakira’s lustful celebration of Latina culture and girl power. While some of us were clutching our pearls over stripper poles and close up crotch shots, and others of us were perhaps too gleefully joining #TeamRumpShaker, Weiner’s response to the 50- and 43-year-old Latina pop stars’ exhibition was exhaustion:

If there was one thing the Shakers and the Clutchers could agree on, it’s that Jennifer Lopez looks amazing. At 50, she is a force of nature, a woman who looks so amazing it’s like evolution took a tiny step forward, just for her. “I can’t believe she’s 50 and looks so good!” women said. Which quickly became, “I can’t believe I’m 50 and I look so bad!” (“Aside from making me feel physically deformed, that half-time show was 100!” wrote the Sports Illustrated editor Sarah Kwak.)…

[I thought] that pregnancy would be a nine-month time out from competing in the Looking Good Olympics. Alas, I had my daughters in the heyday of the Hot Mom, an era where billowy maternity garments gave way to bump-hugging body-con styles, where celebrities left the hospitals holding their newborns, wearing their skinny jeans. No respite there. Forty was clearly too soon to surrender, given Halle Berry and Jennifer Aniston, Brooke Shields and Lisa Bonet, not to mention those ubiquitous lists of 10 Celebrities Who Are Unrecognizable Today (You Won’t Believe Number 8!) that popped up every time I went online and told me that gaining weight and aging visibly were a fast road to irrelevance and mockery.

Still, I’d been picturing 50 as the year when I’d be done. I’d quit dyeing my hair and donate my high heels; I’d greet the occasional chin hair with a Buddhist master’s zen and treat my body like a place I could exist without apology instead of something akin to a seedy apartment complex, a place I needed to constantly manage and improve, with unruly bits to be waxed and plucked, painted and dyed, trussed in spandex and lifted with underwire…

Then I saw the meme that made the rounds on Monday. “50 Years Old in 1985,” read one side, with a shot of Rue McClanahan from “Golden Girls,” in period-appropriate feathered hair and a dowdy-looking sweater. “50 Years Old in 2020,” read the other side, with Jennifer Lopez in a silver bodysuit, toned thighs gripping the pole, honeyed locks streaming, and bronzed skin gleaming, looking impossibly … impossible. If Blanche Devereaux is now, through some cruel twist of the worst timeline, on the Not side of Hot or Not, I guess Dorothy Zbornak is completely out of the question. And Dorothy had been my plan all along!…

As yours truly diagnosed earlier this week, the Super Bowl exposed our communal fear of aging. Welcome to midlife, Gen X — Millennials, we’re up next. For more insight, the trio break down this article on The Mockingcast this week.

2. Another Mockingcast article for your consideration: the purity spiral of the Instagram knitting community. “Purity spiral” is the term that Gavin Haynes gives to the all-too-familiar phenomenon of moral indignation gone wild.

A purity spiral occurs when a community becomes fixated on implementing a single value that has no upper limit, and no single agreed interpretation. The result is a moral feeding frenzy.

But while a purity spiral often concerns morality, it is not about morality. It’s about purity — a very different concept. Morality doesn’t need to exist with reference to anything other than itself. Purity, on the other hand, is an inherently relative value — the game is always one of purer-than-thou.

It’s not just another word for ‘woke culture’, or even ‘cancel culture’, or ‘virtue signalling’. Even though intersectional social justice is a pretty great breeding ground for purity spirals, it is one among many. Nor is it confined to the Left: neo-Nazi groups offer some of the clearest examples of purity spirals: the ongoing parsing of ethnic purity into ever-more Aryan sub-groups. Perhaps the most classic one of all hails from Salem, Massachusetts.

It is a social dynamic that plays out across that community — a process of moral outbidding, unchecked, which corrodes the group from within, rewarding those who put themselves at the extremes, and punishing nuance and divergence relentlessly.

A purity spiral propagates itself through the tipping points of preference falsification: through self-censorship, and through loyalty tests that weed out its detractors long before they can band together. In that sense, once one takes hold, its momentum can be very difficult to halt.

The essay and corresponding BBC audio documentary catalog a purity spiral unfolding in the Instagram knitting community, and it’s worth the full read. At the very least, the language of purity spiral helps us recognize when moral principles have transitioned into purity power plays. Whether you’re an Instagram knitter, a young adult novelist, a reformation theology fanboy, or a liturgy enthusiast, the temptation to turn morality into power cuts all ways.

3. The good folks at the Humans of New York Instagram gave us this week’s grace-in-practice miracle. Check out the 11 part story of Bobby and Cheryl Love, listed below. Here’s a link for the non-Insta inclined.

4. In entertainment this week, CJ’s thoughtful dissent from the universally loved Good Place finale is really the final word on an otherwise spectacular and creative series. Another Mbird favorite show, Netflix’s BoJack Horseman, also wrapped up this week, though it’s garnered much less attention. This last season features the (brightly drawn anthropomorphic) birds coming home to roost for a celebrity that has selfishly hurt so many in his quest for meaning. The show’s finale is a moonshot attempt to portray a celebrity sinner with equal parts justice and mercy. Many of the reviews are reflections on that attempt: either the show let him off the hook with an easy ending that was deaf to real #MeToo concerns, or the show suffered with a bleakness that never seemed to let up even at the end. I imagine some intrepid Mockingbird writer will have more to say on this, but for now, here’s a thoughtful review from Arielle Burnstein over at The Week:

One of the most difficult aspects of the final season will be in allowing viewers to continue to feel empathy for BoJack while also holding him accountable for the pain he has caused, most often to the women in his life. At his best, BoJack is merely self-absorbed. At his worst, he has taken advantage of people at their most vulnerable and, in the last season, even physically assaulted a co-star. Does BoJack deserve forgiveness for all the horrible things he has done? In many ways, the series already answered this question way back in season 1, when Diane told BoJack that goodness isn’t some kind of mystical, metaphysical aspect of your character, but simply the sum of your choices, “I don’t think I believe in deep down,” she tells BoJack, “I kind of think all you are is just the things that you do.”

The idea that the past isn’t something you can just discard on your quest to improve is antithetical to our “Thank U, Next” culture, where the path to self-actualization is littered with old objects, old friends, and old aspects of yourself that no longer “spark joy.” Instead, BoJack offers a vision of personal growth that can’t be purchased or reduced into a hashtag. It presents a grown-up vision of self-care, one that is equal parts compassion and tough love. In the end, whether we should punish or forgive BoJack isn’t something that we need fully answered in order for the series finale to be satisfying.

Instead, BoJack’s legacy will be its earnest insistence that the ways we choose to treat people matter precisely because they can’t ever be changed.

The empathy and accountability conflict listed above is as much theological as it is psychological. Can righteousness and peace ever meet? I hear tell that in the heavens they had quite the kissing romance.

5. For a good laugh this week, here are Aesop’s Fables Written After a Bad Breakup:

A pig and a field mouse were enjoying a bright summer’s afternoon, strolling through the park.

“Look,” said the pig, gesturing toward a majestic eagle in the distance. “What a beautiful eagle!”

“Yes,” the field mouse concurred. “What a beautiful eagle, indeed.”

They continued on their way in agreeable silence.

You see, the field mouse had agreed with the pig because what the pig had said was true—she was an objectively beautiful eagle—and the field mouse, because she was an adult, understood that this didn’t mean that the pig was, like, into to the eagle and so didn’t make a whole [gosh darn] thing of it.

See also from The Onion: Experts Unable To Determine Why Someone As Rich As Justin Beiber Needs To Believe In God Anymore.

6. Outside of the Super Bowl and the normal election cycle politicking, the other big global news story is the Chinese coronavirus outbreak. To that end, Christianity Today revisits Martin Luther’s 1527 letter, “Whether One May Flee From A Deadly Plague.

First, Luther argued that anyone who stands in a relationship of service to another has a vocational commitment not to flee. Those in ministry, he wrote, “must remain steadfast before the peril of death.” The sick and dying need a good shepherd who will strengthen and comfort them and administer the sacraments—lest they be denied the Eucharist before their passing. Public officials, including mayors and judges, are to stay and maintain civic order. Public servants, including city-sponsored physicians and police officers, must continue their professional duties. Even parents and guardians have vocational duties toward their children…

What if a Christian still desires to flee? Luther affirms that this may, in fact, be the believer’s faithful response, provided that no emergency exists and that they arrange substitutes who will “take care of the sick in their stead and nurse them.” Notably, Luther also reminds readers that salvation is independent of these good works. He ultimately tasks them to decide whether to flee or to stay during plagues, trusting that they will arrive at a faithful decision through prayer and meditation on the Scriptures. Participation in aiding the sick arises out of grace, not obligation.

The CT article references this open letter from an anonymous pastor in Wuhan, China, the plague’s epicenter. This pastor asks for prayer, but also recognizes that God’s love comes in forms of suffering. We’ll give him the last word.

Spoken for today, Wuhan’s pestilence cannot separate us from the love of Christ; this love is in our Lord Jesus Christ. These words are so comforting for us, we have already become one body with Christ. We have a part in his sufferings, and we have a part in his glory, all of Christ’s is ours, and our all is Christ’s. Therefore, Christ is with us as we face the pestilence in this city; the pestilence cannot harm us. If we die in the pestilence, it is an opportunity to witness to Christ, and even more to enter into his glory.

Editor’s note: Amen.


• This week’s Weird Action Figures brought to us by Sad and Useless

• DZ is over on White Horse Inn talking #Seculosity this week.