The Value of Asceticism

Matthew Lee Anderson writes about the benefits of ascetic practices such as fasting.

So much of our happiness depends upon having resources at hand, which is why abstaining from food or drink can initially make us seem surly and irritable. Sometimes people have told me that they gave up fasting because it was hard to be happy—when, dear reader, the difficulty is the point. As we temporarily renounce the goods of this world, we should expect our lives to get worse before they get better, as removing the resources we usually rely on to get through a day with good cheer exposes how few resources for joy we really have. Deprivation causes a crises, in other words, which means we have to look for new resources to overcome the obstacles of anger and irritation before us.

As Lent is approaching, I find myself thinking more and more about the rigors that will become part of the observance of the season. I can say that I’ve got a certain amount of trepidation as deprivation comes near and obligations to worship and presence increase. The grace of God is good, though.

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Warrior Savior

Adam Renberg writes for Patheos about the adjustments made to biblical texts to appeal to broaden their appeal to medieval Saxons. The audience was a Germanic warrior society after a forced conversion to Christianity by Emperor Charlemagne. Renberg specifically references The Heliand, a Gospel paraphrase written as a poem in the 9th century. Some of the changes to the original content are enough to raise eyebrows.

Perhaps most egregious of all is the use of magic. The creation of the world and the writing of the gospel are called secret runes’, or word magic ordained by God (Song 1). The author records that the deceiver, that is Satan, uses a magic helmet” to frighten Pilates wife (Song 65), and even speaks of the eucharist as magical. Most jarring is, perhaps, the introduction to the Lord’s Prayer: Do this for Your own followers—teach us the secret runes” (Song 19). This implies that the repetition of the Lord’s prayer was as powerful as a spell or Germanic charm, when spoken with bowed head.

The Saxon society isn’t unique in adapting Christianity to fit in with their long-held cultural beliefs, but rarely do you read about the biblical text itself being changed to incorporate such a hybrid.

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Community Versus The Individual

The Peasants hand-painted style is arresting and distinctive.The Peasants hand-painted style is arresting and distinctive.

Alisa Ruddell wrote a masterful and in-depth review of the visually stunning animated film The Peasants for Christ and Pop Culture. The movie follows a woman named Jagna, whose promiscuity threatens the social fabric of her community in rural Poland around the turn of the last century. The use of the movie’s contemporary changes cast against the original book it was based upon provides fertile ground for illustrating changes in society.

Such leanings—of the past towards communal responsibilities, and of the present towards individual rights—are no surprise. The discrepancy convinced me that the movie should be watched and the book read in tandem, to prevent us from imagining our moral progress” over the past. We aren’t better than peasant communities which stigmatized rule-breakers: we just value mobility over accountability, and we have a different set of rules that makes heroes out of non-conformists and paints disruption as a virtue.


The greatest danger is the invisible one, which is often the flipside of what garners all the attention. Our culture is obsessed with individual freedom and terrified of losing it. In our blind spot is the life of communal connectedness and relational obligation which has been disintegrating for centuries, and which cannot exist without limiting personal freedom.

In college, I wrote a paper for a history class on the controversy over the preaching of Anne Hutchinson that pitted her against the Puritan establishment in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Hutchinson had been a bold and effective preacher, but her leadership and attacks on the establishment threatened the unity of the fledgling colony, which relied on their faith traditions for cohesiveness in a hostile and unfamiliar environment. The controversy made rivals out of Hutchinson and John Winthrop, the governor of the colony. Eventually, after a trial, Hutchinson was banished from Massachusetts Bay.

While the earlier sources that I cited in the paper almost uniformly sympathized with Winthrop and the need for the community to be united, the later sources sided with Hutchinson and the dictates of her conscience. The shift in thinking paralleled a change in a society that placed primary importance on the thriving of society as a whole and one in which the individual is the focus.

Ruddell writes about just how far this shift has gone.

This idea has made us victims of its success. Our chief danger now is the opposite: normalcy is a reproach. To be a maverick, to be queer, to be your true self,” to have your unique identity hallowed by society—this is the new normal. Traditional” has become a slur, and rebellion (once a tool of justice) is cherished for its own sake.

The analogy of the early New England settlement is admittedly imperfect. Hutchinson was a committed Christian who was compelled by her conscience to preach, whereas the protagonist of The Peasants, Jagna, seems to be driven mostly by her own desires. However, the comparison is sufficient to draw out some introspection around the changes in our moral reasoning and what we owe to our communities versus our desires for personal autonomy and individual freedom.

I recently resubscribed to Christ and Pop Culture precisely for this kind of commentary. While I don’t consider myself a pop culture aficionado by any means, I recognize the usefulness of our shared narratives in discussions around contemporary moral issues. This is particularly helpful in contemplating Christian beliefs against a backdrop of rapidly changing values. Analysis of art can build a bridge between two distinct cultures. You can check out subscription offers here.

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What We Do Now

The new J. Mascis album, What We Do Now dropped recently, and has garnered a fair amount of attention. Though it’s expected that a solo album by Mascis will be a lower-key affair than a Dinosaur Jr. album, this isn’t the case with his latest effort under his own name. The songs have a bit more rock in their roll, though Robert Barry observes for the Quietus that doesn’t necessarily mean that you are going to be banging your head or that you will hear one of these tunes on the next Jock Jams compilation.1

But there has always been something kind of off about the kind of rock you get from Mascis. You can’t quite imagine it blasting out of a truck or playing over the credits in a Tom Cruise picture. No tubs are thumped. No fists are pumped. No-one is going to fly into a war zone blasting this. You would lose. Even the guitar solos conjure less the cliff-edge and stiff breeze of Slash’s bit in the Guns n’ Roses videos; more like someone in a confined space wrangling with something. Like a man in a cupboard with a raccoon and a live wire.

Mascis leans into his strengths on this album. His world-weary, cracked vocals have a distinctiveness that is hard to match. As a reviewer for the Trouser Press Record Guide once wrote of Dinosaur Jr.’s cover of the Cure’s Just Like Heaven,” When Masic sings, I must have been asleep for days,’ you really believe him.” His guest musicians also augment the vibe, with Matthew Doc” Dunn and his steel guitar complementing the forlorn vocals in just the right places.

I won’t say that Mascis has a lot of new tricks up his sleeve, but perhaps all some of us need right now is to hear from a comfortable favorite. Take a listen below.

  1. Though I’m not sure they still make those.↩︎

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I’ve loved the fourth track on the Small Black record, Limits of Desire ever since the album was released over a decade ago. It was a clear standout, a highly stylized, dreamy ode to a woman who could probably be described as a free spirit.” The song is based on a real person. As is revealed in the anniversary reissue of Limits of Desire, Sophie” can perhaps be even better understood as the spiritual successor to Somebody’s Baby,” the Jackson Browne track that anchored Fast Times At Ridgemont High.

Small Black - Sophie (live)

Small Black is just wrapping up a tour for the tenth anniversary of Limits Of Desire.

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Credit to someone named Scissorsaurus, who no longer appears to have an active siteCredit to someone named Scissorsaurus, who no longer appears to have an active site

I don’t always read Freddie deBoer because he can sometimes be a bit… well, mean. At the same time, I have to admit that he’s one of the most interesting and insightful cultural critics we’ve got. If you have the stomach to read one more think piece on the bizarre national divide over Taylor Swift, it should probably be his.

deBoer is fully aware of the ridiculousness of this story and the breathless reporting on it. If that were the extent of it, I could take or leave his writing on the subject. In the piece, though, he also gets into the tendency in late-stage capitalism to see ourselves through our consumption choices. This has been fascinating and appalling to come to grips with in the last couple of years.

The story represents so much of the detritus of a broken culture: you’ve got the replacement of a nuthouse Jesus-is-coming right wing with a paranoiac and obsessive the-Jews-are-coming right wing, the increasingly deranged worship of celebrity, the endless retreat into a exhausting political binarism, the contemporary liberal urge to treat immensely powerful people as underdogs, the era of mandated artistic populism, the triviality of American collapse, the overwhelming fear people in the media have of looking old. But I want to focus specifically on a topic related to all of that, which is treating consumption as a substitute for politics. This is one of the clearer examples of the way that many people, many political people, now unthinkingly presume that their politics is simply a function of their capitalist consumption, their brand affinities. Who you are is what you buy. (emphasis mine)

I suppose this metaphysical take on capitalism isn’t completely new. Anyone who has seen the footage of screaming fans wherever the Beatles found themselves (which is everyone) can probably identify with that. Pop culture is loaded with meta-references to worship of pop culture. There was a man named Ove who defined himself by the brand of car he drove.1 It’s just that this kind of self-definition has reached a level of intensity heretofore unimagined, due mostly to the lack of substance in our lives. Sometimes, stripped of meaning and anything but materialism, consumption is all we have.

The world is a sad and broken place and I forgive people for wanting to invest meaningless symbols with great moral valence. I acknowledge that the collapse of meaning has been real and total and that such lofty celebrity can look, to the adolescent brain (literally or metaphorically adolescent) like a good place to park your beliefs, your need, your palpable longing. As with so many other parts of our culture, the question is whether we want to actively encourage perpetual adolescence. Brodesser-Akner calls Swift fans a community with a shared, ardent sense of purpose,” and while this is also true of literal cults, I am sympathetic. And I suppose there’s nothing wrong with using cultural consumption as a predictor for someone’s politics, if you’re on Bumble or whatever.

There used to be a show on NPR where people would make recordings about the things they loved the most and the beliefs which drove their lives. It was called This I Believe. I’ll always remember the intro, which featured an audio collage of snippets of the show’s participants listing their beliefs. One man, in a confident voice, proclaimed, I believe in barbecue.” I can’t have been the only one wondering how far a devotion to BBQ gets you when you find out you have cancer or are holding your dead child in your arms.2 When consumption defines your belief system, though, I guess meat is as good of an idol as a pop star.

  1. Okay, A Man Called Ove was a work of fiction, but the protagonist’s but it’s not like his love of Saab and dislike of basically anyone who drove anything else felt real enough.↩︎

  2. Both things that I have unfortunately experienced.↩︎

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