New essay published: "Sacraments, Technology, and Streaming Worship in a Pandemic"

I've got a new piece published over at Mere Orthodoxy called "Sacraments, Technology, and Streaming Worship in a Pandemic." In it I use the work of Neil Postman and Robert Jenson to think about the meaning and "communicability" of sacramental liturgy via mass media and digital technology, then draw some conclusions for streaming worship online today, separated as we are from public gatherings of Christ's body. I also come down pretty hard against celebrating the Lord's Supper during this unusual time of "social distancing." I hope it's useful for others, even and especially those who disagree. Blessings, and stay safe out there y'all.

A clarification on streaming worship

Earlier today I wrote a post reflecting on the phenomenon of churches streaming worship to their members quarantined at home and the difference that catholic and evangelical traditions of worship make for what that means. My brother, who is a pastor, called me up and shared that he thought either that the post was in poor taste or that it was hastily and unclearly written, and might communicate the opposite of what I was intending. So I took it down, and I'll be thinking here in the next few days about whether there's a way to revise or rewrite what I had in mind. But let me say a few things about what I was attempting to articulate, especially for those who read the original post while it was up.

1. I wanted to think theologically about what is happening when Christians live-stream worship, whether that means a sermon, a praise band, mass, or the divine liturgy.

2. I wanted to observe how catholic traditions represent one rationale for streaming worship: the need for a priest…

A word on Better Call Saul

A brief comment on Better Call Saul, prompted by Alan Jacobs' post this morning:

I think the show rightly understands that Kim is, or has become, the covert protagonist of the show, and by the end, we (with the writers) will similarly come to understand that the story the show has been telling has always been about her fall. No escape, no extraction, no pull-back before the cliff: she, like Jimmy, like Mike, like Nacho, like Walter, like Jesse, like Skyler, lacks the will ultimately and decisively to will the good. They're all fallen; and in a way, they were all fallen even before the time came to choose.

In this way the so-called expanded Breaking Bad universe has made itself (unwittingly?) into a dramatic parable of original sin. Not that there is no good; not that characters do not want to do good. But they're all trapped in quicksand, and the more they struggle, the deeper they sink.

The hatred of theology

In the latest issue of The Point, Jon Baskin writes on behalf of the magazine's editors about what he calls "the hatred of literature." By this team he means the attitude—apparently dominant in English departments a couple decades ago and imbibed by graduate students across the land—that the study of literature exists not to appreciate its multifarious goodnesses and beauties, rooted in love for the object of study, but instead to uncover, unmask, and indict the social, moral, and political problems belonging to its conditions of production. The novel or poem is therefore not an object at all, that is to say, an end, but a means to a larger, political end; criticism thus becomes an instrument of political advocacy. The work of literary art plays no role in calling me or my convictions into question. Rather, the critic measures the work by the correctness of its views or its capacity to activate social change (for the better, that is, more or less in line with my priors),…

"Unique": absolute or relative?

Apropos of nothing, it's always bugged me that, grammatically speaking, the modifier "unique" is not supposed to be modified adverbially (as in "relatively" or "somewhat" or "nearly" unique). Instead, either "unique" is absolute or, by definition, it is simply not unique. I recall reading something by David Foster Wallace about this years ago.

Isn't it the case, though, that nothing is absolutely unique? Rather, anything is unique relative to some qualifier, property, activity, or question. Otherwise, it would follow that everything is unique—because nothing is itself but itself—or nothing is, with the exception of God, who alone (existing a se and in se and thus non est in genere) is actually unique in an absolute sense.

I understand the desire to want to mitigate popular usage of "unique" as a less powerful adjective than it ought to be; used colloquially, and always modified by synonyms of "partially," it…

An amendment to the amendment

If you couldn't tell, I've spent a good part of 2019 trying to figure out what to do with Twitter. I limited my time on it, I nixed tweeting, I cut out all but Saturdays, I basically exited for two months. Then a few weeks ago, after seeing friends at AAR in San Diego whom I had "met" via Twitter, I decided to amend my tech-wise policy and dip my toe back into the service. And once the semester I ended, I allowed myself to get back on a bit more while home for the Christmas break.

Following all that experimentation, I think I'm back to where I was last May. That is, at the macro level, the world would unquestionably be better off without Twitter in it, because Twitter as a system or structure is broken and unfixable. But at the micro level, the truth is that my experience on that otherwise diabolical website is almost uniformly positive. Aside from the "itch" that results from any social media participation—an itch that is not conducive to the life of t…

On Episode IX

Well, it happened. Abrams didn't even rise to his own best level. He capped off a 42-year cinematic saga with a stinker so bad that it sullies not only the new trilogy he helped to launch but his own reputation as a filmmaker.

I thought I'd avoid writing about the film, but instead of spending time on Twitter or Slack, let me just share my thoughts here.

What makes The Rise of Skywalker so bad? Well, there are multiple levels of badness involved.


First is the filmmaking itself. This was the most shocking thing about IX. I knew Abrams would go for nostalgia and servicing fandom. I figured he'd undermine VIII. I didn't know he would make such a straightforwardly bad movie, one alternately boring (the guy next to me on opening night fell asleep) and poorly told (my wife can't be the only one who found it difficult to follow).

The opening 30 minutes in particular move so fast, across so many worlds and plot points and characters old and new…

The 11 Best Hour-Long TV Dramas of the Decade (2010–2019)

A few months back I posted this list to Twitter, but I thought I'd re-post it here, with a bit more commentary, as well as a reshuffling due to Mr. Robot's outstanding fourth season.

First, to the rules. This is a list of hour-long dramas: so no half-hour genre-exploders (Atlanta, Louie) or comedies (Parks and Rec, Brooklyn 99). I'm also only thinking of TV series, with discrete seasons that tell something of a unified narrative: thus excluding miniseries (e.g. The Honourable Woman) and specialty shows (a la Sherlock or Black Mirror). Further, in order to qualify the series must have at least three seasons to its name (so The Knick falls short and both Succession and Yellowstone ran out of time before decade's end). Seasons prior to 2010, however—such as Mad Men's first three or Breaking Bad's first two—don't count for the purposes of this list. I am solely considering television seasons comprising hour-long dramatic episodes shown or streamed between 2010 …

With Mr. Robot till the end

The TV show Mr. Robot ends its four-season run in six days.* It began four and a half years ago, in the summer of 2015. It didn't exactly begin with a bang, but the whimper of its premiere (if I may mix metaphors) snowballed into one by its first season finale. Its seemingly omnipresent, omniscient mastermind of a creator Sam Esmail appeared to be the Next Big Thing in TV: a child of 90s cinema, he was and is Fincher and Spielberg and Soderbergh and PTA and Tarantino all—at least aspirationally—rolled into one. Eventually writer-director of every single episode—40 in total by series' end—the show is the complete vision of a self-styled auteur if ever there was one.

The second season lost much of the good will and momentum generated by the first. Sprawling, dense, literally and figuratively dark, trapped for much of its time in Elliot's mind: both critics and viewers in notable numbers dropped the show then, or so it appears from online commentary and anecdotal conversation…

A Twitter amendment

Last weekend I was in San Diego for the annual meeting of AAR/SBL, and (as has become my custom) I mostly saw old friends and new acquaintances. Most of the latter I have "met" online; most of those "meetings" were on Twitter.

Tomorrow marks 8 weeks since I began my experiment with decreasing my Twitter usage: zero time on that infernal website Sunday through Friday, and 30 minutes or fewer on Saturday; moreover, no active tweeting (original, RT, replies, etc.) on any day of the week: only occasional links to something I've written.

After San Diego, I'm reconsidering my experiment, or rather, considering an amendment to it. I think I'm going to try a modest "return" to being an active rather than passive user on Twitter, albeit within the same time and use constraints I've already set for myself. That is: limit both reading and tweeting to Saturdays, for 30 minutes or so, but become a sort of power-user for that half-hour of time: sharing t…