Cautionary Tales

I wish I’d had this ready for yesterday.

A little over 20 years ago, I asked myself a question that ended up changing my life. The question was based on C.S. Lewis’s haunting book The Great Divorce. Given a chance at heaven, most deceased hellions, already having experienced hell, rejected heaven, and they rejected it based on the habits of their hearts, formed in life.

The question I asked myself was “what are you doing to form habits of the heart that would make eternity in God’s presence heavenly instead of hellish?” I had a Calvinist form of Christian faith, to be sure, but whether by my fault, or that of my pastors, or simply providentially, this question just hadn’t registered usefully before. There’s even a strain in Calvinism that would snort and say I’m now (at best) semi-Pelagian, but that’s caricature Calvinism, methinks, and my pastors weren’t caricatures.

This came to the front of my mind because of events over the last week.


Last Monday reportedly brought a stunning performance on the Late Show with Stephen Colbert:

Sometimes pop culture seems completely prepackaged and professionalized, so when somebody steps out and puts on a display of vulnerability, trust and humility, it takes your breath away.

That’s what Chance the Rapper did on Monday on “The Late Show With Stephen Colbert.” He debuted a new, untitled song, but which is about the perils of stardom — which is what you’d sing about if you were 24 and you’d blown up so big.

He begins, not completely originally, by implying a contrast between pop stardom and the actual stars spread across the universe, between celebrity success and the vastness of God.

Then he compares his own first-world problems with actual problems (“stone mattresses, thin blankets, really long winters spent in a windbreaker”). But his problems are still real and they have to do with the strains on his intimate life. (“I’m a rich excuse for a father. You just can’t tour a toddler. She’s turning 2. She don’t need diapers, she just need a papa. … My daughter barely recognizes me when I lose the hat.”)

The first part of the song is about how success is threatening his relationships (“I think my little cousins want their cousin back. The automatic quarterback who doesn’t rap.”). Then it changes mood with each verse. There’s his love-hate relationship with his own ambition, his ambivalence about his own complacent fans. The chorus is: “The day is on its way, it couldn’t wait no more. Here it comes, here it comes, ready or not.”

But David Brooks had a contrast in mind, too:

It’s interesting to compare Chance’s song with Taylor Swift’s new song, “Look What You Made Me Do,” which is also about a young star coping with celebrity. The former stands out from the current cultural moment; the latter embodies it. Swift is a phenomenally talented and beautiful songwriter who has lost touch with herself and seems to have been swallowed by the ethos of the Trump era.

The video to that song, which has been watched 478 million times on YouTube so far, contains a string of references to Swift’s various public beefs — with Kanye West, Kim Kardashian, Katy Perry, and so on. If Donald Trump or his political enemies made a video about their Twitter wars, it would look like this.

The crucial lyric is “I don’t trust nobody and nobody trusts me.” The world is full of snakes. The only way to survive is through combat. (“I got smarter. I got harder in the nick of time.”)

The first thing you notice in comparing the Chance and Swift songs is the difference between a person and a brand. A lot of young people I know talk about “working on their brand,” and sometimes I wish that word had never been invented.

What habits of the heart is Taylor Swift forming by working her brand? Chance the Rapper?


This week also brought the death of Hugh Hefner.

I’ve long detested his legacy. But I assumed that he was “livin’ his dream,” the dream that was part of the Playboy brand, which Hef worked well and which made him a lot of money. But it turns out, if one Holly Madison is to be believed, that Hef’s sexual tastes were more Hustler (or worse) than Playboy. If you haven’t heard her stories about the aging wanker’s “sex” life, I’ll spare you (and spare myself having to go back to cut and paste some very distasteful stuff). Suffice that Hef’s life could illustrate the theories (a) that porn is addictive, and requires ever “stronger” doses for anything simulating satisfaction and (b) that porn screws with your real-life relationships, too, reducing real intimacy.

He had his brand down pat. He had me snowed that he was at least enjoying many of the young women around him. Now “enjoy” seems too strong a word.

What would hellion Hef do if given a shot at heaven, but without his bimbos and satyriasis? Well, what habits has he formed in his heart?


Or our Narcissist-in-Chief, who late last week in a series of Tweets from a golf course, fer cryin’ out loud, told Puerto Rico to go to hell:

“Such poor leadership ability by the mayor of San Juan, and others in Puerto Rico, who are not able to get their workers to help,” Mr. Trump said. “They want everything to be done for them when it should be a community effort.”

I agree that this may be his nadir, though there have been 8 months of vulgarities to compete with it.

I’m not, in this blog, lamenting that he’s POTUS. I’m asking what kind of man is our POTUS? What are the habits of his heart?

It’s clear that Donald Trump has a lucrative brand (one that, unlike Hef, never attracted me for a moment), but does he still have a soul to speak of?

Given a tour of heaven, would he call it a “dump” and get back on the bus to the other place? Would he stay only on condition that it be re-branded a Trump facility?


What possible human motive could there be for such violence? Thank God for the courage and brilliance of the police who took down this coward, who had to use explosives to blow out the door …

… a coward who assaulted a vulnerable crowd with 10 minutes of machine-gun fire, hundreds of rounds … like, as one commentator said, with no little jejune irony, “shooting into a barrel of fish.”

I really don’t care what pain or sorrow this wretch experienced in his life to prompt him to such evil. Evil is not justified by evil.

But if you want to look for causes, I’ll tell you this. This is due to anger, pure and simple. If you have a culture and a world that is constantly inflamed by denunciation, offense, and complaint, then this sort of carnage is not only possible, but increasingly likely.

Because it is not human at all to shoot into a barrel of fish, if the fish happen to be thousands of people at a country music concert.

Humans — being human — are simply not able to do such a thing. What is required for such evil is non-human assistance. To get this assistance is easy, sad to say.

Just keep yourself pissed off long enough, and you too can grow up to become a shooter (literally or figuratively). You’ll get your superpowers soon enough, especially if you classify yourself at odds with the rest of humanity.

If Christians want to make a difference in this age of rage and insanity (and patent anti-wisdom), then their best “option” is to swear off anger, to stop self-conscious tribe-speak, to stop waving banners, to be peacemakers, to be meek, to be poor in spirit, to hunger and thirst for righteousness, to be pure in heart, not revolutionary.

Pray for Las Vegas … and Catalonia … and Marseilles … and Nigeria and Congo and Burma and North Korea and Mexico and the Caribbean and etc and etc …

Bože moj. The times are difficult enough what with natural disasters. The last thing we need (and have too much of) are angry human beings prostituting themselves to devils.

(Fr. Jonathan Tobias on Facebook, emphasis added)

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So there you have it. Three Four cautionary tales.

What habits of the heart are you forming? Influenced by a strong strain of teaching in Orthodoxy, I’ve come to think over the last 20 years that God is gracious and loves mankind — “No Exceptions” as the bumper sticker says. But we don’t all love him back, not even a little.

That strain of teaching in Orthodoxy suggests that we’ll all spend eternity in God’s presence, but some will perceive it as searing heat rather than glorious light. And what we do about God’s love, in forming habits of the heart, may make the difference.

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“Liberal education is concerned with the souls of men, and therefore has little or no use for machines … [it] consists in learning to listen to still and small voices and therefore in becoming deaf to loudspeakers.” (Leo Strauss)

There is no epistemological Switzerland. (Via Mars Hill Audio Journal Volume 134)

Some succinct standing advice on recurring themes.