A Faithless House–Religion in Fox’s “House”

Berny Belvedere is a professor of philosophy and a writer based in Miami, Florida. Follow him @bernybelvedere on Twitter. Check out more of his writings at www.belvyland.com.

It’s a strange thing that over 177 episodes scattered across eight seasons Fox’s “House,” a show fascinated by philosophical and ethical problems, never once introduces us to a sophisticated believer. To be sure, Hugh Laurie’s Dr. House encounters plenty of proponents of traditional views, yet not one of them is able to offer a credible account of their faith able to withstand House’s relentless rationality.

It is certainly possible that in years of engaging with others on matters of religion and ethics, a man as brilliant as Dr. House never comes across a formidable opponent. After all, intellectual reflection is not exactly a hallmark of religious experience in America. Our culture teems with forms of spirituality, with professions of belief in a higher power, yet this commitment is a mile wide and an inch deep. Still, why wouldn’t more thoughtful approaches to these views ever make an appearance given that Dr. House sometimes spars with those whom you’d expect to have better answers? Continue reading

On Tinder and Why It’s OK to Commodify Sex

In the aftermath of last week’s Vanity Fair story on Tinder and the end of dating there was no shortage of hand-wringing by many readers who were, rightly, appalled at what they found in the story. But upon reflection it seems odd that it would be this particular story that elicits such strong reactions from readers. In many ways the story being told is not new. We have had dating apocalypse stories for far longer than we’ve had Tinder, after all. And when you shift from the anecdotal approach used by Nancy Jo Sales, the author of the original piece, and toward more comprehensive data sets the resulting picture is much more complex than Sales’s story would suggest. Continue reading

Twitter Is Like Elizabeth Bennet’s Meryton

I’m quite pleased to feature this piece from Mere Fidelity contributor Alastair Roberts today. You can follow him on Twitter here or read his personal blog here

‘A Truth Universally Acknowledged…’

In a 1997 article on communal judgment in Pride and Prejudice, William Deresiewicz observed that Pride and Prejudice is, at first glance, an apparent exception to Austen’s practice of opening her novels by introducing a central character.(1) Indeed, Elizabeth Bennet’s character doesn’t truly come to the foreground until around the sixth chapter. Closer examination, however, reveals that there is a central character introduced at the beginning of the novel: the community, with its values, expectations, conventions, and practices. The opening sentence of the book—‘It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife’—is a ‘mock aphorism’, which is swiftly exposed to be nothing but a judgment that is ‘well fixed in the minds of the surrounding families’ of the neighbourhood. The earlier episodes of the story focus upon the neighbourhood of Meryton and its collective consciousness, which emerges as Mr Bingley and his friends move to Netherfield and become known to the community of the local gentry, most particularly in the opening ball. Deresiewicz remarks: ‘Elizabeth cannot appear until well into this initial story because it is that story—the story of how a community thinks, talks, exerts influence—that produces her plot, that produces her’ (504). Continue reading

The Evolution of Blogs and the Future of Mere O

If the conventional blog wasn’t dead before The Dish’s demise, the shuttering of Andrew Sullivan’s iconic internet publishing venture surely signaled the end of traditional blogging. Once an intriguing new publishing form that shunned the norms of traditional journalism for a more personal and—wretched word—”edgy” tone, the blog has now basically died with only a few odd examples that are holding on. These days many classic traits we associate with blogs are simply normal parts of more conventional online publishing. Continue reading

A Resignation Letter

Let me get this out of the way, so no one else has to say it:  “Farewell, Matthew Lee Anderson.” Effective immediately, I am stepping down as Lead Writer of Mere Orthodoxy and handing full control of the site over to Jake Meador. He will assume responsibility for all aspects of the site. If he makes me “Emeritus Writer,” well, I won’t turn him down. I am also indefinitely departing from Twitter, though I will be carrying on with Mere Fidelity.  Whenever we get off our summer holiday, that is (which should be next week).

Eleven years ago, a friend and advisor told me that I should begin a ‘blog,’ a new medium that was democratizing discourse and opening up career paths for people who knew nothing about the traditional means of rising the ranks in publishing. I gathered a few close friends, took my inspiration from C.S. Lewis and G.K. Chesterton, and Mere Orthodoxy was born. It’s impossible for me to sum up everything this site has meant to my life since that day: we have never been famous or had a large audience. But our small size was one of our greatest strengths, especially in those early years. I was so young, and a barely adequate writer and thinker then, but somehow a small and extremely intelligent community formed and we argued and argued and argued together. Those years were crucial for my formation as a writer and as a person. And now that I am a decade older and still a barely adequate but much more verbose writer, I still don’t have the skills to say how much this ‘place’ means to me. Deciding to step down was the single most difficult decision I have made in a long time. Continue reading

Don Draper is an Ad, Man

Mad Men, one of the best television shows in history, will always be known as “more than just a show about advertising,” in the same way Friday Night Lights is “more than just a show about football.” And yet Mad Men is, in an important sense, about advertising. Its characters, relationships, themes and mood should all be viewed through the lens of advertising.

I’ve done some work in advertising. I’ve written ads, developed slogans, pitched concepts. I know that advertising is about positioning something in the most attractive light, selling the idealized version of it, convincing people that their lives would be improved by purchasing it. Though some advertising is flat-out deceptive, in most cases there is at least some connection between “how it’s sold” and “what it is.” But the reality is that “what it is” rarely lives up to its advertised billing.

But isn’t this how humans live? Particularly today, with the aid of social media posturing and Photoshop touchups, our existential inclination to “sell” an idealized version of our self is easier than ever. Mad Men is set in a pre-Instagram world, but the disconnect between true identity and projected ideal is central to most of the story arcs of its characters, none more than Don Draper (Jon Hamm) himself.

Don Draper isn’t real; he’s an advertisement. He’s an ad man who is also an ad, man. He is a story Dick Whitman is telling about America and self-made men. He is a Gatsby-esque myth of building an identity from scratch, becoming very rich and attractive, a well-dressed, well-coiffed, well-spoken ad man who women want and men want to be. But as we see so vividly throughout the seven seasons of Mad Men, the real Don Draper (Dick Whitman) is a broken, messy, vulnerable man. In the same way that he sells some toxic things (cigarettes, the eventual undoing of his ex-wife Betty) in attractive packaging through his Lucky Strike ads in the pilot episode, Don is from the very beginning selling himself in the same way: A cool, confident, necessary, powerful man. Yet he’s empty inside, severely broken and far less composed than he lets on. To his wives, his kids, his many mistresses and colleagues, Don frequently falls short of the “as advertised” ideal.

But there is another way Don Draper is a metaphor for advertising. Advertising is about commodification. It’s about leveraging real emotion to drive transactions. In the transitional era of advertising which Mad Men depicts, advertising begins to blur the lines between real human feelings and financial transactions.

It’s fitting, then, that Don Draper’s experience of life, emotion and relationships is largely transactional. It’s about earning and payment, giving and getting. Having been raised in a whorehouse, Don’s skewed sense of romance is deeply informed by literal transactions: “love” for a price. This manifests itself throughout the show as he struggles to view women beyond this “transactional” sense, viewing them (and himself) as simply commodities being exchanged. In both love and advertising, Don is painfully aware that what is bought is never satisfying, yet he can’t seem to live in any other way. Is there something else to life beyond the give-and-take transaction?

The show’s final episodes [spoilers from here on] end with Don on a last-ditch search for that “something else.” His cross-country roadtrip — reminiscent of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road or any of a number of 1970s road movies (e.g. Easy Rider, Two-Lane Blacktop) — leads him to a hippie commune on the California coast. It is here, in the series finale, aptly titled “Person-to-Person,” that Don comes to an epiphany: Relationships needn’t be transactional; love needn’t be bought. Connection can be free, a grace given and received between two people, so long as they are willing to set aside pride, be vulnerable and accept love.

This epiphany may or may not inspire in Don the idea for the relationally altruistic Coke commercial (“I’d like to buy the world a Coke”) that is the show’s final scene; regardless, the lesson is learned. Up until the final moments of the series, Don is still stuck in the transactional framework. He sleeps with a girl early in the final episode and pays her. He phones Betty with hopes of offering her something (“I’m coming home”) only to be denied. He hands a wad of cash to the woman who shows him to his room at the commune (“You are so generous!”). He needs to be needed. (See his $1 million check to ex-wife Megan in episode 708, “Severance”).

Don’s armor begins to break when he makes an operator-assisted, “person-to-person” call to Peggy, the woman on the show who knows him most truly. As he lays himself bare to Peggy ( “I broke all my vows. I scandalized by child. I took another man’s name and made nothing of it.”), she responds with grace. And yet Don is not yet in a place to accept it. He hangs up before she can talk him off the proverbial ledge.

This is but one of many “person-to-person” phone calls in the episode, “connections” that come with a cost to the caller (literally) in the transactional sense. Don also calls his daughter Sally and wife Betty. Joan calls Peggy. Peggy calls Stan. Notably, many of these conversations are followed up later with in-person, “free” connections: Joan meets Peggy at a restaurant. Stan leaves his phone-call with Peggy mid-stream and runs to see her in person. The episode is pushing us to see the true, non-transactional magic of in-person, vulnerable connection.

Indeed, Don fully cracks only in the physical presence of a stranger, Leonard, whose monologue at the retreat causes Don to break down and embrace a man he doesn’t know but deeply understands. Leonard’s monologue resonates with Don: feeling unnecessary, unable to receive love unless he is giving as much as he gets. “No one cares that I’m gone,” says Leonard, who describes a dream where he is a product in a refrigerator that no one ever reaches for. Something clicks for Don, who has heretofore struggled to receive love freely given, when Leonard describes his own inability to understand and accept love: “You spend your whole life thinking you’re not getting it, that people aren’t giving it to you. Then you realize they’re trying, and you don’t even know what it is.”

When Don gets up and wraps his arms around Leonard — two broken men in awkward, ugly-cry embrace — it is as beautiful a picture of grace as has ever been seen on the show, reminiscent perhaps of the tender embrace of Don and Peggy in episode 706 (“The Strategy”). It is an embrace that signals release, freedom, the willingness to let the “real self” be known and to lay aside the “advertised self.” It is an embrace that allows Don to receive grace, to go back to New York (if that is indeed what he does) debt-free.Don and Leonard

Similar moments in “Person-to-Person” happen with other characters who, in the midst of the messiness of the past, forgive one another and accept grace, person-to-person: Former lovers Joan and Roger share a laugh and wish each other well (though note how this also has a “transactional” layer as Roger leaves part of his fortune to Joan and her son). Pete and Trudy reconcile and start afresh. Roger and Marie choose each other in marriage, amidst their bickering and flaws. Peggy allows herself to accept Stan’s love.

As the series ends with what will become one of television’s all time most iconic shots (“Smiling Zen Don Draper”), Don appears to have found redemption. Yet it doesn’t come from within, as the guru’s transcendental meditation suggests (“New day. New ideas. New you. Ommmmm.”) It comes from Don’s moment of weakness and vulnerability in allowing himself to be accepted: not as a product that needs a slick advertisement in order to be chosen, but as a sinner who knows he needs grace.

Bill Simmons, ESPN, and the New Writing Economy

It’s perhaps fitting, given the shape of his career, that the news of ESPN’s decision to fire Bill Simmons could manage to be both a surprise and completely predictable. (Yes, I know he wasn’t technically fired but when your boss tells the nation’s largest paper he isn’t renewing your contract without first telling you then we’re talking about something more than an amicable parting of ways.) Simmons, of course, is one of the pioneers of online writing, the man who did for sports writing what Andrew Sullivan and Ezra Klein have done for political blogging.

Continue reading

What Zlatan Ibrahimovic Taught Me About Enchantment

It’s a commonplace amongst a certain type of trad conservative to talk about the need to “re-enchant” our understanding of the world. What they usually mean by this is some version of an argument, influenced deeply by Charles Taylor, that we moderns experience creation as something near to us and mostly comprehensible. There is little mysterious about it and what little that is mysterious today likely won’t be tomorrow.

Within such a context, religious belief can seem like a mere personal vanity at best and as something foreign, insensible, and dangerous at worst. And so we religious types need to find ways of reenchanting creation so that we can see it with the sense of awe that came to us so naturally before the scientific revolution.

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Material Dimensions of Spiritual Friendship

Wesley Hill’s new book Spiritual Friendship is not an easy read. It’s short, yes, coming in at under 150 pages. But in that space Hill manages to be disquieting on a subject that is often taken for granted–specifically, the question of how we form and maintain intimate friendships. Part historical survey, part Biblical analysis, and part personal reflection, Spiritual Friendship manages to be informative and insightful but also unnerving and challenging. Rather than a full review, I’d like to briefly summarize the themes in the book and then respond to some of the questions that it raises. Since Wesley grounded his exploration of friendship in his experiences and friendships, I’d like to do the same as I recount some of what my wife and I have learned from our time in inner-city Baltimore.sf-book-cover

The first part of the book looks at the situation we are in with regards to friendship, using the author’s own experience as a celibate gay Christian as a jumping-off point for how much more anemic our honor of friendship is now–particularly same-sex friendships– than they apparently used to be. He assigns as much blame for the decline in friendship’s power and privilege to the modern instinct that boils every interaction down to its sexual nature as he does to the reactionary traditionalism that wants to elevate marriage well beyond all other human relationships. What we’re left with nowadays is friendship as purely voluntary, thus making the idea of intimacy and mutual comfort wholly dependent on the whims of our friends. Wesley’s Christianity Today cover story from last year covers many of these same themes in a more compressed fashion, which lead to a great discussion of vowed friendships in particular here at Mere Fidelity.

In the second half of the book, Wesley gets more personal as he looks at how difficult these intimate friendships are to build and maintain. Regardless of one’s stance on questions of gay identity, it is hard not to be moved by the quandary he puts forth: gay and lesbian Christians who choose to honor the Biblical teaching by remaining celibate (and all Christians who don’t marry) are shut out of the intimate companionship that marriage provides– erotic or not– and so far have been left to their own devices to find ways to ameliorate the attendant loneliness and isolation they face.1 He relates the moving story of how one particular friendship fell apart and concludes the book with a chapter about how his local church has been trying to find ways to foster friendship–and how powerful the Eucharist in particular can be in unifying us as a community. However, these relationships are still incredibly vulnerable to the mobility many of now experience as we transition from wherever we grew up to wherever we study to wherever we find a job thereafter. While never really resolving the tension inherent in this mobility, he emphasizes the importance of friendships that require serious commitment to one another, particularly as they give us the opportunity to suffer together and share in the burdens that come to all believers–not just the celibate.

There’s obviously a lot more in the book than what I’ve summarized above, but I want to emphasize that the book left this reader feeling incomplete, asking more questions than when I started. I suspect that this is by design, though it is a book that stands on its own even as it complements the body of work accumulating at the blog Wesley helped to start (http://spiritualfriendship.org/). The three lines of thought I’d like to explore are: What else has fueled our cultural denigration of friendship besides our changing cultural mores, and can we change these upstream factors? How do we think about intimate spiritual friendships across class lines, and is there a particular call to suffer there? Finally, to what degree does our understanding of the local church and its mission affect how we forge our friendships– or is it the other way around?

As with many historical blindspots, it’s easy to think that marriage’s preeminence in human society has always given our romantic relationships the same cultural baggage we see now. Wesley makes the case, on the contrary, that friendship has shifted “from a public, tangibly beneficial relationship to a private one that [has] no agreed-upon aims or ends other than the continuance of the mutual attraction itself.” I agree that this is how we tend to look at friendship (and that it’s bad for us), but I think that the same statement could be applied just as well to the relationships we have with our neighbors, family members, and even spouses.

What’s more, the hollowing out of intimate relationships doesn’t just marginalize sexual minorities. The plague of loneliness isolates older people and puts them at higher risk for death or disability. The mentally ill suffer from social exclusion and stigma that only makes them more vulnerable. Even one’s socioeconomic status is clearly affected by one’s relationships–all of which I see every day in my inner-city medical practice. There’s a work of art in my office made by a patient describing one of the worst parts about homelessness: “Nobody cares what you do.” The poignant fantasy that keeps recurring in Wesley’s book is that of coming home to an empty apartment at age 60–but that is reality for more and more people who are disconnected from their communities and families. Wesley makes the case very well that this is a huge issue facing those who have chosen lifelong celibacy (and he uses new parents several times as an example of people who struggle with loneliness), but his analysis is equally relevant to others whose life circumstances or health will isolate them. Thus, the questions he raises in his book regarding how to make friendship better are all the more important for us to face in the church today.

I think a lot of this decline in human relationships can be traced to individualism and consumer culture, and I’d argue that our uncritical use of technology and social mobility make this worse by giving us more power to isolate ourselves from the unlovable.2 However, it’s worth noting that architecture and economics play crucial roles here as well: if we don’t design the places that we live in order to interact with one another, we’ll self-segregate until we’re just alone with our screens all the time (while driving ourselves whatever distance we can tolerate to the school, restaurant, or church of our choosing.) Thus, if we want to promote the sort of friendship that Wesley wants, we’re going to have to push back against the forces that put each of us at a comfortable distance from one another. I think that one key way to do this (amplifying the final suggestion he gives in the book) is to increase our physical proximity to each other across the board and intentionally promote the understanding that more proximity should bring with it more responsibility to those that we are close to.

Of course, such proximity increases our vulnerability to pain. Wesley puts it this way: “Friendship is a call to voluntarily take up the pain of others, bearing it with and for them, by virtue of our relation to Christ.” When we pursue Christ, suffering is inevitable. How, then, do we count this cost? The challenge here is twofold: the question of exclusivity and the problem of mobility. At the end of Spiritual Friendship’s third chapter and somewhere near the end of the fifth, Wesley transitions from talking about one-on-one friendships to broader (but still intimate) circles of friends, particularly within the Church. One of the book’s few actual weaknesses is that he never addresses the question of whether or not the aforementioned vowed friendships would still be necessary if we had enough intimacy among our other friends. I think we can conclude that the latter is absolutely necessary, but a problem we have to consider with vowed friendship is that it requires (like marriage) a great degree of mutual interest and passion to even consider taking a vow to someone else. At the same time, our tendencies to self-segregate aren’t just isolated selfishness; we’re clustering by race and class in ways that perpetuate injustices. I don’t think that vowed friendship or a general increase in intimacy will necessarily make this worse, but I do think that we have to ask “who is my neighbor?” and view friendship with those who are different than us as an opportunity to share in the joy of the Spirit when our tendency otherwise would be to cluster together with those like us. And not just friendship–but the sort of suffering together my friend Mark described as a core feature of our church’s ministry in an inner-city community.

Having married a woman who was willing to move into a neighborhood very different than what we grew up with, I have seen the incredible benefits that come from our vowed partnership as we have learned to love our vulnerable neighbors (and learned how to love from them.) In this sense, then, I think the answers to a lot of the problems that Wesley raises lie less in how we perceive our friendships and marriages and more in how we perceive our churches and communities. If our churches aren’t centered around particular places and communities, but rather try to attract the best worshippers based on preferences and interests, we’re just carrying out another form of what Patrick Deneen calls “extractive liberalism”. Furthermore, a stronger focus on tying the spiritual community to the physical community will not only help us to welcome those who we’d otherwise pass by as we’re driving from one place to another– it will lower the barriers to life together as we live, work, play, and worship together.

One of the ways that this has played out in my life has been in communal living; Wesley briefly discusses his experience with it but doesn’t go much further than that, as most of his firsthand stories about shared living quarters “have ended with disappointment.” While I understand his reticence to jump in with any definitive pronouncements, I’ll go ahead and say that more families– yes, even families with small children–should open their homes to single adults. My friends and I may represent only a small sample, but I’m happy to say that we’ve had four housemates in five years of marriage and all involved have judged the experience as positive.3 Our other friends in the neighborhood–some single, some married–have reported similar blessings from this sort of fellowship. Much of this, I think, is because we all worship together and share the same commitments to loving one another. This has been particularly powerful when people in great need have taken up residence with us. While a lease is a far cry from a vowed friendship, it might be enough of a commitment to get us started.

Still, our temporal circumstances can change (of our own accord or not) and the limits that we put on ourselves to foster good relationships have become even more challenging to keep to in this day and age. Even if we commit ourselves to a particular place or people, we are less and less able to guarantee that we will be able to stay there–and for those of us who are called to small places, it may be even harder to find someone with enough shared passions to make the leap of faith and commit to one another. Many of us have come and gone through enough places that we understand the challenge that Wesley lays down when suggests that we “resist the allure of mobility.”

This isn’t an academic concern for me any more than it is for Wesley; my wife and I are preparing now to move to South Sudan for the foreseeable future and say goodbye to the church and neighborhood we’ve grown to love. We’re following God’s call on our life by going to a place that is more vulnerable, just as we did when we moved into our current neighborhood. Our hearts are pulled in multiple directions and our minds affirm multiple overlapping but somewhat contradictory commitments. There aren’t any clear answers for us at the moment beyond the call to move to a new place and learn to love our neighbors there; until then, we will simply have to do the best to love the place where God has us at the moment. In that way, I have to end this essay the same way that Wesley ended his book: convinced of the beauty of friendship but still struggling to make it happen as I would hope.

You’ll have to read Spiritual Friendship for yourself to see how Wesley connects these dots for himself– or exposes other threads left to be explored. The need for intimate friendship and the practices that foster it is all the more pressing in our day and age, as our culture has not only drained friendship of its public social benefit but placed a variety of economic, technological and political counterweights against it. The local church can be a place to nurture this Christlike love, but first we must take full stock of all these counterweights and intentionally devote ourselves to balancing our lives such that they are less important than the places that we live and the people who live in them. Friendship can be an abundant source of Christ’s love– but we must cultivate our ecclesiological and cultural environments so that it can flourish.


  1. I won’t revisit the questions of gay identity or reparative therapy here except to say that rejecting the formulation of “gay Christian” still leaves the problem of spiritual friendship wide open and that even those who feel like they’ve experienced some success from reparative therapy will still have to deal with tensions inherent in same-sex friendships and find a marriage partner. 
  2. I don’t want to undermine how the Internet has been a blessing in particular for minority groups like gay and lesbian Christians who would otherwise may have suffered more in their communities without the fellowship they found online, but I think it’s safe to say that the majority of Internet users have to work really hard to make the technology serve our higher interests and callings instead of being slaves to it. 
  3. Admittedly, the woman who has shared our house for the past several years is one of the most supernaturally gifted people my wife and I have ever met in terms of patience and generosity.