Each year in December we publish our Eliot Awards at Mere Orthodoxy for excellence in long-form writing over the past 12 months. You can read our previous editions using the links below:
We will also, as we did last year, be publishing a Best of Mere O for 2019 later this week.
“To Wonder, Learn, and Love” by Brian Williams: This essay is a sustained reflection on the life of the mind, education, and the role of the university. If you follow the lead of the Christian Humanists, then you believe that education is central to the task of cultural reform and renewal. And if you are of that view, then there are few better essays to reflect on than Williams’s marvelous work from earlier this year.
Why is education central? You should read Jacobs’s The Year of Our Lord, 1943 to understand that fully, but the short answer is that education, rightly understood, is concerned with the formation of mature, wise human beings and you will never have a functioning community of any kind or size apart from the presence of such people. This is not ‘education as social engineering,’ as in modern progressivism where education is the means by which we produce the widgets known as ‘responsible citizens and workers.’ This is a richer understanding of the term that harkens back to older days. It is unfailingly humane, attentive to the human person, and alive to the wonders of reality. It is a splash of cold water for people struggling to wake from the slumbers of our age. Consider:
The teacher I learned much of this from was the unassuming 16th century university professor and theologian named Philip Melanchthon. He was colleague to Martin Luther, author of the Augsburg Confession, and Professor of Greek language and literature at the University of Wittenberg from 1518 to 1560. I have no less than two portraits of him in my office. Upon arriving in Wittenberg at age 21, he delivered an address entitled “On Improving the Studies of Youth.” In this and subsequent speeches, he laments that contemporary universities have abandoned the Muses, neglected the common good, and hindered students’ full intellectual, moral, aesthetic, and spiritual formation. Instead, students were enamored with political power, pursued obscure and idiosyncratic topics, and chased after “mean and gainful arts” that promised wealth. This left them arrogant and shallow, and the church, state, and society impoverished. Melanchthon feared that if the university limited itself to these three goals—political clout, disciplinary specialization, and wealth accumulation—it was risking the humanum, or humanity, of its students and the humane cultures they could create. Clearly, the educational debate happening on my desk is nothing new. Melanchthon then spent his life teaching students in his home, lecturing at the university, writing commentaries, producing textbooks, advocating before town councils, eventually founding or reforming at least seventy schools and universities, while sending his students to teach throughout Europe. It’s no surprise that contemporaries referred to him as “the father of most educated men” and the Praeceptor Germaniae, or “teacher of Germany.”
Unlike many educators, Melanchthon was attentive to whole persons, that is, to the integrated intellectual, moral, aesthetic, spiritual, and practical formation of his university students. For him, the telos of education and the telos of human nature should be aligned so that education contributes to the holistic flourishing of individuals and institutions. Therefore, his curriculum included not only Scripture and the great works of history, literature, theology, ethics, and philosophy, but also mathematical disciplines like physics, geometry, astronomy, and a nascent economics, as well as natural sciences like anatomy, physiology, early psychology, and another of his passions, medicine. According to Melanchthon, every art and science is a gift of God given to benefit humanity, and to study them is a form of godliness. Hence, he wanted the full humanity of his students nurtured in classroom and chapel together.
This is a vision of education deep enough and rich enough to form wise people.
‘Absolutely No Mercy’: Leaked Files Expose How China Organized Mass Detentions of Muslims by Austin Ramzy and Chris Buckley
One of the arguments I’ve been trying to make lately and that I hope to continue making over the next year or two is that the central problem of our politics and society under post-war modernity is ‘what is the human person?’
All the other issues—mental illness, sexual abuse, technological developments (and abuses), economic injustice, political dysfunction, and so on all seem, to me, to descend from this question. (This, incidentally, is why education is central.) And while inhumanity is ascendant everywhere today, I can think of few places where we see the brutality that follows from failing to see the person than what is happening currently in western China. This New York Times piece provides extensive documentation of the abuses and injustice being forced upon the Uighurs and other minorities in western China. That so few in our politics are attempting to do anything about this and that our president continues to be friendly to a man as brutal as Xi Jinping is horrifying. Please read this. And then make a few angry calls to your representatives.
The Secrets of Lyndon Johnson’s Archives by Robert A. Caro
Caro is the ideal archetype for rigorous magazine-style reporters. This piece shows why. In it he tells the story of how he discovered some of the pieces of information that became key points in his biographies of President Lyndon B. Johnson and how those insights helped him better understand both the man and the process of doing high-level research. If you value rigor, do not miss this remarkable piece.
Algorithmic Governance and Political Legitimacy by Matthew B. Crawford
The most essential journal on the American right at present is American Affairs. It is smart, creative, and unafraid of asking questions that strike at the vitals of American political life as it presently exists. This essay from Crawford is my favorite thing they ran this year. One of the central pieces for understanding contemporary social order is the role technology plays in both directly shaping that order and in the shaping of our political imaginations. It has been said since at least Sartre that human identity is something that is created rather than received. But actually being able to create your identity via online media makes that idea seem far more real and tangible. Technology catches up to our philosophizing and then defines how the ideas in our philosophy actually get worked out. Crawford’s essay is a particularly fruitful reflection on how the centrality of algorithms in contemporary technology has influenced the way we understand political authority. It is dense, but worth your time.
How Millennials Became the Burnout Generation by Anne Helen Peterson
Peterson’s essay is a smart reflection on ‘burnout,’ a form of fatigue that has become more widely discussed in recent years as the American labor market changes, economic prospects diminish, and mental health issues become more common.
All of this optimization — as children, in college, online — culminates in the dominant millennial condition, regardless of class or race or location: burnout. “Burnout” was first recognized as a psychological diagnosis in 1974, applied by psychologist Herbert Freudenberger to cases of “physical or mental collapse caused by overwork or stress.” Burnout is of a substantively different category than “exhaustion,” although it’s related. Exhaustion means going to the point where you can’t go any further; burnout means reaching that point and pushing yourself to keep going, whether for days or weeks or years.
What’s worse, the feeling of accomplishment that follows an exhausting task — passing the final! Finishing the massive work project! — never comes. “The exhaustion experienced in burnout combines an intense yearning for this state of completion with the tormenting sense that it cannot be attained, that there is always some demand or anxiety or distraction which can’t be silenced,” Josh Cohen, a psychoanalyst specializing in burnout, writes. “You feel burnout when you’ve exhausted all your internal resources, yet cannot free yourself of the nervous compulsion to go on regardless.”
In his writing about burnout, Cohen is careful to note that it has antecedents; “melancholic world-weariness,” as he puts it, is noted in the book of Ecclesiastes, diagnosed by Hippocrates, and endemic to the Renaissance, a symptom of bewilderment with the feeling of “relentless change.” In the late 1800s, “neurasthenia,” or nervous exhaustion, afflicted patients run down by the “pace and strain of modern industrial life.” Burnout differs in its intensity and its prevalence: It isn’t an affliction experienced by relatively few that evidences the darker qualities of change but, increasingly, and particularly among millennials, the contemporary condition.
‘Nobody is Going to Believe You’ by Alex French and Maximillian Potter
These two reporters tell the horror stories of abuse suffered by children at the hands of popular filmmaker Bryan Singer. By now, much of it will feel tragically familiar—the selection of victims, the grooming, the abuser’s sense of invincibility, and the skepticism of many of the people who first heard the allegations. That being said, it is still a worthwhile read for understanding how power dynamics work, why abuse happened in so many places for so long, how victims respond to abuse, and for better understanding why power is so central to contemporary political reflection.
He Cyberstalked Teen Girls for Years. Then They Fought Back by Stephanie Clifford
One thing that needs to be repeatedly said during the #MeToo era is that exposing abuse requires enormous courage from the victims of the abuser. This story shows one aspect of that by showing how some victims gathered together to find and identify their abuser.
The Company that Sells Love to America has a Dark Secret by Taffy Brodesser-Akner
This profile shows how one prominent jewelry company had patterns of sexism and abuse baked into their business on multiple levels from sexual harassment to wage inequality. This is a very helpful (and deeply sad) piece for understanding how sexism works and is maintained in American businesses.
The Minnesota Murderess by Christine Seifert
This is definitely one of the strangest pieces you’ll read on the list. It’s an after-the-fact investigation of a bizarre murder case from 19th century Minnesota. Seifert is a very good storyteller and she’s done some good research here. If true crime stories are of any interest to you at all, you’ll want to read this.
For me one of the defining stories of the year is that liberal democracy has not done what the Cold Warriors thought it would. The assumption was that free markets, free governments, and free minds ran together. That is obviously false. Russia, China, and Saudi Arabia have shown us how free markets can be manipulated by unfree governments. And the many forms of institutional rot and corruption common in so many American firms have shown how free markets, left to themselves, seem to tend less toward growing wealth for everyone and more toward the hoarding of wealth amongst the capitalist class. There are many pieces you could read to see how this works. This is one of the best.
Untempted by the Consequences: G. E. M. Anscombe’s Life of ‘Doing the Truth’ by John Schwenkler
There are a remarkable number of on-ramps for developing an interest in the 20th century Catholic philosopher Elizabeth Anscombe. If you are interested in contraception, she wrote extensively on it—and had seven children, incidentally. If you are interested in Wittgenstein, Anscombe was one of his students. If you are interested in C. S. Lewis, Anscombe schooled him in a 1949 meeting over a chapter in his book Miracles. If you are interested in consequentialist moral reasoning, Anscombe wrote extensively on the subject. That being said, Anscombe is one of those figures who is very easy to stumble across but harder to learn about in-depth—in my experience, at least. This profile from Schwenkler is a fantastic introduction to her life and work.
How Tech Utopia Fostered Tyranny by Jon Askonas
Jon Askonas is one of my favorite people to read on the intersection between politics and technology. I got to edit one of his earliest pieces on this for Fare Forward. This piece, published in The New Atlantis, could be read as a sequel to that older essay in Fare Forward.
One of the things that struck me as I was reviewing the various essays I’m recognizing this year is that so many of them concern various sorts of legibility—how does tech make forms of life more legible to the state? How can writers make religious life more legible to their readers? The challenge of being understood by one’s neighbor is, I think, one of today’s most difficult problems.
By pulling so much of social life into cyberspace, the information revolution has made dissent more visible, manageable, and manipulable than ever before. Hidden public anger, the ultimate bête noire of many a dictator, becomes more legible to the regime. Activating one’s own supporters, and manipulating the national conversation, become easier as well. Indeed, the information revolution has been a boon to the police state. It used to be incredibly manpower-intensive to monitor videos, accurately take and categorize images, analyze opposition magazines, track the locations of dissidents, and appropriately penalize enemies of the regime. But now, tools that were perfected for tagging your friends in beach photos, categorizing new stories, and ranking products by user reviews are the technological building blocks of efficient surveillance systems. Moreover, with big data and AI, regimes can now engage in especially “smart” forms of what is sometimes called “smart repression” — exerting just the right amount of force and nudging, at the lowest possible cost, to pull subjects into line. The computational counterculture’s promise of “access to tools” and “people power” has, paradoxically, contributed to mass surveillance and oppression.
Politics and Public Life
The Baby and the Bathwater by Robert George and Ryan Anderson
This is the best thing on the much-discussed French-Ahmari debate. Read this and you can skip most of the rest.
Gay Rites are Civil Rites by Scott Alexander
SlateStarCodex is still, perhaps improbably, chugging along long after the age of blogging supposedly ended. This is one of Alexander’s best pieces of the year in which he explains the role of gay rites within the new secularized American civil religion.
In God’s Country by Elizabeth Bruenig
Bruenig returned to her native Texas and interviewed a number of Trump supporting evangelicals to get a better sense of why support for the president is so persistent amongst this voting bloc. Obviously this genre of story is a cliche by now, but of all the pieces I’ve read, Bruenig’s is the best. As a Christian, Bruenig understands her subjects better than many other reporters, I think. And as a Texan, she has a better feel for the culture of the place too. She is also, of course, a very gifted thinker and writer. All of those things come together in this opinion essay.
Understanding how online radicalization happens—and how it can be reversed—is essential for understanding our current moment. This piece in the Washingtonian is immensely helpful on both counts.
Stories About My Brother by Prachi Gupta
One aspect of living in a polarizing nation is that the divides that show up in our news stories also show up in our homes. Gupta’s story is the account of how she and her brother, who were extremely close as children, drifted apart as adults due to the ongoing political divides that define contemporary America.
Get Out While You Can by Rosie Gray
Gray tells the story of former Breitbart reporter Katie McHugh in this piece, which is an essential look into the way one segment of today’s alt-right works. It is as ugly as you’d expect, but it is important to look at. This piece helps to explain why Christian understandings of race are as central to having a clear political witness today as are Christian understandings of the body and sexuality.
Losing Religion and Finding Ecstasy in Houston by Jia Tolentino
One of the challenges of writing about religion right now, I think, is that it can be hard to capture the personal experience of faith and piety in ways that resonate with readers who do not have a religious background. This piece by Jia Tolentino, a childhood evangelical who is now non-religious, is a good attempt that is worth thinking about at greater length. This graf in particular is solid:
Ecstasy’s magic is strongest at the beginning; it dissipates through repetition. I’ve become careful about using it—I’m afraid that the high will blunt my tilt toward unprovoked happiness, which might already be disappearing. I’m afraid that the low that sometimes comes after will leave a permanent trace. But, still, each time, it can feel like divinity. Your world realigns in a juddering oceanic shimmer. You understand that you can give the best of yourself to everyone you love without feeling depleted. This is what it feels like to be a child of Jesus, in a dark chapel, with stained-glass diamonds floating on the skin of all the people kneeling around you. This is what it feels like to be twenty-two, nearly naked, your hair blowing in the wind as the pink twilight expands into permanence, your body still holding the warmth of the day. You were made to be here. The nature of a revelation is that you don’t have to reëxperience it. In the seventies, researchers believed that MDMA treatment could be discrete and limited—that once you got the message, as they put it, you could hang up the phone. You would be better for having listened. You would be changed.
They don’t say this about religion, but they should.
Futures for Public Theology by Charles Mathewes and Paul Dafydd Jones
Relatedly, religious writers have two problems, I think: One, we want to be understood. Two, we want to articulate a vision of the good life that is faithful to our theology. And sometimes it feels like these two goods are at odds with each other. This piece does a wonderful job of capturing the difficulty.
Any attempt at public theology today will be differently placed, and will face two sorts of new challenges. These might be described as the challenges of “audience” and “ambience.” On one level, the audiences that can “hear” public theology are far more pluralistic than ever before—both in the polychromatic diversity of religious traditions, and in the multiple ways in which it has become increasingly acceptable to relate, and not relate, to multiple religious traditions, or to no such traditions at all. In the United States, in particular, some are second- and third-generation non-religious, and largely unacquainted with the fundamental building blocks of any theological idiom, Christian or otherwise. Others are trying to make sense of life after various forms of fundamentalism. Others are simply keeping time with whatever religious tradition that their parents endorsed. And alongside these exist many more radically other religious traditions who know not Joseph, as it were, at all. Once public culture was largely occupied by Mainline Protestants and Fundamentalist Protestants; then, after World War Two, there were Protestants, Catholics, and Jews. Now the spectrum has expanded massively. From Anabaptists to Zoroastrians, from zealots to “apatheists” and “Nones,” the diversity of publicly recognized forms of religious belief is unfathomable, as is the range of publicly acceptable degrees of religious intensity. Both the lack of a common religious idiom and the plurality of the religious idioms that do exist, are different sorts of problems that need addressing, and challenges that invite participation.
On another level, what the anthropologist Matthew Engelke calls the “ambience” of public culture is, when not frankly and blankly secular, often deeply distortive of religious concepts, Christian and otherwise. Contemporary public conceptions of God are often far less radically other and far less transcendent than in the past, and conceptions of providence, agency, conversion, sin and grace, justice and mercy and forgiveness have all been drained of a great deal of their theological resonance. Furthermore, the contemporary public civic discourse that does exist is increasingly captive to technocratic modes of speech, idioms which have purchased precision of address at the cost (we think) of scope and depth of vision. The thinning secularization and increasing quantification of public discourse has meant that languages of meaning are increasingly marginalized, when they are employed at all. So whatever we think of the “secularism” and pluralism of the culture as a whole—and even the grumpiest theocon could, we think, be brought to see some value in secularism and pluralism—as a technical matter for thinking about any possible public theology, it presents a distinct set of difficulties for public theology.
Forgive Us Our Debts by Anne Helen Petersen
This profile of Jubilee Baptist Church in Durham, NC is important for American Christians to read and think about. Evangelicals can’t adopt all of it—certainly the capitulation to progressivism on sexuality and gender questions isn’t transferrable. Likewise I still feel a certain unease that I’m still trying to sort out about exactly how central Marxism is to the church’s identity. So those are my disclaimers. Now: I think the pastors of this church are exactly right in their instinct that many American churches aren’t actually touching the deepest needs and struggles of much of their congregation in anything like a real way. And this has the effect of creating a spirituality that feels unreal, disconnected from daily life. I suspect if it was just normal in more churches that we knew about each other’s debt and we helped each other pay it off that we would have healthier communities with thicker bonds of affection and friendship. Also: Anne Helen Petersen had a really phenomenal year as a writer. Keep an eye on her work. She’s very good.
Notre Dame Came Far Closer to Collapsing Than People Knew. This Is How It Was Saved. by Elian Peltier, James Glanz, Mika Grondahl, Weiyi Cai, Adam Nossiter, and Liz Alderman
One of the most enduring memories I will have of 2019, I suspect, is logging on Twitter during Holy Week to learn that the Cathedral of Notre Dame was burning in Paris. For several hours I followed the news, unable to do anything else. I was not alone. This story tells the remarkable tale of how several people acted heroically to save the cathedral.
Behold, the Millennial Nuns by Eve Fairbanks
One aspect of living in a disoriented, alienating cultural moment when many sources of stability and identity are failing or have failed is that older forms of religious expression and identity can come to have a tremendous appeal to people. Part of this is nostalgia, perhaps, but then part of it also seems like a real sense that something genuinely has been lost in our day and a sense that the only way of recovering that something is to recover the forms of life that tended to coincide with it. This feature on young women becoming nuns tells the story of why some millennials are embracing asceticism and religious life in the Roman church.
Sexuality, Gender, and Family Life
The End of Babies by Anna Louie Sussman
Sussman’s piece is an excellent summary of many of the challenges involved with having and raising children and of why millennials are having fewer children—often having fewer children then they would actually prefer to have. If you’ve read Jonathan Last’s What to Expect When No One’s Expecting then much of this will be familiar, but Sussman’s piece is well-structured and -argued and because it is in the Times it is going to reach a different kind of audience.
Athleisure, Barre, and Kale: The Tyranny of the Ideal Woman by Jia Tolentino
Tolentino is a writer I’ve been aware of for a few years but hadn’t read regularly until this year. Like Anne Helen Petersen, she is an exvangelical reporter and essayist. This piece is one of my two favorites of hers this year. It’s an extended reflection on the interplay between capitalism, the idea of self creation, and sexism. It’s actually a very good companion piece to Petersen’s burnout essay as it explains how burnout happens for so many women in particular.
How Pornography Makes Us Less Human and Less Humane by Matthew Lee Anderson
It seems probable to me that we are going to spend a fair amount of time in the coming years debating how to best regulate internet pornography. One aspect of that conversation is making the case that porn is harmful to society. Anderson’s essay is a fantastic example of how to make that argument.
My Hope as a Parent is Something I Share with My Birth Mother by Michael Wear
I’m choosing this post to end on because I think it sums up so much of what I appreciate about so many of these essays: How can writers make themselves intelligible to readers? How can writers help readers recognize things in reality they haven’t seen before? One aspect of being lonely and polarized, which our nation is, is that it is very hard for us to see. It is hard to see our neighbor. It is hard to see our place. It is hard to see our intellectual opposites. Writing that bridges those gaps is powerful. And Michael’s essay, which he wrote after his wife Melissa gave birth to their daughter, is one of the best things I’ve read this year at doing these things.
Often when we talk about parenthood, adoption, reproductive ethics, and so on the lines of battle emerge rapidly—it could be the mommy wars, sometimes reasonable fears about adoption undermining the natural family or the integrity of foreign nations, or debates over abortion. The point is that the topic Michael wrote about is fraught and there are a million ways to write this essay that would play right into our lonely and polarized cultural moment. But Michael’s essay avoids all of that. Aided by imagination and affection, Wear reaches across time and finds that he can recognize his mother and find something deeply intimate that they both share. Please read this excellent piece.