he gets us, but Rihanna doesn't need you to: February 2023 Essay Recommendations
Takeaways from the parts of the Super Bowl that actually matter, more on AI, and why canon still matters -- this month's things you should read (and watch and listen to)
February has been quite the doozy. I might say that every time I do one of these month’s-end posts of wrap-ups and recommendations. So much will get left out, but here’s what didn’t…
what he gets us got wrong
Any time there’s a Jesus commercial at the Super Bowl, I wanna see it. Guys, remember the Super Bowl? It was less than three weeks ago. And there was much fanfare (and controversy) about the He Gets Us campaign’s commercials for Christ. And the commercials were okay—nothing crazy, nothing radical. They were kinda tame and feel-goody, unless you’re against loving your enemies or are suspicious about who the guys behind He Gets Us perceive their “enemies” to be. And saying Jesus doesn’t want you to grow up is, admittedly, an awkward take out of context, but all right.
If you’re Christian and saw the ads, at least you didn’t cringe. The ads were well-made, but they left me unsettled and I couldn’t place why. Something was missing.
A few days later, I was listening to the Holy Post podcast and had a huge aha! moment when guest Kristin Kobes Du Mez (of Jesus and John Wayne fame) described precisely what’s absent from the He Gets Us ads, and the campaign itself. She said:
[the campaign] really diminshes the cosmic scope of the Christian message.
I don’t think there’s anything wrong with emphasizing the humanity of Jesus…but I do worry that the ad campaign both misunderstands what the PR problem is and kinda misunderstands what is often drawing people to faith now, which is: we live in a disenchanted world where it doesn’t feel like I can actually belong to something larger than me. It doesn’t feel like there’s actually going to be an end to suffering on earth. It doesn’t feel like there’s real meaning to something I’m doing.
I think she gets it. Christianity is a cosmic story with multiversal implications. It addresses existential questions in complex, robust ways. We can’t lose sight of that. A tame, middling presentation of the faith might make us feel safe and good, but it’s ultimately uninspiring.
Listen to more of this episode of the Holy Post podcast, and I recommend the podcast in general!
wonder! mystique! Rihanna!
If you watched the Super Bowl halftime show expecting histrionics, hijinks, and a glitzy, over-stimulating performance, you likely came away disappointed. Rihanna was cool and casual, so confident in her body of work she didn’t need to exert herself, to put on a show. She was the show. The incredibly measured, architected, linear (love those levitating tables!), and subversive performance stands in contrast to our era of exaggeration and exposure. Professional critics picked up on that, and the resounding chorus of praise for (at least one aspect of) Rihanna’s performance ought to tell us something.
“Some halftime performers have dazzled through exertion,” Spencer Kornhaber points out in The Atlantic. “Some have done so by sending messages. Many have failed, or at least flailed, in the process. But Rihanna wanted us mesmerized by the thing itself, by the images and the sounds, and she largely succeeded.”
Carrie Battan dubbed the performance an “anti-spectacle” in The New Yorker, writing, “Rihanna is perhaps the only pop star so relaxed and unencumbered by expectations that she could turn such a high-stakes occasion into a cool and casual jaunt.”
Washington Post’s Chris Richards spoke of Rihanna’s preservation of mystique. (And if you read only one of these reviews, you should read this one, especially if you’re an artist type.)
…mystique thrives in silence, and that silence gives us space to anticipate, to speculate, to imagine, to wonder, and ultimately, to be. Mystique is a blank space that the listener gets to live in, but one whose breadth the musician always designs.
Rihanna left us wanting more. She left us wondering.
Maybe I’m obsessing over this more than it’s worth. (And we can have the conversation about iNdEcEnCy another time.) But it’s on two accounts—one sociocultural and the other artistic.
Sociocultural: the internet has pushed us into an age of effort and exposure like no other. Millions do nothing without the purpose of gaining attention, followers, likes, comments, social capital, etc. This is soul-devouring. We’ve lost the wisdom to “just be where you are,” to exist within mystery, to abide and be content with our place in life, to not grasp for more.
Artistic: I touched on this in my praise for Andor a few weeks ago: the show “held tension between anticipation and delivery... [it] fed me and kept me hungry.” And the best art, the best performances, do that as well. Never give the audience what they think they want. Leave them hungry. Let them wonder.
yes, we’re talking about AI again
I keep coming back to the AI issue in my reading and listening because it is a thing that is happening, and happening fast. But we could be lending too much credence to the idea that AI is among us, its overlordship inevitable, and we’re (eventually going to be) powerless against it. That’s why I’m glad the brilliant (on the internet and in real life!) Susannah Black Roberts has applied her pen to the issue, pointing out:
The problem is not that AIs might actually start to become conscious. The problem is that we have a little bit of an idol problem, as humans, or at least a pareidolia problem, which really is not a problem usually, but in this case it might be.
Go read it!
Until the internet dies and some brilliant new form of global communication technology takes its place, we’ll keep angling about the question: what is the internet doing to us? That’s why I’m recommending Ryan Kemp’s Hedgehog Review of Justin E.H. Smith’s book, The Internet Is Not What You Think It Is: A History, a Philosophy, a Warning.
In the manner of other philosophical genealogists like Friedrich Nietzsche and Michel Foucault, Smith offers a “historical ontology” [of the Internet], an investigation of the history of a concept that gives us a better sense of its essence or, at the very least, its family tree… Perhaps aspects of modern life that seem obvious and necessary to us were anything but that to people of the past. Maybe the “Internet” doesn’t have to be the Internet.
is canon even relevant anymore?
That’s the question that keeps me awake at night. The fandoms are always arguing over what’s canon and what’s not, and why you can or can’t change certain things. And I’ve started to wonder if canon even matters—at least from the perspective of a community participating in a story written by someone who’s long dead.
Raed Gilliam, in Ekstasis’ Ecstatic (say it five times real fast), argues that canon does, in fact, matter. Because we’re all people participating in a great story whether we think so or not.
The world might have lost its reverence for the Scriptures, but it can’t shake its need to revere something, and that something had better be official, true, consistent, and lovely. It’s one thing for a canon to be forced on us from above, but when we still find in ourselves a need to identify and fight for and treasure a canon, even in something so utterly inconsequential as a fictional series, we can’t blame the “elites” anymore. We have to admit that we are canon-craving creatures.
Go read this canonical piece!
Like these recommendations? I do this every month. Subscribe to receive new posts.
Rihanna was all about the walk and the walking, she made walking look cool. Walking is cool again now because of Rihanna. We love it. She definitely was the show vs. put on a show. The "anti-spectacle" idea is spot on.
One of my friends said the ht show was "entirely forgettable" - but I think that's just cuz they don't have a developed imagination/sense for wonder. I found myself also being a lazy viewer, probably because FOOTBALL was present on either side of the show...
**can we be done obsessing over RiRi now** 😂