Newsletter #12: a look at the last six months
What I’ve learned: people want this sort of thing.
Welcome to 2022! Here’s what’s in the first newsletter for the year:
The last six months in writing
What I read in 2021
The rest of life
The last six months in writing
Before coming to Substack, I used my old blog (started in college) to get out ideas that came out scattershot, and tended to put out shorter pieces as I wrote them. Some months I would publish fifteen posts, and other months I would publish two. I’m really proud of the writing I did during those nearly ten years.
But the old site represents a younger me, someone who was sporadically figuring things out while trying to form a coherent sense of self in a world of tensions. I grew up in the budding social media age, where “hot takes” took on increasing dominance, and the ability to “get your message out” was often dependent on your ability to align yourself with groups that had established dominance in “the mainstream.” I was able to do that for a time, and I really enjoyed it.
But in this next stage in my life, I’m looking for something slightly different. I now have what most of my writing heroes have had: a writing schedule. I publish here once (occasionally twice) a week, focusing on newsletters and long-form essays. I like to think I’m carving out a space that is both unique to me and increasingly attractive to others: a space that is less about a “hot take” and more about deep dives into questions not susceptible to easy answers. In some ways, this is similar to the change my company (Target) has made in recent years when it comes to our apparel strategy.1 Previously, we had tried to carry anything and everything. In recent years, however, our strategy has focused on “fewer, deeper, bolder.” We’ve curated a smaller selection of better items. That’s what I’m trying to create for us here. My old blog had anything and everything as it came up. But this new space focuses on fewer, deeper, bolder.
In this space, we’ve looked at how critical race theory can support religion in professional life, Christian orthodoxy in relation to prayer, MacIntyre and asceticism, how a Minnesota novelist can explain issues with conversion therapy, and much more. I’ve published (and many of you have read) more than 82,000 words on this site over the last six months.
What I’ve learned: people want this sort of thing. Since moving here, my list of subscribers has grown more than 200%. And with a growing list of paying subscribers, I can now pay writers for their essays, poems, and short stories. (If you’re interested in submitting something, more information here!)
In 2022, you can expect this work to continue. I have essays on the schedule covering how Christian doctrine changes, why a liberal education will ruin your corporate career (which can be good for your corporate career), Ralph McInerny and “the gift of celibacy,” and why rethinking “scandal” should be a central part of the Church’s response to the clergy abuse crisis. I’m also very open to hearing from you on what you’d like me to explore. Feel free to submit a question or topic in the comments below!
With its “podcast” feature, Substack has also facilitated the ability to share what I’m calling “recorded conversations.” In my first recorded conversation, I spoke with Christopher Dowling about his experiences as a Catholic in conversion therapy. We spoke about his time at the University of Dallas, as a NET missionary, and in seminary, and how this all led him to the John Paul II Healing Center and the Theology of the Body Institute, where he was subjected to carefully constructed sexual orientation change efforts.
Since releasing the conversation, I’ve had priests, former seminarians, and others reach out to me, thanking me for the the conversation and sharing how Christopher’s experiences match on to theirs. Some have told me, “I’ve always worried that maybe I was crazy for feeling the way I do about those experiences. But now I know I’m not alone. And it wasn’t ok for me to go through that.”
Because of the interest in these sorts of conversations, and how much I personally enjoyed them, I’ll be sharing more recorded conversations in 2022. The next conversation, to come out next week, will be with another Catholic survivor of conversion therapy, a side b gay Catholic who was referred to Joseph Nicolosi by his former religious community. We discuss how he ended up in conversion therapy, why he thinks Nicolosi was unable to see the problems with his work, and what led Nicolosi’s clients away from a “traditional Christian sexual ethic.” (Paid subscribers can get an early preview here.)
I have a third recorded interview to come out mid-fall on another issue facing the Church. But for a number of reasons, I can’t say much about it at this time. And there’s a fourth interview I’m hoping to record soon on McCarrick, predatory behavior in Catholic institutions, and staying active in the Church after being a victim to this behavior.
I feel very honored to be able to share these stories. I feel that I have been given something very special. In these recorded conversations, Christopher and others have given me a precious bit of their stories, trusting that I will hold and share them with compassion and respect. Our stories are extremely important to who we are. They can be vehicles for transformation, the horizons of moral imaginations, or pathways to despair and the loss of faith. I hope to do justice to the stories shared in this space. And while I don’t believe we’ll ever get our stories 100% right, I also believe we have an obligation to do the best we can with them. They are never complete in this life, but they are still worth telling.
In case you’re new to this space, here are a few essays from 2021 that I’m especially proud of, on a variety of topics…
In search of new orthodoxies explored the new theological space I want to occupy. Orthodoxy, understood as soundness or rightness or belief, has been central to Christianity at least since the time of Augustine. But preoccupations with doctrinal articulations can be dangerous to orthodoxy, by establishing an over-controlled Christianity, one which does not respect and maintain the necessary balances, one which too quickly tries to resolve tensions, rather than recognizing that tension is a sign of life. By contrast, a more full orthodoxy comes about through a “transformative spiritual process” involving continual growth and change. It always questions and expands that which we considered settled. As Sarah Coakley argues, orthodoxy is always subversive of “orthodoxy.”
Are the criticisms of Simone Biles racist came out of my studies in Critical Race Theory. It argued that slavery will stop being relevant to the experience of black Americans when the crucifixion stops being relevant to the experience of Christians. Certain racialized dynamics in the United States can be seen as echoes of our slave era, and demonstrate ways in which we haven’t yet overcome the effects of that era. Racism is prevalent in American life for reasons similar to why the Cross is prevalent in Christian life. They are invisible to those who have not yet learned to see, but they are ever-present to those attentive to these realities.
Queer imaginings presented a challenge to common Christian approaches to sexual desire, drawing on MacIntyre, Bonaventure, Coakley, and Pope Benedict XVI. I had alternatively titled the piece, “The Pope Benedict XVI argument for gay sex.” Augustine and Pope Benedict XVI help us see that love requires tolerating certain kinds of sin at times. If Augustine condones venial sin in sex for the sake of charity, Benedict goes further. He argues for situations in which more serious sins might be considered in workings of the transformation of desire. What this amounts to is an argument for letting LGBTQ+ Christians figure out ourselves how best to live out our sexual lives, and transform our desires into realities of love oriented towards communion with God and others.
In terms of my most popular essays of 2021, they were:
What I read in 2021 (in no particular order)
The last year was also a great year for reading. I’ve shared below some of the books I completed, “must reads,” “should reads,” and “recommended reads if you’re interested.”
Hidden Mercy: AIDS, Catholics, and the Untold Stories of Compassion in the Face of Fear by Michael J. O’Loughlin
The Sun Collective by Charles Baxter
Critical Race Theory: The Key Writings that Formed the Movement edited by Kimberle Crenshaw
On Revolution by Hannah Arendt
God, Sexuality, and the Self: An Essay ‘on the Trinity’ by Sarah Coakley
Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria by Beverly Daniel Tatum
Nothing Like I Imagined by Mindy Kaling
White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk about Racism by Robin DiAngelo
Sex, God, and the Conservative Church by Tina Schermer Sellers
Inkheart by Cornelia Funke
The Best American Poetry 2020 edited by Paisley Rekdal
Recommended reads if you’re interested:
The Autograph Man by Zadie Smith
Seeking a Center: My Life as a Great Bookie by Otto Bird
Antifa: The Anti-Fascist Handbook by Mark Bray
The rest of life
I’m still Catholic. It’s been a challenging year for me, personally, as a Catholic. I had tried to help a friend go her her diocese to address the abuse she’d experienced in her Catholic parish, and her subsequent dismissal by her pastor. But it didn’t really go anywhere. We have so far to go as a Church in understanding and helping victims of abuse. For many victims, the positive outcome of coming forward is often not the help they receive from Church leaders, but, rather, the strength they find in advocating for themselves and becoming a source of strength for others. I suppose that’s the other side of this. It’s not just that we go up against “the Church” when we work to address these issues. We are also “the Church.” “The Church” is engaging in this work of advocacy and change as long as we are.
Because of these and other issues, I’ve been going through “deconstruction,” trying to process the ways in which my understanding of Catholicism has needed to be reworked and reframed in order to have a more honest, integrated, and Christian faith. I so badly want to be evangelized, but I’m also afraid of being evangelized badly. That’s one of many issues I need to work through if I want to have a more vibrant and real faith.
I also have some fears about being the “source” of others’ poor evangelization. One problem for me and others is how much our faiths have been held up by the harmful views of celebrity Catholics who were mistaken or deluded about their work (like Jason Evert and Christopher West). Part of deconstruction is working through the dynamics that led us to rely so heavily on those figures. But real change is hard, especially for those of us who are public writers. One of my concerns for people going through deconstruction is that, rather than working through those dynamics, they will just trade their allegiances from Christopher West to Christopher Damian. I worry that they/we won’t really deconstruct harmful dynamics and, instead, will just transfer those dynamics to new people, movements, and ideologies.
This is why I try to constantly remind people: I am not your hero. If your faith or sense of identity is reliant upon me, please expect to end up an atheist with some form of psychosis. I am not your expert on Catholicism or how to be a Catholic. I am one Catholic with a particular perspective trying to figure these things out. I can’t carry you, because I’m still learning how to walk. But if you would like to walk together, I’m always happy for friends and companions.
Now, if you want professional advice, I’m very happy to give it. Because I am totally killing it, career-wise.
Finally, I want to end this (and start 2022) with a note of gratitude. 2021 was a hard year for many of us. But I’m so grateful that I was able to go through it with all of you. Thank you for reading. For those of you who reached out and shared your stories, thank you for your vulnerability. For those of you who sent one of my pieces to someone who needed it, thank you for making that connection. Every year, I have new people reach out to me, saying, “You put words to the things I’ve never been able to find the words to.” This a writer’s dream. It means that we’re doing what we’re supposed to be doing. So thank you all for helping us find the words together.
Everything I write here is is written solely in my personal capacity, and not on behalf of or as a representative of my company.