I say gardening is mostly about heartbreak, then, partly as a form of self-protection, but also as a recognition that unbroken success is not the gardener’s lot. Living systems like a garden don’t permit of failure-proofing. No matter how long you have gardened or how scientific your methods, drought, blight, and tomato hornworm yet lurk at your door.
The refusal of interpretation is itself a mode of interpretation
—I am like a slip of comet,
Scarce worth discovery, in some corner seen
Bridging the slender difference of two stars,
Come out of space, or suddenly engender’d
By heady elements, for no man knows:
But when she sights the sun she grows and sizes
And spins her skirts out, while her central star
Shakes its cocooning mists; and so she comes
To fields of light; millions of travelling rays
Pierce her; she hangs upon the flame-cased sun,
And sucks the light as full as Gideon’s fleece:
But then her tether calls her; she falls off,
And as she dwindles shreds her smock of gold
Amidst the sistering planets, till she comes
To single Saturn, last and solitary;
And then goes out into the cavernous dark.
So I go out: my little sweet is done:
I have drawn heat from this contagious sun:
To not ungentle death now forth I run.
“I guess it’s true what they say, that it’s a fine line between gardening and madness.”
Robinson’s most famous character, the Congregationalist minister John Ames, is devoted to Calvin—as is Robinson herself. She is a careful student of the Reformer and mimics his form: The Gilead novels, like the Institutes, should be read as a summa pietatis rather than a summa theologiae. This means that for both Calvin and Robinson, the goal is doxology.
The Institutes’ subtitle describes the work as “almost the whole sum of piety and whatever is necessary to know about the doctrine of salvation.” In the same vein, Robinson seeks to express in her novels a theology that has worship as its end. In her work, delight in the created order is a precursor to knowledge of God’s sustaining presence.
New Life Downtown now concludes its Sunday service with a beautiful a capella rendition of an Anglican Doxology, a hymn of praise to the Trinity. Doxologies are found in eucharistic prayers and Catholic devotions like novenas and the rosary, time out of mind, but when was the last time you heard a doxology sung in a Roman Catholic church? In practice, many Roman Catholic churches have become increasingly low church. . . . So what is happening at New Life is noteworthy. More intriguing yet, it is happening at evangelical megachurches and formerly iconoclastic mainline churches all across the country. Whether it is a move of the Holy Spirit toward greater unity or cultural appropriation on a massive scale, old school Catholic practices are in. Yes, that celebrity Protestant pastor is wearing a stole with Our Lady of Guadalupe on it.
Historically, some experts have said it takes three hundred to a thousand years to build inches of topsoil. But we’ve learned that’s actually not the case. Soil is not built primarily by decaying leaf matter and so forth. Living, healthy topsoil is created by plant root exudates – the carbohydrates, vitamins, organic acids, and other nutrients released into the soil by the root systems of plants. Of the sugars that plants create through photosynthesis, 30–40 percent transfers to the soil through the roots in exchange for nutrients. In this way, plants feed soil biology: fungi, bacteria, microorganisms, and mycorrhizae, the symbiotic associations between plants and fungi in the root zone. Those take the sugar and convert it to humus, which is topsoil.
So topsoil can actually be built quite quickly. But it won’t happen without diverse plant life. This diversity is key, and it has everything to do with the way we farm.
It’s a cutting-edge area of scientific research. We’re learning that as plant diversity increases, there’s a certain trigger point – called quorum sensing – where topsoil begins to build rapidly. How many species of plants do you need for a quorum? The more the merrier, microbiologists are saying. Different plants produce different root exudates, allowing access to specific soil nutrients. There have been positive results from as few as twelve species, and more rapid success with forty.
Our best native pastures at Danthonia contain fifteen to twenty species. We’re a long way from the hundreds of species these landscapes once enjoyed – all forming a richly diverse pasture sward that allowed topsoil to build and be maintained, enabling it to hold water and release it during drought.
As austerely down-to-earth as the modal melodies of Appalachian folk music can sound, they can also convey profound pining. “The tenderness of a folk song does not arise only from nostalgia about how wonderful everything is back home,” the feminist theologian Wendy Farley once wrote. “Whatever the particularities from which this nostalgic longing arises, it continues to wound our hearts because it is also nostalgia for something no one has ever experienced.” In handed-down tunes, she recognized “desire’s refusal to accept the limitations of life.”
Gene Wolfe is a writer like nobody else, and although I can’t say that I’m an expert on his oeuvre, I have read more than a little of it. (The Wizard Knight is my favorite and a good place to start.) I have been reading some tributes and criticism in light of his recent death, of which the best pieces so far are Brian Phillips’s unsummarizable biographical treatment and this wonderful long essay by Kim Stanley Robinson which reveals a key piece of information about one of Wolfe’s best-known novels. Spoilers, obviously, await.
We tear apart what God has joined together only at grave peril to ourselves: By dividing sex from procreation, we reconfigure the form which God has laid down for us to understand the nature of his agency in bringing new life into the world. If a people who emphasize the gospel cannot say no to that division, we are a people unworthy of our name.
Trust is impossible in communities that always regard the other as a challenge and threat to their existence. One of the profoundest commitments of a community, therefore, is providing a context that encourages us to trust and depend on one another. Particularly significant is a community’s determination to be open to new life that is destined to challenge as well as carry on the story.
Along with all the greatest writers of the fantastic, the Inklings offer an alternative to (if not a dissent from) what Charles Taylor calls the Modern Moral Order: a rational ethic of individual rights governed by moral laws aimed at maximizing temporal happiness. The Modern Moral Order encourages us to evaluate our moral decisions in light of rational calculations about tangible goods and bads—does one’s chosen sexual indulgence, for instance, hurt anyone?—rather than assessing them via transcendent sources, the Tao or the Ten Commandments. The removal of these common sources further drives moral decision-making back to individuals, eroding our common moral language until it’s little more than a veneer over the id, with moral arguments made on the basis of appeals to personal authenticity, “self-care,” or chosen identities.
For all L’Engle’s explicit spirituality, her works show a greater comfort with the Modern Moral Order than one might expect from a writer so often associated with the antimodern Inklings.
Yet trees are not ‘trees’, until so named and seen
and never were so named, till those had been
who speech’s involuted breath unfurled,
faint echo and dim picture of the world,
but neither record nor a photograph,
being divination, judgement, and a laugh
response of those that felt astir within
by deep monition movements that were kin
to life and death of trees, of beasts, of stars:
free captives undermining shadowy bars,
digging the foreknown from experience
and panning the vein of spirit out of sense.
Great powers they slowly brought out of themselves
and looking backward they beheld the elves
that wrought on cunning forges in the mind,
and light and dark on secret looms entwined.
He sees no stars who does not see them first
of living silver made that sudden burst
to flame like flowers beneath an ancient song,
whose very echo after-music long
has since pursued. There is no firmament,
only a void, unless a jewelled tent
myth-woven and elf-patterned; and no earth,
unless the mother’s womb whence all have birth.
The heart of Man is not compound of lies,
but draws some wisdom from the only Wise,
and still recalls him.
Gardeners are a modest and sober breed, not much given to the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, or the pride of life. We are generally free of covetousness (save towards our neighbor’s early tomato), rage (unless a rabbit gets into our lettuce patch), or sloth (unless it’s raining outside and the bean patch needs to be weeded). We all have our weaknesses, however, and for most gardeners the moral Waterloo must be fought during seed catalog season.
Seed catalogs arrive in the darkest part of winter, when the heart cries out for a sight of fresh vegetation. Into this parched landscape of the soul they introduce scintillating photography and descriptions of fruits and vegetables that may as well have been plucked from the vineyards of Canaan. Every heirloom tomato has better flavor than the last; each winter squash has the potential to grow to record size. Seed catalogs, in short, are inveterate tempters. No gardener, however ascetic, manages to resist their blandishments forever.
Floods lay bare that which was already true. This is what the Genesis Flood does, of course, and it is also how Peter describes the coming judgment at the end of all things. He likens it Noah’s flood, going on to say, “the earth and everything done in it will be laid bare” (2 Peter 3:10).
Athanasius argues that miracles are often a kind of supernaturally accomplished acceleration of natural events: Nature will, given enough time, turn water into wine—rains will fall and nourish grape vines, the grapes will be harvested, and then eventually ferment to become wine. Jesus simply sped the process up at the wedding in Cana. Events like a flood, then, might be read as an inversion of a miracle—a rapid acceleration of the unmaking of the cosmos following the events of Genesis 3.
Sadly, I cannot help but see this quickening destruction happening in my home state. The flood has soaked thousands of homes and hundreds of businesses to ruin in places that already struggled with a trajectory of economic decline and despair brought about by forces outside their control.
Woods are not like other spaces. To begin with, they are cubic. Their trees surround you, loom over you, press in from all sides. Woods choke off views and leave you muddled and without bearings. They make you feel small and confused and vulnerable, like a small child lost in a crowd of strange legs. Stand in a desert or prairie and you know you are in a big space. Stand in a woods and you only sense it. They are a vast, featureless nowhere. And they are alive.
So woods are spooky. Quite apart from the thought that they may harbor wild beasts and armed, genetically challenged fellows named Zeke and Festus, there is something innately sinister about them, some ineffable thing that makes you sense an atmosphere of pregnant doom with every step and leaves you profoundly aware that you are out of your element and ought to keep your ears pricked. Though you tell yourself it’s preposterous, you can’t quite shake the feeling that you are being watched. You order yourself to be serene (it’s just a woods for goodness sake), but really you are jumpier than Don Knotts with pistol drawn. Every sudden noise—the crack of a falling limb, the crash of a bolting deer—makes you spin in alarm and stifle a plea for mercy. Whatever mechanism within you is responsible for adrenaline, it has never been so sleek and polished, so keenly poised to pump out a warming squirt of adrenal fluid.
Because of etymology: vert, verus. Thus, in English, verity, verisimilitude, and veridical, but also verdigris, verdure, and verdant. Thus, literary representations of truth as green, as in the allegorical four daughters of God―Justice, Truth, Mercy, and Peace―who first appear in Psalm 85. By the time they feature in the medieval play The Castle of Perseverance, they are chromatically clothed, with Truth sporting chartreuse.
I do not think that art has to illustrate a slice of Christian doctrine to be true, but if Christian doctrine is true, then a piece of art’s concordance with that doctrinal shape might be one index of the art’s truthfulness.
As a writing man, or secretary, I have always felt charged with the safekeeping of all unexpected items of worldly or unworldly enchantment, as though I might be held personally responsible if even a small one were to be lost.
To what serves mortal beauty ‘ —dangerous; does set danc-
ing blood—the O-seal-that-so ‘ feature, flung prouder form
Than Purcell tune lets tread to? ‘ See: it does this: keeps warm
Men’s wits to the things that are; ‘ what good means—where a glance Master more may than gaze, ‘ gaze out of countenance.
Those lovely lads once, wet-fresh ‘ windfalls of war’s storm, How then should Gregory, a father, ‘ have gleanèd else from swarm- èd Rome? But God to a nation ‘ dealt that day’s dear chance.
To man, that needs would worship ‘ block or barren stone,
Our law says: Love what are ‘ love’s worthiest, were all known;
World’s loveliest—men’s selves. Self ‘ flashes off frame and face.
What do then? how meet beauty? ‘ Merely meet it; own,
Home at heart, heaven’s sweet gift; ‘ then leave, let that alone. Yea, wish that though, wish all, ‘ God’s better beauty, grace.
To be relatable, art must also be incurious, not really interested in the mechanisms of why people are what they are, the texture of their lives, or the objects around them. To be interested in these things is to generate friction between the reader and the text, or at least to elude easy points of identification.
Sometimes, on waking, she would close her eyes
For a last look at that white house she knew
In sleep alone, and held no title to,
And had not entered yet, for all her sighs.
Actually, a love of nature is very important to the critique of minimalism. When I showed the image of the balcony with flowerpots, one of the reasons it seemed to have life was because it did have actual life. Our spaces can appear most dead and miserable when they don’t have any plant or animal life, when we have literally killed every single living thing that once inhabited a patch of ground. I was at the airport the other day, and I suddenly felt incredibly pained and uncomfortable, like I couldn’t breathe. I had a strong sensation that I was in a dead place, a kind of hell where nothing lived. I could not see a single plant. Everything around me was gray, dismal. It was tarmac and hallways. It depressed the hell out of me, because I think gardens should be everywhere. (Imagine, if you will, airport hallways that were made of trellises covered in vines and flowers, a terminal that felt like a greenhouse. Perhaps some birds in the rafters, crapping on the occasional traveler to remind them that there are worse problems than a delayed flight. But no snakes, for obvious reasons.)
But man’s ordering-to-flourish as its ruler is a necessary condition for the rest of creation to fulfill its own ordering. His rule is the rule which liberates other beings to be, to be in themselves, to be for others, and to be for God. And this he does by the rational speech with which he articulates the praise of God to which the whole creation is summoned. The bulwark against chaos is established “out of the mouths of babes and sucklings”.
Hunting in my experience—and by hunting I simply mean being out on the land—is a state of mind. All of one’s faculties are brought to bear in an effort to become fully incorporated into the landscape. It is more than listening for animals or watching for hoofprints or a shift in the weather. It is more than an analysis of what one senses. To hunt means to have the land around you like clothing.
The trouble with gardening, however, is that once you’re in love—and I mean really in love—it’s for keeps. No amount of discouragement or unpropitious circumstance is going to uproot that mysterious tangle of delight and desire from your heart. Like all the great loves in history, love of gardening persists, often in the face of impossible odds. At unlooked-for times, and in unlooked-for ways, the passion ignites, and you remember what you knew as a girl: even if the end result doesn’t live up to the promise—even if the promise is unattainable this side of heaven—the desire itself is sweet enough to make up for it.
What’s more, the thing the promise points to is real, and your effort to incarnate it in an orderly vegetable patch or a flowerbed of flaming color is to claim a bit of Eden on a weed-choked, hard-crusted old earth still dreaming of a beautiful past and a redeemed future.
You rejoice to find that neither drought, nor busyness, nor squash vine borers have power to snuff out that original spark, and that a seed catalogue, or a fleck of green on an otherwise dead-looking hydrangea cutting can still summon a quick rush of tears. Of all things.
Too often our ethics assumes unmitigated agency. Robert Adams reminds us of the reality of helplessness. Ethics needs to include “dealing well with our helplessness.” pic.twitter.com/Qpv6ULSKUT— James K.A. Smith (@james_ka_smith) November 10, 2018
I do not speak here of divine truths, which I shall take care not to comprise under the art of persuasion, because they are infinitely superior to nature: God alone can place them in the soul and in such a way as it pleases him. I know that he has desired that they should enter from the heart into the mind, and not from the mind into the heart, to humiliate that proud power of reasoning that pretends to the right to be the judge of the things that the will chooses; and to cure this infirm will which is wholly corrupted by its filthy attachments. And thence it comes that whilst in speaking of human things, we say that it is necessary to know them before we can love them, which has passed into a proverb, 1 the saints on the contrary say in speaking of divine things that it is necessary to love them in order to know them, and that we only enter truth through charity, from which they have made one of their most useful maxims.
The higher Christian churches—where, if anywhere, I belong—come at God with an unwarranted air of professionalism, with authority and pomp, as though they knew what they were doing, as though people in themselves were an appropriate set of creatures to have dealings with God. I often think of the set pieces of liturgy as certain words which people have successfully addressed to God without their getting killed. In the high churches they saunter through the liturgy like Mohawks along a strand of scaffolding who have long since forgotten their danger. If God were to blast such a service to bits, the congregation would be, I believe, genuinely shocked. But in the low churches you expect it any minute. This is the beginning of wisdom.
A blur of romance clings to our notions of “publicans,” “sinners,” “the poor,” “the people in the marketplace,” “our neighbors,” as though of course God should reveal himself, if at all, to these simple people, these Sunday school watercolor figures, who are so purely themselves in their tattered robes, who are single in themselves, while we now are various, complex, and full at heart. We are busy. So, I see now, were they. Who shall ascend into the hill of the Lord? or who shall stand in his holy place? There is no one but us. There is no one to send, nor a clean hand, nor a pure heart on the face of the earth, nor in the earth, but only us, a generation comforting ourselves with the notion that we have come at an awkward time, that our innocent fathers are all dead—as if innocence had ever been—and our children busy and troubled, and we ourselves unfit, not yet ready, having each of us chosen wrongly, made a false start, failed, yielded to impulse and the tangled comfort of our pleasures, and grown exhausted, unable to seek the thread, weak, and involved. But there is no one but us.
Here is the fringey edge where elements meet and realms mingle, where time and eternity spatter each other with foam. The salt sea and the islands, molding and molding, row upon rolling row, don’t quit, nor do winds end nor skies cease from spreading in curves. The actual percentage of land mass to sea in the Sound equals that of the rest of the planet: we have less time than we knew. Time is eternity’s pale interlinear, as the islands are the sea’s. We have less time than we knew and that time bouyant, and cloven, lucent, and missile, and wild.
You can learn a lot by looking inside yourself. Still, in the end, I would rather look out.
“Ivar,” Signa asked suddenly, “will you tell me why you go barefoot? All the time I lived here in the house I wanted to ask you. Is it for a penance, or what?”
“No, sister. It is for the indulgence of the body. From my youth up I have had a strong, rebellious body, and have been subject to every kind of temptation. Even in age my temptations are prolonged. It was necessary to make some allowances; and the feet, as I understand it, are free members. There is no divine prohibition for them in the Ten Commandments. The hands, the tongue, the eyes, the heart, all the bodily desires we are commanded to subdue; but the feet are free members. I indulge them without harm to any one, even to trampling in filth when my desires are low. They are quickly cleaned again.”
For one thing, planting a tree offers inexpensive pleasure. Bareroot plants may cost as little as $25, require no fertilizer in the first year, and only need (where I live) a little protection from deer in the form of a tree tube or bit of fencing. Mulch is helpful, but this can often be gotten for free. With no more expense, I buy myself hours of enjoyment, from poring over nursery catalogs (an exercise in unmitigated concupiscence), to the excitement of planting day, to the light and satisfying work of pruning and maintaining a young tree. Even if I never taste a single apple, the process of planting and tending a tree offers me a satisfaction that I find it difficult to deny myself.
Parochialism and provincialism are opposites. The provincial has no mind of his own; he does not trust what his eyes see until he has heard what the metropolis - towards which his eyes are turned - has to say on any subject. This runs through all activities. The parochial mentality on the other hand is never in any doubt about the social and artistic validity of his parish. All great civilizations are based on parochialism - Greek, Israelite, English.
While Scrooge’s redemption involves some good deeds—the Muppets and Dickens both have him, moments after awakening from his last ghostly journey, buy a Christmas turkey for Bob Cratchit’s family and make a donation to the philanthropists he earlier spurned—it would be a mistake to attribute his redemption to his own work. When he promises to “honour Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year,” he is accepting the gift that he has been given, an act as important in his moral transformation as his own turn toward generosity. He places himself in debt—to his damned friend who has intervened for him; to the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come; and to his nephew, whose consistently refused hospitality Scrooge at last accepts.
Having dedicated his life to demanding the repayment of debts, Scrooge incurs a debt he cannot repay. It is not enough to reject his old rules; he must become guilty before them as he reckons with his guilt under the standard he now accepts. That guilt, like this debt, will always remain. His redemption is also a fall. But under the new rules, debt becomes gift. Everything has changed.
The lesson these places teach is that beauty is not always, or at least not only, big, grand, sweeping, and sensational. It is also, and quite often, to be found in the small, the ordinary, and the plain. If these things are known well and patiently, their grandeur can reveal itself to us. Those who have known the golden light of evening to stream through stalks of corn, or who have seen the way that light transfigures a common ash tree, will know what I mean, and anyone who has beheld a Midwestern hillside painted with a wash of watercolor earth tones on a rainy September day will know it, too. The truth is that, in the words of the poet Hopkins, all of nature’s darling’s share a freshness deep down. They have the potential to shock us with wonder if they catch us when we’re ready to receive them.
Maybe it makes some kind of sense, then, that many of our greatest nature writers, like John Muir and Aldo Leopold, have come from places like Iowa and Wisconsin. I wonder if it might have to do with the way this landscape teaches you how to look and see, how to sit attentively long enough to let the poetry of things reveal itself to you. It helps not to be hemmed in by the sort of sprawling conurbations now enveloping our coastal cities. It helps to be so intimately connected with rural life. It helps to have the room to breathe free, to stretch out, to move in the liberty that only the wide-open calm of this stretch of country provides.
NPR recently ran a fascinating piece on the redefinition of the kilogram. Turns out, the kilogram is actually a hunk of metal in France. When somebody needs to know exactly how much is a kilogram, they have to go take the hunk of metal out from beneath its special glass container with its special lifting tool (no touching the kilogram!) and weigh it.
Friendship—loyal, ribbing, hard-won, true—can actually happen. Kids of all ages know this. It may play out differently in real life—perhaps “breaking down a door for your friend so they can kill someone” takes the form of helping a friend move apartments or reporting on the whereabouts of his or her ex upon request—but friendships of this nature have more wherewithal than Westley and Buttercup’s relationship. The Inigo/Fezzik (“and kind of Westley”) dynamic is responsible for the magic in The Princess Bride that crosses generations. Here are outsiders who band together. Here are reminders that life is less about perfect romances between perfect people than it is about imperfect friendships with imperfect people.
If one can get past the frustration, there’s something magical about airport time. I’m not talking about the rush of getting through security and to your gate before boarding begins, or making a connecting flight or sitting on the airplane itself. I’m talking about the two hour layover or the delayed flight. It is one of the few times left in our society when waiting is the most productive thing to do, where there is no one person to blame (however ill-informed that decision when we are required to wait is anyway). The clerk at the DMV may be slow, but an airplane just is or isn’t there and you just are or aren’t on one. Airport time provides a singularly enforced experience of productivity-stifling and potential-producing patience. You can nap, or read a book, or get lunch, or stare out of the window. You can catch up on emails or make a call or play a mindless game on your phone. But none of these actions escape the atmosphere of the wait or change the dimensions of how long that wait will last. Elsewhere in the world, writing an email takes up the time it takes up, and playing a game wastes the time it wastes. But when waiting in an airport, because you cannot move the clock on the screen, because you are at the mercy of a network of forces mechanical and professional, how you use that time is the least teleologically ordered to your life’s schedule than it will ever be. Because the time is less yours than usual, it makes you more free in that time than you usually are. It is quite a peculiarity: airport time confers an atmosphere of timelessness precisely because of how rigidly timeful it is.
I felt the bulk of all my worldly goods quite forcefully a few months ago when I almost tipped over the two-ton moving truck that contained them. After sweating my way through the narrow streets of St. Louis and keeping my foot to the floor in order to keep up with flow of traffic on the highway, the most frightening moment of my time as amateur trucker came in the final two hundred feet, right outside our new house. We live in a rural area of the Ozarks in southern Missouri, and our home rests on the side of what we generously term a mountain. Our narrow, sloping gravel driveway terminates by curving between a ravine and a drainage ditch at a point that, as it turns out, is not wide enough for the largest truck you can get from Budget. Accordingly, as I pulled up to the house, I rolled one set of the rear tires through the ditch, tearing a large chunk out of the lawn and causing the fully loaded truck, and my heart, to buck and twist like a breaching orca.
A people living with nature, and largely dependent upon nature, will note with care every natural aspect in their environment. Accustomed to observe through the days and the seasons, in times of stress and of repose, every natural feature, they will watch for every sign of impending mood of nature, every intimation of her favor and every monition of her austerity. Living thus in daily association with the natural features of a region some of the more notable will assume a sort of personality in the popular mind, and so come to have a place in philosophic thought and religious ritual.
The cottonwood [the Plains Indians] found in such diverse situations, appearing always so self-reliant, showing such prodigious fecundity, its lustrous leaves in springtime by their sheen and by their restlessness reflecting the splendor of the sun like the dancing ripples of a lake, that to this tree they ascribed mystery. This peculiarity of the foliage of the cottonwood is quite remarkable, so that it is said the air is never so still that there is not motion of cottonwood leaves. Even in still summer afternoons and at night when all else was still, they could ever hear the rustling of cottonwood leaves by the passage of little vagrant currents of air. And the winds themselves were the paths of the Higher Powers, so they were constantly reminded of the mystic character of this tree.
Rand McNally travelers who see a region as having borders will likely move in only one locality at a time, but travelers who perceive a place as part of a deep landscape in slow rotation at the center of a sphere and radiating infinite lines in an indefinite number of directions will move in several regions at once.
Springfield, Missouri’s St. George’s Donuts –> St. George and the Donut
In fact, I had not cried when my grandparents drowned. In fact, I had not even felt sad when my grandparents drowned, at least not in the way I understood the word. What I felt was something else, a big, loose, empty feeling, and the right words for it didn’t seem to come from the language of emotions at all. I didn’t think I was wrong to feel this way, exactly. But I sensed that in some way it was a wrong answer, an answer that lay outside the interpretive paradigm we were meant to be working within, so without really thinking about it I told the therapist a story I thought he would know how to explain.
Note that I never imagined I might not understand what he was looking for. Only that it would be impossible for him—for other people, possibly for anyone—to understand me.
Where on earth, at eleven years old, had I gotten the idea that it was my job to be easily understood?
There are several ways not to walk in the prairie, and one of them is with your eye on a far goal, because you then begin to believe you’re not closing the distance any more than you would with a mirage. My woodland sense of scale and time didn’t fit this country, and I started wondering whether I could reach the summit before dark. On the prairie, distance and the miles of air turn movement to stasis and openness to a wall, a thing as difficult to penetrate as dense forest. I was hiking in a chamber of absences where the near was the same as the far, and it seemed every time I raised a step the earth rotated under me so that my foot fell just where it had lifted from. Limits and markers make travel possible for people: circumscribe our lines of sight and we can really get somewhere.
The fact that God hides himself in the midst of revealing himself is paradoxically a testimony to his reality. Presence-in-absence is the theme of his self-disclosure. God isn’t hidden because we are too stupid to find him, or too lazy, or not “spiritual” enough. He hides himself for his own reasons, and he reveals himself for his own reasons. If that were not so, God would not be God; God would be nothing more than a projection of our own religious ideas and wishes.
The Lord hides himself from us because he is God, and God reveals himself to us because God is love (1 John 4:8). Does that make sense? Probably not—but sometimes Christians must be content with theological paradox. To know God in his Son Jesus Christ is to know that he is unconditionally love unto the last drop of God’s own blood. In the cross and resurrection of his Son, God has given us everything that we need to live with alongside the terrors of his seeming absence.
We will, it seems, to do almost anything to avoid the recognition that something is deeply wrong with all of us
Human beings wish to believe in a pure and good inner self led astray by “cultural forces”; or a conflicted self that is concerned not with righteousness but only with happiness and unhappiness; or a self afflicted by and seeking to throw off the burden of a flawed and inadequate past; or no self at all. We will, it seems, do almost anything, construct almost any story, to avoid the recognition that something is deeply wrong with all of us, that whatever it is causes us to do what is wrong, and that we cannot plausibly blame that wrongdoing wholly on external forces.
Why should we care about the survival of these quotidian spaces, with their ten-cent goods, at a time of crisis when many American cities lack affordable housing and clean water? I’d argue that the hardware store is more than a “common ground.” It’s a place of exchange based on values that are evidently in short supply among our political and corporate leaders: competence, intention, utility, care, repair, and maintenance. 8 In an era of black-boxed neural nets and disposable gadgets, hardware stores promote a material consciousness and a mechanical sensibility. They encourage civic forms of accreditation, resistant to metrics and algorithms. At some neighborhood stores, you can stop in for a couple of screws and be waved off from paying at the register.
I saw that [our Lord] is to us everything which is good and comforting for our help. He is our clothing, who wraps and enfolds us for love, embraces us and shelters us, surrounds us for his love, which is so tender that he may never desert us. And so in this sight I saw that he is everything which is good, as I understand.
And in this he showed me something small, no bigger than a hazelnut, lying in the palm of my hand, and I perceived that it was as round as any ball. I looked at it and thought: What can this be? And I was given this general answer: It is everything which is made. I was amazed that it could last, for I thought that it was so little that it could suddenly fall into nothing. And I was answered in my understanding: It lasts and always will, because God loves it; and thus everything has being through the love of God.
In this little thing I saw three properties. The first is that God made it, the second is that he loves it, the third is that God preserves it. But what is that to me? It is that God is the Creator and the lover and the protector. For until I am substantially united to him, I can never have love or rest or true happiness; until, that is, I am so attached to him that there can be no created thing between my God and me. And who will do this deed? Truly, he himself, by his mercy and his grace, for he has made me for this and has blessedly restored me.
Neat black envelopes, emboldened
By images, offer up their names:
Kale, turnip, radish, pea, and the divine tomato,
Chestnut Chocolate, Pink Brandywine, Atomic Grape.
A litany of desire prayed at the kitchen table.
Receptivity to God, embodied in the form of woman, is humanity’s ultimate purpose. This is the telos of our existence—saying yes to divine grace and welcoming the inner metamorphosis it brings. Woman, then, is the representative human being before God; she carries the image of this receptivity to which all are beckoned, whether male or female.
Because we are unused to thinking about sex in symbolic terms, it is easy to misunderstand the argument. I am not here suggesting that all women must be mothers in the literal sense, or that women are more spiritual than men, or that men are more proximate to God. These objections forget that we are dealing with symbols—more specifically, a metaphor of the relation, not of God or humanity in isolation. Each sex is telling the same story of divine-human communion through the language of the body, albeit from two distinct angles.
My heritage as a Christian lies in a radically low church group, the acapella churches of Christ, that tends to scorn formal liturgies as empty and meaningless (though we practice weekly communion and stress baptism heavily). Most of us when I was growing up had little experience and less knowledge of such practices, and suspicion of them was thus fairly baseless. However, we did occasionally have members who had left a more formal church, departed Catholics or Lutherans. And in fact these folks tended to speak of the practices of their former churches much as the rest of us did, as stultifying, rigid, “going through the motions.”
In his famous description of “thrilling romance of Orthodoxy,” G.K. Chesterton suggests the early church found an “equilibrium of a man behind madly rushing horses.” She “swerved to the left and right,” leaving behind an Arianism that would make Christianity too worldly before repudiating an “orientalism” that would make it too unworldly. “It is easy to be a heretic,” Chesterton goes on, as it is “easy to let the age have its head.” After all, there are an “infinity of angles at which one falls,” but “only one at which one stands.” The whirling adventure of the emergence of orthodoxy required saying ‘no’ to distortions on every side, so that they might preserve an undiluted ‘Yes’ to the strange paradoxes of Christ’s life and witness.
Such a situation is, I think, our own: it is possible to go wrong on matters of sex and marriage in ways besides affirming the licitness of same-sex sexual acts and desires. Indeed, it is possible to allow the spectacular transgressions our society’s broken anthropology has generated to make us inattentive to the same fundamental attitudes and dispositions present within our own midst, subtle and quiet though they might be. I have half wondered whether that is partly the point of the chaos all about us, namely, to fill us all with the self-righteous satisfaction of denouncing obvious wrongs while ignoring the many ways our own communities have imbibed the spirit of our age.
Here’s a story about my brother Andrew. I was about 10 years old, making him 8. We were in our bedroom on the second story of our the tiny old house our family inhabited in Story City, Iowa, and we were engaged (as we often were) in a wrestling context.
“My whole life had been spent waiting for an epiphany, a manifestation of God’s presence, the kind of transcendent, magical experience that lets you see your place in the big picture. And that is what I had with my first compost heap.”
We have not got to where we are by anything so simple as deciding what we wanted to do and then doing it—as if we had shopped in a display of lives and selected one. We have, instead, in the midst of living, and with time passing, been discovering how we want to live, and inventing the ways.
I haven’t been conscious before of how invariably when I have sensed or imagined the life of another creature, a tree or bird or animal, I have had to begin by imagining my own absence—as though there was a necessary competition between my life and theirs. I looked upon my ability to imagine myself absent as a virtue. It seems to me now that it was an evasion. I began this morning to feel something truer—the beginning of the knowledge that the other creatures and I are here together.
Refusing joy for the sake of suffering does not help those who suffer. The contrary is true. The world needs people who discover the good, who rejoice in it and thereby derive the impetus and courage to do good. Joy, then, does not break with solidarity. When it is the right kind of joy, when it is not egotistic, when it comes from the perception of the good, then it wants to communicate itself, and it gets passed on.
A catholic spirit is not speculative latitudinarianism. It is not an indifference to all opinions: this is the spawn of hell, not the offspring of heaven. This unsettledness of thought, this being “driven to and fro, and tossed about with every wind of doctrine,” is a great curse, not a blessing, an irreconcilable enemy, not a friend, to true catholicism. A man of a truly catholic spirit has not now his religion to seek. He is fixed as the sun in his judgement concerning the main branches of Christian doctrine. It is true, he is always ready to hear and weigh whatsoever can be offered against his principles; but as this does not show any wavering in his own mind, so neither does it occasion any. He does not halt between two opinions, nor vainly endeavour to blend them into one. Observe this, you who know not what spirit ye are of: who call yourselves men of a catholic spirit, only because you are of a muddy understanding; because your mind is all in a mist; because you have no settled, consistent principles, but are for jumbling all opinions together. Be convinced, that you have quite missed your way; you know not where you are. You think you are got into the very spirit of Christ; when, in truth, you are nearer the spirit of Antichrist. Go, first, and learn the first elements of the gospel of Christ, and then shall you learn to be of a truly catholic spirit.
While more formal gatherings have their place, to reduce hospitality to “entertaining” is in fact deeply anti-social. By design, it puts up barriers to intimacy, keeping friends (and even family) at arm’s length from one’s real life and real self. It expresses distrust that others could possibly love me as I am, thus smothering true friendship before it can even take root.
Habits of hospitality, on the other hand, are downright subversive in our culture of independence and calculation. They demonstrate that it is not only possible but fruitful and beautiful to share life in a substantive way outside the confines of the nuclear family. And, in so doing, they point to the reality of the common good, not just as a theoretical concept but as a practical one that can animate an authentic Christian community.
Researchers studying a newly-discovered bacterium found that with a few tweaks, the bug can be turned into a mutant enzyme that starts eating plastic in a matter of days, compared to the centuries it takes for plastic to break down in the ocean.
A sweetly warm day in January will commence a soupy thaw and some lifting of saggy winter spirits, but one knows it’s still wintertime. A pleasant day in February will catch a person off guard (and will convince the goose to get to work on her family) but everyone knows that February is changeable, and that a winter storm could still–and probably will–threaten again. But. A string of sun-filled days in March may tease you into believing that winter is done with you for this year. The daffodils and crocus will quickly swallow this, as will the elm and maple trees. The honeybees are great believers in early Spring as well, hungry to begin their work. But woe to the fruit trees with their easily-frozen blossoms if they are gullible enough to believe. And woe to you, beloved, if you are fooled.
If someone were doing something harmful to themselves, would it be merciful or just to stop them? Say, for instance, that you are an engineer, and a neighbor was building a structurally unsound addition to their house, which would likely result in the addition collapsing, potentially injuring someone. And despite your best efforts, they will not listen to your professional counsel. Would it be more merciful or more just to call the city officials, urging them to make an inspection of your neighbor’s handiwork?
On the one hand, it would be just. You would be taking the relevant laws and rules into account, holding them accountable in the process, in such a way as to make them liable to different fines and consequences. They may feel that you overemphasized justice and rule keeping, feeling angry with you for interfering in their private affairs. On the other hand, it would be merciful, for what could be kinder than to do what is necessary to protect the family and possessions of your neighbor from great danger, even in the face of their opposition?
In this case, Plato would say, it would not be merciful to leave them to their own devices, risking their lives and that of their family and guests, and neither would it be just. The only way to truly be merciful is to pursue justice, for only justice will bring about a situation which is good and safe for everyone involved.
Come let us to the fields away,
For who would eat must toil,
And there’s no finer work for man,
Than tilling of the soil.
The film’s promotion of self-esteem is relentless and typically American, in that it takes the idea of believing in yourself to the point of unconscious cruelty and then past it. The script endlessly belabors the point that Meg is the most important thing in the universe. I know that this is intended as counterprogramming for a world that tells black girls they’re worthless, but lies aren’t homeopathic–you can’t grow someone’s self-esteem to the right degree by encouraging her to be a solipsist. All that’ll do is give her another set of reasons to hate herself, since the human being never seems more ridiculous to itself than when it mistakes itself for God. (Why do you think so many white men are weirdos?)
A Happy Easter to my friends on the Western liturgical calendar: Christ is risen! Here are three poems I love for the day.
On the outskirts, in a waste of clay and rock
unearthed when the Interstate went through,
he made his garden—leveled and cleared
the gutted soil. Then in early spring
he brought sacks of sphagnum and guano,
water in gallon jugs, since the spring rains
were never enough, and small bags of seed
with odd names: Early Girl and Black Magic;
Big Max, Straight Eight and Kentucky Wonder.
Testing, holding fast to that which was good.
We can usefully frame the choice to delete Facebook or abstain from social media or any other act of tech refusal by (admittedly loose) analogy to the monastic life. It is not for everyone. The choice can be costly. It will require self-denial and discipline. Not everyone is in a position to make such a choice even if they desired it. And maybe, under present circumstances, it would not even be altogether desirable for most people to make that choice. But it is good for all of us that some people do make that choice.
A: “The crux of the matter is, how can we make archaeology cool again?”
B: “We can’t!”
What then does Christian faith say to this? It opens its eyes, looks upon all these insignificant, distasteful, and despised duties in the Spirit, and is aware that they are all adorned with divine approval as with the costliest gold and jewels. It says, “O God, because I am certain that you have created me as a man and have from my body begotten this child, I also know for certain that it meets with your perfect pleasure. I confess to you that I am not worthy to rock this little babe or wash its diapers. Or to be entrusted with the care of the child and its mother. How is it that I, without any merit, have come to this distinction of being certain that I am serving your creature and your most precious will? O how gladly will I do so, though the duties should be even more insignificant and despised. Neither frost nor heat, neither drudgery nor labor, will distress or dissuade me, for I am certain that it is thus pleasing in your sight.”
God, with all his angels and creatures, is smiling, not because that father is washing diapers, but because he is doing so in Christian faith.
It is psychological gravity, not technical inertia, however, that is the greater force against the open web. Human beings are social animals and centralized social media like Twitter and Facebook provide a powerful sense of ambient humanity—the feeling that “others are here”—that is often missing when one writes on one’s own site. Facebook has a whole team of Ph.D.s in social psychology finding ways to increase that feeling of ambient humanity and thus increase your usage of their service.
When I left Facebook eight years ago, it showed me five photos of my friends, some with their newborn babies, and asked if I was really sure. It is unclear to me if the re-decentralizers are willing to be, or even should be, as ruthless as this. It’s easier to work on interoperable technology than social psychology, and yet it is on the latter battlefield that the war for the open web will likely be won or lost.
“Thus says the LORD of hosts: In this place that is waste, without man or beast, and in all of its cities, there shall again be habitations of shepherds resting their flocks.”
When I took over the farm following my grandfather’s death, I initially despaired at all the loose bits and pieces that littered the place. Wire was my special enemy, for the barns were everywhere cluttered with it – wire salvaged from telephones, from appliances, from who-could-tell-where. I accumulated buckets of wire with a plan to dispose of them. Mercifully, I never got round to it, for I quickly learned the uncommon worth of wire. For example, it presently holds the muffler to my truck, secures the busted PTO cover on my bushhog, and seams caging around fruit-tree saplings, the better to protect them from the depredations of deer. My only concern about wire now is that I might need more.
The stock images sometimes used to depict the pitiable conditions or pathologies of the rural poor – images of homeplaces surrounded by wreckage and ‘trash’ – tell a bigger story if you know how to read them. The broken-down car in the yard contains parts that still have use in them if need arises. That rusty freezer on the porch probably contains the dog’s food, since nothing beats an old freezer for storing feed where unsanctioned animals can’t get at it. Put plainly, if there is wire everywhere, there’s probably a reason. And if you can’t see the reason, there’s probably a reason for that too.
This, of course, is very similar to the conversion accounts of two other writers I admire—Sheldon Vanauken and C. S. Lewis. For both of these men, the surprising brilliance of Christian writers helped them come to faith and then adjust to being, unexpectedly and somewhat reluctantly, Christian themselves. But even more important was the fact that the Christianity that both of these men encountered (at Oxford, in both cases) was not scared of the world nor was it concerned with somehow one-upping the world. It was, rather, deeply at home in it, fascinated by it, and convinced that the truth of Christianity did not negate the truths they came to prior to conversion, but somehow enriched them.
We’ve built up all kinds of personal databases of buildings. Some of them are pretty general: split level houses, gas stations, water towers, etc. Some are more specific: fast food chains (new), fast food chains that haven’t been remodeled yet, “new” apartment buildings, dilapidated hotels by the sides of highways, office parks, churches that used to be something else, etc. (I personally have a category called hospitals built in the early 00s that were doing Postmodern Prairie chic.)
. . .
Like I said earlier, a lot of the time we don’t have a common language to describe these buildings. Some people come up with pejorative names to describe built phenomenon (the McMansion is the prime example of this). Others try to define buildings by decade (e.g. 70s malls vs 80s malls).
However, this lack of common language hasn’t stopped hundreds of makeshift historians from relentlessly categorizing buildings, styles, aesthetics, and anything else that can be filmed, photographed, or written about online. And frankly, this work is fascinating, it is important, it is exciting, and it needs to be done.
Roughly 97 percent of poultry farmers in the United States are “contract farmers.” This means each farm has an exclusive contract with a gigantic corporation like Tyson, Pilgrim’s Pride, or Perdue. The corporation gives the farmer the chicks, which the farmer raises to slaughtering age, then ships them back off to the corporation for processing. The corporation has an insane level of control over the farmer: they can decide how many and what quality of chicks to give, they can demand at a moment’s notice that the farmer make significant and expensive changes to the farm, and the farmer is legally not allowed to sue for unfair practices. In one lawsuit, the word “cartel” was used to describe chicken producers. It is, without exaggeration, indentured servitude. It also does not really work; roughly 71 percent of contract farmers are at or below the federal poverty line, according to a Pew survey.
I want to build a world that sees the work which takes place in the home as valuable, as the work of our hearts, and not as something to be outsourced. When we outsource the work of the home, we outsource our own lives. Let’s reclaim the home and find a way to make the economy work for it, rather than dismantle the home to build an economy that can’t figure out how to adequately value things which have no price, like the joy of a child and mother together.
Our great need now is for sciences and technologies of limits, of domesticity, of what Wes Jackson of the Land Institute in Salina, Kansas, has called “homecoming.” These would be specifically human sciences and technologies, working, as the best humans always have worked, within self-imposed limits. The limits would be the accepted contexts of places, communities, and neighborhoods, both natural and human.
I hope both progressive feminists and social conservatives can agree that advertisers have no right to rule our gaze. When they push demeaning content on us, we should fight back. We need to reclaim the space these ads take up in our attention and our cities. Outdoor advertising does not deserve its omnipresence, especially when advertisers choose objectification as a tactic.
Artistic guerrilla campaigns are underway against ads’ predominance in our public spaces. The collective Art in Ad Places spent 2017 beautifying pay-phone kiosks by replacing ads with non-commercial artwork — temporarily, as the authorities usually tore down the art after a day or two. The group states: “By replacing advertisements with artwork, Art in Ad Places provides a public service and an alternative vision of our public environment.” Some of their guerilla installations, such as an entry from Tatyana Fazlalizadeh’s “Stop Telling Women to Smile” campaign, are direct counterprogramming to the harassment in which ads are complicit. But all of the interventions of Art in Ad Places invite us to imagine a world where communities have more control over the messages — about bodies, needs, and desires — written over their physical landscape. We should be inspired by such rebellions against outdoor advertising and create legal, social, and artistic antidotes to toxic ads.
Great power has always been blinding to those who wield it. Those who follow blindly in the wake of their own power practice hypocrisy by reflex; it is their natural camouflage. And in this age of super machines and super weapons hypocrisy is not only sinful, it is probably suicidal.
Alan Jacobs advocates abandoning the walled gardens of social media for a “domain of one’s own” as an ethical act:
After he and then Grandpa were dead, the farm, in spite of my father’s long caring for it, lacked a coherence that it had had before. It needed not just attention and work but lives that made it a world and lived from it.
Within limits we can know. Within somewhat wider limits we can imagine. We can extend compassion to the limit of imagination. We can love, it seems, beyond imagining. But how little we can understand!
Convenience has the ability to make other options unthinkable. Once you have used a washing machine, laundering clothes by hand seems irrational, even if it might be cheaper. After you have experienced streaming television, waiting to see a show at a prescribed hour seems silly, even a little undignified. To resist convenience — not to own a cellphone, not to use Google — has come to require a special kind of dedication that is often taken for eccentricity, if not fanaticism.
. . .
An unwelcome consequence of living in a world where everything is “easy” is that the only skill that matters is the ability to multitask. At the extreme, we don’t actually do anything; we only arrange what will be done, which is a flimsy basis for a life.
We need to consciously embrace the inconvenient — not always, but more of the time. Nowadays individuality has come to reside in making at least some inconvenient choices. You need not churn your own butter or hunt your own meat, but if you want to be someone, you cannot allow convenience to be the value that transcends all others.
Here [in the wedding ceremony] is the beginning of a small kingdom which can be something like the true Kingdom. The chance will be lost, perhaps even in one night; but at this moment it is still an open possibility. Yet even when it has been lost, and lost again a thousand times, still if two people stay together, they are in a real sense king and queen to each other. And after forty odd years, Adam can still turn and see Eve standing beside him, in a unity with himself that in some small way at least proclaims the love of God’s Kingdom. In movies and magazines the “icon” of marriage is always a youthful couple. But once, in the light and warmth of an autumn afternoon, this writer saw on the bench of a public square, in a poor Parisian suburb, an old and poor couple. They were sitting hand in hand, in silence, enjoying the pale light, the last warmth of the season. In silence: all words had been said, all passion exhausted, all storms at peace. The whole life was behind—yet all of it was now present, in this silence, in this light, in this warmth, in this silent unity of hands. Present—and ready for eternity, ripe for joy. This to me remains the vision of marriage, of its heavenly beauty.
Our responsibility, then, as stewards, the responsibility that inescapably goes with our dominion over the other creatures, according to Revelation 4:11, is to safeguard God’s pleasure in His work. And we can do that, I think (I don’t know how else we could do it), by safeguarding our pleasure in His work, and our pleasure in our own work. Or, if we no longer can trust ourselves to be more than economic machines, then we must do it by safeguarding the pleasure of children in God’s work and in ours.
The conviction is now widespread, for instance, that “a work of art” has no purpose but to be itself. Or if it is allowed that a poem, for instance, has a meaning, then it is a meaning peculiar to its author, its time, or its convention. A poem, in short, is a relic as soon as it is composed; it can be taught, but it cannot teach. The issue of its truth and pertinence is not raised because literary study is conducted with about the same anxiety for ‘control’ as is scientific study. . . . My impression is that the great works are taught less and less as Ananda Coomaraswamy said they should be: with the recognition ‘that nothing will have been accomplished unless men’s lives are affected and their values changed by what we have to show.’ My impression is that in the humanities as in the sciences the world is increasingly disallowed as a context. I hope that my country may be delivered from the objectivity of the humanities.
School is the advertising agency which makes you believe that you need the society as it is.
My students are often Christians who are old enough to mock mercilessly the people that gave of their time sacrificially to disciple them when they were young but who are not yet mature enough to be able to disciple others. I often find them quick-off-the-draw-ready with a forceful and sophisticated critique of most any traditional religious belief or practice.
They can be sadly flummoxed, however, by a simple request to explain what is true. If I wonder, “What are some problems with the doctrine of the atonement?” hands fly up all over the room, but if I straightforwardly ask, “What is the gospel?” the room falls strangely silent, and I find myself staring at rows of students quietly avoiding making eye contact.
To sketch what the gospel is would be to risk a rough draft that someone else would get the joy of critiquing; it would be to express a childlike faith; it would be to do the work of parenting.
I have therefore increasingly made it my self-imposed task to help my students find their way to their mature identities in a manner that does not make their parents and childhood teachers and pastors the foil in the process. Of course, this does not necessarily mean that they should simply accept what they have inherited unaltered. More and more I have come to value those who model how to no longer hold to the exact version of faith they grew up with while still finding ways to be grateful for and affirming of the community of faith that raised them.
I once heard that a library is one of the few remaining places that cares more about you than your wallet. It means that a person can be a person there: not a customer, not a user, not an economic agent, not a pair of eyes to monetize, but a citizen and community-member, a reader and a thinker, a mind and—God, I am going to say it—a soul.
My reading tends to cluster around themes and specific interests (like many people, I’m sure) even if I’m not formally studying or writing about them. Every now and then I will organize them into a brief bibliography like this: think of it as a mini-syllabus, or short edited collection drawn from a really great conference.
Ben Dueholm on the point of even lightweight bougie Lenten fasts:
One of the strongest of contemporary conventions is that of comparing to Thoreau every writer who has been as far out of the house as the mailbox.
The passage into mystery always refreshes. If, when we work, we can look once a day upon the face of mystery, then our labor satisfies. We are lightened when our gifts rise from pools we cannot fathom . . . Anything contained within a boundary must contain as well its own exhaustion.
The idea of an identical repetition of the past and that of a radical rupture with any past are two symmetrical results of a single conception of time. We cannot return to the past, to tradition, to repetition, because these great immobile domains are the inverted image of the earth that is no longer promised to us today.
Robinson has shown herself to be a novelist of remarkable empathy. Her essays also exhibit a unique ability to identify with characters that we moderns would rather shun. But one could worry that her empathy is selective. She rightly wants us to see the world afresh by stepping into the shoes of Jonathan Edwards and Edward VI and Oliver Cromwell. But if you’re offering a genealogy of how we got here, now, you might expect others to also find a voice. (Defensive invocations of “specialization” or “focus” won’t suffice. She’s ranged well beyond her expertise, and the focus is always inflected by present concerns, as she admits.) Her sometimes pedantic correction of our caricatures of the Puritans spends little time considering their frontier “encounters” with Native Americans, for example. To read Robinson alongside Coates is to always have the nagging impression that she’s surveying an incredibly rich tapestry but never shows us the back.
In short—and it feels odd to propose this about my favourite Calvinist—What Are We Doing Here? doesn’t spend much time grappling with evil. This might be true of her non-fiction more broadly. Her reply to the deflationary critiques of naturalists and the reductionism of rationalists appeals to a cosmos whose kaleidoscopic beauty is mesmerizing and enchanting. But the horror of a nature “red in tooth and claw” seems conveniently left aside. Creation is the theatre of God’s glory, for Robinson, but there is an act in this drama that doesn’t have much of an explanatory role: the Fall. Similarly, in order to counter the dismissals of the Puritans as dour and mean and oppressive, she paints a picture of their (relative) progressivism, their revolutionary reforms, the seed of our own politics planted in their soil. But one wonders if this is sufficient for those who have been ground underfoot by history as reason not to believe.
If you cultivate a healthy poverty and simplicity, so that finding a penny will literally make your day, then, since the world is in fact planted in pennies, you have with your poverty bought a lifetime of days.
Of course, making six figures farming isn’t generally impossible—with enough capital, enough land, in the right situation, theoretically anyone could do it. What makes [Jean-Martin] Fortier somewhat unique is that on his 1.5 acre vegetable farm in Quebec, for the better part of a decade, he has claimed that amount per acre.
Contrasted with corn or soybean farmers, for example, who may average somewhere between $400 and $600 an acre—or even the average CSA farmer who often brings in less than $40,000 per acre of vegetables—these numbers don’t just make farming look reasonable, but viable. They’re the sort of numbers that, no matter what kind of farmer you are, you drag yourself across state lines to see the guy who’s doing it.
Many churches in the SCM have submitted to the currents of mainstream Evangelical culture, seeking to attract members and stability through polished programming and managerial skills adapted from the corporate world. One need not critique every instantiation of such practices on theological grounds simply to observe their fluid and ever-changing state. Every year for the past several decades, it seems that “church” is re-invented through a new sermon series with the inevitable deluge of programming and marketing. I make no claim to know what the specific catalyst was (if there even was a single one)—perhaps the movement’s slow descent into unabashed nationalism in its worship following the World Wars, or perhaps it was the “worship wars” waged in the 1990s in many churches—but whatever the case, it seems that many in the SCM have come to see the truth of Basil Mitchell’s insight: “Those who are liberated from tradition generally become slaves to fashion.” Indeed, we have arrived at a point in time where so many churches have now fashioned themselves to be “church for people who don’t like church” that it is seems the word “church” has been vacated of meaning.
Stanley Hauerwas famously said, “The great enemy of the church today is not atheism but sentimentality.” In his view, there’s no deeper sentimentality than the presumption that we (or our children) can hold convictions without suffering for them. To have true convictions is to love something bigger than the self, and we cannot love God or others without suffering. The true roots of Valentine’s Day [in St. Valentine’s martyrdom] remind us that holding to our convictions might mean suffering unto death.
Matthew Loftus has much wisdom to offer on raising a family that resists the atomization of modernity and the insanity of hyper-conscious parenting. A couple favorite excerpts:
The society into which the Christian is called at baptism is not a collective but a Body. It is in fact that Body of which the family is an image on the natural level. . . . [In that Body] There is, in forms too subtle for official embodiment, a continual interchange of complementary ministrations. We are all constantly teaching and learning, forgiving and being forgiven, representing Christ to man when we intercede, and man to Christ when others intercede for us. The sacrifice of selfish privacy which is daily demanded of us is daily repaid a hundredfold in the true growth of personality which the life of the Body encourages. Those who are members of one another become as diverse as the hand and the ear. That is why the worldlings are so monotonously alike compared with the almost fantastic variety of the saints. Obedience is the road to freedom, humility the road to pleasure, unity the road to personality.
Suppose I lose my eye in a car accident for which you were at fault. In our legal order you must pay me for the loss of my eye. But you get it at a bargain. I can get only what the court, or the worker’s comp schedules, or the insurance company says is the going rate for an involuntarily transferred eye as long as it still leaves me with one good one. You do not have to pay me what I would have demanded had you bargained with me ahead of time for the right to take it (assuming for the sake of the hypothetical that I could legally agree to have my eye gouged out). But that is the problem with accidents. One does not usually set about to do them on purpose, and so all the bargaining must he done after the transfer has been effected and the damage is done. My eye in such a regime is cheap for the taking.
Compare, though, how much improved my bargaining position is in a talionic regime, and thus how much pricier my eye will be. The talion structures the bargaining situation to simulate the hypothetical bargain that would have been struck had I been able to set the price of my eye before you took it. It does this by a neat trick of substitution. Instead of receiving a price for the taking of my eye, I get to demand the price you will be willing to pay to keep yours. It is not so much that I think your eye substitutable for mine. It is that you do. You will in fact play the role of me valuing my eye before it was taken out, and the talion assumes that you will value yours as I would have valued mine. The talion works some quick magic: as soon as you take my eye, in that instant your eye becomes mine; I now possess the entitlement to it. And that entitlement is protected by a property rule. I get to set the price, and you will have to accede to my terms to keep me from extracting.
I’m sure my meals are not a purely physical pleasure. All the associations of every other time one has had the same food (every rasher of bacon is now 56 years thick with me) come in: and with things like Bread, Wine, Honey, Apples, there are all the echoes of myth, fairy-tale, poetry, & scripture. So that the physical pleasure is also imaginative and even spiritual.
. The Internet has given us access to every weird thing in the world while simultaneously taking away the last vestiges of the “exotic.” You can see pictures of a manatee smoking a cigarette, but you can’t say “far Timbuktu” when you have a Flickr photoset about Timbuktu saved on Pinterest.
. Most of us will, of course, still never get close to the real Timbuktu in our lives.
. One consequence of this is the tone of burned-out overstimulation that, for no particular reason, I’ve taken to calling “whaff.” Whaff, in its simplest form, is semi-sarcastic exaggerated praise for the bizarre, the cute, or the stupid. If you’re on Twitter, chances are you’ve encountered whaff within the last 10 seconds. “OMG THIS IS THE GREATEST THING EVAR,” followed by a link to an animated GIF of a baby owl falling into a hot tub, is the elemental template of whaff.
. Whaff is never, however, entirely sarcastic. The attitude it projects is somehow both despairing and celebratory, without really occupying any of the middle ground between those two extremes. Whaff is nihilistic (because the world is so arbitrary and nonsensical) but also full of wonder (because the world is so huge and surprising and strange). At the same time, whaff is always both self-mocking (since you’re admitting that you actually like reading fanfic about Stan Van Gundy’s sweater collection) and self-congratulatory (since you’re smart and interesting enough to have undertaken the online odyssey that led you through the emotional arctic of the various fuckyeah Tumblrs to Stan Van Gundy fanfic in the first place).
. Whaff is the tone of explorers who have been given more maps than they could ever use and who never have to leave their own rooms.
No matter how corrupt and trashy it necessarily must be at times in this modern world, the river is never apart from beauty. Partly, I suppose, this is because it always keeps to its way.
Sometimes, living right beside it, I forget it. Going about my various tasks, I don’t think about it. And then it seems just to flow back into my mind. I stop and look at it. I think of its parallel, never-meeting banks, which never yet part. I think of it lying there in its long hollow, at the foot of all the landscape, a single opening from its springs in the mountains all the way to its mouth. It is a beautiful thought, one of the most beautiful of all thoughts. I think it not in my brain only but in my heart and in all the lengths of my bones.
Two men had to cross a dangerous bridge. The first convinced himself that it wd. bear them, and called this conviction Faith. The second said ‘Whether it breaks or holds, whether I die here or somewhere else, I am equally in God’s good hands.’ And the bridge did break and they were both killed: and the second man’s Faith was not disappointed and the first man’s was.
I found this observation in my notes as if I was going to flesh it out more. I’m not going to now, but I think it stands relatively well on its own, so I post it here for consideration.
Another fragment that I liked from my notes. In defense of a personal sensibility that some would term pessimism or negativity.
I seem to be always recommending this documentary to people, so I may as well put it here. This short (30 minute) piece traces “line singing,” a style of sacred music somewhere between shape note singing and chant. It came from Scotland to the American South, and is now only practiced by some very small, rural groups of Primitive Baptists and similar denominations - including in Gaelic and Native American languages. If you have any interest in sacred music, you gotta give this a listen.
A Tory, according to Samuel Johnson, is a man attached to orthodoxy in church and state. A bohemian is a wandering and often impecunious man of letters or arts, indifferent to the demands of bourgeois fad and foible. Such a one has your servant been. Tory and bohemian go not ill together: it is quite possible to abide by the norms of civilized existence… and yet to set at defiance the soft securities and shame conventionalities of 20th-century sociability.
I used to tell a lot of stories about my own experiences in my sermons but I don’t do it any more. People were remembering my stories instead of the biblical stories. What we want to do in our preaching is to point beyond ourselves to the presence of the living God.
I’m not trying to suggest that this is easy. Our entire training—for a good many of us, anyway—has tended to turn us away from this way of preaching. We have been deeply influenced, whether we know it or not, by the imperatives we have heard to make the sermon meet people where they are. But if we do that, then we make little room for the cloud-rending Word to speak.
But what sort of shepherds are they who for fear of giving offense not only fail to prepare the sheep for the temptations that threaten, but even promise them worldly happiness? God himself made no such promise to this world. On the contrary, God foretold hardship upon hardship in this world until the end of time. And you want the Christian to be exempt from these troubles? Precisely because he is a Christian, he is destined to suffer more in this world.
“I think we may except [accept] it as a rule that whenever a person’s religious conversation dwells chiefly, or even frequently, on the faults of other people’s religions, he is in a bad condition.”
There’s an old saying: “Everyone driving faster than you is a maniac; anyone driving slower than you is a moron”. In the same way, no matter what the current level of regulation is, removing any regulation will feel like inviting catastrophe, and adding any regulation will feel like choking on red tape.
. . .
So maybe the scary thing about Oregon is how strongly we rely on intuitions about absurdity. If something doesn’t immediately strike us as absurd, then we have to go through the same plodding motions of debate that we do with everything else – and over short time scales, debate is interminable and doesn’t work. Having a notion strike us as absurd short-circuits that and gets the job done – but the Oregon/everyone-else divide shows that intuitions about absurdity are artificial and don’t even survive state borders, let alone genuinely different cultures and value systems.
(5) What is a soul?
I am. (This is the only possible answer: or expanded, ‘A soul is that which can say I am’).
And we who know death, who live with death, who are always “in death” (as the Prayer Book reminds us)—we need the kind of strange king who won’t ignore death (always blandly basking in the cries of “Long live the king!”), who won’t hold himself aloof from it, who won’t always win and keep himself free from our terrible losses. We need a king who will, bizarrely, show us his kingship in and through our dying and death. We need a king whose gold and glitter has the whiff of myrrh about it. We don’t need a Luke Skywalker, who always seems to be soaring to heights we can’t reach. We need the strange king of Epiphany, the king who flees to Egypt with us and for us, who lives under the shadow of Herod alongside us, who goes down to the grave with us and on our behalf.
And the promise of Epiphany is that that is exactly the king we have.
This post is newly revised and updated after previous publication on my Tumblr in 2013.
This post was originally published on my Tumblr in 2013. I have cleaned it up and rewritten significantly for republication.
One afternoon I was planting in the orchard under an apple-tree iris reticulata, those lovely violet flowers… Suddenly I heard Virginia’s voice calling to me from the sitting room window: “Hitler is making a speech.” I shouted back, “I shan’t come. I’m planting iris and they will be flowering long after he is dead.” Last March, twenty-one years after Hitler committed suicide in the bunker, a few of those violet flowers still flowered under the apple-tree in the orchard.
Manifesto of the idle parent
We reject the idea that parenting requires hard work
We pledge to leave our children alone
That should mean that they leave us alone, too
We reject the rampant consumerism that invades children from the moment they are born
We read them poetry and fantastic stories without morals
We drink alcohol without guilt
We reject the inner Puritan
We fill the house with music and laughter
We don’t waste money on family days out and holidays
We lie in bed for as long as possible
We try not to interfere
We push them into the garden and shut the door so that we can clean the house
We both work as little as possible, particularly when the kids are small
Time is more important than money
Happy mess is better than miserable tidiness
Down with school
We fill the house with music and merriment
People who doubt and who write about doubt feel the need to universalize their experience of doubt, and so inadvertently mirror the position they seek to oppose. Instead of disallowing doubt, they disallow lack of doubt. Instead of repressing lack of certainty, they repress lack of uncertainty. Instead of requiring assurance in all things, they require assurance in nothing.
But there is no warrant for universalizing doubt. Though well meant, it is little more than projection of one’s own experience onto the canvas of humanity, the generalization of the parochial. But doubt need not be common to all to be legitimate for some. Nor does doubt confer some kind of moral or spiritual superiority on those who experience it versus those who do not. The one who believes without doubt is not ipso facto less sophisticated, less thoughtful, less theologically adept, less sensitive to the ambiguities and shortcomings and evils of fallen human life than the who believes in the midst of or in spite of doubt. Doubt is not the mark of maturity. It is not the mark of anything except itself.
Not sure what this is, but I feel a sense of belonging pic.twitter.com/w20nKmb01X— Austin Williams (@Future_Cities) August 2, 2017
It is good for man to eat thistles, and to remember that he is an ass. But the artichoke is the best of thistles, and the man who enjoys it has the satisfaction of feeling that he is an ass of taste.
When I moved [to South Dakota], this place seemed empty to me. Learning what Thoreau calls the Art of Walking changes my view. Nestled in an oxbow of the Big Sioux River, the river is a natural quiet greenbelt where kingfishers and green herons, deer and mink and the occasional cougar live as our very near neighbors. We have no great heights here, perhaps, but the prairie is ocean-deep, hushed by the slow roll of steady wind and water falling over pink quartzite falls. There are mountains here, and slowly I am learning to see them.
My Neighbor Totoro is a genuine children’s film, attuned to child psychology. Satsuki and Mei move and speak like children: they run and romp, giggle and yell. The sibling dynamic is sensitively rendered: Satsuki is eager to impress her parents but sometimes succumbs to silliness, while Mei is Satsuki’s shadow and echo (with an independent streak). But perhaps most uniquely, My Neighbor Totoro follows children’s goals and concerns. Its protagonists aren’t given a mission or a call to adventure—in the absence of a larger drama, they create their own, as children in stable environments do. They play.
In the Lord of the Rings four races that have historic reasons to distrust one another must band together to defeat an enemy that threatens to destroy them all. At the center of this gathering of misfits stands a people (the hobbits) who are perceived as weak and simple. Despite their outward appearance, these small folk are of sturdier stuff than their stature might suggest. The grand plan for the salvation of the world at the core of the novel is not the acquisition of power, but its rejection. This sacrifice of power is possible because of the shared love that the four peoples discover on mission together.
It is clear, then, that the Lord of Rings posits racial reconciliation, common mission and the rejection of power as the hope of the world. If this is true, then with all due respect to authorial intent, the hobbits are black people.
Toad is painfully aware that Frog is more accomplished than he is, and it eats away at him, at least subconsciously. In his dream (which should be required reading for every adolescent and adult), he finally triumphs over Frog so entirely that Frog disappears altogether, and Toad realizes that being second-best is not nearly as bad as being alone. He wants Frog to be “his own right size,” even if that’s bigger than Toad.
My window shews the travelling clouds,
Leaves spent, new seasons, alter’d sky,
The making and the melting crowds:
The whole world passes; I stand by.
Were there no needs, wants would be wanting themselves, and supplies superfluous: want being the parent of Celestial Treasure. It is very strange; want itself is a treasure in Heaven: and so great an one that without it there could be no treasure. God did infinitely for us, when He made us to want like Gods, that like Gods we might be satisfied. The heathen Deities wanted nothing and were therefore unhappy, for they had no being. But the Lord God of Israel the Living and True God, was from all Eternity, and from all Eternity wanted like a God. He wanted the communication of His divine essence, and persons to enjoy it. He wanted Worlds, He wanted Spectators, He wanted Joys, He wanted Treasures. He wanted, yet He wanted not, for He had them.
The most useful writing advice, like a doctor’s script, is always specific. It doesn’t widen, it narrows. “Those sentences that begin with the word ‘Although,’” writes Joseph Epstein, “or those sentences requiring a ‘however’ somewhere in their middle, are almost always dead on arrival.” That’s thrillingly precise. So, too, is critic Stephen Metcalf’s urgent warning to avoid overuse of em dashes and, especially, semicolons. Epstein and Metcalf, in other words, aren’t giving permission. They are shutting down otherwise tempting avenues. The greatest teachers I ever had always held firm opinions about the books you should bother with and about how to read and write. You didn’t have to agree with them to be energized by the charge they threw off. The charge was the point.
Your enjoyment of the World is never right, till you so esteem it, that everything in it, is more your treasure than a King’s exchequer full of Gold and Silver. And that exchequer yours also in its place and service. Can you take too much joy in your Father’s works? He is Himself in everything. Some things are little on the outside, and rough and common, but I remember the time when the dust of the streets were as pleasing as Gold to my infant eyes, and now they are more precious to the eye of reason.
“One is not born traditional; one chooses to become traditional by constant innovation.”
“[In my work] I have used Luther’s insights [about the hiddenness of God] therapeutically, to ward off a bowdlerized apophaticism which has recently been popular. That God is unknowable must not be construed to mean that he is but vaguely glimpsed through clouds of metaphysical distance, so that we are compelled—and at liberty—to devise namings and metaphors guided by our religious needs. It means on the contrary that we are stuck with the names and descriptions the biblical narrative contingently enforces, which seem designed always to offend somebody; it means that their syntax is hidden from us, so that we cannot identify synonyms or make translations. It means that we have no standpoint from which to relativize them and project more soothing visions.” - Robert Jenson via Brad East.
“If legalism is a disease, the cure is worse.” - Joshua Gibbs.
“To understand worship as a royal waste of time is good for us because that frees us to enter into the poverty of Christ. We worship a triune God who chose to rescue the world he created by means of the way of humility. God sent his Son into the world to empty himself in the obedience of a slave, humbling himself to suffer throughout his entire life and to die the worst of deaths on our behalf. He did not come to be ‘solving the world’s problems in any sense that the world could understand.’ Worship of such a God immerses us in such a way of life, empowered by a Spirit who does not equip us with means of power or control, accomplishment or success, but with the ability and humility to waste time in love of the neighbor.” - Marva Dawn, A Royal “Waste” of Time (emphasis mine)
It is taken for granted that the way to achieve certain important collective goods, like tolerance and mutual respect, lies in a code of behavior, like the “speech codes” which some campuses have put in place. The contours of disrespect are codified, so that they can be forbidden, and if necessary sanctioned. Thus will our society march forward.
Why are so many Christian writers and readers drawn to sentimentality? Why is it that if one googles the phrase “Christian poetry” one has to wade through pages of results with titles like “Grandma’s Praying Hands” and “Childhood Smiles” before getting to Dante, George Herbert, and Paul Mariani? I suspect it has to do with a misguided interpretation of Philippians 4:8, which says, “Finally, brethren, whatever things are true, whatever things are honest, whatever things are just, whatever things are pure, whatever things are lovely, whatever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things.” This verse is often evoked in admonition to avoid the garbage of popular entertainment, and rightly so. It is, also, alas, taken to mean that we should model our mental and emotional lives on those three monkeys who hear no evil, see no evil, and speak no evil. Forgetting the direction toward honesty, many Christians seem to believe that what Scripture means by “pure” and by “lovely” is merely the pleasant and the naive, the Hallmark Channel, not the reality of a world in need of redemption.
“High standards need strong sources. This is because there is something morally corrupting, even dangerous, in sustaining the demand simply on the feeling of undischarged obligation, on guilt, or its obverse, self-satisfaction.” - Charles Taylor, Sources of the Self.
It is a characteristic of all things now called ‘efficient,’ which means mechanical and calculated, that if they go wrong at all they go entirely wrong. There is no power of retrieving a defeat, as in simpler and more living organisms. A strong gun can conquer a strong elephant, but a wounded elephant can easily conquer a broken gun. Thus the Prussian monarchy in the eighteenth century, or now, can make a strong army merely by making the men afraid. But it does it with the permanent possibility that the men may some day be more afraid of their enemies than of their officers. Thus the drainage in our cities so long as it is quite solid means a general safety, but if there is one leak it means concentrated poison—an explosion of deathly germs like dynamite, a spirit of stink. Thus, indeed, all that excellent machinery which is the swiftest thing on earth in saving human labor is also the slowest thing on earth in resisting human interference. It may be easier to get chocolate for nothing out of a shopkeeper than out an automatic machine. But if you did manage to steal the chocolate, the automatic machine would be much less likely to run after you.
“Whoever does not come to know the face of God in contemplation will not recognize it in action, even when it reveals itself to him in the face of the oppressed and humiliated.” - Hans Urs von Balthasar, as quoted by James K.A. Smith.
Though the key Christian intellectuals of the day and their fellow travelers — Mannheim and Adler, Eliot and Oldham, W. H. Auden, Reinhold Niebuhr, Dorothy Sayers, and many others — did not oppose their social order, they were far more critical than their predecessors had been during World War I. The Christian intellectuals of World War II found their society shaking at its foundations. They were deeply concerned that even if the Allies won, it would be because of technological and economic, not moral and spiritual, superiority; and if technocrats were deemed responsible for winning the war, then those technocrats would control the postwar world. (It is hard to deny that those Christian intellectuals were, on this point at least, truly prophetic.)
Every human action gains in honor, in grace, in all true magnificence, by its regard to things that are to come. It is the far sight, the quiet and confident patience, that, above all other attributes, separate man from man, and near him to his Maker; and there is no action nor art, whose majesty we may not measure by this test. Therefore, when we build, let us think that we build for ever. Let it not be for present delight, nor for present use alone; let it be such work as our descendants will thank us for, and let us think, as we lay stone on stone, that a time is to come when those stones will be held sacred because our hands have touched them, and that men will say as they look upon the labor and wrought substance of them, ‘See! this our fathers did for us.’
It would be amusing to watch any one who felt an idle curiosity as to the language and secrets of lovers opening the Browning Letters. He would probably come upon some such simple and lucid passage as the following: ‘I ought to wait, say a week at least, having killed all your mules for you, before I shot down your dogs…. But not being Phoibos Apollon, you are to know further that when I did think I might go modestly on … let me get out of this slough of a simile, never mind with what dislocated ankles.’ What our imaginary sentimentalist would make of this tender passage it is difficult indeed to imagine. The only plain conclusion which appears to emerge from the words is the somewhat curious one — that Browning was in the habit of taking a gun down to Wimpole Street and of demolishing the live stock on those somewhat unpromising premises….
Children are the most radically disempowered group of human beings in the world. Cross-culturally, they have no political power, their daily lives are completely out of their control, they are surrounded by beings three times their size and strength who rule every aspect of their lives, unlike any group of adults in this culture, they can be legally struck, and any possible redress they have against abuse requires them to find an adult who will help them. Would any reasonable human being not throw the occasional temper tantrum in such a situation?
To claim the Midwest as a reality, as a distinct place with a usable past, requires defiance of a long tradition of intellectual attenuation, disparagement, and dismissal of the region’s identity. . . . Yet the land is not going anywhere.
Are there ways to make vivid to us the rich inheritance that our parents and grandparents lost, or gave away? Not everything that our ancestors believed, but the best of it? Or “can we only mourn what is known to us, lost in our lifetime?” My kingdom for historical imagination. O for a Muse of fire, that would ascend / The brightest heaven of invention.
“Any art that faithfully bears witness to what each morning brings to light will be morally charged—not because the intentions of the artist are overtly moral but because the God-made world itself is morally charged.” - Alan Jacobs, Shaming the Devil.
I was recently struck by Ross Douthat’s Twitter essay contra the Pope’s recent claim that most modern marriages are invalid in the eyes of the Catholic Church. Not being Catholic, I can’t comment on the specific stakes of the argument, which Douthat outlines well here. But I think the key claim in the argument, that modern people lack a sufficient commitment to the permanence of marriage, is really worth investigating in pursuit of an understanding of the modern world. The Pope’s claim is that most marriages are invalid “because couples do not enter into them with a proper understanding of permanence and commitment.” Douthat interrogates that claim with demographic information and theological reasoning in the links above, so I won’t rehearse those arguments. Instead, I’d like to further investigate the idea that people in the modern world tend to get into marriage thinking “well, I can get out of this later if I like.” That’s an idea that seems right on the face of it given the loosening of divorce laws and corresponding rise in prevalence of that unfortunate event. But I’m not sure I buy it. People today are not only more likely to divorce, they are more likely not to get married at all. It seems much more likely to me that those who think they will want out just cohabit rather than ever getting married in the first place. Douthat seems to agree.
Lewis suggests two rules for exegetics. First, ‘never take the images literally.’ Second, ’when the purport of the images—what they say to our fear and hope and will and affections—seems to conflict with the theological abstractions, trust the purport of the images every time.’ Abstractions model spiritual reality by means of legal or chemical or mechanical metaphors, and these tend to be less adequate than ‘the sensuous, organic, and personal images of scripture—light and darkness, river and well, seed and harvest, master and servant, hen and chickens, father and child.’ We know, Lewis says, ‘that God forgives much better than we know what “impassable” means.’ Likewise, he would argue that we know that God is a Father much better than we know what ‘sexless’ means. To prefer abstractions is not to be more rational; it is simply to be less fully human. De-mythologisers, like Bultmann, are really only re-mythologizers; and the new mythology is poorer than the old one. A ‘sexless God’ is the theological equivalent of rewriting The Romance of the Rose as The Romance of the Onion: the rich and redolent image has been unwisely substituted by a less profound and suggestive one. Of the old image (Father) it may be difficult to say in cold prose exactly what it meant, and theologians may be able to say about the new image all sorts of things which could not have been said about the old one. Like Arnom’s new image of Ungit (the barbarian Aphrodite) in Till We Have Faces, a ‘sexless God’ is much cleaner and simpler than the traditional image, but it contains ‘no comfort’ because it is a merely rational construction; its relationship with the organ of meaning has grown tenuous. Imagination’s role in theological understanding must not be belittled in this way, for the result is that reason ends up trying to make bricks out of strawy abstractions. Lewis’s dependence here on imagination arises from his belief that ‘it is rational not to reason, or not to limit oneself to reason, in the wrong place.’
“Nobody who is awake accepts the favors of these hawkers of guaranteed satisfactions, these escape artists, these institutional and commercial fanatics, whether politically correct or politically incorrect.” - Wendell Berry, Sex, Economy, Freedom and Community. Perpetually and universally relevant, referent aside.
“A being is articulated (rather than being a silent presence, made immediate, persistent, given duration without existence). This articulation precedes by some distance that of spoken language.” - Bruno Latour
The ethnologist finds something almost comic in the endless complaint invented by critique: “Since we accede to known things by way of a path, this means that these things are inaccessible and unknowable in themselves.” She would like to answer back: “But what are you complaining about, since you have access to them?” “Yes,” they keep on whining, “but that means that we don’t grasp them ‘in themselves’; we don’t see them as they would be ‘without us.’” “Well, but since you want to approach them, if you want them to be as they are ‘without you,’ then why not simply stop trying to reach them?” More whining; “Because then we’d have no hope of knowing them.” An exasperated sigh from the ethnologist: “It’s almost as though you were congratulating yourselves that there is a path to Mont Aiguille, but then complaining that it has allowed you to climb up there . . . ” Critique behaves like blasé tourists who would like to reach the most virgin territories without difficulty, but only if they don’t come across any other tourists.
I know that a sunset is commonly looked on as a cheap entertainment; but it is really one of the most expensive. It is true that we can all have front seats, and we do not exactly need to dress for it as we do for the opera; but the conditions under which it is to be enjoyed are rather dear. Among them I should name a good suit of clothes, including some trifling ornament,—not including back hair for one sex, or the parting of it in the middle for the other. I should add also a good dinner, well cooked and digestible; and the cost of a fair education, extended, perhaps, through generation in which sensibility and love of beauty grew. What I mean is, that if a man is hungry and naked, and half a savage, or with the love of beauty undeveloped in him, a sunset is thrown away on him: so that it appears that the conditions of the enjoyment of a sunset are as costly as any thing in our civilization.
It is of no use to tell [your] neighbor that his hens eat your tomatoes: it makes no impression on him, for the tomatoes are not his. The best way is to casually remark to him that he has a fine lot of chickens, pretty well grown, and that you like spring chickens broiled. He will take them away at once. The neighbors’ small children are also out of place in your garden, in strawberry and currant time. I hope I appreciate the value of children. We should soon come to nothing without them, although the Shakers have the best gardens in the world. Without them the common school would languish. But the problem is, what to do with them in a garden. For they are not good to eat, and there is a law against making away with them. The law is not very well enforced, it is true; for people do thin them out with constant dosing, paregoric, and soothing-sirups, and scanty clothing. But I, for one, feel that it would not be right, aside from the law, to take the life, even of the smallest child, for the sake of a little fruit, more or less, in the garden. I may be wrong; but these are my sentiments, and I am not ashamed of them.
In the public school system, children are socialized horizontally, and temporarily, into conformity with their immediate peers. Home educators seek to socialize their children vertically, toward responsibility, service, and adulthood, with an eye on eternity.
Seek the LORD and live,
lest he break out like fire in the house of Joseph,
and it devour, with none to quench it for Bethel,
O you who turn justice to wormwood
and cast down righteousness on the earth!
He who made the Pleiades and Orion,
and turns deep darkness into the morning
and darkens day into night,
who calls for the waters of the sea
and pours them out on the surface of the earth,
the LORD is his name;
who makes destruction flash forth against the strong,
so that destruction comes upon the fortress.
“Journalists and advertising men make a good team, since the one group keeps us abreast of the world’s miseries, and the other keeps us agog with promises of extreme comfort, the two combining to provide a crude, secular analogue of the distinction between Christus Crucifixus and Christus Triumphans.” - Kenneth Burke, Permanence and Change.
“The Christian communities that thrive will
- be radically Christ-centered always;
- refuse to be therapeutic, but rather emphasize the worship we owe to the God who made and redeemed us;
- connect imaginatively and substantively with Christians throughout the past and around the world;
- be open to all, but reserve leadership to those who are willing to commit to radical obedience;
- turn the other cheek and go cheerfully on when attacked by the world; and
- recognize these practices in other communities, even those outside their tradition.”
The simplest example of a circular order breeding itself is the ‘success story,’ which gets a kind of catharsis by building up a day-dream of gratification. In the course of its imaginary attainments, it brings to the imagination the very ideals that make precisely its ideas of success seem so pressingly desirable. Thus, the ‘cure’ but reinvigorates the ‘disease,’ and readies the audience for another variant of the same success story next time.
“There is something absurd about the idea that our lives could be focused on meaning as such, rather than on some specific good or value. One might die for God, or the Revolution, or the classless society, but not for meaning.” - Charles Taylor, A Secular Age.
“Knowing that there are no victorious causes, I have a taste for lost causes. They demand a soul without fissure, the equal of defeat, as well as of its temporary victories.” - Albert Camus, as quoted in Charles Taylor, A Secular Age.
“As a race, we usually aren’t very happy with where we are at any given moment. We’re always looking ahead for the next exciting thing, not stopping to ponder the wonder of the now. Texans haven’t solved this, but they are, at least, happy to be in Texas.” - My brother Timothy
“The only general rule in history is that there is no general rule identifying one order of motivation as always the driving force.” - Charles Taylor, A Secular Age.
“Modern individualism, as a moral idea, doesn’t mean ceasing to belong at all—that’s the individualism of anomie and break-down—but imagining oneself as belonging to ever wider and more impersonal entities: the state, the movement, the community of humankind.” - Charles Taylor, A Secular Age.
I keep finding songs by semi-obscure folk groups that employ that title phrase (Stonewall Jackson’s last words) as a lyric. I don’t know what to make of this, but I approve. Here’s my archive of such songs.
I’ve been very open with my parishioners about my “band life.” Partly because I don’t want them to find out from some other source, and partly because it is a real part of who I am as a person and as a priest. They tend to think that it’s cool that their priest is “in a band” (a phrase that makes me laugh at this point in life), but I think that it’s more important that they have a share in how I live my life since I am their priest. I have a responsibility to them that transcends my own personal decisions to some degree, so they ought to know that these sorts of things are a part of my life and of who I am.
Somewhere are places where we have really been, dear spaces
Of our deeds and faces, scenes we remember
As unchanging because there we changed, where shops have names,
Dogs bark in the dark at a stranger’s footfall
And crops grow ripe and cattle fatten under the kind
Protection of a godling or godessling
Whose affection has been assigned them, to heed their needs and
Plead in heaven the special case of their place.
I know that there are some people, perhaps many, to whom you cannot appeal on behalf of the body. To them, disembodiment is a goal, and they long for the realm of pure mind—or pure machine; the difference is negligible. Their departure from their bodies, obviously, is much to be desired, but the rest of us had better be warned: they are going to cause a lot of dangerous commotion on their way out.
“Day-in, day-out, Calvin keeps running into evidence that the world isn’t built to his (and our) specifications. All humor is, in one way or another, about our resistance to that evidence.” Calvin & Hobbes: America’s Most Profound Comic Strip”.
Certainly for many people, a successful personal brand is a straightforward way to make a living, through honest hard work. But for people with a weakness for escapism and a strength for narrating their lives in a compelling way, life behind a beloved personal brand can be a shelter from accountability. You can hide from what you don’t want to deal with while engaging with a group of strangers. When asked for your opinions, you are granted an enormous amount of leeway, because ‘brand authenticity’ is basically the gold standard of 2015, and if being rude or late or a decidedly mediocre writer is part of the innate, organic, impossible-to-reproduce truth of your personal brand, that is OK.
Maybe someone will not hesitate to call this book verbose.
Maybe someone much more excellent will think
that only few things have been found here, while he himself found more.
The slow and impatient will think that this is much too obscure:
Books have their fates according to what the reader can grasp.
But I do not regret my judgment: it is good that I committed this
to you, who have both love and wisdom,
and in whom is always firmly planted your usual industriousness.
You I will follow, when you have examined this, that’s caution enough.
While I wrote this, I was sick for two times five months
and was hanging as an ambiguous body in the judging scales,
swaying in alternate directions, but not sinking down through either weight.
For neither did Death avidly open its black gaping holes
nor did the Parcae hold on to my life with a strong thread.
In that way such a long time led to the present day,
renewing the different pains, and always threatening without end.
Yet, when I could, I crept up and finished what I had begun,
so that, uncertain of my life, even so people could see I had lived.
The real moral writer is the opposite of the minister, the preacher, the rabbi. Insofar as he can, the preacher tries to keep religion as it always was, outlawing contraceptives or whatever; his job is conservative. The writer’s job on the other hand, is to be radically open to persuasion. He should, if possible, not be committed to one side more than to the other—which is simply to say that he wants to affirm life, not sneer at it—but he has to be absolutely fair, understand the moral limits of his partisanship. His affirmation has to be earned. If he favors the cop, he must understand the arguments for life on the side of the robber.
A brief observation that I thought merited a place on the Internet, relating to this quote from Alissa Wilkinson’s excellent recent essay:
In high school – this was around 1999 – I worked at the local Christian bookstore, and we had a poster in the store that I think in retrospect was distributed by a Christian record label or association as a marketing tool. It wasn’t just us who had it. Virtually everyone I know who grew up evangelical remembers it, too, and calls it the “if you like this you’ll love that” poster: if you like this secular band, you’ll love this Christian band (because they stylistically mimic the secular band but their content is safe). Here’s the Christian Britney and the Christian Goo Goo Dolls and the Christian N*Sync and the Christian Metallica, and on it went.
Mercifully, a lot has changed since I was a teenager, and a lot of people (Christian, formerly Christian, and not Christian at all) have written about the whole thing, and that’s not what I want to do here anyhow. The point is this: most of these parallel products have been, by definition, knock-offs, and were usually pretty mediocre. And everyone kind of knew it.
Incarnation provides the model or paradigm for the church’s involvement with culture. The gospel accounts present Jesus’ life as a simultaneous full participation in and critique of culture. The incarnation provides a metaphor for the life of the church in the world. The terminology for addressing liturgy and culture, in fact, closely parallels theological interpretations of the incarnation . . . . The church, as the body of Christ in the world, mirrors this christological pattern. It is constituted not as a timeless, bodiless idea but rather as an embodied, concrete, worldly reality. The church is a full participant in culture, a cultural agent that both reflects and shapes a local cultural environment. As such, the church need not shy away from critical engagement with every aspect of a local cultural environment. At the same time, it must not be reticent to question and critique cultural practices that devalue creation, that restrict a sense of God’s redeeming activity in the world, and that deny eschatological hope.
It is no mere pious fraud, for making a man content with adversity, to say that privileges also can be an impoverishment unless the privileged can prod themselves to the kind of exertion necessary for surmounting the handicaps of privilege. By the economy of the body, people are endowed for struggle. If they do not struggle, they rot, which is to say that they struggle in spite of themselves.
Properly used, the idea of escape should present no difficulties. It is quite normal and natural that people should desire to avoid an unsatisfactory situation and should try any means at their disposal to do so. But the term “escape” has had a more restricted usage. Whereas it properly applies to all men, there was an attempt to restrict its application to some men. As so restricted, it suggested that the people to whom it was applied tended to orientate themselves in a totally different way from the people to whom it was not applied, the former always trying to escape from life or avoid realities, while the latter faced realities. There may be such a distinction. At least, there are many critics who avoided telling us precisely what they meant by life, avoidance, and facing reality. In this way, through escaping from the difficulties of their critical problem, they were free to accuse many writers and thinkers of escape. In the end, the term came to be applied loosely, in literary criticism especially, to designate any writer or reader whose interests and aims did not closely coincide with those of the critic. While apparently defining a trait of the person referred to, the term hardly did more than convey the attitude of the person making the reference. It looked objective, as though the critic were saying “X is doing so-and-so”; but too often it became merely a strategic way of saying, “I personally don’t like what X is doing.”
Or, otherwise stated: There were grave social dissatisfactions resented by poets; the poets symbolized their resentment in many ways; and any kind of symbolization that did not suit the critic’s particular preferences was called an escape. The term thus tended to beg the question, as it apparently solved the very issue which should have been the subject of discussion. One could dismiss the account of a voyage into the rigors of Labrador as mere escape—or one could say that we are here as “escapists” from such rigors as those of Labrador. Accordingly, in its restricted use the term seems worse than worthless as a device for clarifying the relationship between correct and faulty orientation. As it properly applies to all men, one cannot very well confine its application to some men without forever covertly drawing upon the correctives of private judgement.
I do not think that those who have acquired some strength in writing ought to be tied down to the fruitless punishment of picking holes in their own work. How can a man do his public duty if he lets old age creep on him while he worries about individual parts of his speeches? Yet some people are never satisfied; they want to change everything and express everything differently from the way it came to mind. They have no confidence and do their talents a very poor service by thinking that accuracy means creating difficulties for themselves in writing. It is not easy to say which party I think is more wrong—those who are pleased with everything they write, or those who are pleased with nothing.
[People who choose to have their children educated at home] seem to have two main reasons. First, they are making (they think) better provision for morality by avoiding the crowd of persons of an age which is particularly liable to vice; and I only wish that the view that this has often been a cause of shameful behavior were false! Secondly, the future teacher, whoever he is, seems likely to give a single pupil more of his time than if he had to divide it among several.
“The painstaking acquisition of difficult knowledge, knowledge that involves the senses as well as the mind, is deeply and lastingly satisfying to any person who achieves it.” - Alan Jacobs.
To my mind, a deeper understanding of beauty came into being with Christianity. The cross, the instrument of torture and shame, was taken up into a higher vision of beauty. Brokenness and woundedness—the shattering of the ideal—can become the means whereby beauty is revealed. Here is a beauty that is anything but sentimental. It is akin to what Yeats meant by his phrase “a terrible beauty.” Lest we forget, the glorified body of the risen Christ still bears the marks of his wounds.
The number of deaths reported among law enforcement officers in 2013 is the lowest it has been in fifty-three years. The number of officers killed by gunfire last year was the lowest since 1887. In 2013, the number of police shootings of felony suspects, 461, was the highest figure in two decades, representing a consecutive increase over the last three years.
As evangelical Christians we have tended to relegate art to the very fringe of life. The rest of human life we feel is more important. Despite our constant talk about the Lordship of Christ, we have narrowed its scope to a very small area of reality. We have misunderstood the concept of the Lordship of Christ over the whole of man and the whole of the universe and have not taken to us the riches that the Bible gives us for ourselves, for our lives and for our culture.
The Lordship of Christ over the whole of life means that there are no platonic areas in Christianity, no dichotomy or hierarchy between the body and the soul. God made the body as well as the soul and redemption is for the whole man. Evangelicals have been legitimately criticized for often being so tremendously interested in seeing souls get saved and go to heaven that they have not cared much about the whole man.
The Bible, however, makes four things very clear: (1) God made the whole man, (2) in Christ the whole man is redeemed, (3) Christ is the Lord of the whole man now and the Lord of the whole Christian life and (4) in the future as Christ comes back, the body will be raised from the dead and the whole man will have a whole redemption. It is within this framework that we are to understand the place of art in the Christian life. Therefore, let us consider more fully what it means to be a whole man whose whole life is under the Lordship of Christ.
- Talk to your toddler about your pending departure (and subsequent return) several minutes before you have to leave. Explain that you will return.
Quite apart from the problems of the Christian Church in contemporary Britain, the almost insoluble challenge for many charities these days, competing as they have to for support, is how to persuade people by what are essentially market methods that they should take up a very non-market-minded position of committed involvement.
Now that they weren’t moving with the car the world seemed to slow down. The sky grew wider. A fragrant breeze soughed across the grass, and the ground as far as eye could see blazed with wildflowers. Mallow, dogbane, sensitive briar, coneflower, fringed salt cedar like pink bursts of feathered gauze–on and on they rolled to the horizon where yet more blooming hills billowed like waves. Wild rose, thistle, larkspur, rue, bluets and lupine, wild violet, deep purple locoweed and buckeye, tumble mustard, sumac, indigo. Here on the prairie in May was the heaven of flowers, blooming for no one at all . . . .
She and her daughters walked the pasture, marveling at the flowers. The world over, their poor dowdy state earned ridicule from those whose eyes had not been taught where–or how–to look, for the vastness of the land and the speed with which most people crossed it served as a veil. Prairie-born, Freddie and her daughters knew they had to stop, turn off the car, walk out a ways, and wait. They knew that if still they failed to feel the beating of the great slow heart of earth beneath their feet, the fault was theirs.
In a 1932 poem Robert Frost wrote:
Don’t join too many gangs. Join few if any.
Join the United States, and join the family.
But not much in between, unless a college.
Frost, in his curmudgeonly way, captures that hostility toward communal ties and restraints which, since Tolstoy’s day, has continued to undermine our “intermediate institutions” or “mediating structures.” Toward the nuclear family and the nation, people do indeed still feel some natural loyalty; “but not much in between, unless a college.” During the last thirty years, even the nation-state has lost much of its mystique, leaving the family exposed to stresses that it can hardly support. It is my frail hope that we may find some new ways of shaping other intermediate institutions toward which we can develop a fuller loyalty and commitment: associations larger than the nuclear family, but not so large that they defeat in advance the initial presumption that our fellow members are trustworthy. For it is only in that context, I suspect, that the ethics of discretion and intimacy can regain the ground it has lost to the ethics of rules and strangers.
In our relations with casual acquaintances and unidentified fellow citizens, absolute impartiality may be a prime moral demand; but among intimates a certain discreet partiality is, surely, only equitable, and certainly not unethical. So a system of ethics that rests its principles on “the veil of ignorance” may well be “fair,” but it will also be–essentially–an ethics for relations between strangers.
To address [the nostalgia] question—likely to be raised about any account critical of the modern project—one should probably begin by clarifying what nostalgia is ordinarily taken to mean, and what its conceptual premises are. The longing for a past plenitude, as indeed the supposition that it had once existed, rests on two closely related assumptions: first, that historical time is linear rather than cyclical, monochrome in its forward motion rather than recursive and imbued with various kinds of “higher time” or spikes of semantic intensity. For it is this premise that sanctions the axiom of “loss” without which there could not be any nostalgic affect. Second, nostalgia implies that our relationship to the past is one of disaffection, even terminal estrangement, a premise borne out by the self-certifying affect of “longing” at the heart of nostalgia. Yet precisely these premises also show nostalgia to be a distinctively modern phenomenon inasmuch as it acquiesces in the modern (historicist) view of time as a monochrome vector pointing toward the future, which renders the past as strictly passé, that is, as sheer inventory to be, perhaps, objectively known but most definitely incapable of signifying for (let alone transforming) us.
Christ’s wounds were in fact not healed. He’s got them now, in Heaven. He had them when He appeared to the disciples; they’re part of the imitation of Christ by the stigmatic saints. God heals some wounds. Others, He glorifies. He transforms them in some way we can’t necessarily imagine beforehand, just as we can’t quite imagine what it will mean for our flesh to be glorified in the Resurrection.
Since rhetorical proof is never a completely necessary proof, the thinking man who gives his adherence to the conclusions of an argumentation does so by an act that commits him and for which he is responsible. The fanatic accepts the commitment, but as one bowing to an absolute and irrefragable truth; the sceptic refuses the commitment under the pretext that he does not find it sufficiently definitive. He refuses adherence because his idea of adherence is similar to that of the fanatic: both fail to appreciate that argumentation aims at a choice among possible theses; by proposing and justifying the hierarchy of these theses, argumentation seeks to make the decision a rational one. The role of argumentation in decision-making is denied by the sceptic and the fanatic. In the absence of compelling reason, they both are inclined to give violence a free hand, rejecting personal commitment.
Michael Brendan Dougherty’s recent piece on coffee for The Week impressed me less than he usually does (in general: plenty). On the subject of fancy coffee, it’s headlined “Don’t be a snob about coffee,” and the point is about that simple. However, I’m grateful to him for linking me to a slightly older piece by Marco Arment, which makes the more interesting argument that those of us who obsess over the niceties of coffee are colluding in the very marginalization we hate, encouraging other people to turn to the old drip machine or the Keurig:
A few weeks back, @Prufrocknews linked to Claude Fischer’s attack on what he calls “eco-puritanism,” and I flagged the piece for later commentary because that phrase is too good to be ignored. Now we have Mark Bittman advising environmentalists to drop their concern with organic produce and GMOs, and it seems worth revisiting the topic both pieces are concerned with.
Not directly related to my original post, but inspired by further rumination on the subject.
“The Christian shoemaker does his Christian duty not by putting little crosses on the shoes, but by making good shoes, because God is interested in good craftsmanship.” - Attributed to Martin Luther by Casey Cep in Image.
Any reasonable ordering of the books must have The Last Battle as the final story, and must place Prince Caspian before The Voyage of the ‘Dawn Treader,’ since the latter is very straightforwardly a sequel to the former. Also, The Silver Chair cannot come before either of those books, since one of its main characters, Eustace, appears in Dawn Treader as a younger and very different sort of person from the one he is in The Silver Chair. Moreover, readers of the series will probably agree that The Horse and His Boy, being a largely self-contained story with minimal connections to the others - it is mentioned briefly in The Silver Chair, and the Pevensies appear in it briefly as rulers of Narnia - could be stuck into the sequence anywhere except the beginning and end. So the dispute really concerns only one question: should the sequence begin with The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe or The Magician’s Nephew?
The argument for The Magician’s Nephew is simple: since it describes Aslan’s making of Narnia, placing it at the beginning yields a biblical, Creation-to-Apocalypse arc for the series. The case for The Lion is more complex and much stronger. First of all, though Lewis spoke of altering the order of the books, he also spoke of needing to revise the books in order to remove inconsistencies - and if Nephew is read first, there will be many such inconsistencies. For one thing, we are told quite explicitly at the end of The Lion that its narrative is ’the beginning of the adventures of Narnia’. For another, Lewis tells his readers that the children in The Lion do not know who Aslan is ‘any more than you do’; but of course the readers would know Aslan if they had already read Nephew. Moreover, much of the suspense in the early chapters of The Lion derives from our inability to understand what is happening in the magical wardrobe - but if we have read Nephew we will know all about the wardrobe, and that part of the story will become, effectively, pointless. Similarly, one of the delights of The Lion is the inexplicable presence of a lamp-post in the midst of a forest - a very familiar object from our world standing curiously in the midst of an utterly different world - and one of the delights of Nephew is the unexpected discovery of how that lamp-post got there. Anyone who begins with Nephew will lose that small but intense pleasure, the frisson of one of Lewis’s richest images.
If Lewis really and truly thought that the series was best begun with The Magician’s Nephew, he was simply mistaken. The original order of publication is the best for any reader wishing to enter Narnia.
Where only my scar line remains, a red rose blooms
Luscious, full, so open that if it dropped a single petal
it would not be as lovely as it is this very moment.
My eyes watch through the rose’s flaming center,
crimson, as if through a hundred desiring eyes–
till the world prisms: quartz pink, blush, vermillion.
Night shift on Rine #4 with three thousand feet of drill pipe
churning Oklahoma rock, the mud pump’s wheeze and suck,
hammer of warped deck plates beneath my boots as I gaze
from the rig’s north end upon treeless, dust-bowl no man’s land.
The moon slithers under clouds that go all sullen and spread
a great swath of indigo above the horizon, sinking to something
like the blue-black of threaded iron curling off a machine lathe.
He is walking across a field of wheat
in Kansas, grain as tall as his shoulder
and as tan as his face. He is cupping his hands
to his mouth, shouting words the wind steals
and throws into the air like chaff. I need to know
what he’s said and begin chasing his voice
as it scuttles across the ground like a sheaf of newsprint.
He, too, is running, but on a slender path in Oregon
cut by the hooves of ungulates. For someone
who’s been dead nearly twenty years, he is remarkably fit,
and I can’t catch him until he stops at the bottom of the hill
where a stream washes on toward a bay. He says
the sea knows mistakes he has made. He says
the tides have told the world about them.
He points to the sky, and my eye follows
into the tops of these finely needled trees
where darkness and light marry. He asks
for a glass of water, and I realize he is laid out
on our couch downstairs, head propped on a pillow,
left arm bending like a basket to cradle his thick
mat of hair. The lamp on the end table sheds a circle
of light, and he muses about what is hidden
between the pinecone’s creased tongues. I stumble
over the Latin for lodgepole, Pinus contorta,
and tell him this seed must have fire
to release its seed. He is writing on a legal pad
in his barely legible scrawl. I make out the words
let and fire and come.
Little Mack is so excited about going to Kansas. He’s been reading the Atlas, and he drops little hints about our exciting excursion every chance he gets.
At his Taekwondo class today: “It’s good that I know how to stretch so well, because it’ll come in handy when we’re in Kansas … ” During school today: “It’s going to be interesting to see all that wheat, because Kansas is the leading wheat grower in the nation . . . ” I reminded him that it is wintertime, and that the wheat fields would be bare. “Well, it’s going to be interesting to see those wheat fields in Kansas,” he reminded me. Accurately.
In his fifth year the son, deep in the backseat
of his father’s Ford and the mysterium
of time, holds time in memory with words,
night, this night, on the way to a stalled rig south
of Kiowa Creek where the plains wind stacks
the skeletons of weeds on barbed-wire fences
and rattles the battered DeKalb sign to make
the child think of time in its passing, of death.
Your petitions—though they continue to bear
just the one signature—have been duly recorded.
Your anxieties—despite their constant,
Within the world of theater, the art of overaccepting means fitting the remarks of the previous actor into a context enormously larger than his or her counterpart could have supposed. What this amounts to, Christianly speaking, is being exercised in the habit of regarding all offers as potential gifts. In short, what it means to be ethically well-formed is having one’s imagination trained to regard the world not as a given but as truly a gift of God. A better way to describe Christian ethics, then, is not as choosing or deciding what is the right thing to do but being educated in the art of rightly accepting gifts.
I have reached the point in my life when I can see what has mattered, what has become a part of its substance–I might say a part of my substance. Some of these things are obvious, since they have been important to me in my career as a student and teacher. But some of them I could never have anticipated. The importance to me of elderly and old American hymns is certainly one example. They can move me so deeply that I have difficulty even speaking about them. The old ballad in the voice of Mary Magdalene, who “walked in the garden alone,” imagines her “tarrying” there with the newly risen Jesus, in the light of a dawn which was certainly the most remarkable daybreak since God said, “Let there be light.” The song acknowledges this with fine understatement: “The joy we share as we tarry there / None other has ever known.” Who can imagine the joy she would have felt? And how lovely it is that the song tells us the joy of this encounter was Jesus’ as well as Mary’s. Epochal as the moment is, and inconceivable as Jesus’ passage from death to life must be, they meet as friends and rejoice together as friends. This seems to me as good a gloss as any on the text that tells us God so loved the world, this world, our world. And for a long time, until just a decade ago, at most, I disliked this hymn, in part because to this day I have never heard it sung well. Maybe it can’t be sung well. The lyrics are uneven, and the tune is bland and grossly sentimental. But I have come to a place in my life where the thought of people moved by the imagination of joyful companionship with Christ is so precious that every fault becomes a virtue. I wish I could hear again every faltering soprano who has ever raised this song to heaven. God bless them all.
“The intelligibility (and hence the persuasiveness) of Christian faith springs not from independently formulated criteria, but from compelling renditions, faithful performances.” - James Fodor and Stanley Hauerwas
Yes, at seventy years old and 143 pounds, Mister Rogers still fights, and indeed, early this year, when television handed him its highest honor, he responded by telling television—gently, of course—to just shut up for once, and television listened. He had already won his third Daytime Emmy, and now he went onstage to accept Emmy’s Lifetime Achievement Award, and there, in front of all the soap-opera stars and talk-show sinceratrons, in front of all the jutting man-tanned jaws and jutting saltwater bosoms, he made his small bow and said into the microphone, “All of us have special ones who have loved us into being. Would you just take, along with me, ten seconds to think of the people who have helped you become who you are . . . .Ten seconds of silence.” And then he lifted his wrist, and looked at the audience, and looked at his watch, and said softly, “I’ll watch the time,” and there was, at first, a small whoop from the crowd, a giddy, strangled hiccup of laughter, as people realized that he wasn’t kidding, that Mister Rogers was not some convenient eunuch but rather a man, an authority figure who actually expected them to do what he asked . . . and so they did. One second, two seconds, three seconds . . . and now the jaws clenched, and the bosoms heaved, and the mascara ran, and the tears fell upon the beglittered gathering like rain leaking down a crystal chandelier, and Mister Rogers finally looked up from his watch and said, “May God be with you” to all his vanquished children.
The mother says to her daughter:
The heart is an island.
To reach it,
You must cross saltwater.
This is what the daughter fears:
That joy, like sorrow,
Must be reached by shipwreck
Or by tears.
There is something almost religious about modern scholarship’s ascetic renunciation and disavowal of any positive meaning in donative acts. To admit that a gift really can be given would be to indulge in a desire that has been penuriously prohibited. This temptation would be a transgression against the rigorous authority (the operational requirements) of theory and critique. Nevertheless, it is too easy to reduce all interactions to the single model of exchange. Indeed, elevating exchange to a metaphysical principle can be reassuring because of the dominance of economic rationality in the modern Western world. To insinuate that all relationships are secretly controlled by exchange is to make our own presuppositions final and universal. Thinking the other of exchange becomes possible only by bracketing our own convenient expectations and conspiratorial prejudices.
If exchange is the dominant model for social interaction today, then authentic gift giving is in trouble. If the gift always rebounds to the giver, then how can it really be given in the first place? The circle is a powerful symbol for reciprocity, the coincidence of beginnings and endings, an economy where what is sent must necessarily return, but the geometry of the gift must be closer to a disjunctive loop if it is to trace the figure of generosity. Exchange is the process where the energy of the gift is exhausted or consumed, converting the gift into the commodity.
Remember how Lupin says Harry’s instincts are good and nearly always right? Why are you mistrusting him at this late juncture? In fact, Harry gains infinitely more by choosing Ginevra Weasley over Hermione Granger.
Ginny brings with her the bright, abundant dowry of the things he always wanted in life and never had. He gains a wide wizarding family, full of people he already admires and loves—and even the requisite family priss-pot, somebody about whom everybody else can complain. What does Hermione offer in the way of family? A pair of nice … dentists. A future that means a tiny nuclear group. In the expansive Weasley clan, Harry will be an uncle many times over as well as a father. There, he has a second pair of parents who already care about him. He has big brothers. He possesses a resonant history with them all, and he is attached to the memory of their dead. We can even say that Harry becomes a kind of fraternal twin to make up for the dead Weasley twin, Fred, for he and Ron are the same age and share boyish passion for broomsticks and quidditch. His best friend becomes his brother.
Now then, what about Hermione, his other best friend? (Let’s note here that the books press onward toward the restoration of Harry’s broken world, and that Hermione and others help in that restoration. If you accept that idea, you accept that the thrust of story is not about Hermione—it’s not even about romance or who ends up with whom.) In the context of a Harry-Ginny union, having Hermione marry Ron becomes an added bonus for Harry—she too becomes his family when she marries Ron and becomes his sister. In this way, Harry becomes related to all the living people he loves most. And this is the only way they can all be related, the only way that nobody is left out of the circle of Harry’s deepest loves.
You see? Harry takes home all the toys. The cupboard child who was last is now first.
The object is known so that it may be loved, but the knowledge need only be so much as is sufficient to elicit love. Yet when we are connected to the desired object we know it better and more intimately, and then we enjoy it. Our first knowledge leads us to believe the object is good; in the latter knowledge we feel that it is so . . . . Thus love is the middle point between inchoate knowledge and the full knowledge of union, in which desire always disappears but not love. This rather burns more fiercely, the more and greater the goods found in that union.
I grew up squinting from the backseat at gently rolling hills and true flatlands, where you could top a rise and see a tractor raising dust three miles away. So much world and sky is visible it’s hard to put much stock in your own influence – it’s a perfect landscape for cultivating gratitude.
If a writer regularly treats all life bitterly, scorning love, scorning loyalty, scorning decency (according to some standard)—or, to put it another way, if some writer’s every remark strikes most or many readers as unfair, cruel, stupid, self-regarding, ignorant, or mad; if he has no good to say of anything or anyone except the character who seems to represent himself; if he can find no pleasure in what happy human beings have found good for centuries (children and dogs, God, peace, wealth, comfort, love, hope, and faith)—then it is safe to hazard that he has not made a serious effort to sympathize and understand, that he has not tried to guess what special circumstances would make him behave, himself, as his enemies behave. We discern the same in some more subtle works of art; for instance, when we sense the writer’s refusal to be fair to some one or two minor characters, or to some region he dislikes (usually the American Midwest). Whatever some possible divinity might say of such a writer’s fictions, the non omniscient can say this much: he is not using fiction as a mode of thought but merely as a means of preaching his peculiar doctrine. The more appealing or widely shared the doctrine, the more immoral the book.
Our attachments to the land were all private. We had no shared lore, no literature, no art to root us there, to give us courage, to help us stand our ground. The only maps we had were those issued by the state, showing a maze of numbered lines stretched over emptiness. The Ohio landscape never showed up on postcards or posters, never unfurled like tapestry in films, rarely filled even a paragraph in books. There were no mountains in that place, no waterfalls, no rocky gorges, no vistas. It was a country of low hills, cut over woods, scoured fields, villages that had lost their purpose, roads that had lost their way.
“Let us love the country of here below,” Simone Weil urged. “It is real; it offers resistance to love. It is this country that God has given us to love. He has willed that it should be difficult yet possible to love it.” . . . In my corner of Ohio the gullies were choked with trash, yet cedars flickered up like green flames from cracks in stone; in the evening bombs exploded at the ammunition dump, yet from the darkness came the mating cries of owls. I was saved from despair by knowing a few men and women who cared enough about the land to clean up trash, who planted walnuts and oaks that would long outlive them, who imagined a world that would have no call for bombs.
How could our hearts be large enough for heaven if they are not large enough for earth? The only country I am certain of is the one here below. The only paradise I know is the one lit by our everyday sun, this land of difficult love, shot through with shadow. The place where we learn this love, if we learn it at all, shimmers behind every new place we inhabit.
It’s certainly a lot of corn, Nebraska, but I found it really beautiful. I thought it was going to be this real monotonous visual experience, and it wasn’t. There was a lot of texture to it. It kept reminding me of a van Gogh painting — these big beautiful circular corn husk bales, the way the light would hit them and the shadows they’d cast. Brilliant hues of yellow — it was really striking.
@NewRhetoric: As Pascal observed: “All men whatsoever are almost always led into belief not because a thing is proved but because it is pleasing.”
THERE ARE TWO THEORIES of self-help and its ultimate impact. The first is that its prime directive is to motivate people. As the Fordham University sociologist Micki McGee, the author of Self-Help, Inc., once told me, the power that financial gurus like Suze Orman and Ramsey have “comes from reinforcing the American ideology of individualism.” By telling people they have more power than they really do, these gurus motivate them to take what action they can.
The other view—and mind you, this is not a contradiction—is that the self-help industry, by insisting on the ultimate power of the individual, leads people to believe that they are to blame for failures that are more truthfully the result of political, economic, and social trends.
Promoting yourself and crowdfunding and all that kind of stuff, that’s no way for an artist to live. When I go to one of these conferences and people ask me “How do I market myself on the Internet?” and all that kind of stuff: Look, your fans will market you on the Internet. But if you want to be an artist, get in a community. And if you want to be a musician, practice eight hours a day. I don’t believe in crowdsourcing because you’ll end up doing the same thing over and over again. People tend to want artists to do the same thing, and it is incumbent upon artists to do something that the audience doesn’t want – yet. I’ll tell you this. I won’t follow an artist who will be led by his audience. Because I don’t want to have to follow an artist that I have to lead.
The father of four has something in common with the childless man: people’s thoughts turn toward his genitals. When you have no children, they wonder if you are capable of having any; when you have four children, they wonder why you can’t, or won’t, keep it in your pants. Those with only one, two, or three children don’t have this problem. They are genitally normative.
A different illustration is found among the elves of Lorien, in their love of beauty and their love of nature. They are Sylvan Elves (East Elves) but the rulers they choose to obey are Eldar (West Elves). They choose to be ruled by people better than themselves, in other words, exactly as we choose to be ruled by people worse.
I enjoyed the close relationship that I had developed with my son and I wasn’t happy that I was going to be less important to him (according to some) than his teachers and peer groups. Our relationship was my payment, I figured, for the countless hours of bouncing and pacing and loving and investing and soothing and encouraging and teaching. I didn’t want it to go away, or to lessen. And I really, really didn’t want Matthew to lose his love of reading and learning.
I knew a family who taught their children at home, and I admired the way their children behaved around other people. It was enough for me to talk Bryan (against his better judgment) into my teaching Matthew at home. For one year, only. That was our agreement. Then we decided that if he was doing okay after one year, we’d try another one. And eventually, when we could see that he was missing out on things in public school, we’d consider putting him in school. Our decision to teach our children at home never was a reaction against the public schools. It was just that we wanted a different lifestyle for our family. We were attracted to having a more family-centered, rather than a public school-centered life.
Now nature is not at variance with art, nor art with nature; they being both the servants of his providence: Art is the perfection of Nature: Were the world now as it was the sixt day, there were yet a Chaos: Nature hath made one world, and Art another. In briefe, all things are artificiall, for Nature is the Art of God.
I was out shopping with my four year old, and I found myself in one of those little chotchky shops where they sell ylang-ylang hand-soaps and inspiritational calendars. There were a selection of plaques available with cutesy phrases on them like “Friends are like flowers in the garden of life,” “Live as if it were your last day,” “Dance like there’s noone watching.” Shuddering silently, I said in the recesses of my thoughts Oprah bullshit. Ali immediately took me to task, translating several of the inspirational phrases into various academic dialects: Foucauldian Postmodernism, High Scholastic, Contemporary Vaticanese. As soon as the idiom changed, they went from sounding like cheesy commonplaces to sounding like profound truths. For the first time, I realized that these little sentimental phrases that folks like my Mom hang on their walls are actually real insights boiled down to the point where they can be accessed by people who never read Kierkegaard.
The fact that intellectuals feel the need to sneer at such simple explications of truth is hardly a point in our favour. On the contrary, our knee-jerk reaction against emotional appeals, against appeals to empathy and common wisdom, is really just a form of elitist pride. In lamenting that others cannot reason as we do we join in that damnable prayer of thanksgiving that we are not like other men.
It seems to me that most of our debates about recent digital technologies — about living in a connected state, about being endlessly networked, about becoming functional cyborgs — are afflicted by the same tendency to false systematization that, as Levin and Pierre discover, afflict ethical theory. Perhaps if we really want to learn to think well, and in the end act well, in a hyper-connected environment, we need to stop trying to generalize and instead become more attentive to what we are actually doing, minute by minute, and to the immediate consequences of those acts. (Only after rightly noting the immediate ones can we begin to grasp the more distant and extended ones.)
That is, we need more detailed descriptive accounts of How We Live Now — novelistic accounts, or what Bakhtin would call prosaic accounts. We need a prosaics of the digital life.
There aren’t many benefits to sleeping alone and breathing all over no one but yourself, but the chance to consume anti-social amounts of raw garlic is surely one of them.
How blest art thou, canst love the country, Wroth,
Whether by choice, or fate, or both;
And, though so near the city and the court,
Art ta’en with neither’s vice nor sport;
That, at great times, are no ambitious guest
Of sheriff’s dinner or mayor’s feast, Nor com’st to view the better cloth of state,
The richer hangings, or crown-plate,
Nor throng’st, when masquing is, to have a sight
Of the short bravery of the night,
To view the jewels, stuffs, the pains, the wit
There wasted, some not paid for yet;
But canst at home in thy securer rest
Live, with un-bought provision blessed,
Free from proud porches, or their gilded roofs,
‘Mongst lowing herds and solid hoofs,
Alongst the curled woods and painted meads
Through which a serpent river leads
To some cool, courteous shade, which he calls his,
And makes sleep softer than it is!
A stiffe and freezing horror sucks vp the riuers of my blood: my haire stands an ende with the panting of my braines: mine eye balls are ready to start out, being beaten with the billowes of my teares: out of my weeping pen does the incke mournefully and more bitterly than gall drop on the palefac’d paper, euen when I do but thinke how the bowels of my sicke Country haue bene torne, Apollo therefore and you bewitching siluer-tongd Muses, get you gone, Inuocate none of your names: Sorrow & Truth, sit you on each side of me, whilst I am deliuered of this deadly burden: prompt me that I may vtter ruthfull and passionate condolement: arme my trembling hand, that it may boldly rip vp and Anatomize the vlcerous body of this Anthropophagized plague: lend me Art (without any counterfeit shadowing) to paint and delineate to the life the whole story of this mortall and pestiferous battaile, & you the ghosts of those more (by many) then 40000. that with the virulent poison of infection haue bene driuen out of your earthly dwellings: you desolate hand-wringing widowes, that beate your bosomes ouer your departing husbands: you wofully distracted mothers that with disheueld haire falne into swounds, whilst you lye kissing the insensible cold lips of your breathlesse Infants: you out-cast and downe-troden Orphanes, that shall many a yeare hence remember more freshly to mourne, when your mourning garments shall looke olde and be for gotten; And you the Genij of all those emptyed families, whose habitations are now among the Antipodes: Ioyne all your hands together, and with your bodies cast a ring about me: let me behold your ghastly vizages, that my paper may receiue their true pictures: Eccho forth your grones through the hollow truncke of my pen, and raine downe your gummy teares into mine Incke, that euen marble bosomes may be shaken with terrour, and hearts of Adamant melt into compassion.
I followed her up into the valley again and found it much changed. It was as if the light had coaxed a flowering from the frost, which before seemed barren and parched as salt. The grass shone with petal colors, and water drops spilled from all the trees as innumerably as petals. “I told you it was nice,” Sylvie said.
Imagine a Carthage sown with salt, and all the sowers gone, and the seeds lain however long in the earth, till there rose finally in vegetable profusion leaves and trees of rime and brine. What flowering would there be in such a garden? Light would force each salt calyx to open in prisms, and to fruit heavily with bright globes of water–peaches and grapes are little more than that, and where the world was salt there would be greater need of slaking. For need can blossom into all the compensation it requires. To crave and to have are as like as a thing and its shadow. For when does a berry break upon the tongue as sweetly as when one longs to taste it, and when is the taste refracted into so many hues and savors of ripeness and earth, and when do our senses know any thing so utterly as when we lack it? And here again is a foreshadowing–the world will be made whole. For to wish for a hand on one’s hair is all but to feel it. So whatever we may lose, very craving gives it back to us again. Though we dream and hardly know it, longing, like an angel, fosters us, smooths our hair, and brings us wild strawberries.
In April of 1996, the international press carried the news of the death, at age seventy-five, of Christopher Robin Milne, immortalized in a book by his father, A. A. Milne, Winnie-the-Pooh, as Christopher Robin.
“Amateur zombie scholar. Bacon trailblazer. Problem solver. Infuriatingly humble creator. Certified coffeeaholic.”
We have lived for too long with the arts as the pretty bit around the edge with the reality as a non-artistic thing in the middle. But the world is charged with the grandeur of God. Why should we not celebrate and rejoice in that? And the answer sometimes is because the world is also a messy and nasty and horrible place. And, of course, some artists make a living out of representing the world as a very ugly and wicked and horrible place. And our culture has slid in both directions so that we have got sentimental art on the one hand and brutalist art in the other. And if you want to find sentimental art then, tragically, the church is often a good place to look, as people when they want to paint religious pictures screen out the nasty bits. But genuine art, I believe, takes seriously the fact that the world is full of the glory of God, and that it will be full as the waters cover the sea, and, at present (Rom 8), it is groaning in travail. Genuine art responds to that triple awareness: of what is true (the beauty that is there), of what will be true (the ultimate beauty), and of the pain of the present, and holds them together as the psalms do, and asks why and what and where are we. You can do that in music, and you can do that in painting. And our generation needs us to do that not simply to decorate the gospel but to announce the gospel.
“You have to hand it to print, it really had an incredible run,” said Madison, WI resident and avid reader Emily Burnett, 39, noting that though she always knew in her heart print would pass away one day, it still hasn’t been easy to bid it farewell. “Look at print’s list of accomplishments: the Magna Carta, the King James Bible, the oldest surviving manuscript of the I Ching, the Declaration of Independence, the first edition of James Joyce’s Ulysses, every single issue of The Onion ever printed. That’s quite a legacy print’s leaving behind. And the world will not soon forget it.”
The tacit nature of craft results in one of the curious inversions that marks its invention: it was precisely the wide publication of technical secrets that yielded the insight that artisanal skill is fundamentally incommensurable with discourse. Like a conjurer’s trick, even when seen up close, craft process doesn’t reveal itself entirely, nor can it easily be repeated. So one counterintuitive message of the nineteenth-century technical manuals, for all their expansive detail, is that to really teach a given process requires repeated demonstration, and then (crucially) handing over the tools. The only way to really learn a craft is to do it yourself, over and over; not only reading about it, but even seeing it enacted at close range is a mere spectator sport.
This was another idea about craft that was forged in the period of the industrial revolution: though it could be described, it could never be fully accounted for in words. Nor is it universally consistent. According to the terms of its modern invention, craft does not involve knowledge that can be set down, but this is always a matter of incomplete approximation, because artisanal skill is personal, intuitive, and capricious (in the sense that its results will be different in each set of hands, and from one piece of raw material to another). You can put craft knowledge in a book, but it will still be tricky to put it into practice. Within this modern framework, craft is opposed to other, more explicit and objective categories of knowledge: science and engineering. This division is itself a cultural artifact, but so powerfully have our own intuitions about craft been shaped by the modern idea that it is nonverbal and intuitive that we cannot imagine any other way of seeing it. Yet this understanding of practical know-how had certainly not been prevalent prior to the eighteenth century–prior to the differentiation of craft from other ways of making and knowing. Within the early modern field of production–that is, from the Renaissance up until the eighteenth century–tacit and explicit knowledge were not distinguished from one another.
Intellectual property operates by preventing others from integrating knowledge into their lives. You cannot subject craft to this logic. It secures value not through legislation or regulation, but through the more direct means of its own physical difficulty. Skill cannot be owned as such, but neither is it for the taking. This frictional quality sets the handmade object apart from a world in which information and importance are too often conflated. Craft slows down the movement of knowledge and embeds it in a matrix of the mysterious.
In 1968, American activist and publisher Stewart Brand famously adopted “access to tools” as the motto of his countercultural listings guide, The Whole Earth Catalog. His ambition was to change the world ecologically, economically, socially, and drastically. Brand–like other design thinkers of his era such as Buckminster Fuller and Victor Papanek–was emphatic in describing the creation and distribution of tooling as the key to cultural transformation. This was no left-wing fantasy in which the “people” or the “movement” or the “freaks” would simply take hold of the means of production. For all their visionary tendencies, Brand, Fuller, Papanek, and their contemporaries were more pragmatic than that; they saw that change would require finding the right (perhaps old) tool for the (new) job. This sort of invention might involve intentional misuse of tools–turning a hammer or paintbrush the other way round, for example. It might involve creating interactions between tools from radically different spheres of production. Artists are empowered through tooling; no tool is too simple to disregard, and none is too complex to be off limits.
I have long suspected . . . that people who identify themselves as ‘spiritual but not religious’ are really opting out of the hassles of dealing with other people. I once heard a woman declare that she did not need church to find God; after describing at length some trails along a river where she went to meditate, she became angry when I asked, ‘What would happen if someone else showed up?’ Her unwillingness to even consider the question stands in sharp contrast to Saint Benedict’s response to a pilgrim who appeared at his hermitage explaining that he had brought a gift of food because it was Easter. Benedict replied: ‘I know that it is Easter, for I have been granted the grace of seeing you.’
There is a bizarre assumption that primary sources are for the experts while students need the easier, more accessible stuff of secondary literature. But the truth is exactly the reverse. Anybody can read Augustine’s Confessions or Julian of Norwich’s Revelations – but it takes an expert to appreciate a judicious scholarly survey. That is why publishers struggle to sell copies of their Introductions and Guides, while Augustine and Julian of Norwich have never gone out of print, and never will until the end of the world.
For it is undeniable that it is much the most difficult to find either propositions to maintain, or arguments to prove them–to know, in short, what to say, or how to say it–on any subject on which one has hardly any information, and no interest; about which he knows little, and cares still less.
Now the subjects usually proposed for School or College-exercises are (to the learners themselves) precisely of this description.
The chief reason probably for the existing prejudice against technical systems of composition, is to be found in the cramped, meagre, and feeble character of most of such essays, &c. as are avowedly composed according to the rules of any such system. It should be remembered, however, in the first place, that these are almost invariably the productions of learners; it being usual for those who have attained proficiency, either to write without thinking of any rules, or to be desirous (as has been said), and, by their increased expertness, able, to conceal their employment of art. Now it is not fair to judge the value of any system of rules,–those of a drawing master for instance,–from the first awkward sketches of tyros in the art.
When my wife was seriously ill some time ago, people from our church contacted me to ask if we needed anything. When I replied that it was nice of people to offer meals but that Teri’s chief problem was simple loneliness — no one to talk to, as she lay in her sickbed, except a very busy husband — people were, not to put too fine a point on it, shocked. I had said something unexpectedly shameful. One person even commiserated with Teri: how difficult it must have been for her to have a husband who so openly admitted that she had personal needs in her illness. (To be sure, there were also deeply sympathetic friends, though not as many as we had expected to find.)
Of course, this whole situation speaks of more than Stoicism: it speaks perhaps most eloquently of a way of middle-class American life so consistently hectic that the one thing you simply cannot ask from other people is their time. But it was nevertheless clear that what we were supposed to do was to say that we were doing just fine and didn’t need a thing, though under considerable pressure we might consent to receiving a meal or two. To admit that illness is worsened by loneliness was several steps beyond the socially acceptable. So says the Stoic creed, and most of the time what I say in return is: To hell with it.
The soul must be enticed by corporeal images and impelled to love; for once it loves, it is easily taught to believe; once it believes and loves, it is easily taught to believe; once it believes and loves, the fire of passion must be infused into it so as to break the inertia and force it to will.
Popularity alone . . . is no test at all of the eloquence of the speaker, no more than velocity alone would be of the force of the external impulse given to the body moving. As in this direction of the body, and other circumstances, must be taken into the account; so in that, you must consider the tendency of the teaching, whether it favors or opposes the vices of the hearers. To head a sect, to infuse party-spirit, to make men arrogant, uncharitable, and malevolent, is the easiest task imaginable, and to which almost any blockhead is fully equal. But to produce the contrary effect . . . is the genuine test of eloquence.
It is wonderful, but it is too well vouched to admit of a doubt, that by the powers of rhetoric you may produce in mankind almost any change more easily than this. It is not unprecedented that one should persuade a multitude, from mistaken motives of religion, to act the part of ruffians, fools, or madmen; to perpetuate the most extravagant, nay, the most flagitious actions; to steel their hearts against humanity, and the loudest calls of affection; but where is the eloquence that will gain such an ascendent over a multitude, as to persuade them, for the love of God, to be wise, and just, and good? Happy the preacher whose sermons, by the blessing of Heaven, have been instrumental in producing even a few such instances! Do but look into the annals of church history, and you will soon be convinced of the surprising difference there is in the two cases mentioned–the amazing facility of the one, and the almost impossibility of the other.
There is nothing intrinsic to the physical conformation of Homo sapiens sapiens that makes us fit recipients of the imago Dei — the lion-ness of Aslan is (among other things) a repudiation of naïve anthropomorphism.
This is the phenomenon that one might call, with an appreciative nod to Nietzsche, passive nihilism. Authenticity is its dominant contemporary expression. In a seemingly meaningless, inauthentic world awash in nonstop media reports of war, violence and inequality, we close our eyes and turn ourselves into islands. We may even say a little prayer to an obscure but benign Eastern goddess and feel some weak spiritual energy connecting everything as we listen to some tastefully selected ambient music. Authenticity, needing no reference to anything outside itself, is an evacuation of history. The power of now.
The best book ever written about totalitarianism isn’t actually 1984. It’s A Tale of Two Cities. And in that book, the most commonly repeated image, the central symbol, is of a giant eye. What Charles Dickens understood, and what the book argues, is that there is no such thing as freedom without privacy, that being truly free means being free to do things that you don’t want other people to know about. And what I insist is that all the people who are busily denying that these revelations really mean anything recognize: if we give up these rights, we are choosing to do it. Every aspect of this is a product of human choice. We might be trapped in systems. But those systems are made up of human beings, and they are choosing to erode our basic freedom. Nothing can be chalked up to slogans or “the arc of history” or technology or Just the Way Things Are Going to Be. If our rights are getting eroded, it’s because we’re choosing to let them. Tell that to the defeatists and the apathetic alike.
The DNA of apples is more complex than ours; a recent sequencing of the Golden Delicious genome uncovered fifty-seven thousand genes, more than twice as many as the twenty thousand to twenty-five thousand that humans possess. Our own genetic diversity ensures that our children will all be somewhat unique—never an exact copy of their parents but bearing some resemblance to the rest of the family. Apples display “extreme heterozygosity,” meaning that they produce offspring that look nothing like their parents. Plant an apple seed, wait a few decades, and you’ll get a tree bearing fruit that looks and tastes entirely different from its parent. In fact, the fruit from one seedling will be, genetically speaking, unlike any other apple ever grown, at any time, anywhere in the world.
Tomato? There’s not a real tomato available for five hundred miles, and I won’t eat one until it presents itself to me from within twenty miles and, when cut into, actually smells like a tomato.
And, Lord, haste the day when my faith shall be sight.
My brother and I grew up with stories, both oral and written. The stories were so compelling to me as a child that I thought, until I was pretty close to adulthood, that I could remember things that happened before I was born. This gave me the sense that I have never lost, of living partly in the past and of loving men and woman that I did not know. I expect, although I can’t know, that many of our stories would have been passed down whether or not we lived in Henry County. But I know that the daily reminders of sight, sounds and smells bring up those stories over and over again and so their power and influence has strengthened in our lives and my brother and I have passed them on to our children.</p>
Even better, our children have heard these stories from their grandfather. If we had not lived here to be reminded and to remember maybe those stories would have been forgotten. If my father and his father had moved away maybe the place would have been lost to me and to my children. Of course, every generation makes its own choices and my children will make theirs but Henry County is a possibility for them with an unbroken line of stories handed down for eight generations.
Varieties planted by my mother:
In other words, the Midwest—yes, that “archaic” and “backward” region sandwiched between the coastal divine—has its own history and personality. Each culture, whether it is the sophisticated populations of the social elite or the grounded traditions of rural society, is distinct. In the distinct there is beauty. And rather than stifle those rural and sometimes rustic cultures, embrace them. They are America. They matter.
But why is the investing in such amenities problematic? Because colleges borrowed heavily to create them at a very bad time to go deeply into debt, and in the naïve belief that their amenities would be uniquely wonderful. But if everyone is doing it, or has already done it, then the amenities cancel each other out, leaving schools with the old problem: how do we distinguish what we have to offer from what everyone else has to offer?
How about this? Maybe someone could have the imagination to say: By the quality of our teaching. I am waiting for some bold college president to come forth and say, “You won’t find especially nice dorms at our college. They’re clean and neat, but there’s nothing fancy about them. We don’t have a climbing wall. Our food services offer simple food, made as often as possible with fresh ingredients, but we couldn’t call it gourmet eating. There are no 55-inch flat-screen TVs in the lounges of our dorms. We don’t have these amenities because we decided instead to invest in full-time, permanent faculty who are genuinely dedicated to teaching and advising you well and preparing you for life after college. So if you want the state-of-the-art rec center, that’s cool, but just remember that the price you’ll pay for that is to have most of your classes taught by graduate students and contingent faculty, the first of whom won’t have the experience and the second of whom won’t have the time to be the kind of teachers you need (even when, as is often the case, they really want to be). Our priorities here are pretty much the reverse of those that dominate many other schools. So think about that, and make a wise decision.”
It is not possible to come up with an adequate “defense of literature,” because “literature” doesn’t exist: too many wildly different kinds of plays and stories and poems and songs fall under that useless rubric. Defenses of specific works, or specific authors, or even specific ways of reading specific works or authors, might be possible and useful; but nothing broader than that.
And maybe we should remember also these words from George Orwell: “There is no argument by which one can defend a poem. It defends itself by surviving, or it is indefensible.”
Further, in this method of preaching only three statements, or the equivalent of three, are used in the theme–either from respect to the Trinity, or because a threefold cord is not easily broken, or because this method is mostly followed by Bernard, or, as I think more likely, because it is more convenient for the set time of the sermon. A preacher can follow up just so many members without tiring his hearers; and if he should mention fewer, he would occupy too little time.
To be alive: not just the carcass
But the spark.
That’s crudely put, but . . .
If we’re not supposed to dance,
Why all this music?
The Medieval Latin word universitas has no reference to the scope of the curriculum of studies; it stands for the whole gathering, the whole body, of a particular class of persons, and indeed stands very near in meaning to the modern ‘union’ in the term ‘trade union.’ It is all but synonymous, for legal purposes, with the Latin term collegium, and for social comparisons, with the old English word guild. The universitas was first of all the whole body either of the masters or of the students, and then very naturally came to mean their self-governing guild or society. The word did not gain its local or educational connotation till the last phase of the middle ages.
The idea that handling problems rationally means making a totally fresh start had been a mistake all along. All we can be called upon to do is to take a start from where we are, at the time we are there: i.e., to make discriminating and critical use of the ideas available to us in our current local situation, and the evidence of our experience, as this is ‘read’ in terms of those ideas. There is no way of cutting ourselves free of our conceptual inheritance: all we are required to do is use our experience critically and discriminatingly, refining and improving our inherited ideas, and determining more exactly the limits to their scope.
When rich people present the idea that they’ve learned to live lightly as a paradoxical insight, they have the idea of wealth backwards. You can only have that kind of lightness through wealth.
If you buy food in bulk, you need a big fridge. If you can’t afford to replace all the appliances in your house, you need several junk drawers. If you can’t afford car repairs, you might need a half-gutted second car of a similar model up on blocks, where certain people will make fun of it and call you trailer trash.
Please, if you are rich, stop explaining the idea of freedom from stuff as if it’s a trick that even you have somehow mastered.
The only way to own very little and be safe is to be rich.
Again, while it is a great blessing that a man no longer has to be rich in order to enjoy the masterpieces of the past, for paperbacks, first-rate color reproductions, and stereo-phonograph records have made them available to all but the very poor, this ease of access, if misused — and we do misuse it — can become a curse. We are all of us tempted to read more books, look at more pictures, listen to more music than we can possibly absorb, and the result of such gluttony is not a cultured mind but a consuming one; what it reads, looks at, listens to is immediately forgotten, leaving no more traces behind than yesterday’s newspaper.
Jeffrey Overstreet on Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom, a film I love:
TED talks are sermons, and the “ideas worth spreading” held therein are the gospel. Going to Long Beach (which costs $7500) is an exclusive trip to Mecca; TEDActive is the first tier of secondhand appreciation akin to viewing a religious relic in a glass case. And those videos, cherished by intellectuals and sometimes catchy enough to go viral in the general populace, are the updated version of The 700 Club, Pat Robertson’s hugely-influential television broadcast that is a cornerstone of televangelism.
. . .
After [Mitra’s] acceptance speech TED curator Chris Anderson turned the auditoriums in Long Beach and La Quinta into a synergistic Baptist revival-style celebration of support. Pledge cards were distributed immediately to everyone in the rooms at both locations — they bear more than a passing resemblance to the envelopes and plates passed around right after the sermons in my old Presbyterian church. Audience members from large and small companies got up to pledge monetary and administrative support, and the mood was electric. Chris Anderson was the fiery yet graceful pastor, his fervor directed not at Jesus but at Mitra’s minimalistic school. This was the new type of religion I’ve often envisioned: the exuberant dedication of emotional and physical resources to a proven force of good, not to an irrational faith-based deity. This was a church without a god. Well maybe Bono is its god but that is a story for a different day.
“Help,” he said, “is giving part of yourself to somebody who comes to accept it willingly and needs it badly.
“So it is,” he said, using an old homiletic transition, “that we can seldom help anybody. Either we don’t know what part to give or maybe we don’t like to give any part of ourselves. Then, more often than not, the part that is needed is not wanted. And even more often, we do not have the part that is needed. It is like the auto-supply shop over town where they always say, ‘Sorry, we are just out of that part.’”
To be a moral agent is, on [the modern] view, precisely to be able to stand back from any and every situation in which one is involved, from any and every characteristic that one may possess, and to pass judgment on it from a purely universal and abstract point of view that is totally detached from all social particularity.
If on the practical level ‘economical’ means arranging one’s affairs to maximize the earning and utilization of money with a minimum of work-input, then the project of heating my home from the wood of my forest is not economical. By the same standard I fear that raising my own children would not be very economical. Once money, especially in the form of hourly wage, is used as the fundamental measure of the worth of activities, where do we stop?
“‘You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, all your soul, and all your might. And these words which I command you today shall be on your heart’ (Deuteronomy 6:5-6).
“On your heart. Why on and not in, asks the Kotzker Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendl of Kotzk (1787-1859). Because hearts aren’t always open, the Rebbe teaches, so the words are placed there. We place them there by repeating them, to ourselves, to our children. When we sit in our house and when we walk by the way, when we lie down and when we rise up, when we feel inclined to speak them and when we don’t, when they feel near and when they feel distant, the words are placed there so when the heart does open, these words, these very words placed on the heart (why not in the mind?) will enter like a guest who waits patiently at the door until we are ready to unlock, open, and welcome her into our house, only to discover that what we had thought until now was our home is her home, and we are her guests here.”
For us Westerners, “Each diner sits on an upright, separate chair drawn up to a table on which is laid his or her ‘place.’ This is an area bounded by metal slicing, piercing, dipping, and digging instruments, or cutlery; the knife, the fork, the spoon, and sometimes more than one of each. The plate with food on it is round – an unbroken ring, holding the diner’s portion. We also speak of a person’s lot or fate as his or her ‘portion’ in life.” We take this as natural, but it ain’t: “Separateness at the table, like the table itself, is highly specific to our own culture – and a relatively recent achievement. It took centuries to develop, and enormous amounts of effort and constraint went into its elaboration . . . . We had to invent plates; to force people never to touch food with their hands; to create forks, change the shapes of knives, and insist that people not point with the cutlery.” We don’t grab food from another’s plate, nor eat from a common bowl. Visser sees in this “the embodiment of that image of ourselves as bounded areas.” At the table “we were slowly becoming more and more individualistic.”
In the artsy-craftsy world, the skills that one develops are understood to be for the sake of personal expression. Understood this way, craft practice is fully in harmony with cult of the Self that seems to underwrite every aspect of modern life, from pervasive therapy-talk to the existential heroics of “extreme sports.” It’s hard to escape the sour smell of our own narcissism. Worse, it’s hard to live up to this vague demand that one be “creative” and somehow generate from within onself an entire world. What if skilled craft practice were put in the service of straightforward utility instead? It might then connect the practitioner to other people who use the object, and offer a genuine alternative to the self-enclosure of modern life.
The only way truly to defend the artisans against all that technology might put up against them is to give up the entire premise of my blind tasting, that is, the idea that it does not matter how the coffee came to be, all that counts is its final taste.
Surely we appreciate the handmade in part because it is handmade. An object or a meal has different meaning and significance if we know it to be the product of a human being working skilfully with tools rather than a machine stamping out another clone. Even if in some ways a mass-produced object is superior in its physical properties, we have good reasons for preferring a less perfect, handcrafted one.
. . .
We are not simply hedonic machines who thrive if supplied with things that tick certain boxes for sensory pleasure, aesthetic merit, and so on. We are knowing as well as sensing creatures, and knowing where things come from, and how their makers are treated, does and should affect how we feel about them. Chocolate made from cocoa beans grown by people in near slave conditions should taste more bitter than a fairly traded bar, even if it does not in a blind tasting. Blindness, far from making tests fair, actually robs us of knowledge of what is most important, while perpetuating the illusion that all that really matters is how it feels or seems at the moment of consumption.
This ranchpunk system of interlinked fences led to the “big ranches” being “among the first to install barbed wire telephones in an effort to be alerted when prairie fires started”—an early-warning device for previously disconnected ranch owners, not a divisive symbol of modern property but a network, a transmitter, an oral internet of fences.
Christianity is the midwife of nihilism not because it is itself nihilistic, but because it is too powerful in its embrace of the world and all of the world’s mystery and beauty; and so to reject Christianity now is, of necessity, to reject everything except the barren anonymity of spontaneous subjectivity . . . . Where now can we go? Everything is Christ’s . . . . The Christian God has taken up everything into himself; all the treasures of ancient wisdom, all the splendor of creation, every good thing has been assumed into the story of the incarnate God, and every stirring toward transcendence is soon recognized by the modern mind–weary of God–as leading back toward faith.
The main feature of irony that makes us associate it so closely with hipsters is that lots of hipsters are essentially downwardly mobile young people who are putting themselves to some practical use, however small or marginal, instead of sitting around getting obese. Sure, lots of hipsters are partying themselves into a stupor while chasing pathetically semiotic fashion trends, but that’s true of millions who aren’t at all hipsters. Turns out, downward mobility is an extraordinarily narrow way of thinking about making radical choices about how to live and why. In some aspects of our lives, we should aim lower. In some, we may have to in order to aim far higher in some others. Survival is not necessarily a state of abjection or desperation. If we occur to ourselves accurately as resourceful, we may find ourselves in fairly high-stakes or high-risk situations with a sense of plenty that makes a mockery of binaries like upward-versus-downward mobility. Hipsters might be our best witnesses to how this works, and how it can work for all of us.
The - precious - gift of the Christ Child allows us to be more wedded to the world than ever, but in such a way as to become aware of its vulnerability and contingency.
Since the early centuries of the Church, Christians have thought of giving and receiving gifts as a fitting way to celebrate the Incarnation. The logic is simple: God so loved the world that he gave; so should we.
But this simple practice embodies not only a profound theology, but a profound vision of community.
To face the unspoken unguarded thoughts of habitual hearts
A vanguard of electricians a village full of tarts
Who say you must protest, you must protest
It is your diamond duty . . .
Ah, but in such an ugly time the true protest is beauty.
“[C]ertainly when the 12th volume of A Series of Unfortunate Events came out, which was called The Penultimate Peril, I found that there were people who knew what that word [‘penultimate’] meant and people who didn’t, but that that line was not along age lines at all. I remember there was an article in a newspaper that said, ‘It’s the penultimate book from the penultimate author.’ They were just sort of using the word as some kind of placeholder, whereas children learned quickly what it meant and were more quick to adopt it.
“You see failed vocabulary in the adult world so often, and it’s often because once you reach a certain age you’re kind of embarrassed to go look up a word if you don’t know what it means. And then you just start using it however it feels right. . . . I think children are less embarrassed to go look up the truth.”
For wine was given us of God, not that we might be drunken, but that we might be sober; that we might be glad, not that we get ourselves pain. ‘Wine,’ it says, ‘maketh glad the heart of man,’ but thou makest it matter for sadness; since those who are inebriated are sullen beyond measure, and great darkness over-spreads their thoughts. It is the best medicine, when it has the best moderation to direct it.
The passage before us is useful also against heretics, who speak evil of God’s creatures; for if it had been among the number of things forbidden, Paul would not have permitted it, nor would have said it was to be used. And not only against the heretics, but against the simple ones among our brethren, who when they see any persons disgracing themselves from drunkenness, instead of reproving such, blame the fruit given them by God, and say, ‘Let there be no wine.’ We should say then in answer to such, ‘Let there be no drunkenness; for wine is the work of God, but drunkenness is the work of the devil. Wine maketh not drunkenness; but intemperance produceth it. Do not accuse that which is the workmanship of God, but accuse the madness of a fellow mortal. But thou, while omitting to reprove and correct the sinner, treatest thy Benefactor with contempt!’
“We should never ask of anything, “Is it real?,” for everything is real. The proper question is “A real what?,” e.g. a real snake or real delirium tremens?”
In our time it is useless and probably wrong to suppose that a great many urban people ought to go out into the countryside and become homesteaders or farmers. But it is not useless or wrong to suppose that urban people have agricultural responsibilities that they should try to meet. And in fact this is happening. The agrarian population among us is growing, and by no means is it made up merely of some farmers and some country people. It includes urban gardeners, urban consumers who are buying food from local farmers, consumers who have grown doubtful of the healthfulness, the trustworthiness, and the dependability of the corporate food system—people, in other words, who understand what it means to be landless.
In any case, solitude and privacy are not just privileges. They are also compensations. People didn’t have modern selves in traditional society, but they didn’t need them, because they had family and community: extended families, face-to-face communities. They had an intricate structure of relationships, traditions, roles, and expectations to give content to their lives and direction to their efforts, to orient themselves in space and time. They didn’t need to go it alone or make up the world for themselves, so they didn’t need the equipment that enables modern individuals (if they’re lucky) to do so.
O Lord of indirection and ellipses,
ignore our prayers. Deliver us from distraction.
Slow our heartbeat to a cricket’s call.
In the green torpor of the afternoon,
bless us with ennui and quietude.
And grant us only what we fear, so that
Underneath the murmur of the wasp
we hear the dry grass bending in the wind
and the spider’s silken whisper from its web.
Voting “does much more harm to the church than dancing does,” Lipscomb writes in an 1875 Gospel Advocate.
We settled for that, then–for luminance over order, for terse beauty and a smeared-lipstick brand of soul, for spot-welding over handicraft; for leaving ‘the edges wild,’ as Linford’s father had once so richly advised him, and for never comparing this particular journey to any other.
If a liberal arts education is cramming an 18th century peg, or a fifth or first century peg, into a 21st century hole . . . what’ll happen when we update the peg and the hole changes again? At their best, the liberal arts are no peg at all but a skeleton key.
“I certainly understand why Reddit would [rather] choose to invest itself in the cloak of high-minded principle of unfettered speech than jangle unabashedly down the street wearing only the jockstrap of unfettered commerce.”
The cosmos seems to be gigantic in both space and time. It is more ancient than all our ape-like ancestors and all other life forms. It might also seem safe to assume that the trillions of entities in the cosmos engage in relations and duels even when no humans observe them. However interesting we humans may be to ourselves, we are apparently in no way central to the cosmic drama, marooned as we are on an average-sized planet near a mediocre sun, and confined to a tiny portion of the history of the universe. All these apparent facts are sacrificed, in the name of superior rigor, by Kant’s Copernican philosophy and its successors. It is said that all statements about distant time and space are statements by humans, and hence we are trapped in the same circle as before. This is a huge philosophical gamble, justified only by the desire for an unshakeable first principle on which the remainder of knowledge can be built.
No one, in practice, has ever displayed naive belief in any being whatsoever. If there is such a thing as belief at all, it is the most complex, sophisticated, critical, subtle, reflective activity there is.
“Only a mind put in the strangest position, looking at a world from the inside out and linked to the outside by nothing but the tenuous connection of the gaze, will throb in the constant fear of losing reality; only such a bodiless observer will desperately look for some absolute life-supporting survival kit.”
“Man acts and speaks before he knows. Or, better, it is by acting and in action that he is enabled to know.”
The defence of marginality presupposes the existence of a totalitarian centre. But if the centre and its totality are illusions, acclaim for the margins is somewhat ridiculous.
Postmodernism “lives under the modern Constitution, but it no longer believes the guarantees the Constitution offers. It senses that something has gone awry in the modern critique, but it is not able to do anything but prolong that critique, though without believing in its foundations.“
For too long, humanists have relinquished wonder to the natural sciences, and then swooped in ostentatiously to blame its awe on false consciousness. The return to realism in metaphysics is also a return to wonder, wonder unburdened by pretense or deception. Let’s leave rigor to the dead. Let’s trade furrows for gasps. Let’s rub our temples at one another no longer. Let’s go outside and dig in the dirt.
A culture is not something with which to do battle, either as an offensive weapon or an object of attack. A culture is a living thing, an inheritance, passed on from generation to generation. It is preserved by loving care not militant brow-beating. It cannot survive as a merely negative opposition to something perceived as its opposite. It is a creative, developing expression of a people’s view of the world that reaches ultimately to the highest things: to the good, the true, and the beautiful. To weaponize culture is, therefore, to destroy the very thing for which the battle is ostensibly waged.
To be rooted is perhaps the most important and least recognized need of the human soul. It is one of the hardest to define. A human being has roots by virtue of his real, active and natural participation in the life of a community which preserves in living shape certain particular treasures of the past and certain particular expectations for the future.
If the text of a native language is to be in some sense hospitable . . . it must be a text with a shadow or margin, conscious of a strangeness that surrounds it and is not captured by it, a strangeness that interprets it or at least offers the possibility of a meaning to be uncovered on the far side of questioning. And the paradoxical conclusion is that the person who ‘inhabits’ with integrity the place where they find themselves, in such a way as to make it possible for others to inhabit it in peaceable company with them is always the person who is aware of the possibility of an alien yet recognizable judgment being passed, aware of the stranger already sensed in the self’s territory. To be, in the Augustinian phrase, a question to oneself is what makes it possible to be oneself without anxiety and so with the possibility of welcome for the other.
“Can you be righteous unless you be just in rendering to all things their due esteem? All things were made to be yours, and you were made to prize them according to their value.”
“He was glad that he liked the country undecorated, hard, and stripped of its finery. He had got down to the bare bones of it, and they were fine and strong and simple.”
This man I had was a simple, crude fellow–a character fit to bear true witness; for clever people observe more things and more curiously, but they interpret them; and to lend weight and conviction to their interpretation, they cannot help altering history a little. They never show you things as they are, but bend and disguise them according to the way they have seen them; and to give credence to their judgment and attract you to it, they are prone to add something to their matter, to stretch it out and amplify it. We need a man either very honest, or so simple that he has not the stuff to build up false inventions and give them plausibility; and wedded to no theory. Such was my man.
Usually, even a non-Christian knows something about the earth, the heavens, and the other elements of this world, about the motion and orbit of the stars and even their size and relative positions, about the predictable eclipses of the sun and moon, the cycles of the years and the seasons, about the kinds of animals, shrubs, stones, and so forth, and this knowledge he hold to as being certain from reason and experience. Now, it is a disgraceful and dangerous thing for an infidel to hear a Christian, presumably giving the meaning of Holy Scripture, talking nonsense on these topics; and we should take all means to prevent such an embarrassing situation, in which people show up vast ignorance in a Christian and laugh it to scorn.
The shame is not so much that an ignorant individual is derided, but that people outside the household of faith think our sacred writers held such opinions, and, to the great loss of those for whose salvation we toil, the writers of our Scripture are criticized and rejected as unlearned men. If they find a Christian mistaken in a field which they themselves know well and hear him maintaining his foolish opinions about our books, how are they going to believe those books in matters concerning the resurrection of the dead, the hope of eternal life, and the kingdom of heaven, when they think their pages are full of falsehoods and on facts which they themselves have learnt from experience and the light of reason?
The church is rightly concerned with issues of poverty, health, education, and social justice… . But, to quote a relevant old phrase, ‘Man does not live by bread alone.’ Even the poorest people–perhaps especially the poor–need beauty and the transcendent. Beauty is not a luxury. It is humanity’s natural response to the splendor and mystery of creation. To assume that some group doesn’t need beauty is to deny their humanity.
[Thomas Aquinas] sees the structure of the free act as composed of twelve distinct moments, of which elective choice is only one. Six of these moments pertain to knowledge, while six qualify the activity of the will.
Let us say that the rural Georgian in me is cast into a fit of nostalgia by reading David Yeago’s account of his childhood in Virginia. I formulate the sane plan to relocate from Manhattan to somewhere in the Appalachians. Therein my will is moved first by the love of a particular good perceived and desired. The judgment that this particular good should be worthy of possession moves me to form an intention to seek it out. After prudent reflection on how to go about accomplishing this goal, I consent inwardly to a formulated plan. Freedom takes on a definite shape, as it were, in the act of choice. I elect one path rather than another (Appalachia vs. Manhattan; travel by train rather than by car). I then command myself to act (the intellectual engagement of what Aquinas calls the imperium, and I cast myself into action as I board the train headed south.
The pursuit of the good ends (perhaps standing on the front porch of a mountain home in rural Virginia) in the apprehension that I have come to possess the good. Therein I attain to the final end of the activity of freedom: delight in the possession of that which is loved. We move from desire, through intention, consent, choice, and engagement, to happiness and joy.
Now, the nuisance of all this notion of Business Education, of a training for certain trades, whether of plumber or plutocrat, is that they will prevent the intelligence being sufficiently active to criticize trade and business properly. They begin by stuffing the child, not with the sense of justice by which he can judge the world, but with the sense of inevitable doom or dedication by which he must accept that particular very worldly aspect of the world.
If you stuff yourself full of poems, essays, plays, stories, novels, films, comic strips, magazines, music, you automatically explode every morning like Old Faithful. I have never had a dry spell in my life, mainly because I feed myself well, to the point of bursting. I wake early and hear my morning voices leaping around in my head like jumping beans. I get out of bed to trap them before they escape.
The Lord giveth, and the Lord taketh away, but He is no longer the only one to do so. When some remote ancestor of ours invented the shovel, he became a giver: he could plant a tree. And when the ace was invented, he became a taker: he could chop it down. Whoever owns land has thus assumed, whether he knows it or not, the divine functions of creating and destroying plants.
Other ancestors, less remote, have since invented other tools, but each of these, upon close scrutiny, proves to be either an elaboration of, or an accessory to, the original pair of basic implements. We classify ourselves into vocations, each of which either wields some particular tool, or sells it, or repairs it, or sharpens it, or dispenses advice on how to do so; by such division of labors we avoid responsibility for the misuse of any tool save our own. But there is one vocation–philosophy–which knows that all men, by what they think about and wish for, in effect wield all tools. It knows that men thus determine, by their manner of thinking and wishing, whether it is worth while to wield any.
I would say that the experiments of modernity with respect to radically remaking political orders or revolution and genocide provide larger instances of this lust for mastery. One way to achieve mastery is to remove everything except yourself. If you are all that’s left, you’ll be in charge. But to do that is almost an ideal type of the desire for mastery that is characteristic for sin. And so if you look at the great genocides of the twentieth century, they’re all informed by that in a way. In a sense, they all begin when someone says, “Things are really bad; things have gone wrong; the way to set it straight is to gain complete control over it, to restart it.” That will almost always mean killing everybody. And there are a lot of examples of that.
Those attempts at mastery can all become habitual, and the interesting feature of such attempts at mastery is that they inevitably fail. The desire to have mastery or control over a lover or a child, for example, precisely removes that person from being a lover or a child and it tries to make them something that by definition they’re not; it fails as an enterprise.
By digitizing much of the frivolous banality in our lives that currently takes expensive physical infrastructure, gasoline and tens of millions of jobs to sustain, Facebook is showing us the true value of the fading American industrial economy itself. When you consider that the Facebook universe (the main company and everything else that depends on it, like Zynga games and bloggers who promote their wares on Facebook in order to drive traffic to Amazon via affiliate links) of perhaps $200 to $500 billion dollars is supplying a portion of our demand for frivolous banality that used to take several trillion dollars to supply before, you realize that you’re getting a huge bargain.
Cheap frivolity for all, just as we got cheap grain for all and cheap transportation for all in earlier revolutions.
We can understand a good deal about reading by considering not what our eyes do but rather how our hands are occupied. The reader who uses her hands only to turn pages is engaged in a significantly different activity than the one who holds; a pencil; and that reader does something subtly (but significantly) different than the one who holds a highlighter.
What I discovered in my researches about this part of the country was a vigorous civic idealism and a deep commitment to education. In its early history there was a significant presence of young clergy from places like Yale and Amherst who came to the frontier intent on starting the civilisation over again on the basis of real equality, and proofing it against the encroachments of slavery. Their approach to every problem was to educate – women, African Americans and, crucially, the general population. It was an exhausting and extremely generous campaign, carried on for decades. Its effects are still palpable. The fine little colleges they founded in surprising numbers flourish still. It is true at the same time that the history behind this heritage is largely forgotten, that it persists as custom rather than as memory. In practical terms it has meant that the clock was turned back and the best reforms were compromised or lost until the civil rights movement took hold a century later. John Ames lives in this middle period, old enough to remember his abolitionist grandfather, and to see the beginnings of the new era. I am sad to say that in this respect he is a conventional good man of the period. The novel is, among other things, an inquiry into the question of how individual lives interact with culture and history, for weal and for woe. A modest query and a vast question. Still, as an American, I can only grieve at the thought of the possibilities that were raised on this gorgeous, storm-ridden prairie, then foreclosed and forgotten – history somehow erasing itself. There is a deep and abiding loveliness nevertheless, the ember still to be breathed upon. And this is in Ames’s mind, too. The prairie still shines like transfiguration.
What I tried to convey to my niece when we were in Paris is the truth of Hemingway’s famous observation that “Paris is a moveable feast.” Most places are, if by “moveable feast” one means taking into one’s heart the essence of what it means to live in that place, and trying to live it out wherever you may go. For me, I told Hannah, “Paris” is both a place and a way of seeing the world. It means a particular way of approaching beauty, and of living as a kind of art. It is the belief that beauty, however humbly expressed, can and should be a part of everyday life. For me, living out “Paris” means drinking a bottle of cold Sancerre on the front porch in the middle of the warm afternoon, because a friend dropped by, and it seemed agreeable to you both. “Paris” means taking extra time to figure out how you can make something taste better . .
That’s “Paris” to me. A mindful aestheticism.
In reality, subjective certitude cannot be secured, not because the world is nothing but the aleatory play of opaque signifiers, but because subjective certitude is an irreparably defective model of knowledge; it cannot correspond to or “adequate” a world that is gratuity rather than ground, poetry rather than necessity, rhetoric rather than dialectic. Every act of knowledge is, simultaneously, an act of faith (to draw on Hamann’s delightful subversion of Hume); we trust in the world, and so know it, only by entrusting ourselves to what is more than ourselves; our primordial act of faith meets a covenant that has already been made with us, before we could seek it, in the giving of the light. No one can shut his eyes to that splendor, or seal his ears against that music, except as a perverse display of will; then, naturally, knowledge can be recovered again only as an exertion of that same will. But one then has not merely lost the world momentarily, so as to receive it anew as “truth.” One has lost the world and its truth altogether, and replaced them with a phantom summoned up out of one’s need for a world conformable to the dimensions of one’s own power to establish meaning—a world that is nothing but the ceaseless repetition of otherwise meaningless instantiations of that power.
Nowadays, when a person lives somewhere, in a neighborhood, the place is not certified for him. More than likely he will live there sadly and the emptiness which is inside him will expand until it evacuates the entire neighborhood. But if he sees a movie which shows his very neighborhood, it becomes possible for him to live, for a time at least, as a person who is Somewhere and not Anywhere.
I think of myself not just as a physical presence but as a kind of rational or intellectual presence. I think of myself in terms of a certain set of ongoing goals, projects, and commitments: to write a new paper, to be a good husband, to better understand the nature of persons, and so on. These goals and projects are not static, nor are they arbitrarily changeable. I recognize myself, over my lifetime, in part by keeping track of this flow of projects and commitments. Others, likewise, will often recognize me as a unique individual, not (or not only) by recognizing my physical shape and form but by recognizing some distinctive nexus of projects and activities.
Something I constantly notice is that unembarrassed joy has become rarer. Joy today is increasingly saddled with moral and ideological burdens, so to speak. When someone rejoices, he is afraid of offending against solidarity with the many people who suffer. I don’t have any right to rejoice, people think, in a world where there is so much misery, so much injustice.
I can understand that. There is a moral attitude at work here. But this attitude is nonetheless wrong. The loss of joy does not make the world better—and, conversely, refusing joy for the sake of suffering does not help those who suffer. The contrary is true. The world needs people who discover the good, who rejoice in it and thereby derive the impetus and courage to do good. Joy, then, does not break with solidarity. When it is the right kind of joy, when it is not egotistic, when it comes from the perception of the good, then it wants to communicate itself, and it gets passed on. In this connection, it always strikes me that in the poor neighborhoods of, say, South America, one sees many more laughing happy people than among us. Obviously, despite all their misery, they still have the perception of the good to which they cling and in which they can find encouragement and strength.
In this sense we have a new need for that primordial trust which ultimately only faith can give. That the world is basically good, that God is there and is good. That it is good to live and to be a human being. This results, then, in the courage to rejoice, which in turn becomes commitment to making sure that other people, too, can rejoice and receive good news.
Our sense of responsibility must, in order to fulfil itself, be always exceptional and particular, because attentive to a specific unique demand; yet to be responsible it must also by definition be answerable to a public forum. But how can these two demands ever be reconciled? And what explanation could ever be given to the neglected ones? There are never, it seems, any adequate, that is to say publicly stateable reasons for lavishing devotion on one person rather than another–to the public gaze this will always appear excessively aesthetic or erotic. Yet to the private impulse it may appear to fulfil the logic of the ethical itself.
Properly understood, Benjamin’s argument [in ‘The Storyteller’] reveals that the proliferation of bland, solipsistic personal ‘stories’ in our current cultural situation does not indicate a recovery of ‘communicable experience,’ but just the opposite. We tell our stories, all right, but we don’t think of them as offering counsel in wisdom: I ‘journal’ for myself, not for others; the only counsel I can offer them is to do their own ‘journaling.’ I can give them technical advice, but this is not counsel. Indeed, late modernity may even be defined as a culture in which technical advice has superseded counsel, largely because narrative itself has for the past three hundred years been more and more removed from the webs of communal life.
Art is not a plaything, but a necessity, and its essence, form, is not a decorative adjustment, but a cup into which life can be poured and lifted to the lips and tasted. If one’s own existence has no form, if its events do not come handily to mind and disclose their significance, we feel about ourselves as if we were reading a bad book. We can all of us judge the truth of this, for hardly any of us manage to avoid some periods when the main theme of our lives is obscured by details.
More insidious by far is the moral failure manifest in our mulish resolve to avoid physical work on any scale, a resolve that has led to such enormities as the golf cart, the bread-maker, and the electric can-opener.
I think for a lot of people who don’t read pulp growing up, there’s a real surprise that the particular kind of Pulp Modernism of a certain kind of lush purple prose isn’t necessarily a failure or a mistake, but is part of the fabric of the story and what makes it weird. There’s a big default notion that “spare,” or “precise” prose is somehow better. I keep insisting to them that while such prose is completely legitimate, it’s in no way intrinsically more accurate, more relevant, or better than lush prose. That adjective “precise,” for example, needs unpicking. If a “minimalist” writer describes a table, and a metaphor-ridden adjective-heavy weird fictioneer describes a table, they are very different, but the former is in absolutely no way closer to the material reality than the latter. Both of them are radically different from that reality. They’re just words. A table is a big wooden thing with my tea on it. I think they also are surprised by how much they enjoy making up monsters.
It is extremely difficult to discuss in theoretical terms a movement (one cannot call it a theory or a doctrine) seeking simplicity. The movement is apparently continuous with the whole history of the Church. The history of Christian preaching is filled with recurrent cycles of antipathy to rhetorical form–Paul, Chrysostom, Peter the Hermit, the early Franciscans, the Lollards, the Quakers, and so forth. Perhaps any history of the rhetoric of preaching must insist that, whatever the visible evidence for an interest in praecepta at a given period of time, there was probably always a sizable group of nontheorists and antitheorists, actually engaged in preaching, who as a matter of principle rejected the idea of systematic theory. By its very nature it is the type of thinking that leaves few records.
I put up with this church, in the hope that one day it will become better, just as it is constrained to put up with me in the hope that I will become better.
I am watching him, but he has not yet seen me. And now he sees me. The expression on his face does not change, but now his intention has changed, he is walking toward me and nothing else. As he comes closer he smiles a little, still whistling. I know that when he comes to where I am he will give me a hug, and I want him to. I know how it is going to feel, the entire touch of him. He looks at me with a look I know. The shiver of the altogether given passes over me from head to foot.
The big idea of education, from first to last, is the idea of a better place. Not a better place where you are, because you want it to be a better place and have been to school and learned to make it better, but a better place somewhere else. In order to move up, you have got to move on.
Love in this world doesn’t come out of thin air. It is not something thought up. Like ourselves, it grows out of the ground. It has a body and a place.
The stream and the woods don’t care if you love them. The place doesn’t care if you love it. But for your own sake you had better love it. For the sake of all else you love, you had better love it.
Precisely because resignation is antecedent, faith is no esthetic emotion but something far higher; it is not the spontaneous inclination of the heart but the paradox of existence.
What we perceive by momentary intuitions and what we conceptually think of these moments remain incommensurably poorer than what we really have to see there. The concepts, by which we know what there is to see so well that we no longer take the time or the trouble to go and truly see, serve only to sum them up, simplify them for us, so as to mask their exuberant splendor. Most of the time, we want to get an idea of things without having any intention of seeing them, so that we can handle them easily, like equipment. If we were to forget their concepts, we would see that there are so many things to see–so many things to see in this old violin on the simple stool, a rumpled newspaper and sad little vase.
Art is only a means to life, to the life more abundant. It is not in itself the life more abundant. It merely points the way, something which is overlooked not only by the public, but very often by the artist himself. In becoming an end it defeats itself.
The Branches seemed uninterested in getting somewhere and making something of themselves. What they liked was making something of nearly nothing.
Why is it that people defending purportedly innovative art always seem to fall back on the most shopworn cliches and the hokiest Romantic-hero narratives to do so?
J. E. Malpas writes, ‘places always open up to disclose other places within them … while from within any particular place one can always look outwards to find oneself within some much larger expanse (as one can look from the room in which one sits to the house in which one lives).’
Only a philosopher could look from his sitting room and see his whole house! For its ordinary residents, the house or apartment is disclosed processionally, as a temporal series of vistas, occlusions and transitions unfolding along the myriad of pathways they take, from room to room and in and out of doors, as they go about their daily tasks. Malpas, however, writes of leaving his room for his apartment, his apartment for the building, and the building for the neighbourhood and city in which he lives, as though each step along the way were a movement not along but upwards, from level to level, from smaller, more exclusive places to larger, more inclusive ones. And the higher he climbs, the further removed he feels from the groundedness of place, and the more drawn to an abstract sense of space.
“All the efforts of the human mind cannot exhaust the essence of a single fly.”
I just finished reading China Miéville’s Un Lun Dun, a fantasy novel aimed at younger readers. Spoilers very much ahead, in case you care.
The effect of beauty, therefore, is good to the degree that, through its analogies, the goodness of created existence, the historical fall into unfreedom and disorder, and the possibility of regaining paradise through repentance and forgiveness, are recognized. Its effect is evil to the degree that beauty is taken, not as analogous to, but as identical with goodness, so that the artist regards himself or is regarded by others as God, the pleasure of beauty taken for the joy of Paradise, and the conclusion drawn that, since all is well in the work of art, all is well in history. But all is not well there.
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