We started this last year and I’m going to continue it this year because of how much fun I have putting it together. Here’s my list of the year’s best magazine writing. If you have other nominations, mention them in the comments. I’ll likely be doing some other year-end posts as well plus Brad Vermurlen will be returning with his end-of-year book list.
She reported her rape. Her hometown turned against her. Can justice ever be served?: Elizabeth Bruenig’s investigative piece for the Post on how a high-school classmate of hers was raped and then abandoned by her town is devastating.
Maybe this gets at one of the many things that impressed me about the piece: I don’t think anyone would have done a better job of covering this tragic story than Bruenig. What makes Bruenig such a unique voice is the combination of sincere compassion with a deeply Christian mind that aspires to tell Wyatt’s story in a profoundly Christian way. That shouldn’t be a particularly surprising thing but in an America that is routinely indifferent to the wounded and where our Christians are often no better than those outside the church it is striking to see what compassion wed to a Christian imagination can look like.
Bruenig tells the story in a way that honors Amber Wyatt and with a precision that amplifies the moral horror of the story and which can’t help but make a person long for whatever the opposite of that horror is.
Consider a passage like this:
In the crime-scene photographs taken inside the shed where Wyatt said she was assaulted, you can count the buck heads — 12 mounted neatly on the first floor, another half dozen strewn on the ground of the loft, antlers tangled like bramble, eyes wide and staring. Wyatt’s panties are there, too, on the concrete under the empty watch of the beheaded deer. How blunt it seems, overstated almost— prey among prey.
Many a treatise on brutality has taken deer as its subject, because the pleasure derived from killing them is so disturbing in light of their docile grace. Montaigne laments the dying cries of a wounded hart in his essay on cruelty; so does William Wordsworth in his poem “Hart-Leap Well.” Both Montaigne and Wordsworth meditate on the deer’s last stagger, the long prelude to death, the moment when the light leaves its eyes.
Wyatt had eyes like that: thick-lashed, wide and dark, dimmed to vacancy at times by drugs and alcohol. She was beautiful, and she was vulnerable. And everyone knew it.
To be a Christian writer should not mean simply creating content that propositionally restates ideas consistent with Christian theology. It is, or ought to be at least, the work of using the written word to model a Christian intelligence about the world, which is to say an intelligence that views one’s neighbor as one of the holiest things we can ever encounter and views one’s work as an opportunity to show love to one’s neighbor. The form as much as the content should show forth both a Christian horror at evil and a captivation with the good. Bruenig’s work does that.
If you haven’t read Amber’s story, please do. It is important. And if you have opportunity to do so, take a training program in abuse prevention and learn to be a good neighbor to the victims of abuse. Statistically speaking you know multiple people who have been abused. So learning to be a good friend to them is an opportunity to show Christian love to wounded people.
The Best Way to Save People from Suicide: Jason Cherkis’s long-form essay at the Huffington Post tells the story of several doctors who discovered a simple thing that seems to curb suicide: sending letters to suicidal people.
A Dying Town: Sarah Brown and Karin Fischer report on the decline of Kennett, MO, a languishing town in southeastern MO.
The Humane Vision of Elmore Leonard: Will Hoyt’s review essay about the work of Leonard combines the delight of reading Leonard with a serious treatment of the much-loved crime novelist’s main themes.
The Steward of Middle Earth: Hannah Long’s essay on Christopher Tolkien is a delightful exploration of Middle Earth, the faithfulness a son shows to a father, and how that son’s work has made the fruit of his father’s imagination accessible to the world.
Anthony Kennedy and the Privatization of Meaning: David Brooks’s June column marking the retirement of Kennedy is Brooks at his best. I’ve not found a treatment of late-modern liberalism that matches this for both clarity and brevity.
Chardon, OH: Libby Copeland’s investigative piece on the long-term consequences of a school shooting for a small Ohio town tells a part of the school shooting story that is often forgotten: How does life continue to be different long after a school shooting?
Why We’re Underestimating American Collapse: Umair Haque’s piece on Medium is dark, but hard to argue with.
The Three Fusions: Julius Krein summarizes modern political order, explains why all our political coalitions are collapsing around us, and tentatively suggests a few basic steps forward to fix some of our largest problems.
This Is US Politics. Are You Triggered?: Bruenig’s recent column on what she calls the “triggering style” in American discourse is short, but, like Brooks’ piece about Kennedy, it concisely summarizes a key theme in contemporary American politics.
Holy Ambivalence: Brad East’s review of Patrick Deneen’s After Liberalism and James K. A. Smith’s Awaiting the King combines helpful summary of the debate about Deneen’s book with interesting observations drawing on Protestant political theology.
The Eclipse of Catholic Fusionism: Kevin Gallagher’s essay in American Affairs is the best summary I have seen of why younger Catholics have broadly abandoned the more American friendly Catholicism of older writers like George Weigel, Robert George, John Courtney Murray, and Richard Neuhaus. If you want to understand where theologically engaged young Catholics are heading, read this essay.
Sex, Gender, and Family
Modern Family: The Return of the Incest Aesthetic: Stephen Marche’s piece in the Times Literary Supplement is a disturbing look at how mainstream cultural artifacts have begun to feature incest more prominently in their stories and art.
Sperm Count Zero: Daniel Noah Halpern’s feature for GQ is one of the most terrifying things I read all year. Once you’re done, you’ll feel the same way.
A Regimen of Grace: Davey Henreckson’s essay in Comment manages something that is both vitally needed today and rarely done: It makes the imaginative appeal for Protestantism.
Justice: The Foundation of a Christian Approach to Abuse: Rachael and Jacob Denhollander’s ETS paper, published over at Fathom, is a stunningly good treatment of penal substitution and how the logic of PSA actually provides a robust foundation for responding to abuse and supporting victims.
All the Lonely Workers: Brian Dijkema has been one of my favorite discoveries this year. I knew of him prior to 2018 but I have spent more time reading his work this year than ever before. If you want creative Protestant treatments of economics and justice for workers, Dijkema is one of the best people you could be reading.
Reviving Solidarity: This is the other great Dijkema piece from this year. If you want a good primer in solidarity, start here.
The Case for the Wage Subsidy: Oren Cass’s book is on my to-read list. This excerpt may help you understand why.
The Carpetbaggers of Tech: Julianne Tveten’s essay exploring the way that Silicon Valley has begun moving into Middle America is an example of Baffler at its best.
How Much is an Hour Worth?: Peter Baker’s essay for the Guardian is one of the best broad treatments of the minimum wage debate I’ve ever read.
Miscarrying at Work: The Physical Toll of Pregnancy Discrimination: Jessica Silver-Greenberg and Natalie Kitroeff report on one of the many tragic aspects of the modern American workplace: It is deeply hostile to new life and to the women who carry unborn children.
Is Your Boss Watching You?: Emine Saner’s Guardian essay is a depressing reminder of the fact that emerging tech is not simply eliminating jobs; it’s making many jobs much worse.
He Could’ve Been a Colonel: Keith Pandolfi’s piece about a forgotten restauranteur is a fascinating dive into food culture and how restaurant chains grow or fail.
It’s Not Technology That’s Disrupting Our Jobs: Louis Hyman’s essay for the Times about how we found ourselves in our current anti-worker predicament is excellent. The main idea? A world of stagnating wages, mounting debt, dwindling benefits, and minimal security wasn’t inevitable. It was a choice.
Let’s Bring Back the Sabbath as a Radical Act Against Total Work: William R. Black’s Aeon essay suggests an intriguing way in which non-religious progressives and religious conservatives could find common ground.