It’s happening again: Someone did something bad and now other people are threatening not to do business with them. But in this case the target for the boycott is not Starbucks or Chick-fil-a or JC Penney or Forever 21; it’s Georgia. The state, like Indiana and Arkansas before it, has passed a Religious Freedom Restoration Act that, like the laws passed by Indiana and Arkansas before it, is basically identical to the Federal bill signed into law over 20 years ago by a Democratic president whose wife now brands herself as a champion for gay rights. Continue reading
Tomorrow I hope to publish a brief review of Laura Dunn’s new film “The Seer.” It’s a unique film and a hard one to pin down because while it is a portrait of Wendell Berry, Berry himself is never actually filmed for it. We only get archival photos of him and recordings of interviews with him. That said, what we do get is a unique film that does a marvelous job of helping viewers see what Berry sees when he looks at the world. And that is no small achievement. More tomorrow. For now, here’s the interview:
How did you first discover Berry’s writing?
I don’t remember, it was high school I think. I’d been interested in environmental issues for a long time, I’d been around agriculture for a long time (because of my mom’s job). It was mostly the non-fiction work that I started reading. When I was working on my feature “The Unforeseen,” which is very much a sibling to “The Seer”, I used a Wendell poem for that film and I met Wendell in that process and asked him to record his poem for the film. When I toured that film I was surprised at how few people knew who Wendell Berry was. When I finished I just imagined another film about his work. I thought to make a film that would in some way honor his work and his spirit and draw more attention to his work. Continue reading
It is good to remember, especially in light of these presidential primaries, that no era is without its share of baffling endorsements. Andrew Carnegie, whose imperious steel mills did more than perhaps anyone to antagonize the neo-transcendentalist folklore of Leaves of Grass, called Walt Whitman the greatest poet America has produced.
In his novel Jayber Crow Wendell Berry raises the question of how a person can love and give themselves to something that is dying. Throughout the novel, Crow, the book’s protagonist, reflects on his life in Port William, a small Kentucky town that is dying. At one point he likens the town, which is suffering the same fate as so many other small American towns, to a person on the side of an icy slope—no matter how much they try to stay put, they can’t help slipping. Jayber Crow is the story of how one man tries to keep faith with a place that is dying. It is, thus, the story of how one man dies alongside the thing he loves. Continue reading
There are a few more things that need to be said as we wrap up this week’s Crump-related fun. (And no, I did not watch last night’s debate so do not ask me about it. I was busy playing Football Manager and reading Anthony Esolen.)
There is a way of opposing the political establishment that really is nihilistic and conservatives have been very good at it in recent years. Indeed, there is almost certainly a strong link between the success of the professional malcontents on the right like Rush Limbaugh and the ascent of candidates like Crump. That is what we need to avoid now. Continue reading
I got a lot of responses to my recent Christianity Today article on vaccines, but one of the more arresting ones was from a mother who asked me what I would say to the parents of a child who had clearly been injured or killed by a vaccine. Would I just slap that mother or father on the back and say, “thanks for taking one for the team!” with a solemn nod?
In preparing to go to South Sudan as a medical missionary, I’ve had to spend a lot of time thinking about what would happen if something happened to myself or my children while we’re on the field. My future team leader nearly lost his daughter to a mysterious tropical illness and lost his sight in one eye in the same week. There are real risks that our families face when we travel to a remote place for the sake of the Gospel, though many of these risks are unavoidable to any parent and they’re simply magnified in a malarial war zone. We all want to keep our children safe from physical dangers and most parents (even non-Christians) recognize that there are equal or greater spiritual and moral dangers present in every cultural milieu. Stepping out in faith often requires more direct confrontation with such dangers. How do we think about preparing for such dangers as a community of faith? Continue reading
The American Conservative has opened up a new front in the decades-old War on Suburbia. This attack, purportedly, comes from the Right.
In the past month, the magazine has launched two broadsides on this topic. Rod Dreher composed an ode to Philip Bess’ “New Urbanism of the Soul” and Charles Marohn published “The Conservative Case Against the Suburbs.” After reading both articles, I found my conservative soul unstirred. Ultimately, it is unclear if either Bess or Marohn are espousing “conservative” principles—at least how that term is usually defined in the American political discourse—for they oppose suburbs on hierarchical and elitist grounds. Theirs is not an American conservative case against the suburbs. If anything, it may be something of a European conservative case against the suburbs. But, ultimately even if some of their these arguments would have resonated with Prince Metternich, their purchase in the American political debate is lacking.
Thomistic New Urbanism
The way Dreher frames Philip Bess’s work begins to highlight this disconnect. Bess is introduced as a Catholic professor of architecture at Notre Dame from where he has focused his urban design efforts on the After Burnham project, which “imagines what Chicago—given its current architectural, social, and environmental order—might look like 100 years hence if the next century is informed by classical humanist urbanism and Catholic social teaching.” Such a grandiose project of central planning sounds exactly like the kind of thing the Habsburgian bureaucracy would undertake.
Dreher also explains that Bess is both a convert to Roman Catholicism and a convert to New Urbanism and that the two conversions are not merely coincidental. Continue reading
This bit from my friend Jake Meador’s excellent piece on why we need small towns has lingered with me:
No, we don’t all have to move to small towns to find these communities. But small towns make that sort of community more plausible. Big cities run on transience and mobility. They are filled with rental housing and freeways designed to make movement over large areas easier. And they are supported by an economy that assumes people will switch careers and homes several times in the course of their lives.
In such a world, the memory of small-town life is an antidote to the frantic pace that defines the city and deadens the soul. But with small towns withering away, what will protect us from the hectic, hypermobile life of the city? In a world where so many of us are like Jayber—haunted by the pains inflicted upon us as well as our own sinful heart—where will we go to be healed and restored? How many of us will be given the time to slowly, quietly live out the answers to the most important questions?
My own take on this is similar to what I think about cities and suburbs: any theologically minded commentary on how we relate to a place, and how places form us, must be unremittingly ambivalent in its approach. It is true that small towns can make “community more plausible,” as Jake puts it. But “community” can also become downright hostile to outsiders and overly protective of its own. The recent Maryville horror story–and there is no other word for it–is simply that sort of debased protectiveness magnified to the extreme. Loving one’s own has real dangers within it, when it is not mediated and transformed by more fundamental loves. Small towns and cities strike me as equally conducive to virtue, even if their challenges take a very different form. And yes, all this points to affirming Jake’s fundamental point that we need pastors to go to small towns now more than ever. As a child of a town of three thousand people, I found Jesus there–and a whole lot else beside.
But then, if what Jake thinks small town life provides is an “antidote to the frantic pace of life that defines the city and deadens the soul,” then I suspect there are no such thing anymore–not with the internet, anyway, and the inescapable mental franticness that the distractions of Facebook and Twitter introduce. It is doubtlessly the case that for most people in small town, Facebook provides additional texture to their embedded lives, rather than having the sort of globalizing effect that it does for other people. Yet even so, using them on a smartphone–as nearly everyone these days does, it seems–invariably tears our attention in multiple directions. It is not the “hectic, hypermobile life of the city” that we need to be concerned about but the online equivalent, which introduces placelessness as a way of life into every community no matter what the size. We may be given the time to “slowly, quietly live out the answers to the most important questions” (a perhaps very gracious nod to a recent work of mine?). But few of us will take it.
It’s for this reason that I was happy to see Jake’s wrestling with the way in which the dislocatedness of his writing fits into small town life:
While it’s preferable to have a small town populated with remote workers like Dreher than no small towns at all, I do wonder about the shape of community in a small town where many of the residents draw their livelihoods from work concerned with another place somewhere else. Speaking only for myself as a writer based in Lincoln, NE whose reading habits more closely resemble a resident of Washington DC or New York than my midwestern neighbors, I have real questions about the strength of a community shared by people who share a place but not an economy. My own experience of life in Lincoln suggests that cultivating deep community when people share a place but not an economy may be quite difficult.
The economic point here is a crucial one, as it goes much deeper than simply having a job that pays bills. Our work entangles us in the world in our entirety, not in part, if we are to do it well. Our work is a role, yes, but it is a role that we assume without fragmenting ourselves. We invest ourselves in our work; our work pervades the entirety of our lives, forming our desires and establishing a scope for our interests. The tension of living in a place and working elsewhere is not simply one of not having to leave our front doors in order to get to the office and so bumping elbows with our neighbors on the way. Rather, it is a question about where our investments are and what it means to be in a place when such a fundamental mode of our existence takes all our concerns elsewhere. We can deflate the “economy” so that it is only a transaction of money in exchange for some sort of service; but that may be to enter into a mode of working that lies at the heart of the alienation that many people feel in their lives, to give ourselves over to the very problem that the emphasis on place is meant to address.
Let me put the point differently, then: if we all need small towns, then we need small town writers whose fundamental interests and concerns are those which describe and recount their places in ways that the rest of us can learn from. It is not enough to hand out Wendell Berry and consider the work of describing the interests of small-town life done, though Rod Dreher’s Little Way does this too, it seems. If there is something distinctively good there, some sort of formation that can occur anywhere but which might be especially concentrated in the way of life that is wholly integrated into a small community, then we need writers willing to forgo the temptations of universalism that the internet presents and take up their pen and describe the granular, frequently petty and occasionally heroic forms of life that make small-town life uniquely indispensable. It may take a form of writing that is as parochially concerned as the people it represents. But if it is the case that the true wisdom is found within the limiting, narrow particulars of a small-town life, it is just within such parochialism that we will see the world properly.
Otherwise, I may be left wondering whether we really need small towns after all, or whether they too are simply one more place of ambivalence equivalent to all the rest.
One of the frustrations of a short-form essay is that you don’t get to say all the things you’d like to say about the topic. This in turn leads to responses which actually end up saying many of the things you’d have liked to say if only you had more space. So it is with the responses to my Why We Need Small Towns essay published recently at Rod Dreher’s blog and at Brian Gumm’s Restorative Theology.
The essential point raised in both responses is that it’s lovely to speak of the necessity of small-town life and of what small towns can teach us, but if we don’t have a plan for participating in and preserving the economic life of small towns, we are radically unprepared to actually act upon any of our words in any meaningful way. That’s a true point, and certainly one deserving of a response.
To begin, small towns may not be as doomed economically as they’re sometimes made out to be. One of the blessing of the foodie craze is that more and more young people are looking to farm. While it’s true that the food fad has inspired lots of silliness, it has also pushed us toward a greater awareness of our dependence upon creation and our responsibility to steward it affectionately–and for that we ought to give thanks.
My latest post on hating suburbia precipitated a great number of substantive responses. I want to continue the discussion by reviewing the new book, Why Cities Matter by Stephen Um and Justin Buzzard. Both men are pastors of Gospel Coalition-ish churches in Boston and Silicon Valley, respectively. They are also aspiring Kellerites. Not only does Keller pen the foreword, but there are nearly twenty citations to his book Center Church, several attributions to his articles like “A Biblical Theology of the City,” and even one reference to his unpublished notes.
The book’s title encapsulates its purpose; Um and Buzzard endeavor to explain why cities are important to the economic and evangelistic future of the world. They do this with both sociological data on how and why cities are centers of power, culture, and worship, and then theological reflection on God’s view of cities.
Their theological insight takes the form of a biblical word-study of “city” from Genesis to Revelation. It is not exactly the most contextually sensitive of readings. For example, they write that Jesus ministered in an “undeniably urbanized environment” because he makes reference to courts, market squares, and interest-bearing accounts, and they write that Paul’s letters are “even more urban than we think” in that they are “written from cities to cities… [so Paul] does not need to argue for the necessity of ministry to cities.” For those of you scoring at home, Jesus is urban even though he’s in the countryside because he mentions cities, and Paul is urban even though he doesn’t really mention cities because he is in the city. Like proverbial men with hammers, they certainly see a great number of nails.
I wish this was the only absurdity in their biblical study of cities, but it is actually typical. Other exegetical stretches include: “Eden may well have included buildings,” “God is the ultimate, creative, entrepreneurial urban planter,” and “When God’s people’s commitment to the urban mandate fizzled out, he personally took up responsibility for the mission, took on human flesh, and was born into the city (Luke 2: 11).” FACT: According to scholars, the population of the City of David at the time of Jesus’ birth was 300 – 1000. I had touched on this odd exegetical phenomenon in my first piece on Metro-Evangelicals, but the sloppiness continues to amaze.
The remainder of the book contains helpful missiological advice for reaching cities and it is here that Um and Buzzard hit their stride. They counsel avoiding twin temptations of city living: “overadapting” by conforming one’s life to the culture of the city or “underadapting” by privatizing one’s faith in order to be approved by peers. One technique they suggest is to understand the storyline of your city—that is, the dreams and cultural values of your locale—and rewrite it with a Gospel ending.
The gospel doesn’t eradicate a city’s story, but it brings completeness to it. Once a city’s story has been challenged, it must be retold. And it must be retold to show that a city’s story can only find a happy ending through Jesus’s substitutionary resolution and completion of the themes of the city’s story line. The gospel resolves the thickening tension in the city’s narrative, and shows that resolution, relief, and rest are to be found only in Jesus Christ.
This is wonderful advice, but it would seem equally applicable in urban, suburban, or rural environments, which brings me to the chief weakness of the book.
Equivocating on the Meaning of “City”
From the outset of the book there is ambiguity as to the definition of “city.” Keller’s foreword lays out some facts about the increasing importance of cities. He quotes the CEO of Gallup that “as goes the leadership of the top 100 American cities, so goes the country’s economic future.” Continue reading