A couple weeks ago I was reviewing a draft of Kayla Snow’s excellent review of The Long, Long Life of Trees and we began talking about the historically unprecedented ignorance of place that defines many in the west today. A book like Stafford’s can only be written by someone who has taken a great deal of time to look at the natural world.
If you took the attentiveness toward nature required to write a book like Stafford’s and added to it a keen spiritual eye, you would likely end up with a book very like Hannah Anderson’s Humble Roots. Anderson’s book, written as a sort of sequel to her first book Made for More but able to stand on its own as well, is positioned by its author as an attempt to take the ideas of Made for More and make them a bit more practical for readers.
If you are like me, you might stumble over the idea of an evangelical book trying to make something more practical for readers—often that is simply code for some sort of new law of the sort Derek Webb rightly ridiculed in his song of the same name. Humble Roots is practical, but not in this sense: It is practical in the way that virtue is practical, which is to say it is practical in the best possible way.
I increasingly suspect that one of the defining questions facing evangelicalism in the years to come will be whether we try to relate Christian faith to our immediate experience of the world or whether we try and submit our experience of the world to the order described in Scripture. We have a growing cottage industry, after all, of evangelical memoirs and evangelical guides to help us better serve the (often real) needs of a minority group within the church. Some of these are better than others and some are very good indeed, but even the best books in this genre seem to me to be foregrounding the self and foregrounding individual experience in order to show how Christian faith actually does connect to those things.
Anderson’s book does rather the opposite. By the time you get to the end of the book, you may feel like you know more about Anderson’s husband and family than you do about her. You will also know a great deal about Anderson’s home place in southwest Virginia not far from the border with West Virginia. This is by design: Anderson’s book is a treatment of humility which provides numerous illustrations and object lessons about this virtue which are drawn, literally, from Anderson’s home soil.
It’s this point that is worth considering at greater length. For much of the church’s history it has been a given that the natural world would have a certain order to it and that we as Christians might learn something about God from looking at it. To be sure, there are bad ways of reading the book of nature and the lessons it is able to teach us are limited. But there is an order to the world and we can learn something about God from looking at it.
This is a point that I think many contemporary evangelicals have forgotten—which probably goes some way toward explaining the deluge of memoirs and guides for how to include various sub-groups within the church. We have lost the idea that we belong to anything by virtue of our birth or our family or our home place. All we are left with is our “sole self” (as Keats put it). If that is the case, then the only question we are even capable of asking is “how does God meet me here?”
What makes Hannah’s book so refreshing is that Hannah knows who she is not because of some extended set of practices oriented toward “self-actualization,” but because she knows her home place, knows her people, and knows her work. Her awareness of what Berry calls “the given” shifts the focus of the book away from Hannah and toward the virtue which is the book’s chief concern: humility. That, of course, is a clever maneuver since this is precisely what humility itself does in practice. The book, then, is an interesting little device in that it humbly speaks about humility.
On this point, I think the best I can do is simply quote Hannah’s own words as she is clearly more practiced in the virtue than I am and is able to describe it in ways far superior to anything I could do as summary:
Humility teaches us that all is gift. Humility teaches us thankfulness. But it is not a thankfulness based in having more than other people because that kind of thankfulness fluctuates on whoever you’re comparing yourself with. As long as you’re looking at people with fewer resources, you will be thankful.
But what happens when you meet up with your college friend who earns twice what you do and has traveled the world—all while maintaining wonderfully diverse friendships and an intimate family life? If your thankfulness is rooted in comparison, it will evaporate in an instant. No, gratitude born from humility is not a gratitude rooted in having more than someone else. It is a gratitude rooted in having anything at all. Instead of comparing what you have with other people (either more or less), humility teaches you to compare what you have now with what you had when you entered this world. You entered this world with nothing. You didn’t even have clothing on. Your very existence is a gift and everything that you have or have ever had is a gift as well.
The above is the core of the book: Pride blinds us to God and blinds us to the good gifts he gives us. Humility helps us to see God rightly and to order our lives toward him as a response to his goodness to us.
There’s a final note to make on this book: In Mere Christianity Lewis calls pride “the great sin.” It’s the sin that stands before all other sins. In this judgment many other Christians have agreed with Lewis. From this fact, we might deduce that pride’s opposite—humility—is the chief of all virtues. And, indeed, Hannah makes a compelling case that this is so in Humble Roots.
That said, it is interesting to me that when asked to summarize the law, Christ does not tell us to be humble. He tells us to love the Lord and love our neighbor. The point to take from this consideration is that humility and love are linked: We might say that humility is what clears the way for love. Love is an ordering of our own desires and actions to promote the good of another.
But if we are proud, if we see our desires and actions as being paramount in our own lives, we are incapable of love. The thing that makes a book like Humble Roots possible is the obvious love Anderson has for a number of things—for her home place, for the plants that grow there, for her husband, for their church, and so on.
The book challenged me in a number of ways, but I think the greatest challenge it gave me is to learn to see my Nebraska home in the way Anderson sees her place in southwestern Virginia. If we are understanding the faith rightly, there is a kind of feedback loop that happens between the world as we experience it and the truths handed down to us in Scripture. Anderson’s book is a marvelous example of how this ought to work. Now the need is for each of us to come and see our places with the love that animates Anderson’s view of the mountains and hills and fields of her home place. That may not be an easy task for all of us, but it is a good one and it’s end will be a delighting in the goodness of the world we have been given.
Humility, then, is not only necessary for love to exist. It is essential for joy as well.