I suspect the highest complement you can give a book written by a professor is that, upon finishing the book, you find yourself wishing that you could take a class with him. As I finished Anthony Esolen’s Out of the Ashes my immediate response was precisely that—I wish there were a way I could study literature with Dr. Esolen. He can pick the books we read. I’m in.
Christianity’s Fracturing Relationship with Liberalism
We’re currently seeing a number of new books being released that belong to the same general conversation about the future of Christianity in the United States. Rod Dreher’s Benedict Option is the most well-known and will be out next week. That said, we have also had R. R. Reno’s Resurrecting the Idea of a Christian Society published last year, Archbishop Charles Chaput’s Strangers in a Strange Land out earlier this year, and Esolen’s Out of the Ashes.1
All of the books are dealing with a similar sort of problem: The prevailing cultural norms of the contemporary west are at bottom hostile to Christian faith and, as these norms have become more and more entrenched, the culture itself is also turning against the faith. Each of the four books I’ve mentioned above offers a unique insight into the problem—and an insight of the sort you’d expect from the author. For today, we will limit ourselves to praising the unique value of Esolen’s book.
What makes Esolen’s book unique?
There are two things that stood out to me as I read Esolen’s book. First, his book is far punchier in its tone than any other book mentioned above, including Dreher’s. I bring this up because the reviews of Dreher’s book from many progressive evangelicals have spent a great deal of time policing Rod’s tone. Those people put off by Rod’s tone will be even more put off by Dr. Esolen as the man does not pull his punches.
An excerpt from the chapter on education:
Try to imagine someone armed with directives from Ottawa marching up to Anne Shirley, now a teacher, and telling her that she must instruct the little boys in ‘sexual expression’ and ‘transgender rights.’ When she narrows her eyes and wonders who gave the government official the authority to dictate to her what is best for her charges, rendering their parents irrelevant and obnoxiously presuming to overrule nature itself, she is subject to a barrage of contempt–from someone who has not one fiftieth of her knowledge of arts and letters or of the human realities of men and women, boys and girls. If Anne of Green Gables persists, she is fired and replaced by someone–usually a woman, call her Susie of the Sex Shop–who is strangely eager to impart this instruction, though we may question her equal eagerness to impart what little knowledge she may have of poetry or Scripture or British history.
There is a striking thing about Esolen’s language, however: This is not at all an indulgent, florid polemic from an angry, bitter man yelling at the sky. Rather, it’s the lament of a man who knows all too well what he loves and knows how the current order threatens it.
Esolen’s project is about what we love and how we cultivate that love.
Esolen’s talent is unique amongst essayists in that he is able to create worlds in ways we typically expect to find in fiction and poetry. Esolen is an English professor so perhaps that is not surprising, but even amongst the literature scholars I have read Esolen is unique. Reading him called to mind for me the experience of reading C. S. Lewis or Oliver O’Donovan. As you read, you become more and more aware of the fact that these authors haven’t simply read a lot of books; they have imaginatively lived in a world that you yourself do not know and they are speaking from their place within that world.2
At minimum, reading them feels rather like sitting at the base of a tall mountain looking up its slope and seeing a distant speck that you know to be a person approaching the summit. But even that image may not quite capture how I feel when I read veteran scholars of this caliber. The overwhelming sense is both that they have lived in a world you do not share and that you desperately wish you did share it.
The result of this is that it is clear exactly what Esolen loves, what he sees as good, and what he wishes to preserve where it still exists and restore where it has been lost. This excerpt from the chapter on beauty, which tellingly is the first topic Esolen addresses in the book, is a good example:
The old hymns were written precisely for congregational singing. You do not have to be Beverly Sills or Mario Lanza to sing them. They are waiting; just as if there were a great wing of a castle that no one ever entered anymore, filled with works of art by the masters. No doubt a painting of the Prodigal Son by Murillo or Rembrandt reveals its secrets only gradually, so that you can look at it for the fiftieth time and notice something you had never noticed before, or wonder about something that you had seen but taken for granted, such as why Rembrandt’s prodigal has a shaved head, or why there is a little white dog in mid-leap after Murillo’s prodigal, wagging his tail for joy. But those great works also appeal to us immediately, impressing us with their beauty and suggesting that there always will be more, and more, to see and to learn and to delight in. The great hymns are like the paintings in that way. They give us riches at the outset and yet have more and more to give, in abundance.
Let some examples suffice. Here is “The King of Love My Shepherd Is,” one of the many English settings of the beloved Psalm 23. Each stanza renders into English and Christian poetry one or two of the verses of the Hebrew original. How do you do that? By seeing all things in the enlightening glory of Christ. Take these verses: “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil, for Thou art with me; Thy rod and Thy staff, they comfort me. In the hands of a poet who knows what he is doing, they are raised to the summit of Calvary: In death’s dark vale I fear no ill, / With thee, dear Lord, beside me; /Thy rod and staff my comfort still, / Thy cross before to guide me.”
There, without any fanfare, without the obvious word-thrashing of a would-be religious poet longing to show off what he learned in his graduate school course in Christology, the poet simply and quietly gives us a new way to look at what it means to be led by the Good Shepherd and his crozier. It is good to have the Lord keep suffering away from you, as you walk through the fearful valley. It is better for the Lord to transform your suffering into redemption, as you join him confidently upon the hill of crucifixion.
The above is representative of the book. There is an aspirational longing but also a wistfulness that runs throughout. I say a longing and a wistfulness because Esolen is not commending to his readers something that has never existed before. This is not a Chesterton scenario where he is after ideals that have been found difficult and left untried. What Esolen is commending to us was simply normal for the vast majority of westerners for most of the past several hundred years (and in many places for even longer than that). The book’s final two pages are especially marvelous, as Esolen describes the world he is dreaming of while also noting that it is not simply a fantasy or something we can never actually lay hold of.
The church’s future health will depend, amongst other things, on our ability to articulate what we are for.
There’s a reason I have focused in on Esolen’s tone in my consideration of his book. The general response amongst evangelicals to Rod’s book has confirmed something that I have long suspected: There is an instinctive discomfort with the whole idea of “the Benedict Option” for many evangelicals because many of us have had bad experience with fundamentalist-type Christians who sometimes sound an awful lot like Rod or Dr. Esolen.
I understand this reaction, having grown up in a particularly toxic fundamentalist church myself. I won’t go into detail here, but suffice to say if you took Elizabeth Esther’s story, made the pastor more demented and her parents more decent, mature, and loving then we would be in the general ballpark. Put another way, make her church (somehow) even worse and her home life far better. That’s my background. So I am exceedingly aware of how bad fundamentalism can get.
Given that, why am I still so on board with the general project that Rod and Dr. Esolen are discussing? Because I understand more clearly what they are for then I think I ever understood what fundamentalism is for. Fundamentalism never really had much of a political theology or social ethic and this was almost by design. In many places, it was simply mainstream American culture with some quirky (and really not all that conservative) theology tacked on.
What makes this project different from that is that it is an attempt to retrieve something far more concrete than whatever aspirations fundamentalism had. Esolen wishes to retrieve a place where beauty is revered in the arts rather than novelty and provocation, where children are invited into a world of wonder, magic, and freedom rather than unbending structure, rules, and constant supervision, and where homes are true places of warmth, hospitality, and joy rather than simply being a kind of high-priced storage locker and a place to fit in whatever sleep we are able to find the time for in the midst of our too-busy schedules.
Rod and Dr. Esolen are both trying to retrieve a shared way of seeing the world and being in it that we have, to our own detriment, mostly lost. What makes Dr. Esolen’s book so helpful is that he clearly lays out what an alternative model of society would look like and he is able to make his readers see that model as being both desirable and attainable.
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- Other books by Mary Eberstadt, Russell Moore, James K. A. Smith, David Platt, and Patrick Deneen also belong to this same general conversation, I suspect, though I am still sifting through this question a bit.
- For this reason, I would encourage caution in dismissing Esolen over his tone. The man reads seven languages if Wikipedia is to believed, has taught college-level literature courses for 30 years, and translated The Divine Comedy. In other words, he’s smarter than you. So give the benefit of the doubt and don’t just assume he’s a troll.