Election Reflection: Burned out, but Building up

Much as this election felt like a long national nightmare—and the wreckage in the rearview mirror leaves me nearly in despair—the outcome and its potential future makes the campaign itself seem merely like the end of the beginning.

I’ve generally refrained from talking partisan politics in this space, and I’ve waited until the end of this cycle to avoid any perception of endorsement or campaigning. This year, though, has so squeezed my principles that they’ve nearly collapsed in on themselves. Whatever spark remained of my younger self’s zest for the intrigues of the political process has been thoroughly snuffed. I’ve watched men & women I respect make apologies for the most reprehensible behavior and diabolical ideas (from both ends of the spectrum). I’ve watched the notion that character matters a whit in any area of life go up in smoke. In an eerily sacramental finale, those of us in the Southeast have had to process these events in a haze of literal smoke.

Though neither party nor their “chosen” candidates (the election was not between two candidates so much as between their anti-matter counterparts—#nevertrump vs. #neverhillary) had anything of substance to offer to most Americans, many projected their desires and fears onto them. Of course this is nothing new, but the level to which fear was the only note played by this year’s band astonished even my inner pessimist.

In the weeks leading up to November, my wife & I both read two recent books that effectively capture two prominent perspectives in the present America. Though undertaken for general interest and learning, reading Hillbilly Elegy by J. D. Vance and Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me quickly came to reverberate the two basic fears driving opposition to the two parties. In these two books, two very different cultures with problems and responsibilities that are both similar and wholly different cry out to be heard and reckoned with. Both are being spoken to by certain constituencies. Both are being sold a mess of pottage by the governing elite and ignored by the broader upper middle class (Charles Murray’s “broad elite“).

Both Vance & Coates speak as “insider-outsiders” with unashamed fondness for their cultural background (and baggage) even as they have risen into the same elite class so blindsided this year. True to his chosen title of “Elegy”, Vance raises more questions than he attempts to answer; Coates’ refrain is more of a damning, poetic indictment of the destruction of black men, women, & children by the dominant culture. Both, though, lean hard into the conversations that our culture doesn’t want to  have but soon may not be able to live without. Both name the unspeakable loss that comes from watching what you love being stripped away by forces often completely out of your control.

These books also reflected for us an exercise in empathy. We are given a glimpse into a culture that, for many of us, is simply “other”: former coal miners or factory workers wade through unemployment, drug addiction, and family breakdown; young black men navigate recognition of their fraught history and witness friends and brothers being killed by police. Walking in such shoes is not something that comes easily to a modestly well-off, educated suburbanite like me. In this respect, readings like this are another step in my own journey to making peace with the privilege and responsibility inherent (to some level or another) in each of our lives.

Empathy goes a long way toward explaining how hard it’s been to watch this political year unfold. The level of my emotional reaction to Trump’s win surprised me. As I’ve tried to tease that out, I’ve joked with friends that “I didn’t know I had an inner liberal before this year, but I do, and he’s angry.” More truthfully, what’s changed for me is having forged real friendships over the past few years with people with very different stories from mine. Blessed with a life full of ladies (I have two sisters and three daughters; no brothers and no sons), I already had a built in revulsion to the way Trump treats and talks about women and the way Mrs. Clinton has thwarted her husband’s accusers, and no desire to see that kind of behavior rewarded and empowered. Watching Trump’s bumbling bring out some of the worst elements of our culture helped me see that the racism (both tacit and virulent) I thought was dead and gone is a part of daily life for my African American brothers and sisters.

Added to that, I’ve been working since March for a ministry focused on equipping churches to alleviate poverty. You can’t spend your time & energy teaching others to recognize and respect the God-given dignity of all people and then sit idly by when the platforms of those who would strip it from so many of them get mainstreamed into American political life.

What I have in common with all of the rest of my compatriots this year is fear. It is written on so many faces; scribbled as the subtext of every commentary on our fractured politics. Fear, powerful motivator though it may be, is most dangerous when we allow it to define our hope. They are natural opposites, these two, but they always tag together. As Paul wrote to the Corinthian church: “Since we have these promises, beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from every defilement of body and spirit, bringing holiness to completion in the fear of God.” When our fear is properly placed in the Lord (who holds our destinies), our hope is found in him as well. Letting fear reside elsewhere (say, in a Hillary Clinton Presidency) allows hope to attach to utterly untrustworthy objects (such as Donald Trump). All of us struggle to keep this divine perspective, living in quiet terror of losing our spot in life’s queue.

As frustrated as many are with the situation we find ourselves in, I’m forced to wrestle with what a luxury political angst is. Apocalyptic rhetoric has always been a feature of politics in a free society, but (however much it may be justified) it always distracts from the worthwhile endeavors of actually building the communities that build a country. What is worth our time? What will last? What are we willing to give up to gain what is not so easily lost? If each of us (pointing the finger at myself first) spent half the time getting to know and serve our neighbors that we spend digesting national news and wringing our hands, what could be built? The day after the election, a group of us (black and white) sat across the breakfast table from a South Sudanese pastor (whose church is in a refugee camp) talking about the future of his ministry, and our “justifiable” despair at the state of our nation began to look a lot more like petulant self-absorption in the grand view of God’s kingdom.

As 2016 comes to a close and the sorrows of national life mingle with the joys our family and friends have experienced this year, the memory of this apparent annus horribilis may be sweeter than I have capacity to see. Taking time to think and feel and process all that has passed will, I hope allow me to someday tell my children how God is faithful in things big and small, working out His plan despite our penchant to accuse Him of unconcern.

May we all see that, despite the apparent priority of political life, “your life doesn’t change by the man that’s elected” nearly as much as we might think. God is on His throne, and our daily marching orders are still posted as ever.

Photo: Remains of a Forest Fire, Kaibab National Forest, Arizona, October 2016.

Percy’s Love in the Ruins: A Dystopia for Our Time

Note: This piece was originally written in September 2016, in the run-up to that year’s U.S. national election.

The 1970s have a curious aura, especially to those of us born in the early 1980s. Not quite far enough before our time to feel like “history,” Vietnam, Watergate, stagflation, and all the associated malaise were so much a part of our parents’ formative experience that they taste to us rather of a half-remembered bad dream—especially given the relative peace and prosperity we enjoyed throughout childhood. Perhaps it is only natural, then, to associate that 70s vibe with our own grave misgivings about the present.

Facing as we do a national election between a habitual liar under investigation by the FBI (is anyone more Nixonian than Mrs. Clinton?) and a much-married misogynist, racist, and paragon of petty machismo, we see a strong political overlap between the two eras. The nausea goes much deeper too—into sex, race, religion, and society itself. All around, our souls give way, yet no solution presents itself. The exhaustion is palpable, even papered over as it continues to be by our blithe consumption and entertainment.

Into such troubled times, the prophets of old spoke even greater trouble. “On account of you, Zion will be plowed as a field, Jerusalem will become a heap of ruins, and the mountain of the temple will become high places of a forest.”[1] This indicts us just as much as it happens to us. Perhaps the prophet we need to hear thunder today is the unlikeliest of anointed men—nearly three decades dead and always unassuming in his own time.

Walker Percy, Louisiana novelist and essayist, keenly felt the dislocation of man in the modern age, and set his face toward exploring and explaining that pain in nearly everything he wrote. In Percy’s own telling, a serious novelist (one as much concerned with plumbing the depths of existence as with telling a good story) is by nature a sort of prophet:

“Since true prophets, i.e., men called by God to communicate something urgent to other men, are currently in short supply, the novelist may perform a quasi-prophetic function. Like the prophet, his news is generally bad. Unlike the prophet, whose mouth has been purified by a burning coal, the novelist’s art is often bad, too…. Like the prophet, he may find himself in radical disagreement with his fellow countrymen. Unlike the prophet, he does not generally get killed. More often, he is ignored.”[2]

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Reflected Reality: Art in the Mirror

It has become commonplace for American Christians talk about the power of story and the need for art to shape the cultural conversation. On many levels this is commendable, and I’ve been a more than willing participant in the exercise. Stories are important (whether in words or on the screen), and those that captivate us shape our thinking both directly and subtly. What we enjoy, we embody; our entertainments become our axioms.

This has been long understood, fleshed out for evangelicals of a certain stripe as a carefully curated distance from mainstream popular culture. The line has sometimes been drawn even farther back—in 7th grade, my small Christian school had a minor dustup over whether to include The Lord of the Rings and The Chronicles of Narnia in the library, what with the witches and all. It is easy enough to go off the rails with this approach, driven by fear as much as faith. Still, its appreciation of the catechetical role of literature and media is laudable, as is the sound desire to protect the Church and its institutions from secular influences.

More recently, sentiment has shifted to a warmer embrace of the popular and a desire to befriend and become culture-makers for the sake of mission. How can we, the new conventional wisdom goes, have real relationships with our unbelieving friends and neighbors if we can’t converse with their favorite shows, movies, music, or books? As in the other stream, there is a heart here to be praised, but the danger on this side lies in forgetting to “take every thought captive to make it obedient to Christ” (2 Cor. 10:5).

This is in no wise a thorough discussion of the subject, but it should move the chains far enough for us to take a shot at thinking about art and theology. Whichever path is taken, we are often reluctant to make room for the best art, because to do so is to open doors of uncertainty.

Good stories well told stretch and strengthen our faith, and create space in the wider cultural imagination for the truth of the Gospel to thrive. They can also drive those already wrestling with doubt to walk deeper into it. The pull of art itself is powerful—there are more than a few stories of how the God-given drive to create can draw people away from the faith of their fathers (see Potok’s My Name Is Asher Lev, for example)—so the Church needs to be a place where those gifts find fulfillment rather than shame. There will always be real tension between robust doctrine (without which there is no Church) and the need for creative freedom (without which there is no art).

Trying to walk that line, we slog along, tepidly applauding a middling work of fiction here and a mediocre “Christian” film there. These are stereotypes to be sure, but they come from someplace. I can’t help but feel that if a manuscript for something like  To Kill a Mockingbird showed up on the desk of a mainstream Christian publisher, they would cut 2/3 of the book, add an emotional conversion scene at the courthouse, and then wrap it up with a newly-chipper Bob Ewell dropping all charges against Tom Robinson and throwing a town picnic.

IMG_2445The best of literature and visual art, of course, mirrors life as it is—filled with sin, darkness, and despair as surely as hope and joy. In Jesus’ parables, there were characters and scenes of the most unsavory nature (renters who murder the landlord’s son, a child who tells his father that he wished he was dead so he can have his inheritance now, etc.). The entirety of the Old Testament shows the depravity of nations, especially that of God’s own chosen people. The world is a horrible place and we are horrible people, but what a blinding light is God’s holy justice and mercy at the cross of Christ!

It is this juxtaposition that makes the best art in service of the Lord. All our creative work only really “works” insofar as it draws parallels to this story, likening the things we know all too well to the glory we see now through a glass darkly.

Lately, I can’t seem to stop talking about the new novel Laurus. I fell so hard for the writer’s vision there, because he came closer to crossing through that looking glass than anybody I’ve read in a while. Beyond that, his humility as a writer spoke volumes. My wife and I laughed to hear his story about how he told his wife that no one would read his book; we could see ourselves saying that if I ever finish the things I’m working on, and it is so easy to look at the mainstream and despair of finding a market for that kind of work. He said it touched a nerve because people are hungry for something more, that they “need other things to live by.” That hunger comes as the Holy Spirit is drawing men to Christ, and the right piece of art at the right time can indeed be another stepping stone on their journey to rest in Him.

I’ve spent much of my adult life studying theology, not for academics, but to write pieces for Disciple Magazine and my day job at a missions organization and teach Sunday school. I find that the deeper I go into Scripture, into staring at the face of God (so far as we can do in our fallenness), the more I have had to get used to saying “I don’t know.” You only ever have to have faith when you encounter the Living God—all the lesser pretenders to deity are quite explainable.That is why Christ’s call is “Follow Me.” Until glory comes, we are not equipped to understand. The best works of literature operate on that level. You have to give yourself to the author until he is finished working out what he has prepared for you.

Far from causing doubts, that apparent ambiguity serves to draw me closer to Him. He wants us to know Him; we can know Him. Our knowledge is never fully realized in this life, but sufficient to point ourselves to Him. As we create, we must remember that there is only one story that actually gets us to Him. Art will not save, but it can steer us to seek the One who will.

The Revelation of Literature: A Review of Laurus

I am only  recently making forays into Russian Literature. For a would-be novelist, this is rather embarrassing—like an aspiring chef finding himself unable to pull off grilled cheese.

Unlike that grilled cheese, though (to undo this clunky metaphor) Russian fiction can be long, dense, and difficult to master—especially for the 7,040,000,000 of us who don’t understand Russian. Literature and language are so intertwined that even the best of translations have difficulty capturing the true measure of a story.

Even so, with all the best “self-improvement” motivations in gear, I picked up Crime and Punishment last year. It was beautiful, comprehensible, engaging, moving, and instructive. Dostoevsky proved less to be an impediment to my literary coming of age than a gateway drug.

What the Russian people have to offer the world of ideas and story (such despair, such hope!) was brought home to me, not in one of the canonical tomes, but in a practically brand new work*: Laurus—a novel by Eugene Vodolazkin, an expert in medieval Russian hisLaurustory and folklore at Pushkin House (the Institute of Russian Literature) in St. Petersburg.

The story seems to flow out of Vodolazkin’s work, effectively illuminating the experience of the 15th century with a modern idiom. His language is as intentional as it is playful, swinging effortlessly from archaic spellings through straight narration to silly modern slang. This fits the journey of Arseny (whose name changes three times with the phases of his life, finally arriving at Laurus) from cradle to grave, which moves along by leaping back and forth through time (of which more below).

Despite exploring sin and pain deeply (for how else can we see glory aright?), this is a tasteful work. A few scenes pull no punches in describing medieval filth and horror, but they feel necessary. Overall, Vodolazkin relies on the power of the story to jolt readers, rather than foul language and overindulgence in the grotesque.

What shines in both the words and the story is a voice eerily absent from the world of modern literature—sincere faith. The Orthodoxy of Laurus isn’t merely attached to a character or added for “color”, but suffuses the entire work because it is real. The people of this book are, like the rest of us, sinners, but through God’s mercy, many are saints. Most are earthy, some insufferably pious, and a few are wicked, but they all live under the shadow of the Almighty. In this world, the glow of icons by candlelight is meant to inspire, and a Holy Fool throwing rocks at invisible demons is to be expected.

A few early scenes hint at the spiritual flavor of the whole. His parents having died of the plague, Arseny learns the ways of the world from Christofer, his grandfather.  Christofer is an herbalist (essentially a doctor for that era), and he passes his trade to his grandson.

“Christofer did not exactly believe in herbs, more likely he believed God’s help would come, through any herb, for a specific matter. Just as that help comes through people. Both are but instruments. He did not ponder why each of the herbs he knew was associated with strictly defined qualities; he considered that question frivolous. Christofer understood Who had established that association, and that was all he needed to know.”

And:

“Along the way home, they always gathered pods from the herb known as river crossing, which repelled snakes.

Put a seed in your mouth and water will part, Christofer once said.

It will part? asked Arseny, serious.

With prayer it will part. Christofer began to feel awkward. Everything is about prayer after all.

Well, then why do you need that seed? The boy lifted his head and saw Christofer was smiling.”

The way time moves (or doesn’t) in Laurus is reminiscent of Slaughterhouse-Five, with Arseny “unstuck” in time. Whereas Vonnegut’s clock-play evokes an underlying banality to life, what Vodolazkin achieves is more akin to prophecy—unfolding reality with a rising spiral of metaphysics.

Events and themes seem to reverberate through the book and beyond. What occurs is never in isolation from everything else in the story, but reaches across time and space to give significance to what comes before and after. Like biblical prophecies, which so often have immediate, intermediate, and ultimate fulfillments as they ripple out from their proclamation, the phases of Arseny’s story rhyme, often with repeated phrases and mirrored scenes. For example, early in the book, Arseny sees his older self staring back at him through a fire; the same few paragraphs are retold from the perspective of the old man some 200 pages later, as they behold one another and weep together.

The one constant in time within the story is writing. Characters are constantly quoting Scripture, things of importance are always written down, and Arseny reads and re-reads a few key texts and the manuscripts his grandfather had scribbled into pieces of birch bark.

“For Christofer, the written word seemed to regulate the world. Stop its fluctuations. Prevent notions from eroding. This is why Cristofer’s sphere of interest was so broad. According to the writer’s thinking, that sphere should correspond to the world’s breadth…Cristofer understood that the written word would always remain that way. No matter what happened later, once it had been written, the word had already occurred.”

The story contains such a wealth of themes that this brief discussion can only scratch the surface. I am not offering a plot summary, because to do so would, I think detract from the experience of reading. Like all truly great books, its value is so much more than the plot (“spoilers” would make it no less worth your time), but it is better taken in stride than explained.

This tips my hand, of course. It is easy to be overcome by the joy of a freshly discovered work of art, but I would be shocked if Laurus is not still around on shelves and in literature classes generations from now. Finding this book has done much to encourage me in the good work of pursuing the holy imagination needed to speak to men’s souls with the sharp truth of love.

And there is a broad hunger for this. The sudden and enthusaistic popularity of Vodolazkin’s work seems to have surprised him more than anyone. In a radio interview with Eric Metaxas, he said that, after finishing the book, he told his wife that he would read it and she would read it and no one else would read it. That was in 2012, before Laurus struck a nerve in Russia and became a best-seller, going on to win that country’s equivalent of the National Book Award.

Thanks to the stellar translation of Lisa C. Hayden, it came to print in English in October 2015. Her feel for the nuance of Vodolazkin’s phrasing makes the reading smooth where it should be smooth and striking where it should be striking (and he speaks and reads English well enough to strongly praise her rendering of his work). I dare say this may become a standard introduction to Russian lit in years to come.

Laurus is a serious work which is nevertheless extremely delightful. This is wholly different from being entertaining. The joys found here come not from exhilarating motion (though there are segments of adventure), but from the savor of fulfillment: complementary scenes, piercingly accurate phrases, redeemed longings, deftly chosen character names. Laurus is self-contained, intact, and deeply satisfying.

* Rod Dreher deserves credit for bringing this book to my attention; after reading it, his raves proved non-hyperbolic.