The Roots of Memory

Near the end of Wendell Berry’s Jayber Crow, the title character muses on the nature of remembering and history and the passage of time:

I am an old man now and oftentimes I whisper to myself. I have heard myself whispering things that I didn’t know I had ever thought. “Forty years” or “Fifty years” or “Sixty years,” I hear myself whispering. My life lengthens. History grows shorter. I remember old men who remembered the Civil War. I have in my mind word-of-mouth memories more than a hundred years old. It is only twenty hundred years since the birth of Christ. Fifteen or twenty memories such as mine would reach all the way back to the halo-light in the manger at Bethlehem. So few rememberers could sit down together in a small room. They could loaf together in the old poolroom up in Port William and talk all of a Saturday night of war and rumors of war.

I whisper over to myself the way of loss, the names of the dead. One by one, we lose our loved ones, our friends, our powers of work and pleasure, our landmarks, the days of our allotted time. one by one, the way we lose them, they return to us and are treasured up in our hearts. Grief affirms them, preserves them, sets the cots. Finally a man stands up alone, scoured and charred like a burnt tree, having lost everything and (at the cost only of its loss) found everything, and is ready to go. Now I am ready.

Finishing a re-read of the novel last week, this quote spells out clearly why I liked the book more now than when I first read it years ago.

Berry’s words have been a part of my life since a friend introduced me to him in 2002, but I’ve always been more fond of his essays, polemics, and poetry than his fiction. Like many novelists, his stories are first and foremost outworkings of his core ideas. Whatever the scope of their narratives, they always circle back to unpacking some thesis or other—in Berry’s case, concepts of community (membership), care for the land (stewardship), and living within limits (simplicity). The philosophy-narration in his works is done with varying degrees of craft, such that someone familiar with Berry’s larger body of work might simply prefer to read him lay out the ideas in question more plainly in his nonfiction.

Jayber Crow is by most any standards a good novel, though—round and readable. Its exploration of the inner life of one man, his wrestling with questions of faith and hope and unrequited love give it a texture that transcends any untoward preachiness. As the quote above illustrates, it is a work of remembering, of setting a human being within a web of knowing and being known. Even where it makes overt gestures toward the themes of the decline of rural American life in the wake of the economic, social, and technological upheavals of the 20th century, these facts are so relevant to understanding our present place in the world that it feels crucial to the story.

Part of why the book resonated more this time around is because the world it records is even further away from the experience of most Americans now. When I read it first, my grandfather, born in 1924, was still living on his family land outside a small Georgia town where he’d been born. His sister, born in 1918, and her husband, born in 1914, still had their wits about them, telling stories of the Great Depression, working with the CCC, and life before cars and television. Their stories of farming, and making ends meet by hook and by crook, and the deep and wide knowing of a place and all who dwelt within it were still part of my life and experience .

That whole generation of my family is gone now. If my children and theirs are to hear those stories, warts and all, it’s up to me and others who have heard and remembered to keep a certain understanding of the world within their imagining. Berry’s achievement with Jayber Crow is the setting into print of the sound, sight, scent, and savor of the place that formed him and where he lives still (though with the cloaking veneer of fiction). The stories he conveys are likely based in things he grew up witnessing or hearing about, and the memory of his particular web of knowing is preserved for us all.

Knowing and remembering entail loss and grief, as Berry has Jayber tell us. You cannot grieve what you never knew. You cannot lament what you have never felt. The art of love is the art of memory and imagination—sifting through the debris of death to see what glistens. May we have the courage to remember people, places, and things as they truly were; may we discipline ourselves to call to mind that which was good and has been lost so that it may be restored; may we receive the grace to imagine a world as it might be so that we can live as though it is already.

Image: Oak and Limestone, Meigs County, Tenn., January 2021.

Walter Hooper (1931-2020)

I’m saddened this evening to hear the news of the passing of Walter Hooper. If you’re not familiar with Walter, it’s largely due to his influence that C.S. Lewis’ nonfiction books remain in print and continue to have an outsized influence on Christian discourse decades after his passing.

I once spent an afternoon with Walter at his home in Oxford, just after Christmas 2004, and if you’ll indulge me in more than a little nostalgia, I’ll share the story.

A dear friend of my family’s from Western North Carolina (Anna Barry, who has also now passed away) knew Walter when they were at UNC Chapel Hill together in the 1950s. She had been an avid reader of and correspondent with C.S. Lewis, and connected with Walter over his work. She encouraged him to write to Lewis, and, based on that correspondence, Walter went to the UK to meet Lewis and ended up becoming his literary secretary near the end of Lewis’ life, and later the trustee of his literary estate. He never returned to live in the US.

Miss Anna stayed in touch with Walter through the years, occasionally visiting him in Oxford with her family and hosting him at her home on visits back to the U.S. Through him, she connected as well with the Tolkien family, who were close friends of his. In the summer of 2004, Priscilla Tolkien (J.R.R.’s youngest daughter) paid the Barry family a visit in North Carolina, and Miss Anna convinced her to have a little reception and give a talk for our county homeschool co-op. I was a sophomore in college by then, but came along with my family. Coming on the heels of the Lord of the Rings film franchise, this was a big hit with a bunch of young nerds like us. Pricilla was charming, and more than kind to put up with the mountain of questions and photo ops we subjected her to.

Later that year, I had the opportunity to spend Christmas break in the UK on a fine arts tour through my college. We had one free day in an otherwise full schedule, so I contrived a plan to visit Oxford, eat at the Eagle and Child, and (hopefully) wow my friends by taking them to meet Priscilla. Miss Anna graciously reached out to Priscilla on my behalf, but she declined to see us, citing ill health.

“There’s someone else there you should meet, though. Let me give you his information,” she said, and wrote Walter Hooper’s name and phone # on a piece of paper for me. At that time, I hadn’t read much of Lewis beyond the Narnia books and Mere Christianity, and was only vaguely familiar with his impact on popular Christianity in the West. I’d certainly never heard of Walter.

Upon arriving in London, though, I dutifully phoned him (back then, kids, you didn’t call people from another country on a whim—it was so incredibly expensive!), and he was quite excited to to host some friends and me on our day in Oxford.

We took the bus and, after some obligatory sightseeing—Radcliffe Camera, the University church of St. Mary the virgin, the OUP bookstore—we walked 2 miles or so in the spitting snow to his townhouse. He welcomed us in, made tea, and intently listened to our stories about what we were studying, how we’d found England thus far, etc. And then I started looking around his house.

There was a large photo of Walter standing with C.S. Lewis hanging over the mantelpiece (Walter lived alone and never married, so aside from old family photos from the U.S., this one was most prominent). By the stairs was a picture of Walter with Pope John Paul II! It began to dawn on me that this must be a special guy who had lived quite the interesting life.

Once we had all been introduced and finished chitchatting, he started to tell his story. Walter made the connection for me of how he knew Miss Anna (he himself was a son of rural North Carolina) and then related how he came to know Lewis and become a British citizen. He’d actually lived for some months at the Kilns with Lewis and his brother, & inherited a good bit of their furniture, which he showed us. He told some classic Lewis stories about their first meeting, including the “Bathroom” anecdote that appears in his introduction to The Weight of Glory, and a story about Lewis’ giving change to a panhandler (he was chided by a friend, “He’ll only spend it on drink!” and retorted, “Well, that’s what I was going to do with it.”) that I’ve often retold when talking with Christians about erring on the side of generosity.

Walter then shared his faith journey, from his American upbringing (Methodist, if I remember correctly) and his studying for the Anglican priesthood, and his eventual conversion to Catholicism in the 1980s once he grew disillusioned with much of Anglican politics and cultural captivity (“The only real Christians in Oxford,” he said with a smile, “are in the RCC! Who knew?”). Time flew, and soon we’d been there talking of politics, eschatology—a particular comment of his about imagining the resurrected body being a bit like “Arnold Schwarzenegger, in his prime,” had us all in stitches— and so many other things for three or four hours. By then it was getting dark, and time to catch the bus back to London.

He sent us off warmly, and gave each of us his personal e-mail address (on AOL!) and an invitation to write anytime. When I arrived home, I sent him a note of thanks, and he wrote back promptly. We ended up corresponding for many months. I still have all the old e-mails, and looking back over them tonight, I am astonished at the time and care he took to write so faithfully. He even read and interacted with my paltry articles from the student newspaper! Eventually the conversation trailed off, though owing to my end rather than his, as I graduated, got married, got a job, and got too busy to keep up with old friends—to my great shame and lament.

Here is an e-mail from him (dated 5/17/2005) that I am still humbled by, especially given my lack of professional credentials or relevant projects of any sort and his incredibly full life. I’m sharing it here as a testament to the type of person he was.

Dear Justin—you are a good man for continuing to write. I like very much hearing from you, but I realise you have no idea of the strain I am under. After five years of unremitting hard work on the first two volumes of the Collected Letters of C.S.Lewis, I was hoping for a break. But because the big film of Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe has its premiere in December 2005, the Estate of C.S. Lewis and the publishers have been pushing me very, very hard to complete Volume III (the final volume) so it can be published before the film. I work seven days a week, and I have had one day free since November 2004. Recently I’ve been getting up at 5 so as to try to get more done.

Most of those to whom I mention the letters imagine a little paperback, which they feel they could polish off in a weekend. But I am talking about a volume that is essentially a thousand pages of text and notes. Most of the 2000 or so notes in this volume have cost me many hours of research in the Bodleian. So, while this may be a job that could be polished off in record time by some people—I am not one of them. Besides all this, I get hundreds of visitors every year, and about 1000 letters to answer. So my work on the letters has to be sandwiched in between all these visits, all these letters. Nowadays when people make an appointment to see me I agree only on condition they not stay beyond an agreed on time. Otherwise, people will stay until they are ready to leave—which may be six or seven hours. They have nothing but free time, and I have none. I only have until the middle of June to complete the biggest task I’ve undertaken in my life, and the doctor is having to treat me for stress. So, the reason it is hard for me to be a good correspondent at this time—and until this job is behind me—is that I simply have to work ALL the time. I never have time off. I hope I can survive long enough to complete this volume, but if the presume keeps on building up I don’t know what I will do. I may simply have to ask the Lewis Estate to let someone else complete this volume. The problem with that is that it would be very difficult for anyone else to know how to finish it.

It’s a curious thing, which I can’t explain, that nearly all those who are constantly on the phone, or in letters or in emails, begging to see me, do not have the slightest notion of what I’ve spent the last 41 years doing. “What is it you do?” they are sometimes led to ask. I tell them, and they’ve forgotten five minutes later. Perhaps this is good for my soul, for I’m never given a reason to be vain. But it’s not good for my health because while these people have endless time, I have to either get up with the chickens and stumble into bed in the wee hours.

This is not meant to make you ashamed of having written—but merely to explain. I’m hoping good friends like you and your classmates will not write me off because—God willing—when this huge task is behind me, I want to keep up our precious correspondence. What I’m describing is not something new. I sometimes wonder if it isn’t one of God’s jokes that, while there are a few people in the world who actually know what I do, almost none of the people I know has the slightest interest in what I’ve being doing in Oxford for more than half my life. It makes me wonder why they are so keen to spend so much time with me?

On my precious day off—last Thursday—I went up to London with two friends to see the exhibition in the National Gallery of the paintings of Caravaggio. I am a member of the Athenaeum Club in London, but I am there so rarely I have to prove my identity when I go there. Anyway, I gave my friends Cyrus and Iain lunch there, and then we saw the paintings. It was wonderful to have a day out, and to see those marvelous pictures.

The other big change is my life is—Blessed Lucy of Narnia! Have you heard? I have a new cat. The Fathers of the Oxford Oratory would not give me a moment’s peace after Claret the Meek died. They felt that I needed another cat, and one of them dragged me off in search of one. Eventually, we found Blessed Lucy of Narnia in a little animal rescue place in Oxford. She’s a little over a year old, is a combination of tabby (which means rings) and tortoise (which means bright spots). She is very affectionate, and I worship the ground she walks on. But, Lord! What a merry dance she is leading me! She sleeps all day and is very busying during the night catching mice and birds. One night last week she brought me four mice. Not all together, but one after the other during the course of the night. If I’m lucky enough to get the mouse away from her undamaged, I fling it out the window. In fact it has just occurred to me that on that particularly night she might have brought in the SAME mouse four separate times. The same with birds. I take them from her, and put them out the window. This breaks poor Blessed Lucy of Narnia’s heart.

When she comes in from outside during the night she rushed to be with me. I have to turn over on my back because, while I can’t sleep unless I’m on my side, she can’t sleep on top of me unless I’m lying flat. So I lie flat, with Lucy of Narnia on my chest, and when she falls asleep I gently lift her onto the bed, turn over and go back to sleep.

But you must be bored with all my ramblings. Please, would you do me a favour? We often ask people to pray for us just to have something to say. But I am worried about the project I’m working on, and I’m worried about my health. Would you please pray hard  that the Lord will give me the strength to complete this task? Next time I’ll tell you why I am so very, very happy that the world has Pope Benedict XVI, but by this time you are tired of sitting at your desk, and tired of my voice! So, God bless you old friend, from Walter the Slow.

How do you respond to this? I’m sure I was more than sheepish, but we continued to write even so. Miss Anna was always also a faithful correspondent, sending me countless books, articles & longhand letters until her death in 2018. Among the many volumes on my shelf from her (always with lengthy introductions inside the front cover that showed her intimate knowledge of the text in question) is J.B. Phillips New Testament in Modern English (see article linked to in the first paragraph for the significance of that).

I was certainly a different person as a 20-year-old tourist wandering off the street into a busy man’s home than I am now, but Anna and Walter’s caring attention sparked a love for good books in me that hasn’t abated. Their nurturing correspondence with a young nobody is an example of faithful discipleship modeled by Lewis. It’s a level of willingness to pour out encouragement on others to which I still aspire.

Though I hadn’t spoken with either of them in a long while, I’m always grateful for their time and effort, and looking forward to reunions in glory. Rest well, friend.

Image: All Souls Quad, Oxford University. From ox.ac.uk.

Rendering

I’ve a new business to start this week,
My wife has a pain in her heel,
My son’s wagon needs a new wheel,
My daughter’s got an aching tooth,
Our horse is limping on one hoof.
With all this and more weighing us down,
We are going to worship the emperor today.

The ox tripped and broke a horn;
A cart full of grapes in the ditch.
The rains didn’t come through this year;
The wheat dried up without much crop.
The rabbits ate half my turnips,
And the foxes aren’t too hungry, so
We are going to worship the emperor today.

They say that Rome is thriving,
That the frontiers are expanding,
That denarii go up daily,
That the colosseum is full,
That the rebels in Judea,
Had their temple duly razed. That’s why
We are going to worship the emperor today

Incense doesn’t cost all that much,
And it smells pretty good most days,
But I’m beginning to wonder
How much good it does anyway.
The emperor’s not too stable,
Or well, the old gods seemed nicer, but
We are going to worship the emperor today.

The fire was a long time back,
And Nero’s died in the meantime.
Old Vespy keeps his fiddle tuned,
So as to dull the people’s cry.
My friend got crucified Tuesday,
But as for me and my house, you see,
We are going to worship the emperor today.

Image courtesy of Classical Numismatic Group, CC BY-SA 3.0

Salt and Light in a Political World

About 35 minutes into Terrence Malick’s A Hidden Life (2019), we see Austrian dissident Franz Jägerstätter assisting a fresco painter in the small alpine church he serves as sexton. As he works, the painter muses:

I paint the tombs of the prophets. I help people look up from those pews and dream. They look up, and they imagine that if they had lived back in Christ’s time, they wouldn’t have done what the others did. 

They would have murdered those whom they now adore. I paint all this suffering, although I don’t suffer myself; make a living of it. What we do is just create sympathy. We create, we create admirers. We don’t create followers. 

Christ’s life is a demand. We don’t want to be reminded of it, so we don’t have to see what happens to the truth…I paint their comfortable Christ, with a halo over his head. How can I show what I haven’t lived? Someday I might have the courage to venture; I have not yet. Someday I’ll, I’ll paint a true Christ.

Several reviewers have seen the director himself in the Painter, with Franz’s holy suffering as his “true Christ.” Whether or not this is Malick’s intent, the scene is a turning point. From this day forward, Franz has set his face toward obedience to Christ’s hold on his conscience—he cannot, will not, swear loyalty to Hitler.

Jägerstätter resisted not simply the evils perpetrated by the Nazi regime, but the very idea that he could be compelled to swear an oath of complete loyalty to a human being in the place of God. He attacked the foundation (the führerprinzip) on which others based their trust in Hitler to bring prosperity and protect cultural “Christian” values. As a result, he endured the scorn of erstwhile friends and even family long before he faced the wrath of the state. He is today regarded as a martyr.

His life reminds us that action doesn’t always look the same as activism, but quiet, honest faithfulness in deliberate resistance to the spirit of anti-Christ is often the profoundest political act. His story, as told in Gordon Zahn’s In Solitary Witness is said to have inspired resistance to the Vietnam war in Muhammad Ali and Daniel Ellsberg among others.

A Costly Witness
Jägerstätter’s example provides a starkly drawn case, but whatever worldly system you find yourself in will eventually come into conflict with the grace-filled (chesed) system of God’s kingdom. The world, under the sway of Satan, doesn’t have a category for the covenant love of God (cf. Ex. 34:6-7) that He pours out on His people and its outworking in their community ethics (the Mosaic law, especially as exposited in the Sermon on the Mount and New Testament epistles). In this conflict, the way of life of the people of God is designed to contradict and convict the world’s systems so they could be transformed by the witness of the church.

Courtesy Fox Searchlight Pictures

More often the powers that be will demand that the church bow to them. Whether the demand to bow down comes in large ways (like Nebuchadnezzar’s image and furnace), small ones (the proverbial pinch of incense to Caesar), or the trivialities of being misunderstood and questioned by your neighbors and coworkers, it will come. The world forces the issue of faith. You can never isolate enough to avoid the confrontation.

The church’s call is to stand out enough that the confrontation is clear, living together in such a way as to silence the ignorance of evil men (1 Pet 2:15), and if we are called to suffer for the name and way of Jesus, we are to suffer as He did (1 Pet. 2:20-25).

But we do not like to suffer.

The Compromise of Christian nationalism
Not only do we dislike suffering, but we dislike getting anywhere near it. Wealth is attractive because it promises to insulate us from discomfort.

The slide starts with an implicit deal—the promise of peace and prosperity in exchange for silence about the violence against God and man inherent in the system. We grow accustomed to the prosperity, and before long, the church is willing to bless the violence so long as it gets to partake of the benefits. This is the shift at the heart of Christian nationalism.

If we find membership in any political party or allegiance to any government to be a more pressing concern than our adherence to all of Jesus’ teachings, we are well on our way down a dangerous road. When we find ourselves justifying our comforts and our political positions when the Spirit, through conscience and prophets, coaxes us to see and reject our idolatries, digging in our heels, we are in grave danger indeed.

Christian nationalism is a ready temptation for all of us, as it bubbles up from conflating God’s kingdom with our comfort, wealth, and power—even Jesus’ disciples were banking on it, after spending 3 years listening to His teaching and witnessing the clarifying events of his death and resurrection! As he prepares to ascend to the Father, their burning question is “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” (Acts 1:6).

The temptation will call out to us from any political direction, from the left and the right, in moderate or extreme positions, from imperialism, monarchy, republicanism, democracy, communism, oligarchy, anarchy, etc. The church of Jesus Christ can (and has, and does, and will) exist and even thrive under each of them. It cannot, however, fully and faithfully *co-exist* with any of them. Absolutizing any political position—even in the name of justice—makes politics an idol, not a tool. And a politically empowered idol becomes a cult.

Politics is Downstream from Desire
Christian nationalism doesn’t come knocking with a tract or appear on the street corner with a poster outlining its explicit aims (well, it did not used to). It is a subtle enemy, attacking from within—more like the favoritism condemned by James or the heresy of the judaizers than the wholesale persecution endured by our brothers and sisters in many countries.

It can sneak in because our politics is downstream from our desires. Political allegiances masquerade as righteousness, but are usually just emblematic of our idols. And our idols are always outworkings of our pride and greed—we follow after that which promises power & wealth. Our economic dreams are inseparable from our political actions.

See, for example, Solomon. He was supposed to be the great king, the promised Son of David who would build God’s house and reign in the promised land with wisdom, justice, and peace under the blessing of God—a picture of the coming, perfect, glorious reign of Jesus Christ over all the earth. 

But Solomon longs for a more tangible “secure” blessing, something that has cash-value among his peers on the thrones of surrounding nations. While building the temple—which was designed to speak God’s glory to the nations (1 Kings 8:43)—he builds his own house to be even more magnificent (1 Kings 7). Against God’s commands (Deut. 17:14-20) he pursues military power (1 Kings 9), gold (1 Kings 10), and the lust of the flesh (1 Kings 11). These pursuits lead him to idolatry, and even enslavement of his fellow Israelites (1 Kings 9:15ff). 

The Lord judges Solomon, in part by having the northern tribes rebel against him and his son Rehoboam. But the lesson continues—the rebellion could have been a righteous confrontation, exposing and addressing injustice. Indeed the separation is accomplished somewhat peacefully, with Rehoboam heeding God’s instruction not to fight through the prophet Shemaiah. Instead of resolution, though, the rebel leader Jeroboam decides he would rather hang on to his newfound power, setting up idols to keep people from going to Jerusalem to worship (1 Kings 12). The people of the Northern Kingdom never look back, doubling down on Jeroboam’s idolatry, and chasing after Ba’al and all manner of wickedness. 

Lusting after wealth & power always leads us to sacrifice faithfulness. It’s a predictable progression. Lust leads to idolatry (spiritual failure) which leads to injustice (ethical failure). Injustice seeks justification, furthering idolatry, but in greater blindness. “Those who make [idols] will be like them” (Ps. 115:8). Idols demand sacrifice, but offer no blessing in return. In the same way, we demand ever-increasing sacrifices to our pride, which eventually comes out in political action to gain what we want from others and keep it.

Our Present Apocalypse
None of this repudiates legitimate petition of powers and authorities to do what they are called to do (to preserve the good and punish evil—Rom 13, etc.), but seeking to wield the worldly power of the sword under the aegis of “the people of God” is always going to go poorly. We need to cultivate a political theology of humility that recognizes that various temptations of Christian nationalism are always knocking at our door, hoping to be let in by our pride and overconfidence.

It will result, in the long run (and sometimes in an astonishingly short one) a church that looks less and less like Jesus, the embodiment of God’s mercy and provision, and more and more like the cutthroat, corrupt systems of the world. 

In America, most churches are pretty deep into this ditch. My prayer—and it is a prayer not, sadly, a hope based in any empirical evidence—is that the current crisis (of Covid-19 and its disastrous economic effects) can catch us in our tracks, and lead our churches back to being communities that demonstrate God’s love in all our social and economic arrangements. I pray it may be a moment to take stock, to repent, and to rebuild in ways that show just how distinct the church is. I pray for a spiritual revival in our country, and with it a revival of justice and mercy in our churches, and how we interact with politics. This time is an apocalypse—unveiling the depth of cultural depravity in ways that I hope will not be allowed to ignore any longer.

The church needs to re-assert its distinctiveness from the world, boldly proclaiming an alternative witness against the status quo. This, I think, is precisely what Jesus speaks of in his statements about salt and light (Matt. 5:13-16). We are to season the world, to preserve God’s image & likeness in how we live among one another. We are to illuminate the world, to reveal injustice & light the path to restoration. 

The salt without savor is a church in which the character of God has been pushed aside in favor of the characteristics of the world. The light under a bushel is a church that is not doing justly and loving mercy and so has nothing to offer to those seeking hope in the midst of oppression. If we think we’re upholding Christian values but see no conflict with worldly political power, we may already be worshipping the false god of Christian nationalism. That’s what Franz Jägerstätter was trying to teach us.

“Dear children, keep yourselves from idols” (1 John 5:21)—or as another John (Prine) sang, “your flag decal won’t get you into heaven anymore.”

Image: The church of St. Valentin in Seis am Schlern, Italy, used in filming A Hidden Life. Courtesy Fox Searchlight Pictures.