A View from The End of the World

Seeking “the meaning of life” is as human an activity as breathing, and wrestling with why things aren’t as good as they could (should?) be follows close behind. For better or for worse, I can’t stop reading books that propose to answer the pervasive sense of foreboding about the status quo that so many of us feel.

As someone who stands up in church every Sunday to confess that I believe in the resurrection of the dead and the life everlasting, this habit of watching for the end of a certain world seems a bit incongruous. I’d like to think I’m in good company with prophets (like Daniel, Ezekiel, and Micah) and apostles (like Peter and John) in looking for the Day of the Lord. They remind us that it is possible to raise up a Jeremiad with joy and to temper handwringing with hope.

So I keep reading and listening. This is true whether these works come from a political science perspective (like Patrick Deneen’s Why Liberalism Failed), a sociological perspective (like Charles Murray’s Coming Apart), a religious perspective (like Rod Dreher’s Benedict Option), a personal memoir (like J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy and Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me), the agrarian (all of Wendell Berry’s work), the poetic (like W.H. Auden’s Age of Anxiety), the dystopian (like P.D. James’ Children of Men), and even the historical (like Ibram X. Kendi’s Stamped from the Beginning). Look in any direction and it’s existential crises for days, but there’s always something to learn.

One thing all of these books have in common is an explanatory posture—they attempt to make sense of the loss and the dread and offer some semblance of a way to the good (looking back for some, forward for others, and grasping at things not yet seen for a few). Most start from a place of reminding the reader what society stands to lose if we’re not careful, a warning to the privileged that their inheritance is spending down faster than it is accruing value. Others point out that what we’ve inherited was never what we thought to begin with.

Of all the “here’s what’s gone wrong w/America” takes, however, Chris Arnade’s recent book Dignity: Seeking Respect in Back Row America is one of the most honest I’ve seen. Though the author (a former Wall-Street banker who also holds a Ph. D. in physics from Johns Hopkins) possesses greater privilege than many others in this group of writers, Dignity takes pains to  center with humility and humanness those for whom America has gone most wrong. Those who are being ground up get the focus and the voice here; those who’ve lost already, not those who merely fear what they may lose.

Some of this comes from the book’s format. It’s not an academic or even a narrative work, but rather a travelogue weaving episodes and itinerant thoughts with personal stories from all over the U.S. It’s also a sort of coffee-table book: Arnade is an accomplished photographer, and the faces and places he encounters feature prominently throughout the book, giving the words flesh and feeling.

At first, Arnade appears to be launching into memoir as he recounts the beginnings of this project in his long walks in New York, farther and farther afield from his Manhattan office. At some level, he never leaves this mode, stickA1UfDx8SR9L copying around to narrate, to tie together disparate interviews, and to offer an epilogue of his visit back to his hometown.

His voice, though, isn’t the thing you take with you. It’s the words of Takeesha, Imani, Luther, Jeanette, Beauty, Fowisa, Jo-Jo (all street names or pseudonyms to protect their identities), and the others you meet in these pages. It’s the drugs, chemicals of every kind that can be swallowed, snorted, smoked, or shot up. It’s the emptiness of homes, factories, cities, and towns that once held a fuller life. It’s the inexplicable persistence of community in McDonald’s, churches, bars, abandoned buildings, and parks. It’s the clear-eyed pictures of racial injustice that still pervade America and the ways its evil seeps into and drives other class and culture issues.

The photos-and-snippets motif Arnade chose invites comparisons to Depression-era narrative shapers like Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange. He is justly in their company in terms of his photographic eye, but his artistic aims are more subdued. He paints people not as victims in need of assistance or pawns in a political game, but as they are—human beings, broken and beautiful, navigating the life they’ve got with the tools they have. This gives the book a strikingly agenda-less quality. Yes, he addresses globalization, crony capitalism, automation, family fragmentation, drug policy and other macro-level trends that have contributed to the plight of his subjects in some way, but he shies away from any prescriptive action steps. Some may find this (and the attendant lack of concrete “solutions” to “problems”) frustrating, but I think it is a critical posture for the observations Arnade makes to be taken seriously.

Throughout the book, he presents the key divide in American society as that between the “front row” (educated, workaholic, powerful, cosmopolitan, upwardly mobile, rootless) and the “back row” (underemployed, powerless, bound to place, loyal, struggling). Arnade uses these terms descriptively, but neither is intended derisively—front row and back row America both have values and vices, but their cultural currencies and drugs of choice differ widely. Both can provide meaning and community, but both battle despair and can be toxic to outsiders.

It is in the question of values—or rather value—where Arnade makes his most helpful contribution to our national conversation. The front row, he says, lives by “credentialed” value. A person is welcomed into that community based on their gifts and abilities, their degrees, their accomplishments, and their contributions to others’ well-being and success. This world is competitive and rewarding, but also insecure. In the back row, value is “non-credentialed.” Your identity and worth comes from things you are born with (family, ethnicity, work-ethic, local roots) or from belonging to groups that are accessible to almost anyone willing to join (a church, a drug community, a gang, becoming a parent).

At present, the high places of cultural influence and power are open only to the front row, and the non-credentialed bona fides of the back row aren’t likely to earn you a seat at the table or a steady job. If there is an ax to grind here, it is Arnade’s persistent message to his fellow front-row-ites that the meritocracy at the helm of American society today is a much, much more closed system than they’d like to believe. His forays into the back row—whether in Bakersfield, Calif., Johnson City, Tenn., Selma, Ala., Portsmouth, Ohio, or even neighborhoods of front-row cities like New York—demonstrate how the solutions of the front row (“get an education,” “move away,” “get clean,” “learn new skills,” etc.) are much higher mountains to climb from this different perspective. What seems like common sense to one group is to another group a command to turn one’s back on everything they’ve ever known. The repetition of this theme comes both from his desire to make this known, but also because his interviewees so frequently have been confronted by this stark divide.

Dignity matters, not as another explainer of “how we got Trump” or a push for better government and nonprofit programs for poverty alleviation (though it has implications for those discussions), but as a step toward helping us as a country see all of our neighbors as brothers and sisters. Arnade does not claim to be a Christian, but he is implicitly calling us to recover the imago dei as the final arbiter of one another’s value.

Arnade’s lack of professed faith also makes his assessment of the real value of congregational life and earnest beliefs in the churches (and mosques) of the back row that much more remarkable. In an excerpt from the book published in First Things, he writes: “My biases were limiting a deeper understanding: that perhaps religion was right, or at least as right as anything could be…. On the streets, few can delude themselves into thinking they have it under control. You cannot ignore death there, and you cannot ignore human fallibility. It is easier to see that everyone is a sinner, everyone is fallible, and everyone is mortal. It is easier to see that there are things just too deep, too important, or too great for us to know.”

His chapter on religion hit closest to home for me and the work that I do. The churches he visited in the back row certainly don’t check all the theological or cultural boxes front row Christians deem necessary, but they all reflect the person of Jesus Christ in loving their neighbors and being faithfully present with them. Too often, front-row Christianity (whether conservative or liberal in theology, whether high-church or low-church in polity) has trouble doing this—we’re not quite sure what we’d do if someone from the cultural back row walked in and wanted to join. We don’t often have a story of change that would work for them. Doctrine, expected behaviors, and appropriate political positions we can get our minds around; Jesus gives us heartburn.

So where do we go from here? How do we build up? As I said, Dignity is long on observation and short on solutions. Many others are starting to digest the realities on the ground and work toward tying some of these threads together in ways that can repair the breach and bring people back to the wholeness we were designed to experience together. I’ve highlighted some of these on Twitter (that paragon of civil discourse), and in other writings, and I’m sure it’s a theme I’ll take up again. Moreover, this is no small part of the mission of the ministry where I work.

For now, though, let Dignity soak in and open your heart to those you might otherwise be tempted to forget.

Image: Abandoned farm equipment, Channel Islands National Park, California, June 2019

 

The Spiritual Vitality of Place

What does it mean to “be” somewhere?

We all live someplace; we are all from someplace. It could be a place or a nonplace, pleasant or otherwise. So long as life continues, this much is inescapable, but is location-location-location really a determining factor for anything beyond property value?

In 1910, English novelist E. M. Forster published Howard’s End, which explores questions of class, culture, and the future of his country in the face of a fading status quo. At one point in the book, Forster’s narrator laments the mobility inherent in modernity: “London was but a foretaste of this nomadic civilization which is altering human nature so profoundly, and throws upon personal relations a stress greater than they have ever borne before. Under cosmopolitanism, if it comes, we shall receive no help from the earth. Trees and meadows and mountains will only be a spectacle, and the binding force that they once exercised on character must be entrusted to Love alone. May Love be equal to the task!”

What Forster hints at in this passage is a sort of spiritual vitality to place. We tend to think of communities in terms of the people who live there, which is good and right. What if there is something in the interplay of people and place, however, that goes deeper than either one can alone? A house or hill, sight or smell, can fix in our memory a summary of human experience that would not be possible without such markers. There is a “there” there, after all

In my own life, this was embodied by my maternal grandfather. At his funeral in 2011, I wrote, “He came home to Pine Mountain, and more or less stayed put for the rest of his life. In that, he taught me what a community was and why it was worth putting up with the bad and the ugly to be a part of the good.” The life he inherited and invested in that corner of West Georgia is a part of me even now because of him, though I never “lived” there a day in my life.

Perhaps to truly bind us to one another, we must love both a place and the people who find their homes there. Places (like people) are not all easy to love, but if we are willing to withhold love from anywhere, we effectively hate everywhere. Caring for God’s creation (and the spaces His image-bearers have carved within it) is part of what it means to love our neighbors as ourselves.

Such care needs to encompass the full spectrum of our world. To borrow an idea from Wendell Berry, protecting only the majestic, “ecologically sensitive”, or quirky places without a similar regard for more mundane locales is less than true conservation. To be sure, regionality gets a lot of play these days—whether in food, language, music, or scenery. Most commentary on the subject, though, comes at a sort of cosmopolitan remove. The only people who talk about place in this way are those of us who are relatively detached from anywhere in particular. To know a place primarily in terms of terroir, I’d submit, is not to know it at all.

Geography itself has certainly played in the fortunes of men. Few major cities (at least prior to the advent of railroads and airplanes) are found away from seaports or navigable rivers and lakes. The rise of Western Europe surely owes as much to its relatively flat, arable land and moderate, Gulf-Stream-influenced climate as to any of the other cultural factors at play. In the other direction, the struggles of low-income communities in the U.S. and elsewhere are often a result of governmental and cultural segregation that located them in flood plains, cut off from commerce by uncrossable freeways and rail lines, and/or atop industrial wastelands.

Forster’s fear has long since become reality. Cosmopolitanism is king. Mobility has become the key indicator of success in the modern West. Even the average non-jet-setter is relatively capable of pulling up stakes and heading elsewhere when the opportunity arises, thanks largely to that “old Chev-ro-let.” Only the very poor seem to stay put anywhere, and their rootedness often looks less like loyalty and more like being trapped.

These divergent senses of place may be unavoidable consequences of specialization and globalization. Wealth, talent, and ambition slosh about from London to New York to Shanghai (and hundreds of other cities), creating a global “gated community” that admits comparatively few newcomers. Those who lack opportunity and access to enter the stream languish in cramped urban ghettoes or decaying company towns. Perhaps more is lost in the transaction than we realize. Berry writes, “The world has room for many people who are content to live as humans, but only for a relative few intent upon living as giants or as gods” (The Unsettling of America).

The world is increasingly stratified into the stuck-by-default and the nomads-by-choice, with less and less middle ground. A lack of shared place helps drive us to come apart in other ways. Rediscovering a way to share that space (even, as Chris Arnade observes, at McDonalds) will be key to bringing us back together. Proximity matters, and proximity happens somewhere. Can we truly love someone without being willing to be present with them? Can real relationship exist without shared sights and sounds and smells and tastes and textures?

Just as, by God’s grace, a great falling away is often followed by a great awakening, perhaps a great coming apart will be followed by a great reconciliation. There is, and has been, movement in this direction in the midst of the steady opposing current. Re-neighboring is becoming a hot topic, and the Christian Community Development Association’s plea for relocating to neighborhoods of concentrated poverty has been echoing for decades.

Perhaps, in answer to Forster’s plea, love is the only thing equal to the task of keeping us together. It was for love that God made the world, and then formed Adam from its dust. Love is what bound us to the spectacle of the earth to begin with. Recovering our love for people and their places, we may well recover our own roots and find a place called home.

“We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
Through the unknown, remembered gate.”

– T. S. Eliot, “Little Gidding”

Further Thoughts
Weaving a Future: The Chalmers Option?
Theological Poverty: More on “The Chalmers Option”
Talking Past Each Other: Class and Culture in the Church

Photo: Bridges, Chattanooga, Tenn., October 2014.

Weaving a Future: The Chalmers Option?

Few would argue that all is well “in these dread latter days of the old violent beloved U.S.A. and of the Christ-forgetting Christ-haunted death-dealing Western world“—it’s what most needs to be done about it that divides people. I’m increasingly convinced that something very like Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option represents a good path forward.

Even if we weren’t facing an impending crisis of religious liberty, I’ve got little confidence in the current status quo of American church life. The standard combo of buildings, preaching (which is vital!), programs (which can be useful!), partisan politics (which will be our undoing!), music (which can be meaningful!), messaging, and mission statements is failing to reach unbelievers and retain believers in active membership.

A Poor Competitor
Why? It is too compatible in many respects with other visions of the good life, and asks just enough of us to make it a poor competitor. A church that offers little more than a tepidly baptized consumer culture is no substitute for “the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints.” As Russian author Eugene Vodolazkin put it, “people need other things to live by,” and the church should be the fountain from which a purer vision flows.

In multiple conversations of late around the subject of preserving and strengthening this faith, I’ve used the The Benedict Option as a gauge of sorts—testing appetites for the hard work of a Christianity uncoupled from the shackles of Americanism. Most resonate with the call Dreher articulates to a faithful, intentional community of spiritual formation, even if there is disagreement over his particular application. Others (often those who hold the power and purse strings) see tweaks and innovations to be made, for sure, but believe the basic design is still working.

This is why pursuing legal cover for churches and nonprofits, conscience protections for service providers, and other current political maneuvers (though crucial) cannot be the whole solution. For generations, we’ve been discipled to believe that we can live and let live; that the rest of the culture is just one radio revival away from returning to our fold. The opposite has turned out to be true, and it is we who are walking the aisle to pledge faith to the other side. Americanism is a religion; glistening advertisements the illuminated manuscripts of its bible of consumption. Protecting a vision of the church that fails to recognize this does nothing to advance Christ’s kingdom, and often works actively against it.

Perhaps this is why the reaction to Dreher’s thesis has been so heated (albeit often from those who pan the book without having read it, or, at least strain to miss the point). Nothing less than the nature of the church is at stake. Either the Gospel matters in every nook and cranny of life or it doesn’t matter at all. Either “in [Christ] all things hold together,” or nothing holds together at all. Such an all-encompassing and embodied faith ought to be the pursuit of any healthy church.

Of course Dreher isn’t the first to call for such. One of his more ardent detractors, James K. A. Smith, is a leading voice in this direction. What Dreher adds to the discussion is framing it in terms of strategy. How do we get to a place where such a holistic vision is the Christian norm? This requires something greater than simply an intellectual assent to the the idea of a revitalized church. Human behavior seldom shifts on the merits of an argument alone.

A New Affection
Smith tells us that “We are what we love,” but warns that we may not love what we think. Retraining our loves takes discipline, but it also requires grace-driven vision. This is not a new idea, by any stretch. In the early 19th Century, well-known Edinburgh pastor Thomas Chalmers preached a sermon entitled “The Expulsive Power of a New Affection.” In it, he said:

“The heart is not so constituted; and the only way to dispossess it of an old affection is by the expulsive power of a new one. Nothing can exceed the magnitude of the required change in a man’s character—when bidden as he is in the New Testament, to love not the world; no, nor any of the things that are in the world—for this so comprehends all that is dear to him in existence, as to be equivalent to a command of annihilation” (emphasis mine).

Within the context of the serThomas_Chalmers_-_Project_Gutenberg_13103mon, Chalmers leans heavily toward personal spiritual discipline as the key to answering that call. In the life and ministry of his church, however, a powerful grasp of embodied grace worked itself out in faithful care for the needy, massive social reforms, and holistic approach to ending poverty and restoring dignity in his city.

Chalmers seems to have understood that the Gospel of Christ speaks of a relentlessly physical reality—an incarnate Savior who bled, died, and rose just as surely as he preached, healed, and forgave. A Christianity that promises only spiritual gifts lacks real “expulsive power” to dislodge our present comforts and fears. A Christianity that demands nothing of us in this life but a public piety and lip service to doctrine sounds an awful lot like a “command of annihilation.” Sitting on a cloud, strumming a harp for eternity is hell, not heaven. What we need to understand is that this call to a whole-body, whole-life discipleship is a feature, not a bug, in God’s good design.

Turns out, we do need other things to live by. Nothing short of this world-upending, world-rebuilding mission—given to us directly from the hands of Jesus Christ the Son of God!—can dislodge our stubborn pursuit of self, wealth, and health.

Perhaps this Scottish churchman has much to teach us yet, particularly in terms of how we live out the Gospel toward the wider society. Perhaps his call to look to the poor and oppressed can cure our atrophied vision and give us the strength to endure. Who is more likely to accommodate their faith to the cultural winds, the one who is afraid of losing privilege or the one who has long endured shame? A church unwilling to suffer is bound to be swept into irrelevance by the increasingly anti-Christian mainstream.

To put it another way, what do we have to lose? Any commitment to biblical truth and standards will ultimately land us on the margins of modernity. Better to rush there ourselves in love, “boast of the things that show our weakness,” and embrace the lessons forged in hardship by those who have always lived there. This faith in which we stand, this church we love, which Christ has promised will endure to the very gates of hell, is embodied, suffering, and persevering—just like our Lord. Pursuing the fullness of His kingdom, on earth as it is in heaven, is the way we will weather the coming storm.

Further thoughts
Theological Poverty: More on “The Chalmers Option”
Talking Past Each Other: Class and Culture in the Church
The Spiritual Vitality of Place

Photo: Dew on spider web with flame azaleas, Elk Knob, North Carolina, June 2017.

Keeping Your Head on Straight

A couple of unrelated experiences have lately oozed together in my mind to form something resembling an idea.

The first is the mundane recognition that I was tired of living with chronic low-level back & neck pain. This led to my visiting this week, for the first time, a chiropractor. I’ve had my skepticism about the more expansive claims of the discipline, but some research and lots of recommendations from friends leads me to think that it might actually be helpful in relieving muscle pain associated with spinal misalignment.

As the the lopsided ess of my should-be-straight backbone stared back at me on the x-ray screen, I was more than a little embarrassed that I’d refused to seek care for so long. Though there could be many causes for this situation, it’s likely that it’s the follow-on result of a bad fall on ice when I was seventeen that nearly dislocated my left hip. That’s 15 years ago, folks, and I’m just now dealing with it.

There’s another metaphor or two in all this (i.e. “Take better care of yourself; there is no glory in stoic suffering to save a few bucks.”), but what stood out is the fact that your body will go to great lengths to literally keep your head on straight. That hip trauma led to a minor twist between two lumbar vertebrae…which caused my left hip to sit slightly higher than the right…which caused me to lean almost imperceptibly to the right…which made me tilt my shoulders ever so slightly to the left so that my head stayed vertical. That series of tiny shifts, plus years of gravity, resulted in constant, nagging soreness—all for the sake of keeping the top level.

The second experience involved dropping in on a session of my boss‘s college course (Economic Development in the Majority World) this morning. Our staff does that from time to time to show our support for that side of his work (he might say it’s to keep him on his toes, but…). Today’s lesson looked at the differences between Development Economics, Neoclassical Economics, Behavioral Economics, and a Christian approach to economics. Key to this is recognizing a) certain institutions must be in place for the neoclassical approach to make sense, b) that institutions must come from somewhere, and c) that cultural realities must be reckoned with.

Culture BoxAs part of the discussion, he brought up the “Culture Box”, which describes the ways that institutions are shaped by worldview, values, and actions, as well as how they shape those in return (see my rudimentary diagram at right). In an economic context, this helps to explain why simply importing an institution (say, a reserve banking system or fair taxation of markets) on to a culture that lacks the values (rule of law, equal rights for all people, etc.) that would generate consistent actions necessary to sustain that institution does not result in meaningful positive change.

Here’s where things get weird these two thoughts converge into a notion. This culture box functions like a “spine” of sorts. In the same way that your head has to be properly supported by the rest of your bone structure, the visible institutions of a culture have to come from solid underpinnings of worldview, values, and actions. If your spine is out of line, your head (hopefully) won’t fall off, but holding it in place creates discomfort and dysfunction all the way down. If the way you see the world doesn’t match with the institutions attempting to govern your culture, either your culture will be squeezed to match the institutions or the institutions will come crashing down like so many philosophical Jenga blocks.

So how does positive change actually come about?

Chiropractic can’t be a cure-all because your spine and your head are not all there is to your body. Your muscles, your posture, your nutrition, and many other factors also play in to your overall health. The culture box model likewise assumes an overly rational approach to life, leaving out the critical dimension of our hearts and habits (and the sin nature of those hearts) that impacts all the rest. It leaves us vulnerable to what James K.A. Smith calls “Thinking-thing-ism” by giving undue credit to our minds alone to drive our flourishing.

What we need (which is where the Econ Development class wrapped up) is the fulness of Christ. Christ not only renews our minds, but he dwells within our hearts. He is not only the head of the Church, but is its animating spirit—enabling the very actions He commands of us. “For by Him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through Him and for Him. And He is before all things, and in Him all things hold together” (Col. 1:16-17).

All things” means “all things,” and any view of life or cultural structure that refuses to come to terms with this Lord will not ultimately stand. The sin that so twists and distorts our lives and our systems cannot move Him from His place as the head. But rather than toppling or crushing us, He redeems and restores. In His grace, he chastens those He loves, cracking our weary backs into alignment with His righteousness, justice, and peace.