How to Get Over the Election – 2018 Edition

We went to the polls. We voted for change or not. We resisted or didn’t. And in the end, we remain divided.

One pundit I heard this morning said that the most profound and confounding divide in America is the rural-urban/suburban split. As a site begun after the 2016 elections and devoted to understanding the heartlands of rural America, I offer the following review of posts to get you up to speed if you’re just now turning to this complex landscape:

Poetry

To Know the Country Whole

Essays

Rural is Plural

What Goes Without Saying: Some Thoughts on Charlottesville

Why Don’t Country People Just Get Out?

What We Talk About When We Talk About Social Justice

You’ve Got the Wrong Enemies

Rural Soul by Sara Porter Keeling

Interviews

Crossing the Great Divide: An Interview with Arlie Russell Hochschild

Still Kinda in Kansas: Talking Politics with Robert Wuthnow

Book Reviews

The Left Behind: Decline and Rage in Rural America by Robert Wuthnow

Amity and Prosperity: One Family and the Fracturing of America by Eliza Griswold

Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right by Arlie Russell Hochschild

The View From Flyover Country: Dispatches from The Forgotten America by Sarah Kendzior

Rendezvous with Oblivion: Reports from a Sinking Society by Thomas Frank

The Shame of Rural America: The Heartlands Interview with Robert Wuthnow Concludes, 3 of 3

In the last part of my interview with Princeton sociologist, Robert Wuthnow, we talked about rural churches.  In this segment we pull back the lens and look at shame, among other things…

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Photo by Jim Reardan on Unsplash

You say in the book, The Left Behind: Decline and Rage in Rural America, that part of your effort is to explain to other liberal elites that rural America is not crazy; why are we not crazy?

Well, what I have argued and what I found from people I talked to is that there’s a tremendous amount of pragmatic realism in rural America, just as there is elsewhere in suburban and urban America. So, everything is so politicized these days, (I mean how can we not help to say that on today of all days [the day of the Kavanaugh hearings]?), and then that impression of rural America is reinforced, and has been since the 2016 election, by, on the one hand, polls. (We’ve had less than 10% difference in voting in political alignment and make a huge deal out of it and say, “Well, rural America votes this way and urban America votes the other way,” which is only true relatively speaking.)

Then, on the other hand, it’s also reinforced by journalists. The best journalists, the best newspapers, venture out there to Iowa or Mississippi or wherever it might be and talk to people. They give a human dimension to the story, but it’s all about the politics still. So the impression any reader comes away with is that people just spend all their time thinking about politics, which, of course, is not the case for any of us. Sure, politics is important and, since we have campaigns that seem to start as soon as the last election is over, it’s hard not to focus on politics and then it just filters down into divisions within the church.

But on a day-to-day basis, people in rural America are thinking about their jobs, their families, whether their kids are getting a good education or not, whether someone is getting medical care that needs it or not, whether, if they’re in an agricultural area, the crop prices are good or not and what the yields are going to be—all these practical issues.

On top of that, (and this is my argument about moral communities which you captured well in your book review), is the reality that community matters too. People in rural America aren’t just totally self-interested, self-serving narcissists by any means. It matters to them how the community is faring.

So even if they happen to be doing ok individually, if the community’s struggling, if the grocery store that’s been there for years is going out of business, and if the people are having to travel 30 miles to get to work or their job at Walmart or whatever, and then, especially, if the school is closing or the school is doing bad and the kids aren’t able to get as good an education as they want, or the church that has been there for generations and they’ve supported it and their ancestors are buried in the cemetery and all of a sudden the church doesn’t stay open anymore, that bothers people.

That’s not necessarily, in a lot of cases, because of anything going on politically, and it’s usually not something that can be rectified politically, but it does make people angry. And if they feel that politics are making things worse, or politicians are supposed to be doing some things that would help and aren’t, or if they feel that politics is entirely governed by people in  big cities who don’t care about them and understand them, then it’s easy for them to vent political frustration on the politicians that they don’t like.

Right. I think you also captured really well in the book how often that it’s sometimes turned on themselves. You talk about teen pregnancy and saying that, far from being moral wags, a lot of folks will blame themselves for not shielding their children from the culture outside or for not raising them the right way. I don’t think the word comes up too much in the book, but is shame a part of this story, too?

Shame is used, and guilt is, and those are exacerbated by living in a small town where everybody is visible to everybody else, or at least they feel that way. So if it’s their son or daughter who’s gotten into trouble because of sex or alcohol or drugs or whatever they feel that everybody knows and everybody’s talking about it. In larger research we certainly found examples of people who quit going to church because they felt that the church was going to make them feel embarrassed and ashamed and either they quit going to church entirely or they started going to church 50 miles away so they didn’t have to face the family that they thought were critical of them.

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Robert Wuthnow

That’s an indication on the one hand of the moral responsibility that people feel. They want their kids to grow up and to be good citizens and, if they’re Christians, to be good Christians, do the right thing, be honest, take care of their families. But they know it’s difficult and sometimes that’s a reason why they want to stay in a small town because they feel the temptations are actually quite a bit less there than would be the case in bigger cities. In other instances they know that there are all of those temptations, especially drugs or pornography or whatever it may be, in small towns, too. That worries them and they sometimes try to shore up their own sense of what is right by then talking about the problems that they see in the wider culture because of the internet and television and all those things.

What About the Methodists?: Robert Wuthnow talks churches, 2 of 3

In the first part of my interview with Princeton’s Robert Wuthnow, one of America’s premier sociologists, we talked about the current face of the Heartland. Wuthnow’s book, The Left Behind: Decline and Rage in Rural America, talks about the changing dynamics of many rural institutions, including churches.  I enlisted him to help me think about churches in small towns and, of course, we ended up talking about Adam Hamilton…

You have the story in the book about the pastor who was discouraged. She said she had given up the family farm in order to pursue ministry and felt she was going to be part of some great awakening but instead felt like she was just keeping her finger in the dike. Obviously, one of the challenges churches face is population decline in these communities, but how do you interpret that kind of frustration? Did you encounter a whole lot of disillusionment as part of your research with churches in particular? 

Well, among the clergy, that example would be illustrative of some of that disillusionment. I would say though that, overall, (and in every single town we tried to talk to at least one clergy person in that town), there’s a lot of pragmatic realism—a real effort, I’d have to say a gospel-based effort, to bring hope to the community and to keep hope as alive as it can be. 

They would talk, not so much about the grand vision that wasn’t being realized, but just the frustrations—that people in the congregation were busy. It was hard, especially in smaller congregations, to get enough people out for a meeting or events, hard to schedule things, just because the complicated schedules that everybody, rural and urban, lives. It was difficult sometimes to cultivate lay leadership because, again, people were busy or people felt that the pastors should be doing all of that and they shouldn’t or because they felt they didn’t have the right kind of education or the right kind of leadership skills that they felt would be important to be an elder or deacon or trustee.

The flip side of that, which I think is really worth emphasizing, too, is that one of the things that small communities have going for them is that people who do have things going well for them in terms of having better jobs and maybe better education or better income, whatever it might be, are very willing, by and large, to pitch in.  The statistics show that that happens much more in small towns, by and large, than it does in cities. 

People feel a responsibility to help out with the church or the hospital board or the library committee or be involved in Rotary, Kiwanis, Masons, or whatever it might be. Again [this happens] because they’re visible and it’s just part of the culture to feel that, in addition to whatever work you may be doing as a teacher or doctor or nurse or whatever it might be, [you should] also be involved in the community. So if the community’s a town of any size, 5,000 and above, 10,000 and above–even better, then that’s going be a real benefit to the community. The pastors we talked to certainly recognized that as one of the resources they can draw on.

Have you been able to quantify that? That, in comparison to an urban area, there’s a larger percentage of people involved in civic and other activities?

In the longer book I wrote, Small Town America, there’s a bunch of stats. There’s a whole chapter on faith in that book and some discussion of leadership and civic engagement. Just broadly speaking, you can divide the US population who have responded to a survey into people living in small rural towns, people who live in suburbs, and people living in cities. Then you can take out the differences in education or whatever it might be and that does come through. 

On some of the measures, it’s not a huge difference in suburbs. Suburbs do pretty well. It kind of depends on what volunteer activity you ask about. Suburbs have more families with small kids than the rural areas do and they’re one of the biggest drivers of voluntary participation—having kids and getting involved in school activities and sports and that kind of thing

In the section on homosexuality, where you’re talking about how that gets talked about or doesn’t get talked about in rural areas, you credit the mainline denominations with provoking the conversation. You said that, in a sense, there were folks who might appreciate the fact that they were being offered this space to have conversations about something that they might not talk about otherwise and yet at the same time they felt the same sort of resentment that they feel about Washington—that it’s requiring them to do something that they really don’t want to do. If one of the long-term trends is the retreat of mainline denominations in rural areas, is there any other institution that is going to pick up the slack? What does that portend for rural communities?

It depends on what part of the country. Being from the Midwest, I have a little bit of a better sense of changes there. I’ve written a book about Kansas. I’ve written a book about Texas so those are the ones that I can point to the best. So, what’s filled the gap, as mainline churches in a lot of areas have declined, have been fundamentalist churches or evangelical churches or Pentecostal churches.

Or cowboy churches in Texas, right?

Yeah. It’s not necessarily a real recent development. It kind of depended on population shifts. For instance, in Kansas this was a shift that started shortly after World War Two, because of the aircraft industry–Boeing being in Wichita. You suddenly had jobs there. So you had a big influx of population from Oklahoma and Arkansas and southern Missouri. You had a lot of Southern Baptists in Kansas that you never had before. You also had a lot of new churches, like Assemblies of God or Pentecostal churches.

Robert Wuthnow

Robert Wuthnow

Historically, Kansas had been overwhelmingly dominated by Methodists and Catholics. Now you had an influx of people who weren’t Methodist and Catholic. So that started changing the local composition of a lot of towns where those new churches were growing.

That’s happening in some other places. The broader trend is that people who used to go to church locally in a town of 5-10,000 are now traveling 30 or 40 miles to a larger town and maybe, if there is one, to a megachurch, or something that’s close to a megachurch. 

Why are they doing that? Well, for good reason. If they have kids and their kids are the only kids in the Sunday school locally, well, sure, they want to go to a larger place where there are some other kids for their kids to hang out. Secondly, it may be that the school has closed and the kids are already going to a consolidated district school some place else and so if there’s church over there then their kids can hang out with kids from school. 

If they’re young adults, especially if they’re single young adults, they’re not going to find anybody to date or to marry at the local church that doesn’t have anybody else their age. They’re going to gravitate away as well.

That is something that certainly doesn’t affect a lot of small towns because they’re just too far away. One Methodist example that I’ve looked at closely and written about some, (again it happens to be in Kansas), is Church of the Resurrection in suburban Kansas City. It is a megachurch and every time I’ve gone there it’s gotten bigger and it’s put up an even bigger building. Even though they’re located in Johnson County, which has about 500,000 people, they draw people you know from maybe 50 miles away from some of the smaller towns. 

That changes the dynamic, which is certainly something which small town pastors worry about a lot. Sometimes you kind of regret it, in the same way people sometimes regret the fact that there’s a Walmart that’s drawing away business. But I do think it’s one of the realities that you have to attract people with young families, single people, some empty-nesters. 

At the same time the megachurch is never going to replace the boutique church that’s just one that people feel really committed to and like it because it is small. They know people. They’ve been there for a long time and they’re comfortable there. Those churches are likely to be around, I think, for quite a long time.

The Heartlands interview with Robert Wuthnow concludes here.

Still Kinda In Kansas: Talking Politics with Robert Wuthnow, Part 1 of 3

Robert Wuthnow is that rare academic who still keeps a foot in the heartlands.  Wuthnow is a respected Professor of Social Sciences at Princeton University but he’s as apt to talk to you about his native Kansas as he is the cultural capitals of DC and New York.

I caught up with Wuthnow a few weeks ago after reading his book, The Left Behind: Decline and Rage in Rural America. He didn’t disappoint…

You say in the book that people in small communities still “believe that the heart of America still beats in small communities.” Does the rest of America still believe that?

No. If you think about the population that lives in big cities and suburbs–no. They think about rural America, if they ever think about it, as part of flyover country. You can easily find columns online or even sometimes in The New York Times or The Washington Post that basically say, “Those areas ought to just depopulate and turn the prairie back to prairie and let the buffalo take over.”

Yeah, David Brooks has said similar things.

I was doing a podcast a couple of weeks ago and the woman who was hosting it only half jokingly said, “Isn’t it true that in 20 years there just aren’t going to be any people in rural America because all the tractors will be driving themselves?” So, yeah, there is that  impression out there.

One of the things that’s spurred me to do this blog is this sense that what the heartlands mean is really different than it used to be. It used to be that, even if people lived in urban areas, they would look to the rural areas as being an inspiration or holding the essence of what it means to be America. I agree; I don’t think that’s the case anymore.

I’d like to ask about your subtitle: Decline and Rage in Rural America. It’s a catchy phrase, but do you think that those are the predominant dynamics that you run into in talking with folks or are there some other more nuanced words that maybe are better?

The sense of decline is pretty widespread, despite the fact that the total number of US citizens living in rural areas is not declining, and has actually increased. It is a relative decline because the suburbs have grown in population or held their own. So there is that sense of relative decline as people talk about population or as they talk about where the jobs are or where their kids have moved to. 

Also there is that sense of a declining cultural influence related to what we were just talking about. You don’t feel that rural America is regarded as the heartland anymore of whatever values they hold dear in terms of small, local community or traditional values. They feel the nation has moved away from all that. So, in that sense, decline is pretty widespread.

My publisher said they wanted a short book that would answer some of the questions that people have about the 2016 election. It’s harder in a smaller book like that, than it was in longer books I wrote out of the same research, to capture the diversity. 

What I always try to do, in interviews and podcasts and so forth, is to emphasize diversity, because there’s the regional diversity, racial and ethnic diversity, and then a huge amount of difference between what’s happening in a town of 5,000 people versus a town of 25,000 people, which is still within the definition of the small town.  But a town of 25,000 people has a lot going for it that a smaller town doesn’t. Then certainly the differences between a town that is out in the boonies about 100 miles from the city versus a town that’s within easy commuting distance of a city. Especially in my book called Small Town America, I try to get into all of those differences and try to point out to people who haven’t thought much about small towns that there’s is a huge amount of diversity. 

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Robert Wuthnow

The rage part of it really only pertains to the views towards Washington and toward politics. They’re not going around just seething all the time. They’re not really mad at their neighbors. That not really that mad at urban people either. Occasionally they are because they feel urban people don’t understand them or disparage them. But most rural people have friends and family that live in the city that they’d like to go visit .

They are mad at politics. On the political side, it is true that some of the time there is anger toward gay people or racial or ethnic minorities or toward immigrants or toward Muslims. So some of that conversation that happens all the time on Fox News and is coming out of the Trump administration does filter out and it gives people ways to vent some of their anger on groups that they might not have thought about. They may be perfectly ok with the Muslim family that happens to live in the town or the Hispanic family that is working on their farm but then still they get incensed and say, “We need stronger borders. We need to restrict  immigration.” and all of that. It’s in that sense that the wider political culture gets refracted in interesting ways at the local level.

You’re making me think, as you describe it that way, whether some of that emotion is related to the cognitive dissonance of trying to hold together things that seem so opposed. To put it in the simplest sense, “Immigrants—bad. But my neighbors, who happen to be immigrants, they are excellent and they’re helping our community survive.” Or “Washington neglects us but Washington interferes too much.” You know, just the kind of the things that we’re trying to hold in our heads.

Our interview with Robert Wuthnow continues here.

Read the Heartlands review of The Left Behind by clicking here.

Why You Need to Know What’s Happening on God’s Island

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A flooding tide on Tangier

Earl Swift spent the better part of a year on Tangier Island and grew to love the people and the culture of the place.  But when he wrote about the experience for his new book, his takeaway was not subtle.  It’s there in the title.  He believes the island is not long for this world.

I read Swift’s book with the same eyes he does.  On the one hand I see the beauty of a place so small and personal that you can’t talk about it without nicknames and stories.  On the other hand, it is dropping into the Chesapeake Bay, and it may be a bellwether for other places, like my own Eastern Shore, that are facing the same fate.

Chesapeake Requiem: A Year With the Watermen of Vanishing Tangier Island is the culmination of Swift’s decades-long fascination with life on this tump in the middle of America’s greatest bay (sorry, San Francisco).  He’s written about the place before, as in The Tangierman’s Lament and Other Tales of Virginia.  But here he dives deep, giving the reader the sweep of history, the passion of religion, and the romance and trial of making a living from the waters—all the elements that make Tangier such an irreplaceable culture.

Full disclosure: I’m a frequent visitor to Tangier as the United Methodist District Superintendent for this region.  Swain Memorial and its congregants, by some measures, are the largest church on my district. When Swift mentions names, I can picture the faces.  When he talks about the Heistin’ Bridge and the Slab, I know where they are.  He even grants me an appearance on page 246. So I’m not a disinterested reader and in the mix of the more global story of climate change, important though it is, and the particulars of the settlement, my sympathies are always with the folks I know.

They are vividly portrayed here. Mary Stuart Parks down at the Fisherman’s Corner restaurant.  Lonnie Moore and his crab potting operation.  Carol Pruitt Moore and her regular curation of the disappearing Uppards—the marshy, northern outpost of Tangier on which the whole island depends.

None gets more attention than Ooker Eskridge, the town’s mayor and biggest celebrity, thanks to his regular interviews and highly-publicized interaction with Donald Trump in the summer of 2017.  Following a CNN profile of the island in which Ooker and many of the regulars in the “Situation Room” at the old health center professed their love for the president and made a plea for him to come and “Build us a wall!” around Tangier, Ooker got a phone call from Trump and appeared on a climate change panel with Al Gore.

The resulting social media circus turned Eskridge, and the island, into a caricature of themselves, with hateful Twitter posts declaring that their support for a man who denied climate change left them “getting what they ASKED FOR!” “You’re all #Trump supporters and deserve what Nature gives you: submersion,” one tweet on CNN’s account read. (368)

By the time you arrive at this story at the end of the book, Swift has thoroughly insulated you from the online ignorance that labels the islanders so harshly.  He obviously spent many days and hours with Ooker and the other watermen, learning their craft, seeing with their eyes, and sympathizing with their worldview, if not fully embracing it.  The island natives are not naive and Swift embraces their complexity.

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Earl Swift

Swift is a great storyteller and his descriptions of working the water are rich, giving you the feel of being there.  He doles out the mysterious life cycle of the Chesapeake blue crab in small segments, allowing you to marvel at the creature instead of being overwhelmed by the detail.  The watermen also come to life in stages as you get to know their idiosyncrasies and firmly held convictions.

But nothing diminishes the dire framework within which these stories are told.  In addition to the title, the sub-headings give away the perspective.  Headings like “And Every Island Fled Away” and “Eyeing the End Times” have scriptural overtones, but Swift takes them literally. Erosion. Climate change.  Whatever you call it, the island is just one big storm away from a fatal inundation.

The recent announcement that the state and Army Corps of Engineers are finally moving toward construction of a jetty to protect the western entrance to the main channel through Tangier is a happy ending to a long struggle chronicled in the book.  But the Corps’ Dan Schulte, who co-authored a paper for Scientific Reports in 2015, says the jetty “doesn’t do anything about the bigger problems.” (259)  Without protecting the Uppards and building up the island in other ways, Swift believes, based on Schulte’s research, “you’ll be able to drive a workboat over most of Tangier by 2063.” (258)

Swift also highlights other vulnerabilities: a declining and aging population, loss of young people to the mainland, a fragile economy, an uncertain stock of crab and oysters, a beloved but threatened K-12 school, and a growing drug problem.  Swift asks Lance Daley, who helps run the family grocery store on the island, whether he worries about the future of his business and the island. “‘Not really,’ he said.  He paused, then changed his mind: ‘Well, I guess we do.’” (230)

That’s the sort of hesitating trust I sense in the people of Tangier.  They are no strangers to loss.  Prayer times regularly recall islanders lost at sea in the past.  Swift vividly describes two of those wrecks that happened in the last thirteen years.

IMG_3692But there’s a sturdy persistence, too—something that is inseparable from the faith in God that is never far from the lips of a Tangier Christian.  It can sometimes border on a fatalism that trusts that “God takes care of things” (and therefore we don’t).  But more often it is a trust that the God, who sent a visionary Methodist lay preacher named Joshua Thomas to the island around 1799 and whose Spirit has brooded over the island in the centuries since, will not fail them now.

I often say, (based on my understanding of the island’s history as chronicled by the great Eastern Shore historian, Kirk Mariner, whose name Swift, regretfully, does not mention outside the notes), that great moments in the spiritual life of the Eastern Shore, from camp meetings to revivals, often begin on Tangier.  Perhaps it takes the sensitivity of a people who live on the margins of the world and in total dependence on the waters of the Bay to see what God is up to.

Earl Swift believes that Tangier’s story is a part of a bigger story, too, though his is a mournful tale of inevitable loss.  I’ve got a different horizon in mind, but I’m glad he paused, with his obvious skills, to pay attention to this place and the threats to it.  He has produced a great book that deserves to be read far beyond what Mariner called “God’s Island.”

Dreams Nursed in Darkness: Tommy Orange’s There, There

The best way to understand the ending of There, There, Tommy Orange’s new novel, is to remember that the bullets were always coming.  Orange tells you this in the non-fiction prologue to the book where he describes what it’s like to be a Native American today.  The Europeans who ‘settled’ the land “fired their guns into the air in victory and the strays flew out into the nothingness of histories written wrong and meant to be forgotten. Stray bullets and consequences are landing on our unsuspecting bodies even now.” (10)

Later, in an interlude, he reminds you what to look for as the climactic powwow approaches:

“Something about it will make sense. The bullets have been coming for miles. Years. Their sound will break water in our bodies, tear sound itself, rip our lives in half. The tragedy of it all will be unspeakable, the fact we’ve been fighting for decades to be recognized as a present-tense people, modern and relevant, alive, only to die in the grass wearing feathers.” (141)

Yes, I forgot the spoiler alert.  But you don’t need one.  This book is not about the violent ending where the story of the twelve disparate Native American characters comes together.  It’s about the many ways they have lived before they got there.

There, There has been getting a lot of positive press. It’s a first novel by an enrolled member of the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes of Oklahoma. It’s acclaimed for its strong writing, realistic characters, and refusal of stereotype.  All true. 

But Tommy Orange didn’t come by his identity easily. Like his characters, he struggled with what it means to be Native American in Oakland, California after centuries of concentrated effort to make that label past-tense.  “Getting us to cities was supposed to be the final, necessary step in our assimilation, absorption, erasure, the completion of a five-hundred-year-old genocidal campaign,” Orange says in the Prologue. “But the city made us new, and we made it ours.” (8)

So 12-year-old Orvil Red Feather, sees a dancer in full regalia on TV and feels something that propels him into learning about his heritage:  

“The dancer moved like gravity meant something different for him…There was so much [Orvil had] missed, hadn’t been given. Hadn’t been told. In that moment, in front of the TV, he knew. He was a part of something. Something you could dance to.” (121)

Meanwhile, the Great Aunt who raised him, suppressing that heritage because of the pain it caused her, Opal Viola Victoria Bear Shield, listens to Otis Redding and Smokey Robinson and feels a different impulse to dance. “That’s what she loves about Motown, the way it asks you to carry sadness and heartbreak but dance while doing so.” (162)

There are alcoholics and revolutionaries here.  Abusers, artists, and criminals.  But they endure by not letting anyone else get the last word on what it means to be Native American.

“Too many of us died to get just a little bit of us here, right now, right in this kitchen,” Opal tells Orvil. “You, me.  Every part of our people that made it is precious.  You’re Indian because you’re Indian because you’re Indian.” (119)

The title of the book comes (in part) from Gertrude Stein’s famous comment about Oakland after discovering that her childhood home was lost to new development such that now “there is no there there.” But Orange’s characters are building something new in the urban landscape. They are no strangers to 3-D printers and drones and the technology that is threatening to turn every place into a soulless, placeless void.  It may be dark, but as one wounded protagonist notes in the aftermath of the powwow, he “isn’t going anywhere.” (290)  He will remain.

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Tommy Orange

A quote from Jean Genet begins the fourth section of There, There: “A man must dream a long time in order to act with grandeur, and dreaming is nursed in darkness.” (227) Tommy Orange’s book is such a dream.

Burning from Beginning to End with Scott Cairns

It’s all here.  Beginnings and endings.  Heaven and hell.  Divine intentions and bodily appetites.  That’s what you get with the poet Scott Cairns.  Look for the kitchen sink.  I’m sure it’s in there, too.

Recently I came back for a season to Philokalia: New & Selected Poems, Cairns’ 2002 collection.  It’s as rich and evocative as I remembered.  Nobody captures the sensuality of angels brushing the earth and women brushing their hair like Cairns.  He’s going to linger on the moment, as all good poets do.  After all, “So little to be done, and so much time.” (67)

Let’s start at the creation.  Actually before.  In ‘The Beginning of the World’ Cairns gives us audience with the Lover who hungers for a Beloved prior to anything coming into view:

God’s general availability, His brooding peckishness, an appetite and predilection—even before invention—to invent, to give vent, an all but unsuspected longing for desire followed by the eventual arrival of desire’s deep hum, its thrumming escalation and upward flight into the dome’s aperture, already open and voluble and without warning giving voice. (121)

Then, let’s go to the apocalypse—‘The End of Heaven and the End of Hell’ in a 12-part poem titled ‘Disciplinary Treatises.’  The destination turns out to be the same no matter how you’ve lived.  We lose the “feeble fretwork” of this age and we become ourselves.

And that long record of our choices—your

every choice—is itself the final

body, the eternal dress. And, of course,

there extends before us finally a measure

we can recognize. We see His Face

and see ourselves, and flee. And shame—old

familiar—will sustain that flight unchecked,

or the Ghost, forgotten just now—merest

spark at the center—will flare, bid us turn

and flame unto a last consuming light:

His light, our light, caught at last together

as a single brilliance, extravagant,

compounding awful glories as we burn. (132)

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Scott Cairns

Like Jamie Quatro, whose novel Fire Sermon earlier this year mined the quarry of desires, carnal and spiritual, Cairns is not afraid of burning. He knows the impossibility of staying on the surface.  Even when he pretends, as in the poem ‘Taking Off Our Clothes,’ “that there is no such thing/as metaphor,” he fails.  “[T]his could all/be happening in Kansas,” he says, and yet his proposed simple encounter with a lover becomes, despite itself, transcendent.

Cairns has now created a body of work that stands among the best of any Christian poet.  His range is impressive, from the quotidian to the esoteric.  And the depth of his study shows through, sometimes lightly, often with surprising depth.  As when he investigates the Greek word nous, showing why it is more than mind and describes it thus:

Dormant in its roaring cave,

the heart’s intellective appetite grows dim,

unless you find a way to wake it. (26)

And then he goes on to suggest an exercise to do just that.

I spend many mornings with a Scott Cairns poem.  His collection Love’s Immensity: Mystics on the Endless Life, which I reviewed earlier, is a great introduction to the Christian spiritual tradition.  Philokalia is a great introduction to the poet himself.  And so much more.

Eating Spinach with Mr. Wesley

One of my great unfinished reading projects is The Works of John Wesley.  A long row of books from the series lines one of my shelves these days holding the collected works of the principal founder of Methodism including sermons, journal entries, and minutes of the first conferences.

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Mr. Wesley’s electrifying machine

This week I received Volume 32: Medical and Health Writings, edited by James G. Donat and Randy L. Maddox.  I doubt I’ll get through all 788 pages (!) and, truth be told, although Mr. Wesley on grace is a thing to hold dear, Mr. Wesley on health can be a little scary.  He was fascinated by the new science of electricity, for instance, and suggested its use to cure everything from leprosy to bruises!

But some of Wesley’s recommendations still ring true.  On June 5, 1778 he wrote to a correspondent:

“I advise you:

    1. Never sit up later than ten.

    2. Never rise later than six.

    3. Walk at least an hour daily in the open air; if it rains all day, in the dining room.

    4. Choose such diet, both for quantity and quality, as you find sits light upon your stomach… [He preferred mutton and beef to veal and chicken.]

    5. Eat as much spinach, cress, and summer fruits as agrees best with your stomach.” [659]

Bodily health, for Wesley was part of a more general dedication to spiritual holiness.  And if he couldn’t get his hearers all the way to God, he could at least get them close.  As when he advised one person interested in better health:

 “[E]very fair day walk to, if not round, the churchyard.  When you are a little hardened by this, you may venture at a convenient opportunity (suppose on a Sunday morning) to attend the public worship.  Till you do I cannot say you are in God’s way, and therefore I am not sure you will find his blessing.” [668]

Sneaky, that Mr. Wesley.  But on these latter points, absolutely right.

In Praise of Bad Writing: David Bentley Hart’s New Testament

The New Testament, as translated by the influential Orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart, is bad.  But that’s what makes it such a good read for Christians who need their settled understandings tweaked.

Hart’s new translation doesn’t strive for literary heights. He has an ear for beautiful language, something that comes through in all of his writing.  But here he aims for reproducing the feel and flavor of the original Greek texts and, sad to say, for all their influence, most of the original authors were not great writers.  

Hart allows that Luke and Hebrews show some elevated style, but don’t get him started on John, the author of Revelation.  In Hart’s translation, the sea of fire in Revelation 19:20 becomes a marsh.  An accompanying note contains a bit of uncharacteristic Hart-ian understatement: “In very antique usage (Homer, for instance), the term [translated as marsh] could be used as a poetic trope for the sea; but John does not give the impression of being someone possessed of a classical education.” (527)

If the marsh of fire sounds unusual, that’s kind of the point.  Hart says, “I would hope my translation would succeed, in many places, in making the familiar strange, novel, and perhaps newly compelling.” (xvii)  Of course, sometimes it only succeeds in making the familiar obscure, as when Hart turns Paul’s prayer in Philippians 1:9 for love overflowing “with knowledge and full insight” [NRSV] into love that abounds “in full knowledge and in all percipience.” Glad we cleared that up.

A “Concluding Scientific Postscript” helps explain some of the rationale for Hart’s approach.  Here you learn why ‘gehenna,’ often translated as ‘hell,’ has become the ‘Vale of Hinnom’ and why ‘eternity’ becomes, in places, “that Age.”  You also learn why the prologue to John is so difficult to render in English and what you can lose when you do.

Hart himself does not recommend his translation for liturgical use.  He knows it’s odd.  But he has aimed to communicate the strangeness and urgency of the early Christian community.  Hart knows the environment from which these texts emerge—the complex era of the Roman imperial age in which Jewish and Greek ideas were producing radical new religious movements.  And he feels, behind the imprecise and breathless texts of the early Church, the energy of converts eager to share a life-changing message at all costs.

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David Bentley Hart

Sure, he’s got his ongoing interests and projects that he brings to his work.  Every translator does and Hart is far more upfront about his than most.  That didn’t stop N.T. Wright from slagging Hart’s translation in a January Christian Century review. “[Hart’s] two main claims (to be “literal” and “undogmatic”) are not borne out,” the prolific former Bishop of Durham notes,  “and the promise of displaying the strangeness of early Christian life disappears behind different kinds of strangeness”—a strangeness that Wright attributes to Hart’s theological agenda of anti-Augustinianism and universalism.

Watching the resulting Wright-Hart dust-up has entertained many theologians who know that Hart has never met an intellectual dispute that he couldn’t milk for spectacle.  During the brief heyday of the New Atheists, such as Christopher Hitchens, Hart wrote the most gleeful Christian apology I ever read—a book whose title betrayed its consistent tone: Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies.

In 2012 Wright published his own New Testament translation, and following the Christian Century review, Hart has now taken to accompanying his defense of his translation with an attack on Wright’s as “the single worst translation ever done of the New Testament.”  In a recent interview with Jason Micheli on the Crackers and Grape Juice podcast he denounced Wright’s habit of “writing down to the common Christian, whom he apparently thinks is a four-year-old recovering from a concussion.”

With his intemperate exuberance and keen intellect, Hart resembles no one more than the Apostle Paul, who once told a church, (as Hart translates it in Galatians 5:12), “Would that they who are causing you agitation might just castrate themselves!” It’s the language of people who have been converted into a new Kingdom.

“This extremism is not merely an occasional hyperbolic presence in the texts or an infrequent intonation sounded only in their most urgent moments; it is their entire cultural and spiritual atmosphere.  The New Testament emerges from a cosmos ruled by malign celestial principalities (conquered by Christ but powerful to the end) and torn between spirit and flesh (the one, according to Paul, longing for God, the other opposing him utterly).  There are no comfortable medians in these latitudes, no areas of shade.  Everything is cast in the harsh light of a final judgment that is both absolute and terrifyingly imminent.  In regard to all these texts, the qualified, moderate, commonsense interpretation is always false.” (xxvii)

If you see that in Hart’s translation, he will feel he has done his job. However bad it seems.

Picking Up the Pieces in Iraq: A Review of Frankenstein in Baghdad

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St. George slaying the dragon before his own demise(s)

However St. George died, (and the catalogues of his gruesome tortures are legion), he was reputedly hard to keep down.  “The king ordered that the saint be placed in the olive press,” one story goes, “until his flesh was torn to pieces and he died.  They then threw him out of the city, but the Lord Jesus gathered the pieces together and brought him back to life, and he went back into the city.”

That’s one of the epigraphs at the beginning of Ahmed Saadawi’s strange novel, Frankenstein in Baghdad.  It’s appropriate for a horror story that centers around a character created from the disparate pieces of terrorist victims who litter the streets of war-torn Iraq following the regular car bombs. But the Whatsitsname is no saint on a holy mission. He’s…

Well, what is he exactly?

Perhaps he’s a metaphor for Iraq itself—mutilated and pieced together so many times that it’s a hideous pastiche of a reality.  Yes, surely that.  Brigadier Majid, the head of the mysterious Tracking and Pursuit Department of the Iraqi government, believed as much.  “It was the Americans who were behind this monster,” he thought. (268) 

No one seems to understand American motives.  As another Iraqi character observes, “they operated with considerable independence and no one could hold them to account for what they did.  As suddenly as the wind could shift, they could throw you down a dark hole.” (69)  Why wouldn’t they create a monster who preys on people in the streets?

Except that the Whatitsname wasn’t indiscriminate in his attacks—at least not initially.  He sought retribution for those responsible for the deaths of the component parts of his body.  “He was a composite of victims seeking to avenge their deaths so they could rest in peace.” (130)  But when individual parts were avenged, necrosis would set in, and in order to persist, the Whatitsname had to change his moral calculus to acquire new parts.  “There are no innocents who are completely innocent,” he began to tell himself, “or criminals who are completely criminal.” (214)  And thus he justified his continuing killing spree.

freestocks-org-425059-unsplashIf it seems like a squalid and empty philosophy, it’s as good as they come by in Baghdad.  You can see it in any of the many interesting characters who occupy this book.  Haid, the junk dealer who crafted the Whatitsname because he didn’t have a corpse to bury when his partner Nahem was blown up.  Faraj, the covetous realtor, who finds a way to profit on any misfortune.  Ali Baher al-Saidi, the corrupt owner of the al-Haqiqa magazine.  Nawal, the glamorous film director who might be having an affair with Saidi.  Mahmoud, the journalist who falls for her.

Really everyone has their own way to make it in the moral abyss that followed the American invasion of 2003.  The purist of the lot may be Elishva, the Assyrian Christian woman who talks to St. George via a painting and who believes that the Whatsitsname is her son, Daniel, returned to her at last despite the reports that he was killed in the Iran-Iraq War of the 80s.  At least, her neighbor, Umm Salim, believed “God’s hand was on her shoulder wherever she was.” (9)

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Ahmed Saadawi

Perhaps the best that could be said for St. George and the Whatitsname and all the residents of the Bataween neighborhood of Baghdad is that they persist.  In the face of violence that threatens to shred them into non-existence, they carry on, inhabiting the ruins until some new story can emerge.

Frankenstein in Baghdad won the International Prize for Arabic Fiction in 2014. The translation by Jonathan Wright is good.  It’s a disturbing read, but if you’re looking for a monster who makes you think this Halloween, the Whatitsname might be your guy.