Why Books Will Win


photo by John-Mark Kuznietsov via Unsplash

I’m making a wager that books will lead us to the future.

Heartlands came about as a desire to understand the present age, particularly from the perspective of rural America and rural church ministry.  In the beginning I was trying to figure out why the place where I live seemed suddenly so strange to me.  Things had shifted, and not just because of an unexpected outcome to the presidential election.  We had been shifting for some time and no politician could claim credit for creating the Great Divide.

What we lost was texture.  Red and blue became easy stand-ins for the complexities of our culture and we let the color labels define us.  We latched onto them as identity markers.  Who we are, in all our contradictions and quirks, was less interesting than a convenient narrative that prevented us from observing and thinking deeply.

As I wrote in a piece for Topology magazine, “Rural is Plural,” there was a tendency in some writers from the coastal cities that sounded like they were writing off the heartland.  The reason Heartlands is plural is because there is diversity here, too, that is unrecognized.  So I began to search for the lens and the language that would help me bring it to sight and voice.

The surprising thing is that literature has become one of the most useful tools in that search.  You know—books.  Stories have the capacity to carry so much more freight than other forms of communication.  Good stories don’t force the world into neat categories and simple morals.  Characters in a book should always be able to surprise us because, like real human beings, that have complex motivations that they don’t always understand.  That’s certainly the case for biblical characters.


photo by Lysander Yuen via Unsplash

So the jaunts this blog has taken into books and interviews with authors like Alix Hawley, Trudy Hale, and Arlie Russell Hochschild, and with the photographer Michael Mergen, have ended up not being diversions but central to the whole project.  Perhaps the best language for an age that has destroyed truth is the vernacular of art, which is groping, not desperately, but confidently in search of new truth.  It’s obvious that the old vehicles have broken down—science, politics, and the like.  But the arts still sparkle – underfunded as they are.

“For last year’s words belong to last year’s language and next year’s words await another voice” — T.S. Eliot

“For last year’s words belong to last year’s language and next year’s words await another voice,” T.S. Eliot says in ‘Little Gidding.’  So I’ll keep reading and writing, awaiting another voice.  Literature may not be the fluff we have presumed it to be.  It may the gateway to what comes next.


A Dialect of Longing – Poetry Tuesday


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And what is wind

but a dialect of longing?–: the high

pressure rushing to fill the low, the sky


trying to slake its heats against the earth’s

asymptotic cool, its somersaulting cools

against the earth’s radiance.  All weather


springs from currents of failed desire.  No wonder

the wind, when it says anything at all,


513bNNOVAjL._SX342_BO1,204,203,200_                                    *

O fugitive God, my glorious jilt,


my heart has learned a tempest’s grammar

in your pursuit.  Listen: it thunders up

its truest, its most hopeless, prayers


for you.

–Kimberly Johnson, “[              ].” in a metaphorical god

It’s a Howlin’ Shame


Photo by Cristian Newman via Unsplash

Crawling under the skin of the present age is a reality, an anthropology so old that it infests everything we do.  I felt it as I read Arlie Russell Hochschild’s sociology of Tea Party Louisiana in Strangers in the Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right.  But it’s there in liberal moral puritanism.  It’s in the narcissism of Trump and the pretension of a hipster coffee bar.  It’s shame, back from the never-dead to be reckoned with once again.

“We need to talk about Addie Mae,” the blues singer Adia Victoria growls in a reference to herself on the song “It’s a Howlin’ Shame.”

“Oh that girl is a ghost

Burnin’ in a hell that don’t nobody know

White flag twistin’ in the wind
And at her best she is witherin’
And she all set for death, she can’t be saved.”


Adia Victoria

The song is a mournful, angry descent into the pain of a young African-American woman growing up in South Carolina.  “Being the other in the South meant that I was never afforded a complacency with my history that so many Southern white people live with,” Victoria told an interviewer from i-D. “I understand, and still feel, the reasons why my ancestor’s blood was spilled on the very same land I live on. I am bound to this injustice because it was never made right.”

But, of course, the effect of this is to feel that she was never made right—that there is nothing she could do to be made visible and worthy in an environment she considered “hostile to my very existence.”  So she howls:

“A murder of crows

They followed her home

And they didn’t leave much

Just a bed of bones

Get away, away

Away, away, away”

Then the title of the song twists.  The descriptive third-person voice sinks into the first person.  “I’m a howlin’ shame.”

Shame-based discourse does this.  It dehumanizes.  It takes behaviors and qualities and totalizes them into causes for disregarding the worth and dignity of a person or group.  Trump voters become an undifferentiated gaggle of racists.  Democrats are “not even people,” the president’s son says.

At its heart, shame is experienced as a profound lack.  When we are in touch with shame, we have a sense of being insufficient, defective, deformed, unlovable, incapable, and generally ‘not enough.’  “At her best she is witherin’/And she all set for death, she can’t be saved.”

There is a psychological component to shame.  My own time in therapy has convinced me of its awful power in my own life.  The thing that can’t be said, even in the safest company, festers and grows.  Partly because of the perversity of believing that I still have to seduce my therapist into accepting me and that the saying of the thing would bring the whole enterprise to ruin.  Partly because I don’t want to hear myself saying the thing.  Mostly because to give voice to it would cause masks to drop, walls to crumble, certainties to tremble, and worlds to change.

The last thing is certainly true.  But discovering that truth was one of the great liberations of that time.

Then, of course, there is the next layer down.  And the layer after that.  As John Donne puts it in puns on his name in one of my favorite of his poems, “A Hymn to God the Father”:

“Wilt thou forgive that sin which I did shun

         A year or two, but wallow’d in, a score?

                When thou hast done, thou hast not done,

                        For I have more.”

Eventually you know that no matter how deep the confession goes and how many “unforgivable” things you throw out to God/your therapist you will always have more.  It gradually becomes clear that there is no ridding yourself of the defects you imagine or cleansing yourself of mistakes.  The ones you bring to speech are blessedly defanged but, oh, there is always something else.  I have more.

So you come to understand that there is something more essential at stake here.  Wherever you go, there you are.  You, with your darkness and your pain.  You, with your perverse tendencies to seek affirmation in a funhouse mirror of your desire.  You, with your suspicions and your fears.  You, with your doubts that you could ever make yourself acceptable or be made acceptable.  Shame.  It’s a howlin’ shame.

The therapist, or pastor, or trusted confessor provides some relief.  He or she, by not turning in disgust for the door at your tentative honesty, can give you the gift of being seen.  Or as Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground put it in “I’ll Be Your Mirror”:

“When you think the night has seen your mind

That inside you’re twisted and unkind

Let me stand to show that you are blind

Please put down your hands

‘Cause I see you

I’ll be your mirror”

Except that inside we are twisted and unkind and we need to see that, too.  A good confessor won’t tell us we’re OK.  But she will clear the space for us to stand in dignity anyway and point out all the ways we are working, below the surface, against our interest, to erase that space.

51K+KMGhnwL._SX314_BO1,204,203,200_Dietrich Bonhoeffer in his Ethics, saw shame as elemental and relational.  It is the “ineffable recollection of [a person’s] estrangement from the origin; it is grief for this estrangement, and the powerless longing to return to unity with the origin.”  Like the nakedness of Adam and Eve in the garden, we are exposed as disunited, lacking something essential.

Bonhoeffer felt that shame had a role to play in the journey to God.  Though it leads us to put on masks, “beneath the mask there is the longing for the restoration of the lost unity.”  In human relationships, particularly our most intimate ones, we pull down those masks for another and risk being wounded.  In the spiritual realm, shame is the sign of a yearning for union with God.  “As the deer pants for the water, so my soul longs after you” to quote Psalm 42:1.

It is unseemly to talk of such longing in our disenchanted world.  To speak, without irony, of dreams and hopes, desires and loves is to invite debunking, ridicule, and scorn—shaming, to be blunt.  And then it will not just be your words or your beliefs or your political views that will be held up to the klieg lights for interrogation, but your very self.  It is who you are that’s problematic.

We need to talk about Addie Mae.  She’s the victim of the distorted lens of the world that allows no place in the flesh for redemption and reunion.  And her howling is the deep cry of shame seeking some recognition and release.

Grant’s Migraine – Tuesday Poetry


photo by Malik Earnest via Unsplash

I know what caused

Grant’s Appomattox migraine,

not death

nor politics

or Sheridan’s whereabouts.

It was the slant light of April

nigh to the equinox.

The same light troubling my eyes

on this slatted porch.

It should fall gentle in this season

or so I advise the Crafter

but instead it blotches my retina

sears into my brain

wanders off with a morning

condemns me to dark.

I’ve no armies to command

but I fight the light like Ulysses.

In these seasons of change

the sun sneaks through the cracks

needles through the trees

flares even off this pen I use

to describe its dangers.

We live with an excess of light

and, when it is not high overhead,

an excess of shadow,

And if you raise your eyes

to look at it

if you go unshielded into the bright,

you will be felled

as sure as any furnace can fell.

You will await in some darkened, fetid room

the return of your senses

Or you will soldier on

anticipating that even in the cruel light of the world

some good news must come.

–Alex Joyner

Down the Line and on the Edge: Poetry Saturday


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There’s no mystery

to the ball hit to the gap in right centerfield.

So much room for error.  So many

ways it could have been a hit anyway and otherwise.

It’s the tailing ball

down the line that sprays up chalk

that makes a difference.

It could so easily have been


A forgotten foul ball.

Equally forgettable, a mundane double.


But to hit it down the line and play

on the edge.  Just barely in bounds.

To invest that edge with the consequence it deserves.

That’s the stuff.

–Alex Joyner

86 Sermons on Song of Songs


photo by Alexander Lam via Unsplash

The 12th-century monastic, Bernard of Clairvaux, wrote 86 sermons on the Song of Songs…

86 Sermons on Song of Songs

Bernard of Clairvaux no

doubt wrote many more.

The more scandalous never made it out of his cell.

But he knew that there was nothing more essential

than the one theme of desire.

If he couldn’t make that means of communication work

we might as well be damned.

But who would cop to such hunger, unseemly

as it is?

To look out

on our fields of plenty, our beautifully

stocked shelves in innumerable super

stores, over waves of

grain, our full tank of

gas, and say ‘It’s not


I want more.  I want the burning

engine of purpose, the alluring

seduction of beauty, the cause converting

me into roiling motion and threatening

to reduce me

to essence or

oblivion, the release

from solipsism, the laying

myself at Her feet,

the mystic union, and yet


I am insatiable in this desire.

I am transgressive in my wants.

86 sermons is a drop in the bucket compared

to what I will do for Love.

Alex Joyner

Feathered, Pleated Strength – Psalm 36 loosely translated


photo by Ray Hennessy via Unsplash

Psalm 36

I know the sinful utterance of the wicked–

know it like the back of my hand,

know the sound of it,

the taste of it as it passes my lips.

I have heard myself quickening the dead letter of law

while God whispers in my ear,

“Let it die!”

I protest my innocence by acknowledging my guilt

yet wallow in the protestation.

I cannot trust my own words.



speaks only in silence

But this spring spewing lies

has been my mother tongue

for ages

upon ages.

Bare beneath the heavens

on some island or plain

I sense your Love,

immense and free


It saves all creatures,

draws all to an end.

Like some great wing

or flourished skirt,

You cover us with feathered,

pleated strength.

A table is set.

There is drink and food.

A river flows

and a new fount gurgles.

It is as if we had never drunk before,

never seen the light.

If I have any place of pure desire

let it be met by your Love.

Don’t let it be trampled by my arrogance

or chased by my confusion.

Here I lay aside my dead body

and deader soul

to be sustained by You.

–Alex Joyner