The Most-Read of 2017: A Heartlands Retrospective

freestocks-org-4875612017 began with a quaint and quixotic belief that one more blog might be helpful in addressing the Great Divide.  Post-election I was casting about for a way to explore this strange, new world we all seemed to be living in.  Were we really as divided as we seemed?  Had we forgotten how to talk to each other?  What new languages might we have for new conversations?  And how could the church reclaim its own language for this new day?

img_5321Heartlands is about the way these questions play out in rural America.  Over the year, it has developed a particular interest in how place and story can ground us.  Hence, book reviews, travelogues, and interviews with authors and artists.  But you have helped shape what this blog looks like.  And it’s time to count down the most read posts of 2017.  So here they are:

10. How to Preach a Bad Sermon – reflections by one who has delivered and heard more than my fair share.  Includes obligatory Annie Dillard reference.

9. Why don’t country people just get out? – What happens when we give up on country life?

19366224_10154952950103533_8737175430623632393_n8. In Which I High-Five a Bishop – The new bishop of the Virginia Conference, got me (and the whole conference) fired up at our annual gathering last June.  Here’s where I tell why.

7. We’ve Got an Open Door Problem – revisiting the deceptive slogan of the United Methodist Church.

6. Why the Duke Divinity School Controversy Matters – not sure, but I think a few Duke alums might have helped goose this post up the list.  But the controversy did matter in helping us define the stakes of 21st century theology.

5. The Last Thing I Want to Talk About – Bishop Oliveto and the United Methodist Church – The legal wrangling over the status of the denomination’s first openly lesbian bishop got me thinking about what I really wanted to be talking about.

14_working4. When Robert E. Lee was in the Walgreen’s Parking Lot – An interview with Photographer Michael Mergen – Passing through Farmville, Virginia one day, I took a break at the Longwood Center for the Visual Arts and discovered the work of a great photographer of place and memory.  Man, I’m glad I did.

3. This Old House: The Love Story – an interview with Trudy Hale – One of my favorite people who lives in one of my favorite places – The Porches writing retreat.

2. The Empty Bench at the Book Bin – Remembering Kirk Mariner – the Eastern Shore and the UMC lost a giant in 2017.

images1. What Goes Without Saying – Some Thoughts on Charlottesville – a fitting #1 considering how much time we spent discussing that awful day in August in a city I love.  Race, faith, and the Great Divide in one terrible package.

But the true #1 is you, dear reader.  Thanks for giving these posts some life and breath and for moving toward something like a community – a far less quaint and quixotic concept.  Thanks as well to Christopher Smith and Sara Porter Keeling who contributed guest blogs this year and all the authors and artists who gave me their time.  Happy New Year!

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The Lure of Small Towns: The Heartlands Interview with Winn Collier – (1 of 3)

winn-mountain-lumber_largeWinn Collier’s new book, Love Big. Be Well: Letters to a Small-Town Church, is a generous celebration of the potential of church.  In my review I noted that it is a gentle, human love story between a pastor and his congregation told in the form of letters written to the church over the course of his tenure.  Winn is not only an author but the pastor of All Souls Church in Charlottesville, Virginia.  In the course of this interview we talked about the book, the realities of small church ministry, the writing life, and even church security in the wake of the Texas church shooting.

Winn: So, you were telling me about your blog.

Alex: Yeah, I started it after the election last year, thinking that the theme I wanted to work on was: Why don’t I understand the place where I live anymore?  It has developed into an exploration of the Great Divide that we’re in and also rural life and rural ministry.  So it’s not only that I appreciate you having a new book, but that it’s written to a small town church.  It feels like it’s right in the wheelhouse for this blog.

Well, hopefully it resonates somewhere with some folks.

What has the response been like so far?

It’s definitely been far different from any of my other books, but I feel like that’s such a low bar. Definitely getting more responses, more curiosity about it, more notes, people saying kind things about it and stuff. So, in that sense it feels like its connecting with certain people,

I’m definitely hearing more from some different groups, saying, “Hey I think we’d actually like to read this and talk about it.  And from lots of different angles—like one pastor wants to give it to his Elder Board because he struggled trying to explain some things of where he’s coming from, he feels like the book gives a language for them.

Another pastor wants his church to read it because he feels like it will start some conversations that might open up some possibilities for them. And then there’s a group of retired Presbyterian pastors that meet cordially and they want to read it and me to come talk with them about it. So, in that sense, the narrative form of it maybe has allowed some possibilities that maybe other forms might not.  So I’m thankful for all that.

This isn’t your first foray into letter writing as a literary form though is it?  Wasn’t your first book in a similar style?

41DSa3mfXpL._SX333_BO1,204,203,200_No, it was my second book [Let God: The Transforming Wisdom of François Fenelon] and it was letters that François Fenelon wrote to friends that I reworked.

This book obviously is also [written as series of letters], but a good friend of mine, who lives in Colorado, and I write letters to each other on our blogs.  So that’s connected with a whole other sort of group of readers which has been kind of interesting.  It does seem like something about me keeps coming back to that.  There’s something about that that resonates with me.

Is it the second person voice?

I think it’s the relational component, that it’s been written to a particular person or persons. The way I enjoy letters, is it kind of gets to the point and there’s something about the particularity, like you’re writing to particular people.  It’s so steeped in friendship and there’s something about the form that’s so counter to the realities that we live right now.  Nobody writes letters anymore.

Yeah.

I do wonder: How is that changing us?  How does it change us that most of our communication now happens in email blasts?  There’s a lot of good about that—I can communicate with our church in a rapid fashion and its very nice for the budget, doesn’t require the manpower, office staff, stamps and  envelopes and even the time—but also I wonder if we’ve grappled at all with what we’ve lost because it’s not our world anymore and I don’t know what to do with that.

Right. It’s not just the texture of the paper but the texture of the communication too.

Yeah, that’s right.

So why a small town?

41q15SgR88L._AC_US218_A couple different reasons.  It wasn’t a conscious choice.  Partly what’s important for me to say is that this book didn’t come with a message.  The fiction wasn’t just a tangential device I chose because I thought it would be the most effective way to get out the message I wanted to get out.  It was a story, and it was one that was going to be told in letters and we would see where that would go, not because it was going to be a pastor writing to his church, (which is different than Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead which was a pastor writing to his son, telling his own story).

This is really different and it forced me to think about: there’s lots of things a pastor actually wouldn’t say in a letter to his entire church community.  I had to think long and hard about what kinds of stories he could tell that he would feel he had permission to tell, all these sorts of things.

So the fact that it is a small town was just the way the story came to me.

Then the question would be: Why did the story come to me that way?  There’s something inside me that’s resisting the storyline that’s often getting played out which is overtly or covertly signaling that large and urban is better…that the center of power definitely is moving to the urban centers.  Sometimes I wonder if the [last presidential] election is a reaction to that…kind of a last grasping.  A ‘no!’

51zxriXcF5L._SX311_BO1,204,203,200_But it’s inevitable.  It’s happening and it’s a train that’s left the station.  But it’s not the whole story.  There is something in small towns that I find myself drawn to because there are still vestiges of a kind of humanity possible there that I don’t want to completely lose.

I also don’t want to in any way idealize it.  There is also another kind of humanity that happens in urban places that’s a new expression and I’m not discounting that in any way.  I’m also not saying that small rural towns are always these humanizing places because sometimes they’re just desolate. I totally get that.

But there is something that’s at least possible in those spaces that no longer feels possible in larger urban areas.

The second reason would be that I spent the last 5 to 6 years immersed in Wendell Berry’s fiction, so it seems obvious that my brain would probably naturally go to some place like that.

Winn’s blog is at winncollier.com.  The second segment of this interview, How to Make Your Church Inefficient, can be found here.

Heartlands Best Reads of 2017: #9 Can You See Anything Now?

416HGA6nSHL._SX322_BO1,204,203,200_We continue the idiosyncratic countdown of best reads of 2017 with all its caveats: not all published in 2017, not limited by genre but limited by Alex having to have read them.  Don’t let my limitations keep you from Katherine James’ debut novel Can You See Anything Now?–a book with the rich texture of human tragedy and a beautiful confidence in God’s presence in its midst.  The story of a small town with its own red-blue divides and the artists and young people who populate it, this is a story that stuck with me and gave me hope for what Christian fiction is at its best.  Raw and wonderful.  And I had fun interviewing the author this fall.

Finding God in a Small Town: A Review of Can You See Anything Now?

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photo by Annie Spratt via Unsplash

You could hardly imagine two more different artists than the ones you meet in the opening pages of Katherine James’s debut novel, Can You See Anything Now? [Paraclete, 2017].

There’s Margie, who paints vivid canvases, attributing personal characteristics to still lifes, sketching nudes, and doing a grand scale work featuring ovens that make her daughter think of Sylvia Plath.  Margie, who explores and struggles with depth and negative space in her attic studio, her life, her family, and in Trinity, her small, upstate town.  Margie, who chooses drowning as the method for her latest suicide attempt because it is “metaphorically appropriate in light of the lungs filling with liquid and air bubbling upward like packets of life that pop at the surface” (5).

Then there’s Etta, her churchgoing neighbor, whose painting tends toward tomatoes and rooftops.  Her work is folky, adorned with rusty nails and wire, accessible, and easily reproducible.  She has a front porch with a Cracker Barrel rocker and she reads popular Christian books to help strengthen her marriage.  Her cooking tends to Crock Pot recipes and hot dog casseroles.

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Katherine James

The artist behind these artists is Katherine James, who has fashioned a richly-textured, sharply-observed book that deserves to be in the hands of everyone who grieves over the divides of our day, longs to feel God’s presence in the land of living, and who imagines unlikely friendships.

Margie and Etta are not the only characters in this book, but their friendship is emblematic of James’s vision.  It begins when Margie, fresh off an MS diagnosis, canoes out to a swimming platform in the lake on a crisp, fall morning, ties a rock to her leg, and slips into the waters only to find that the lake is more shallow than she expected.  After several hours of floating with her head above water, she is rescued from her humiliating predicament and returns home.  Etta drops by the house with a basket of bran muffins a few days later and over the course of time  Margie finds that she has many more chapters left, not only with Etta, but with her therapist husband, Nick, and college-aged daughter, Noel, as well.

James’s strangely hopeful book drops in at a difficult time in our American narrative.  It’s not that her many well-defined characters don’t have struggles.  They do.  Opioids, family dysfunction, cutting, and a horizon of lowered economic expectations—they’re all here.  The inescapable cultural and political divide of Trumpian America is always in the background.  And the threat of death returns in another incident in the waters, when Noel’s troubled roommate, Pixie, visiting during the Thanksgiving break, slips beneath the ice of the town’s river.

Even so, things are being restored in Trinity.  Noel and her on-again-off-again boyfriend, Owen, find their way past old divisions and emerge from a day (at the lake) as lovers.  Pixie’s odd father, Pete, comes to town to care for her, and finds a kind of faith.  When he shares with Nick and Margie his simple trust in God to raise his daughter, Nick resorts to his rationalist reservoir.  “There’s a lot to be said for religion,” Nick says, though he himself can’t say much for it.

Yet the whole exchange takes place in a warm kitchen over beer and fettuccini, hinting at a kind of communion all the characters are longing for.

“I’m homesick,” Noel says as she watches her mother paint through her pain.  “Even when I’m home I’m homesick.” (282)

Katherine James,  the painter, uses her artist’s eye to give her work shifting perspectives, moving deftly between characters in each of the short chapters.  She brings us up close to sensual details, which we pass each day.  The sad, “gray plastic fountain [in the nursing home] that had a stream of water over a shelf of yellow-stained plastic and them emptied into a little pond with a rock in the middle, and then pumped back up to do it again” (285)?  I’ve seen that fountain.

416HGA6nSHL._SX322_BO1,204,203,200_.jpgJames can also soar into the heavens to see the world with the eyes of God, nowhere more effectively than in the climactic vigil that ends the book.  When the skeptics and the true believers gather in a nursing home parking lot, they bring their coolers and pick food from aluminum trays that sit atop folding tables.  Even their greatest attempts at spiritual connection are surrounded by the trappings of American consumer culture.

And yet “view the town like an eagle,” and you see a great river of people on a quest.  “The trees are pine near the water and into the air they emit a nostalgic smell, a backwards whisper reminding people that they can’t get at something they know is important…The day is still and hot and the people are waiting.  The people are like grasshoppers and they wait.” (305-6)  Like God, you can’t help but love these troubled, searching people.

Don’t come to Can You See Anything Now? with the expectation of composed piety.  Katherine James has seen hard times and her writing displays the searing quality of those experiences.  There is beauty, but whether you can see it now is always an open question.  God and faith are here, but they appear in the way they do in real life, in quiet, unexpected ways and always on the provisional ground of the present day.

This is a deeply Christian book, and it is excellent Christian fiction.  It’s also just plain, unqualified, excellent fiction approached with real heart.  Go, see what you can see.

My interview with Katherine James is up now!.

Can We Talk About Sexuality?

41BB69XhR3L._SX322_BO1,204,203,200_“In every family there are subjects that seem to bring out the worst in us when we discuss them.  For United Methodists, that topic is currently homosexuality.” (9)  So says Jill Johnson, one of my co-authors of the new book, Living Faithfully: Human Sexuality and The United Methodist Church, just out from Abingdon Press.  But this book may help us to bring our best selves to the discussion.

Living Faithfully is designed to help participants “understand and grapple with various views about the ministry and teaching of The United Methodist Church around human sexuality.”  I’m happy to have been a contributor to this new four-week small group study.  (I got chapter 4.)  A Leader Guide is included with lesson plans for facilitating the study.

The book includes biblical and theological reflections along with information on United Methodist structure and diverse perspectives.  You’ll learn about the Commission on a Way Forward and where the denominational discernment is moving in the next few years.

“In every family there are subjects that seem to bring out the worst in us when we discuss them.  For United Methodists, that topic is currently homosexuality.”

I come to a close in my chapter with the following thought: “Full inclusion of LGBTQ persons and diversity of biblical interpretation are important to explore.  But we may not be able to go far in the conversation unless we first have spirits formed by Christian community and the disciplines of that community.  Without that soil to grow in, our debates will look suspiciously like those that dominate our divided nation.” (82)

I pray this book helps to understand an important issue, but more so, I hope it brings people together for deep and fruitful growth as beloved community.

Available now from Abingdon Press, Amazon, and other fine purveyors of United Methodist resources.

 

What We Talk About When We Talk About Social Justice

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photo by Alyssa Kibiloski via Unsplash

Any list of contested phrases in American Christianity today is going to include “social justice.”  It’s not just that talking about social justice makes folks uncomfortable.  The prophets were doing that all the way back to Amos and before, pointing out when Israel failed to hear the cry of the needy, failed to protect the vulnerable, and failed to offer legal protection to the powerless.  In such situations, Amos and Martin Luther King, Jr. and all other heirs to the tradition cried out, “Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (Amos 5:24, CEB).  No one sits easy on their ivory couches in their ivory palaces when the prophet is crying for justice.

But in the new vocabulary of the Great Divide which has been swallowing up our common language, ‘social justice’ has become something more than uncomfortable.  It has been weaponized for the culture wars and I’m not sure we know what we’re talking about when we talk about justice.  Or maybe it’s that we don’t know how we’re heard.

The big moment when “social justice” was invoked for the war came in 2010 when Glenn Beck, the TV political commentator, told Christians:

I beg you, look for the words “social justice” or “economic justice” on your church Web site. If you find it, run as fast as you can. Social justice and economic justice, they are code words.

For Beck they were code for a left-wing ideology of redistribution of wealth that was heavily influenced by Marxism.  He also offered a highly-selective reading of liberation theology, and particularly the theology of James Cone, an African-American theologian, that made it seem as if the aim of liberation theology was to divide the whole world into oppressor and oppressed and to insist on a material transfer of wealth from the former to the latter.

Even those who don’t fill out a brief against theologians every time they hear the phrase have come to suspect that they are being asked to sign on to a political agenda when they hear calls for social justice.  The tendency of every conversation to spiral down to a discussion of the current president does not help.  Are social justice advocates saying that I must adopt a particular stance towards the president in order to express my outrage at the hate spewed by white supremacists in Charlottesville?  It certainly seems that way sometimes.

Amos’ image of the plumb line (7:7-8) suggests that human efforts at justice are always measured against a divine standard.  If the wall isn’t plumb, it means the building project has gotten out of line with its intentions.

So let me attempt a definition:

social justice means attuning ourselves to God’s intentions and aligning our selves and our systems to what God is doing.

Doing this work involves prayer, deep dives into the biblical witness, confession, reconciliation, grief, anger, and humility.  It means recognizing that there is no place of purity from which to do justice.  The systems of injustice are mighty and pervade our every action.

249770397_44e015d0b8_mI worry when I hear calls to silence or eliminate those people we deem evil.  The puritanical spirit of the age tempts us with the illusion that everything would be alright if it weren’t for [name your favorite bogeymen here].  But social justice invites us to see the world through God’s eyes – the God who sorrows over the pains of the world, who rages against the darkness, who sees how that darkness is present in each of us, who “delivers us from slavery to sin and death,” and who forms us into a diverse, beloved, ragtag community to be the church.  That community’s plumb line is not defined by a party political platform.

Social justice is not a plot to take over the church.  It’s the call of God to be the church.

Surviving Strange Days: My Interview with Virginia Reeves begins – part 1 of 3

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Virginia Reeves

One of my favorite books of this year has been Work Like Any Other, a debut novel by novelist Virginia Reeves.  My review can be found here.  The novel is a poignant tale of a man who is imprisoned for tapping into the new electrical lines crossing rural 1920s Alabama, an action that leads to an accidental death.  If you’ve read the book you will be interested in Reeve’s reflections on the book in the next two segments of this interview.  Even if you haven’t, I think you’ll enjoy her thoughts about America in these strange days…

One of the things that I have been fascinated with all my life, but particularly now, is just what rural life looks like and how it’s changing and trying to understand it more. Recently I’ve come to find that, especially in this strange political time we’re in when all the normal languages are breaking down, books like yours and literature and poetry are the most helpful things for me at the moment. 

Well I think that that’s wonderful. I love literature. I appreciate all of that and feel very similar—kind of reeling in the after-effects or aftershocks of the election and really feeling like you need to go back to the great works of literature that have sustained me through the years and find all of the good in our country and in the rural parts of our country and remember those pieces of literature at this very strange political time.

511yqZyPs6L._SX328_BO1,204,203,200_When you look at rural life, what do you see as the big themes in the places that you’re writing about?

Yeah that’s a great question.  One of the criticisms that I have fielded about the book is that it’s revisionist history and that there would never be this white landowner, Marie’s father, who was so progressive in his thinking about race.  I was on a panel with a historian from, I think he was from, the University of Alabama.  We were on the same panel at this beautiful festival outside of Paris and somebody in the audience asked him, because he was an historian and I was a fiction writer, “Do you think Virginia’s book is revisionist?”

He said, “I think it’s plausible because it’s a book about people and no matter where and when you find people they’re capable of anything. They’re capable of greatness.  They’re capable of ugliness.  They’re capable of kindness and horror and injustice.”

I loved that answer and I have to believe that.  I believe that now, in the wake of this election, that it becomes really tempting to generalize and say our country is full of misguided people who elected this particular man to run our country but we are still individuals capable of everything that humanity is capable of.

I think especially rural areas get generalized. That’s very much said about Alabama. I like the idea that there are always going to be exceptions to the rule.  You’re always going to find people who share your viewpoint or don’t.  You’re going to find people you completely disagree with or who have a completely different set of morals.  You’re going to find them in cities, you’re gonna find them in the country.  You’re going to find them everywhere.

So I think that would be an overarching idea of mine as far as hoping to push our generalizations a little bit and to get people to question those first impulses and our desires to categorize people as all one type.  We see that in Montana. Montana is such a rural state and we have less than a million people. I think we’re the third biggest state in the country and have less than a million people.  I visited so many tiny towns in Montana that are so rich and vibrant and full of beautiful people and surprising people. So, don’t judge but just sew another layer to our observations.

IMG_6592Your characters in the book, especially Roscoe [the main character], are so resilient and so many terrible things happen to them.  But the feeling that I’m left with at the end of the book is not that he’s been defeated by all this but that somehow he’s found a way to keep going.  He’s found the things around him to keep going and he’s able to see the things that will keep him going. I guess that’s my hope for the country but do you see that as well? I’m thinking of that essay where you say we’ll eventually rally around a new course, do you feel that way?

I have to hope so. I think I have moments where I feel pretty defeated and the news cycle is devastating for the most part. But I have to. On the very personal and regional level I just keep seeing this incredible work that people are doing and I have to believe in humanity. I have to believe that we will rally and even when I disagree with the actions of our government, I look around me and I see so many people, individuals who are doing great things.

I think part of Roscoe’s ability to move on and survive everything he went through were these moments, these data points of kindness.  They feel so small, but it’s like the librarian [in the book] acknowledging his literacy and acknowledging that he has a mind that is an expansive mind and moments with the chaplain and moments with Taylor [the warden], the gift of the dog.  Those feel so minor in the moment possibly but I think if we can recognize those moments of kindness and generosity in others then that’s what buoys us and moves us through.

“On the very personal and regional level I just keep seeing this incredible work that people are doing and I have to believe in humanity.”

So I feel that in my novel helping my characters and on a personal note I see that around me.  After the election I was a little bit like, “OK, the world’s ending.”  I was a little dramatic when the election first came down and now I go, “OK, we take solace in the people around us and in what they give and their kindness and their generosity and compassion.”

Part 2

Why Books Will Win

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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.

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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.

Talking to Anarchists – An interview with Arlie Russell Hochschild – part 3 of 3

By now you know the story, if you’ve been following since Part 1: Blue state sociologist goes to oil patch Louisiana to try and understand the environment and the people of this Red state.  Writes Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right.  Talks with an Eastern Shore preacher about what she learned.  In Part 3 of this interview with Arlie Russell Hochschild we explore the possibilities of bridging the Great Divide.

hochschild_arlie_russell_paige_parsonsYou say liberals have their own deep story, just like the folks that you were talking to there.  And one of the things that I think about in terms of the Church is how–especially in the ’80s when the evangelical Christian movement became a real political movement–how our ‘deep story’ and the Christian faith felt hijacked to me.  I’m sure the folks in the evangelical wing felt the same about some of the liberal Christianity that came before and has been around since, too.  So, is there potential for stories to link up?  I don’t hope for a common narrative out of this, but I just wonder if there’s a way.  I mean, the fishing trip [discussed in part 2] sounds like a great way to do that.  You start building new narratives just by being in each other’s presence.

Yeah, and to see a search for common ground.  Check out the Bridge Alliance.  It is an umbrella group of some 70 or 80 different organizations that has just popped up.  This is just people-to-people kind of groups with names like Hi from the Other Side, or Living Room Conversations, or Read Across the Aisle.  These are all groups that are trying to get Left and Right together to see if they can find common ground in respectful ways.  I think we can do it.   It’s also something I’d like to see grow through the schools, through churches, unions (in the places where we still have them), to counter the divisive forces which are growing in this culture.

I had somebody from Lake Charles who was in the book.  She was a single mom with her two kids.  They were guests here in Berkeley, and we had a living room conversation here.  The last night, she said, “You know, I’m going to start a living room conversation back in Lake Charles.”  So it can be done.

So, what’s your next project?  What’re you working on now?

Well, I’m still dealing with the consequences, the aftermath of this book.  I’m still giving a lot of talks.

51b54MMSZnL._SX327_BO1,204,203,200_I bet you got a lot of phone calls on November 9th, didn’t you?

Yes, exactly.  I did, and I’m still getting them, and actually talking to a number of church groups.  And people will say, “What do we do?”  So, I have some answers for that and some suggestions.  One of them is see if we can re-establish channels across these divides, because we’re living in a different economic geography these days.

The have and have-nots of globalization.  I think that underlies some of this Blue/Red divide, so that you have people in the South, people on the coasts, and each facing different economic fates.  I’m living in the San Francisco Bay area.  It’s a boom town.  It’s like a gold rush, and they can’t see problems, don’t feel a sense of decline, don’t fear for their fate.  They have problems, but it’s not systemic or global from their vantage point.  But in the rural hinterland, it feels very different.

Yeah, the West Coast and the Northeast Corridor seem farther and farther away from here [Virginia’s Eastern Shore].  The realities are so different.  That whole thing that you point out in the book of people looking at the success of economically successful areas, and feeling like that’s not a narrative for them anymore, is certainly true.

Right.  Right.

Do you see yourself as an advocate for the bridge, or do you see yourself as the self-described liberal that you are—a disciple for that cause?  Or both?

I’m focusing on bridging, very definitely.  I see three pillars of activism that I’d like to see engaged.  One is the defense of democracy and the very principle of checks and balances, an independent judiciary and press.  I think that’s pillar one, and we ought to do everything we can to defend those.  I do feel they’re being challenged now.  I do think that’s the first order of business.

The second pillar would be to totally renovate the platform of the Democratic party, which I think does not really acknowledge or address the anxieties of the people up to now.  I’m very critical of Democratic party.  That’s the second thing we need to do.

The third is to reach across the aisle.  We’ve got friends on the other side and out there, many values we share in common, and issues that we can find common ground on.  I think it’s important to search them out.  So, I’m really focussed on that third pillar, but I see it all as part of what we need as a coordinated effort.

I have been talking to some people that are anarchists here.  They’re violent and they’re terrible.  They’re giving us a huge black eye here in Berkeley.  I don’t know why they’re doing this, setting fires and stuff.  I’m appalled by it.  But there’s a woman who came up to me after I denounced violence at one talk, which I do routinely around here.  She said, “Oh, I have some friends through Facebook.  Would you like to meet them?”  The Black Bloc, they’re called.

I took a moment, thinking, “These are the last people I want to meet.”  And then thought, “No, they’re the first people.”  Yes, I would like to get to know them.  So, that’s another thing that I’m doing.  I’m trying to get them to not be violent.

Well, you’re a brave adventurer.  I’m really grateful for your willingness to bring us along with you in your writing.  So, thanks for the time.

Crossing the Great Divide: An Interview with Arlie Russell Hochschild – part 1 of 3

hochschild_arlie_russell_paige_parsonsCan a Berkley sociologist and a Louisiana oil patch Tea Party member find common ground?  That was the experiment Arlie Russell Hochschild (the sociologist) undertook when she found she was having a hard time understanding the forces that were shaping Red States.  

When I wrote a review of her book about the project, Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right, I was intrigued by the “deep story” she narrated, which she proposed as a way of illuminating the worldview of many rural white Americans.  It rang true to me in a way that feels more universal than the insights in that other popular book trying to explain the 2016 election, J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy.

The deep story Hochschild puts together is marked by a sense that, for the people she talked to, the American Dream of a materially better life is not working for them anymore and that they feel it is being impacted by a government that puts other people (immigrants, Syrian refugees, minorities) unfairly ahead of them.  The deep story also uncovers a resentment at being told how to feel by people “at the front of the line” who seem to have made it.

In this three-part interview, I talk with Arlie, (can I call you Arlie? – she’s very personable), about her journey, her interests, the church, and, because I just can’t help myself, Flannery O’Connor.

What made you undertake this experiment?

I was sitting in my office in the sociology department, U.C. Berkeley, six years ago, and it just came to me that many of the things that I’ve long been committed to and hoped would make a better world—especially for working families that aren’t getting time at home—none of this is going to come to pass in my lifetime unless we really look at a growing movement that feels threatened by the government itself, that isn’t thinking of good government [but instead] is thinking of evil, abusive government.  That’s the right wing, and I don’t understand it.

I decided, “I’m in a bubble.”  In a geographic bubble, in a media bubble—I read The New York Times, The Washington Post—and an electronic bubble.  If you look at the screen of your computer, it gives you yourself back in certain things that are advertised, blogs you read.

So, I thought, “I’m going to get out of here, and try and take my moral and political alarm system off and really permit myself a great deal of curiosity and interest in people that I know I will find deep differences with.  I’ll find an enclave that’s as far right as Berkeley, California is left, and go there and get to know people, and climb an empathy wall.”  It’s one of the best things I’ve ever done.

Really?  How so?

I’ve been a sociologist a long time, but this really taught me a lot.

51b54MMSZnL._SX327_BO1,204,203,200_You obviously met some interesting characters in the course of your study there.  How did you take those individual stories and work towards that deep story? 

I got to know people and they were very generous-hearted.  [They thought], “Here’s this lady from the coast and she’s in enclaves, and she’s writing a book, and she’s a retired teacher, and she’s worried about the divide.  Well, we’re worried about the divide, too.  So, come on, and I’ll take you to where I was born, take you to the school I went to, show you around town, introduce you to my relatives.”  That happened to me a great number of times.  It was absolutely fabulous getting to know people.

I was just listening all the time, and then putting together all that I was hearing.  I would hear it, I would get on a plane, I would come back here and sit in my study and try to think of how all those beliefs drew on what images.  How is it that we come to feel the way we do about a situation?  That’s how the deep story was born.  It’s basically translating all these different opinions and feelings that I was learning that people had, and translating them into an allegory, a story.

That was an act of my mental process.  Then, I went back and said, “Does this feel real?  Let me try this out on you.  Does this work?  Or does it not really capture what you’re feeling?”  Some people [agreed], just as is.  “Oh, you read my mind,” says Lee Sherman.  Or “I live your allegory,” emails Mike Schaff.  Others would say, “Well, wait a minute.  You don’t have that we’re paying taxes for the people that are cutting ahead.”

So, they would change it.  Madonna Matthews said, “Well, wait a minute.  We got a line.  We move to a different line.”  They would modify the ending, the middle.  So, I put that in, too.  Then, I began to think past the book, “Well, I wonder if other right-wing movements in Europe and elsewhere around the world have versions of this.  Is displacement, the fear of that, dread of that, a main motivation?”  Or does this same story have a different endings?

That’s where my mind is now.  I’m really interested in out-groups and in-groups, and how we develop them.  Then, of course, how do we undo them?

I’ll be really interested to see what you find out from that sort of research, because it does seem like the deep story you uncovered has a real American feel to it with the whole belief of “you work hard, you get ahead.” Some might think, “What’s interrupting that story for me as a traditionally powerful person within the South are these people cutting in line in front of me.”

Right.  I think in Europe, though, it’s not falsely entitled insiders that are cutting ahead [in the deep story], but aliens from the outside—Muslims, refugees.  It’s not an insider–it’s an outsider.  I think what’s feared in the South’s deep story are kind of upstart insiders.  So, the nature of the line-cutters can vary across national lines.

I was amazed, reading the book this Spring after the election, how you had the Syrian refugee in there as a character who’s one of the folks that’s a source of fear in the narrative.  That really feels recent.

And Muslims.  There are almost no Muslims in Louisiana.  There’s a tremendous fear of them, too.

Right.  You mentioned an allegory.  Have you ever read Flannery O’Connor’s short story, ‘Revelation’?

No.

It put that whole story in a new light for me, because–and she was writing in the 1950’s–it’s about a white woman who is coming to terms with the new status of her black neighbors, and feeling like she has been unfairly maligned and shamed in the midst of her story.  But she has this image at the very end where she sees this vision of a swinging bridge reaching up to heaven, and there are all of these folks that she would’ve considered unworthy climbing up ahead of her.

Her final way of dealing with that image and how disturbing it was for her is to say, “Put that bottom rail on top.  There’ll still be a top and bottom.”  And it just struck me that this is a very old narrative that you’ve uncovered.

Yes.  Thank you for flagging that for me.  I’m going to read that.

Part 2–Churches & Dysfunctional Government.