Who’s Fighting For Democracy These Days?

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photo by Isai Ramos via Unsplash.com

Let’s talk politics.  I don’t do this much on the blog, because it’s a toxic substance and has to be handled with care.  But there’s no doubt that Heartlands had its origin in concerns about the political direction of the country.  And there is no way to talk about these strange days of rural America without dealing with the role they are playing in the current Great Divide.

My own taste in political thinkers runs to thoughtful iconoclasts who don’t lean with the prevailing winds.  I like people who search for the larger contours of our present moment and different frames for viewing the scene.

41dqZWxy60L._SX330_BO1,204,203,200_Edward Luce is such a person and I have just gotten around to his 2017 book, The Retreat of Western Liberalism.  I highly recommend it.  Luce is a British-born, American-based columnist for the Financial Times.  He also served as a speechwriter for the Treasury Secretary in the Obama White House.  But don’t expect hopey-changey from this guy.

Luce is horrified by a political landscape which allows unprincipled populist blowhards to rule the day, but he isn’t surprised.  For Luce, liberal democracies have been on the retreat for awhile now, and Trump is the symptom, not the disease.  The comfortable, urban, wealthy elites of the West have been divorcing themselves from the anxious, rural, working class for some time now.  And the the divide is only getting worse.

In four brief sections of a 200-page book, Luce offers a breathless ride through his thesis.  In the first section, “Fusion,” he takes on globalism—how it has enriched so many in developing nations but also how it has forced down wages on the Western middle classes.  Urban centers have flourished even as they have begun to grow more and more disconnected from the nations around them.  London is not responsible for Brexit any more than Chicago is responsible for Trump, but they share so much in common with each other and so little with the hinterlands for which they used to be magnets.  “To the West’s economic losers,” Luce says, “cities like London and Chicago are not so much magnets as death stars.” (48)

Buckle your seat belt.  It gets worse.

The second section, “Reaction,” charts “the degeneration of Western politics” in which the optimism that accompanied economic growth curdles into the angry, divisive movements that seek a scapegoat and a nostalgic return to a more secure past.  When progressives saw this movement and slapped easy labels like ‘racist,’ ‘regressive,’ and ‘whitelash’ on it, it only fed the divide.  Something that became all to clear in the aftermath of Charlottesville, when MAGA Americans, who were otherwise sympathetic to the outrage over the overt racism, felt they were being asked to sign on to an agenda that equated their support of Trump with the same overt racism.  “To write off all those who voted for [Trump] as bigoted will only make his job easier,” Luce notes. (97)

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Edward Luce

The third part, “Fallout,” looks at the foreign policy implications of the United States’ declining power in the world.  The chaotic world that takes the place of Pax Americana is a frightening one to consider as Luce tells it.

Finally, in the fourth part, “Half Life,” Luce sketches, all too briefly, an ambitious plan to combat the decline of the democracies—one which would require a recognition by both right and left that we can’t keep ‘playing to the base’ no matter how righteous it makes us feel.  Some new common narrative must take the place of the Great Divide.

There have been a lot of books out there that try to explain what’s going on in the Heartlands.  I’ve highlighted a few in this blog, such as Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right, and Monica Hesse’s American Fire: Love and Arson in a Vanishing LandAdd J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy to that list as well.

But Luce’s book pulls back the lens so that we can see that the change is not just out here, but everywhere.  And a shaming moralism is no way to point the way to a brighter future for those who feel left behind.  “If politics is persuasion, these are dangerous tactics,” Luce says.  “There is a thin line between convincing people of the merits of a case and suggesting they are moral outcasts if they fail to see it.” (188)

There’s a theological argument to make here as well, which is not in Luce’s bailiwick.  It’s no more complex than the Golden Rule.  In seeing the world through the eyes of the other, we recognize a humanity that transcends our political assumptions.  Reading, and shuddering along with, Edward Luce, I wonder if we still have eyes to see.

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In Praise of Uncomfortable Books: Huck & Harper Revisited

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photo by Chris Lawton via Unsplash

Huck and Harper are on the block again and I’m not comfortable with that.  Then again, I think it’s high time we all got uncomfortable.

In late 2016, as I was beginning Heartlands, I reflected on the controversy that was roiling Accomack County, Virginia where I live.  Only that’s not strictly accurate.  The decision by the local School Board to temporarily remove The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and To Kill a Mockingbird for offensive, racialized language did lead to some protests here (and the eventual return of the books), but the headlines were largely elsewhere.  Accomack County was one more piece of evidence for blue America (and places far beyond) that red America was regressing into ignorance and intolerance.

Now I think that maybe the greater danger is that the country as a whole is regressing into head-in-the-sand comfort.

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The courthouse in Monroeville, Alabama

This week news came that the same two classics of American literature were being removed from the required reading lists in the schools of Duluth, Minnesota.  The decision was not the result of a particular complaint but from ongoing conversations that included the local NAACP chapter.

“We felt that we could still teach the same standards and expectations through other novels that didn’t require students to feel humiliated or marginalized by the use of racial slurs,” Michael Cary, the school district’s director of curriculum and instruction, told the Duluth News Tribune.

Stephan Witherspoon, president of the local NAACP said, “There are a lot more authors out there with better literature that can do the same thing that does not degrade our people.”

I don’t want to argue the case for Mark Twain’s Huck and Harper Lee’s Mockingbird, even though they stand among the best and most important books American culture has produced.  The de facto canon that American public schools have been using is too limited and could surely be strengthened by adding more diversity.  But to set aside Huck and Harper in favor of literature whose primary requirement is that it does not offend is a travesty.

Good literature is offensive precisely because, if it is authentic to experience, it goes directly to those places where humanity is exposed and revealed in all its flaws and triumphs.  Sure, let’s add Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Solomon Northup’s Twelve Years a Slave to the mix of required reading, but what they describe is degradation and it’s going to be no less offensive.  Put James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time on the list and there will still be squirming in the seats.

I get the distinction.  Twain and Lee are white authors who may be using the racialized language satirically but who certainly don’t bring the same lived history or context to it that African-American writers would.  But the characters they create—Huck, Jim, Scout, and Atticus—are the kind of people I want my children to meet in literature.  They are limited by their times and their prejudices, just like their authors, but they contain the beating heart of humanity and of the possibilities of expressing that humanity in this land.  They can’t be what they are, fully fleshed out, without the jarring reminders of what racism and the legacy of slavery has done to them and their language.

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Alex hanging out with Scout & Jem

Removing the books may seem like a good move to save children from the disturbance of knowing how such hurtful language has been used against people who look like them.  But isn’t empowerment, in part, helping students of every race deal with the world they live in everyday that includes such language and its history?  Is it better to let them struggle with such language in its cartoonish version in alt-right chat rooms and casual daily racism or to deal with it in books that give them other resources for understanding what’s going on?

Another danger of the move is that it threatens to remove another voice from our contemporary world that we still need—our ancestors.  Because they do not conform to our current standards of appropriate terminology and ethical behavior, they make us uneasy and we are tempted to hide them away as an inconvenient embarrassment.  But the dead do not stop speaking for all our attempts to silence them.  What motivated them and stirred them to both moral horrors and triumphs is still within us and we have much to learn from them, even as we expand the canon with voices that were suppressed in their own time.

So here’s a plea for some holy discomfort that should welcome the challenge of Huck and Harper.  Perhaps it’s a longing for schools to be a space where wise books and wise people can lead us out of our struggles to live into a common story.  Or maybe it’s just because I believe that we are already uncomfortable and will be despite such changes, so why discard some companions who would try to help?

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!

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 then 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.