Stagger onward rejoicing

Tag: I&R (page 1 of 2)

Francis Spufford on picking through the ruins of Christendom:

Those of us who, despite everything, think there’s something precious in the words jumbled-up now among the rubble, do not do so because we are pro-tyranny or anti-self discovery. We do so because we know that what was written on those towering walls wasn’t the credo of an authoritarian certainty at all. But instead — mixed up, yeah, with some heterogenous other stuff over the centuries, some questionable — a song of liberation, a startling declaration that power, that love, that justice, that order, that God the creator of all things, weren’t what we thought they were, but came closest to us in paradoxes. Wisdom, in foolishness; strength, in weakness; sovereignty over the immense empire of matter, in helpless self-sacrifice, in a choking man brought to death by a shrugging government. What’s written on the bricks still has the power to shock, when you join them together. GREATER LOVE HATH NO MAN THAN THIS turns out to lead to, THAN THAT HE LAY DOWN HIS LIFE FOR HIS FRIEND. Not very positive, is it? LOVE YOUR EN- continues, -EMY, AND PRAY FOR THOSE WHO PERSECUTE YOU. What’s that about? How will that help me to be thinner, richer, stronger, more sexually successful? It won’t. It will only help you to be kinder, braver, more tolerant of our inevitable imperfections, and more hopeful; more convinced that the worst than can happen to us, as humans, is not the last word, because there is a love we should try to copy in our small ways, which never rests, never gives up, is never defeated.

Christmas gifts

In introducing the writings of George MacDonald, C. S. Lewis made a fascinating point which can only be quoted at length:

What [MacDonald] does best is fantasy — fantasy that hovers between the allegorical and the mythopoeic. And this, in my opinion, he does better than any man. The critical problem with which we are confronted is whether this art — the art of myth-making — is a species of the literary art. The objection to so classifying it is that the Myth does not essentially exist in words at all. We all agree that the story of Balder is a great myth, a thing of inexhaustible value. But of whose version — whose words — are we thinking when we say this?

For my own part, the answer is that I am not thinking of anyone’s words. No poet, as far as I know or can remember, has told this story supremely well. I am not thinking of any particular version of it. If the story is anywhere embodied in words, that is almost an accident. What really delights and nourishes me is a particular pattern of events, which would equally delight and nourish me if it had reached me by some medium which involved no words at all — say by a mime, or a film. And I find this to be true of all such stories. […] 

Most myths were made in prehistoric times, and, I suppose, not consciously made by individuals at all. But every now and then there occurs in the modern world a genius — a Kafka or a Novalis — who can make such a story. MacDonald is the greatest genius of this kind whom I know. But I do not know how to classify such genius. To call it literary genius seems unsatisfactory since it can coexist with great inferiority in the art of words… . Nor can it be fitted into any of the other arts. It begins to look as if there were an art, or a gift, which criticism has largely ignored.

Lewis is prompted to this reflection in part by the fact that MacDonald was not a very good stylist — his prose is often clunky or awkward. But the myths he made were to Lewis extraordinarily powerful. I think that Lewis is right not only about Macdonald but also in his more general point, and that the phenomenon deserves more reflection that it has received. 

I may come back to this intriguing idea some day, but I only mention it now because it gives me license to tell briefly, in my own words, one of MacDonald’s stories, “The Gifts of the Child Christ.”

The story centers on a six-year-old girl named Sophy — “or, as she called herself by a transposition of consonant sounds common with children, Phosy.” Phosy’s mother died giving birth to her and her father has recently remarried. He had been in various ways disappointed with his first wife and now he is well on his way to becoming disappointed with his second wife; and he neglects Phosy because she reminds him too much of the wife whom he had lost, and who had not made him happy.

Phosy’s stepmother is pregnant and that means that Phosy is ignored even more than usual; but she doesn’t seem to expect anything else. When at church with her parents she hears a preacher telling the congregation that “whom the Lord loveth he chasteneth,” Phosy wants the Lord to love her and therefore prays that he will chasten her, for this will prove His love. She is too young and too innocent to realize that her life is already a kind of chastening, though one she does not deserve. Phosy becomes obsessed as Christmas draws near with the idea that on that day Jesus will be born — Jesus is somehow born anew each year on Christmas day, she thinks, and she hopes that when he comes again this year he will bring her the gift she so earnestly desires. 

So she’s anxious as the day draws near, and her parents are also anxious, but for a different reason: her stepmother’s pregnancy is coming to term. On Christmas morning the stepmother gives birth to Phosy’s little brother, and in all of the stress and anxiety — and, as it turns out, tragedy — of the event, Phosy is completely forgotten. So she dresses herself and comes downstairs and wanders into a spare room of the house … and she sees lying there, alone and still, a beautiful baby boy. It is, she knows, the baby Jesus, come to give her the gift of Himself, and, she devoutly hopes, his chastening also. So she takes the little boy in her arms: he’s perfectly beautiful, but he is also, she realizes, very cold. And so she holds him close to herself to give him her warmth — and it is in this position that her father finds her. And for the first time Phosy weeps. She weeps because there was no one to care for the baby Jesus when he came, and so he died.

It is an extraordinary image that George MacDonald has conjured here, for this is of course a Pieta. It is Mary bearing the body of her dead son, conveyed to us through a small English girl bearing the body of her dead baby brother. Here superimposed on Christmas Day, that most innocently festive of days, is the immense tragedy of Good Friday.

But we do call it Good Friday, do we not? 

When Phosy’s father sees her holding her infant brother he sees something in Phosy that he has never noticed before: he discerns the depth and the intensity of her compassion. And he has already been altered in his attitude toward his wife by seeing her grief at the loss of her child. Throughout this story he has only thought of the women in his life as either meeting or failing to meet — though in fact always failing to meet — his expectations; but when he sees his wife and daughter so wounded, their tenderness of heart draws out his own, and a great work of healing begins in this damaged family, a family damaged above all by the absence of paternal love.

“Such were the gifts the Christ-child brought to one household that Christmas,” says MacDonald. “And the days of the mourning of that household were ended.” A knitting up of their raveled fabric begins, and the extraordinary thing is that the chief instrument of that mending is death: the death of Jesus as a man on a cross, or the death of Jesus as an infant in Victorian London, it is one Sacrifice. This is what Charles Williams pointed to when he wrote that the Christian way is “dying each other’s life, living each other’s death.” 

In his beautiful book Unapologetic Francis Spufford has Jesus say, “Far more can be mended than you know.” And this is what “The Gifts of the Child Christ” tells us also. George MacDonald made for himself a personal motto — an anagram of his name, imperfectly spelled because in this world things that are mended still show the signs of their frayed or broken state. Mended but not yet perfected are the things and the people of this world, at their very best. MacDonald’s motto was:  

The richest of Christmas blessings to you all.  

repair as scapegoat

Matt Crawford:

Superficially, litter and the rusting carcasses of salvaged cars are both an affront to the eye. But while litter exemplifies that lack of stewardship that is the ethical core of a throwaway society, the visible presence of old cars represents quite the opposite. Yet these are easily conflated under the environmentalist aesthetic, and the result has been to impart a heightened moral status to Americans’ prejudice against the old, now dignified as an expression of civic responsibility.

Repair stigmatized as an affront to aesthetic sensibilities. Who makes bank from that?

Later in the essay, Matt writes:

Among the sacrifices demanded by the new gods may be your ten year old car that gets 35 MPG, requires zero new manufacturing (with its associated environmental costs), and may be good for another ten years. As Rene Girard points out, ritual violence is usually directed against a scapegoat who is in fact innocent, onto whom the sins of the community are transferred. In our pagan society of progress, it seems anything old and serviceable can serve this role.

Yep. Just the other day, responding to another post by Matt, I said that I want to keep my own 10-year-old car for another ten years. We’ll see whether I can hold out.

art for humanity’s sake

Daniel Walden:

Criticism of this kind is a misuse of learning to muddle discussion for the sake of scoring points rather than to clarify it for a curious public. There is plenty of intelligent and reasonable criticism of Wilson’s work to be had from people who know the poems well — the Bryn Mawr Classical Review was positive but not uncritical, and I myself think her choices at Odyssey 15.365 were the wrong ones — and there is no need to give credence to people who consider their own desire for attention an adequate substitute for the knowledge and consideration that must attend real critical judgment.

This is well said. To almost everyone writing about art today I want to say: Dragging every scholar, every critic, every translator, every artist, every artwork before the bar of your political tribunal might, just conceivably, not be the only or even the best thing you can do when confronted by a work of art. 

I don’t think we’ve ever needed genuine works of art — imaginative creations that press us to see the world in larger or at least different ways than our standard everyday media-navigation categories allow — more than we do now. But our current resources are few, because of the ways the major art-related organizations have lost any discernible sense of purpose. They are merely reactive to social-media pressure. Examples: 

In light of these developments I’ve come to believe that the most important thing I can do here on this blog is to write about art as art — which is not to say that art lacks political purposes and implications. Often it is powerfully political. But no artwork worthy of our attention approaches politics the way that journalists and people on X do, as a matter of checking the right boxes to avoid exclusion from the Inner Ring. One thing good art always does is to remind us that our experience is dramatically larger than our quotidian political categories suggest. We are unfinalizable; we sprawl. The failure to recognize that is a terrible disease of the intellect

I am finished — not altogether, but largely, I think — with political and cultural disputation. I want to write about works of art that transcend the box-checking, that thwart easy dismissals, that shake us up. And if the current art scene doesn’t offer any of that, then I can always continue to break bread with the dead


Michael Torevell, News of Great Joy, mixed media and digital painting, 2022 

Rowan Williams:

The basic form of the sin from which we need to be delivered is the myth of self-sufficiency. The diabolical urge that destroys our well-being again and again is the temptation to think of ourselves as somehow able to set our own agenda in isolation, and the greatest and most toxic paradox that results is that we become isolated from our own selves. We don’t and can’t know what we are as participants in the symphonic whole, and so we block off or screen out the life we need to receive, refusing to share the life we need to give. We live shrunken, hectic, short-term lives, stuck in futile conflicts and vacuous rivalries. We refine our skill at identifying other human lives, as well as the entire nonhuman environment, as competitors for space, forces that will, left to themselves, diminish rather than enrich us. We need to be healed from this habitual screening-out.

This means that the “repair” involved in Christ’s coming in flesh is a repair of our relation to ourselves.

This Plough issue on Repair is really wonderful. I expect I will post on other essays from it.


Everything is Broken,” Alana Newhouse wrote in an essay that I see quoted all the time. But of course when you look into the essay and into other essays that quote it approvingly, you come to understand that by “everything” they don’t mean everything, and by “broken” they don’t mean broken. They mean something like “Our dominant political and cultural institutions don’t function nearly as well as they should.” But that doesn’t sound as interesting, does it? “Everything is broken” is not a defined claim; still less is it an argument. It’s a cry of frustration. 

Matthew Crawford on a broken tail light that cost $5600 to repair:

On this particular luxury pickup truck, moisture in the tail light caused the usual corrosion, making resistance on the circuit go out of range. This circuit is in communication with many other circuits, so electrical gremlins propagated (probably reading as ground faults) and eventually the truck was completely dead. At this stage, identifying the root cause of the breakdown was no trivial task. But most of the $5,600 charge for getting the truck running was for parts confined to the tail-light housing, not the diagnostic and parts-swapping labor. Commenting on this case, another YouTube mechanic named Uncle Tony points out that salvage yards are full of recent model cars that are in great shape — mechanically sound and rust-free, with good interiors and good paint — but underwater on repair costs due to electronic complexity. 

Presumably the carmakers want us to realize that (a) we can’t repair our cars ourselves, (b) can’t afford to have them repair our cars, and (c) therefore must buy a new car from them — just because of a broken tail light. 

I’m gonna do my best to keep my 10-year-old car for another ten years. 

only mostly dead

The other day I wrote about the absolute cataract of essays and articles these days proclaiming the death of something — something, anything, everything: capitalism, liberalism, Trumpism, tradition, conservatism, the novel, poetry, movies … the list goes on and on.

Today I’m wondering how much this habit of mind arises from an economic system built around planned obsolescence and unrepairable devices. If we are deeply habituated to throwing away a bought object when it is no longer performing excellently, then why not do the same with ideas? Hey, this thing I believe in no longer commands universal assent. Let’s flush it.

And for that matter why not take the same approach to people? If you’re in Canada and having suicidal thoughts, then you just might have a counselor suggest medically-assisted suicide. You’re hardly worth repairing, are you? Let’s just ease you into death and get you off our books.

It shouldn’t take a Miracle Max to tell the difference between dead and mostly dead, which is also slightly alive. But our social order can’t even tell the difference between dead and imperfect — because the Overlords of Technopoly profit when that distinction is unavailable to us. And we should always remember that when someone declares that one object or idea is dead, they’re probably quite ready to sell us a new one.

Where there’s life, there’s hope; and where there’s hope, there’s the imperative to repair. Technopoly is a system of despair.

UPDATE: My friend Austin Kleon sends me this, a 2012 entry from the late Tom Spurgeon’s Comics Reporter: “So people are going to the movies less frequently. Really, things have been dying and changing since forever. People don’t buy Big Little Books anymore; people don’t walk on the promenade anymore; people don’t go to roller derby. Actually, they do all of those things; they just don’t do them in great numbers. One of the wonderful things about treating art as an art rather than as a public commodity is that you focus on the quality of the experience and benefiting the artists directly; you don’t worry about the size of something for the sake of worrying about the size of something.” So, so much agree.


Wendell Berry, from The Unsettling of America

Whereas the exploiter asks of a piece of land only how much and how quickly it can be made to produce, the nurturer asks a question that is much more complex and difficult: What is its carrying capacity? (That is: How much can be taken from it without diminishing it? What can it produce dependably for an indefinite time?) The exploiter wishes to earn as much as possible by as little work as possible; the nurturer expects, certainly, to have a decent living from his work, but his characteristic wish is to work as well as possible. The competence of the exploiter is in organization; that of the nurturer is in order — a human order, that is, that accommodates itself both to other order and to mystery.

What Berry has done both as a farmer and a writer is to practice this nurturing; and I have tried as both a writer and a teacher to do the same, within my rather different sphere of effective action.

Since I do not have a farm I am more of a hunter-gatherer — my practice of nurture is perhaps better described by Ursula K. LeGuin in her essay “The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction”:  

If it is a human thing to do to put something you want, because it’s useful, edible, or beautiful, into a bag, or a basket, or a bit of rolled bark or leaf, or a net woven of your own hair, or what have you, and then take it home with you, home being another, larger kind of pouch or bag, a container for people, and then later on you take it out and eat it or share it or store it up for winter in a solider container or put it in the medicine bundle or the shrine or the museum, the holy place, the area that contains what is sacred, and then next day you probably do much the same again — if to do that is human, if that’s what it takes, then I am a human being after all. 

And for me the challenge has always been to become more cunning in my gathering, more scrupulously attentive to objects and ideas that others have discarded as worthless. To nurture the neglected, the forgotten. 

banal utopias

JC Niala:

cultivating on allotment sites has always been so much more than ‘growing your own’. As Crouch and Ward put it, ‘The allotment is a different kind of place in which different values prevail.’ These different values often seem paradoxical to the non-allotmenteer, but are precisely what ensure that allotment sites survive. In this book, one gardener tells Crouch and Ward: ‘The allotment is 51 per cent hard work, and 49 per cent disappointment.’ So why on earth do people carry on allotmenteering? When I carried out my research across numerous sites in Oxford, the words that people use to describe allotments tell us why – ‘paradise’, ‘magical’. Allotment sites are utopias. […] 

This love and generosity spills off individual plots, through the allotment fences and into the wider city. On every allotment site, there is usually a place where people put their excess crops for anyone to help themselves. This is deliberate. Gifts carry obligations, and by being able to help oneself without being seen, the taker doesn’t owe anyone anything. They can also pay it forward, placing their extra produce at another time when they have it. I met a woman who survived on this gifted food – she lost her job during the lockdowns, and because she had only just secured an allotment, didn’t yet have her first harvest. Other allotmenteers grow cut flowers with the sole purpose to give them to people (often strangers) across the city, to spread joy. Even allotment fences that have been steadily erected around sites over the last few decades, to keep produce safe, break the normal rules of a city. Instead of keeping people away, allotment fences are often social places where passers-by strike up conversations with allotmenteers about what they’re growing, as well as to get a glimpse of the inviting chaos inside. 

The idea of a “banal utopia” strikes me as a really powerful one: in some small and everyday way to “repair the world” and to, implicitly or explicitly, invite others to join you. Maybe everyone can find a place to make a banal utopia. 

the Return of the King

I just finished teaching Susanna Clarke’s marvelous Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, and probably my favorite scene in that book comes in the third volume, at a moment when magic, after several hundred years of absence, is rapidly returning to England. Many think this portends the return of the greatest magician and greatest King in the history of Northern England, John Uskglass, the Raven King, who in the Middle Ages reigned for three hundred years before suddenly disappearing — and, it seems, taking the strength of English magic with him. As Mr. Norrell, his cynical companion Lascelles, and his manservant Childermass make their way from London to Yorkshire — the county of which Norrell and Childermass are natives, and to which Lascelles is a stranger — Lascelles declares that it might be time to launch a renewed attack, in a periodical for which he writes, on the Raven King, a new declaration of his pernicious influence. Then:

“If I were you, Mr Lascelles,” said Childermass, softly, “I would speak more guardedly. You are in the north now. In John Uskglass’s own country. Our towns and cities and abbeys were built by him. Our laws were made by him. He is in our minds and hearts and speech. Were it summer you would see a carpet of tiny flowers beneath every hedgerow, of a bluish-white colour. We call them John’s Farthings. When the weather is contrary and we have warm weather in winter or it rains in summer the country people say that John Uskglass is in love again and neglects his business. And when we are sure of something we say it is as safe as a pebble in John Uskglass’s pocket.”

Lascelles laughed. “Far be it from me, Mr Childermass, to disparage your quaint country sayings. But surely it is one thing to pay lip-service to one’s history and quite another to talk of bringing back a King who numbered Lucifer himself among his allies and overlords? No one wants that, do they? I mean apart from a few Johannites and madmen?”

“I am a North Englishman, Mr Lascelles,” said Childermass. “Nothing would please me better than that my King should come home. It is what I have wished for all my life.”

Among the most neglected biblical images  — neglected in comparison to its importance — is that of the Return of the King. When your King has gone on progress, or for some other reason has left the kingdom or left the capital city, then you patiently but attentively await his return. You look for his appearance on the horizon and while you are waiting, you prepare the way of the Lord. You make a highway for him in the wilderness; you make the crooked places straight and the rough places plain; and then when you see him in the distance, you come out to meet him and escort him home. That’s how it’s done.

A failure to understand this essential practice is the primary cause of the wholly mistaken idea of the Rapture. Paul tells the Thessalonian church: “Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord.” The assumption of Rapture theology is that when believers go up to meet the Lord in the air, he immediately does a 180 and heads back to heaven, taking them with him. But that’s not what the text says, because it wouldn’t make any sense. Why would he come halfway between heaven and earth only in order to turn around? He could just summon them to heaven if that’s where they’re meant to be going. But the faithful, patient believers are not meeting the Lord in the air so that they can then go to heaven with Him. They’re meeting the Lord in the air so they can escort him into his Kingdom, what will become the New Earth, with its capital the New Jerusalem, where he shall reign for ever and ever.

It’s in response to this story that N. T. Wright wrote a delightful little essay, “Jesus Is Coming – Plant a Tree!” You plant a tree because every tree that you plant is a token of faith in the New Creation, and a means of preparing for the New Earth. Christians don’t often think that way because they assume that the idea of the New Creation means that everything that currently exists will simply be destroyed and then God will start all over from scratch. But that can’t be the case, because the first fruit of the New Creation is the resurrected Lord Himself, and His resurrected body bears upon it the marks of his crucifixion. Therefore his resurrection body is a glorified body, yes, but continuous with the body that was born into this world, and that left this world by means of crucifixion. Indeed, a different body might be glorious, but not glorified.

When you look at matters in that light, then, if you are a Christian, you have a very specific reason to practice repair. Every act of repair is a means of preparing the way of the Lord. Every act of repair is a preparation for and a contribution to the New Creation. Every act of repair is a step towards the renewal of this broken world. And that’s what God intends to do — make all things new, not simply erase them, not simply delete them and start over ab initio. Make them new.

P.S. If you understand this practice of greeting the returning King, then you will grasp what may be the most important element in the story of the Prodigal Son: the fact that when the disconsolate, dissolute, and broken young man decides to come home and beg to be no more than a slave in his father’s house, his father sees him a long way off – and comes running to greet him, to escort him home. The son thinks that his sins make him worthy to be no more than a slave, and that may be, in the world’s accounting, a sound judgment. But that’s not how the Kingdom of Heaven works. In the upside-down logic of the Kingdom of Heaven, a righteous father sees his self-ruined son – sees him from a long way off — and runs as a slave might run to greet his Lord, seeing the young man not as a debauched sinner to be judged and found wanting, but as a cherished and beloved one in whose honor a great feast must be held.

P.P.S. Only after posting this did I remember that, three years ago, I wrote about the same passage from Clarke, but in the context of what Jung might have called the Shadow — tragic or farcical, it’s hard to say which — of this longing for the King.

Robert Joustra:

I think the importance of [Katelyn Beaty’s Celebrities for Jesus: How Personas, Platforms, and Profits Are Hurting the Church] is the conversation it opens about ethics in institutions, not (just) pious personal practices. The scandal at the heart of her book is not the celebrity pastors; their corruption and scandal is the least interesting and most predictable part of the package. The scandal is the enabling organizations and the collapse of institutional ethics — a dangerous pragmatism married to a startlingly idealistic naïveté. 

Thus the need for the repair of institutions, something that I think requires the cultivation of piety

note to self

Repair begins with redirection. Commencing the repair of our cultural ecosphere by shifting attention to neglected things. 

Focal practiceshypomene ➡ the good work of repair

Or: shun the smooth things, get back to the rough ground. But rough ground must be thoroughly prepared for the seeds you want to sow. Only then can roots grow deep. We want food; we’re hungry; our temptation is to scatter the seed blindly and hope for the best. But that’s a recipe for failure. 

What are the focal practices of the wise sower, the responsible gardener? 

Wendell Berry, from “Standing by Words”: 

As industrial technology advances and enlarges, and in the process assumes greater social, economic, and political force, it carries people away from where they belong by history, culture, deeds, association, and affection. And it destroys the landmarks by which they might return. Often it destroys the nature or the character of the places they have left. The very possibility of a practical connection between thought, and the world is thus destroyed. Culture is driven into the mind, where it cannot be preserved. 

The Year of Focal Practices

I declared 2021 the Year of Hypomone and 2022 the Year of Repair. I have not ceased to need hypomone — the New Testament word for “patient endurance” — nor are the good things of my world in any less broken. And it seems to me that there’s a close relationship between the two themes, because those who would engage in tikkun olam, the repair of the world, will more than most others require hypomone. But how to get it? How and where to find the resources that enable the patient endurance that in turn enable us to pursue the work of repair? I declare this the Year of Focal Practices. 

What do I mean by that? It’s a concept from Albert Borgmann’s seminal 1984 book Technology and the Character of Contemporary Life. As Borgmann’s career moved on he became a clearer and more straightforward writer, but in 1984 … not so much. He was still, then, too Heideggerian to be lucid. So rather than quote I am going to try to summarize, drawing chiefly on chapters 9 and 23.

Focus is a Latin word that means hearth — the fireplace that was both literally and metaphorically the center of the Roman household. Various members of the family were responsible for some element of hearth-maintaining — one would chop or gather the firewood, another bring that wood into the house, another make the fire, another add logs when the fire got low or stir it to enliven it, still another to cook the family’s food over the flame — and each member benefitted from its warmth. The heath was a place for preparing food and for keeping warm; it was therefore also the place where the family gathered, where its unity and wholeness were made manifest. The household gods — the lares and penates — were above all the guardians of the hearth. They preserved and in various ways represented the family’s focus

Controlled fire is of course the paradigmatic technology: Prometheus’s gift of fire to humans is the definitive extension of our natural abilities, an augmentation of power, a prosthesis. But, Borgmann shows, fire-as-focus is much more than that: it generates a set of focal practices that strengthen the bonds among members of the family. Contrast the hearth at the center of a home to a central heating unit, which instead of binding us to one another invites us to go our separate ways. The central heating unit is not a focus that links us to one another; it is rather a device that facilitates our separation. 

The idea that our technological prostheses are meant to generate independence from one another is a way of thinking about technology that Borgmann calls the device paradigm. To summarize an argument I have made here, the device paradigm promises freedom but in fact — after all, it cannot be modified to suit our needs — enforces what Ursula Franklin calls a “culture of compliance.” It is, as Ivan Illich would put it, a manipulatory technology, whereas the hearth is a convivial one. 

We have good reasons for installing central heating in our homes, but we miss the hearth and look for ways to replace it. The novelist Kim Stanley Robinson often says that our evolutionary descent predisposes us to be fond of certain actions, like throwing objects at other objects and sitting around a fire telling tales. The latter impulse, he believes, draws us to the movie theater, where we gather in the darkness facing a bright light and enjoy stories — but while that provides a certain form (or simulacrum) of communal connection, it’s the television that becomes the replacement for the family hearth. Here’s a photo I took a few nights ago — I title it Focus One and Two

IMG 1112

When I decided to put our TV over the fireplace, I didn’t realize the symbolic heft of my decision. But one evening, when I mused that it would be easier to show a fireplace video from YouTube than actually build a fire, all the ironies suddenly came home to me. 

Let me be clear: I loved re-watching The Fellowship of the Ring with my family as a fire crackled away in the fireplace. It was truly wonderful. But it was not, in Borgmann’s sense, a focal practice. In fact, I am inclined to think that we could enjoy it as much as we did because of other practices that have bound us as a family, practices that are truly focal. 

I am inclined to think that the cultivation of genuinely focal practices — on the familial level and on that of whole communities — is essential to the development of hypomone, and hypomone is essential to the work of repair. I want to think about these matters quite a bit in 2023, and so I have added a “focus” tag to this post — to prompt me to keep thinking and writing on this subject. We’ll see how it goes. 

illusions and their removal

In The Point of View of My Work as an Author Kierkegaard explains why he writes sometimes under his own name and sometimes under pseudonyms. One of his primary goals — or, as he rather curiously puts it, one of the primary goals of “the authorship” — is to attack the illusions under which his fellow Danes are living, the chief among them being that they are living in a Christian society (which means that they believe themselves to have received Christianity as a kind of natural inheritance). The problem, Kierkegaard says, is that such illusions are hard to remove by direct attack — and indeed, the deeper the illusion is the more resistant it is to any direct confrontation.

No, an illusion can never be destroyed directly, and only by indirect means can it be radically removed. If it is an illusion that all are Christians — and if there is anything to be done about it, it must be done indirectly, not by one who vociferously proclaims himself an extraordinary Christian, but by one who, better instructed, is ready to declare that he is not a Christian at all….

There is nothing that requires such gentle handling as an illusion, if one wishes to dispel it. If anyone prompts the prospective captive to set his will in opposition, all is lost. And this is what a direct attack achieves, and it implies moreover the presumption of requiring a man to make to another person, or in his presence, an admission which he can make most profitably to himself privately. This is what is achieved by the indirect method, which, loving and serving the truth, arranges everything dialectically for the prospective captive, and then shyly withdraws (for love is always shy), so as not to witness the admission which he makes to himself alone before God—that he has lived hitherto in an illusion.

I especially adore this: “for love is always shy.” See also the magnificent tale of the king and the lowly maiden in the Philosophical Fragments.

There is much more that could be said about this, and how it relates to, for instance, Leo Strauss’s case for the value of esoteric writing in philosophy (something I have often mused on when engaged in my own writing). But for now I simply want to ask this question: What can I do to remove my own illusions?

I think it was A. J. Ayer — one of those 20th century Oxford philosophers anyway — whose highest praise of any other philosopher was “Yes, he’s very well defended.” I think almost all of us are well-defended against the dispelling of our illusions. This is why Kierkegaard said that the person whose life is governed by some powerful illusion must be as it were approached from behind. But how could I approach myself from behind? After all, as I recently wrote, the most dangerous lies are the ones we tell ourselves. Shouldn’t I take seriously my own position?

Well, for the past couple of years I’ve been trying to do just that. I’m not any less interested in theological reflection (or in being a Christian!) that I used to be, but I’ve been reading theology for so long that it’s hard for me to be surprised by it — hard for me not to assimilate whatever I’m reading to my existing categories. So I’ve been trying to read more stuff that evades those categories, that forces me into a less predictable and (ideally) more creative response.

That’s why I’ve been trying to learn from Russian socialists and Daoists and anarchists — they’re all people who are trying to address the same social and ethical issues that concern me, but who do so from different perspectives and with the use of different intellectual tools. But I’m now thinking that, having been fortified by my encounters with those traditions of thought, it may be time to return to my specifically theological concerns and see what they look like in light of what I’ve learned. For instance: 

  • What does Christian peaceableness look like in light of Alexander Herzen’s melioristic approach to social change? 
  • Is there really, as I have suspected, a kind of familial resemblance between Daoism and Franciscan spirituality? 
  • Can the “emergent order” of anarchism be a key to the building of what Martin Luther King Jr. called “the beloved community”? 

In short: Can I, through these oddball explorations, remove the illusions that prevent me from seeing what I should see about myself and the world? Can I learn through these exercises to think more wisely and act more justly? I dunno. I hope so. 

the friendliness of objects

Roger Scruton

Repair [at an earlier stage of our culture] was not so much a habit as an honoured custom. People respected the past of damaged things, restored them as though healing a child and looked on their handiwork with satisfaction. In the act of repair the object was made anew, to occupy the social position of the broken one. Worn shoes went to the anvil, holed socks and unravelled sleeves to the darning last — that peculiar mushroom-shaped object which stood always ready on the mantelpiece. 

The custom of repair was not confined to the home. Every town, every village, had its cobbler, its carpenter, its wheelwright and its smith. In each community people supported repairers, who in tum supported things. And our surnames testify to the honour in which their occupations were held. But to where have they repaired, these people who guaranteed the friendliness of objects? With great difficulty you may still find a cobbler — but for the price of his work you could probably buy a new pair of shoes. For the cost of 15 digital watches you may sometimes find a person who will fix the mainspring of your grandfather’s timepiece. 

The truth is that repair, like every serious social activity, has its ethos, and when that ethos is lost, no amount of slap-dash labour can make up for it. The person who repairs must love the broken object, and must love also the process of repair and all that pertains to it. 

I am greatly taken by the way Scruton frames the work of repair here, especially the idea that the impulse to repair arises from and is sustained by love — and that the particular form of love at work here is friendship. By repairing the things of this world we exhibit friendship towards them — and they become friends to us in return. 

People need things, and things need people.

The critical moment of their mutual support is the moment of breakdown. Suddenly, the object on which everything depended — the car, the boiler, the drain, or the dinner suit — is unusable, and you contemplate its betrayal in helpless unbelief. It is some time before you overcome your self-pity enough to recognise that its need is greater than yours. 

We get angry at broken things, and want to throw them out — and this impulse often governs us even when the broken thing is not a car or a drain but democracy or education. (Maybe democracy and education are not objects but rather hyperobjects.) But what if we were to think not that our education has betrayed us but rather that its need is greater than ours? What if we were to think that towards even something so vast and complex we have the obligations of friendship? And, if we meet those obligations, perhaps we could even enjoy the benefits of friendship. 

beyond persuasion

art, not argument | sara hendren:

I have thus far assembled a body of work that lists between the two poles of poetry and philosophy, and between significance and utility: some work that looks for pragmatic solutions to problems, and some work that raises and suspends questions, indefinitely. Some work that reframes the status quo in order to persuade. And some work that aims for expressive power above all — paradox and juxtaposition.

One thing I’ll say, though, about 2023 and beyond, as I head into my 50s: I mostly want to make art, not arguments.

A big Yes to this from Sara. 

Recently I was reading Minds Wide Shut by Gary Saul Morson and Morton Schapiro, and while I venerate GSM just this side idolatry, I don’t think the book quite works as intended. At the risk of oversimplification, I’ll say that its core argument is (a) that our culture is dominated by a set of fundamentalisms — “At the heart of any fundamentalism, as we define it, is a disdain for learning from evidence. Truth is already known, given, and clear” — and (b) that the fundamentalist mindset is incapable of persuasion, of bringing skeptics over to its side. 

All of which is true, but (and this is a major theme of my How to Think) what if people don’t want to persuade others? What if they don’t just hate their Repugnant Cultural Other but need him or her in order to define themselves and their Inner Ring? As I read Minds Wide Shut I kept thinking that the authors needed to persuade people of the value of persuasion. But that way an infinite regress lies. 

I think what Sara is suggesting is that those of us who want to see a different world need to be better at showing rather than telling, presenting rather than directly persuading. Sara’s formulation, “work that reframes the status quo in order to persuade,” is useful, I believe. You persuade not by persuading but by reframing, by (as Ezra Pound said) making it new, by (as Philip the apostle did) saying “Come and see.” 

the arts our country requires

In a famous letter, John Adams wrote from Paris to his beloved Abigail: 

To take a Walk in the Gardens of the Palace of the Tuilleries, and describe the Statues there, all in marble, in which the ancient Divinities and Heroes are represented with exquisite Art, would be a very pleasant Amusement, and instructive Entertainment, improving in History, Mythology, Poetry, as well as in Statuary. Another Walk in the Gardens of Versailles, would be usefull and agreable. But to observe these Objects with Taste and describe them so as to be understood, would require more time and thought than I can possibly Spare. It is not indeed the fine Arts, which our Country requires. The Usefull, the mechanic Arts, are those which We have occasion for in a young Country, as yet simple and not far advanced in Luxury, altho perhaps much too far for her Age and Character. 

I could fill Volumes with Descriptions of Temples and Palaces, Paintings, Sculptures, Tapestry, Porcelaine, &c. &c. &c. — if I could have time. But I could not do this without neglecting my duty. The Science of Government it is my Duty to study, more than all other Studies & Sciences: the Art of Legislation and Administration and Negotiation, ought to take Place, indeed to exclude in a manner all other Arts. I must study Politicks and War that my sons may have liberty to study Painting and Poetry Mathematicks and Philosophy. My sons ought to study Mathematicks and Philosophy, Geography, natural History, Naval Architecture, navigation, Commerce and Agriculture, in order to give their Children a right to study Painting, Poetry, Musick, Architecture, Statuary, Tapestry and Porcelaine. 

Only the last two sentences of the letter are typically quoted, but I think it’s useful to see the larger context, especially Adams’s regret at the matters of great interest to him that he doesn’t fully understand and simply cannot take the time to understand. He had recently been engaged in complicated and tense negotiations with the French foreign minister, the Comte de Vergennes, which around this time resulted in the Frenchman declaring that he wouldn’t deal with Adams any more but only with the less astringent Benjamin Franklin. (Perhaps Adams should have been working harder at the study of the Art of Negotiation.) 

It’s interesting to note the change of mind he undergoes between the penultimate and final sentence: in the former he thinks his sons may well study Painting and Poetry, but then he reconsiders and thinks, well, perhaps it would be better for them to pursue “Naval Architecture, navigation, Commerce and Agriculture” and the like so that their sons can study Painting and Poetry. His was, after all, “a young Country, as yet simple and not far advanced in Luxury” — and not likely to be much further advanced in a single generation. 

Well, right now we seem to be regressing towards Adams’s state of affairs. Everyone in power, or aspiring to power, in this country seems to be studying Politics and War, though they will sometimes cover that study with a flimsy disguise.

On the so-called Left we see surveillance moralism (and often enough the sexualization of children and early teens) masquerading as science.  

On the so-called Right? It’s wrathful trolling masquerading as political philosophy. 

None of these folks, God bless their earnest if shriveled hearts, have any room inside for the arts. Everything has to serve their political purposes, and works of art are rarely sufficiently blunt instruments. Thus Michael Lind writes — in an otherwise useful essay — that the goal of the public intellectual is to “influence voters,” because what other reason could an intellectual possibly have for writing? (Michael Lind is a very intelligent and often illuminating writer, but he really does seem to think that nothing exists in the human world except electoral politics.) The one arguably-artistic preference these would-be elites of Left and Right share is a liking for Game of Thrones (and now House of the Dragon) but only because that world is a wish-fulfillment dream for aspiring tyrants. 

Well, here at the Homebound Symphony I’ll be focusing on the arts more and more, and if sometimes connecting their wisdom to the social and political concerns that trouble our minds and dreams, I’ll try never to do it in a way that blunts those sharp instruments that pierce soul and spirit. And I’ll do this in honor of John Adams, so that his sacrifice was not in vain. 

(I also think there are every good reasons for Christians to be especially attentive to the arts — even those Christians who don’t think of themselves as arty. That may be a topic for future posts, because my reasons for so thinking are not common ones.)  

But I can do all this because of others who are doing some necessary but ugly work. The internet’s own John Adamses … sort of. I’ll write a follow-up post on some of these helpful people. 

creating the Vernacular Republic

Ivan Illich, from In the Mirror of the Past

Rather than life in a shadow economy, I propose, on top of the z-axis, the idea of vernacular work: unpaid activities which provide and improve livelihood, but which are totally refractory to any analysis utilizing concepts developed in formal economics. I apply the term ‘vernacular’ to these activities, since there is no other current concept that allows me to make the same distinction within the domain covered by such terms as ‘informal sector, ‘use value,’ ‘social reproduction.’ Vernacular is a Latin term that we use in English only for the language that we have acquired without paid teachers. In Rome, it was used from 500 B.C. to 600 A.D. to designate any value that was homebred, homemade, derived from the commons, and that a person could protect and defend though he neither bought nor sold it in the market. I suggest that we restore this simple term, vernacular, to oppose commodities and their shadow. It allows me to distinguish between the expansion of the shadow economy and its inverse the expansion of the vernacular domain. 

One of Les Murray’s collections of poems is called The Vernacular Republic, and while that title is usually thought to refer to Australia simpliciter, I don’t think that’s right. The Vernacular Republic is more an ideal image of Australia, what it might have been and perhaps (with repentance) still could be. 

I think if we take Illich’s understanding of the vernacular domain, and add to it the image of an alternative but “more comprehensive” economy that Wendell Berry writes of, then we have a rough outline of what a genuine Vernacular Republic would be. The Vernacular Republic is an “informal sector” that opposes the logic of commodity and gradually but steadily practices the Kingdom of God. 

Wendell Berry:

I have had with my friend Wes Jackson a number of useful conversations about the necessity of getting out of movements — even movements that have seemed necessary and dear to us — when they have lapsed into self-righteousness and self-betrayal, as movements seem almost invariably to do. People in movements too readily learn to deny to others the rights and privileges they demand for themselves. They too easily become unable to mean their own language, as when a “peace movement” becomes violent. They often become too specialized, as if finally they cannot help taking refuge in the pinhole vision of the institutional intellectuals. They almost always fail to be radical enough, dealing finally in effects rather than causes. Or they deal with single issues or single solutions, as if to assure themselves that they will not be radical enough.

And so I must declare my dissatisfaction with movements to promote soil conservation or clean water or clean air or wilderness preservation or sustainable agriculture or community health or the welfare of children. Worthy as these and other goals may be, they cannot be achieved alone. They cannot be responsibly advocated alone. I am dissatisfied with such efforts because they are too specialized, they are not comprehensive enough, they are not radical enough, they virtually predict their own failure by implying that we can remedy or control effects while leaving causes in place. Ultimately, I think, they are insincere; they propose that the trouble is caused by other people; they would like to change policy but not behavior. 

A vital reminder from Berry that all of us who want to recommend significant social change need to think economically and ecologically

smooth things and rough ground

There are many links in what follows. I would encourage you to read this through without noticing the links, and then go back to them later if you’re so inclined. 

Around a year ago I wrote a post in which I said this: 

I obviously write about a good many things, but over the last decade my work has been largely devoted to a single overarching theme: what we attend to and what we fail to attend to. This started with the work on my old Text Patterns blog that fed into my 2011 book The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction, and since then I have pursued the various connected issues and problems down several paths. My set of Theses for Disputation, “Attending to Technology,” is my most explicit articulation of these concerns, but even when I didn’t seem to be thinking about these things I really was. Even my biography of the Book of Common Prayer was an attempt to understand the prayer book as an instrument for the focusing of the attention of wayward Christians on that to which they should primarily attend. As the BCP almost says, “We have attended to those things we should not have attended to, and we have not attended to those things which we should have attended to, and there is no health in us.” The relevance of these questions to How to Think will be obvious to anyone who has read it, but I could say the same about the two books that I published since then, The Year of Our Lord 1943 and Breaking Bread with the Dead. In each case I am concerned with the forces in our culture that inhibit enriching attentiveness, that enforce enervating distraction, that direct our minds always towards the frivolous or the malicious. 

I then went on to say that I am shifting towards a new general project, which at that time wasn’t perfectly clear in my mind. And I was fine with that, because as far back as 2014 I understood that it is important for me, as I transition to the final stage of my career, not to know where I am going. “Old men ought to be explorers.”

But matters are coming into a focus a bit. It has recently occurred to me that much of what I am writing these days circles around an imperative that Wittgenstein famously articulated in the Philosophical Investigations: “We have got on to slippery ice where there is no friction and so in a certain sense the conditions are ideal, but also, just because of that, we are unable to walk. We want to walk: so we need friction. Back to the rough ground!” 


The goal of the attention merchants is to keep us on the ice, to keep us sliding in the direction they choose, to keep us believing that the frictionlessness of the sliding is a sign that “the conditions are ideal.” But I want to walk — I need to walk, so I can learn to move at the speed of our three-mile-an-hour God

Repair is harder, rougher, than discarding the replacement; invitation of others to collaborate in repair is rougher than going it alone. 

So the quest for a constructive friction is what my work keeps circling around these days. It’s why I seek to practice handmind; it’s why I am interested in anarchism, because anarchism is a determination to achieve through the patient work of negotiation and voluntary association what all the forces of metaphysical capitalism would prefer to sell us. It’s why I want to distinguish between “productivity” and good work. It’s why I seek the messiness of the unfinalizable human world rather than allowing myself to be transformed into a server. To resist mechanization and its monoculture; to practice a cosmopolitanism of difference; to recover piety towards flawed and even broken institutions — these are all ways of finding and exploring the rough ground. Strategies and practices of roughness. Because the rough ground is where walking — a human life on a human scale — is possible. 

The Essenes, those fearsome ascetics of the profound desert, denounced their spiritual enemies — probably the Pharisees specifically, certainly all the Jewish leaders who lived and taught others to live in frictionless comfort with the Ruling Powers — as seekers of smooth things. The phrase comes from Isaiah 30: 

For they are a rebellious people, 
lying children, 
children unwilling to hear 
the instruction of the Lord; 
who say to the seers, “Do not see,” 
and to the prophets, “Do not prophesy to us what is right; 
speak to us smooth things, 
prophesy illusions, 
leave the way, turn aside from the path, 
let us hear no more about the Holy One of Israel.”   

But if you invite your leaders to speak to you only smooth things, you will dwell in illusion; and in a state of illusion you will be vulnerable to powers far greater than yourself; and, as Isaiah goes on to say, all the vessels will be broken, and you will be unable to carry fire from your hearth or draw water from your cistern.

I’m not an Essene; I lack the requisite fierceness. I prefer to walk on that rough ground with what I have called the “peaceable irony” of the Taoist sage (or the Franciscan friar, a similar figure). Or maybe like Les Murray’s apostle of sprawl:

Sprawl leans on things. It is loose-limbed in its mind. 
Reprimanded and dismissed 
it listens with a grin and one boot up on the rail 
of possibility. It may have to leave the Earth. 
Being roughly Christian, it scratches the other cheek 
and thinks it unlikely. Though people have been shot for sprawl. 

Those with ears to hear, let them hear. 

Wall e 12

building what looks right

Eboo Patel:

When I was in college in the mid-1990s—an era that feels quite similar to today—a lot of my activism was around diversity issues. It wasn’t called “wokeness” then, but there was a very heightened consciousness around race and gender and sexuality. I think there is a very positive story to tell about bell hooks and Cornel West being read everywhere. But towards the end of college, I realized that religious diversity is never a part of the conversation. I had become, at this point, more inspired by faith-based activists, particularly Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker Movement. The way I put it is that they loved people more than they hated the system. And it seemed to me that a lot of activists I knew hated the system more than they loved people. 

I started going to interfaith conferences looking for the next generation of these great faith-based activists like Bayard Rustin, Dorothy Day, Pauli Murray and Martin Luther King Jr. What I found instead was old theologians talking. So I did what I was taught to do as an activist in college: I stood up, I raised my fist, and I called them out. This was June of 1988. I was probably 22, the firebrand young person on the floor, shouting people down. And a striking thing happened. This woman named Yolanda Trevino walked up to me, and she said, “What you’re talking about — a movement of young people from diverse religious traditions, engaging in social action together — is powerful. You should build that.” The scales fell from my eyes. She presented to me two paths: one was to continue yelling at other people for what they were doing wrong; the other was to build what I thought looked right.

Patel, who runs an interfaith organization, reminds us just how often people from various faith traditions have done just that — have built what they thought looked right and needed to be built. “If every institution founded by a faith community in your city disappeared overnight, preschools, hospitals, and universities would be gone. YMCAs would be gone, places where AA groups meet would be gone. Half of your social services would probably be gone. It feels to me that religious identity diversity should be at the center of our national conversation, and I’m curious as to why it’s not.” 

To people who say that they need to repair and renew and restore themselves before they turn their attention to anything else — which is what one person said to me recently — I would reply that turning your attention to cultural products that are good and true and beautiful is a way of renewing your attention by redirecting it, and therefore beginning to heal yourself. To give yourself the food that your spirit needs is at one and the same time to renew yourself and to renew your cultural enframing, as it were. To listen to a beautiful piece of music and then share it with others, is to heal yourself, offer healing to them, and do justice to someone’s meaningful work. It is a triangulated renewal.

capability and collaboration

In her book Creating Capabilities Martha Nussbaum writes,

What are capabilities? They are the answers to the question, “What is this person able to do and to be?” In other words, they are what [Amartya] Sen calls “substantial freedoms,” a set of (usually interrelated) opportunities to choose and to act. In one standard formulation by Sen, “a person’s ‘capability’ refers to the alternative combinations of functionings that are feasible for her to achieve. Capability is thus a kind of freedom: the substantive freedom to achieve alternative functioning combinations.” In other words, they are not just abilities residing inside a person but also the freedoms or opportunities created by a combination of personal abilities and the political, social, and economic environment.

When elaborating the capabilities approach, Nussbaum — I think this is fair to say — generally writes as though individual autonomy is the proper moral ideal. But in light of recent posts, I wonder if we might ask what capabilities emerge only in the context of a bet on mutuality. Capabilities, mine and yours alike, that only become available when we formulate and test prototypes together. See this chart from Sara Hendren.


Prototyping is iterative, but not all iterative activities are prototypes. Blogging, as I conceive of it, is iterative, in that it returns repeatedly to certain themes, trying to explore them more adequately. But previous iterations are never discarded; they remain part of the project. A blog is more like a palimpsest than a prototype.

As I hinted earlier, these thoughts run against my grain. I’ve team-taught a number of times over the years, but the norm for me is designing and running my own class; the norm for me is imagining and writing my own essays and books. There are always collaborative elements in this work — I look at what other faculty teaching the same classes do, I learn from my students what works and what doesn’t (every instantiation of a course is a prototype), I receive and respond to feedback from editors. But I don’t think about those collaborative elements often enough, I don’t keep them in the front of my mind, and so I am insufficiently attentive to the possibilities of collaboration. 

A big part of my interest in anarchism — see the tag at the foot of this post — stems from my sense that certain distinctive human goods emerge only when we allow order to emerge from voluntary collaboration. 

You’re never too old to learn … I hope. 

the invitation to critique

A while back, I wrote this:

To make promises, to stand by one’s words, to be answerable for them, is to open oneself to blame. That’s legitimately frightening. But if the cost is high, so is the benefit: To be answerable for one’s words is to escape the ineffectual, and to find “the inner connection of the constituent elements of a person.” To move from the linguistically and morally empty world of Projection — in which you can blithely forecast the destruction of whole fields of human activity and the hopes they hold — to the meaning-saturated world of Promise is to risk much. But if Bakhtin is right, you’re betting on the integrity of your own personhood; and if Berry is right, you’re binding yourself to someone else’s future. The promise for which you are truly answerable is a bet on mutuality. 

I’m casting my mind back to this because of some thoughts that keep rising up in the aftermath of my recent Laity Lodge retreat with Sara Hendren

One of the points Sara emphasized in her talks was how Olin College of Engineering, where she teaches, spends a lot of time teaching its students the practice of prototyping. As Sara defines and explains that practice, it really does look to me like a “bet on mutuality,” in this sense: To build a prototype and expose it to critique is to make yourself very vulnerable. (Sara mentioned an exercise Olin does in which it has its students build games, and then invites fourth-graders in to judge the games. “Is this fun?” She said that when those terrifying 10-year-olds arrive, some of her students’ hands are shaking.) But you invite people in because you know that you can’t do the thing you want to do without their honest response.

The form this particular bet on mutuality takes could be called a hopeful invitation to a constructive feedback loop. That is, you hope that your critics will give responses that will genuinely help you improve your prototype; and they hope that you will try to improve your project in ways that take their critique seriously. And so on, iteration by iteration. Sara has written of critique and repair, and I have written of invitation and repair, but look what we have here: the invitation to critique as a first step in the process of repair. 

An obvious point, now that I think about it, but then, I often take some time to achieve the obvious. 

When this thought came to me, I realized that I had dealt with it, implicitly, in one of my own talks at Laity. I had contrasted Bob Davey — a man who desperately wanted to restore an old church in Norfolk, England — with Justo Martinez — a man who wanted to build a new church near Madrid, Spain. Brother Justo strove for decades not just to build the church, but also to do it alone — he neither sought nor welcomed assistance of any kind, and often claimed to have achieved by himself tasks that he simply couldn’t have achieved without help. He treated others as impediments and threats. By contrast, Davey worked very hard on restoring that little Norfolk church, but he also sought help of every kind along the way. He gave up complete control of the project in order to draw friends and strangers into his endeavor. His motto seems to have been that great phrase from Wordsworth: “what we have loved, / Others will love, and we will teach them how.” He made a bet on mutuality.

That surely meant having to hear other people tell him “You’re doing it wrong” — something Justo, it seems, couldn’t bear to hear. But if we want to repair the world, or any part of our little corner of it, we’ve got not just to accept but invite that possibility. We have to discipline ourselves to welcome it. And we have to encourage those others to stick with us through multiple iterations of whatever we’re prototyping. 

What this might look like through my kind of work … well, I’m just beginning to figure that out. But it’s got to start with doing hard things with friends

critique and repair in the canyon

A number of years ago, when I was teaching at Wheaton College in Illinois, a couple of students asked me if I would consider becoming the faculty sponsor for a club for Southerners at Wheaton — a club to be focused on the real South, in all of its complexity, and one that didn’t give a fig for the Confederacy. They came over to our house for a meal, and Teri and I had a wonderful long talk with them. Those are special young women, we thought — and goodness, was that an understatement. Their names were Sara Hendren and Claire Chamblin — now Claire Holley — and they have remained close friends, and have gone on to do exceptional things in their chosen fields of endeavor. 

Last week we were all together again, at Laity Lodge, where Sara and I offered sessions on the theme of Critique and Repair, while Claire played songs for us and led us in singing — and gave an exceptionally beautiful concert on Saturday evening in the Cody Center. I learned so much from Sara’s talks — she is really doing innovative and compassionate and philosophically rich work on the topics we explored — so it will take me a long time to process it all. Look in the next few weeks for responses, probably piecemeal at first. 

In short: few activities are more rewarding than doing hard things with friends. My mind is full, and my heart too. 

Screenshot 2022 07 22 at 10 51 58 AM

Claire at the piano in the Great Hall (taken by my wife Teri): 


The peace of the river: 


bodies and stones

In Breaking Bread with the Dead, I write about Donna Haraway

There’s a fascinating early chapter in her book on human interaction with pigeons. Of course, that interaction has been conducted largely on human terms, and Haraway wants to create two-way streets where in the past these paths ran only from humans to everything else. How to get the pigeons to participate willingly in such a project is question without an obvious answer, but it’s question that Haraway feels we must ask, a because “staying with the trouble requires making oddkin; that is, we require each other in unexpected collaborations and combinations, in hot compost piles. We become-with each other or not at all.” 

But here’s the complication: Who gets included in “each other”? Besides pigeons, I mean. Haraway says explicitly that her human kin are “antiracist, anticolonial, anticapitalist, proqueer feminists of every color and from every people,” and people who share her commitment to “Make Kin Not Babies.” “Pronatalism in all its powerful guises ought to be in question almost everywhere.” 

I suspect that — to borrow a tripartite distinction from the psychiatrist and blogger Scott Alexander — most people who use that kind of language are fine with their ingroup (“antiracist, anticolonial, anticapitalist, proqueer feminists of every color and from every people”) and fine with the fargroup (pigeons), but the outgroup? The outgroup that lives in your city and votes in the same elections you do? Maybe not so much. Does the project of making kin extend to that couple down the street from you who have five kids, who attend a big-box evangelical church, and who voted for the wrong person in the last presidential election? And who, moreover, are a little more likely to talk back than pigeons are? (Even assuming that they might be interested in making kin with Donna Haraway, which, let’s face it, is equally unlikely. Presumably they too would be more comfortable with the pigeons.) 

I thought about these issues as I read an excerpt from James Bridle’s new book

A system of laws and protections developed by and for humans, that places human concerns and values at its core, can never fully incorporate the needs and desires of nonhumans. These judicial efforts fall into the same category of error as the mirror test and ape sign language: the attempt to understand and account for nonhuman selfhood through the lens of our own umwelt. The fundamental otherness of the more-than-human world cannot be enfolded into such human-centric systems, any more than we can discuss jurisprudence with an oak tree. 

Legal representation, reckoning, and protection are founded upon human ideas of individuality and identity. They may prove useful when we take up the case of an individual chimp or elephant, or even a whole species, but their limits are clear when we apply them to a river, an ocean, or a forest. A plant has no “identity;” it is simply alive. The waters of the earth have no bounds. This is both ecology’s meaning and its lesson. We cannot split hairs, or rocks, or mycorrhizal roots and say: This thing here is granted personhood, and this thing not. Everything is hitched to everything else.

The enactment of a more-than-human politics calls explicitly for a politics beyond the individual, and beyond the nation-state. It calls for care, rather than legislation, to guide it. 

As regular readers might expect, this call for care, this ecological perspective, resonates powerfully with me. (It also resonates with something I wrote about in another book: Simone Weil’s insistence that if we need a collective declaration of human rights, we also, and perhaps more desperately, need a declaration of human obligations.) 

But it is curious to me that many people are willing to entertain this line of thought, are immensely sympathetic to this line of thought, who also affirm that “in relation to the mind the body has no rights”; and that a fetus in the womb is but an insignificant “clump of cells.” I don’t think you can consistently hold all those views. If you are willing to ask, “What do we owe the more-than-human world?” then, I think, you must also be willing to ask, “What do we owe the fetus in the womb? What do we owe our own bodies?” If you’re not asking these questions, then I fear that the other affirmations are empty rhetoric — a make-believe extension of agency to things you can then safely ignore. 

artisans on video

Just as there are an infinite number of reasons to seek God in prayer, so there are an infinite number of reasons to check out YouTube. But for me YouTube is primarily a place of contemplation. I love the YouTube channels that help me relax – even, in the best possible circumstance, reach a Zen-like stage of contemplative peace. For the last year or so I have primarily been fascinated by videos of train journeys – the ones from Britain’s National Rail are especially compelling. I watch the Scottish Highlands pass by; my heart rate slows; my blood pressure lowers. It’s great.

But lately I have discovered another Zen domain of YouTube: the world of guitar repair and restoration. Apparently I’m not the only one: many guitar-repair videos specify that they have no narration: you just watch some master craftsman at work, and all you hear is the sound of a fine-grained file or a brush sweeping a lovely oil finish over the body of a guitar. You watch something like the Andy Bass and Guitar channel and it’s like looking at a de la Tour, only with shellac and scrapers.

Screen Shot 2022 06 12 at 7 49 59 AM

Screen Shot 2022 06 12 at 7 49 31 AM

You can also find stories of intrigue. For instance, take a look at this one, in which another master craftsman is charged with the task of repairing and restoring a Gibson Les Paul guitar from 1958 — but without making any of the repairs look new. It’s especially cool when you see the guy distressing a part of the guitar he has just repaired to give it a look consistent with the beaten-up, well-used character of everything else on the instrument.

There are several subgenres of restoration: Many videos feature expensive guitars — there are more Martins than anything else — but more down my alley is the work of Gabriele Réti, who likes to restore guitars found in the trash.

And then: the multi-part restoration of a 1902 guitar by Carlos at Anjuda Guitars, a luthier shop in Madrid. A story still in process. There have been four acts so far, interesting but not dramatic at first — and then at the beginning of the third part tragedy suddenly threatens: a humidifier has kicked into overdrive and instead of preserving the old dried wood of this ancient instrument makes it fall apart. But … irreparably? The tension! The suspense! Carlos’s future as a luthier is at stake. It’s only as the third installment goes along that you discover that Carlos may actually be equal to this great task, a feeling that grows in strength with the fourth installment.

There’s a great moment in the third video when Carlos decides that he has to repair one of the guitar’s internal braces, but decides to use mahogany rather than the original cedar, because he wants to provide clear evidence, for future owners, that a later repair has happened. He wants to create layers of history in this guitar! Carlos is an artist with a conscience.

But will he be able to complete his task? Alas, we don’t yet know. We live in tense wonderment. Every day I go back to check to see whether there is a new installment.

So it turns out that there are two sides to guitar-restoration YouTube: the contemplative side, comprised of the sorts of videos you go to when you are in need of relaxation; but then you can also find suspense, a tightrope walk. Both sides are great.

”The Sermon of the Wolf,” by Eleanor Parker

For Wulfstan [preaching in the year 1014] diagnosing his society’s ills as breaches of law was not a source of despair, but an opportunity. It meant he could offer a plan of action. In this sermon his purpose is not just to denounce and lament, to criticize without providing solutions. His aim is to preach repentance and amendment – to convince people that things can get better, even in the shadow of the end times. The end will come; he has no doubt of that, and right now things are almost as bad as they can be. But there are measures we can take in the meantime, he suggests, things that will help. They won’t stave off the apocalypse or keep the Antichrist away. Yet they’re still worth doing – both morally right in themselves and a remedy for present evils.

His message is simple: repent, repair, do better. There’s no pretense that it’ll be easy. “A great wound needs a great remedy,” he says, “and a great fire needs a great amount of water if the blaze is to be quenched.” The worse the situation, the more work and collective effort it will take to mend it. But the promise that it can be mended is, nonetheless, a remarkably hopeful takeaway from such a fierce and angry sermon. 

Is Wulfstan the unofficial patron of this blog? 

keeping things on my chest

Perhaps the key theme in C. S. Lewis’s book The Abolition of Man is his emphasis on the importance, in much classical and almost all medieval thought, of the chest as the seat, the location, of our moral intuitions and convictions. Our mind cognizes and analyzes, the rest of our body simmers with passionate humors, but the chest synthesizes thought and impulse and converts that synthesis into meaningful moral action. 

One of the chief appeals of social media, for many of us, is the ease with which we can “get something off our chest.” But maybe there are feelings and convictions that ought to remain on our chest, even if their presence burns us. 

I should put my cards on the table here: In the past week we have, in multiple ways, seen the pervasive moral corruption of the socially-conservative and at-least-nominally-Christian world of which I have been a part (though an often discontented and uncomfortable part) most of my life. It is impossible for any fair-minded person to deny that that world has surrounded itself with a vast fortress of lies within which it hopes to take refuge: lies about the 2020 election, lies about immigrants to the USA, lies about its own commitments to “traditional morality,” lies about its adherence to biblical authority, lies about its embodiment of genuine masculinity. From within that fortress the cry continually comes forth, The woke libtards are trying to destroy us! — to which the most reasonable reply is: You’re destroying yourselves faster than any external enemies ever could.  

And that’s as far as I’m going to go by way of getting anything off my chest. I could certainly continue the denunciations, and continue at great length — there’s no shortage of material. But I don’t want to consume my anger and pain by shoveling them into a red-hot social-media furnace. Denunciations do no good. 

I want to keep my anger and pain close to me, inside me, even though it hurts, and find some proper outlet for them — as I say, to synthesize my thoughts and my feelings into meaningful moral action. 

On this blog I will continue to focus my attention on praising the praiseworthy and celebrating the good, the true, and the beautiful, because that’s my calling, that’s my lane. As Bob Dylan once said, “There’s a lot of things I’d like to do. I’d like to drive a race car on the Indianapolis track. I’d like to kick a field goal in an NFL football game. I’d like to be able to hit a hundred-mile-an-hour baseball. But you have to know your place.” And my place, vocationally speaking, is not to be a politician or a pundit. It is, rather, to invite my readers to join with me in a quest to repair the world — from the inside of us out, as it were. To change hearts; to heal and strengthen the seat of our affections.  

But that doesn’t mean that I can take no political or social action in response to the pervasive corruption I see and lament. I am asking myself some questions that I think all of us would do well to ask in these times: If there were no social media — no Twitter, no Facebook, no blogs even — what would I do? Whom would I seek to address and how would I address them? Would I use words only, or would I take action? And if the latter, what would proper action be? Imagine that all the familiar means of “getting things off my chest” were denied to me — what would I do then? 

In the coming days I will be pondering those questions. And meanwhile, on this blog, regular service will resume next week. 

Robin Sloan:

Obviously, no one does this, I recognize this is a very niche endeavor, but the art and craft of maintaining a homepage, with some of your writing and a page that’s about you and whatever else over time, of course always includes addition and deletion, just like a garden — you’re snipping the dead blooms. I do this a lot. I’ll see something really old on my site, and I go, “you know what, I don’t like this anymore,” and I will delete it. 

But that’s care. Both adding things and deleting things. Basically the sense of looking at something and saying, “is this good? Is this right? Can I make it better? What does this need right now?” Those are all expressions of care. And I think both the relentless abandonment of stuff that doesn’t have a billion users by tech companies, and the relentless accretion of garbage on the blockchain, I think they’re both kind of the antithesis, honestly, of care.

the speed of God

Many of the key ideas in Andy Crouch’s new book The Life We Are Looking For emerge from his definition of the human person, which he derives from the Shema of Deuteronomy 6, as adapted by Jesus in Mark 12 (keywords emphasized):

One of the scribes came near and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, he asked him, “Which commandment is the first of all?” Jesus answered, “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.”

Thus Andy: “Every human person is a heart-soul-mind-strength complex designed for love.” Simple and direct; but the more you think about it the more complex and generative a definition it is.

Early in his book, Andy talks about Silicon Valley entrepreneurs who want to give us “superpowers.” And he says:

Here is the problem: you cannot take advantage of a superpower and fully remain a person, in the sense of a heart-soul-mind-strength complex designed for love. This is not an unfortunate side effect of superpowers or a flaw that could be overcome with future improvements. It is the essence of their design because superpowers are power without effort. And power without effort, it turns out, diminishes us as much as it delights us.

Elsewhere in that same chapter he quotes the Japanese theologian Kosuke Koyama saying that “the speed of God” is three miles an hour because that was the speed at which Jesus moved through his world. So maybe, and I think this is one of the chief burdens of Andy’s book, what makes the most sense for us is to try whenever possible to move at the speed of God – and in that way refuse the offer of superpowers.

Of course, this dovetails with a lot of things people have been writing lately about slowness, but what I like about Andy’s book is that it specifies why we can find ourselves responding so warmly to the possibility of slowness. What happens when we seek superpowers, and especially super-speed, is the sacrifice of what I want to call our proper powers – the powers through the exercise of which we (heart-soul-mind-strength) flourish in love.

Let’s take a peek into Koyama’s Three Mile an Hour God:

Jesus Christ came. He walked towards the ‘full stop’. He lost his mobility. He was nailed down! He is not even at three miles an hour as we walk. He is not moving. ‘Full stop’! What can be slower than ‘full stop’ ‘nailed down’? At this point of ‘full stop’, the apostolic church proclaims that the love of God to man is ultimately and fully revealed. God walks ‘slowly’ because he is love. If he is not love he would have gone much faster. Love has its speed. It is an inner speed. It is a spiritual speed. It is a different kind of speed from the technological speed to which we are accustomed. It is ‘slow’ yet it is lord over all other speeds since it is the speed of love. It goes on in the depth of our life, whether we notice or not, whether we are currently hit by storm or not, at three miles an hour. It is the speed we walk and therefore it is the speed the love of God walks.

Thus: “I find that God goes ‘slowly’ in his educational process of man. ‘Forty years in the wilderness’ points to his basic educational philosophy.”

When the economist Gary Becker delivered his Nobel Lecture in 1992, he titled it “The Economic Way of Looking at Life.” Here’s a key quote:

Different constraints are decisive for different situations, but the most fundamental constraint is limited time. Economic and medical progress have greatly increased length of life, but not the physical flow of time itself, which always restricts everyone to twenty-four hours per day. So while goods and services have expended enormously in rich countries, the total time available to consume has not.

So it turns out that “the economic way of looking at life” – which is pretty much the American way of looking at life, and certainly the Silicon Valley way – means that you think of time as a scarce consumable resource. Which is indeed how most of us, it seems, think about time, and that, in turn, is why we might experience the idea of traveling at the speed of God as not just wrong but, more, offensive – a failure to maximize consumption.

Breaking that habit of thought, and imagining how to move at the speed of God – these are real and vital challenges. Maybe the first thing we need to learn how to repair is our disordered sense of time — time is not a scarce resource but rather a gift.

the old women of Nishapur

Talal Asad:

My point is simply that when a capability is acquired there is no longer a temporal interval between judging according to a universal rule and acting in a particular situation in the way Kant conceptualizes ethics—they are morally the same instant. Of course, the fact that a capability is embodied does not guarantee that you will act morally any more than acting according to conscience guarantees it. The act of recognizing a rule, judging how it can be applied in a particular context, and then applying it, reflects a different temporality from one where one acts according to a capability that is dependent on a collective form of life that sustains a transcendent vision. This, I think, is what Ghazali meant when he reputedly said: Oh! if only I had the implicit faith of the old women of Nishapur! Meaning: To live without having to go through the process of verification and application of moral rules, to live at once in the time of this world and the time of eternity. 

Picking up on this point, Katherine Lemons argues — in a post that’s part of a series on this trope — that the three key elements of the faith of the old women of Nishapur are: 

  • Time: “They live in a temporality of simultaneity where the eternal is ever-present in everyday life. Such simultaneity enables ethical action (that is, action oriented toward the Hereafter) without the need to weigh, to calculate, or to reason. Ethical action, that is, whose telos is immanent to it.” 
  • Indifference: “The temporality of the old women’s knowledge emerges from a faith for which doubt is an irrelevant category. It also gives rise to indifference in the face of scholarly knowledge…. Thus, [one] old woman was reportedly unimpressed by Fakhr al-Din Al-Razi’s one thousand proofs of God’s existence, inciting envy in the scholar. Asad’s mother was likewise [uninterested] in defending Islam or extolling its virtues and her ‘embodied religion did not offer itself to hermeneutic methods.’” 
  • Obstinacy: One old woman “lives with the hereafter and it informs her decisions, even when everything in worldly life hangs in the balance. Her certainty … allows her to exhibit obstinacy in the face of temporal power.” 

All this is reminiscent of what Rebecca West calls “idiocy” — something I have commended. It may also be related to another strategy I have commended, that of practicing silence, exile, and cunning. But I think I like these interlocking practices even more. I will have things to say about them in the future. I am always looking for resources to keep me committed to restoration and renewal while also protecting be from the always-present temptation of building fascist architecture of my own design

making a difference

This is one of those I-want-to-think-further-about-this posts. 

A couple of years ago, Shoshana Zuboff wrote an essay for the NYT in which she summarized the major themes of her enormous book The Age of Surveillance Capitalism. Thus:

Our digital century was to have been democracy’s Golden Age. Instead, we enter its third decade marked by a stark new form of social inequality best understood as “epistemic inequality.” It recalls a pre-Gutenberg era of extreme asymmetries of knowledge and the power that accrues to such knowledge, as the tech giants seize control of information and learning itself. The delusion of “privacy as private” was crafted to breed and feed this unanticipated social divide. Surveillance capitalists exploit the widening inequity of knowledge for the sake of profits. They manipulate the economy, our society and even our lives with impunity, endangering not just individual privacy but democracy itself. Distracted by our delusions, we failed to notice this bloodless coup from above.

Later in the essay she shifted to a more hopeful tone: “Still, the winds appear to have finally shifted. A fragile new awareness is dawning as we claw our way back up the rabbit hole toward home.” Maybe. But it seems clear now that that awareness proved to be too fragile.

In the intervening two years nothing has changed, and most people seem to have moved on to other, newer outrages. The big tech companies made the bet that they could know everything about us – that they could conscript us as foot-soldiers in their information-harvesting army by flattering us as “creators” – and that (a) we would be too enamored of convenience, or too distracted, to care and (b) our political representatives would be too feckless and incompetent to take action. It seems to me that they won that bet. Congress dragged a few of the Tech Bosses into their chambers, grandstanded for a couple of days, and then lost interest. If there was ever a real chance for significant change, it seems to me that the moment has passed.

Recently, just after revisiting Zuboff’s essay, I read Dorothy Wickenden’s profile of Wendell Berry in the New Yorker, and as I did a question formed in my mind: Who has made more of a difference, Shoshana Zuboff or Wendell Berry? The Harvard Business School professor or the farmer-poet from Kentucky?

Neither of them has been able to achieve what they would most want: to constrain, if not eliminate, certain large-scale forces they (rightly) believe to be diseases attacking the common weal — surveillance capitalism for Zuboff, industrial agriculture for Berry — but which of them has managed to make the greater contribution to their goals?

I am inclined to think that, despite Zuboff’s superior social location — as a longtime professor at one of our most elite institutions, and a person capable of leveraging that status to get attention in rooms of powerful people who have never heard of Wendell Berry — it is Berry who has achieved more, because in addition to critique he has commended and modeled a set of healthy practices — a kind of habitus.

I think of Eno’s famous line that the Velvet Underground’s first record only sold 30,000 copies in its first five years, but everyone who bought it started a band. Wendell Berry isn’t a best-selling writer, but his work — combined with his example — has caused a a number of his readers to change their lives, and not many writers can say that.

Andy Crouch on invitation and repair

From Andy Crouch’s new book:

To rebuild households would begin to undermine Mammon itself. If we lived this way together, we would begin to fundamentally change our economy in the most literal sense and eventually change the structure of economic life more broadly — what we value, measure, and reward. To begin this kind of economic restoration does not require us to change the practices of Wall Street, the Federal Reserve, or the European Central Bank — or even to know, exactly, what ought to replace them. We just (just!) have to redirect our energies away from Mammon’s domain and turn toward a realm where Mammon has nothing to offer. And then we need to invite others to join us under that new shelter. 

Well, there’s Invitation & Repair right there. (Also a rhyming with my recent stuff on principalities, powers, and demons.) 

One name for “a realm where Mammon has nothing to offer,” as Wendell Berry noted in his 1984 essay “Two Economies,” is the Kingdom of God: 

For the thing that so troubles us about the industrial economy is exactly that it is not comprehensive enough, that, moreover, it tends to destroy what it does not comprehend, and that it is dependent upon much that it does not comprehend. In attempting to criticize such an economy, it is probably natural to pose against it an economy that does not leave anything out. And we can say without presuming too much, that the first principle of the kingdom of God is that it includes everything; in it the fall of every sparrow is a significant event. We are in it, we may say, whether we know it or not, and whether we wish to be or not. Another principle, both ecological and traditional, is that everything in the kingdom of God is joined both to it and to everything else that is in it. That is to say that the kingdom of God is orderly. 

Andy and Mr. Berry between them have said much of what I would want to say about Invitation and Repair! (But there may be a few elements of what Berry calls the Great Economy still remaining to be explored.) 

Brad East has an outstanding essay-review on Andy’s book at The New Atlantis. Please read it — and The Life We’re Looking For!

neighbors and altruism

In my recent post on neighborliness, I quoted from a sermon by Helmut Thielicke, and I want to return to one passage from that sermon: 

Anybody who loves must always be prepared to have his plans interrupted. We must be ready to be surprised by tasks which God sets for us today. God is always compelling us to improvise. For God’s tasks always have about them something surprising and unexpected, and this imprisoned, wounded, distressed brother, in whom the Saviour meets us, is always turning up on our path just at the time when we are about to do something else, just when we are occupied with altogether different duties. God is always a God of surprises, not only in the way in which he helps us — for God’s help too always comes from unexpected directions — but also in the manner in which he confronts me with tasks to perform and sends people across my path. 

It strikes me that it is just this kind of surprise that the Effective altruism (EA) movement is determined to avoid. It’s a movement that puts givers in complete control: they rationally calculate how much to give and to whom, and are on principle unmoved by other considerations. 

My hero Paul Farmer used to say that as generous as WLs (White Liberals) can be, they tend to believe that the world can be repaired at no cost to themselves. If that’s true, then the difference between the WLs and the EAs is that the latter think the world can be repaired at no cost to themselves in anything other than money.

For an alternative model, I would suggest that everyone read this long and deeply moving story about an active, overflowing love that does not count costs — that gives all it has without calculation — that is wholly human-hearted


The epicenter of the EA movement seems to be in the Bay Area, and I wonder if that could be significant. If you are a very wealthy person who has to step over or around homeless people and drug addicts every day — or who at least has to hear regularly about your city’s crisis of homelessness and drug addiction — wouldn’t it be nice to have a Theory that explains why you don’t need to do anything about the problem? Maybe that’s too cynical, but I do wonder.

Denethor the impious

Long-time readers of this blog will know that I am a proponent of what I call the Gandalf Option. Such readers will also know how often I look to The Lord of the Rings for images and analogies: it is my handbook for discernment in our difficult times.

I want to return to the very scene from which I take my understanding of the Gandalf Option, just before the passage I quote in that linked post. The moment I want to call attention to is one in which Denethor, Steward of Gondor, is snapping back at what he believes to be the unnecessary intervention of Gandalf in the affairs of Gondor:

‘The Lord of Gondor is not to be made the tool of other men’s purposes, however worthy. And to him there is no purpose higher in the world as it now stands than the good of Gondor; and the rule of Gondor, my lord, is mine and no other man’s, unless the king should come again.’

‘Unless the king should come again?’ said Gandalf. ‘Well, my lord Steward, it is your task to keep some kingdom still against that event, which few now look to see. In that task you shall have all the aid that you are pleased to ask for.’

Gandalf goes on — as I explain in that post linked above — to describe the nature of his stewardship, but in this post I want to focus on something else: “it is your task to keep some kingdom still against that event.”

Denethor’s mind is wholly occupied by what he fears and what he hates; there is no room left in it for constructive work — for conservation, preservation, restoration. Denethor is the Steward of Gondor and he isn’t stewarding anything; he merely steeps in his own resentments. He thinks hating the right things and the right people is enough. It ain’t.

This is the theme of my recent essay in Comment, “Recovering Piety.” “Renewal of trust in institutions will not happen unless the institutions recover their integrity, and that will not happen unless the people who work within them become pious — devoted, faithful, committed not to their own personal flourishing but to the flourishing of that which they serve.” I hope you’ll read it.

My concern there is primarily with institutions, and especially with the institution called the Church, but Denethors are everywhere these days. People who know how to fear and hate but don’t love anything, don’t care for anything, can’t be bothered to take positive care for anything good. It’s especially sad to me when I see so many “Christian conservatives” who don’t conserve one single solitary thing and never speak of Christ — indeed show no evidence that they are aware of anything that Christ has commanded of us — and evidently assume that if they hate the right people hard enough the Earthly Paradise will miraculously emerge. It won’t.

The people who will repair the world are the truly pious. We should keep our eyes peeled for them, and encourage and strengthen them wherever we find them.

a threefold labor

This post by the film scholar David Bordwell has me thinking about how I might apply lessons from the project of caring for old movies to the more general work of cultural invitation and repair. Imagine then a threefold labor: 

  • Conservation 
  • Preservation 
  • Restoration 

Imagine something that you value — a trove of photographs, a house or farm, a notebook of poems, your local church; your family even. First, you have to make sure that what you value is not lost altogether. Then, having preserved it from destruction, you work to prevent its deterioration — you protect it from corrosive or destructive forces. And finally, you strive to restore it to its best possible condition. (I recently bought the Criterion Blu-Ray of Citizen Kane, and as I was watching it I wondered if this movie has ever looked so good. It’s staggeringly beautiful.) 

All this work paves the way for further development and extension of good things later on. This threefold labor, then, is not simply backward-looking, is not focused solely on the excellence of our inheritance. Maintaining our inheritance is what enables us to extend it, to add to what we pass down to the next generations. Because generations of scholars preserved the work of Homer, Vergil could write the Aeneid; because later generations of scholars preserved the work of Vergil, Milton could write Paradise Lost. And on it goes — or it should. 

critique and repair

Here’s my friend Sara Hendren, a couple of years ago, on critique and repair:

We’re seeing critique in the public sphere: criticism of leadership, of the weaknesses in our infrastructural systems, of our cultural confusion about acting collectively. Critique is alive and well (thank goodness!). What are its modes of action? Critique unmasks hidden or suppressed realities. It reveals ugly truths. It subverts or even negates mainstream or inherited or lazy narratives. We’re seeing its vivid power in every variety: in words and images, in books and popular culture, and naturally, on social media. It’s a beautiful (and alternately wrenching, and always vital) thing to witness.

We’re also seeing rhetorical acts of repair: proposals for new worlds that might be prototyped anew in the wake of disaster. There are calls for new models of business and medicine and education, newly flexible work structures, new forms of architecture and urban planning, new service models for community safety. The longer work of these reparative ideas has yet to be tested, but if we stay with just the rhetorical — these first acts of naming and calling for repair — we can identify its complementary modes of action. Repair language suggests new futures. It invites possibility. Perhaps it translates ideas from the past that might be reinvigorated or more accessibly understood, or perhaps it enchants by asking: what if? What if this new different thing could come to life?

This is great stuff.

I’ve been wanting to respond to Sara’s outline-for-thinking for some time (the text file in which I’m writing was created a year ago) but I keep hesitating. I hesitate because I’m thinking about this:

Understanding each mode [critique and repair] as a post — as a vantage with a view of the horizon that is necessarily partial, with particular assets and with unavoidable drawbacks — is one way to sidestep the often corrosive debates about “civility” that tend to explode in urgent times. Instead of policing the tone of others, wanting either less or more anger, less or more imagination and kindness, we might instead ask: What is my post? And what might be the alternate, equally productive posts of others, the ones who may well be moving toward a shared horizon? We don’t have to be the same. Each project is different, its actions and its affordances. By occupying one, you gain some things and you lose some things—and by occupying the other, the same is also true.

I am more skeptical about critique than Sara is, but that may be because, as she puts it, repair is what I have seen as my post, my calling — which might make me insufficiently appreciative of those who see critique as their post.

Also, in some follow-up thoughts, Sara describes a certain mode of “technological critique” which involves “the articulation of urgent socio-political questions made real in things. Things-to-think-with, which is not just for the gallery viewer. They’re public technologies with high stakes attached.” This notion of designed and constructed entities as critique evades some of my concerns, because my skepticism about critique arises from its loose and careless deployment of language. The deployment of things — well, that’s different.

But most of us think of critique as something done with words; so maybe I should just plunge ahead. And isn’t that what a blog is for? — plunging ahead, I mean, even if only to retreat later. Floating trial balloons and then waiting for them to be shot down, or shooting them down yourself. So … some thoughts, presented in aphoristic form but subject to later development:

1) The prospect of critique appeals — it looks easy, which is one reason why so many people try it — but is very difficult to do effectively; the prospect of repair intimidates, but almost any sincere attempt at repair is helpful or at least instructive (to those who perform it and those who observe).

2) The dominant venues of our discourse today — social media and other online environments — promote the degeneration of critique into snark or mockery by their encouragement of (a) the mere performance of virtue and (b) a distancing, physical and otherwise, from the objects of one’s critique.

3) Critique tends to do its best work when the critics know that they must share a substantive lifeworld with the people they are critiquing — even as they argue that the contours and structures of that lifeworld must become radically different than they are.

4) Actual repair is hard to dislike. The I-did-the-best-I-could-with-what-I-had ethos of There, I Fixed It inspires as much admiration as derision.

5) Repair without critique hobbles; critique divorced from repair corrodes.

6) Asking “How can I improve this situation?” is almost always a better question than “Whose fault is this?” — and indeed, that second question can become more useful and meaningful when it is asked as part of the process of answering the second.

7) Les Murray, “Politics and Art”:

Brutal policy,

like inferior art, knows

whose fault it all is.

8) Lesslie Newbigin: “The redemption with which He is concerned is both social and cosmic, and therefore the way of its working involves at every point the re-creation of true human relationships and of true relationship between man and the rest of the created order.”

hard things with friends

There is a line from Tom Stoppard that I like to quote, one that I suspect is important to Stoppard as well, because he has used it in his plays, with variations, at least twice: “The idea will not perish. What we let fall will be picked up by those behind. I can hear their childish voices on the hill.” As I move into the latter years of my career, one of the great pleasures I have is in seeing people come behind me to pick up what I have dropped or neglected.

At about the time that I felt that I had gotten as far as I could with a critique of our technological culture, Mike Sacasas picked up that theme and has written wisely and eloquently about it. I have struggled to find time to write as much as I would like about technologies of text and of the book, but my friend and former colleague Richard Gibson has picked up that theme and has done more interesting things with it than I ever could have: see his recent book Paper Electronic Literature, which I am going to write about at some future point. I haven’t felt the need in recent years to say anything much about what I called Left Purity Culture, because there are plenty of other people doing that work, for instance Jesse Singal. That there is so much good work being done on topics that I once wrote about regularly and still care about is an encouraging thing, in part because no truly important issue can be explored by a single person, and in part because my freedom from doing that particular kind of work allows me to focus my attention on the things that other people aren’t writing about.

Another form of this dynamic: When people take up the same issues that I am writing about but pursue them from a different perspective and with a different toolkit. My work on invitation and repair largely within the world of literature and literary culture has its complement in Sara Hendren’s work on critique and repair from the perspective of design and the human-built world. I’m very much looking forward to further engagement with Sara on these matters, because she is someone that I have already learned a lot from and expect to learn a lot from in the future.

A former colleague of the late and always-to-be-lamented Paul Farmer said that when she asked him how he managed to keep working on global heath issues when so many other people got burned out, he replied that the secret is “doing hard things with friends.” Farmer’s work was infinitely more important and radically more challenging than mine, but still, that’s what I want to do from here on out: hard things with friends. Including the friends who have arrived on the scene after me; and even, in a way, those who will come onto the scene after I’m gone. Hello, friends! Let’s do the hard stuff together.

R.I.P. Paul Farmer

I am absolutely gutted to learn of the death of Paul Farmer, the only contemporary, I believe, that I have called simply My hero. He fought the long defeat, and he fought it brilliantly. What devastating news. What a loss for the world.

UPDATE: Here is the first thing I ever wrote about Farmer, thirteen-plus years ago. I still believe every word.

Rest in peace — and well done indeed, thou good and faithful servant.


“Cunning” is a very interesting word. What follows comes largely from rummaging around in the OED.

Long ago it could mean little more than “quite knowledgable” — as when Richard Rolle, in the fourteenth century, refers to “Clerkes of grete cunnyng” — though it more typically acknowledged some kind of physical skill or dexterity, as when the Psalmist says, “If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning.” See also this description of the boy David: “I have seen a son of Jesse the Bethlehemite, that is cunning in playing, and a mighty valiant man, and a man of war, and prudent in matters, and a comely person, and the Lord is with him” (1 Samuel 16:18, KJV).

But gradually, over the centuries, it began to take on a certain coloration, that of rare and hidden knowledge or skill — thus the “cunning men” or women, the healers that I write about in this essay. Cunning folk may not be formally educated, but they possess much lore or local knowledge, and are capable of exercising wise discernment and tact in their healing art. What they do is not easy to learn or easy to teach; it’s not readily formulable in any commonly-shared language.

Which surely is what leads to the pejoration of the term: the use of “cunning” to mean something like manipulative or deceitfully malicious. Thus Francis Bacon: “We take Cunning for a sinister or crooked Wisdome.” And Tolkien says that Saruman means “man of cunning” — originally in the neutral sense, but as he becomes corrupted by Sauron, in the Baconian sense.

And yet cunning can also be a necessary tool for the marginalized, the oppressed, the threatened — the weak. Emerson says, “Nature has endowed some animals with cunning, as a compensation for strength withheld.” When Stephen Dedalus, at the end of The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, pledges to practice “silence, exile, and cunning,” he must do so because his powers are slight in comparison with the great forces (religion, nation, family) with which he must contend if he wants to fulfill his calling as an artist.

The kind of cultural repair I am inviting my readers to participate in requires the cultivation of cunning men and women — but woe be unto us if our cunning becomes corrupted. The path from a necessary guile to “a sinister or crooked Wisdome” is not a long one. It is interesting in this context to note that William Tyndale’s translation of 1 Corinthians 2:13 directly juxtaposes the positive and negative connotations of the word: “which thinges also we speake not in the conynge wordes of manes wysdome but with the conynge wordes of the holy goost.”

seeds and means of renewal

895px Giotto Legend of St Francis 06 Dream of Innocent III

In a recent column, David Brooks writes extensively and thoughtfully about the prospects for the renewal of the moribund evangelical movement. He cites some reasons for hope — though the signals are weak at the moment — but also points to some concerns:

Over the past few years, I’ve joined and observed a few of the conferences and gatherings organized by Christians who are trying to figure out how to start this renewal. Inevitably there were a few sessions diagnosing the problems, then a final one in which people were supposed to suggest solutions. I would summarize the final sessions this way: “Mumble, mumble, mumble. Well, it was nice to see y’all!”

Yeah. I think the primary reason for this confusion is that evangelical leaders are the products of the institutions of that movement — colleges, seminaries, various parachurch organizations — and those institutions either have failed to provide serious intellectual equipment or, when they done their jobs well, their voices have been drowned out by the entrepreneurial/marketing noisemakers who insist that the building of churches is exactly like the building of businesses.

If the evangelical church, or the church more generally, is going to be renewed, it will need to find leaders who are (a) deeply grounded in Christian theology and practice, (b) attentive to the contours and demands of our ambient culture, and (c) able to think imaginatively about the complex ways that (a) and (b) interact.

For the last several years, I have, on this blog and elsewhere, tried to create a framework for how to do just this kind of work and in the process begin to renew Christ’s church. As far as I can tell, this project has had absolutely no impact on anyone. I am not sure why. I just know that my writing has always been much better received by non-Christians than by my fellow believers; the latter seem not to know what to make of my ideas — perhaps because they don’t obviously belong to any particular school or tradition? I dunno. Maybe I just don’t have anything useful to say. But I keep trying anyway.

Let me gather together links to some of my thinking on these topics, in what I think is a useful order:

There’s much more if you follow the tags on this post.

the view from Poppy Hill

When I talk about invitation and repair, I think the concept of invitation is a pretty simple and straightforward one. I want to invite people to participate with me in this project of repair. But what is it that I want to repair and how do I want to repair it? … Goodness, it’s hard to say. Strange that I would have so much difficulty articulating even the most basic elements of my project. But let me try:

I believe that that our political and social order is broken, but (a) I am not properly positioned, either professionally or temperamentally, to do anything about that, and (b) I believe that our social and political order are broken because we have failed to care for the underlying culture that alone can give integrity and character to that order. As I’ve said many times before, I completely agree with Yuval Levin that it is indeed a time to build (or rebuild) our institutions, but the problem is that nobody wants to rebuild the institutions and they don’t want to rebuild them because they don’t care about them, they don’t value them, they don’t see what purpose they serve; for them an institution is simply an impediment to the achievement of their desires. In this kind of environment, I don’t see the rebuilding of the institutions as an immediate possibility. Americans today perceive institutions as repositories of resources for them to exploit. If you have any doubt about that, just observe how our Representatives in Congress behave. They have absolute contempt for that which they are pledged by their oath to serve. They raid the institution to scavenge money and status. As our leaders, so their followers: What people do with institutions, with any commons, with all (theoretically) shared resources, is to strip-mine them for anything fungible. 

This is a massive problem, and not one to be fixed by passing laws prohibiting this or that, mandating this or that. We have to look deeper, deeper into the culture that precedes and shapes the institutions.  

SO: I think by repair I mean first of all making our broken cultural inheritance lovable again. For me, that means holding up visual art and music and writing and trying to show its beauty so that other people will also think that it’s worth conserving and transmitting to the next generation.  

Which brings me to … 

20130310 POPPY slide SUW3 articleLarge

My friend Robin Sloan suggested to me that the Studio Ghibli movie From Up on Poppy Hill might be relevant to my Invitation and Repair project and because Robin is a smart guy I decided that I should watch it. It’s been on my watchlist for quite a while; I suppose the main reason I have never gotten around to it is that I knew it was not directed by Hayao Miyazaki (though he co-wrote it) but rather by his son Gorō. That gave me a suspicion that it was probably second-tier Ghibli. And maybe in some senses it is; it certainly quite different than the usual Miyazaki movie, especially in the complete absence of mystical or magical elements. It’s a straightforward adolescent love story – but, let me quickly add, an absolutely delightful one. I would adore this movie if only for how well it tells a simple tale of first love.

But there’s more to it than that.

The event that brings our two lovers together, in the early 1960s in Yokohama, Japan, is a threat to a battered old house known by those who use it as the Latin Quarter. On the grounds of a an architecturally bland and sparely modern sparely modern high school sits a ramshackle building comprised of multiple architectural traditions, Western and Japanese, thrown together in what I believe to be an utterly charming way. But in relation to the ideals of modern education, it is not fit for purpose, and plans are underway to have it demolished. Advocates for the demolition speak the language of the New, of the need for Japan to become more cosmopolitan, to be seen as “a modern and peaceful nation.” Lurking behind the whole story is the upcoming Olympic Games in Tokyo in 1964, and there is a palpable anxiety among many to eliminate those aspects of Japanese culture that might be disapproved by visiting foreigners.

The Latin Quarter is comprised of a dizzying array of subordinate units: a tiny philosophy club, a laboratory for aspiring chemists, an editorial office for a student newspaper, and many more. (I don’t think we ever see what’s going on in the tent that has been erected in one of the open hallways.) The only things holding the endeavor together are the gender of the people who use it — all of whom are boys — and a certain obsessive nerdiness about whatever it is that any given participant in the life of the Latin Quarter happens to find fascinating. 

Umi, the movie’s protagonist, starts to fall for a young man named Shun, who works on the newspaper and is prone to taking wild leaps, both literal and metaphorical. She helps him with his work, and then when he communicates to her his alarm over the impending demolition of the Latin Quarter, she agrees to help him. She does so first by gathering together a large group of volunteers to clean the place up and throw out its decades of accumulated garbage, making it, they hope, sufficiently attractive that the would-be demolishers will have second thoughts. But though Umi assembles a mighty army of volunteers and the girls and boys of the school work together harmoniously, their efforts don’t change the hive-mind of the Powers That Be. So Umi agrees to go with Shun and Shirō, the editor of the student newspaper, to Tokyo, where they hope to gain an audience with a wealthy businessman, an alumnus of the high school who chairs its Board of Trustees. They urge him to visit and see the newly renovated Latin Quarter and, if he is impressed by it, to intercede on their behalf.

There is so much, so so much, invitation-and-repair fodder here.

I want to call attention to a few things. First, I’ll note the point that Shun makes in a debate among the high school’s students about the future of the Latin Quarter: To the modernizers, he says, “Destroy the old and you destroy our memory of the past. Don’t you care about the people who lived and died before us? There is no future for the people who worship the future and forget the past.”

In a Japan somewhat maniacally focused on modernization in advance of the Olympic games, this is a minority viewpoint, but one that might resonate with those who know a little bit about historic Japanese culture and its instinct for continuity. 

Bettmann Archive/Getty Images

Umi has perhaps another reason to be disposed towards protecting the Latin Quarter: she lives in a big rambling house up on Poppy Hill, overlooking Yokohama harbor, that at one point was a small hospital and that is now, because of the poverty of her family in the aftermath of her father’s death a decade before, a kind of boardinghouse. But Umi and her family take great care of the place: everything is spotlessly clean and anything in need of restoration has been restored. Umi is very proud of the beauty and the dignity of her old house, and when she shows it to Shun he is immediately struck by the difference between the condition of her house and the condition of the Latin Quarter. So this, perhaps, makes him receptive when Umi suggests that if he and the other boys love that old clubhouse then perhaps they should do more to care for it. 

Which brings me to what may be the most moving moment in the whole movie to me. When Umi and Shun and Shirō manage to get an audience with that wealthy businessman in Tokyo, he is friendly but also wants to know how why the Latin Quarter should be preserved. After all, he reminds them, the population of the school is growing and there’s no question that a new building is needed. How can the Latin Quarter be allowed to stand in the way of that? And Umi – I think it’s very important that it’s Umi who replies to his question, not the two boys whom she has accompanied, and that she uses the first-person plural – Umi answers with simplicity and directness: “Because we love it, and because it makes us feel connected to our past.” 

Well, that’s it in a nutshell, isn’t it? We care for old stuff, stuff the world doesn’t have time or patience for, filth, the fractured and grimy culture we have inherited, because we love it and it makes us feel connected to our past — and therefore, as Shun understood, to our future, to those who will inherit it after we’re gone. That’s the project of invitation and repair. A simple imperative, presented to us through a simple story. 


makers and making

Let’s think about three ways in which technological making can go wrong, using some Ludlumesque naming conventions.

First, there’s the Zuckerberg Imperative: “Move fast and break things” in order to achieve DOMINATION. This is evil by intention: it openly rejects moral responsibility.

Second, there’s the Oppenheimer Principle: which I describe here: “When you see something that is technically sweet, you go ahead and do it and argue about what to do about it only after you’ve had your technical success. That is the way it was with the atomic bomb.” This is not purposefully evil, but it often leads to evil through neglect of moral responsibility.

And third: the Fëanor Temptation.

Many readers of Tolkien’s Silmarillion tend to think that Melkor (effectively the Satan of Tolkien’s legendarium) is the central figure in that collection of myths and tales, but he isn’t. The central figure is an Elf named Fëanor, who makes the Silmarils, the three jewel-like and yet somehow organic objects for which the book is named – because so many of the conflicts that deface Middle-earth (and even places beyond) are brought about by love and desire for the Silmarils.

Let’s approach the significance of Fëanor in a somewhat roundabout way, as Tom Shippey – whom I’m basically stealing my ideas from, straight no chaser – does in his superb book The Road to Middle-Earth. Shippey asks whether the Elves are fallen in the same way that Men, according to Tolkien’s Catholic faith, are. If so:

A natural question is, what was their sin? To keep the pattern consistent, it ought not to be the same as that of Adam and Eve, by tradition Pride, the moment when, as [C. S.] Lewis said, ‘a conscious creature’ became ‘more interested in itself than in God’. In fact the elves seem much more susceptible to a specialised variety of pride not at all present in Paradise Lost, not quite Avarice or ‘possessiveness’ or wanting to own things (as has been suggested), but rather a restless desire to make things which will forever reflect or incarnate their own personality. So Melkor has the desire ‘to bring into Being things of his own’; Aulë, though subjecting himself to Ilúvatar, creates the dwarves without authority; Fëanor forges the Silmarils. One might rewrite Lewis’s phrase to say that in Valinor, as opposed to Eden, the Fall came when conscious creatures became ‘more interested in their own creations than in God’s’. The aspect of humanity which the elves represent most fully – both for good and ill – is the creative one.


Significantly Fëanor learns not from Manwë, nor Ulmo, but from Aulë, the smith of the Valar and the most similar of them to Melkor; Aulë too is responsible for the despatch of Saruman to Middle-earth…; Aulë is the patron of all craftsmen, including ‘those that make not, but seek only for the understanding of what is’ – the philologists, one might say, but also the scopas, the ‘makers’, the fabbri, the poets. Tolkien could not help seeing a part of himself in Fëanor and Saruman, sharing their perhaps licit, perhaps illicit desire to ‘sub-create’. He wrote about his own temptations, and came close to presenting the revolt of the Noldor as a felix culpa, a ‘fortunate sin’, when Manwë accepts that their deeds will live in song, so that ‘beauty not before conceived [shall] be brought into Eä’; fiction, poetry, craftsmanship are seen as carrying their own justification and as all being much the same thing.

And finally, Shippey brings us to the heart of the matter, with a reference to Tolkien’s comment, in one of his prefaces to The Lord of the Rings, that his story is not an allegory of our era but may well have “applicability” to our era:

Love of things, especially artificial things, could be seen as the besetting sin of modern civilisation, and in a way a new one, not quite Avarice and not quite Pride, but somehow attached to both. In that view The Silmarillion would have something like the distinctively modern ‘applicability’ of The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, for all its archaic setting.

You can see from all this that what I am calling the Fëanor Temptation is closer to the Oppenheimer Principle than to the Zuckerberg Imperative. There is no direct intention to dominate, no thought of controlling or even influencing others. We are told that “Fëanor and the craftsmen of the Noldor worked with delight, foreseeing no end to their labours” – they find their work “technically sweet,” you might say.

But in the making of the Silmarils there was something of greater dignity, a love of something not made by Fëanor or any other of the Children of Iluvatar (i.e. Elves and Men): “For Fëanor, being come to his full might, was filled with a new thought, or it may be that some shadow of foreknowledge came to him of the doom that drew near; and he pondered how the light of the Trees, the glory of the Blessed Realm, might be preserved imperishable.” The desire to make the Silmarils, then, arises from a delight in the light of the Two Trees made by the Valar, the archangelic demiurges of this imagined cosmos.

But is there in Fëanor, perhaps, a certain desire to compete with the Valar? The Valar themselves seem not to have been concerned: “Varda [the Queen, as it were, of the Valar] hallowed the Silmarils, so that thereafter no mortal flesh, nor hands unclean, nor anything of evil will might touch them, but it was scorched and withered; and Mandos foretold that the fates of Arda, earth, sea, and air, lay locked within them.” Yet there is cause for concern in the next sentence: “The heart of Fëanor was fast bound to these things that he himself had made.”

So strong is the hold of the Simlarils over Fëanor that when Melkor offers him shelter for them he is briefly tempted; and though he fiercely rejects Melkor – indeed he is the one who renames Melkor as Morgoth, the Black Enemy; and when Morgoth kills Fëanor’s father we are told that “his father was dearer to him than the Light of Valinor or the peerless works of his hands.” He is no monster; or not for a long time. But when Morgoth steals the Silmarils Fëanor becomes (quite literally, I think) insane with rage, and he and after him his sons are willing to defy the Valar and kill anyone who might stand between them and the recovery of those gems.

They swore an oath which none shall break, and none should take, by the name even of Ilúvatar, calling the Everlasting Dark upon them if they kept it not; and Manwë they named in witness, and Varda, and the hallowed mountain of Taniquetil, vowing to pursue with vengeance and hatred to the ends of the World Vala, Demon, Elf or Man as yet unborn, or any creature, great or small, good or evil, that time should bring forth unto the end of days, whoso should hold or take or keep a Silmaril from their possession.

The gems are good; their making was at least potentially innocent; but afterward arose a lust for owning and controlling that led to great tragedy. Shippey again: the Fall of the Elves occurred “when conscious creatures became ‘more interested in their own creations than in God’s’. The aspect of humanity which the elves represent most fully – both for good and ill – is the creative one.”

And this is why “making” in and of itself is not the answer to our decadent moment. “Love of things, especially artificial things, could be seen as the besetting sin of modern civilisation, and in a way a new one, not quite Avarice and not quite Pride, but somehow attached to both” – and this is the Fëanor Temptation. It is in light of this temptation that I advocate repair, which is a mode of caring for what we have not made, but rather what we have inherited. We will not be saved by the making of artifacts — or from the repair of them, either; but the imperative of repair has these salutary effects: it reminds us of our debt to those who came before us and of the fragility of human constructs.  

myths and counter-myths

A while back I wrote a brief essay on the relevance of Emile Durkheim’s sociology to an understanding of our present social tensions. For the last year or two I’ve been reading a lot of sociology and anthropology from the first half of the 20th century, because, on the one hand, the social sciences had not at that time fallen under the sway of a compulsion to quantify: they were willing to think analytically about culture without needing calculations and charts. On the other hand, they also differentiated themselves from earlier humanistic thought in some interesting and useful ways.

One of the key such differentiations is the emphasis, in early sociology and anthropology, on the continuities of human experience. That is, though these thinkers were certainly highly aware of the dramatically different social practices that could be found in the cultures of the world, and researched those varying practices with great care and thoroughness, they nevertheless believed that there were certain permanent human impulses that make their way into every culture.

The most important conclusion to be drawn from that insight is that our belief in ourselves as modern persons, or rational persons, different from the primitives who preceded us and who still might persist in strange corners of the world, is an illusion. We are driven by the same needs as all others humans past and present.

I gestured at this point a few years ago in an essay I wrote called “Wokeness and Myth on Campus.” As I’ve said before, I don’t use the word “woke” any more, but I am still fascinated by Leszek Kołakowski’s idea that in every culture there is a technological core and a mythical core. As a culture develops it does not cease to engage with mythical experience, though the specific content of the myths may change and the ways we articulate our myths to ourselves may change. One of Kołakowski’s main points is that we have rarely understood the mythical core of our culture because we have a tendency to deny that we still experience the world mythically. The great value of these early sociologists and anthropologists is that they understood that we do indeed always experience the world mythically as well as rationally, and they try to unpack that.

So, back to Durkheim. In his early book The Division of Labor in Society, he makes a few points that are worth reflecting on. Let’s start with this: “The totality of beliefs and sentiments common to the average members of a society forms a determinate system with a life of its own. It can be termed the collective or common consciousness” (63). This is one of Durkheim’s most famous ideas. He turns from this definition to a definition of crime or criminal action: “an act is criminal when it offends the strong, well defined states of the collective consciousness” (64). And he goes on to say on that same page that “we should not say that an act offends the common consciousness because it is criminal, but that it is criminal because it offends that consciousness. We do not condemn it because it is a crime, but it is a crime because we condemn it.… An act is socially evil because it is rejected by society.”

Now, all of this is related to the argument that Durkheim develops at length in a later book, The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life, in which he says that religion is essentially a means of producing, sustaining, and extending social solidarity. And one of the primary social functions of crime (Durkheim always thinks functionally about these matters) is also to produce, sustain, and extend social solidarity. That is, one of the ways in which we define the collective consciousness is by pointing to acts that violate it, persons that transgress it. It is therefore necessary for social cohesion that we punish malefactors. That punishment is, as Durkheim says “an act of vengeance” (69), but the key purpose of such vengeance is a passionate confirmation of social solidarity.

It was this idea that Kai Erickson extended and confirmed in his book Wayward Puritans: A Study in the Sociology of Deviance. What Erickson wanted to show was that

the deviant act … creates a sense of mutuality among the people of a community by supplying a focus for group feeling. Like a war, a flood, or some other emergency, deviance makes people more alert to the interests they share in common and draws attention to those values which constitute the “collective conscience” of the community. Unless the rhythm of group life is punctuated by occasional moments of deviant behavior, presumably, social organization would be impossible. (4)

The whole purpose of Erickson’s book is to show in great detail how the Durkheimian understanding of deviance helps us to understand what happened in the Salem witch trials.

At the very end of his book, Erickson points out that in our thinking about crime and punishment Americans find themselves in positions similar to those of their ancestors:

Now, as then, we leave few return routes open to people who try to resume a normal social life after a period of time spent on the community’s boundaries, because most of us feel that anyone whose skids off into the more severe forms of aberrant expression is displaying a serious defect of character, a deep blemish which cannot easily be erased. We may learn to think of such people as “sick” rather than “reprobate,” but a single logic governs both of these labels, for they imply that nothing less than an important change of heart, a spiritual conversion or a clinical cure, can eliminate that inner seed which leads one to behave in a deviant fashion (204–05).

But are there “inner seeds” that cannot be extracted? I have often commented that our society today has many means of punishment but no means of restoration. And that has a lot to do with the essentialism with which so many people think about race and ethnicity, and even in some circumstances sex. There is a kind of taint to whiteness or maleness or cishetness that cannot be eradicated. So what possible avenue of restoration to the community might there be? None, I think. Instead, there can only be a perpetual enforcement of a perpetual shame — because that’s what confirms solidarity among those who want to be in solidarity with one another. Precisely the same thing happens in white separatist and nationalist environments; and indeed in several other subcultures that have an illusory sense of themselves as complete and whole. 

If we want to push back against such fragmentations of our social order, we need counter-myths. Even my project of Invitation and Repair probably requires me to articulate my ideas in ways that will be mythically compelling (in Kołakowski’s sense). Unfortunately, I don’t have those skills; but I know of some writers who do, and I’ll draw on them. 

orienting principles

Many thoughts led to my beginning this Invitation and Repair project, but two of the major ones I have articulated on this blog: 

One: “One of the chief tasks of Christians in our time, I think, is to correct errors: to engage patiently and gently in the tedious work of explaining to people that what they think they know about Christianity is simply wrong.” 

Two: “I do not wish merely to denounce others, but to uphold and celebrate some form of Christian life and belief. Pascal wrote, ‘Men despise religion; they hate it and fear it is true. To remedy this, we must begin by showing that religion is not contrary to reason; that it is venerable, to inspire respect for it; then we must make it lovable, to make good men hope it is true; finally, we must prove it is true.’ Have I considered that, if I indeed have a strong conviction that my understanding of Christianity is the right one, there are alternatives to denunciation of others, and a vital one is the difficult task of making my model of Christianity so lovable that people will want it to be true?”