Christmas In a Minor Key

Christmas In a Minor Key

 

Christmastime is here. Bring on the blitz of traditions and travels, wants and wishes. Get the shopping done, get the family together, get the food ready, get the getting going in all its guises. Fill the snowy expanse that is the holiday season. With so many things trying to get in, sometimes it seems like nothing succeeds and Christmastime is empty instead of full: Christmas in a minor key. The marketeers have convinced us that we’re longing for something, but once again their offered ephemera have failed to satisfy.

This can only mean it’s time for the annual viewing of A Charlie Brown Christmas.

Under falling snow, Charlie Brown is searching. For meaning, for escape from materialism, for Christmas. He confides in his pal Linus that even with Christmas on its way with gifts and cheer, he still feels melancholy. Through the course of an afternoon, Chuck looks in the places we all tend to look this time of year. He looks in his mailbox for a Christmas card, for some human connection and affirmation. He looks to the 5-cent psychiatrist; perhaps a mental health adjustment will help. Ultimately, Lucy enlists him to direct the kids’ Christmas play and so Charlie Brown looks to a satisfying career to put his heart at ease. And we certainly see how that works out.

Meanwhile, Snoopy dives into Christmas commerce full tilt, festooning his doghouse and erstwhile WWI fighter plane with an arsenal of lights and ornaments. Taking Christmas by storm, in hot pursuit of a glorious cash prize.

At the pageant rehearsal, Charlie Brown learns a lesson in herding cats and so even merry company and music can’t cure what ails him. Beneath the cheer lies vanity, snobbishness, and shallow revelry. Actors, right? In need of a break and determined to set the right tone for this Christmas play, Chuck sets off with Linus to get a Christmas tree. A nice, shiny aluminum one, Lucy shouts after him. Looks matter. So the pair follows the modern equivalent of a star in east: two roving spotlights.

Confronted by an explosion of neon kitsch at the tree lot, Charlie Brown nearly despairs until he finds a spindly, real tree. Wood and needles, the least commercial, most plain thing he has seen in the whole town. With apparent peace, he takes the one true tree to show to the others, but his humble offering receives a humiliating rebuke. What a blockhead.

Deflated and frustrated, Charlie Brown cries out, ‘Doesn’t anybody know what Christmas is all about?’

Linus knows. In what may be the last place a passage of Scripture gets a sincere reading in all of primetime TV, Linus recites Luke 2:8-14 center stage in a single spotlight. Beneath all the hyper-exaggerated veneer, Christmas is really about something as simple as the birth of a baby (albeit a birth announced by angels and the glory of the Lord). It’s the emotional turning point, the moment of quiet clarity. I tear up every time.

On a side note, maybe the glory that shone round about those shepherds long ago has been echoing through the years and people, in a DIY effort to recapture glory, have just gotten a little crazy. Maybe the aluminum trees are just an over-cooked reflection of something real after all.

Of course, that’s all easy to swallow. Christmas™ has grown gaudy and superficial. Tone it down, for heaven’s sake. Have some goodwill towards men. But, the simplicity of Christmas is only half the point. In the final five minutes, Schultz and the animators drive home a seditiously counter-cultural point, exposing the hollowness of mere tradition and DIY glory, to replace it with something enduring.

Comforted by Linus’ soliloquy, Charlie Brown carries his Christmas tree home. As he walks through his snow-bound town, all the other trees stoop under the weight of the drifts. Bowing in the direction of Chuck’s sad little tree, oddly enough. Are they paying deference? At home, Charlie is astounded to see what his beagle’s been up to. Snoopy tucked right into the hype and glitz of his culture with relish and did up his little red house into a festive juggernaut. I tell you, he has already received his reward. First place. Good grief.

Charlie Brown takes a crimson ornament, a token of Snoopy’s best effort, and hangs it on his own tree. The poor, wretched thing buckles under the weight. ‘I’ve killed it.’ Indeed, Chuck. Haven’t we all?

A dejected boy heads in from the cold. The Peanuts gang shows up (hopefully to apologize for being mean as vipers) and Linus, that bastion of loyalty and wisdom, declares that the tree ain’t all that bad. It just needs a little t.l.c. Linus lays his security blanket down at the foot of the tree. Snoopy could probably spare some lights and bells. But wait! Is the whole premise about to come undone? Is the commercialist brigade about to take the last lonely refuge of humble simplicity and bling it into oblivion? Thankfully, no. When the gang finishes, what we see remains a real tree, but a Christmas tree fully revealed.

I don’t think it’s an accident that the kids start humming ‘Hark, the Herald Angels Sing’. Glory to the newborn king. Indeed, glory has found its home. Not on a dog house, but on the one true tree. The emblem of Christmas. Snoopy’s reaction might just be the most subversive moment of the whole show. His glory has been robbed and given upon this tree and instead of moping or snarling about it, he joins the singing. Every tongue confesses that the lights look better on the tree, even the dog who thought he had cornered the market on glorious display.

Charlie Brown returns, touchingly stunned to see what’s become of his lowly little tree. His honest search has been rewarded with a beautiful vision far more than he could have imagined. Merry Christmas, Charlie Brown.

*       *       *

Snowpiercer and the Advent Longing of Dystopia

christmas train 4

And the LORD said to Samuel, “Obey the voice of the people in all that they say to you, for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected me from being king over them…forsaking me and serving other gods…Now then, obey their voice; only you shall solemnly warn them and show them the ways of the king who shall reign over them.”

-I Samuel 8

*   *   *

We are in the midst of Advent: the season in which the church does the inconspicuous celebration of the birth of Jesus, but also does the highly conspicuous longing for his return. It is joy made poignant. Simultaneous to Advent, special Holiday films and episodes inundate the airwaves and digital streams with the magic of Christmas manifesting as the hope for romantic revelations under the mistletoe and extravagant gifts under the tree, the hope for one day of peace on Earth and goodwill towards men. Not many holiday specials hope for this world to be rolled up like a ruined garment and replaced. That very Advent longing is sadly mute in our Christmas culture, a culture that at best expects us to pull ourselves up by the bootstraps and, by the goodness buried in every human heart, make the world a better place. To this Christmas culture I offer Snowpiercer as a tonic.

Snowpiercer functions as a classic dystopian narrative. Curtis, played by Chris Evans of Captain America fame, lives on the eponymous train, an ark which has salvaged a remnant of the human race from a self-inflicted apocalypse and whisks them on an annual circuit through the uninhabitable, snow-bound planet. (What could be more Christmas-y than endless white-swept vistas seen from train windows, right?) The train is governed by some pervasive and yet unseen authority whose devotees carry out his orders with brutal efficiency. In classic dystopian fashion, this world is great for some and terrible for the rest. The system, like the train’s miraculous engine, is effective, even elegant, and utterly dehumanizing. This doesn’t sound Christmas-y at all, and it’s not. But, Snowpiercer is a deeply theistic story and one that unexpectedly, if unintentionally, pierces the heart of Christmas to get at a very Advent longing.

Snowpiercer presents itself as allegory, with each element of the story functioning as a microcosm of our world. The closed system of the train holds humanity, divided into two classes—elite and deprived—and deeply interconnected. It’s globalization shrunk down to snow globe size. Carrying the concept of economic scarcity to its logical limit (you only have what fits on the train and this must be carefully maintained), the rules afford a glut to the few at the zero-sum expense of squalor for the rest. A police state enforces this so-called balance on the back of the train through propaganda, deprivation, and brutal punishment for dissent. The rhetoric of the elite reeks of privilege and pomposity. “We must all of us on this train of life remain in our allotted station. We must each of us occupy our preordained particular position.” This ideology is harder and harder to swallow seeing as how the preordained particular position of the pampered elite is built on the subjugation and suffering of the entire class of maimed people in the back of the train (people whom you suspect were intact when they boarded the train all those years ago).

The metaphysical and positional antithesis of the steerage-class caboose of the Snowpiercer is the engine, the holy of holies on the locomotive ark. Powered by perpetual motion, it is the very essence of eternity through which all things exist and to which all things are owed. The elite revere the engine as their consolation in this ruined world and the logic undergirding their atrocity. Curtis’ people respect the engine as the means to power and a reordering of justice in their favor. And the guy who built the engine? He’s god and his name is Wilford. The merciful giver of life whose word keeps everyone in their right place with a terrible sovereignty, interceded forth by a hideous priesthood. This whole system, world, god, and all, is a joy to the elect and a monstrosity to the objects of its wrath.

Snowpiercer is a deeply religious allegory, self-consciously so, and its distribution of misery and comfort strips every rider on the train of their humanity, the rich and the poor. This is the world that Wilford, the engineer, the god, chose to give the people. Snowpiercer, then, begs the question: if God is like this and the world is like that, is God’s train acceptable? But, there is a crucial bit of tension that runs through the heart of the narrative. In our post-Wizard of Oz film world, we are bound to wonder what Curtis and his people will find when they reach the engine. What’s behind the curtain? Is this truly a divine system? Or is it a merely human construct enforced by the powerful to secure their position, and therefore a system that could be replaced with something better? This tension, at last, opens our window on Advent longing.

In Snowpiercer, as with all dystopian narrative, something has gone disastrously wrong in the world, and some person or party has devised a system to salvage humanity, but at great cost to some. And the system is only ever all too human. It’s the pattern of The Hunger Games, 1984, A Handmaid’s Tale and on down the line. Dystopia so often depicts a quasi-religious kingdom demanding fealty before the god of the state. This god certainly demands an awful amount of blood because its acolytes must deploy the police state to shore up its powerlessness to control the heart and mind through law. Transcendence is bound up in service to brutality. The system is shot through with brokenness, its people haunted by memories of something better, unable to shake the feeling that civilization can’t come at the expense of the dignity of the individual. So dystopian fiction is driven by the belief that a better way presently exists and can be found. A remnant of the remnant of humanity has studied the system and seen its atrocities and weaknesses and sets out to exploit a fissure in the wall and so make their escape.

In that sense, dystopia and Advent are perfectly wed. We all live in a world in which something has gone disastrously wrong. We long for restoration in our inner deep and in our society. We long for a good King to reign with a perfected paradox of justice and mercy. We have long endured all-too-human systems attempting to stand in for our banished King, but every episode in the long succession of regimes and revolutions has been both haunting and haunted. Haunting in its slowly unfolding prejudices and tyranny and haunted by a memory, experienced as a foretaste, of something better that eludes us around every bend. We are unable to shake the feeling that we are each more than a disposable part in an economic and political machine. Dystopia resonates with us because it is a technicolor version of what is already true. Like the citizens of dystopia, we long to return to Eden, but, the way back is guarded by a flaming sword that frustrates our repeated attempts to breach the walls with that quintessentially human religion of politics and policing.

Into this our dystopia a child was born to open up the way out, a narrow gate through which we would find our way to something beautiful, something dignified, something just, something free. And so Advent meets us ever in the second act of our dystopia, inextricably bound to injustice and tyranny yet having heard of the way out and taking on faith that its true, and waiting. Looking. Hoping. Longing for the apocalypse to crumble the walls of a broken system with a shout like a trumpet. This, though, is where Advent and Snowpiercer part ways.

Unlike Curtis, we don’t act out our longing for a better Kingdom by plotting to take over the train. We act out our longing by living as though the Kingdom had already come, as though we were already restored. It has; we are, though we still wait. We live out the life of the Kingdom even as we wait patiently for its arrival. The discomfort we endure is a constant reminder that we are waiting. This, then, is the beautiful promise of Advent: because God was gracious enough to enter our dystopia, we can look forward to the end of the succession of human gods and manmade paradise and instead look for the re-arrival of the God-man Jesus Christ to console us in his Kingdom. Come, Lord Jesus!

*   *   *

By way of epilogue, and with serious spoilers so I’ll take just a moment for anyone who doesn’t want to know the ending to stop reading…

I think Snowpiercer ultimately presented a very positive theistic view. It vented much hatred for religion-in-man’s-likeness, and may have tried to make God out as a cruel fabrication, but it undermined itself in the end. The world of the Snowpiercer train was never more than a human construct. Just another religious construction built to serve the ends of man, with no God in sight. Its engine, its eternity was a facade; the perpetual motion engine ran on child labor because its parts wore out and could not be replaced by anything other than a tiny person. Its god was nothing more than a man whose plans could ultimately be blown up. True, the ark once served a purpose, but its purpose had passed, as slowly became clear to the one true prophet on board who noticed the snow was melting. Power was preferred to truth and that was the sin that undid the Snowpiercer.

The bomb, then, was a cry to God for deliverance from this hideous train, and God answered with an avalanche to crush the train and open up the door to the untamed landscape of his grace and providence. Unforsaken life existed outside the train, despite the mythology of certain death. So a remnant of the remnant of the remnant stepped out into a landscape utterly wild, as utterly beyond their control as God’s grace and providence. There would be no subversion of this landscape to human will, but rather a submission of the human will to the kind of life this landscape would provide. And that is the very essence of Advent longing.

On Election Day

On Election Day

Mohler's post

*     *     *

This morning, a nationally prominent seminarian declared to social media that, ‘Failure to vote is a failure of Christian conscience and a failure of Christian stewardship.’ He packs quite a rhetorical punch: all that hypnotic repetition of failure and Christian-as-adjective with a touch of alliteration for flavor. I don’t see very much Christian truth under the rhetoric.

The failure I see in this election day reflection is indeed a failure of stewardship: it’s the failure of Mr. Mohler to steward his national platform in a way that proclaims the actual gospel, which he instead attempts to employ in shaming his following into heading to the polls. What Mr. Mohler is doing here is, giving the benefit of the doubt to a professing Christian whom I do not know personally, at best a display of weak conscience more informed and easily pricked by a politically hyperactive stream of American culture than by anything I’ve seen in Scripture. In that case, this statement is a contradiction of the principle of conscience at the heart of Romans 14—namely that each Christian should have the freedom to live according to their conscience without judgment from those with a weaker conscience (notably also without holding those of a weaker conscience [Paul says ‘a weaker faith’] in contempt, so I better tread carefully). At worst, though, Mohler’s statement could evidence a tragic transaction wherein he lays his personal justification on an altar of control through political influence. Either way, it’s disappointing and frustrating to see a prominent cultural voice who claims to represent evangelical Christians make such a polarizing and alienating statement from his elevated platform. In our age, can we all pause for a moment and weep for nuance?

It is very much possible to follow every political exhortation in Scripture without voting. Namely to submit to governing authority because it was put in place by God, at least up until you are asked to violate the basic tenets of Christian faith (Romans 12) and to pray for political leaders while living peaceful, godly, holy lives (I Timothy 2). Of course, it is not always easy to do either of these things, especially under a government with whom you disagree. And perhaps that fuels some of this voting frenzy: if we can just mobilize enough compatriots to make the government match our convictions then life will be comfortable. If that motivation drives Christians to the polls, then I think there are deeper issues to address.

It is very much possible to imagine an American Christian who is willing to submit to the government his countrymen so choose because he is going to go on loving and serving his local community no matter which political whim prevails on the changing wind. That Christian doesn’t need a government to address any national crisis because he sees his role as rightly limited to being salt and light to those actually within his sphere of influence. (In fact, if more Christians embodied such a lifestyle, perhaps there would be fewer crises from the midst of which we would look to government for a solution.) He doesn’t need vicarious victory through the success national platform because his living is personal and not vicarious, and he knows he is just a small part of a large body. He trusts that the same Spirit who guides his charity and witness guides the whole body and so the work of God will be done with or without the meager forces of legislature and judiciary behind it.That Christian also knows and derives an unshakable peace from this: that he is free and inviolably so, that neither man nor government can take away the freedom which God has given him, and at their worst can only give him momentary discomfort as he continues to exercise his freedom to serve God and love his fellow man.

If such a Christian exists and he chooses to stay home on election day with his convictions that government is no thing to hope in and a thing more swayed by leavening his community than by casting a ballot, then God bless him. If such a Christian exists and he stands up the pollsters as an act of protest against the laughable offers a politician might make and goes about living in a way that confounds any political agenda by its generosity and insistence on dignity, then God bless him.

Now, I think I understand the point Mohler is making and I don’t want to do him the disservice of turning him into a straw man. I think his real foe is not the Christian I just described, but rather an apathetic one who fails to exercise a historically rare privilege out of laziness or gross cynicism rather than any informed conviction. In that case, I would say indeed such a Christian fails to steward an opportunity given to him by God. But, just as there are Christians who don’t vote for the wrong reasons, so are there Christians who do vote for the wrong reasons—misplaced hope and a horrific expectation that their neighbors ought to be conformed to cold law rather than won over by the warmth of Christian community. Unfortunately, Mohler’s sound byte makes no space or nuance for multiple kinds of Christians but rather expects to bind all Christians to the constraints of his own conscience, and that is the real failure.

The Cult of a Personality

GoldCalf

*     *     *

In some kind of doomed fairy tale, Lebron James has been worshiped as a god, or at least a titan, since he was a child. I think this might have really done him some harm.

I don’t want to vilify him. People I know who enjoy NBA basketball say he’s really a good player. He’s talented. But he’s been dealt a terrible hand in life. Yes, a terrible hand. He happens to be quite gifted at a game that generates vast oceans of money and acclaim so from an early age he has been groomed into the role of NBA Superstar. He spent enough time in grinding poverty to send him running into the open arms of fame and fortune as soon as adolescence started to uncover his basketball prowess. Materially, the story couldn’t be more beautiful. But spiritually, it couldn’t be more dangerous. Fortune and glory have sharp teeth.

James’ story is one of the visible and the invisible. As a boy—fatherless, hungry, and flirting with homelessness—the ways the world can attempt to crush a child were on full display in his life. Size and coordination allowed him to rise above those obstacles, but they did not grant him escape from a world that tries to crush people. There is no path through life that doesn’t have obstacles from beginning to end. Present-day Lebron James would probably readily admit he has obstacles. You know, haters. Losing games. But I wonder if he can see the almost immeasurable obstacles between him and the kind of quiet humility that marks the rich, balanced life of a soul. The threat of faceless poverty is obvious; the threats of wealth and adoration are practically invisible.

Wealth and its trappings insulate you from all kinds of adversity, whether with the ability to buy your way out of any material want or by the ease with which you can surround yourself with a protective wall of affirmation. Wealth insulates you from No, from the only word that builds character. When do we grow as people? In the verdant, sweet-smelling times or in the gloomy stink of hardship? We don’t read books about the deep life lessons learned on smooth seas, we read about storms and harrow. While wealth may not calm the storm, it does help you feel happy in the middle of it. It just takes a moment of ephemeral pleasure to rob us of the wisdom gained during a clear-headed trip through disappointment.

Truly, Lebron James suffered as a boy. He suffers still. I would be willing to bet, though, that when he suffers now, someone is easily on hand with an anesthetic—reminders of wealth, an ego stroke, what have you. While the allure of money only lasts so long—likewise with platitudes and adulation—surround yourself with enough of that stuff and you can simply draw from whichever well makes you happy in the moment. But, happiness is a buddy. Hardship is the teacher. I look at Lebron James in the middle of the media circus, especially the one that pitches its big-top tent whenever there’s a question of where he’ll play basketball, and I see a guy who probably needed a few more clear-headed trips through disappointment.

What now? Should the man give all his money away, send his entourage packing, and go back to grinding poverty in order to save his soul? The myth of the noble pauper rides again? No. Wealth isn’t the problem. The problem is that the man was worshiped from an early age. All the money did was help him shield his ego from the kinds of people and experiences we all need to teach us we’re not really built to be objects of worship. Now I look at Lebron James and I see a tarnished god ever searching for his next hallelujah, his next high, his next bump of adoration from millions of strangers.

Consider the past few very visible years of his career. Clearly, nobody had told 26-year-old Lebron James that making a nationally-televised cuckold of your hometown is beyond tasteless. Or, if someone tried, their voice was drowned out by the chorus of voices preaching about ratings, about how he’s bigger than Cleveland, he’s an icon, he needs to build the Lebron brand, soak up as much spotlight as he can get. Nobody who’s navigated a sea of rejection makes an hour-long television event of rejecting people who love them. Still, for every bit of derision he received from the people he so publicly wounded, he got ten times the praise from all the other sycophantic, cynical people who cheered his ‘win at all costs, gotta get mine’ mentality. Then he famously struggled in his first finals appearance and he got a taste of the backlash that eagerly awaits the faults of gods. But, he rebounded and won two championships. The decision worked. Talk of legacy began to rise. But, he lost the next championship in decisive fashion and the press smelled blood in the Miami water. The shine had worn off in paradise.

Notably, the most recent championship defeat came at the hands of the San Antonio Spurs and their flagship player, Tim Duncan. The anti-Lebron. The story of that final game was Tim Duncan’s long commitment to San Antonio and a fickle titan had to watch as a mortal man who could actually commit to a team and a city received the lavish praise James had openly sought for himself. I have to wonder if Lebron James saw the kind of respect Tim Duncan received for winning (and losing) with the same team for his whole career. I have to wonder if that respect seeded the idea that James’ next hit of worship, his next allelu, could come from ‘returning home’. And so came the second decision—the decision to return to Cleveland. It’s difficult to see this as a genuine, heartfelt return instead of a calculated a ploy for more worship. He left Cleveland to build the Lebron brand, he’s coming back to build the Lebron brand.

The latest decision did come much toned down, but still 100% of the same essence as the first. Lebron’s letter was a precision-crafted PR piece, but saying what? Precisely how great Lebron James is —how he’s going to come in and take all those other professional athletes to the next level, about how he did such great things for the Cleveland. James is clearly the hero in his story. Notice the difference in how he addresses his behavior versus that of the people of Cleveland. He explicitly lists the offenses of the Ohioans against him (man, you burned my jerseys in the streets, that’s cold *sniff*), yet he never actually takes responsibility for his own arrogance save for a vague allusion. He never says ‘I shouldn’t have made such a self-aggrandizing public spectacle of leaving,’ just ‘I made mistakes, too. Who am I to hold a grudge?’ He spends all of a sentence on his own fault before immediately returning to his earned-but-spurned grudge. It’s a poor apology that makes more of the other person’s faults than their own and Lebron James definitely puts all the weight on Cleveland.

Yet the public laps it right up. A sidebar about the city of Cleveland. It’s hard not to think of battered wife syndrome in this scenario. Maybe I’m cynical, but the whole tone of Lebron’s essay sounds like a cheating husband saying it was really his wife’s fault for not keeping him faithful. Of course, a wife could forgive someone who didn’t ask for forgiveness, but she’d probably need a lot of counseling.

So Lebron wrote his letter. A letter over-inflated with ‘I’ and ‘me’ culminating in the big reveal: ‘I’m coming home.’ It reeks of ‘Aren’t you lucky to have me back?’ Who knows, maybe Cleveland is lucky. People are hungry to live vicariously through the feats of their vanquishing tribute, their noble champion riding out to face down giants and bring victory and riches to the people. Just like the jilted wife who just needs her man, people seem ready to accept any disgrace as long as the money and victory return.

I said at the top that I didn’t want to vilify Lebron James, and I honestly don’t. It really is a sad story wrapped in unimaginable success. In those formative teenage and twenty-something years, when we become who we’ll be in character, he was a golden calf, a golden Cav. I can’t imagine the psychological impact of that. In the end, my grievance isn’t with James acting from within his character. My grievance is with the folks who paper over the structural cracks in the Lebron empire, with the press that covers this story like a blessed reunion and casts James as the homecoming hero. It’s an image divorced from substance and that does nobody any lasting favors.

What Are People For?

What Are People For?

In an earlier post, I wrote about Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek and my long wait to actually get and so enjoy that lovely book. What Are People For? by Wendell Berry was both the catalyst for my finally embracing Dillard and a wonderful complement to that read. This collection of essays was a watershed moment in my intellectual and spiritual growth.

I came to this book in my early 30s—which is to say at an opportune time. I’d graduated from a liberal arts institution where I learned to be skeptical. I’d done an intensive two-year stint as a pastoral assistant where I learned that skepticism must be anchored in some bedrock truth lest my thoughts sink into despair. And I’d left the moral comfort of church employ for the diverse often confounding ethic of the marketplace.

A decade into what I’d call adult life—which I take to mean life under my own authority (in as much as I had free choice as to which authority I ought to submit)—I had a robust set of suspicions and convictions. I was suspicious of power (thanks, liberal arts college), and especially the economic sort. The trickery of money, the prostration before the mercy seat of the marketplace, the ways in which people distance themselves physically and psychically from one another in order to compete with the supposedly necessary ferocity of the ‘free’ market with a clear conscience, or at least a conscience sufficiently numbed. This knit together with my growing conviction that all problems, deep enough down, are broken-hearted-human problems (thanks, theological training), which, in order to live a good life, I ought to know about the roots of those sorts of problems in myself and others in order to advocate for their resolution. Thinking through my convictions and suspicions, much less articulating them in ordinary speech, would be a lot of work. Wendell Berry has been hard at work.

What Are People For? was my introduction to the fruits of his labor and immediately I was almost spooked to read wonderfully clarified and usually upgraded versions of my own uneasy thoughts. I had found something of a mentor almost as an act of providence. I had barely even a vague idea of Wendell Berry’s writing and to find in this book a map to my own angst was to have found a treasure, and a shocking one considering its age.

I would read an essay such as the brilliant “An Argument For Diversity”, deep in the context of my own modern world, and come to the end to find that Berry had written in 1988. Almost 20 years ago. That Berry’s observation and reflection still read as deeply vital in my technologically transfigured time speaks to both the subcutaneous depth with which he spoke of human living and to his clairvoyant ability to point downstream from his time and lay out the matured consequences of seemingly small actions. Truly this man knows how seeds work.

If I had to boil this book down to one point (which is impossible), I could at least say that the theme which kept jumping out to me was that in daily life we all steward the land, the created world, and our own human dignity is bound to that stewardship. Any shortcut around wise care is a fool’s bargain that ultimately and literally costs the seller his own self. Convenience is a viper that strikes us while we wrestle its tail.

So Berry advocates a kind of human slowness. He challenges me to use more of my own energy to reduce the demands I place on my world and ultimately on others. My own energy calls for patience and close observation while adjusting to a healthier threshold for contentment. And somewhere in that slowness I found the key to engaging Annie Dillard: once you stand still and take something as it is, it will reveal itself to you.

It so happens that these two books harmonize well. In one duet, Dillard’s chapter in Tinker Creek called “Fecundity” set ringing my recollection of Berry’s essay “Economy and Pleasure”. She captured my imagination and hunger for the wonder of creation and he reminded me that I am inseparable from that world by any means, and creation will ultimately afford me reciprocal dignity.

I owe Wendell Berry a debt. For affirming that I am free in all my thoughts with the same pencil that reminded me that only some of my thoughts are good and sustaining. For helping establish a way of thinking by which I can weigh my freedom and measure it out with some integrity. And also for re-teaching me how to write. In a brief explanation of why he writes by hand and not with a computer, Wendell Berry redirected my own creative process sight unseen. Where fancy software didn’t help unstick my mind, a simple reminder of the bodily act of writing shook things loose. I drafted these responses to Dillard and Berry by hand and while I can’t speak to their quality, I can speak to how un-frustrated I felt writing them.

Wendell Berry is always looking beyond the horizon, so much so that some have criticized him for being too idealistic. But I wonder if he looks even beyond the horizon of death and into a new world. Certainly his view of human beings in communion with one another and with their particular place is so exact and so beautiful, and so fundamentally at odds with our current state and trajectory, that at times I had to think of heaven while reading to keep from having my heart broken at the present impossibility of such a way. But Berry never ceases to aim at practical daily living. If he glimpses heaven, he does so only to advocate for that kingdom to come, that will to be done on earth. So I am deeply challenged in this life. And I hope to God I get to be a farmer in heaven.

Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

 

It took me seven years to read Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. Not because it is an exceptionally long book, but because I had to grow into Annie Dillard.

I bought the book in 2007 and attempted it then, but didn’t make it much past the first 20 or so pages. I remember a frog got eaten by some bizarre water bug. I wasn’t patient enough to let my eyes adjust to a brilliant and alien prose before moving on, to slow my mind enough to drift down into the granular detail with which Ms. Dillard presented her world. Still, after that failure the book remained on the shelf, waiting and occasionally daring me to pick it up again. Perhaps this is why we buy books: so they can remain in close company and taunt us for putting them down. Still, subsequent reads fared as well as that first. And then I encountered Wendell Berry.

I received What Are People For? as a gift several months ago and was introduced to slowness—unhurried urgency. Several essays into that volume I returned to Tinker Creek and its mysteries finally opened to me, much to my pleasure. That the wonder of Dillard’s Tinker Creek and Berry’s meditations on human dignity and its place in the world harmonized so well was a nice bit of serendipity. For this reflection, though, I’ll dwell on Tinker Creek.

Annie Dillard is a theological ninja. She presents a fully-fledged wonder at this created universe both intricate and glorious and at once grotesque and broken. Her book resounds with all of the creaturely joy of Psalm 148 and the dischordant the groaning in Romans 8. Of course, Dillard is hardly so pedantic. Rather more beautifully she points to what’s out there, colliding little details and vignettes. She offers it for your heart to take hold and make of it what you will. If you are ready to see God, he is plainly there and she’ll do you no disservice by shouting so that you miss him.

This is perhaps the most satisfying quality of the book, for my appetite anyway: Dillard lets God speak for himself, or rather she simply repeats what he has said and lets it be just as hard to follow, even hard to love, as life. And often, so often, magnificent. Those with ears, let them hear.

Annie Dillard does an adroit at sleight of prose in Tinker Creek. She has a knack for turning your attention to something small, even microscopic, describing at some length its form and function. She draws you in and in to the wonder of this tiny fragment of a portion of a creature until it fills your mind and then she abruptly tugs you into a completely unexpected sphere where the tiny detail connects to staggering enormity and she pushes the border of your imagination out. She’s caught you and then you realize you had already swallowed the bait several pages earlier and Dillard had only just set the hook. She does not hurry as she lures you in.

This is why I read: to be caught up in wonder. With this book, it is the wonder of all of the stuff out there—in the world, the universe, my own back yard—that just happens without any consent or particular help to speak of from me or us. Annie Dillard illuminates the ordinary things that simply carry on in delicate yet dogged balance. In her telling, this wonderful creation reflects glorious radiance as though sustained by some powerful word of which our understanding can only touch the hem, but which our eyes absorb in ripples and waves everywhere we look. It’s wonderful.

In spite of such a breathtaking, mind-bending journey, this book still reminded me of being a boy. Of visiting my grandparents’ farm and heading out to explore acres of hilly Kentucky countryside to see what creatures I could see. Of trying to figure out how to walk in such a way as to sneak up on a frog and so see it before it leapt with a yap into the pond. Of collecting jelly-like eggs from the bottom of a rock in a creek in hope that they’d hatch and I could watch the amazing change from tadpole to salamander. Of just hoping I’d come across a praying mantis anywhere. I count as a true gift any book that makes me feel tapped into the remote wisdom of the universe and simultaneously like a child. And I’m thankful for Wendell Berry for encouraging me to slow my mind so that I might finally, after seven years of trying, open the gift of Pilgrim at Tinker Creek.