Margie and I are constantly reading—magazines, blogs, books—and when we notice something that impresses us, something that makes us smile, or that teaches us something new, or is so well-written as to be cherished simply for the excellence of the prose, we often read it aloud to one another. It’s a way we help one another profit from something the other hasn’t read. If you happened to be in The House Between at such a moment, you’d hear it too, but since you aren’t here, reproducing a few of the “read-alouds” here is the next best thing.
Noticed: Wendell Berry’s indispensable words.
When Wendell Berry publishes a new book, it is worth reading. I say that from many years of experience in reading his books, both fiction and nonfiction. In his new (2022) book, The Need to be Whole: Patriotism and the History of Prejudice, Berry says that some words, delineating virtues or basic human and universal values, are so essential as to be indispensable in a civil and free society. A question we must face, of course, is whether we are willing to demonstrate what these words embody at cost in a society that has chosen other priorities. Another question is what alternative values—Berry names some—are at work tamping down the impact and reputation of these expressions of virtue, and how can they be resisted.
Among the necessary and the least dispensable words in our language are those by which we name our values. Here is a list (surely not complete) of such words: Truth, Justice, Mercy, Forgiveness, Peace, Equality, Trust, Hospitality, Generosity Freedom, Love, Neighborliness, Home, Reverence, Beauty Care, Courtesy, Goodness, Faith, Kindness, Health, Wholeness, Holiness. It is obvious, first of all, how unhappily these words and the thoughts they name must associate with the materialism, the several determinisms, the ideal of mechanical efficiency and the rule of profit and war, which now intrude so powerfully into their company. And so we need more than ever the words on my list. We need them as abstractions commonly understood, as they appear often in the Bible, in the founding documents of the United States, and in various classics of literature. We need them, that is, as the names of familiar ideals by which to rectify our thoughts and our lives. But we need them also in the particularity of effort as we practice them, or as we try or fail to practice them. The great general principles are like an old tree’s trunk and main branches that sway but do not break. People in the days and years of their lives are like the leaves that come and go and are moved by the slightest stirrings of the air. [p. 29]
Noticed: Noticing the ordinary
In Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies (2009), author and teacher Marilyn Chandler McEntyre reminds us that we lose too much as adults if we fail to cherish the curiosity and lively interest of childhood. There are some things, in other words, we should never outgrow.
Anyone who has taken walks with small children knows that “getting there” is not the point. They stop and squat down. They smell plants. They laugh at dog poop. They pick up bugs. They drop the pebble they’ve been carrying, start to look for it, and find a feather instead. The feather turns out to be so satisfactory that they forget about the pebble. And where you end up, which may or may not be where you thought you were going, turns out to be the place you were going all the time.
Goal-oriented adults have to work hard to retrieve the habits of mind and heart I’m describing—the unselfconscious playfulness that will stop over anything and take an interest, the openness to noticing the random and irrelevant—indeed, to retrieve the basic attitude that nothing is random or irrelevant. [p. 144]
It might surprise you to discover the practical strategy Dr. McEntyre recommends “to retrieve the basic attitude that nothing is random or irrelevant” in life. “This is the work,” she says, “that poetry requires and enables,” which is why, she argues that we should “practice poetry” if we are to be faithful stewards of words in a culture of lies.
Noticed: Michael Gerson on evangelical politics
Michael Gerson was a speechwriter for George W. Bush, a columnist for The Washington Post, and a Visiting Fellow for the Center for Public Justice. On November 17, 2022, he died of cancer at the age of 58. A graduate of Wheaton College, his perspective on American politics and the evangelical community was thoughtful, irenic, and incisive. In one of his last columns, “Trump should fill Christians with rage. How come he doesn’t?” (September 1, 2022), Gerson identified how far evangelical politics have strayed from the teachings and example of Jesus. For an op-ed column his essay is longer than usual, but it is well worth reading, discussing, and sharing with friends. You can read Gerson’s thoughtful piece here. His essay is full of carefully chosen links to supporting articles, so it’s rich with material to consider with care. Gerson’s op-ed is so expansive it is difficult to choose a selection to quote here, but I’ve chosen this, recognizing that this does not adequately summarize his essay but simply touches on some of his concerns:
From one perspective, the Christian embrace of populist politics is understandable. The disorienting flux of American ethical norms and the condescension of progressive elites have incited a defensive reaction among many conservative religious people—a belief that they are outsiders in their own land. They feel reviled for opposing gender ideology that seems to have arrived just yesterday, or for stating views on marriage that Barack Obama once held. They fear their values are under assault by an inexorable modernity, in the form of government, big business, media and academia.
Leaders in the Republican Party have fed, justified and exploited conservative Christians’ defensiveness in service to an aggressive, reactionary politics. This has included deadly mask and vaccine resistance, the discrediting of fair elections, baseless accusations of gay “grooming” in schools, the silencing of teaching about the United States’ history of racism, and (for some) a patently false belief that Godless conspiracies have taken hold of political institutions.
Some religious leaders have fueled the urgency of this agenda with apocalyptic rhetoric, in which the Christian church is under Neronian persecution by elites displaying Caligulan values. But the credibility of religious conservatives is undermined by the friends they have chosen to keep. Their political alignment with MAGA activists has given exposure and greater legitimacy to once-fringe ideas, including Confederate nostalgia, white nationalism, antisemitism, replacement theory and QAnon accusations of satanic child sacrifice by liberal politicians.
Surveying the transgressive malevolence of the radical right, one is forced to conclude: If this is not moral ruin, then there are no moral rules….
Many perceive that their convictions and institutions are under assault by “woke” liberalism. Despite a judicial environment generally favorable to religious freedom, some view this tension as a death struggle for American identity. Their sources of information (such as conservative talk radio and Fox News) make money by inflating anecdotes into the appearance of systematic anti-religious oppression. And this led religious conservatives to seek and support a certain kind of leader. “I want the meanest, toughest SOB I can find to protect this nation,” Southern Baptist pastor Robert Jeffress explained in his 2016 defense of Trump.
This view of politics is closer to “Game of Thrones” than to the Beatitudes. Nowhere did Jesus demand political passivity from his followers. But his teachings are entirely inconsistent with an approach to public engagement that says: “This Christian country is mine. You are defiling it. And I will take it back by any means necessary.”
By assaulting democratic and religious pluralism, this agenda is at war with the constitutional order. By asserting self-interested rights, secured by lawless means, this approach has lost all resemblance to the teachings of Christ. A Christianity that does not humanize the life of this world is not Christianity.
The theological roots of this error run deep. Evangelicals often think that being a Christian means the individualistic acceptance of Jesus as their personal Savior. But this is quite different from following the example of Jesus we find in the Gospels. “He never asks for admirers, worshipers or adherents,” Soren Kierkegaard observed. “No, he calls disciples. It is not adherents of a teaching but followers of a life Christ is looking for.”
Noticed: Tish Harrison Warren urges support for A Rocha
As do Margie and I. Please get to know the life-giving, generative work of A Rocha and if possible, support it generously. Here’s Warren:
A Rocha, which means “the rock” in Portuguese, is a network of faith-based conservation organizations, which work toward this vision of a restored, healed creation. The group began in 1983 when Peter Harris, an Anglican vicar, moved with his wife Miranda to the Algarve region of Portugal, where they founded a bird observatory and an intentional Christian community. Since then, A Rocha’s reach has expanded considerably. From working with local farmers in India to protect elephant populations to improving soil health in Peru, and reducing plastic waste on Florida beaches, A Rocha now spearheads conservation projects in over 20 countries…
Environmental action can sometimes seem fear-driven and doom-oriented to me. The messaging can feel like: “We are drifting alone on this sinking ship of an Earth and it would be better if humans weren’t even here. Be sure to recycle.” This makes sense given the truly dire reality of climate change. Things really are bad. A Rocha’s work, however, is infused with joy. It emphasizes that small things matter, and that hope is found in the reality that our work allows us to participate in a redemption story.
For the follower of Jesus, caring for the earth is not optional. Supporting A Rocha is one way to help steward the Lord’s earth.
This is my fourth collection of such short extracts. If you’d like the read the earlier ones, you can find “Sundry (1)” here, Sundry (2) here, and Sundry (3) here.
Photo credit: Photo by Vlada Karpovich (https://www.pexels.com/photo/a-teacup-beside-an-open-book-9969240/)