Wolf Willow – a portrait of the Plains

The short story embedded in the middle of Wolf Willow by Wallace Stegner is now one of my favorite short stories. And, the rest of the book, which was first published in 1955, is one of the best I’ve read during the past year.

Stegner spent part of his growing-up years in the small town of Eastend, Saskatchewan in the northern Great Plains just east of the Cypress Hills. In Wolf Willow, Stegner creates the fictional town of Whitemud, Saskatchewan as the surrogate setting for his remembrances.

The Plains are the book’s main character. The physical reality of the Plains always has the final word. The people who have lived there, or in some cases attempted to live there–Native Americans, metis (a people of mixed French and Indian heritage), cattle ranchers, wheat farmers–adapt as best they know how to the extreme weather, the lack of trees, the isolation, and a host of other factors that make this region something far less than ideal for human habitation.

A few “stickers” among the non-native settlers successfully adapt and stay on, and even a few of their children and grandchildren. But, for many of the Canadians and Americans who attempted to make a life on the northern Great Plains of Canada, in fact most of them if Stegner is to be believed, the harsh, grim, drought-prone, lonely Plains prove too inhospitable.

“The Whitemud River Range,” is the name of the short story found in the middle of the book. It is a dramatic tale of just how brutal the Plains can be. The story follows a band of cowboys through the early weeks of the frigid winter of 1906-07 as they attempt–again and again–to round up the cattle for their ranch and keep them from freezing. Eventually, in the teeth of a howling blizzard the task shifts to saving their own lives.

If that sounds like a Jack London short story set in northern Canada, well, there are some parallels. But, I much prefer this story of Stegner’s. Despite the grim setting, the cowboys are a more likable and more human collection of characters than those I’ve encountered in London’s stories.

Wolf Willow is hard to categorize with its mixture of memoir, history, geography, and fiction. I found it a fascinating mixture and a wonderful evocation of the spirit of a place where I’ve never been but which I am now unlikely to forget any time soon.

Identity politics leaves some of us speechless

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Alan Jacobs captures my sentiments exactly:

     American politics is now nothing more than rival assertions of tribal identities. There are no Americans; there are no human beings; there are only instantiations of racial and sexual identities looting the store of our economic and cultural capital. In such a world the most ruthless bullies acquire more loot than everyone else. Tomorrow’s bullies will have a different set of policy proposals but will be temperamentally and morally identical to today’s.

When you’re ready to start the political conversation with by affirming that everyone in the room is a human being — not necessarily right about anything in particular, not necessarily good or even decent, but a human being in precisely the same sense that you are a human being, and that every single human being in this country should be subject to the same laws and norms enforced equally across the board, then get back to me. Until then, I don’t know what to say to you. I’m not refusing to speak; I just don’t know how to speak your identity-politics language without giving up everything I believe about humanity, and about what politics is for. — (Alan Jacobs, “Thought for Today,” on November 16, 2016, at his outstanding blog, Snakes and Ladders.)

 

Trump Wins – Michael Moore Was Right

I will elaborate on my very negative opinion of Michael Moore later in this post. But, when Moore explained weeks ago why Donald Trump would win, I believe he was brilliant — even prophetic.

If you ran into Moore, a far-left movie maker who has made millions of dollars in his chosen field, at the local 7-11, you might easily mistake him for an overweight, middle-aged guy getting a cup of coffee and some junk food on his way to his job at the local sheet metal shop. In his ball cap, t-shirt, and baggy blue jeans, he’s hardly anyone’s image of a Hollywood star.

Moore grew up the son of a Michigan automotive assembly line worker. The first major documentary movie he produced, Roger & Me, villainized U.S. automobile maker General Motors accusing that company’s upper level management of selling their U.S. workers down the river by outsourcing their jobs to Mexico. Moore understands blue collar working families. He came from one. And, he understands those men and women, not in some abstract way, but in terms of the frustration that many of them have felt for a long time.

And, that’s why he gets it so right in this clip. WARNING: Moore’s language is salty, to put it mildly, and unsuitable for the office or the ears of little ones. But, it is a pitch perfect echo of what you might hear on the shop floor or on the construction site:

 

Moore PERFECTLY captures the mood of a lot of people who just helped make Donald Trump the President-Elect of the United States. A lot of elites in Manhattan and Los Angeles don’t know anyone who feels this way. I know a lot of people who feel this way. But, you might ask, what about people who voted for Trump but who have a good job, and good insurance, and whose families are intact, and who don’t curse like sailors, and who are disgusted by the coarseness in Trump’s character. I can tell you that Moore still brilliantly captures the essence of the mood of many of these folks. They make up most of my friends and acquaintances here in a small town in a very red state. Many people who don’t fit the stereotype of the laid-off Rust Belt blue collar worker, got fed up with being patronized by elites who looked down their cultural noses at them as unsophisticated “deplorables” just because they oppose things such as same-sex marriage or safe-zones on college campuses, or are in favor of any number of politically incorrect beliefs or practices.

Don’t make the mistake of concluding that Moore is a fan of Trump. In the film, Michael Moore in TrumpLand, from which the clip above is taken, Moore ridicules Trump and makes it clear why he thinks Trump will be a disaster for America.

To reiterate what I stated above, my general opinion of Moore is negative, and that’s putting it mildly. I think his socialist politics are wrong and would be a disaster. I think his various crack-pot conspiracy theories are beyond wacky. But, he understands something about what a lot of “non-elite” Americans are feeling that most of the well-educated professionals who lead our society just don’t get.

And, I must confess, Moore’s paean to democracy in the middle of the video above brought me to the brink of tears. There is something powerfully just and right when, as Moore says, even though American men and women may lose everything they have, they still have “one thing: the one thing that doesn’t cost them a cent, and is guaranteed to them by the American Constitution: the right to vote…….it’s equalized on that day….. a millionaire has the same number of votes as the person without a job: one.”

Russell Moore’s Erasmus Lecture

Russell Moore continues to be the the Christian public intellectual who best speaks for me on matters of politics and policy. Last night I watched his Erasmus Lecture (sponsored by First Things) live streamed on Facebook: http://bit.ly/2ekxkiO. First time I’ve watched such a long lecture live.

Actual video and audio begins at 15:40 (min:sec). It’s over an hour long. Rod Dreher summarizes Moore’s lecture and provides his commentary at:
http://www.theamericanconservative.com/dreher/the-religious-right-a-eulogy/

I believe Moore was right when he said, “One of the assumptions of some in the old Religious Right is that the church is formed well enough theologically and simply needs to be mobilized politically,” and, then he persuasively argues that this assumption is wrong. As Dreher more colorfully puts it, “American Christians are theologically ignorant, and it’s killing us.”

Moore pointed to the positive signs that many younger evangelicals have embraced a more theologically thick faith. He points out that Jonathan Edwards is alive and well among some younger evangelicals.

However….. as much as I agree with Moore that rich, intellectually deep theological knowledge brings with it truth, beauty, and a rootedness that is necessary if Christians are to be salt and light in the post-Christian West, the transmission and cultivation of robust theology among a larger number of Christians has its limits.

Face it. The vast majority of Christians, past and present, have neither the educational background nor the temperament, to pore over Edwards and Augustine. For that matter, not many will read the wonderful works of more contemporary, and more accessible, authors such as C.S. Lewis (cited by Russell Moore in his lecture as helping save his faith), or Tim Keller, or Dallas Willard.

Besides, it is very clear to me from the New Testament that Jesus did and does place a higher priority on qualities such as love, faith, hope, mercy, humility, service, sacrifice, compassion and the fruit of the Spirit, than he does doctrinal correctness, intellectual depth, and theological rigor. And, based on personal experience and observation, the latter are not particularly good predictors of the former.

Still, the Lord has gifted the Body of Christ with men and women who can serve the Body by providing intellectual and theological leadership. Moore pointed out in his lecture that most American evangelical church leaders who have exercised political leadership (and I would add many who were not politically inclined but who have served in positions of power and celebrity in evangelical churches) over the past several decades have been sorely deficient in the gifts of intellectual and theological leadership, and those deficiencies account for much of the mess that we find ourselves in.

For me the biggest takeaway message from Moore’s lecture is that those of us who agree with his diagnosis must appreciate and promote biblically based theological seriousness, richness, and depth in our pastors, churches, seminaries, colleges, and among those lay Christians who are gifted and called to go deeper into theological study and then apply that knowledge in the vocations where God has placed them.

Maybe then, evangelical Christians will have something more substantive to contribute to America politically, including spiritually mature believers to serve in the vocation of politics.

Rising Tide

The Mississippi River flood of 1927 is at the center of Rising Tide, but John Barry freely interweaves much more. I found these subplots as interesting, if not more so than, the flood itself:
  • How Mississippi—economically, politically, and culturally—has long been comprised of two very different parts: the Delta and the rest of the state. (And, I would add, a third part, the Gulf Coast, which has long been under the New Orleans’ sphere of influence.) This was much more interesting that the bland story told in my eighth grade Mississippi History class.
  • How New Orleans in the early 20th century was the most powerful city in the South, and how the insular, wealthy, usually non-elected, elite of the city controlled, not only the city, but economic and political power in Louisiana and beyond.
  • How those New Orleans elites ruthlessly, callously, and needlessly sacrificed the people of St. Bernard and Plaquemines Parishes by dynamiting the levee south of the city in order to decrease the height of the river at New Orleans. And, then how those same power brokers reneged on their lofty promises and refused to compensate the flood refugees for destroying their lives.
  • How St. Bernard Parish truly has a fascinating history, including the bootlegging, fur trapping, and “wild west” atmosphere of the 1920s. I live only 30 miles from St. Bernard Parish, and many of its residents have moved to our nearby higher elevation county in south Mississippi. So, I know many people from “The Parish.” What I didn’t know is that of one of the most important ethnic groups in St. Bernard Parish are the Islenos, descendants of Spaniards from the Canary Islands who arrived in the 18th century. The Islenos’ culture was still very much alive in 1927.
  • How two brilliant, ambitious civil engineers—James Eads and Andrew Humphreys—engaged in a bitter feud over how the Mississippi River should be controlled.
  • How never before the post-1927 flood control project had the Congress appropriated such a large expenditure  to fix a problem that was in essence a regional, state, and local problem without requiring at a minimum “matching” funds from local governments. The flood control bill, reluctantly signed by Republican Calvin Coolidge, set a precedent that Franklin Roosevelt would push to even higher and broader levels in the New Deal just a few years later in the 1930s.

Barry’s historical narrative reads more like a page turner than a textbook. I don’t rate many books 5-stars. For me, this one easily made the cut.

The heartbreak of communal living – Heinrich Arnold and the Bruderhof

Rod Dreher has become the champion of Christians in the U.S. building “Benedict Options” in the face of American culture’s increasingly hostile stance toward traditional Christian faith. Dreher has written and spoken extensively on the Benedict Option over the past two years, and is writing a book, which will be released in March 2016.

Dreher insists that embracing the Benedict Option–which undoubtedly will be expressed in a variety of forms by different communities of believers–does not mean withdrawing from the world, but it does mean, “we must withdraw behind some communal boundaries not for the sake of our own purity, but so we can first become who God wants us to be, precisely for the sake of the world.” (Benedict Option FAQ)

It will be interesting to see in his upcoming book how Dreher recommends drawing those communal boundaries. Based on what Dreher has written thus far about the Benedict Option, I doubt he will advocate that intentional Christian communities renounce private property and share everything in common.

But, from the very beginning of Christian communities, there have been those who have embarked on just that kind of radical communal life:

“All the believers were together and had everything in common.  They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need.” (Acts 2:44-45)

The Bruderhof are Christians who have been living this way in various communities for nearly a century. The man who brought Bruderhof communities in to the U.S. in 1954 was Heinrich Arnold. His grandson, Peter Mommsen, tells his story in Homage to a Broken Man: The Life of J. Heinrich Arnold.

Arnold’s story is fascinating, inspiring, and to my thinking, heartbreaking. The young Heinrich Arnold is idealistic, sensitive, and driven by a sense of God’s calling and a devotion to his father, Eberhard Arnold, the founder of the Bruderhof. Thirty years later, Heinrich Arnold has experienced the joys of living in community. But, he has also suffered the dictatorial, devious, legalistic and cruel torment of fellow leaders of the community and those who cooperated with them to isolate and punish Arnold on the numerous occasions when Arnold crossed them.

Mommsen presents the elder Heinrich Arnold as having emerged from this crucible of abuse broken, both physically and emotionally. Out of this suffering God molded Arnold into a compassionate Christ-like leader full of empathy for the hurting and the marginalized. Arnold’s love for the Bruderhof then compelled him in the 1950s and early 1960s to accept the role of single “elder” and to drastically reorganize the communities in order to rescue them from the legalism and dysfunction that began to plague them after his father’s death in 1935.

Was Heinrich Arnold the man on the white horse portrayed by Mommsen? Who knows. Some of those who were hurt in the great reorganization didn’t think so.

Regardless, the story of Arnold and the Bruderhof is a sobering reminder of the difficulties and dangers of equating following Jesus with selling all we have and living together in community. Good intentions are not enough to keep sinners–even redeemed sinners–from brutally hurting themselves and one another.

Renovation of the Heart

Even though I’ve been an admirer of Dallas Willard for many years, I just got around to reading his 2002 book, Renovation of the Heart: Putting on the Character of Christ. I’ll refer to it as ROTH in this review. In many ways I found ROTH to be one of the most helpful things I’ve read by Willard, but I also found myself disagreeing with one of the sections in ROTH more than anything else that I’ve read or heard from Willard.

Over the past 15 years or so, I’ve spent quite a bit of time learning from Willard. I’ve read several of his other books, for example, The Divine Conspiracy, The Spirit of the Disciplines, Getting Love Right, and Hearing God. I’ve read many of his articles posted at www.dwillard.org and in other publications. I’ve listened to a number of Willard’s teachings and listened to or read a number of interviews with him.

Willard, who died in 2013, was a professor of philosophy at the University of Southern California. But, beginning in 1988 with the publication of The Spirit of the Disciplines: Understanding How God Changes Lives, Willard became one of the foremost thinkers and teachers in the movement to encourage modern evangelical Christians to pursue “spiritual formation” in Christ.

Willard insisted that every person is being spiritually formed, for good or for ill. It’s not surprising that his definition of spiritual formation in ROTH illustrates the precision and rigor that Willard (after all, he was a professor of philosophy) brought to the definitions of all terms he deemed important: “…spiritual formation for the Christian basically refers to the Spirit-driven process of forming the inner world of the human self in such a way that it becomes like the inner being of Christ himself.”

Willard argues in ROTH and elsewhere that one of the tragedies of modern evangelical Christianity is that we have lost sight of the centrality of spiritual formation in the life of every follower of Christ. God doesn’t just dump spiritual formation on his children without any regard for their role in the process. Just “letting spiritual formation happen,” will, at best, result in stunted, anemic growth in Christ.

Instead, Willard asserts that good, healthy, Christian spiritual formation happens when Christians cooperate with God. This cooperation is a delight to God, and for the Christian is not a burden, but a great privilege and joy. Willard is careful to say that the capacity to cooperate is itself a gift from God, so we have no grounds for being prideful about our cooperation. Willard frequently said, “God is opposed to ‘earning’; he is not opposed to ‘effort.'”

In ROTH, Willard recaps what he believes to be the three essential ingredients in the recipe for a believer to be spiritually formed into the image of Christ: Vision, Intention, Means. The believer needs a vision of what it means to have the mind, emotions, spirit/heart/will, and relations with others of Christ. That picture is most vividly painted in the New Testament, especially the Gospels, and also in various parts of the Old Testament.

Willard argues that while the vision is essential, it’s impact on the believer only comes alive when it becomes that believer’s intention to be aligned with, and formed into, the image of Jesus presented in the Bible and seen in his closest followers over the past 2000 years. In other words, the believer must decide that he will do what it takes to be formed into the vision of Christ given to us in Scripture.

“What it takes” to experience that formation are the “means,” that is the practices, disciplines, and methods that we need to actually do. One of Willard’s most crucial insights in ROTH and elsewhere is that we simply can’t grit our teeth and do what Jesus has commanded. We simply aren’t capable of obeying Jesus through application of our sheer willpower. In fact, Willard spends quite a bit of time in ROTH showing that all of us begin our walk with Christ with a depth of rebelliousness, sin, and evil within us that makes it literally impossible to do the things Jesus did/does without a radical “renovation of the heart.”

Instead, we must take a more indirect approach. Over time as we practice the presence of Christ, meditate on what God has done for us through Christ, continually turn and re-turn to Jesus as our Master Teacher, and practice the “means” of prayer, Bible study, service to others, silence, worship, fellowship, etc., the Holy Spirit will “renovate our hearts.” We will gradually become people for whom it is increasingly natural to love our enemies, forgive those who abuse us, turn the other cheek, etc., just to name a few of the things that make up the vision of being a person like Jesus.

ROTH is a powerful exposition of the call to embrace the vision, intention, and means of following Jesus Christ. Part of Willard’s genius in ROTH and elsewhere is his ability to define words, phrases, and concepts in fresh, enlightening ways that are, not only convincing, but seem to encourage the reader to both gratitude and action.

For all my enthusiasm about ROTH, I also have two concerns and one major criticism.

The first concern is with the anatomy of the human being presented in ROTH. Willard argues that the human being is comprised of spirit (heart/will), mind (thought/feeling), body, social relationships and soul. Willard persuasively presents this paradigm, and I found it very helpful in understanding what makes us tick and why and how God can change us as we follow Jesus.

But, is such a model of the human person true? Do some of the distinctions and conflations within Willard’s model owe more to philosophy than to the Bible? Are spirit, heart, and will synonyms for the same “thing”? I don’t know. I suspect that other Christian philosophers and theologians might offer different models than Willard does in ROTH.

My second concern is that, despite Willard’s frequent statements that Jesus’ Way is the very essence of simplicity, the way of following Jesus presented in ROTH sometimes seems to involve a level of intellectual sophistication that is beyond some Christians. It’s obvious that Willard was a brilliant philosopher. And, it’s obvious that his intent is to call his fellow believers to child-like trust in Jesus. There are, however, passages in ROTH that leave me wondering how the concept being presented would connect with a lot of regular Joe or Jane Christians.

Finally, my harshest criticism of ROTH is of Willard’s understanding of the Christian’s relationship to God’s Law as presented in the Scripture, and in particular the Mosaic Law. Willard says, “….human deliverance comes from a personal relationship with God….but the law is an essential part of that relationship.” Willard strains to show that “Law and grace go together,” and that “love of the law restores the soul.”

Put simply, Willard ignores much of St. Paul’s teaching regarding the relationship between God’s Law as given to Israel and those who are now in Christ. What about the fact that “Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes.” (Romans 10:4)?

Even though the section on God’s Law only covers five out of the 255 pages in ROTH, unfortunately, it seriously misses the mark on a very important subject.

Nonetheless, the remainder of ROTH is so powerful and, I believe, such helpful medicine for most of us 21st century Christians, that I highly recommend it.

The Quiet Game: Southern legal thriller that’s just too much

I’m not a big reader of crime novels or legal thrillers. But, I know some of their standard literary devices and stereotypes. In The Quiet Game, Greg Iles falls back on those devices and stereotypes so frequently that, at times, I felt like I was reading a parody.

Don’t get me wrong. It was an entertaining read. I just can’t imagine that The Quiet Game is that good compared to the top tier novels in this genre. It’s certainly not nearly as good as the three John Grisham novels I’ve read. And, it’s very different (in an inferior sort of way) than mysteries I’ve read such as the Maigret stories by Georges Simenon or The Lake of Darkness by Ruth Rendell.

A page turner. A pot-boiler. There’s no doubt The Quiet Game narrative moves right along, and the plot has twists and turns galore. Action. Adventure. Intrigue. So much so, that the other words that come to mind include contrived, melodramatic, even ridiculous. How many times can the hero, Penn Cage be shot at by the bad guys in a two week period, and most of those shots in the small town of Natchez, Mississippi? Twice? Thrice? Four times? I stopped counting.

In addition to the plot being over the top, the characters take stereotyping, especially Southern stereotyping, to new heights:

– The good-hearted, honest, handsome, crusading, Ole Miss alum and lawyer–Penn Cage–is the hero. He is so wonderful, that not one, but two beautiful women are throwing themselves at him.

–  His father, the good-hearted, honest, world-weary Atticus Finch-like, cigar-chomping small town doctor, who treats everyone, including, yes especially, African-Americans, with respect and dignity.

– Of course, both father and son are atheists of the Old Southern aristocratic variety. Much too wise to be Christians themselves, they nonetheless are tolerant and respectful of the faith of those who do believe, especially…..

– African-American Christians. Of course, the person with the strongest faith is the elderly, black maid who has loyally served the doctor and his family for years, and is, thus, practically family.

– The mind-bogglingly beautiful, passionate, intelligent, mysterious, rich Southern Belle. Although groomed to matriculate at Ole Miss, she instead, in one of the many early mysteries of the novel, attends one of the few other schools acceptable to genteel southerners, the University of Virginia.

– The crazy, dangerous, racist, evil redneck/one-time policeman. His villainy is made all the more heinous because he bears the same last name as one of the great saints of Mississippi. Ray Presley is bad to the bone and beyond.

– The good-hearted FBI agent, driven to drink by the injustices he’s seen perpetrated by Evil Edgar (as in Director, J. Edgar) Hoover, fired by the Bureau to cover up their own nefarious dealings, but who at age 70 can still perform in the pinch like a 25 year-old Navy Seal.

I could go on. It’s all really too much.

I decided to read The Quiet Game after hearing an interview with Iles. He sounded like an intelligent and likable guy.  We’re about the same age. He’s a fellow Mississippian, and this book is set in Natchez.

If you’re in the mood for a dark, rollicking, good-guys-versus-bad-guys, stereotypical Southern legal thriller — and, you’ve read all of Grisham’s novels already — then, prepare to put aside your disbelief and pick up a copy of Greg Iles’ The Quiet Game.

For me, I think I’ll go back to Inspector Maigret, or check out some of Grisham’s newer stuff.

Trump supporters – can you blame them?

In his outstanding essay, “Conservatives have failed Donald Trump’s supporters,” Michael Brendan Dougherty, hits the nail on the head: working class Americans are between a rock and a hard place, sometimes ignored, often disrespected, and, in effect, frequently told to suck it up by upper and upper middle-class conservatives . Donald Trump doesn’t have the answers, but he at least says what they’re thinking. Trump ridicules a lot of people. But, he doesn’t ridicule the working class.

Dougherty is right:”traditional” conservatives from all camps–country club, neocon, intellectual, social–need to recognize their arrogance and the political and moral foolishness of telling Trump followers to–as summarized by Dougherty–“Get a job, you racists, and stop playing the victim! Don’t you remember the ’80s?”

Read the whole thing.

Finding the right words on PC campuses

Hobey Baker posted this recommendation over at First Things a few months ago in the midst of on-campus turmoil about language, speech, words, and titles. I wholeheartedly agree that universities should consider his tongue-in-cheek advice. Of course, they probably won’t recognize it as tongue-in-cheek. Who knows; maybe some of them will actually adopt the recommendation. How sweet that would be.