The Unideal Rural

Andrew Wyeth
Christina’s World, 1948
Egg tempera on gessoed panel

I recently read an article that, astoundingly, asserted that the work of Wendell Berry created unsustainable fantasies regarding the goodness of rural life. Such a claim surprised me. To assert that Berry’s fictions are, well, fictions would not have been surprising (albeit, uninteresting); but to assert that his fictions are misleading, that they somehow idealize the rural, is shocking. Au contraire!

After all, who writes a less idealized rurality than Berry? (Perhaps whoever it was that wrote “Chicken Fried.”) What can be less idealistic, at any rate, than this quote from Jarrat Coulter?:

You work on this damned old dirt and sweat over it and worry about it, and then one day they’ll shovel it in your face, and that’ll be the end of it.” (Wendell Berry, Nathan Coulter, 90)

What can be less idealistic than Jayber finding himself faced with Health Department codes and requirements and having to close his business? What about the effects of the broader world upon Port William?:

More even than television, the interstate brought the modern world into Port William. More even than The Economy and The War, it carried the people of Port William into the modern world. It was a thing of unimaginable influence… The interstate dwarfed [Port William] in scale and made light of its needs. Fuel, money, and people gathered to the interstate as water gathers to the river.” (Wendell Berry, Jayber Crow, 282)

What can be less idealistic than that?

It is Berry who introduces us to the goodness of rural life, but he never writes his fictions with the intent of fantasy. If there is something “fantastic” about his fictions, it is their magical realism, their sacramental mysticism, not some perverse illusory fantasy. Lest we forget, the daughter of Troy and Mattie Chatham is literally killed by the addiction to speed that comes with the dawn of automobiles, just as Port William is slowly choked by that same commitment, manifest in the Interstate. There is no idealism here. Rather, there is a shocking (and prophetic) realism.


The Eccentric Vico

Georgia O’Keeffe,
Red Hill and White Shell, 1938
Oil on canvas

I have been spending time with an old friend these past few days. Nevermind the fact that he’s a little eccentric, sometimes absolutely ridiculous, sometimes utterly incomprehensible. As Anthony Grafton writes in his Introduction to the Penguin edition of Giambattista Vico’s New Science, the man was articulate in his own field — rhetoric — but considered practically a madman when it came to his research into philology and history that culminated in the New Science: “Vico did not receive so much as a letter from Le Clerc or Newton, to whom he sent copies. The only reference to the book that appeared abroad was a deliberately inaccurate and malicious notice… which Vico tried to rebut… Other Neapolitan intellectuals, he decided, regarded him as a madman” (Anthony Grafton, “Introduction,” xv-xvi).

Continue reading “The Eccentric Vico”

2017: Books in Review

Giorgio Vasari
Italian Humanists (Six Tuscan Poets), 1554
Oil on panel

“I am unable to satisfy my thirst for books. And I perhaps own more of them than I ought; but just as in certain other things, so does it happen with books: success in searching for them is a stimulus to greed… Books please inwardly; they speak with us, advise us and join us together with a certain living and penetrating intimacy, nor does this instill only itself into its readers, but it conveys the names and desire for others.”

(Francesco Petrarch, Letters on Familiar Matters III. 18)

Continue reading “2017: Books in Review”

The Church contra Echo Chamber

Nicolas Poussin
Echo and Narcissus, 1630
Oil on canvas

In his recently-published, and thoroughly insightful, conclusion to the Cultural Liturgies trilogy, theologian James K.A. Smith articulates a particularly-challenging (and surprising) précis for what a Christian political theology ought to be. Following the lead of Oliver O’Donovan and Peter Leithart, Smith speaks Hauerwas to Kuyperians and then Kuyper to Hauerwasians, resulting in a re-furbished and refined view of the Church qua polis, not disjunctioned from the political polis (as it is in Lutheran Two Kingdoms doctrine) nor in charge of the political polis (as it is in NAR “Kingdom Now” dominionism, and several other postmillennial variants) nor its own entirely separate political polis (as the modern Roman Catholic Church functions). These are all, Smith asserts, false leads. Continue reading “The Church contra Echo Chamber”

Confession and Moral Reasoning

Ilya Repin
Refusal of the Confession, 1885
Oil on canvas

There is a dearth of moral reasoning in the present-day American culture, not to mention in the Church. It would seem to be the logical consequence of a libertarian ideal of freedom, despite all criticisms to the contrary. Under the hegemonic ideology of our day and age, the notion of asserting some claim or access to moral authority is offensive (at least), outmoded (certainly!), and tyrannical (at worst!). It is from this standpoint, for instance, that Michel Foucault calls the Augustinian practice of confession the modern’s source of self and, thus, their prison under the regime of biopower (since biopower undergirds and advances an ideological value of subjectification, etc.). This thesis, one of the central pieces of his The History of Sexuality, is questionable to me. Continue reading “Confession and Moral Reasoning”

The Apocalypse of Christus Victor

Pieter Bruegel the Elder
The Triumph of Death, 1562
Oil on panel

Early in C.S. Lewis’ The Magician’s Nephew, we are confronted with the image of a dying world. Digory and Polly have landed, through the Wood between the Worlds, on Charn, a devastated, dry, cold, nasty place where the sun is red, large, and ineffective and where Jadis (the White Witch of The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe) has used “the deplorable word” to kill all the other living beings on the planet. Continue reading “The Apocalypse of Christus Victor”

Aristotle for Christian Politics

The School of Athens, 1511

Especially in American schools of theological discourse, there is a nigh-eternal tension between the terms of Christian doctrine-practice and politics. While the most self-evident practice of such dissonance is visible in the particular relationship of the American Christian Church (taken as a broad unity) and its civil government, the American nation-state — a dissonance that includes both doctrines and practices that are debated from a Christian-politics to a secular-nation-state-politics — I sometimes wonder if our dissonance is even more primal, and thus more problematic, than just discourse.

Continue reading “Aristotle for Christian Politics”

Spatial Reading: The Shopping Mall

Amadeo Preziosi
The Grand Bazaar, 185?
Watercolor on paper

The French phenomenologist Gaston Bachelard once mused that space has the power to affect the imagination. In this Spatial Reading series, I will be endeavoring to uncover the power of the imagination and the unconscious in familiar architectural spaces. The basic thesis underlying the posts in this series is that spaces constructed by humans are both constructed with particular purposes and values in mind (and ideologies as a result) and received with a variety of purposeful and values affects (and ideologies), and that space in general holds a powerful sway over the ways in which we form our own understanding of lived human experience.

No architectural space more thoroughly exemplifies the American ruling ideology than the shopping mall. In a culture that generally detests being told morality and values, nowhere else are moralities and values more directly dictated than in the shape and form of this space. “Freedom,” the Capitalists say, “is the preeminent human good.” And, so, Freedom is the exalted virtue communicated by the mall: you have the Freedom to pick this store to enter or that store to enter. Continue reading “Spatial Reading: The Shopping Mall”

The History of a Small Church

John Constable
The Church Porch, 1810
Oil on canvas

By the side of the door to our small church here in Hillsboro, IL is a little walking path. On the sides of that path are engraved names of members of the congregation, leading to a list of past preachers and a poem written by one of our congregants. And I feel in awe of these bricks and this path. Continue reading “The History of a Small Church”

Returning Home

Pieter the Elder
The Return of the Herd, 1565
Oil on panel

In March of this year, lawyer and memoirist J.D. Vance announced that he would be returning home. Vance, the author of the best-selling Hillbilly Elegy, has some practical reasons he’s returning to Ohio, of course — he’s starting a nonprofit to address the opioid epidemic — but there are also some, as he calls them, civic reasons too. In his article from The New York Times, Vance writes:

I realized that we often frame civic responsibility in terms of government taxes and transfer payments, so that our society’s least fortunate families are able to provide basic necessities. But this focus can miss something important: that what many communities need most is not just financial support, but talent and energy and committed citizens to build viable businesses and other civic institutions. Continue reading “Returning Home”