The Spiritual Vitality of Place

What does it mean to “be” somewhere?

We all live someplace; we are all from someplace. It could be a place or a nonplace, pleasant or otherwise. So long as life continues, this much is inescapable, but is location-location-location really a determining factor for anything beyond property value?

In 1910, English novelist E. M. Forster published Howard’s End, which explores questions of class, culture, and the future of his country in the face of a fading status quo. At one point in the book, Forster’s narrator laments the mobility inherent in modernity: “London was but a foretaste of this nomadic civilization which is altering human nature so profoundly, and throws upon personal relations a stress greater than they have ever borne before. Under cosmopolitanism, if it comes, we shall receive no help from the earth. Trees and meadows and mountains will only be a spectacle, and the binding force that they once exercised on character must be entrusted to Love alone. May Love be equal to the task!”

What Forster hints at in this passage is a sort of spiritual vitality to place. We tend to think of communities in terms of the people who live there, which is good and right. What if there is something in the interplay of people and place, however, that goes deeper than either one can alone? A house or hill, sight or smell, can fix in our memory a summary of human experience that would not be possible without such markers. There is a “there” there, after all

In my own life, this was embodied by my maternal grandfather. At his funeral in 2011, I wrote, “He came home to Pine Mountain, and more or less stayed put for the rest of his life. In that, he taught me what a community was and why it was worth putting up with the bad and the ugly to be a part of the good.” The life he inherited and invested in that corner of West Georgia is a part of me even now because of him, though I never “lived” there a day in my life.

Perhaps to truly bind us to one another, we must love both a place and the people who find their homes there. Places (like people) are not all easy to love, but if we are willing to withhold love from anywhere, we effectively hate everywhere. Caring for God’s creation (and the spaces His image-bearers have carved within it) is part of what it means to love our neighbors as ourselves.

Such care needs to encompass the full spectrum of our world. To borrow an idea from Wendell Berry, protecting only the majestic, “ecologically sensitive”, or quirky places without a similar regard for more mundane locales is less than true conservation. To be sure, regionality gets a lot of play these days—whether in food, language, music, or scenery. Most commentary on the subject, though, comes at a sort of cosmopolitan remove. The only people who talk about place in this way are those of us who are relatively detached from anywhere in particular. To know a place primarily in terms of terroir, I’d submit, is not to know it at all.

Geography itself has certainly played in the fortunes of men. Few major cities (at least prior to the advent of railroads and airplanes) are found away from seaports or navigable rivers and lakes. The rise of Western Europe surely owes as much to its relatively flat, arable land and moderate, Gulf-Stream-influenced climate as to any of the other cultural factors at play. In the other direction, the struggles of low-income communities in the U.S. and elsewhere are often a result of governmental and cultural segregation that located them in flood plains, cut off from commerce by uncrossable freeways and rail lines, and/or atop industrial wastelands.

Forster’s fear has long since become reality. Cosmopolitanism is king. Mobility has become the key indicator of success in the modern West. Even the average non-jet-setter is relatively capable of pulling up stakes and heading elsewhere when the opportunity arises, thanks largely to that “old Chev-ro-let.” Only the very poor seem to stay put anywhere, and their rootedness often looks less like loyalty and more like being trapped.

These divergent senses of place may be unavoidable consequences of specialization and globalization. Wealth, talent, and ambition slosh about from London to New York to Shanghai (and hundreds of other cities), creating a global “gated community” that admits comparatively few newcomers. Those who lack opportunity and access to enter the stream languish in cramped urban ghettoes or decaying company towns. Perhaps more is lost in the transaction than we realize. Berry writes, “The world has room for many people who are content to live as humans, but only for a relative few intent upon living as giants or as gods” (The Unsettling of America).

The world is increasingly stratified into the stuck-by-default and the nomads-by-choice, with less and less middle ground. A lack of shared place helps drive us to come apart in other ways. Rediscovering a way to share that space (even, as Chris Arnade observes, at McDonalds) will be key to bringing us back together. Proximity matters, and proximity happens somewhere. Can we truly love someone without being willing to be present with them? Can real relationship exist without shared sights and sounds and smells and tastes and textures?

Just as, by God’s grace, a great falling away is often followed by a great awakening, perhaps a great coming apart will be followed by a great reconciliation. There is, and has been, movement in this direction in the midst of the steady opposing current. Re-neighboring is becoming a hot topic, and the Christian Community Development Association’s plea for relocating to neighborhoods of concentrated poverty has been echoing for decades.

Perhaps, in answer to Forster’s plea, love is the only thing equal to the task of keeping us together. It was for love that God made the world, and then formed Adam from its dust. Love is what bound us to the spectacle of the earth to begin with. Recovering our love for people and their places, we may well recover our own roots and find a place called home.

“We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
Through the unknown, remembered gate.”

– T. S. Eliot, “Little Gidding”

Further Thoughts
Weaving a Future: The Chalmers Option?
Theological Poverty: More on “The Chalmers Option”
Talking Past Each Other: Class and Culture in the Church

Photo: Bridges, Chattanooga, Tenn., October 2014.

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Books of the Year that Was, 2016 ed.

‘Tis time again for the annual stroll down library lane. As always, what follows is not an exhaustive list, but a selection of some of my favorite reads of the year sorted by genre. Also as usual, most of these were not published within the year, but I encountered them for the first time in 2016. Since changing jobs in March, I’m no longer reviewing books professionally, so this year’s list is more stilted to my personal tastes (i.e. literature).

History/Biography/Cultural Observations

The Chip by T. R. Reid
Once in a great while, an invention comes along that upends the settled order of things. The cultural perception that such devices are the result of a “flash of genius,” striking from a clear blue sky, is misguided; often the discovery comes after years of questing to solve a particular problem. Such is the case with the integrated circuit, or microchip. Engineers from all over the world were working to figure out how to reduce the size of computer circuits, and two Americans, Robert Noyce and Jack Kilby came to the basic design almost simultaneously. Reid’s book engagingly narrates this discovery, the resulting patent disputes, and the legacy of rapid technological change that this tiny tool unleashed on the world.

Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson
Some biographies inspire by demonstrating the heights to which humanity can soar with the right mix of circumstances, talent, and grit. This is not one of those. Isaacson’s overlong, chatty, and occasionally vulgar portrait of Jobs is not a particularly good book, and tiptoes too close to hagiography even to be a truly good biography. Jobs led groups to accomplish amazing things, but at such a great cost in burned up relationships, one wonders if it was worth it. A role model he was not. Jobs was a Raskolnikov of industry: someone to whom rules did not apply, at least in his own mind. And yet, yet, I can’t help but be a little in awe, especially thinking of the way Apple products and Pixar movies have made my life a little brighter, more productive, and more fun for many years.

Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Hereitics by Ross Douthat
Despite the fact that he’s only a few years my senior, New York Times columnist Douthat has become one of the leading voices for conservatism, tradition, and common sense in the American public square. Bad Religion provides a fascinating take on the history of American Christianity, namely that the slide in religious adherence has less to do with outright rejection of faith than the accommodation of Christian orthodoxy to various cultural ideas, which in turn have lead to various heresies. It is a clearheaded approach to the (real and perceived) challenges to the Christian faith in America, recognizing that they come from within as much or more than from without.

Musing/Memoir

The Supper of the Lamb by Robert Farrar Capon
Capon’s masterpiece is delightfully uncategorizable. It is perhaps the world’s most circuitous cookbook or its most unorthodox work of theology. In either case, it is a must read for every one of us slightly pudgy and shameless lovers of all the tastes God built into His world. Food is necessary for life, but He made it fascinating and delicious on purpose. I’ve seldom come across a book that exudes such unvarnished joy.

Desert Solitaire by Edward Abbey
Abbey, perhaps the atheist’s Annie Dillard, evokes with intimate detail the harsh moral clarity of the the wilderness while abandoning mankind to its condemning ravages all alone. Somehow, though, this paean to the vast inhospitality of the Colorado Plateau is more worshipful than Dillard’s glorying in the minutiae of a Virginia mountain stream. I read this (on a friend’s recommendation) before heading out West this fall, and Abbey’s portrait is richly accurate.

A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson
Snarky in that particular mien of the Northeastern sophisticate, but heartwarming all the same. I’ve long been a frequenter of the AT for day-hikes, and I always loved chatting with through-hikers on Roan Mountain, Mount Rogers, and the Smokies. Bryson elucidates the exhilaration and exhaustion of walking these mountains with a good mix of humor, disgust, and awe. His relationship with Katz keeps the narrative going, helping the book to rise above mere travelogue.

Theology/Christian Life

Knowing God  by J. I. Packer
From my review: “Though this work has been driving home deep truths about our Triune Lord since well before I was born, it was to my great detriment that I only just recently picked it up for myself. Every accolade Knowing God has received through the years was just praise—I have seldom read such a clear, emphatic presentation of so much Christian doctrine. To ears ready to hear and hearts ready to obey, Packer’s masterpiece is sort of a devotional ‘jet fuel’ to feed the fire of spiritual maturity….This pastoral heart most characterizes Packer’s work. It is a systematic theology (and a good one), but it is a systematic theology for pilgrims. Other books have more academic depth, but few achieve the devotional concern for the holiness, peace, and joy of the Christian.”

You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit by James K.A. Smith
It takes a while to get going (unpacking a philosophy of formation), but eventually Smith gets up a good head of steam and makes some very punchy, helpful suggestions on how to recover and retain the faith in the midst of our self-absorbed consumer society. In brief, he teases out at a more popular level what he has been writing about for years: that culture is liturgy, and the Church cannot combat secularism with knowledge alone. His earnestness comes across rather condescendingly at times, especially when he seems to downplay the intellectual pursuit of God, which can be just as formative as other more “embodied” acts of worship.

Fiction

Laurus by Evgheny Vodolazkin
Hands-down my favorite read of the year. From my review: “What shines in both the words and the story is a voice eerily absent from the world of modern literature—sincere faith. The Orthodoxy of Laurus isn’t merely attached to a character or added for ‘color’, but suffuses the entire work because it is real. The people of this book are, like the rest of us, sinners, but through God’s mercy, many are saints. Most are earthy, some insufferably pious, and a few are wicked, but they all live under the shadow of the Almighty. In this world, the glow of icons by candlelight is meant to inspire, and a Holy Fool throwing rocks at invisible demons is to be expected.”

All the Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy
My first foray into McCarthy did not disappoint. Horses has doses of his trademark depravity, but the story is tempered with enough tenderness to make it go down. The interweaving of characters into the turbulent political history of Mexico gives a literary and cultural ballast to what is already a fine (if bleak) bildungsroman. As a marginal hispanohablante, I also enjoyed McCarthy’s frequent use of untranslated Spanish dialogue.

The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky
A masterpiece in every way. Why, oh why, do we persist in thinking the classics are somehow less accessible? Human drama explodes from every page, and spiritual significance crackles throughout. “Hurrah for Karamazov!”

Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison
Powerful, affecting assault on the American soul. Being “colorblind” is not the opposite of racism, but often the same beast in another cloak. Ellison refuses to let any region (South or North), class (establishment, radicals, workingmen, etc.), or race off the hook for our mutual culpability in dehumanizing one another.

Honorable Mention: Re-reads

C.S. Lewis wrote in “On Stories” that “We do not enjoy a story fully at the first reading. Not till the curiosity, the sheer narrative lust, has been given its sop and laid asleep, are we at leisure to savour the real beauties. Till then, it is like wasting great wine on a ravenous natural thirst which merely wants cold wetness.” Armed with that exhortation, I’ve made a habit of revisiting books that hit the mark to see if they stick. Here are a few that came back up this year.

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
Much as I want to find fault with this book (Atticus’ stoicism being an unsustainable ground for real social change is about as close as I can get briefly), it is justly enshrined in the American literary canon. Lee manages to be endearing, but not cloying; profound, but not preachy; childlike, but not childish.

Love in the Ruins by Walker Percy
As an habitual re-reader of Percy, this deceptively deep comedy has wormed its way into my list of favorites. It even inspired an effort at scholarly analysis this summer. From that paper: “This then, is the solution to which Percy points the beleaguered reader. Life, to be genuine and grounded, must find its roots in the reality of Christ, but also in the reality of creation—even in the realistic parameters of the Fall. To attempt salvation by any other means only brings disaster. By God’s grace, change comes to sick men and sick systems through the ordinary faithfulness of doing the next right thing.”

All the King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren
In the morass of 2016, I reached again for the mother of all political novels for understanding, if not consolation. Warren’s magnum opus is so good, and ranges so much farther than politics, or the South, into the very depths of humanity. Truly, everything worth knowing is covered in blood, and we cannot escape the awful responsibility of time.

*UPDATE
It was suggested that I list the other books I read this year which didn’t make this “hits list” but are still worth a read. Here they are, without comment:

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates
Elephants Can Remember by Agatha Christie
Godric by Frederick Buechner
The High Price of Materialism by Tim Kasser
Hillbilly Elegy 
by J. D. Vance
Intellectuals and Race by Thomas Sowell
The Jungle Books by Rudyard Kipling
The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat by Oliver Sacks
Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie
Poirot Investigates by Agatha Christie
The Sympathizer by Viet Than Ngyuen
Teacher Man by Frank McCourt
The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas
Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy by John LeCarre

Photo: Stacks, Chattanooga Public Library, Eastgate Branch, February 2015.

Cultural Appropriation

“Write what you know,” wisdom conventional,
Threatens to morph into ironclad law.
Fearing aggressions unintentional;
The best lack all conviction in its claw.
Sympathy is nice; empathy divine,
But you’d better think twice (or more), you cad,
If you think your words can ever touch mine;
If you, you WASP, you geezer robed in plaid,
Dare deign to make artist’s gestures this way!
What you know (not much!), keep it over there,
While I sit here and type, to my dismay
Using all your best English words with care.
Forsooth! Never could I more clearly see
That your culture appropriated me.

Photo: Feeding Time, Tracy Aviary, Salt Lake City, Utah, October 2016.

Percy’s Love in the Ruins: A Dystopia for Our Time

The 1970s have a curious aura, especially to those of us born in the early 1980s. Not quite far enough before our time to feel like “history,” Vietnam, Watergate, stagflation, and all the associated malaise were so much a part of our parents’ formative experience that they taste to us rather of a half-remembered bad dream—especially given the relative peace and prosperity we enjoyed throughout childhood. Perhaps it is only natural, then, to associate that 70s vibe with our own grave misgivings about the present.

Facing as we do a national election between a habitual liar under investigation by the FBI (is anyone more Nixonian than Mrs. Clinton?) and a much-married misogynist, racist, and paragon of petty machismo, we see a strong political overlap between the two eras. The nausea goes much deeper too—into sex, race, religion, and society itself. All around, our souls give way, yet no solution presents itself. The exhaustion is palpable, even papered over as it continues to be by our blithe consumption and entertainment.

Into such troubled times, the prophets of old spoke even greater trouble. “On account of you, Zion will be plowed as a field, Jerusalem will become a heap of ruins, and the mountain of the temple will become high places of a forest.”[1] This indicts us just as much as it happens to us. Perhaps the prophet we need to hear thunder today is the unlikeliest of anointed men—nearly three decades dead and always unassuming in his own time.

Walker Percy, Louisiana novelist and essayist, keenly felt the dislocation of man in the modern age, and set his face toward exploring and explaining that pain in nearly everything he wrote. In Percy’s own telling, a serious novelist (one as much concerned with plumbing the depths of existence as with telling a good story) is by nature a sort of prophet:

“Since true prophets, i.e., men called by God to communicate something urgent to other men, are currently in short supply, the novelist may perform a quasi-prophetic function. Like the prophet, his news is generally bad. Unlike the prophet, whose mouth has been purified by a burning coal, the novelist’s art is often bad, too…. Like the prophet, he may find himself in radical disagreement with his fellow countrymen. Unlike the prophet, he does not generally get killed. More often, he is ignored.”[2]

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