The Small Town and Its Defenders

The missus and I were glad to be in Jackson, Michigan, at the Grand River Brewery, for a set of presentations sponsored by The American Conservative. We heard Bill Kauffman, who is arguably conservatism’s funniest voice. Here’s an excerpt:

My hometown, Batavia, New York, population 15,500, has had plenty of Bill Baileys and Hughie Cannons over the years. I don’t mean by that shiftless drunks, daydreaming musicians, guys who stay out all night—they’re okay by me—but rather people who leave town, or who refuse to make a home in the place where they live. They reject Booker T. Washington’s wise injunction to cast down your bucket where you are.

In 2003 I published a book called Dispatches From the Muckdog Gazette, which is, megalomaniacally, a memoir about my repatriation to Batavia, but it’s also about the way that Batavia—and by extension all the Batavias from sea to dimming sea—has struggled to maintain a distinct identity, a character, rather than becoming just another formless wattle on the continental blob.

To the world, Batavia is merely Exit 48 on the New York State Thruway, that hideous gray scar across our green and lovely state, that drab version of the Erie Canal dedicated to that drab man Thomas E. Dewey, who fled his fine little hometown of Owosso, Michigan, which was too small to contain a man of his talent, or ego.

I don’t know how much anyone here knows of Batavia—I’m afraid we keep our little light well hidden under the bushel—but I will skip lightly over the first 160 or so years of our history and say only that it is rich, mythopoeic, beguilingly strange, as befits the cradle of the Anti-Masons, the first third party in American history.

Batavia was a prosperous little city, manufactory of combines and tractors and shotguns. English and Scots and Germans were the early settlers, coexisting uneasily with the late 19th-century polyglot influx of Italians and Poles. I’m a mongrel, a mixture of several of these streams—though my beloved late Italian grandmother insisted that we were “northern Italian—almost Swiss.” So in my book I gave myself license to write freely, even raucously, of the ethnic conflicts that once cleaved Batavia—but also gave it a good deal of its spice.

In some ways we were a typical small American city but in other ways we were “Batavia”—our own place. We did not yet bow down before the new American royalty: Burger King and Dairy Queen.

Then, as Joseph Heller would say, something happened. Urban renewal. My old boss Senator Pat Moynihan once said, when driving through Auburn, New York, which was decimated rather as Batavia was—I would do my Moynihan impression but I’m afraid I teetotaled at the reception—“in the 1950s, with a progressive government and newspaper, you got into urban renewal and destroyed everything of value in your town. If you’d had a reactionary newspaper and a grumpy mayor, you might still have it.” (Try to imagine any U.S. senator today saying something one ten-thousandth as perceptive.)

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Bodie and Jimmy Are Back

Here’s some of the dialogue I plan to include in my talk on Saturday for Mencken Day. Its title is “When America Was Great and Baltimore Knew Better.”

Scene 1:

Bodie: The radio in Philly is different?

Shamrock: N-word, please, you gotta be f-word with me. You ain’t never heard a radio station outside of Baltimore?

Bodie: Man, I ain’t never left Baltimore except that Boys Village s-word, one day, and there wasn’t no radio up in that b-word.

[Shamrock starts to hit the pre-set buttons.]

Bodie: Come on, man, you’re killin’ me.

[Shamrock tunes into Prairie Home Companion and viewers hear Garrison Keillor say, “It’s been a quiet week in Lake Wobegone, my home town. It’s been
perfect tomato weather out there. . .]

Bodie: This a Philly station?

Shamrock: How the heck should I know?

Bodie: Why would anyone ever want to leave Baltimore? That’s what I’m askin’.

Scene 2:

McNulty: I feel like I don’t even belong to any world that even bleeping matters.

Greggs: ‘Cause you’re a cop?

McNulty: Nah, it’s not just that. It’s like, I went to meet her once; she was in a hotel room on the top floor. I punched the button on the elevator and it doesn’t even go there. You gotta have some kind of special key to even get to that special f-word floor. So I go to the front desk, some sneering f-word calls upstairs, gives me permission to go and get laid. I listen to the s-word she talks about and it’s the first time in my life I feel like a f-word doormat. Like anyone else with any smarts would do something else with his life, you know? Earn money, or … get elected. Like I’m just a breathing [sex] machine. I’m serious; I’m the smartest a-hole in three districts and she looks at me like I’m some stupid f-word playing some stupid game for stupid penny-ante stakes.

Jimmy and Bodie seem to have the same outlook that led Mencken to write this:

Human relations, in such a place, tend to assume a solid permanence. A man’s circle of friends becomes a sort of extension of his family circle. His contacts are with men and women who are rooted as he is. They are not moving all the time, and so they are not changing their friends all the time. . . . In human relationships that are so casual there is seldom any satisfaction. It is our fellows who make life endurable to us, and give it a purpose and a meaning; . . . What I contend is that in Baltimore, under a slow-moving and cautious social organization, touched by the Southern sun, such contacts are more enduring than elsewhere, and that life in consequence is more agreeable.

By the way, Machen is also part of the talk. Can you believe it?

Localism is Great (beats pretty good) as Long as Charles Taylor is Your Neighbor

Joshua Rothman has a thoughtful piece on Charles Taylor and ends on a surprisingly hopeful note considering the recent election and how fly-over country voted:

[Taylor] is in favor of localism and “subsidiarity”—the principle, cited by Alexis de Tocqueville and originating in Catholicism, that problems should be solved by people who are nearby. Perhaps, instead of questing for political meaning on Facebook and YouTube, we could begin finding it in projects located near to us. By that means, we could get a grip on our political selves, and be less inclined toward nihilism on the national scale. (It would help if there were less gerrymandering and money in politics, too.)

One imagines what this sort of rooted, meaningful democracy might look like. A political life centered on local schools, town governments, voluntary associations, and churches; a house in the woods with the television turned off. Inside, family members aren’t glued to their phones. They talk, over dinner, about politics, history, and faith, about national movements and local ones; they feel, all the time, that they’re doing something. It’s a pastoral vision, miles away from the media-driven election we’ve just concluded. But it’s not a fantasy.

But what about Phil Robertson’s community? Not even the Gospel Allies are willing to countenance those parts of America:

That “cultural curtain” prevents Robertson from seeing the reality of the Jim Crow era, allowing him to look back in wistful fondness. Yet I think there is also a personal element that keeps the former “white trash” farmhand from seeing the segregation of his youth as it truly was.

Robertson makes it clear that he didn’t come to Christ until the late 1970s. During the 1960s he was abusing drugs and alcohol, cheating on his wife, and hiding out in the woods to prevent being arrested by the authorities. His former fellow farmworkers might look on the 1960s as an era when African Americans were gaining access to long-overdue civil rights. But for Robertson, that decade was a time of self-destruction and familial strife. Since then Robertson has turned his life over to God and become, to use his catchphrase, “Happy, happy, happy.” In his mind, godliness is equated with happiness.

That is why I believe that when Robertson looks back on his youth, what he sees is not African Americans suffering under the evil of segregation, but men and women who were godly, and thus obviously had what he has now: a happiness that transcends mortal woes. He seems to think that because they were godly, the exterior signs of happiness (singing, smiling, etc.) can be construed as a sign of their having inner peace, if not peace with the world. It’s a noble, if naïve, idealization of his neighbors.

Does that noble intent excuse his insensitive remarks about the segregated South? Not at all. Robertson is a public figure and when he gives interviews in the media, he must take responsibility for how his words are perceived. While I believe he was attempting to pay tribute to the African-American Christians who preceded him in the faith, he has inadvertently offended many of his African American brothers and sisters.

And so it looks like the Gospel Industrial Complex is a much on the side of President Obama and Hillary Clinton’s one-world order as they are part of an organizational enterprise that disdains denominational attachments (is Tim Keller Presbyterian?). Can anyone imagine an evangelical academic or preaching/teaching celebrity writing what Damon Linker did about universalistic cosmopolitanism and humanitarian liberalism?

any outlook that resists or rejects humanitarianism is an atavistic throwback to less morally pristine times, with the present always superior to the past and the imagined even-more-purely humanitarian future always better still.

Concerned about immigrants disregarding the nation’s borders, defying its laws, and changing its ethnic and linguistic character? Racist!

Worried that the historically Christian and (more recently) secular character of European civilization will be altered for the worse, not to mention that its citizens will be forced to endure increasing numbers of theologically motivated acts of terrorism, if millions of refugees from Muslim regions of the world are permitted to settle in the European Union? Islamophobe!

Fed up with the way EU bureaucracies disregard and override British sovereignty on a range of issues, including migration within the Eurozone? Xenophobe!

As far as humanitarian liberals are concerned, all immigrants should be welcomed (and perhaps given access to government benefits), whether or not they entered the country illegally, no matter what language they speak or ethnicity they belong to, and without regard for their religious or political commitments. All that matters — or should matter — is that they are human. To raise any other consideration is pure bigotry and simply unacceptable.

Earlier forms of liberalism were politically wiser than this — though the wisdom came less from a clearly delineated argument than from observation of human behavior and reading of human history. “Love of one’s own” had been recognized as a potent and permanent motive force in politics all the way back to the beginning of Western civilization, when Homer and Sophocles depicted it and Plato analyzed it. It simply never occurred to liberals prior to the mid-20th century that human beings might one day overcome particularistic forms of solidarity and attachment. They took it entirely for granted that individual rights and civic duties needed to be instantiated in particulars — by this people, in this place, with this distinctive history and these specific norms, habits, and traditions.

But now liberals have undergone a complete reversal, treating something once considered a given as something that must be extricated root and branch.

If people gave up their particular attachments easily, conceding their moral illegitimacy, that might be a sign that the humanitarian ideal is justified — that human history is indeed oriented toward a universalistic goal beyond nations and other forms of local solidarity. But experience tells us something else entirely. The more that forms of political, moral, economic, and legal universalism spread around the globe, the more they inspire a reaction in the name of the opposite ideals. The Western world is living through just such a reaction right now.

That means, of course, that Phil Robertson’s family, neighborhood, and church might harbor expressions that other people find objectionable. But since when did we think that people will always be easy to like and say things that make us feel happy? I guess the answer is — as long as we have been rearing children who go to college and expect to find nothing more challenging to their well being than cookies and milk (aside from the frat parties). Still, I wonder if those kids were accepted at every elite university to which they applied. If they received a rejection letter, did they burn the U.S. flag?

Why Do You Need to be A Christian to Feed the Hungry?

The flip-flop of World Vision on gay marriage has attracted lots and lots of comments but no one seems to be asking a couple of important questions. That’s why we have confessional Reformed Protestantism.

1) As the title here suggests, why is it necessary for Christians to dispense aid to the poor and hungry through a Christian organization? World Vision says, for instance:

We provide emergency assistance to children and families affected by natural disasters and civil conflict, work with communities to develop long-term solutions to alleviate poverty, and advocate for justice on behalf of the poor.

And

Motivated by our faith in Jesus Christ, we serve alongside the poor and oppressed as a demonstration of God’s unconditional love for all people.

That second part of their mission statement obviously raises lots of questions about WV’s original decision to accept gay marriage. But does it make a difference whether the poor and hungry receive aid from a Christian or a non-Christian, a homosexual or a heterosexual? Is the aid any different? And very much related, haven’t we been here before? Evangelicals were responsible for the original social gospel, called the Benevolent Empire associated with the Second Pretty Good Awakening. Eventually, the concern to eliminate poverty and inequality spawned theological liberalism and moral evasiveness. Did anyone really think that World Vision was pursuing humanitarian efforts (which are laudable) in a conservative Protestant way? If you look at the leadership pages for WV, no church is mentioned. Rich Stearns himself leaves church membership out of his “story.” Since membership in mainline (read liberal) Protestant churches is common at evangelical liberal arts colleges, WV would surprise me if they self-consciously steered staff and officers away from non-evangelical churches where humanitarianism did trump orthodoxy and biblical ethics.

Which leads to the second question:

2) Why haven’t the critics of WV brought up the ecclesiological question? It is similar to a point that Patrick Deneen just made about the significance of the Hobby Lobby case before the Supreme Court, namely, that social/religious conservatives often miss the forest of institutions and structures for the trees of specific moral convictions:

The dominant narrative—religious liberty against state-mandated contraception—altogether ignores the economic nature of the case, and the deeper connections between the economy in which Hobby Lobby successfully and eagerly engages and a society that embraces contraception, abortion, sterilization, and, altogether, infertility. Largely ignored is the fact Hobby Lobby is a significant player in a global economy that has separated markets from morality. Even as it is a Christian-themed brand, it operates in a decisively “secular” economic world. It is almost wholly disembedded from any particular community; its model, like that of all major box stores, is to benefit from economies of scale through standardization and aggressive price-cutting, relying on cheap overseas producers and retail settings that are devoid of any particular cultural or local distinction.

The same goes for WV. The fund-raising world and structure of oversight in which WV operates is also abstracted or disembedded — in this case not from mom and pop businesses but from pastor-and-elder churches. Its model is like the parachurch more generally (and the New Calvinists since we’re obsessed right now) and, as Deneen puts it, its work is through “ministries of scale” that transcend the ordinary or local networks of fellowship and accountability by which denominations and congregations operate.

And that may explain why WV’s leadership could think about gay marriage the way they did. If church officers oversaw them, they would not have to flip in response to public pressure. But if that were the case, if WV were overseen by the church, it would likely not exist. That’s because churches have diaconal agencies — either locally or denominationally — and because church officers might likely conclude that this work is something that any number of state and non-state organizations already perform.

Who's Your Bishop?

I wonder what Christian Smith is thinking today about words he wrote (published in 2011) about his conversion to Roman Catholicism:

I also worry a bit in all of this that, for all of the standard associations of apostasy and error that “Rome” evokes for some Protestants, the same “Rome” may stir up unduly romanticized visions among evangelicals who are contemplating “swimming the Tiber.” Becoming Catholic, we must remember, is not primarily a matter of venturing off “to Rome” to soak up the splendor of Saint Peter’s Basilica, the wonder of the ancient Catacombs, the endless memorials to Christian martyrs, and the like. All of that is good and fine, as long as it is not turned into some kind of “Catholic Disneyland.” But Rome is not ultimately what Catholicism is about.

That is not the impression an observer would take away from matters Roman Catholic since Benedict’s abdication (or from the Callers).

Smith adds:

Rome is certainly an indispensable, authoritative sign of Christian communion, a testimony and instrument of the authentic catholicity of the believers and church which stand in full communion with her. But Rome is not everything. Rome is one thing in one place — as central, indispensable, and valuable as it is. The Catholic Church, by contrast, is nearly everywhere, doing lots of things, in various ways.

In a footnote, Smith explains:

. . . the Catholic Church is an assembly of thousands of distinct dioceses spread throughout the world that are united through the bonds of mutual communion, especially as embodied through their full communion with the bishop of Rome and all bishops throughout the world. It is the latter view, which sees one diocese and parish as one’s true local home, which I wish to emphasize to evangelicals considering my “return to Rome.”

Smith’s brief for the local parish and diocese surely fits with the Roman Catholic doctrine of subsidiarity, the idea that a matter ought to be handled by the smallest, lowest, or least centralized authority possible. I myself have always thought that Protestantism was the ecclesiological embodiment of subsidiarity and that the papacy was at odds with that principle. So while I applaud Christian Smith’s ecclesiastical localism, I am having trouble thinking that he described accurately what we have witnessed over the last four weeks. I even wonder how many of the recent converts to Rome, who are ecstatic about the Conclave and its result, actually know the identity of their local bishop. Did they celebrate when he took office? Did they notice?

Pray that Americans Will Listen to Wendell Berry

For day three of the Old Life Prayer Vigil, a few excerpts from Wendell Berry’s Jefferson Lecture, given this past Monday night in Washington, D.C.

First, a cautionary word by implication to the W-Wists:

In my reading of the historian John Lukacs, I have been most instructed by his understanding that there is no knowledge but human knowledge, that we are therefore inescapably central to our own consciousness, and that this is “a statement not of arrogance but of humility. It is yet another recognition of the inevitable limitations of mankind.”6 We are thus isolated within our uniquely human boundaries, which we certainly cannot transcend or escape by means of technological devices. . . .

We cannot know the whole truth, which belongs to God alone, but our task nevertheless is to seek to know what is true. And if we offend gravely enough against what we know to be true, as by failing badly enough to deal affectionately and responsibly with our land and our neighbors, truth will retaliate with ugliness, poverty, and disease. The crisis of this line of thought is the realization that we are at once limited and unendingly responsible for what we know and do.

And then a word on behalf of economy, that is the household and the families that comprise them:

No doubt there always will be some people willing to do anything at all that is economically or technologically possible, who look upon the world and its creatures without affection and therefore as exploitable without limit. Against that limitlessness, in which we foresee assuredly our ruin, we have only our ancient effort to define ourselves as human and humane. But this ages-long, imperfect, unendable attempt, with its magnificent record, we have virtually disowned by assigning it to the ever more subordinate set of school subjects we call “arts and humanities” or, for short, “culture.” Culture, so isolated, is seen either as a dead-end academic profession or as a mainly useless acquisition to be displayed and appreciated “for its own sake.” This definition of culture as “high culture” actually debases it, as it debases also the presumably low culture that is excluded: the arts, for example, of land use, life support, healing, housekeeping, homemaking.

I don’t like to deal in categorical approvals, and certainly not of the arts. Even so, I do not concede that the “fine arts,” in general, are useless or unnecessary or even impractical. I can testify that some works of art, by the usual classification fine, have instructed, sustained, and comforted me for many years in my opposition to industrial pillage.

But I would insist that the economic arts are just as honorably and authentically refinable as the fine arts. And so I am nominating economy for an equal standing among the arts and humanities. I mean, not economics, but economy, the making of the human household upon the earth: the arts of adapting kindly the many human households to the earth’s many ecosystems and human neighborhoods. This is the economy that the most public and influential economists never talk about, the economy that is the primary vocation and responsibility of every one of us.

Reservations about Evangelical Coalitions Are Not Reserved to Old Life

Carl Trueman has a very good essay about the ways in which megachurch and multi-site pastors, along with large-scale parachurch organizations are undermining small congregations and denominations. Here is an excerpt:

I noticed recently one individual marketing himself as someone who had planted numerous churches. This was clearly being presented as an unconditionally good thing. As the chap was a similar age to myself (middle aged but not enough years on the clock to have done too many things of any great importance), I was left wondering what exactly had happened to these churches, that he had apparently had to plant so many of them in such a comparatively short time. Did they fold within weeks? Or was his church planting ministry a form of ecclesiastical hit-and-run, whereby he had the fun of getting the work started and then swiftly headed out of Dodge before the bullets started flying? Either way, the claim to have successfully planted many churches, like the claim to have successfully dated many beautiful women, seems to me far too ambiguous on its own to enjoy automatic unequivocal admiration. It may be praiseworthy but then again….

Alongside this shift to the big box church is the emergence of big tent alliance movements whose stated objective is to transcend the fragmentation of denominations by providing a common front along mere gospel lines. Such parachurch groups have existed for many years and they often work well as minor adjuncts to the work of the church proper. The events of last year, however, have demonstrated that big tents with big ambitions bring with them big problems: there is an awful lot upon which one has to agree to differ in order to hold together an alliance movement which can fill a stadium to capacity; and history seems to indicate that reformations have not usually been built, and orthodoxy has rarely been preserved, by agreeing to differ on almost everything beyond the merest elements of the gospel, and that outside of a proper ecclesiastical context.

One possible objection to Trueman’s article is that he himself is writing for a parachurch organization. He appears to avoid this charge by distinguishing between parachurch alliances with big as opposed to small ambitions. I do think that the Trueman’s Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals is different in scope and feel from, say, the Gospel Coalition — though quantifying or defining the difference may be in the eye of the beholder. At the same time, I wonder if Trueman would acknowledge that ACE may have unwittingly inspired the latter phenomena of the Gospel Coalition and Together for the Gospel. The Alliance was first a 1996 merger between the Philadelphia Conference on Reformed Theology (Jim Boice) and Christians United For Reformation (Mike Horton). Eventually the Lutheran presence in CURE became too hot for ACE to handle, thus prefiguring the alliances between Baptists and Presbyterians at ACE and other agencies.

I am not trying to pick a fight with Trueman. I’d surely lose. But the historical background may be of interest to him and other allies.

TKNY Update

chopped liverJustin Taylor gives a helpful tip about the health of Tim Keller’s mojo. Apparently, he hasn’t lost it. The proof is a feature in New York Magazine with the unfortunate title, “Tim Keller Wants to Save Your Yuppie Soul” (which invites the question, “what must I do to be yuppie?”).

Mr. Taylor’s point seems to be that we were wrong to suggest a decline in Keller’s popularity by his appearance on “The 700 Club.” Actually, our point was to call attention to what Keller’s fans notice or don’t notice.

In which case, Taylor’s post only confirms our point. When Keller appears with Pat Robertson, Keller’s advocates yawn. But when Keller generates buzz in NYC, then he is the “it” man. (Just go to Google blog search and look for references to Keller’s appearance with Robertson compared to this feature story in New York Magazine.)

This suggests that for many evangelical Presbyterians who follow Keller, Virginia Beach is chopped liver compared to the Big Apple. The Reformed Chicks Blabbing at Belief.net give voice to this infatuation. “It’s amazing to me that the gospel can be preached in New York and New Yorkers are responding to it. They may not like everything they hear (as the journalist notes) but they at least giving the message a fair hearing. If jaded New Yorkers haven’t rejected the message, then there must be something of value in it.” Not only does this reveal a certain kind of provincialism – “gee, golly, look at all those big buildings in New York City” – but it also expresses a very un-Van Tillian apologetic – “we need to judge the merits of Christianity by whether sophisticated New Yorkers believe it.”

When Chicago Magazine, or Philadelphia Magazine, or Wichita Magazine run features on Keller, then we will know that his mojo is truly national and not simply confined to evangelicals in awe of Manhattan. But like that sophomore philosophy class question about trees falling in the woods, if Keller fans don’t notice the feature story on the most celebrated Presbyterian pastor, did the report really happen?