This reader comment from the “Best Church For American Christianity In Exile” thread, was so good, and so distinct, that it deserved its own post. A Muslim reader who posts under the name “Jones” commented on the Christian part of the thread, which prompted me to ask him to expand his remarks on Islam and its prospects for survival and growth in an America that is becoming more hostile to religion (or at least those religions and churches that are most antithetical to modernity). He responded:
Good question! I’m worried; that’s a big reason why I read your blog. We face many of the same problems that you do. It’s an incredibly complex question and I can only touch on it here. I had thought that the chances for American Islam were good, precisely because we are already in “exile”: all those hard-earned virtues that are supposed to come from such a condition, we are forced to develop from the beginning. I grew up in a community that exemplified those virtues in a way I will never forget. That community still exists, but its members are aging and departing from the earth.
One of the main advantages we have, I think, is that many people in the community are immigrants who are still close to a truly, fully religious society. That is how they were raised, and it is the world they knew. They are irrevocably cut off from that world now, and in many ways, thanks to globalization, it is disappearing in the countries they came from. In fact a lot of people would say it already has disappeared in those countries.
The religion of that first generation is the one that I knew growing up. It had an incredibly rich texture. It was a “devotional” religion, focused especially on love of the Prophet (pbuh). This is characteristic of much of the Islam of the subcontinent. It shows itself in the exceptionally sensitive emotional dimension of our practice. Musicality, ritual, outward displays of emotion.
There is another strain in the culture, one associated especially with ideas coming from the Middle East. (I apologize that this is vague, but that’s how a complex theological landscape translates across all these boundaries. Also I’m no expert on Islamic theology!) These ideas result in a more “rationalized” religion – one that is stripped of many “frills”. One notable difference, and a repeated point of theological contention, is the role of the Prophet (pbuh). Whereas Sufi-inspired Sunni Islam sees the person of the Prophet as being of great importance – and derives more theological significance from the Prophet’s actions, sayings, etc. – Arab Islam today is more centered on the text of the Qur’an, and more dismissive of the rest. These people are (in)famous for insisting that the Prophet was “just a man.” This streamlined, rationalized approach is typical of more educated and wealthy American Muslims, who seem to converge on Arab Islam though they may be from elsewhere (in other words, they are more “cosmopolitan”), and perhaps look down on homegrown spiritual traditions.
In the contrast between these traditions, you will notice universal tensions between religious temperaments. Recently you had a post that compared Wahhabism to Protestantism. That was a very acute observation, one that impressed me. Because Wahhabism is usually invoked only in an inflammatory way in the West, Westerners are usually ill-positioned to appreciate that similarity.
Getting back to the original question. Early on it seemed like the previous generation was doing a very good job of passing on its practices. That judgment may have been based on a limited purview centered mostly on my own family and nearby community. I used to be very bullish on American Islam; my highest hope was that we would develop a form of Islam that could actually set an example to the rest of the Muslim world, grounded in a society that was peaceful and free. In the past year I’ve started going to a large, prominent mosque in New York, and have noticed some things that worry me. I realized that a lot of younger people have started to ignore the mores we used to observe. Frankly they are probably ignorant of many of them. I realized the effect of having a mosque that did not really coincide with an intergenerational community – most of the people who come are students, connected only by the university. I noticed that the imam covered a lot of important ground and powerfully conveyed many worthwhile messages, but discussions of topics like gender relations seemed one-sided. They seemed to highlight everything that was compatible with a modern feminist view and carefully sidestep most things that were in tension with, or even incompatible with, that view. I thought there was a missed opportunity to challenge the conventional wisdom of the society around us.
I’ve also noticed a trend in a lot of Islamic group environments: these settings are increasingly being used by young people to meet others of the opposite gender. Strictly speaking this is not appropriate. The consequences have convinced me of the wisdom of the traditional rules: an element of spiritual focus, discipline, and freedom is lost; the mind is brought back down to earth. The mosque ceases to be a place where you can forget the mundane and the base.
We are struggling to adapt – especially to the sexual mores of the society around us. These impose terrible choices and psychic costs on those trying to live a modest and chaste life, especially women. Increasingly I see young Muslims, men and women, succumbing to these pressures. Though when I was young it went without question that I would have an arranged marriage, slowly the system has begun to dilute into a hybrid system with a fair amount of “entrepreneurship” and very vague boundaries, which even my parents had to accept (mostly out of practical resignation). Even this system is very conservative by the standards of the American mainstream. Whether we come up with a stable alternative to that mainstream is in my mind the major factor in whether our religion comes out intact or not. Everyone passes through this gate. And the very structure of the next generation will depend on the kinds of families we form.
Many Muslims are also wealthy – if not in the first generation, then often in the second. This is starting to have its costs, too. Wealth brings freedom – including the freedom to make more mistakes, with fewer immediate consequences. Wealth brings comfort, ease, and insulation. In other words, the prerequisites of moral weakness. Some people are making it through these tests; many are not.
Again, we have advantages. We know we are not in the mainstream – actually, reading about Christian marginalization here has had a bizarre effect on me because it hadn’t previously occurred to me before that authentic religion <i>could</i> be mainstream here!
In sum, I think the reason American Islam will do well against the threats that you specifically mention (legal/political ones) is that Islam here is not benefiting from any kind of official sanction or accommodation anyway; more like the opposite (NYPD spying, mass deportation, Peter King inquisitions in Congress, a substantial group of Americans who literally think we are an enemy). When reading about the problems Christians face there is a certain temptation to say – welcome!! On the other hand, we’re succumbing to many of the same cultural and social forces, albeit along a different curve. Starting with conservative social mores that haven’t been seen in the West for about a century.
Many will quickly split off and assimilate to the point of being indistinguishable from mainstream America in beliefs and mores. But I think there will be a larger hardcore who will remain committed to the faith. I think they will do so because they will be clearer on what is good about their religion, because they have seen it really practiced, and because for many the more limited gains of assimilation will not be worth it (they will have a harder time shaking off their heritage in the public eye because of ethnicity, among other things).
It is my sincere hope and prayer that our communities in America, Christian and Muslim, can find some way to be a blessing and an encouragement to each other in the years and decades to come.
One thing I’ve really come to love about this blog is the friendships that get made across unusual lines. You should have seen how much genuine fun all us right-of-center Christians had with our Pagan friend Franklin Edwards at the Walker Percy Weekend. These are important friendships to have, if only because they make you realize that people cannot be reduced to their religious or ideological commitments.
I welcome comments on this thread, but if all you want to do is insult Islam (or Christianity), keep your remarks to yourself. If you wish to be critical, please be civil, and constructive.
We live in a time of exile. At least those of us do who hold to traditional Christian beliefs. The strident rhetoric of scientism has made belief in the supernatural look ridiculous. The Pill, no-fault divorce, and now gay marriage have made traditional sexual ethics look outmoded at best and hateful at worst. The Western public square is no longer a place where Christians feel they belong with any degree of comfort.
For Christians in the United States, this is particularly disorienting. In Europe, Christianity was pushed to the margins over a couple of centuries—the tide of faith retreated “with tremulous cadence slow.” In America, the process seems to be happening much more rapidly.
It is also being driven by issues that few predicted would have such cultural force. It is surely an irony as unexpected as it is unwelcome that sex—that most private and intimate act—has become the most pressing public policy issue today. (Who could have imagined that policies concerning contraception and laws allowing same-sex marriage would present the most serious challenges to religious freedom?) We are indeed set for exile, though not an exile which pushes us to the geographical margins. It’s an exile to cultural irrelevance.
Trueman says Evangelicalism is especially vulnerable here, because it has so much emotionally invested in Americanism. Catholicism too is vulnerable, he contends, because it has become so embedded in the American mainstream that many Catholics will not be able easily to deal with life as marginalized outsiders, misunderstood and disliked by most. In the essay I’ve linked to, Trueman, a Reformed theologian, makes a case that historical Reformed Christianity offers the best choice for American Christians to live out Christianity in a condition of exile. Excerpt:
It possesses the intellectual rigor necessary for teaching and defending the faith in a hostile environment. It has a strong tradition of reflecting in depth upon the difference between that which is essential and that which, though good, is inessential and thus dispensable. It has a historical identity rooted in the wider theological teachings of the Church. It has deep resources for thinking clearly about the relationship of Church and state.
It’s not surprising that Reformed Christianity equips us well for exile, because it was itself forged in a time of exile, often by men who were literal exiles. Indeed, the most famous Reformed theologian of them all, John Calvin, was a Frenchman who found fame and influence as a pastor outside his homeland, in the city of Geneva. The Pilgrim fathers of New England knew the realities of exile, and the conditions that it imposed upon the people, only too well. Winthrop’s famous comment about being a city on a hill was not a statement of messianic destiny but a reminder to the colonists of the fact that their lives as exiles were to be lived out in the glare of hostile scrutiny. Exile demanded they have a clear and godly identity.
I can’t barely begin to lay out the complexities of Trueman’s case, so I hope you will read the whole thing. It provides a good launchpad for what I hope will be a fruitful discussion in the comments section.
What I would like for us to focus on is the central question of Trueman’s essay: Which form of contemporary Christianity is best suited to living out the time of exile that is fast approaching American Christians?
I’d like readers to make the case for their own church as the best ark to carry us through the time of exile.
Before you answer, here are some guidelines.
First, if you dispute the premise that a time of exile is upon us — and I know some of you do — don’t bother posting. It will only distract from the discussion I want to have.
Second, for the sake of this discussion, set aside questions of strict ecclesiology. A faithful Catholic may believe that his church is likely to do a very poor job of providing sustenance in this particular exile, but he will not leave the Catholic Church because he believes that it is truly the Church founded by Christ. Likewise with Orthodox Christians and their church. Likewise with other churches. Set that question aside for the sake of this thought experiment.
Third, I would like your answer to focus, as Trueman does, on the positive aspects of your church’s doctrine and practice, related to the goal of holding onto a distinct and countercultural orthodox Christian identity through the exile, and passing it on to the next generation. You will have to implicitly, and perhaps explicitly, criticize other churches, but please keep it brief, light and charitable. Be constructive.
(I’m sorry to have to put all these qualifications on it, but you can easily imagine how quickly things could go wrong, given the combustibility of this topic. I’m going to police these comments with special attention, to keep the discussion from going off the rails. One more thing: if you believe that the emerging dispensation in America is good for your kind of Christianity, I respect your opinion, but this conversation really isn’t for you to participate in. In fact, if you are a liberal Christian, you might finally feel as if you are coming in from exile. Again, I respect that sentiment, but that means you aren’t really the person I want offering an opinion here.)
Here’s my short case for why Orthodox Christianity is the place where small-o orthodox American Christians can best take shelter to live out the exile:
Orthodoxy is old. Very old. Its liturgies and devotional practices have come down through centuries of persecution and exile, first under the Islamic yoke, then under the Communist yoke. It is built for endurance.
It’s very hard to change Orthodoxy. That profound conservatism (= resistant to change, not necessarily politically conservatism) offers an incredibly strong bulwark against the Zeitgeist. And it is, of course, “orthodox” in the general theological and sociological sense I mean for purposes of this discussion: it is not going to compromise on the key issues separating traditional Christians from modern ones. Catholicism has the Magisterium and the Catechism, which are doctrinal rocks, but in my experience, so many American Catholics don’t submit their consciences to them. In practice, many US Catholic churches are just as Protestant as the Episcopalians down the street. In truth, I’m sure many Orthodox do not accept the hard teachings of the Orthodox Church any more than American Catholics do the hard teachings of the Catholic Church. But so far, at least, they pretty much keep their dissent to themselves. You don’t feel that the Orthodox parish is a battleground. At least I never have. It’s fantastic to have the solid rock of doctrine, but Rome is a long way off, and when the local church disregards it, it can undermine your confidence profoundly, over time.
Most importantly, Orthodoxy teaches and lives a counterculturalism that runs radically counter to modern American life. Orthodoxy is ascetic, meaning that the Orthodox Church always keeps front to mind the truth that the Christian life requires fighting the passions, and disciplining the body. We feast, and we feast with joy — but we also fast. The faith is not an intellectual thing alone — for all its great intellectual strengths, its cerebral nature is a weakness of Reformed Christianity — but involves submitting the entire body, and the rhythms of daily and weekly life, to prayer and fasting, both individually and communal. It does not preach that the body and its desires are evil — it would be heretical if it did — but it does preach that we must control our passions, or they will control us. This is strong medicine in contemporary America.
Orthodoxy preaches the Resurrection — but it also preaches the Cross. If you are Orthodox, you expect to suffer, but you know that suffering isn’t the last word. The rigorous and profound experience of Great Lent teaches you that our present sorrows and deprivations are only a prelude to the joy of the Resurrection, and that we must embrace our difficulties as severe mercies, as a means of grace.
Orthodoxy is demanding. Liturgies are long. Fasts are rigorous. Depending on which Orthodox church you’re affiliated with, you are expected to go to Saturday night vespers if you want to go to communion on Sunday morning. These things are hard to get used to, but once you do, you understand the wisdom of it all. The faith gets into your body, into your bones. Christianity becomes something that involves the whole person, not just the mind. A demanding religion is one that requires a lot of investment, but that means it’s stronger. More than any other form of Christianity you can find in America, with the possible exceptions of the Mormons and the Amish, Orthodoxy is a way of life.
When I hear and read people talking about what Catholic life in the US was like before the Second Vatican Council, it reminds me of Orthodoxy. To live and worship as an Orthodox Christian is to become intimately aware of how Protestantized US Catholic life is. I say that not to criticize, necessarily, but only to say that the same dynamics of thought and worship that have led so much of American Protestantism to dissipate in the face of secularization can be seen within mainstream American Catholic parishes. Thirty years from now, I think that the Catholic parishes that are strong will be those whose devotional lives look more like Orthodoxy, and more like the preconciliar Catholic Church.
Anyway, Orthodoxy is not just what you do on Sunday. It cannot be, and still be Orthodoxy. That is the point.
After eight years of living this life, I find the resilience it builds into you to be astonishing. And because Orthodox spirituality compels you always to search your conscience and to repent, I find that it has forced me to do some pretty painful, at times, growing in the spirit. It is possible, of course, to be self-satisfied as an Orthodox Christian, but to do so requires you to fight hard against the spiritual currents within the Church — which, I underscore, is less an institution and more of a Way.
Orthodoxy is weird. Incredibly weird by American standards. This is a strength, I find. If you’re Orthodox, you’re never going to really fit in to American Christian practice. You will always know who you are.
On the other hand, Orthodoxy is institutionally weak in this country. There are very few of us, and our churches are, for now, few and far between. Not all Orthodox churches are, well, orthodox. It is, sadly, too easy to find Orthodox parishes that are grim, closed-off ethnic clubs. It is too easy to find Orthodox parishes that are basically Mainline Protestantism with food festivals. No church is perfect, and never will be. My hope, though, is that in the time of exile, many American Christians will be drawn to the steady, faithful witness of Orthodox Christianity, and unite themselves to it, and strengthen the Orthodox Church.
That’s my positive case for why Orthodoxy is the best home for small-o orthodox Christians in American exile. What’s yours for your church? Remember the rules bounding this discussion.
UPDATE: I was just writing about this discussion with a Southern Baptist friend, and it occurs to me that while I’ve made the best case I can for Orthodoxy, I think that Catholicism is actually the church most likely to make it through what is to come. Why? Aside from its theological breadth and ecclesiology, Catholicism is in the best position to hold its ground because it has the numbers on the ground, and the most institutional depth and breadth in this country. And it has universities and monasteries to a degree we Orthodox Americans can only dream of.
Again, we aren’t talking about which church teaches the truth, or the most complete version of the truth; that’s a different question. For the sake of this thought experiment, we are talking about which church has the resources (theological, sociological, institutional, etc.) to endure, and why.
It’s a good question for the sociology of religion, period. It seems to me that generally, a religion that’s too rigid runs the risk of breaking over the passage of time, but one that is too flexible runs the risk of disintegrating.
In any case, lest there be any doubt, I strongly believe that small-o orthodox Christians and our fellow travelers in other faiths have to stand together, come what may.
UPDATE.2: You’ve got to read the comments. This is one of the best threads ever. Here’s a great example of what’s below, from Charles Featherstone:
My two cents — as an ELCA Lutheran who has been rejected for ordination — are that both Catholicism and Orthodoxy present the best vessels for christians and christian communities to not just survive in exile, but also thrive. Both churches have long institutional histories separate from the states they have found themselves in, plus Orthodoxy actually knows how to survive in conditions of opposition and oppression.
Regardless, those churches and confessions to intertwined with the state — and that includes almost all flavors of protestantism, including the Reformed — are going to find the going difficult once the state no longer becomes terribly cooperative. Protestantism is used to ruling, grew up ruling. Protestantism doesn’t know how not to rule, or how not to fight for rule. (The same could be said of Catholicism, but the Catholic experience is far broader, and much deeper.)
Accepting exile will be difficult. Let me suggest something — exile is God’s judgement on the church. Consider the twin forces of modernity and enlightenment to be Assyria and Babylon (using the metaphor of Israel’s downfall from the Deuteronomistic history and Chronicles). Judgement is better than punishment, and it’s a more faithful biblical language.
What are we being judged for? Well, what was Israel judged for? Overtly, it’s idolatry, its worshiping of other gods alongside or instead of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. But also Israel was judged for its faith in own power (beginning with 1 Samuel 8), its own ability to protect itself, its rejection of God as Israel’s sole savior (as in Exodus 14). Israel sought refuge in its army — an army God told Israel it should not have. We as church sought refuge and defense in political power, in social power, in the nation-state itself.
But the prophets, some of whom saw the very collapse of the state itself (Isaiah, Jeremiah), also condemned Israel’s failure to care for the poor, the outcast, the defenseless, the weak.
We have been judged. We are suffering the fate of judgement. Some will carted off to Assyria and never heard from again. Some carted off to Babylon to sing songs for their captors and build a city in exile. Jerusalem will be destroyed. In fact, defending Jerusalem itself is pointless (Jeremiah).
But with the judgement of God always comes the promise of redemption. Maybe not us, and maybe not our children, and maybe not theirs, but God will redeem a remnant. Because God is faithful when we are not. Remember, Abraham believed in promises he would never see fulfilled, and that trust was his righteousness. We may likely not see our promised redemption. But it will come. The people of God will be redeemed, and just as Israel was saved from Egypt by a miraculous work of God, our redemption will come as a miracle. (Remember, Babylon was undone by Persia, and Isaiah refers to Cyrus the king of Persia as “the anointed one” — HaMeshih. Remember that the Tanakh ends with the words of Cyrus, commanding the rebuilding of the temple.)
And so, as we go into exile, we remember that we are to pray for the wellbeing of the city we find ourselves in, we or to build and beget and plant. It may be a very long exile, but God’s faithfulness is longer.
The church which remembers that this is our story, and tells the story over and over and over again (in worship, at the table), and believes it, will be the church that will survive. The church the remembers salvation comes about through resurrection will survive.
The church that wants a quick end to exile, or some kind of accommodation, will not. The church that seeks respectability, power, and influence, that fears suffering (largely by making it too cheap), will not survive.
We are the people of God. The church that remembers whose it is will survive. The church that is confused about that will not.
Jerri Kelley Phillips learned some things via Facebook, and they’re pretty shocking, at least to me. She’s going through a security sweep of her house because a registered sex offender (pedophile) next door made some creepy comments to her about what he knows about her and her kids (“Oh, I see you. You don’t see me, but I see you. Even when you’re are sleeping, I see you.”). As part of the process, the investigator asked her to examine her online presence to see if there are any “holes” through which predators could gain information about her kids. And this is where Facebook comes in. Excerpt:
A few months ago I hurt someone’s feeling by deleting her post where she asked about my kids by name. I explained publicly that I do not use their names on Facebook or other media because of issues that arose after their dad died. Most people were very supportive. A few seemed to think I was being overly protective and needed to chill.
So, now that I look a big wiser, let’s review why I take the precautions I do again.
Let me give you an example of what someone can do with Facebook.
I randomly wandered through my friend’s friends lists, and I picked people at random and wandered their pages. If I could, I wandered their friends’ lists. In 9 out of 10 tries, their posts and information were wide open for anyone who wanted it, so I looked. Let me tell you a bit of what I found out.
One young lady in her 20s was married last year. I know where she got married, where she went to college, what she does for a living, and because she posted the picture of her lovely car, I was able to get her address by running the plates. Oh, and I know her husband travels often with this job. In fact, she posts regularly when he is gone. I also know she is anti-firearms, and they have a cat but no dogs.
Does it get any easier than that? I mean, really?
Then I checked my “do you know this person” feed. This is a man I have no contact with, no mutual friends with, but because he is in an area where a cluster of my friends are, he showed up as a “do you know him”. I didn’t, but I do now.
I know he has two sons. Both of which are in little league. I know is dating a lovely lady, and from the posts, it is getting serious. I know where he works, where he went to school, his employment history. I know on Friday nights when he doesn’t have the kids, he and the GF have a particular bar they like to visit and stay at until well after 11:00. I also know he is working on a bike that he is either restoring or fixing in his garage. He posted a picture of it…that also showed the other three that he custom did. Oh, speaking of pictures. His sons are DARLING!!!! And you know what, now that I’ve read through all his check-ins and know his routines and his favorite sports team, I bet if I met one of those precious little guys, I could give them enough information to convince them that I know their daddy really well and something has happened and he needs me to take them to him.
Hit a nerve there? I hope so.
But the one I really liked was the mom who was evidently was trying to make an embarrassing point by posting the pictures of her teenage daughter…in the cheerleader outfit, in her pajamas, in the belly top and daisy dukes, in the tank with the bra showing and the shorts showy her rosy cheeks. Get the picture yet?
Obviously that mother was trying to make a point, and if a sexual predator ran across those, I can promise you a point was made, and do I need to tell you what that predator was doing with that point while he stared at pictures of her teenage baby? Follow me?
Disgusted? Me too. In fact, if I had been friends with that momma, I probably wouldn’t have been when I was done telling her just what I thought of those pictures and the obvious fact her daughter’s lack of maturity and character is clearly directly inherited from her mother. As it was, I couldn’t say anything without seeming…creepy, so I just wandered back to my Facebook page and ventured down someone else’s friends list.
Oh, and by the way, I did all of this—easily more than a dozen accounts—in a few hours.
Let me tell you what I looked for.
Please, especially if you have kids, read the whole thing. And read her first follow-up, about how you can use Facebook while protecting your safety and privacy. Then read her second follow-up. Her advice is common sense and non-paranoid, but to tell the truth, more than half that stuff I had never even thought about.
The nation that opposed the 2003 US attack against Iraq is now making a bold humanitarian offer to that nation’s Christian internal refugees. From the BBC:
The French government says it is ready to offer asylum to Iraqi Christians forced to flee by Islamist militants in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul.
Many fled Mosul after the Islamic State (IS) group which seized much of northern Iraq told them to convert to Islam, pay a tax or face death.
Iraq is home to one of the world’s most ancient Christian communities.
Two top ministers said, “We are ready, if they so desire, to help facilitate asylum on our territory.”
The flight of Christians in the face of Islamic State was described at the weekend by the vicar of Baghdad’s Anglican church, Canon Andrew White, as bringing “the end of Christianity very near” in Iraq. “Things are so desperate, our people are disappearing,” he said to BBC Radio Four. “We have had people massacred, their heads chopped off.”
In 2003, before the allied invasion, there were about a million Christians, if not more, in Iraq. About three quarters have left since amid the civil war and targeted attacks by jihadists.
And what of our nation, whose previous government did so much to ruin the lives of Iraq’s Christians? Why is Washington silent? Is their no room in our country for Christians whose families have been in Iraq for nearly 2,000 years — until the US invasion caused the condition that led to their exile?
Ours is a big country, filled with well-off and not-so-well-off churches that would surely be willing to help resettle and support these refugee families. In my little Louisiana town, I bet we could put together enough support from the parish’s churches to support an Iraqi Christian refugee family. As a Christian and an American, it is a matter of shame to me that France, which did not participate in the war that has resulted in the destruction of Iraqi Christianity, a secular nation where relatively few people go to church, is opening its doors to these displaced and persecuted Christians.
Why not us?
What is wrong with us?
Vive la France! Yes, there’s probably some deeply cynical and political reason that Paris is doing this. But still, they’re doing it, and that’s probably the only thing that matters to refugee families. So, encore: vive la France!
This is the telegram that the foreign minister of Austria-Hungary sent to the government of Serbia, informing it that the Emperor considers Austria-Hungary and Serbia to be in a state of war.
One hundred years ago today, the Great War began.
So yesterday Matthew and I walk into a Starbucks in Baton Rouge. I have to update this blog, because we haven’t had wifi at the new house since we moved. Matt has to do an online algebra class. The coffee shop is almost full. Matt grabs the one free leather chair and starts his class. I go order us some drinks, then come back and take the last seat at the long communal table. My back is to Matthew.
A woman sitting across from me packs her things and leaves. The scraggly, skinny, pimply faced college boy — who had been sitting next to her looks at me with googly eyes and says, “She can sit next to me if she wants.”
“Excuse me?” I say.
“I said she can sit here next to me.”
“Her.” He points to my six-foot-tall, 14 year old son sitting behind me.
“That’s my son.”
“Ohh! Dude I am so sorry. Like, I’m really sorry. Dude, I can’t believe I said that.”
“No big deal.” I looked back down at my laptop. Scraggletop would not shut up.
“I mean, I can’t believe it. I’m so sorry. What was I thinking?”
“Seriously, it’s okay.”
“I mean, I just spent a month out in Seattle, and you know how it is out there. You can’t ever really be sure who’s a boy and who’s a girl. You just don’t know.” Moronic giggle.
I looked at him like he had lost his mind.
“Hey, dude, I don’t mean anything by that! I’m gay, alright? I’m gay. So I know.” He smiles this idiot smile.
“Listen,” I said firmly. “It’s really okay.” And I shot him a look that said, this conversation is over. I have work to do.
He has his iPad in front of him, puts in his earbuds, and starts to watch a movie. After a couple of minutes, he starts making phone calls with the thing. Have you ever sat in a coffee shop next to people who carry on lengthy mobile phone conversations? It’s unnerving. They could be sitting there talking just as loudly to someone across the table from them, and you would barely notice. But the absence of an audible response is crazy-making. Your mind keeps wanting to fill it in.
After the third phone call this jerk made, I looked around, saw an empty chair across the coffee shop, and moved.
But once I’d heard his voice, he became impossible to ignore. On and on he went with these phone calls. An elderly gentleman sitting in a leather chair next to the long table caught his attention and said, “You need to take that conversation outside.” Scraggletop just looked at him and kept on. Completely meaningless conversations this guy was having. He was just calling people up to talk.
I must have lasted about nine minutes after that. Finally, I snapped. I stalked across the coffee shop, put my finger in his face, and went off on him. “You need to stop this, and you need to stop this right now!” I barked. “You are behaving with no consideration for the people around you. If you want to talk to somebody on the phone, go outside. Do you understand me? Have I made myself clear?!”
Man, I was mad. Scraggletop nodded weakly, and I went back to my seat. That was the end of his phone conversations inside the coffee shop. When I sat down, I noticed the old man look at him and say, “I told you it was annoying.”
I don’t think I’ve ever done anything like that, but you know, communitarianism has its limits. Maybe I’m a bad guy, I dunno. Maybe I was in touch with my inner Uncle Chuckie. Or maybe I was inspired by this French national hero:
This book is a salutary and needed reminder of the intellectual and moral power of the Murdoch version of Platonism. In her view, what is central to the moral life is our imperfect apprehensions of a perfection that we cannot ever fully comprehend. It was this that Plato identified as the form of the Good, showing us in “The Republic,” in Murdoch’s words, “the reality of what is better and the illusory nature of what is worse. We learn of perfection and imperfection through our ability to understand what we see as an image or shadow of something better which we cannot yet see. The idea of Good, perceived in our confused reality, also transcends it.” And from Plato we also learn how moral education involves “a progressively changing quality of consciousness,” so that “the selfish self-interestedly casual or callous man sees a different world from that which the careful scrupulous benevolent just man sees; and the largely explicable ambiguity of the word ‘see’ here conveys the essence of the concept of the moral.” To move toward the Good is thus to be rescued from deception and self-deception.
When Murdoch describes the quality of attentive, focused vision that plays a key part in the moral transformation of individuals, we may well be reminded of what some mystical writers have said about meditative prayer, and rightly so. For in the Christian past the Good was identified with God; the love of the Good was understood in terms of the theology of a triune God. Now, in Murdoch’s view, the claims of Christianity about divine existence and incarnation have become incredible. Christianity has to be de mythologized, so that its images — and human beings need such images — can function as aids to meditation and reflection. The “ontological proof” of the existence of God does not exhibit, as St. Anselm believed, the necessity of divine existence, but rather the necessity of the idea of the Good for the moral life. In providing an answer to the question “Are there fundamental concepts and problems which moral philosophers have to (or ought to) deal with?” the ontological proof, as she sees it, shows us what is ineliminably metaphysical about the moral life.
The problem we have today is that we cannot live together without a shared idea of the Good, we have lost confidence in our ability to determine the common Good rationally, and to articulate it in a way people find persuasive. And this matters. Check out this passage from a recent Peter Lawler essay:
It’s probably more true than ever that we lack the cultivated leisure class that values “the best that has been thought and said” (and painted and sung) for its own sake. By now it would be downright audacious to suggest that one of our most important social projects would be to cultivate those with that kind of leisure, whether earned or given; to harness new technology to aid as many Americans as possible in rising far above merely middle-class life. As most experts understand it, however, our greatest social problem is how to get more and more Americans the skills, competencies, and habits required to flourish or at least make it in the 21st century competitive marketplace. The problem, if you’ll permit some hyperbole, is that too many don’t even have what’s required to be proletarian cogs in a machine, to be reliably, if marginally, productive. And so all the education experts say that we have to work harder to transform all of education around the requirements of the competitive marketplace.
Notice, too, that when “reform conservatives” such as Yuval Levin suggest the very modest idea of expanding the child tax credits for struggling working Americans, they’re accused of pandering to the envious and thinking in terms of classes instead of individuals. Someone might say that the future of our country requires increasing both prosperity and fertility, and that those who bear and rear the next generation could be asked to provide, in justice, less of the nation’s GDP. But that kind of thinking, after all, can be criticized by liberals for casting women as breeders for the state and not as autonomous individuals, and by conservatives for casting individuals as citizen subjects of the state. That kind of criticism is at the foundation of the libertarian social and cultural consensus that is beginning to unite our two parties. [Emphasis mine -- RD] We’re thinking of ourselves less and less as beings sharing the common relational content that comes with being parents or citizens or even creatures with a given, shared nature.
In sum, because capitalism has won, America is both more and less middle-class than ever. And keeping America qualitatively middle-class probably requires attention to what might be called relational institutions—those that shore up, for example, the family and the content of education, that go beyond market-based reforms and the vacuous celebration of “diversity.” It’s no longer enough to say, as some conservatives and libertarians still do, that all we have to do is cut the taxes of “job creators” and eliminate pointless and counter-productive regulations, and the resulting economic growth will benefit it us all. We conservatives, especially, need to abandon the tired and misleading distinction between individualism and collectivism and think of people as both free and relational beings, beings who find out who they are and what they’re supposed to do through worthwhile work with others and through the shared joys and responsibilities of personal love.
The real divide in modern American life is not between conservatives and liberals. It’s between Emotivists and Metaphysical Realists (see here for an explanation.)
So says former Yale professor William Deresiewicz, in a barn-burner of a New Republic essay. He argues that the system of elite higher education in this country is profoundly screwing up kids who are brilliant and driven, but stunted by anxiety, fear of nonconformity, and no deep sense of what education is for, aside from being certified to proceed into the meritocratosphere.
I found myself wanting to stand up and slow-clap at a number of moments in this piece, among them:
A young woman from another school wrote me this about her boyfriend at Yale:
Before he started college, he spent most of his time reading and writing short stories. Three years later, he’s painfully insecure, worrying about things my public-educated friends don’t give a second thought to, like the stigma of eating lunch alone and whether he’s “networking” enough. No one but me knows he fakes being well-read by thumbing through the first and last chapters of any book he hears about and obsessively devouring reviews in lieu of the real thing. He does this not because he’s incurious, but because there’s a bigger social reward for being able to talk about books than for actually reading them.
I taught many wonderful young people during my years in the Ivy League—bright, thoughtful, creative kids whom it was a pleasure to talk with and learn from. But most of them seemed content to color within the lines that their education had marked out for them. Very few were passionate about ideas. Very few saw college as part of a larger project of intellectual discovery and development. Everyone dressed as if they were ready to be interviewed at a moment’s notice.
Look beneath the façade of seamless well-adjustment, and what you often find are toxic levels of fear, anxiety, and depression, of emptiness and aimlessness and isolation. A large-scale survey of college freshmen recently found that self-reports of emotional well-being have fallen to their lowest level in the study’s 25-year history.
This reminded me of one of my Yale undergraduate friends. Went to Yale happy. Came home on holidays consumed by social anxiety of just this kind. It was tearing her to bits. More:
College is not the only chance to learn to think, but it is the best. One thing is certain: If you haven’t started by the time you finish your B.A., there’s little likelihood you’ll do it later. That is why an undergraduate experience devoted exclusively to career preparation is four years largely wasted.
Elite schools like to boast that they teach their students how to think, but all they mean is that they train them in the analytic and rhetorical skills that are necessary for success in business and the professions. Everything is technocratic—the development of expertise—and everything is ultimately justified in technocratic terms.
Religious colleges—even obscure, regional schools that no one has ever heard of on the coasts—often do a much better job in that respect. What an indictment of the Ivy League and its peers: that colleges four levels down on the academic totem pole, enrolling students whose SAT scores are hundreds of points lower than theirs, deliver a better education, in the highest sense of the word.
I’ve mentioned before two friends of mine who went to the same Ivy League school but came to LSU for a semester to get a much cheaper deal on the same program they would have taken at their school. Both of them said they very much appreciated how laid back and depoliticized the campus was, and how much easier it was to get the professor’s attention at LSU than back East. I remember my friend N. (whose father worked at the mill) saying how she had so many classmates at Brown who were rich kids, especially European kids, who were just there to coast. LSU was full of non-rich kids who were there to coast, but in N.’s telling, they didn’t have that intolerable sense of entitlement. Another Ivy League friend descended into depression because of the overwhelming social pressure to achieve there — the same kind of stuff Deresiewicz talks about, but this was going on in the 1980s. Still another hated the oppressive political atmosphere at his Ivy League school. He was (and is) a progressive, and agreed with almost all of the progressive causes on campus in his day. But he’s a laid-back Louisiana guy, and said everybody was so damn uptight about them, always on the outlook for deviation from the party line, that it made daily life on campus way more fraught with anxiety than it ought to have been.
But diversity of sex and race has become a cover for increasing economic resegregation. Elite colleges are still living off the moral capital they earned in the 1960s, when they took the genuinely courageous step of dismantling the mechanisms of the WASP aristocracy.
The truth is that the meritocracy was never more than partial. Visit any elite campus across our great nation, and you can thrill to the heart-warming spectacle of the children of white businesspeople and professionals studying and playing alongside the children of black, Asian, and Latino businesspeople and professionals. Kids at schools like Stanford think that their environment is diverse if one comes from Missouri and another from Pakistan, or if one plays the cello and the other lacrosse. Never mind that all of their parents are doctors or bankers.
That doesn’t mean there aren’t a few exceptions, but that is all they are. In fact, the group that is most disadvantaged by our current admissions policies are working-class and rural whites, who are hardly present on selective campuses at all. The only way to think these places are diverse is if that’s all you’ve ever seen.
Yes. Yes. A thousand times yes. This is how that entire class rolls, from their “diverse” colleges to their “diverse” newspapers. Here’s Wendell Berry, from The Progressive magazine (!):
Disparagements of farmers, of small towns, of anything identifiable as “provincial” can be found everywhere: in comic strips, TV shows, newspaper editorials, literary magazines, and so on. A few years ago, The New Republic affirmed the necessity of the decline of family farms in a cover article entitled “The Idiocy of Rural Life.” And I remember a Kentucky high school basketball cheer that instructed the opposing team:
Go back, go back, go back to the woods.
Your coach is a farmer and your team’s no good.
I believe it is a fact, proven by their rapidly diminishing numbers and economic power, that the world’s small farmers and other “provincial” people have about the same status now as enemy civilians in wartime. They are the objects of small, “humane” consideration, but if they are damaged or destroyed “collaterally,” then “we very much regret it,” but they were in the way–and, by implication, not quite as human as “we” are. The industrial and corporate powers, abetted and excused by their many dependents in government and the universities, are perpetrating a sort of economic genocide–less bloody than military genocide, to be sure, but just as arrogant, foolish, and ruthless, and perhaps more effective in ridding the world of a kind of human life. The small farmers and the people of small towns are understood as occupying the bottom step of the economic stairway and deservedly falling from it because they are rural, which is to say not metropolitan or cosmopolitan, which is to say socially, intellectually, and culturally inferior to “us.”
Enemy civilians in wartime. I know exactly what he means.
I won’t quote more of the Deresiewicz piece; you really should read the whole thing. He said the best thing you can do to keep your kid from turning into “an out of touch, entitled little sh*t” is send her to a public university. The second-best thing is send him to a second tier (but not second rate) liberal arts college.
The man — an Ivy grad (Columbia, 1998) and teacher (Yale, 1998-2008) — is a traitor to his class. Bless him.
UPDATE: Reader NS, with a great comment. I can tell you from his email address that he really is at an Ivy school:
Well, as a current student at an Ivy League school, I will try and offer my experiences to humanize the picture a little bit. In the interest of this I will offer full disclosure. I’m a multi-generation legacy at the aforementioned school, an ancestor of mine founded the place, in fact. Before that I attended prep school and before that I attended private elementary school. I’m the child and grandchild of the generic and villified “elite” class that Rod and others are ripping into. So this is coming from the enemy, I guess, and maybe as a result it won’t matter much to many of you, but I’ll still offer it up.
Where to begin…
Much of what Deresiewicz writes is spot on but he is trading in absolutes when things are just much, much more nuanced. Simply put, there are people, many of them at my school, who care deeply for being educated. Who look to these four years not as merely a stepping stone to entrance into the “meritocratosphere” but as a place to pursue thought deeply. I have met professors who encourage this, who tell me to spend my time reading and reading, “become a library rat” one of them said, rather than apply for internships or extracurriculars.
Deresiewicz is right. People here are ambitious. They want to break into elite jobs in order to have elite careers and they would probably benefit from a read of The Little Way. The extracurriculars here are insanely competitive and damagingly so. People are very concerned about jobs and prestige. This is something I wish I could change but the culture has moved so far on that there isn’t any turning back. This is the most important point. The Ivy League responded to the culture; it isn’t responsible for its creation. The fact of the matter is that most people in the this country don’t give a lick about real education. Money, careers, and material things are vastly more important to them than Shakespeare, Joyce, Montaigne, Plato, or Dante. The Ivy League doesn’t have a monopoly on ambition or materialism or technocratic values.
It isn’t the Ivy League. It’s the culture. My school isn’t forcing 1/6th of its students to major in economics so they are better prepared for careers in finance. The culture is telling them to do it because that is what the culture values. My school isn’t forcing students to learn “the analytic and rhetorical skills necessary for success in business and the professions.” Students spend their time going to the Investment Club, taking applied math, and going to interviews at career services. The culture demands that of the students and they respond. The culture is technocratic. I really challenge you to find a humanities professor at my school who feels that his or her chief charge is to teach their students “the analytic and rhetorical skills necessary for success in business and the professions” and not the texts. Seriously. That sentence was laughable.
The way I see it, 18-22 year olds aren’t that different no matter where they go to college. Some will be there to learn, some to party, some to network, some to smoke weed and have sex. There are kids at state schools networking just as hard as kids in the Ivy League. There are kids who love studying the great books of the Western tradition at Ivy League schools and there are kids who love studying the great books of the Western tradition at state schools. I know kids who spend their days partying at Ivy League schools and I know kids who spend their days partying at state schools. Again, it’s the culture, not the Ivy League (And guess what, the partying is bigger at state schools. You can get away with not even going to class at state schools. I know a kid who didn’t go to one of his classes for 5 weeks. He failed the class).
What I think the Ivy League does possess, for all of its structural faults, is rigor, class size, and contact with professors. The professors expect a lot from the kids and I’ve seen the syllabi from state schools. They don’t match up. In my first year I read Kant, Nietzsche, Hume, Freud, Durkheim, Kierkegaard, Plato, Shakespeare, the British Romantics, Locke, Marx, Heidegger, Sophocles, Aeschylus among others. Next semester, Aristotle, Kant, Doestoyevsky, the Metaphysical poets, Homer, Lucan, Ovid, Virgil, Plato, Aristotle, the Stoics, Kafka, Faulkner, Melville, Bronte. My largest class was 40 students. I had one class of 4, one of 7, one of 12, one of 15 and the rest were in between 15-20. All of my classes were taught by tenured professors. I hardly think this deserves any scorn from a traditionalist conservative.
So yea, the Ivy League churns out some exhausted, anxious, grievously unread students. But it also churns out some seriously committed thinkers and you will be hard-pressed to beat those class sizes and the contact with professors. Does it vary across the Ivy League? Absolutely. Does everyone have my experience? Absolutely not. But quality education exists at the Ivy League. It isn’t just a bunch of “out of touch, entitled little sh*t[s]” although that sure is a convenient way to reduce an entire institution.
As for the diversity thing, Rod, Deresiewicz has it wrong, wrong, wrong. 66% of my class is on financial aid. 20% are first-generation college students. The idea that the Ivy League just caters to the sons and daughters of “bankers” is flat out dead wrong. No two ways about it. You want some examples? A close friend of mine is a poor white kid from the Deep South whose parents don’t have enough money to get him a bus ticket so he has to hitchhike to school. Another grew up on a farm in Tennessee and another in a small town in Montana. I didn’t realize they counted as elite.
More worryingly to me is your apparent, at least in your writing, dislike (?) disdain (?), correct me if those are too strong of words, for the “elite class”. I think you should withhold your pronouncements on “how that entire class rolls”, especially after you write a post about a brothel in Mississippi in order to demonstrate the complexity of people, in order to demonstrate how we shouldn’t make pronouncements about the South without getting to know it, without coming down there and talking to people to get a feel for the nuance and complexity of their lived experiences. After nearly two years of reading your blog, I’ve often wondered why you refuse to grant that same complexity to people like me.
Anyways, I hope this will move the needle a little bit for some of you. The state of liberal education in this country is a tragedy, not to mention a grave danger, but it’s not the fault of the Ivy League.
During our big move, I was startled and delighted to come across this old t-shirt of mine. It was presented to me outside a Natchez whorehouse on my 15th birthday by my Uncle Murphy, who had taken me and my buddy there to celebrate my big day.
Let me explain.
Uncle Murphy — Big Guy, as we called him — was a chronic prankster. When I turned 13 or so, he started telling me, “Boy, when you turn 15, I’m going to take you to Nellie’s to get you broken in.”
Nellie’s was a legendary Natchez bordello that operated openly, not far from downtown. Miss Nellie Jackson, a black woman from Woodville, Miss., was the longtime proprietor — and believe it or not, was a beloved local figure. She got around town in a white Lincoln, and favored French poodles. Here’s a clip from an Indiegogo appeal for funding to support a documentary about Nellie’s life and times:
Here’s the website for the film. I hope they make it.
Anyway, as my 15th birthday approached, Big Guy started the drumbeat. I was scared to death. Scared. To. Death. One Saturday evening, he arrived at our house with three friends, and picked my buddy and me up. We were going to Natchez. I wanted out, but my dad said I needed to go through with it. Secretly, I thought Big Guy wouldn’t really take two 15 year old boys to a Natchez brothel … but what if he did? You shouldn’t put anything past him.
We motored the hour or so north on Highway 61, and went to the house of his old friend Dickie Prescott, who was waiting for us. Dickie mixed a blender full of daiquiris, and gave one to each of us boys. Our courage having been boosted by the first drink either of us ever had, Big Guy, Dickie, and their pal Walt took us out to the Oldsmobile and drove us over to Nellie’s.
I was shaking. This was really going to happen.
We pulled up to the place — which I wasn’t entirely sure was real until I saw it — and there, in the backyard, was a statuesque Vietnamese woman hanging out laundry in a clingy dress. It was a warm February day.
“Boys, get on out,” said Big Guy, opening his door.
To tell the truth, I don’t remember exactly what happened next, but I recall standing there in the driveway with my friend as Big Guy presented us with t-shirts he’d had made commemorating our visit. Our names were embossed on the back. Pictures were taken. I have the shot somewhere in a box at home, but I’m not going to post it, to protect the image of my childhood pal. I recall that my face in it looks stricken with utter anxiety, while his was filled with let’s go, boys! anticipation.
Of course we didn’t go in. That had never been the plan. (Though I wonder: what if we had begged to go in and sample the wares? What would Murphy have done? Had he gone through with it, my mother would have killed him, buried him, dug up the body, and shot him again). The guys piled us two virginal striplings back into the Olds, went back for their wives, and we all headed to a fancy restaurant for a birthday dinner. Murphy got us good and drunk, and deposited us back at my house at midnight.
We didn’t get anything at Nellie’s other than a pretty good story. Big Guy died in 1987 (I’ve written many times about his self-designed tombstone, won in a card game, with its epitaph, “This ain’t bad — once you get used to it”). Nellie outlived him, but she did not survive the Mississippi frat boy who showed up late one night at her bordello, drunk, and was refused entry. He returned with a gas can, doused her and the cathouse with gasoline, and set them on fire. She was 87, and had been running her brothel for 60 years. From a newspaper story about her after her death:
For many people, Nellie Jackson was a legend because of her acts of kindness to neighbors and strangers alike.
“She was an utterly kind person,” said Joan Gandy, managing editor of the Natchez Democrat and a close friend. “I never know her to have hard feeling toward another. At her house, she had standards. She would not let anyone in drunk or after midnight.
“She cared about the young women who worked there. If they called up two years later needing help, she would help.”
She also helped if someone had been burned out of their house, or if someone needed help to go to school, or if some of the city’s nuns needed a ride to Baton Rouge or catch an airplane, or, in the Civil Rights troubles of the 1960s, a black activist needed help getting out of jail.
These acts of charity and the fact that she ran a quiet business are the main reasons Nellie Jackson managed to operate all those years with impunity. Natchez itself was the other reason.
“This has always been an open kind of community, being a river town with a bawdy reputation,” said Gandy. “Things are accepted here for what they are.”
Whatever you think the South is, you’re probably wrong, as I keep discovering the older I get. This is a deeply weird place, and I can’t think of a better place to be a writer and observer of the human condition.