Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

The Happiest Place On Earth

A tour of Eighth Day Books and Eighth Day Institute

Erin Doom leads James K.A. Smith on a tour of Wichita’s Eighth Day Books and the affiliated Eighth Day Institute — two of the happiest places on the planet, if you ask me. (The New York Times wrote about the bookstore back in May.) Excerpts from Jamie’s Q&A tour:

[Erin Doom] As you can see, those forty thousand books are in all sorts of places. The children’s books are in the basement, which Warren named the Hobbit Hole, based on the Tolkien quote on this sign: “It was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.” There are books in every room and nook and cranny and on every floor of the house. He even has books in the upstairs bathroom.

But the heart of the store, in my estimation, is right here. This wall of shelves covers what used to be the original home’s fireplace. It holds writings and studies of the early Church Fathers and monasticism. I’ll come back to the Fathers in a bit.

In 2002, I helped Warren move the bookstore from its original location about eight blocks up the street. It looked and felt very similar to this new location. It also had a decorative placard with a famous quote by Jorge Luis Borges: “I have always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of library.” This gives you a sense of the kind of place Eighth Day Books is.

And the Institute? Tell us, Erin, about the Hall of Men:

I left Eighth Day Books in 2005 for a high-school teaching position at Northfield School of the Liberal Arts. While teaching Greek, Medieval History, Great Books, and Western Civ., that initial idea finally began to come together. It’s also where I met George Elder.

After graduating from Northfield in 2003, George took off for Clemson University. Instead of partying and bar hopping, from the moment he arrived he set to work building a table and a kegerator. He also began brewing beer. And then he invited the young men of Clemson to join him in his garage for dinner, home-brewed beer, and a lecture on a hero. He called it the Hall of Men.

After graduating from Clemson, George returned home with that table. But it was a large table—twelve feet long, to be exact—and he didn’t have a place for it. He also wanted to continue the Hall of Men tradition.

I first met George while he was visiting Northfield, shortly after his return from Clemson in 2007. In that initial conversation, he explained the Hall of Men format to me. I was intrigued by the idea. But when he told me that he mounted an image of the hero being presented to his garage wall—which sounds like the Orthodox practice of commemorating saints through story and icon—the deal was sealed.

At that point we were incorporated as the St. John of Damascus Institute. We also had a long space—this hall. And George had a long table—this table. So we partnered and launched the Hall of Men in November of that same year. With a few exceptions, Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant men have been gathering here twice a month ever since.

We still basically follow George’s original format. We eat dinner together, we drink beer, and we celebrate a hero through lecture and image. But we have developed an Eighth Day Convocation that precedes the lecture. It includes a hymn (usually Protestant), an evening prayer called “O Gladsome Light” (the earliest Christian hymn outside of the Bible still in use today), a reading from the Fathers, a Gospel reading, Christ’s prayer for union in John 17, the Nicene Creed, and the Lord’s Prayer.

If you look around at these walls, you can see the heroes we’ve presented. They make that passage in Hebrews about the great cloud of witnesses come alive. And really, that’s the point of the Hall of Men: to surround men with heroes of the faith who spur us on in our own faith. But it’s also meant to push us back out into our community to renew culture. In fact, that’s the only requirement for presenters: to imagine their hero has arrived from heaven to tell us how to renew our culture.

I’ve been to the Hall of Men, and wrote about it back in January, in a post called “The Joy of Wichita”. It’s a terrific place. It’s just what you want: a Christian speakeasy where you drink beer and talk about books and ideas. (Check out the “About Us” link for more on their vision.) They’ve recently started a women’s version of the Hall of Men group. It meets in the same place and talks about the same kind of stuff. Thirty-seven women showed up for the first event; next week, they’ll be meeting to talk about Julian of Norwich.

If you’re like me, you first encounter Eighth Day Books and Institute and think, “Wait, there’s a place like this in the world? That you can actually go to?” Yes, there is. Here’s the Benedict Option rationale behind this very Benedict Option place:

JKAS: How do you see all of these pieces serving the goal of cultural renewal?

ED: I think about that all the time. First, the church has to get over its divisions and stand as one beautiful body. Christ prayed for the church to have the same kind of unity he has with the Father. Why? So that the world might believe. So cultural renewal depends on our unity. And that’s why all of our work promotes an “Eighth Day Ecumenism” by bringing Catholics, Orthodox, and Protestants together for a dialogue of love.

But I also think our ability to get over our divisions depends on a retrieval of our common heritage. The church has handed down particular ways of birthing and dying, of marrying and remaining single, of fasting and feasting, of praying and worshipping. These holy practices have proved effective in the past. And we have to implement them in our families. We have to make our homes into little churches.

Ross Douthat says we’ve become a nation of heretics. He’s right, and I think it’s because we’ve forgotten our heritage. So all of our work at EDI promotes the unity of the church through a retrieval of our common heritage.

Read the whole thing. It’s so, so good. If you are feeling down and out and hopeless about our culture, go to Wichita and take part in what they’re doing there. Here’s a link to Eighth Day Books, the most wonderful bookstore on earth, and here’s a link to the Eighth Day Institute, a non-profit that is one of the worthiest endeavors I can think of, and which always needs support.

In January, the EDI is hosting its Sixth Annual symposium; this year’s theme is Soil and Sacrament: The World As Gift. I’m going to be one of the speakers, and I’ll be talking about the Benedict Option. Please come if you can; this little community on the prairie is the spiritual heart of the Benedict Option, if you ask me. Come see what they have accomplished. You might be inspired to go home and try it yourself. Be forewarned: you will go home with sacks of books. Once you get into the bookstore, you will not be able to help yourself.

In “The Suburban Hermit,” his new blog on the Benedict Option, the Catholic priest Fr. Dwight Longenecker says this about reading old books:

The old books are the ones that have stood the test of time. The ones that are built on the rock survive the tempest. The ones built on shifting sand have been washed away.

Studying the old books helps the monk put down roots and this builds stability and peace. By knowing the conflicts and struggles, the trials and traumas of the past and seeing how truth wins we gain confidence and trust in God’s providence.

The old books widen our minds and our souls. We broaden our perspective and deepen our insights. We go beyond our borders and puncture our prejudices and move beyond our comfortable nests.

To read old books and talk about them around a long table with good friends, a pint of ale at the elbow — really, it’s heaven on earth. And in Wichita! Who knew?



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