Poverty, Dreher, and Story

Rod Dreher, a writer for whom I have a lot of admiration and respect, nevertheless has a tendency to overstate things, especially when those things pertain to his lived experience. Likewise, he has an unfortunate tendency to assume the worst intentions of people who push back against the conclusions he draws from his experiences. Those two flaws—which I shamefacedly confess to sharing—were on full display in the minor kerfuffle over this post. I won’t recap the mud-throwing, but suffice to say that I think Rod’s critics are right in their substantive critiques (Jemar Tisby’s, in particular), and that this whole episode might have been avoided by pondering for a few minutes longer the wisdom of defending transparently bigoted remarks by a transparently bigoted politician.

But there’s another contour to this thing that’s worth a very brief reflection. Part of what Rod was getting at in his original piece was that political correctness often runs counter to what people actually experience. This is a familiar beat to Rod, and it would be a mistake for people to assume that Rod has a vested emotional interest in punching down on poor people. If I’m reading him correctly, I think what Rod resents is the deliberate turning away from reality in favor of sentiments that play well with people who have no (literal and figurative) skin in the game. I think there’s something to say about that, and in an era of actual “reeducation” by our culture makers, the effects of Rightspeak are worth contemplation.

But I think what I’ve come away sensing is that Rod, and plenty of others, have not given enough contemplation. Instead, they’ve intuitively normalized their own experience of poor communities and downtrodden cultures into an argument. Rod’s desire to look for truth through experience is further confirmed when one considers the letters that he’s publishing as responses, as well as some responses to the responses. I think the best course of action is not only to reconsider tropes and stereotypes about the poor, but also to ask sharp questions of our tendency to equate experiences with an argument.

A lot of people have had a negative encounter with poor people or communities. And many of them choose to reason from their negative encounters to much bigger ideas about the moral quality of those in poverty. The problem with this is that one’s experiences are not worthy of such intellectual power. Yes, our experiences matter, and they can powerfully shape us, body and soul. But it doesn’t take much imagination how reasoning from experience is an awfully selective and unfair enterprise. If your only experience of poor Americans is being accosted by panhandlers, you’re likely going to reason from that experience that poor people are poor because they’d rather stand on the side of a highway off-ramp than find a job. Is the problem then that you haven’t had more experiences with poor people? Perhaps! But even if additional, more positive experiences broaden your horizon, continually over-relying on your experiences to inform you about the world will simply manifest itself in some other wrong, prejudiced, or naive way.

We see this everywhere right now. People who experienced judgement in a church might start a blog in which their experience of a relatively small number of people is extrapolated into huge, sweeping ideas about Christianity or the church. People who experience unexpected illness or health might intuit such experiences to big, specious notions about what is healthy and unhealthy (how do you think the essential oils business runs?). The point is not to discount our experiences entirely. We couldn’t do that even if we tried! The point is that piecing together our experiences and coming to a true knowledge of anything requires more than just gathering as many experiential narratives as we can.

The truth about American poverty lies far beyond the possibility of my experience, because it is indelibly rooted in history and ideas. I cannot visit the south side of Chicago for a weekend and come away with authoritative knowledge about poverty or urban policy. Nor can I justly conclude that a friend, associate, or Uber driver’s testimony is warrant enough for me to be dogmatic about an issue. My experiences and the truth are not coterminous.

I’m convinced that if Christians are going to coherently carry their witness to Christ and him crucified into future generations, we have to insist on this fact. I know Rod agrees with me, because I’ve read him long enough to know he does. I hope that he’ll apply this principle as liberally to issues of poverty and race as he does to modernism and confession.

Purpose-Driven Premodernism

I’ve finished reading Rod Dreher’s “The Benedict Option.” In my view, it’s a fine book, one that articulates a theologically faithful response to the West’s cultural moment. I’ll have more thoughts on it later (and a brief review in a forthcoming issue of the ERLC’s Light Magazine) , but for now I want to share a couple quick thoughts about what I found most surprising about the book.

When I started reading, I expected this book to be mostly about how Christians can outsmart the Left. And while Rod does employ some of that culture war language, I was pleased to be proven wrong. The Benedict Option is not, at least in how Rod has laid it out in the book, primarily between Christians and secularists. It is between Christians and Christ. What surprised me about the book was how overwhelmingly concerned Rod is with Christian sanctification. This is not really a battle plan to be used against progressives. It’s an instruction manual in basic Christian faithfulness. What refreshed me about “The Benedict Option” was not how much of it seemed innovative and timely, but how much of it felt familiar and old.

At one point while reading, I wrote this in the margins: “Purpose-driven premodernism.” Here’s what I mean. Rick Warren’s “The Purpose Driven-Life” was a massive bestseller when it was released more than 10 years ago. Now, regardless whether you think “The Purpose-Driven Life” was mostly good, mostly bad, or a mixed bag, one thing remains true: The PDL was a book that assumed the life of a Christian was structured around spiritual habits. Warren argued that a life with purpose was one that is built around faithful spiritual practices, not a life that merely tolerated them.

That’s precisely what Rod is getting at in the Benedict Option. For all the intense debate surrounding the book, its core thesis seems absurdly simple to me: An obedient, meaningful Christian life is structured around truths and practices of the faith. Trying to remain a faithful, committed, orthodox Christian while living life outside this orbit is, for Rod, a fool’s game. It’s not going to happen. The Christianity that will survive the West’s emerging secular authoritarianism is going to be a Christianity embodied in habits of mind and heart that don’t flex for the demands of modern life.

That’s why I call the Benedict Option “purpose-driven premodernism.” The main difference, I think, between Rod’s book and Warren’s book is that while the PDL assumes that a life structured around Christian disciplines is possible without conscious retreat from culture, the BenOp assumes it’s impossible. In that, I think, Rod’s book has the benefit of hindsight. Will faithfulness to the gospel require not just a collection of spiritual disciplines but an actual physical reorientation of our lives and communities? Perhaps. And if so, I think purpose-driven premodernism might be what we need.

The Problem of Public Profanity

Rod Dreher writes about a disappointing, blue-tongued concert from Adele:

I am not a prude about language, as my male friends will attest. But there is a time and a place for that kind of talk, and onstage at The Royal Albert Hall is not it, at least not if you are a gorgeous singer of pop ballads like Adele. Her fans didn’t seem to mind it at all, to be clear, but every time she dropped an f-bomb, I kept thinking, You are so beautiful, so enormously talented, such a gifted artist, and here you are, in The Royal Albert Hall, a high temple of musical performance, in a moment of  complete triumph, and … this is how you talk? 

It didn’t make me mad, really, only sad for her, and for a popular culture that doesn’t know how to behave in a place like The Royal Albert Hall, or anywhere else that’s not a rodeo arena, pretty much. Can you imagine being elderly Adele, looking back on a career of fame and accomplishment, screening your performance at The Royal Albert Hall for your grandchildren, and having to listen to your younger self, speaking like that?

Not long ago I was flipping through a major news magazine, the kind that middle schoolers would be expected to consult in a research or current event project. An article in this magazine printed, without obfuscation, an explicit profanity. My feeling of surprise wasn’t at the word itself; I wasn’t scandalized that people would use such a term. What did take me off guard was the editorial decision to print it. Did the magazine simply assume its readers eyes would bounce off the profanity like they bounced off the prepositions? Did the editors not have a sense that this word was not fit for this space? Was it that they felt this epithet was just like any other word–or were the pages of the magazine just like any other space?

Like Rod, I am not easily offended by language. But I have to agree with him that we’ve lost a sense of the impropriety of public profanity.

As a Christian, I know that I’ll be held accountable for every word that I speak, and I believe that words have intrinsic power either toward love or toward sin. I’m not interested though in foisting a Christian doctrine of speech on my neighbors, and to that end, I would submit that there is most certainly a difference between how a group of friends sitting at a restaurant talk to one another, and how those people would talk amongst strangers in public. I’m not for policing speech, just neighborliness.

That, I think, is the main issue with public profanity. People who don’t care about what others hear from them are really not caring about others. I know that profanity is common in a lot of places, and that most people you’ll hear while pumping gas or buying groceries probably don’t have a hang up about bad words. But someone’s being accustomed to four letter bombs doesn’t excuse them from neighborliness anymore than someone’s being accustomed to cruel joking absolves them from being a jerk.

How we speak in public is an issue of neighborliness because words have meaning and power. We all believe this instinctively, which is why, when we meet someone for the first time, there’s an innate desire to get our language correct. If a new acquaintance tells you she is a substitute teacher, and you subsequently refer to her as a “temp,” you are being un-neighborly with your language. The words we choose, especially in public, convey our sense of moral and social responsibility. A “potty mouth” isn’t just a quirky temperament; it’s a deficiency in kindness.

I also don’t think we can comfort ourselves that “nobody is offended.” I think there’s more offense taken than is often revealed. At a previous job, two of my coworkers with desks close to me relished telling each other stories and jokes loaded with four-letter saltines. As far as I can remember, I never once complained or asked them to stop, even though I find their weekly dialogue incredibly rude. I didn’t want drama, and in any way I didn’t want to be “that guy.” I have to believe this happens quite a bit.

This isn’t being a “prude.” If pointing out the obnoxiousness of public swearing irritates some, could it be because we have made our speech just one more extension of our utterly autonomous selves? If repairing our fractured, dis-empathetic public square is a problem worth solving, maybe it would be good to start with our own mouths. It’s not about “legalism” or even sheltering children. It’s about caring enough about those around us to not dare them to listen to us.

Why seminary needs fiction

812tYQPrHnLI enthusiastically commend to you Rod Dreher’s new book How Dante Can Save Your Life. It’s a fascinating, joyful, sobering and at times deeply moving testimony of power, not only to the The Divine Comedy in particular but to literature in general. Rod calls himself a “witness” and not a scholar. That’s the idea, but I would nonetheless urge literary scholars to read his book and savor the way a medieval text can speak so pertinently into a 21st century soul.  Continue reading “Why seminary needs fiction”