Alan Jacobs’s piece on Christian intellectuals has been burning up my corner of the Internet. It’s worthwhile and you should read it, as is usual with Jacobs. I have disjointed and rambling responses to a couple of things in the essay.
Christian Intellectuals as Mediators
Jacobs is writing for Harpers, a liberal, secular magazine, though one that has shown an interesting openness to Christian thinkers (Jacobs himself; Annie Dillard; Garret Keizer; Marilynne Robinson, who we’ll get to in a minute). So he has to answer the question “Why should a nonreligious reader care about whether or nah there are famous Christian intellectuals.” That’s what he seems to be doing here:
While many would blame [Trump’s] rise on the particular dysfunction of the G.O.P. or of America’s political culture more generally, a larger context makes that view impossible. A populist and sometimes xenophobic campaign succeeded in persuading British voters to leave the European Union. Marion Maréchal-Le Pen has risen as a charismatic new star of the French right; Germany buzzes with the possibility of a backlash against Angela Merkel’s openness to Middle Eastern refugees. In May, Austria’s Norbert Hofer came within a percentage point of becoming the first far-right leader since World War II to win a national election in Europe. Far-right parties in the Netherlands, Poland, and even the traditionally liberal Northern European countries are enjoying a similar renaissance. The terms “nativism,” “reactionary,” even “fascism” appear in political conversation with increasing regularity. Though few of these leaders profess deep religious commitments, their popularity seems driven in significant part by religious ressentiment—an awareness of the decline of Christian (or “Judeo-Christian”) civilization and a determination to arrest and, if possible, reverse that decline. … It would be valuable to have at our disposal some figures equipped for the task of mediation—people who understand the impulses from which these troubling movements arise, who may themselves belong in some sense to the communities driving these movements but are also part of the liberal social order.
Either I have misunderstood Jacobs’s bid to build a sense of urgency here, or his attempt fails. I don’t think that Christianity, qua Christianity, is all that helpful in building either understanding or rapport with the elements of the far-right that Jacobs mentions. Christianity entails, at a minimum, the worship, as God, of a Jew who began life as a refugee. Though fascists and nativists have often been churchgoers, and though these movements often make a show of their compatibility with “religion,” the only thing Christianity really offers them is, in some places, its oldness and entrenchedness and traditional-ness, things that really don’t belong to Christianity necessarily and in itself. (This is also part of the reason why the conservative Christian intelligentsia has been, with some mostly laughable and pitiable exceptions, anti-Trump. In our tradition, losers get blessed.) I think people become far-right for other reasons and then they seek to square it after-the-fact with whatever degree of nominal Christianity is considered normal in their family or town. So maybe, to explain Trump and defuse Trump, we need some public intellectuals who can speak to and from the world of the white suburb or the white rural working class, which can include talking about Christianity and the way that that is (or isn’t) locally construed in ways that underwrite (or resist) Trump. But commitment to Christianity in itself isn’t something that’s making people support Trump.
Maybe I’m being super-naive, but that’s how it seems to me.
The “Choice” To Disappear
The middle part of the essay looks to the Anglo-American Christian intellectuals of the 1940s and early 1950s, a group whose relative power and prominence Jacobs characterizes as follows:
The Christian intellectuals of World War II found their society shaking at its foundations. They were deeply concerned that even if the Allies won, it would be because of technological and economic, not moral and spiritual, superiority; and if technocrats were deemed responsible for winning the war, then those technocrats would control the postwar world. … But their voices were heard, throughout the war and for a few years after its conclusion. On both sides of the Atlantic, they published articles in leading newspapers and magazines, and books with major presses; they gave lectures at the major universities; they spoke on the radio. C. S. Lewis and Reinhold Niebuhr (to take just two examples) were famous men—appearing on the cover of Time in 1947 and 1948, respectively.
So what happened to these writers? “The Christian intellectuals chose to disappear,” Jacobs writes … and then spends the next several paragraphs describing in great, learned detail all the ways in which the surrounding culture made the choice for them! The culture turned toward scientism; some denominations embraced anti-intellectualism and dumbed down ministry training. Christian thinkers, of course, railed against both trends. Jacques Ellul wrote The Technological Society and Propaganda. Walker Percy wrote The Moviegoer. Wendell Berry wrote A Continuous Harmony. Francis Schaeffer* told evangelicals to go look at a painting, already. If Time didn’t bother to put these people on its cover, that has little to do with anything inherent to their writings—frankly, all of them at their worst are less boring than Niebuhr. (And, of course, we could talk about the indebtedness of the Civil Rights Movement to various forms of black Christian intellectualism, as well as the way Christian intellectuals contributed to the movement against the Vietnam War.)
The people whose editorial decisions constitute “middlebrow culture” are trend-hoppers like everybody else. Very briefly, in the forties—perhaps under the sobering influence of mass death—they wondered what Christ might have to say about all this. Then they got over it. (Similarly, the middlebrow magazines all rediscovered Marx in 2009-10, then got over him once the market started to calm down.) They turned to the worship of science, which even today—along with Very Serious Cable Dramas and “empowering” Beyonce songs—essentially constitutes middlebrow American culture.
The “choosing to disappear” that Jacobs attributes to Christian intellectuals in this period seems to me more like “using the means that are available in this new situation.” If the Committee on Social Thought stops returning your calls, go talk to the kids at Notre Dame or Baylor or Calvin or Wheaton or Berea. If the brassy, authoritative voice of Time no longer chooses to parrot your message, maybe adopt other voices, as Auden does in his postwar work, as the great Catholic novelists of the fifties did in theirs. Maybe these voices do the job better anyway.
Let’s Just Get This Over With: Marilynne Robinson
Since I’m kinda public about being obsessed with Marilynne Robinson, friends of mine keep forwarding Jacobs’s essay and saying, “Check this out! But be warned, he’s kinda critical of your homegirl.” Like I’m gonna be #triggered. I think it’d be a terrible betrayal of everything good I ever learned from Robinson for me to fear thoughtful criticism of her, and so I tried to keep an open mind for this part of the essay. That said, I still Have Thoughts.
Despite her popularity, Jacobs sees Robinson as having continued the postwar tradition of Christian intellectual retreat. He writes:
In her essays, [Robinson] often speaks explicitly as a Christian, but there tends to be a strange mismatch between her subject and her audience. Take “Fear,” an essay from 2015 in which she writes that “contemporary America is full of fear”—a fear manifested largely through a kind of cult of firearm ownership—and “fear is not a Christian habit of mind.” If Robinson wants to persuade her fellow American Christians to reject the culture of guns and overcome their fear, The New York Review of Books is an odd place to do it. My point is not that Robinson’s argument is wrong but that it offers a highly critical interpretation of people who are not reading it, and leaves the core assumptions of its audience unchallenged.
I was in the auditorium when she made basically the same points at the Calvin College Festival of Faith and Writing in
2014. (2012. I’m a dumbass.) One result of her doing so was that she hasn’t been invited back to Calvin College since, and probably won’t be anytime soon, according to a friend with knowledge of the situation. (Now I’m told by several others who … also have knowledge of the situation that this is definitely not the case, they’d love to have her back at some point, etc.) The next morning, you could hear angry conservatives gossiping about whether she’d been drunk. She tried, is my point.
Jacobs goes on:
In another recent essay, “Memory,” she writes,
“I am a Christian. There are any number of things a statement of this kind might mean and not mean, the tradition and its history being so complex. To my utter chagrin, at this moment in America it can be taken to mean that I look favorably on the death penalty, that I object to food stamps or Medicaid, that I expect marriage equality to unknit the social fabric and bring down wrath, even that I believe Christianity itself to be imperiled by a sinister media cabal. It pains me to have to say in many settings that these are all things I object to strenuously on religious grounds, having read those Gospels.”
There is, it seems to me, a good deal to find fault with here: the apparent implication that, since Robinson says she holds the views she does simply by virtue of having read the Gospels, those Christians who see things differently than she does have not read the Gospels; or the notion that such reading could settle practical questions of social policy; or the notion that she “has to” distance herself from other Christians who do not share her political and social views.
That last point above all. For when we read the great Christian intellectuals of even the recent past we notice how rarely they distance themselves from ordinary believers, even though they could not have helped knowing that many of those people were ignorant or ungenerous or both. They seem to have accepted affiliation with such unpleasant people as a price one had to pay for Christian belonging; Robinson, by contrast, seems to take pains to assure her liberal and secular readers that she is one of them. (From the same essay: “I have other loyalties that are important to me, to secularism, for example.”)
I think Jacobs’s first point is valid: simply reading the Gospels doesn’t settle all policy. (I don’t, personally, see how readers of the Gospels can justify supporting the death penalty. The circumstances of Jesus’ own death would seem to have pretty on-the-nose implications here. But whatever.) I object, though, both to the way he transforms a disavowal of views (“a statement of this kind… can be taken to mean…”) into a disavowal of people, and even more so to his seeming equation of “Christians who do not share Robinson’s political and social views” with “ordinary believers.” “Ordinary believers” covers a wide spectrum. What is the elderly Episcopalian lesbian who believes in the incarnation and resurrection and, as a result, spends her time volunteering at food banks? If you’re me, that person is your “ordinarily believing” fellow congregant. And it’s OK to be clear about what views you do and don’t agree with. Conservative Christians are often quite clear that they don’t want to be affiliated with the Episcopalian lesbian, for example.
Speaking of “ordinary believers,” Jacobs writes, “While surely she must know some living Christian subculture from the inside, she does not seem to be interested in representing its virtues, or its mixture of virtues and vices, to an unbelieving world, or to speak on its behalf, or to speak to it in any general way.” I would lay money that Jacobs has read the Iowa Trilogy, a series of novels that bear witness to the ordinary goodness (and sinfulness) of a small mainline Iowa Protestant church, one presumably not unlike the Congregationalist place she attends. To return to an earlier point, some cases really are best made via fiction.
Jacobs also criticizes Robinson for not criticizing her buddy President Obama. I pretty much agree with him here. Obama is the least bad President of my lifetime thus far (1978-?), but he has rained death and destruction on the Middle East and deported over a million people. Granted, it would be really hard to beard the guy in public. Not only is he the President, but he strikes me as personally likable, charming, and thoughtful, at least so far as I can gather from interviews and speeches. If he called me to the White House and praised me as fulsomely as he praises Robinson, I’m sure all my Jacobin talking points would dissolve in my mouth. So I feel stupid agreeing with Jacobs here; really thinking through the scenario merely convicts me of my own susceptibility to flattery. But that fact only further attests the validity of Jacobs’s criticism.
On the whole, I think Robinson’s novels have done an impressive job mediating between “people who read NYRB” and “People who have seen the weird things Protestants do to Jell-O and vegetables.” Her failures say more about the inherent difficulty of the job than they do about her.
How Should We Then Live**
The internet and the press are both full of terrible blanket advice that totally ignores the fact that we’re not all clones of each other. I appreciate that Jacobs avoids easy prescriptions (“There is surely no neat solution to the dilemmas that Christian intellectuals began to face in the Sixties and still face today, and perhaps no solution at all”). But it’s striking to me that when Jacobs sums up the way that the bifurcation of Christian and secular intellectual life has posed a dilemma for him, he describes his response to that dilemma as follows:
About a decade into my professional life it suddenly dawned on me that, unlike the people I went to graduate school with and the professors I saw as my mentors and models, I was never going to have a single audience. It would be necessary for me at times to speak to the church; at other times to believers from other religious traditions; at other times to my fellow academics; and at yet other times to the American public at large. This meant that I would not be able to formulate a single writerly voice, a single mode of articulation, a single rhetoric that I could deploy in any and all situations. Rather I would have to strive to be, as the Apostle Paul said, all things to all people, however disorienting and puzzling that obligation might be.
I read this and thought, “How on earth is that a problem?” If Christian intellectuals find themselves in a rhetorical situation where we can’t do anything but embrace what Paul told us to do in the first place, how is that bad? It’s worked out fine for Jacobs and for his readers. Even if he doesn’t feel that he has “formulated a single writerly voice,” I think most of us who read him would agree that he’s hard to mistake for anyone else.
Here’s how I try to be a “Christian intellectual,” for whatever it’s worth. (In my own non-famous way, I think I qualify as a “Christian intellectual.” I have a graduate degree, I talk and write for a living, and I try to act like someone who thinks that Jesus is God. I even come from a family of “organic intellectuals,” including my aunt and my dad.)
I tried teaching kids’ Sunday school. I sucked at it (for reasons that have to do with my own temperament, distractibility, etc.) so now I’m on my church’s adult ed committee. I am open with my students about what I believe and I am always willing to talk about how I find those beliefs to be compatible with, in fact indispensable to, my life as a writer and teacher and thinker. I am committed to non-formal, community forms of education; that commitment currently takes the form of editing a journal of prison writing, which further entails corresponding with writers, etc. I’m open with them about who I am, too. I don’t preach to either of these groups; I just don’t lie about how Seemingly Secular Idea A arises, in my head, from Unmistakably Religious Idea B. I am highly introverted and tire of non-written social interaction easily, but when I can manage to talk to people at all—at church, at family reunions, at social events—I try really hard never to talk down to them. I don’t assume in advance that my concerns or my reading are going to be boring to someone or will put someone off. If they ask me about my work or my interests, I answer honestly and let the other person tell me when they’re bored. I don’t assume that if I respect a non-university person’s capacity to learn, that I’ll come off as intimidating or off-putting. I let them make that decision.
I have described an idealized version of me in the foregoing paragraphs, of course. What I actually do is drink Guinness and watch Voyage to the Planet of Prehistoric Women again. But all of that, above, is what I try to do.
Call all of it what you want. Call it retreat. Call it, even, “BenOps for liberals.” Whatever it is, I am a lot more confident about the good all of that work does—about the way it builds bridges, educates, and also exposes me to education and criticism from others whose experiences and worlds differ from mine—than about the good of a Time cover.
*This makes it sound like I like Francis Schaeffer. I don’t, but at least the guy tried. **I’m being sardonic!