New piece on Albert Murray

I reviewed the Library of America’s superb new edition of Albert Murray’s nonfiction here.


Like Oprah Winfrey, I’m excited about Colson Whitehead’s novel and I think you should read it. I say why here.

Postscript to My Response to Jacobs’s Essay

True story: yesterday, after working on my post off and on for much of the previous day, I woke up at like 6AM and thought: “What if Alan Jacobs intentionally overstated how much Christian intellectuals have self-marginalized as a provocation? What if the whole idea was to force us to reckon with our own responsibilities first?” Well, he’s now confirmed that’s exactly what he was doing, and I like his essay better in retrospect.

His blog also has several posts that talk about the definition of “intellectual” he’s using (Karl Mannheim’s”detached interpreter” of culture, who by definition is not an activist or politician). I admit that my response just completely ignores this. That’s partly because I follow the general usage of the term (“really smart person”) and missed Jacobs’s clear cues as to his own intended usage. I may have missed or ignored those cues because I don’t think there are any detached interpreters and kind of go into “oh, c’mon” mode when I encounter the concept. Jacobs further explains that Rowan Williams, for example, couldn’t qualify as a “Christian intellectual” in this particular sense during his time as Archbishop of Canterbury, despite being a brilliant interpreter of culture. Nor could MLK or Dorothy Day. They’re all speaking for institutions or for counter-institutions (the Catholic Worker organization) or for movements. But the “free” “unattached” intellectuals are also, more subtly, speaking for and from institutions or movements: their academic department, their “little magazine,” their family inheritance …  Someone is always underwriting your dissent. That’s just the nature of mortal existence. I have often, for example, made use of the freedom that comes from not seeking a tenure-track position. I try not to be self-righteous about this, because I know that if I somehow pissed off the kinds of people who mount pressure campaigns, my lectureship would be extremely vulnerable, and I’d probably, eventually, after a few impassioned rants, shut up about whatever it would be that those people would want me to shut up about. If I didn’t shut up, even that gesture of defiance would ultimately be underwritten by my wife’s tenure and prominence in her field, and by the strength and advocacy of my lecturer’s union, of which I am a proud member.

The distinction that matters to a reader is between:

the interesting, smart, eloquent people who try to be honest and fair, in spite of the loyalties and biases that come from being mortal and caring about things;

the interesting, smart, eloquent people who will say whatever helps their cause.

Some of the former are closely associated with institutions, movements, etc. And far too many of the latter are freelance.

Christian Intellectuals

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!

On the Unique and Unprecedented Depravity of Sanders Deadenders

A lot of people I love and respect are utterly disgusted at the behavior of some Sanders supporters at this week’s Democratic National Convention. They boo a lot. Their booing ensures Trump’s election and shows that they hate women.

Thank God nothing like this has ever been a concern at the DNC before!

No, I don’t agree with the Sanders dead-enders. That’s largely because we live in a two-party system and Donald Trump is the other nominee. But I’m seeing an awful lot of anger and condescension directed at behavior that is an utterly routine and banal part of presidential primaries.

One reason it bugs me is that I’m seeing anti-Sanders tropes that I think were always partly bullshit, only now they’re coming from his old supporters too. That many of Sanders’s supporters are white and middle-class has been used against him from the beginning, especially by other white and middle-class people, who evidently believe that their choices are magically unconstrained by privilege. (By the way, here is noted white man DeRay McKesson predicting protests at the DNC should Clinton fail to endorse, among other things, a $15 minimum wage. It’s like he’s trying to pressure her into a position or something! Damn these brocialists!) The argument that Sanders faced a name-recognition problem rather than an actual-disagreement problem among black voters; the argument that his problem was mainly with older black voters, which merely reflected his broader tendency to do well among young people; the argument that primary voters in any community represent such a small and self-selecting group that claims to an identity-wide mandate are strange at best; the fact that by this logic, it was every self-respecting white progressive’s duty to support Hillary Clinton early in the ’08 primary, when Obama faced opposition from the black political establishment and the weary, justified skepticism of the black electorate that his candidacy could ever catch on; the argument that the BernieBro trope utterly erased millions of Sanders supporters: none of this got seriously discussed much outside of hard-left spaces. But we were treated to days and days’ worth of discussion about how sexist it was for Bernie to, like, run for President at all. (Was Clinton anti-black when she ran in 2008?)

Sanders supporters were also accused of being uniquely addicted to personal harassment of their opponents, and the intransigence of some dead-enders is seen as part of this unusual personal meanness. I’m skeptical of this narrative simply because I have never seen a systematic attempt at comparison. What I’ve seen, mainly, are anecdotes, many of which don’t pan out on further investigation: the ugly Facebook comment that was not sexist and was written by a woman (“lying shitbag” isn’t a nice thing to say about someone, but it is the experience of anyone who uses the internet); the widely-cited “BernieBro” attack on TV critic Emily Nussbaum that turned out to be from a right-wing Trump supporter; etc. I’ve also seen shifting, and what I thought were opportunistic, definitions of harassment and doxing. (Pointing out that a prominent online Bernie Sanders critic is a foreclosure lawyer is not the same thing as posting someone’s personal address along with a death threat. It’s not even in the same moral zip code.) Meanwhile, someone created a meme designed to get Sanders supporters killed, and there have been multiple coordinated attempts to get prominent Sanders supporters fired.* Against everything I’ve just said, I have to acknowledge that the death threats against Roberta Lange (the chair of Nevada’s Democratic Party), by Bernie supporters, were real and frightening. I don’t know of a comparable incident that I can put down to the Clinton camp.

But I’m mostly irritated because I don’t think decorum is more important than policy. If Bernie Sanders can survive being interrupted by Black Lives Matter, then some of Hillary Clinton’s surrogates can survive a few boos. Sanders, like any strong left-wing candidate, depended very strongly on attracting voters who have given up on, or were close to giving up on, electoral politics. We always talk about such a level of cynicism as if it were a terrible personal flaw, but I think it’s entirely reasonable. Counterproductive, but reasonable. We are governed to a large degree by people who are five to ten years in either direction from making their real fortunes as corporate lobbyists. This is so well-known that even pointing it out gets you called naive. You don’t need to be a policy wonk to be aware of it. For a few moments, Bernie Sanders made a lot of people think that it was possible to be President without that. I don’t begrudge those who are moved by the fact that we’re about to get a woman President, please God. In fact, I share the feeling. But those other people, who are focused on the possibility of a President who isn’t notoriously part of that influence-peddling culture: they get to grieve, too. People are allowed to care about this stuff. And if you let them do so, you’ll have a much easier time, two months from now, talking them into casting the vote that all opponents of open racism and fascism need to cast.


*And, like light falling into a black hole, this conversation becomes about Bruenighazi, and thus also Jacobinghazi. Much depends on what behavior you consider beyond the pale, what you label harassment and consider actionable. Neera Tanden rolls her eyes at the plight of the Palestinians; she wanted to invade Libya and make them pay for it; etc. Matt Bruenig called her a scumbag. Which is worse? Which is crueler? Much also depends on how you assign responsibility on Twitter, a medium designed to create exactly the sorts of pile-ons for which responsibility is unusually hard to assess. Matt Bruenig criticizes prominent women writers when he disagrees with their arguments. Freelance sexists and racists, who may or may not have any sympathy whatsoever with Bruenig or his politics, decide to ride along, as they do practically anytime a woman is mentioned by a person with a high enough follower count. (Recall the way that much of the racist, sexist, murderous abuse directed at Suey Park, after she called for the cancellation of “The Colbert Report,” was driven by conservatives who hate Colbert.) The internet is full of people who seem to sit around waiting for a pretext to abuse women. Is the behavior of such people Bruenig’s personal fault, to the degree where he should lose his side gig at a think tank, and maybe also his day job as a lawyer? If we assume so, aren’t we basically saying that no woman writer, or writer of color, should ever be engaged with? Finally, the thing becomes so personal as to resist analysis. Many critics of Bruenig pointed to his frequent public criticisms of the writer Sarah Jeong. Sarah Jeong publicly sided with another writer who had lied about several prominent women left-wing writers, including Bruenig’s wife. She was by no means the worst actor in this controversy, but are we really surprised he has his knives out for her? I still haven’t forgiven the guy who looked at my wife weird in 2009. That’s just loyalty 101.

I have been surprised this year at my own sympathy for the Jacobin crew. I hate rudeness. I hate eliminationist rhetoric. I’m not really at home on the hard left. Fundamentally, I think of war as the triumph of everything I hate—murder, rape, theft, torture, violence, groupthink, censorship, propaganda—and I think revolution, if we’re using the word in its classic hard-left sense and not the special American sense of “reform you’re really excited about,” is a subset of war. But I’m fundamentally pretty sympathetic to Matt Bruenig. Partly that’s because he has written a ton of good stuff. Mostly it’s because we seem to share an inconvenient personality trait: we both missed out on the middle-class conditioning that teaches you to pretend things, including politics, aren’t personal, when they are.

New piece on “Leadership,” Christianity, and Neoliberalism

This was a fun one.

Awhile ago Angela Reistma Bick, the intrepid editor of the Christian Courier, mentioned that she was doing a special issue on leadership and its rhetoric within protestant American Christian circles. I said something cranky. She invited me to be cranky at greater length. I did a little research among Christian leadership blogs. My crankiness turned to outright bitchiness. (Which is usually a sign you’re doing something wrong, Christianly speaking.) I posted about the article-in-progress on Facebook, and my friends, several of whom are in ministry and/or better people than I am, turned the whole thing around by giving me some examples of writing that helps them to do their jobs. So this isn’t really my article; it’s their article with some animadversions about global capitalism slapped onto the beginning. (But I’m still the one getting paid. Am I part of the rentier class now?)

Here it is!


A friend is mystified by Brexit and, even more so, by the certainty with which various people hold their opinions on it. “I don’t understand myself,” he writes. “How in the world do people hold neat, coherent worldviews?” It occurs to me that they don’t. Or at least that I don’t, despite my best efforts. I think the way a distracted person rearranges a room: tidy up this corner, try to establish some sort of harmony between these bits of furniture, take a break, go to the bathroom, start on another corner, repeat, realize only hours or months later that you’ve built several little islands of consistency that belong to totally incompatible floor plans. And then you do it again. And that’s intellectual life. Is it different for other people? How?