Ross Douthat, reflecting on Rod Dreher’s new book
What makes “The Little Way” such an illuminating book, though, is that it doesn’t just uncritically celebrate the form of community that its author rediscovered in his hometown. It also explains why he left in the first place: because being a bookish kid made him a target for bullying, because his relationship with his father was oppressive, because he wasn’t as comfortable as his sister in a world of traditions, obligations, rules. Because community can imprison as well as sustain, and sometimes it needs to be escaped in order to be appreciated.
In today’s society, that escape is easier than ever before. And that’s a great gift to many people: if you don’t have much in common with your relatives and neighbors, if you’re gay or a genius (or both), if you’re simply restless and footloose, the world can feel much less lonely than it would have in the past. Our society is often kinder to differences and eccentricities than past eras, and our economy rewards extraordinary talent more richly than ever before.
The problem is that as it’s grown easier to be remarkable and unusual, it’s arguably grown harder to be ordinary. To be the kind of person who doesn’t want to write his own life script, or invent her own idiosyncratic career path. To enjoy the stability and comfort of inherited obligations and expectations, rather than constantly having to strike out on your own. To follow a “little way” rather than a path of great ambition. To be more like Ruthie Leming than her brother.
Too often, and probably increasingly, not enough Americans will have what the Lemings had — a place that knew them intimately, a community to lean on, a strong network in a time of trial.
And absent such blessings, it’s all too understandable that some people enduring suffering and loneliness would end up looking not for help or support, but for a way to end it all.
The psychological definition of loneliness hasn’t changed much since Fromm-Reichmann laid it out. “Real loneliness,” as she called it, is not what the philosopher Søren Kierkegaard characterized as the “shut-upness” and solitariness of the civilized. Nor is “real loneliness” the happy solitude of the productive artist or the passing irritation of being cooped up with the flu while all your friends go off on some adventure. It’s not being dissatisfied with your companion of the moment—your friend or lover or even spouse— unless you chronically find yourself in that situation, in which case you may in fact be a lonely person. Fromm-Reichmann even distinguished “real loneliness” from mourning, since the well-adjusted eventually get over that, and from depression, which may be a symptom of loneliness but is rarely the cause. Loneliness, she said—and this will surprise no one—is the want of intimacy.Judith Shulevitz, “The Lethality of Loneliness”
Alan Jacobs, “Once More Around the MOOC”
I do a good deal of lecturing in my classes, but most of my lectures are to some degree improvised and circumstantial. When I walk into a classroom where students have just read a work of literature that’s new to them, most of my excitement comes not from the opportunity to tell them what I know but from curiosity: What do they want to know?
Maybe the coolest thing about being a teacher is just this: Everything that’s worn and familiar to me is new to my students. I’ve been through the ins and outs of Ulysses dozens of times, which is precisely what makes it fun to be in a room with thirty people who are encountering it for the first time. It’s easy for me to forget that experience — to forget all the ways that book can disorient (and even delight) a reader — unless I make a point not of explaining but of asking: What confused you? Where did you run aground? Was there a point when you were tempted to give up? (And no, I won’t ask you whether you yielded to that temptation.) What do you make of this passage? What about that one?
And it’s wonderful to see how some people discover that they were confused by something they didn’t even realize they were confused by until someone else raised a question — how a question from one student generates quite another question from a different student, how nodes of puzzlement — or excitement, or understanding — form during a class session. I lecture all right, but my lectures arise from where I discover that my students are situated in relation to a text.
When I think about turning all this into a MOOC, my first thought is: How easy that would be. Just write out a lecture and deliver it? Piece of cake — especially in comparison to the hard work of trying to learn a book and its contexts well enough to be ready when people ask those questions you didn’t expect, offer thoughts you hadn’t thought. And those questions and thoughts can change the course not just of a single class session but of the whole semester, as different ways of connecting various works come into play in response to what students want to know.
And my second thought about teaching a MOOC is: How shockingly boring that would be. To stand up there are recite what you’ve prepared beforehand in complete ignorance of and indifferent to the needs, thoughts, and questions of the people in the room before you, and the hundreds or thousands of other people who are watching and listening on their computers — not my idea of a good time.
From Michael Sacasas’ wise, generous review of Rod Dreher’s The Little Way of Ruthie Leming. Read on.
Most of us live as if we believe that the surest path to happiness is that which spins out endlessly and offers up the least resistance, but traveling that path is a futile business. I’ve confessed elsewhere that I assume that the highest form of freedom is not the ability to pursue whatever whim or fancy may strike us at any given moment, but rather the freedom to make choices which will promote our well being and the well being of our communities. And such choices often involve sacrifice and the curtailment of our own autonomy. To put this another way, happiness, that elusive state which according to Aristotle is the highest good we all pursue, lies not at the end of a journey at which every turn we have chosen for ourselves, but along the path marked by choices for others and in accord with a moral order that may at times require the reordering rather than immediate satisfaction of our desires.
This vision of the good life does not play well in the society we have made for ourselves. In fact, it has become counter-intuitive. If it is ever to gain any traction, it cannot be merely preached. It must be lived and its beauty must of its own mysterious accord draw us in. This is, I believe, Dreher’s great accomplishment. He has faithfully and honestly written that beauty into his story so that it may speak to his readers, may they be many.
PEG’s case for Christianity is typically thoughtful and interesting.
So here’s my pitch for Christian faith, in the most succinct and accessible form I can think of. It’s a pitch. It argues some things, and postulates others, and you may not agree with all, or any, of these postulates. But it tries to be clear about what it postulates, and what it postulates, I think, makes sense, both rationally and intuitively.
So here goes. Let’s start here: the greatest thinkers and artists of history have recognized, and we ourselves know deep in our hearts, that human beings are incomplete; that there’s something within us that craves for something bigger. Call it meaning, call it happiness, call it self-actualization, call it the top of Maslow’s Pyramid—whatever. There is this something extra that we all crave and that we can’t quite put our finger on, and we’re all stuck in medium, trying to find it.
I think we can agree that religion, a good chunk of philosophy, art, ideology and so forth is dedicated to exploring that void and/or finding ways to fill it. I think we can also agree that plenty of people find ways to fill that void that are destructive, for themselves and/or others—substance abuse, pride, money, power… As DFW put it, in the day-to-day trenches of life, there are no atheists. We all worship something, we all choose something to fill that void.
I would submit that if there were such a thing that could fill that void, and do it in a non-destructive way, it could only be the following: the infinite love of a human person.
Every word in that phrase matters. The infinite love of a human person.
Timothy Larsen, “Why is history important for Christian leadership?”
Likewise, I occasionally get chided by friends and relations for “living in the past.” As a historian, I’m never quite sure how to respond.
I have facetiously imagined doing one of those eccentric projects the purpose of which is to write a best-selling book. It would be “My Year of Living in the Present.” I would listen only to music recorded that very year, wear only the latest fashions, watch only newly released films, be a first adopter of all new technological innovations and so on.
But, of course, I would never be able to stand this for an entire year, so I would have to find a publisher who would let me get away with “My Summer of Living in the Present” or, better still, “My Month of Living in the Present.” Even then, it would be a doomed project. The book would inevitably turn into a long, reactionary rant: “I can’t believe people listen to this music when they could download Duke Ellington!”
What my imaginary literary agent would want — indeed, the key to turning it into a best-seller and making us lots of money — would be a self-deprecating tale of an inept, clueless, stuffy history professor learning to let down his hair and enjoy the pleasures of contemporary popular culture. (I can imagine the reviewer on Salon writing, “I adored that moment when he frantically tweeted his prediction of the season-finale twist of ‘Trophy Husbands’!”).
from Steve Holmes’ lovely tribute to the great theologian Colin Gunton (1941-2003)
Two particular things I gained from Colin are worthy of mention. First, a sense of joy in the possibilities of the discipline of theology: the intellectual work is hard, and is also important, but there is more than that: Colin attributed it to Barth, and it is certainly there, but he appropriated it more than any other Barth scholar I have met: theology done properly must be cheerful work. How can we speak (read; write) of God’s infinite grace poured out without limit in the gift of Jesus Christ, and not find our hearts warmed, our sorrows comforted, our failures rendered into proper perspective? How can we not be basically joyful, if to do this is our life’s work?
Second, a belief that theology belongs – not just to the church, but to the churches. Colin and I came from traditions that differed on baptism, but were joined by a commitment to congregationalist ecclesiology: it is the local, gathered, congregation that is (in John Smyth’s words) ‘the chief and principal part of the gospel’. The theologian cannot do his/her work without being seriously committed to a particular local fellowship, with all its eccentricities, peculiarities, joys, and frustrations. Too much theology, still, regards the churches as embarrassing, and tries to proceed by cruising 30 000 feet above their messy lives. It was from Colin that I learned that this can never be right.
Lewis never used the jargon of his day and of his peers, and thereby avoided the corrupting influence of words that were both in fashion and carried with them fashionable ideas. He would not have used the word “text” to mean everything written or spoken, in the current academic fashion, because it imports, partially and quietly and under the table, the deconstructionist idea that all speech is without meaning and has only the meaning the reader decides to give it. Hamlet is not a play, and certainly not great literature; it is a text, as are romance novels, grocery lists, and the obscenities scrawled in men’s rooms in highway rest stops.
Jargon is easily absorbed, especially by academics and clerics, who are exquisitely sensitive to the movements—and to the vocabularies thereof—of the wider world. Why this is, I am not sure; perhaps their vulnerability to jargon reflects a mixture of a pastoral desire to speak the language of the people they are ministering to and an unhealthy desire to fit into the inner ring, inevitably of the enlightened and sophisticated, marked by the use of such jargon.
Lewis did not use such jargon, I think, because he was active in prayer and charity, an astute reader of his culture who was unusually sensitive to its peculiar language, and a courageous man willing to talk in ways of which his colleagues did not approve. The first gave him a clearer vision of himself and the world, the second a better understanding of the temptations he faced (to adopt the fashionable jargon, for example), and the third the willingness to speak as he should to his readers even when this carried a social and personal cost. Jargon marks the speaker as a member of the club, and Lewis was courageous enough not to join when joining meant a break with those to whom he was called to speak.
This is my commonplace book and sometime-journal.
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My book is here: Washed and Waiting: Reflections on Christian Faithfulness and Homosexuality.
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