Home / Culture / On Writing in Dark Times

 

In a (very) recent episode of the confessional Lutheran podcast “Issues, Etc.,” Matt Harrison, interviewing Allan Carlson, reflected on the meaning of the recent election for social conservatives. I’m sure we’ve all been immersed in this sort of thinking, this past week or so: Harrison said that “while there’s not an inevitability to this, we may have crossed a cultural threshold…”

The majority of the American people, I’ve heard in the last couple of days, have, in a clear-eyed, dispassionate way, knowing what they are choosing, chosen the most extreme of anti-life and anti-family social agendas. And it’s over for us, people say: we’ve lost the culture. I’ve heard a lot of despair.

What, in the face of this, is the purpose of writing editorials, of writing and publishing and reading little essays about the conceptual connection between abortion and Monsanto’s genetically altered suicide seeds, for example? Or the possible natural-law basis of walkable neighborhoods?

This is the question facing all us writers, all us editorializers and opinion-expressers and page designers and publishers who spend our time clicking together sentences into paragraphs, or figuring out where a page break should go or what image goes with which idea.

During the middle of the last century, Marshall McLuhan came up with the term “media ecology” to describe the fact that when a new medium comes on the scene, it changes the existing culture not simply by adding to it, but by changing its nature fundamentally. A forest plus a wolf is a different forest.

He was focusing on media—the printing press, television, the radio—not ideas expressed in a medium, but—as I was turning the phrase over in my thoughts—I decided that the metaphor works for ideas as well. The American conversation without cultural conservatives would be a fundamentally different thing. Simply by being part of the conversation, even if our voices are not loud, even if we feel drowned out, we change the nature of that conversation.

That’s on the secular social science level, and it is, sort of, comforting, and it is true. But as I was having all these thoughts, groping through the phrase “media ecology” to look for the metaphor I felt would crystalize this idea, I realized that someone had already done it—someone had made the right metaphor two thousand years ago. “The kingdom of heaven,” Jesus pointed out, “is like leaven that a woman took and hid in three measures of flour, till it was all leavened.”

And I realized then that the answer to “why write? Why talk? Why read? Why publish?” is that we are not primarily writing and reading and publishing to “fix” the City of Man. I mean, maybe things will in the future “swing our way,” and maybe our words will have had something to do with the restoration of social conservatism in America. But maybe not.

But the thing is, that was never—it never should have been—our major vision for writing anyway.  Why write, in the first place? The answer is the same answer you’ve got to give to “Why garden?” “Why have babies?” “Why build a house?” The answer is, because we are called to, we are called to be makers, because we are made in the image of a creator, and this is part of what it means to be fruitful, to have dominion, to be humanity, restored in Christ, as God intended us to be. It is by being the best humans we can be, the best makers we can be, that we will do the best for the culture at large.

If we’re writers, then we write because it’s our part of the human task to do this, to write essays and publish them, the way we might bottle peaches, or crochet granny squares, or install insulation. When we are in Christ, and being in Him, offer him our work, it lasts into eternity; I think it ends up as part of what we’ll be able to get from the libraries and bookshops in the New Jerusalem. It’s not about “turning America around;” it’s about living in the Kingdom now, being ambassadors from another city, being a light in a dark world. Living the cultural life of eternity, starting now.

And so discouragement because of the election is beside the point. It’s not primarily about activism, or about politics. Rather, as writers and readers and editors and publishers and Facebook-commenters, we’re operating on two levels:

  1. First, we’re carrying out what Andrew Crouch and Tim Keller, among many others, have referred to as God’s cultural mandate. He told us to cultivate, which many have interpreted broadly as something like: Go make things, take the materials of the world, combine them with your ideas and labor, make more beauty and order, build, grow, invent.

One of the things that we need to build and grow (in ourselves first of all) is a true worldview, an accurate Weltanschauung, where Christ and us and the state and gardens and history and Patrick O’Brian novels and home-made bread and old episodes of the Rockford Files all have their appropriate place and meaning.

  1. Second, we’re carrying out a hearts-and-minds campaign in enemy territory, to show people the beauty of a genuinely humanist and thus God-honoring culture/economy/society, and to motivate them to cast their lot with it. It’s a kind of public diplomacy for the Kingdom of God, an endeavor that might be called Radio Free Earth. And each person who can see some of this beauty as the result of a well-written essay constitutes an huge victory. Each instance of delight-in-the-good is worthwhile. None of this will happen without God’s Spirit, but if we have been given—as we have— minds and words and the taste for ideas, we are accountable for cultivating them to the glory of God, as much as we are accountable for our use of money and time.

And the way to carry out the cultural mandate (in the realm of ideas embodied in writing or speeches or debate, as opposed to ideas embodied in wooden toys or cathedrals or something) and the way do public diplomacy, are basically the same, as follows:

How To Make Things: Public Diplomat’s Edition

1. Learn stuff (gather your materials; start with the external world; start with what has already happened in history and what’s currently going on in debate)

2. Make something (write an article, organize a conference, or a salon-type dinner, put together an anthology)

3. Share it (publish the anthology, publish the article, invite people to the dinner or conference and then actually hold the darn thing)

4. Talk about it (promote an appropriate afterlife for the cultural product, where people whose minds and hearts might be affected by it interact with each other, draw out the implications, and are hopefully inspired to use the product as material for their own projects, and the cycle continues.)

I don’t of course mean that we are the ones who have it all figured out and we just need to deposit our wisdom with others. Anything that’s true and good that we have figured out doesn’t come from us, but comes to us as a gift, first of all. And we all still have plenty to learn. But we have—I think—closed our jaws on at least some part of the truth, and we’ve found ourselves nourished by it.

So discouragement in the face of electoral defeat is the last thing that we can succumb to now. Rather, now more than ever, let’s eat more truth, let’s be open to learning more, let’s use conversation and exploration and essays and anthologies to refine and if necessary change our ideas and practices, let’s bring others in on this feast, and let’s do it all with hearts that are full of the charity that we’ve found.

Also let’s remember four other things: 1: People can be Christians in God’s sight without agreeing with us about… tax rates or the desirability of walkable neighborhoods or whatever; 2. Getting people to agree with us about tax rates or small business ownership is not the same as bringing them to Christ. And it is not as important; 3) Making sure that we have good ideas is not the same as seeking to be reconciled with God, and it is not as important. Justification by economic opinion alone was not ever anyone’s argument, at any point in Church history; and 4. Writing and speaking and so forth are not the same as what you Catholics refer to as the “corporal acts of mercy.” We cannot dare to write essays explaining to people how to “keep warm and fed,” without, at least sometimes, choosing to patronize a more expensive family business, or donating our time to a soup kitchen. And I am speaking to myself, in this reminder.

And also let’s remember that Step Zero in the cycle of culture making above is to pray. So that, in my Evangelical way (because I am in fact a stealth Evangelical Anglican among you), is what I will leave you with: our first assignment as readers and thinkers and writers is to ask God to make us fruitful, to be with us in our making. To make us, truly, leaven.

 

About the author: Susannah Black

 

Susannah Black is a freelance writer, specializing in content for the educational publishing market. She received a BA in English from Amherst College and an MA in Early Modern English History from Boston University. Born and raised in Manhattan, she is now taking her stand in central Queens.

 

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10 Comments

  1. Wonderful! It is good to be reminded that simply fighting the good fight is a victory in itself.

    “Justification by economic opinion alone was not ever anyone’s argument, at any point in Church history.” This is eminently quotable. Let me add to that a like-minded quote from a favorite conservative of mine, Russell Kirk, who urged that we “reject the embraces of the following categories of political zealots: … Those who instruct us that ‘the test of the market’ is the whole of political economy and of morals.”

  2. This may be the best thing I’ve read yet at Distributist Review. Thank you.
    It’s especially timely because of the discouragement some feel at last week’s election, but also because there is a conscious effort by some to shout down, belittle and malign conservative dissent on certain topics. We must assure that our dissent is so voiced as to give a fair observer the assurance that the critic is the malignant voice.

  3. as a response to and a tip of the hat to an essay that does its job, to provoke a myriad of responses that are not by definition confrontational but expansive of the mind, I am aglow but slightly wary of certain words that emanate from the piece; the glow is for the constancy of affirmation and rightness that always comes when what we do and what we believe is understood to be one thing, that acts of writing or thinking is who we are meant to be. The hesitation that is wary comes from the use of certain words that I won’t say are falsely defined, but are too gibly used as if we all agree on what they mean, when we don’t, and some of those misunderstandings can be damaging.
    ‘Conservative’ is the word that most needs public agreement on, public defining, because until we do we stop on our most self-congratulatory definition of what Conservatism means and that takes us farther from one another until we are only pretending to hear what is being said that is at one time the most critical of all words to be shared and understood, and the easiest of words that cause a quarrel, especially one that is not necessary, not on point, and is a stand-in for other quarrels. It would be a gift to all if we took the time to come to an agreement on the word, and then let us get on with a spirited debate knowing that we agree on meaning if not on substance. In a nation still discussing whether we are a Christian country or not, we don’t allow for shades or different colors of being Christian to have a place; certainly we are threaded through with Christian thought, so we ought to make room for some things that are more than an absence of Christianity and the opposite, a nation defined as Christian. Both are unsupported in such simplistic terms by the documents and ideas that are foundational to our nation, and leaves no room for what the English call ‘Oh, its just not done, old boy.’
    This is where we spend most of our time, not jumping from certainty to certainty but allowing for the inarticulate but no less real place we live in most of our time, an uncertain place where we can feel as strong and even more curious and fearless a place as the land of Certainty.

  4. The answer is the same answer you’ve got to give to “Why garden?” “Why have babies?” “Why build a house?” The answer is, because we are called to, we are called to be makers, because we are made in the image of a creator, and this is part of what it means to be fruitful, to have dominion, to be humanity, restored in Christ, as God intended us to be.

    The Polish philosopher Leszek Kołakowski once wrote a hilarious short essay satirizing “critical studies” by explaining why gardening is morally wrong according to psychoanalysis, structuralism, Marxism, etc.

    I think he was aiming at the same point as you: those who are called to garden, will garden. Just do it right.

  5. Pingback: Tuesday, November 13, 2012; Repose of St. John Chrysostom « Tipsy Teetotaler

  6. Great article. Thanks for taking the time to write it.

  7. A very timely article! Keep doing the right thing; keep doing it right. The big picture (one’s worldview) must be fully Christian to have the best impact on others. It should consistently reflect orthodox, historic Christianity.
    Kudos to an evangelical Episcopalian from an Anglo-Catholic.

  8. Since the election I hadn’t read much that made me feel better (except when I read Chesterton,of course)until I read this essay. It offers an answer to the question “What do you do when it feels like the culture is going away from you?”

  9. I very much enjoyed this article. I’m not a professional writer, but I can imagine and sympathize with the imagined plight that you address.

    I wish this site had a forum. I really feel that Distributism itself is already so stifled and difficult to discuss (with anyone who is at all familiar with it) that not having one stunts its growth.

    Cheers.

  10. Thank you for this article. I echo the sentiments above which praise the wonderful writing. In dark times, such “light” may spark something in individuals who read it, contributing to or starting a blaze that overcomes the dark.