I write as much as I can. Here are some things I have written.
Essays and Features
To plenty of listeners, fans and detractors alike, this sounded like nostalgia—a bucolic island of old genres and old mores in a swiftly moving sea. But at heart, the show and its ever-spreading web of monologues was sadder and sharper than its mild packaging. It was classic Americana, but dark Americana, a Robert Frost heart beating in a vaudeville body. It was about sex and disappointment and death, especially death, with the town’s folkways serving to frustrate or channel sentiments and impulses that could otherwise paralyze you with morbidity, especially if you happened to live on the edge of a prairie.
These acts of the mind command respect out of proportion to any of their demonstrable effects. Interrupting a monk in the midst of meditation is not like striking up a conversation with a man on a park bench. The sight of thousands bowed down in Tahrir Square is not like a similar number standing and shouting slogans. There might be a bashfulness inherent in observing consciousness in such a pure and focused form, the chaste elder sister of all thoughts. To ask whether prayer changes the world is, inescapably, to ask whether any of those other thoughts do, too.
In these stories, wealth is a necessary plot element, but it’s more or less randomly distributed. A man who’s made billions in telecom or finance may as well have found an enchanted toad. The point is not how he spends his days or where his money comes from, only that he has a limitless amount of it. He is not merely richer than the people around him by some measurable increment; he is exponentially, qualitatively richer. He therefore has a limitless ability to make demands of the women in his life. If Christian Grey operated a city bus instead of his own helicopter, Anastasia’s affair with him would be depicted as a symptom of mental illness, not a slightly transgressive erotic fantasy.
With the closing of Europe’s folklore frontier in the 19th and 20th centuries, the sleeping heroes were forced to migrate, along with many other fairy-world figures, from communal myth to modern literary culture. Even the wild and dangerous Jesus awaited by the peasant rebels and mad monks of the Middle Ages was largely domesticated by political theology.
But something strange happened: this world of mass-market publishing, parliamentary coalitions and industrial towns loved the old heroes as much as the oral culture that cultivated them ever had.
Helen’s funeral was in her hometown in southern Illinois. Her place by the birdcage in the nursing home was swiftly reoccupied. I met her daughter briefly but forgot her name. Helen had never been able to give me anything but her adamant insistence that she loved me. And now this piece of bread – which had caused us to meet who never would have met, which animated her face with joy, which centred her identity in something outside of the ruin of her last days – this was my memento, not just of the Jesus we both claimed in our ways, but of her. It had imparted some last molecular grace, and picked up some saliva and mouth cells. It was her, after her. When it was gone, she would be gone.
There is, it must be conceded, a compelling reason for the war on leisure. Forcing people to work more will, in general, lead to greater economic growth. In that sense, what Brueggemann calls the gods of the commodity economy have been productive, if also cruelly demanding. A person who is sleeping or having sex or cooking dinner for friends or singing a hymn is not doing anything to increase the GDP.
But in the single-minded pursuit of economic growth, we risk losing something essential to human life.
The most obvious question to ask in such a group is “Why do you do this?” And yet it’s one I never thought to ask. I never even asked it of Ruth, whose brilliant legal mind, good taste, and independent means fitted her for so many things more prominent than trying to get a Sunday School for three children off the ground. As we scrambled to find ushers while church started, threw together some sandwiches in the basement for a dinner on the streets of Pilsen, gathered a few damp sticks for the Easter Vigil fire, stared at a church budget that was ugly even before the recession, or tried in vain to restart a furnace that had died in the night, leaving the December sanctuary cold as a stone, I never thought to ask her why she bothered with it all. Then again, I never thought to ask myself, and if I did not have her resources and her accomplishments, I at least still had my youth. It was a Wile E. Coyote sort of vocation—as long as your feet are spinning, you’re fine, but notice that you’re off the edge of the cliff and you’re lost.
Sex, Love, and Commerce: The Debate Over Prostitution (The Christian Century, January 8, 2014)
How you feel about the selling of sex is likely to depend on how you feel about selling and how you feel about sex. This accounts for the divisions the sex industry creates on both the left and the right. Some small-government enthusiasts are eager to interfere with business when that business is sex; some liberals and feminists are eager to interfere with sexual autonomy when it takes the form of business. The debate over how much prostitution is somehow coerced is in large measure a stalking horse for the deeper ethical question: Should selling sex be acceptable? There are strong intuitive and emotional reasons to say no, to keep the logic of lawful commerce out of this most intimate, vulnerable interaction. The traumatic stories and dead bodies may persuade us that sex work—that sexuality itself—can never be truly safe.
On the other hand, everything else in our world is for sale, and sex is already the responsibility of consenting adults. Perhaps we prohibit prostitution because a last cobweb of mystification clings to the plain truth that sex is not special—and that confining its expression within the bounds of love or even lust only serves to protect some outdated ideology. Perhaps the trauma and the danger persuade us only that the sexual revolution is not yet complete.
How Does It End? (review of How to Survive the Apocalypse by Robert Joustra and Alissa Wilkinson, in The Christian Century, June 7, 2016)
Whole civilizations were brought to nothing to make room for ours. Our civilization undertook this grim task without any help from the malaise of late modernity. If anything, that malaise has been deepened by the growing knowledge of what we have been, and still are, quite capable of, in all the antiheroic brilliance of our reigning ideologies. We live toward the precipice of our world, but only just behind us are the other worlds we’ve ended to get here. Perhaps when the lights are lowered, we are indulging in the most deeply submerged and horrid thrill of all—the thrill of watching chickens come home to roost.
Calvin vs. Hobbes (review of When I Was a Child I Read Books by Marilynne Robinson, in The Washington Monthly, March/April 2012)
A progressive who is enamored with the past, a lover of her country who feels its historical crimes all the more bitterly for that, a devout Christian who is undisturbed by secular people and secular thought, an enthusiast of science who is vigilant against its abuse, a writer who aims her sharpest topical barbs at the right while more deeply critiquing the amnesia of the modern left: Marilynne Robinson can trigger the antibodies of all manner of readers. She does so in her apparently unending circuit of lectures and graduation speeches, gamely fielding the same questions about Calvin and predestination, Max Weber, and the reputed severity of the Old Testament, over and over again. The point of all this doggedness, on the part of an author long mantled in the kind of regard that excuses her peers from defending their ideologies, seems not to be persuading anyone of her own views. Rather, Robinson invites her largely liberal, well-educated audience to yield some of the things we think we know back to the realm of mystery, the great, undefined, unknown human adventure on which more of our politics hangs than we may realize.
Check back for more. There’s a lot more.