Ten or twelve life-changing books: #11

11. 1994 The Vanderbilt Agrarians, I’ll take my Stand: The South and the Agrarian Tradition [1930]

The delay in writing this piece on life-changing book #11 is that I wanted to go back and skim and the book for concrete ideas and have found it hard to do so. Instead, I will try to describe in broad strokes a vision of the world that has blossomed and ramified from the roots laid by the book.

What makes the book powerful is that each of the dozen authors is a high-quality intellectual, and each approaches a separate aspect of culture, whether it be history, literature, sociology, or fiction, but all to the end of a common thesis: that unchecked yankee industrialism is ruining our quality of life.

The starting point is that a people must be rooted in the land. For growing food, yes, but much more than that. There is a whole aesthetic of human relations, architecture, relation to animals, and daily life that is tied up with living close to the land.

There is a place for towns, provided these are not just places to jam bedroom developments. Towns must have a townish basis, but this should include the cross-hatch of agriculture markets and services.

I am sort of a city-boy myself, and I have adapted the agrarian vision to include cities. The mindless capitalist industrialization that these authors warn about has eaten up the cities as well. It used to be that every town and city in America had a unique, local stamp. This was partly due to the geographic layout — the physical location of hills, streams, rivers, or coastline —, and partly due to idiosyncracies of free expression — colorful townhouses here, little houses crammed into nooks and crannies and spacious houses on boulevards for the rich folk there, darkness here, gaslamps there, brick emphasis here, wood there. Nature and Nurture. There was a sharp boundary leaving the town and entering the country. But what do we have now? The country hardly exists properly speaking. The approach to the city is a mindless faceless congeries of corporate restaurants, big-box stores of identical brands, and the McDonalds-BurgerKing-Wendies guantlet that slowly increases in density. What were once estate farms are now crammed with neat, cookie-cutter tract houses and McMansions. There is no ‘there’ there — anywhere.

They say it is economic progress, it is inevitable — but how is it progress? A working man of my grandparents’ generation could buy a snug brick house and single-handedly support a wife and four children at home. Who can do that today? And for all that, no has true leisure today. Women do not throw tea parties, and men scarcely have time to meet you at a pub for a relaxed beer. People don’t pursue hobbies. What passes as leisure is largely spent passively consuming garbage on a flickering screen.

People feel it and are resisting. My town has several farmers’ markets; zoning chiefs require “green belts” and organic foods have made a big comeback. As such, these things are commendable, but there is also something affected about it — a kind of yuppy chic permeates even these efforts. It doesn’t go to the root.

Globalism is the external enemy and covetousness the internal one. International banking, the stock market, options, lotteries, and gambling must all be destroyed; but can’t be as long as turning a quick buck is a bigger motivation for our people than family, clan, and folk.

I wish I could say that the gospel is the answer. In one sense it is of course: the relentless stomping out of beauty and grace is a natural concomitent of rejecting God. But zionist dispensationalism in the Christian South has contributed its fair share to the mess. It seems like conservative Christians never see a war they don’t love. Televangelists and mega-churches feed the problem. It is personal salvation, feeling good, and prosperity — where prosperity is defined right in harmony with the thing we are critiquing.

Conversely, it is often the areligious Left that sees the problem I am describing more clearly. Not the leftist Masters, but the dazed street leftists in your local college town.

So yes, “the gospel is the answer,” but some of the questions need to be reformulated before the gospel properly understood can be called an answer.

This is a big subject, indeed, an all-encompassing one. I can’t do it justice in a single essay, and in fact even my brief summary is admittedly painting with a broad brush and lacking nuance. I commend this book as a starting point to begin the discussion, to start thinking about these things.

Brief Intermission: Tribute to Greg Bahnsen

A brief side-bar is needed in this autobiographical sketch of life-changing books. Spanning the interval 1983-1993, no single book stands out, but that was the period of my association with my dear friend and mentor Greg Bahnsen. Though I am avoiding mentioning names in this bookish auto-biography, his needs to be mentioned as the greatest single personal influence on my life in adulthood.

In view of that, it will perhaps be thought odd that I do not count any of his books as life-changing. Indeed, I found many of his books pedantic, even annoying. We had opposite tendencies at the aesthetic level. It is hard for me to imagine anyone becoming a Theonomist through reading Theonomy or its sequels. Then again, he may have felt the same way. Theonomy was actually a comparatively small part of his life, less in fact (by way of negation) than for many of his vitriolic opponents.

One of his teachings that drove deeply into my soul was the ramified implications of Matt. 18. Beyond the obvious three-fold “method” taught there for correcting offenses, Greg taught that even if you have a legitimate grievance, if the way you got to this point was via gossip, slander, tale-bearing, or prevarication, then you had to first go back and fix those errors before “continuing.” The putative grievance had to be left on the table until those errors were dealt with properly. Often, it turned out that the grievance all but vanished by the time those steps were taken — or at least, could be covered in love. What this taught me was that Matt. 18 is not some bureaucratic “manual of discipline,” but something much deeper: an insight into what it means to be human, and to be a human with integrity. The requirements of privacy and caution are not just little nuisances, but go to the heart of the matter. I have continued to develop this theme and hope to write on it anon.

Twice I turned against him. Both times, God gave me the heart to seek reconciliation, and Greg was gracious in a way that was itself life-changing. When I came to him the second time, I was moved to the core by his statement that the whole purpose of his ministry for the previous ten years may well have been, in God’s providence, just to set the stage for that moment. And afterwards, my offenses were never mentioned or remembered.

I will not try to summarize all the many ways he changed my life. That has come out before and will continue to do so. In summary, I will simply say he was a man of a great heart. Indeed, in the divine comedy, the literal heart ailment that killed him well before the age of 50 can be taken as a metaphor for his life. Like our Lord, he can be said to have died of a broken heart.

Ten or twelve life-changing books: #4

4. 1976 Alexandr Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago

Throughout the grinding of our souls in the gears of the great Nighttime Institution, when our souls are pulverized and our flesh hangs down in tatters like a beggar’s rags, we suffer too much and are too immersed in our own pain to rivet with penetrating and far-seeing gaze those pale night executioners who torture us. A surfeit of inner grief floods our eyes. Otherwise what historians of our torturers we would be! (Vol 1, chap 4).

I can remember how passages like this made my hair Continue reading