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By In Culture, Politics, Wisdom

Localism and the Pastorate, a.k.a. Dying Where You’re Planted

I was honored to be asked to speak at the annual Front Porch Republic conference alongside the Notre Dame political theorist and savant Patrick Deneen and the regionalist writer and wit Bill Kauffman, among others. The theme of the conference was, Localism and the Professions. They let me tag along I suppose because, like Mr. T., they “pity the fool!” Another reason may be that ministers were once considered professionals. 

The conference this year took place at Hope College in beautiful Holland, Michigan. A portion of this talk was adapted from something I published at Front Porch Republic a few years back.

Here’s my talk:

Professionals profess things. That’s what professionals do. They have been entrusted with valuable information.

I’m a minister, I’m entrusted with professing the gospel.

Information should bring Aristotle to mind, the man who identified the causes that inform everything. While every community begins with material causes that make a community possible, there are three other causes that actually make a community out of the materials on hand.

It is worth noting that each of the traditional professions corresponds to one of these causes. I think it is fair to say that the medical profession attends to the efficient cause. Sick people can’t work. Then there is the legal profession. Lawyers are stewards the formal cause. Through the administration of the laws, people can serve the common good as they pursue private goods. But traditionally it was the clergy that helped a community see what it is all for. We were the stewards of the final cause.

Notice the use of the past tense? For reasons that have spawned a million books, I’m out of the traditional job. No one really wants to hear from me about what it’s all about.

This can be seen in urban planning. People don’t build churches in the center of things anymore.

I live in New England where every town green is graced by a while clapboard Congregational church. But the only question people ask of those old buildings is, “What time is it?” when they glance at the steeple clock.

When people do look to the clerisy for guidance it isn’t as a community, but as consumers. And generally these individuals are looking for what George Barna calls “life coaching” to help them reach their personal goals. I’m like the trainer down at the health center. I provide advice on a proper diet and workout regime for the spirit.

Some of my colleagues have taken this up with gusto. They help people develop a personal relationship with Jesus. And this relationship is inward, and very, very personal. I’m reminded of Harold Bloom’s take on the old hymn, “In the Garden”. People go to the garden alone to commune with Jesus. And Bloom asked, “Just where is this garden, anyway?” It’s a Gnostic garden, he surmised, I think correctly. It is a virtual place; it only exists inwardly.

But local communities are real places that can be found using a map.

The Blessing of Getting Stuck

Speaking of places, now that I’ve treated the professions, let’s look at the other operative word in title of this conference—localism.

I now grudgingly accept that you don’t choose the location; the location chooses you.

I’ve moved around a lot during my time on the planet, first as luggage, then as the guy with the luggage. But I’ve been sitting on the same spot for the last ten years or so. The spot is in the Connecticut River valley, the rusted heart of industrial New England. The mills are largely gone; the gun makers are leaving, and if we ever beat our spears into pruning hooks the folks who work for Electric Boat will be out of work. But I won’t be leaving any time soon. I’ve set down some roots.

It’s not because I’m from there. I’m from a different valley—the Ohio River valley, western Pennsylvania specifically. It’s a rusted belt too, but different enough that I don’t feel entirely at home in my new home. There’s no going back, though; I’m different enough now that western Pennsylvania isn’t home anymore. I’m a stranger wherever I go, I suppose.

Now, we all know what Wendell Berry thinks of ministers. We’re careerists, careening from church to church. We just don’t care enough about the places we’re called to. He’s right. But it begs a question.  Yes, many of us blindly take our cues from mega-church pastors thousands of miles away, and we hanker after a “larger sphere of ministry”, but the ladies in our churches often take their cues from a pastor who’s been dead for thirty years. And when a congregation turns on you, your best hope is to get out of Dodge as fast as you can. This can discourage putting down roots.

What does it mean to put down roots anyway? Does it mean buying a house? Shopping at farmers’ markets? Scolding yourself when you feel the urge to run?

After thinking about it a while I’ve concluded it means what the metaphor implies: it means drawing nourishment from the place where you’re planted.

I’m not talking about drawing something from the atmosphere of a place. Local color is wonderful, but it won’t feed you (unless you can package it and sell it like they do on Cape Cod or in Vermont). What keeps you somewhere is productive property, the sort that can’t be moved. Wendell Berry has a farm. He cultivates it, and draws a living from it.

We can’t all get back to the farm, though–not soon, anyway. But there are other forms rooted property can take.

Small businesses usually work this way. Your reputation for minding the store takes years to build. And a pastor knows that a local businessman is worth three corporate executives. While the guy in the corner office may fill the offering plate with dough, his knowledge of a community is generally nil. And he could be transferred to Minneapolis in the blink of an eye. I’ve seen it: there he is; now he’s gone.

There is a risk to staying put. We should acknowledge it. That seems odd—what could be more conservative than putting down roots? But it is wildly speculative. The risk goes by the name: “opportunity cost.”  By staying put you limit yourself to what this particular place can yield. And if you’ve made Detroit your home, well, too bad.

Local churches are somewhat like this. They’re not property—at least not a pastor’s property. But how my church fares will largely determine how I fare. While Connecticut isn’t Detroit, I do see young people leaving, and old folks too. It’s a hard place to start out, and a hard place to finish. It’s expensive to live there; it’s even more expensive to die here. Still, we’re holding our own, even growing some.

I wonder a bit about the future of my church, though. Someday she will be better served by a younger man. What then? Where will I go? I’ve seen old preachers kill their churches by using them as life support.

My church isn’t the only thing that keeps me here. There’s my wife’s family. We moved here between pastorates a decade ago in part because we wanted our kids to be around grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins. It was a good move.

But there was another reason we moved here: investment real estate. I had collected some properties in the area on the side over the years.

When I was just starting out my wife and I went to visit a saintly pastor and wife who were getting along in years. They lived in a trailer. Their good cheer and hospitality spoke to their royal status in heaven amid their humble surroundings. But I was ashamed of the church for forgetting them. I’ve known others like them, elderly ministers living in trailers.

Often they were the best men, not ladder-climbers, or namedroppers, just simple preachers who visited widows in their distress and went to fetch wayward children from the street. These were men I think even Wendell Berry would respect. But it was in the car during the ride home that I decided I would not become one of them. If possible, I would be both saintly and propertied. I don’t know if I’ve managed saintly—I’ve been told my faith is pretty earthy—but I’ve managed to become propertied. Maybe I’ve made some kind of trade. But I knew that day that, while I could trust the Lord to meet my needs, I could not trust the church.

That sounds terribly Protestant, I know. I suffer from the cautious love for the church that typifies the brand of Christianity I belong to.

I began investing in real estate in the early 1990s. I’ve done all right. Now I’m a freeholder. I even own enough to be considered a yeoman. I could have been a voter in colonial New England. It has afforded me a rare measure of independence for a preacher. But it has cost me something. I’m not free to get up and go. I’m rooted in the Connecticut River valley.

Commercial corporations have their own form of itinerancy. In the church the itinerancy was there from the start. The Son of Man had no place to lay his head, and Paul was a tentmaker—the perfect trade for a man on the road. Apostles didn’t set down roots. There was always another village on the other side of the hill that needed the gospel. But the apostles depended on the Lord. Their rootlessness distracts us from the roots that stuck straight up into the air. Corporation men are not rooted in the soil either. But their roots don’t reach up to heaven. They dig into corporations that float in the contested space between heaven and earth, where the Prince of the Power of the Air dwells.

Every formula for freedom I’ve come across contains some measure of dependency, usually hidden, like some secret ingredient. The Apostles were free because they depended on bread from heaven; corporation men are unencumbered by local loyalties because they live like tiny corpuscles in national and transnational bodies. But the yeomanry: family farmers, small business owners, and people like me, depend directly on a particular place for a living. As those places fare, so do we.

But we enjoy another form of freedom. We’re more self-reliant because we depend on things close at hand, things that grant us more agency than the rootless are granted. Sure, our local communities can’t separate themselves from the world entirely, as Berry’s fiction beautifully laments, but I’ll take the risks that come with my place over the freedom of the corporation man. He’s tied to the earth too. The body he lives in is a giant Mickey Mouse in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. It’s tethered to the ground with strings too thin to be seen on television. But eventually everything that begins on earth falls back to earth and dies. There is great freedom in accepting this. I suppose I will die where I am planted.

If you’d like to know more about my latest book before shelling out your hard-earned money for it, Wipf and Stock, the publisher of my book, Man of the House, has given me permission to share a little sample of the book with you. The hope, of course, is you will like it enough to purchase a copy. Enjoy!.

Click here to download the book excerpt as a PDF: Man of the House_Excerpt

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By In Culture, Wisdom

New Testament Household Codes: Enlightening or Embarrassing?

In my old church, we never read the household codes. (The church I’m referring to here is the denomination I served for nearly 20 years.)

What codes am I referring to? These: Ephesians 5:22-6:9, Colossians 3:18-4:1, 1 Peter 2:13-3:7, 1 Corinthians 11:2-16.

We never read them from the pulpit, and if we could manage to skip them in small group Bible studies, or Sunday School, we did. And no one would object, on the contrary, sighs of relief might be heard.

Nonetheless, those good folk claimed to believe in the plenary inspiration of scripture. But it never jibed for me, either the codes are inspired, or they aren’t. If they are, we should read them. If they aren’t, we should say so.

Since I believe that they are inspired I left that church (for this reason among others). But some of my old friends appear to have reconciled their faith with their practice and are now saying that some parts of the Bible are inspired and useful for life and godliness, and others simply are not.

Still, some of those folk feel a need to justify themselves. Essentially they play the cultural relativism card. The idea is that those embarrassing codes were culturally relevant for the time, and Paul, not wishing to upset anybody, simply was all things to all men and went along with the benighted thinking of the day. He didn’t really mean what he was saying, though, and since those practices are now defunct, we no longer have to talk about them. (That’s what the nice people say anyway. Others just say Paul that was a misogynist.)

But Paul actually justified the codes theologically, not culturally. He actually used the codes to illustrate the Gospel. (I’m thinking of Ephesians chapter five here in particular–and yes, you can take that to mean I do believe Paul wrote Ephesians.)

But let’s just take the cultural relativism argument at face value. We can ask those who proffer it this question: “Okay, I get the culture argument, but can you help me understand what it was about that culture at the time that made those codes legitimate?” The response you will get I assure you will boil down to patriarchy, you know, that irrational urge many men suffer from to control everything. In other words, the codes reinforced a life that was always wrong.

But perhaps Paul knew something contemporary people have forgotten.

That line of thought has been tremendously helpful for me. It has helped me to reconstruct in my own mind the institutional framework within which Paul and his interlocutors lived. And this has led to some unexpected discoveries.

One of those discoveries is this: our attempts to contextualize the gospel to modern life have twisted the gospel. We believe we can abstract the gospel from the practices and institutions from which it sprang and then insert it into new patterns of life without altering it. But there is a wineskins problem here, form and content always go together. And some cultural forms just will not hold the Gospel.

When you try, you drive a wedge between faith and practice, and consequently, between salvation and creation. Christians end up living lives that smack of gnosticism. Salvation is reduced to an inward thing. And the social dimensions of the Christian faith necessarily end up being filtered out.

But here’s something else that I’ve discovered, we’ve had it largely wrong when it comes to the households of antiquity. Sure, there were many abuses, and there are certain features we do not need to recover. But those households had this going for them: they held together many things we’ve allowed to fly apart. Within those households: love and law, men and women, the young and the old, faith and works, creation and redemption, were all kept together and they all worked together.

What I intend to do in upcoming posts is introduce you to the household that I’ve discovered in my research. As I’ve grown in my understanding of it I’ve gone from seeing the household codes as embarrassing detritus we can live without, to a sort of rosetta stone for interpreting salvation and practicing the Christian life.

And to begin I will speak to that institution that many people consider most damning in the household codes: slavery.

An earlier version of this essay was published at Patheos.

If you’d like to read my book on the subject of household economics, Wipf and Stock, the publisher of, Man of the House, has given me permission to share a little sample of the book with you. The hope, of course, is you will like it enough to purchase a copy. Enjoy!.

Click here to download the book excerpt as a PDF: Man of the House_Excerpt

 

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By In Culture, Wisdom

Are Humans Obsolete?

“Thou shalt not make a machine in the likeness of a human mind.” Orange Catholic Bible

http://www.amazon.com/Dune-Frank-Herbert/dp/0441172717

That quotation comes from a sacred text found only in the imaginary universe of Frank Herbert’s Dune saga. But if things keep going the way they’re going, we may need that “Bible”.

Dune is about a distant future, over ten thousand years from now. Man has gone off to colonize the galaxy, but on the way, there has been great social upheaval. The machines man made had come to dominate him, and even enslave him. Some of the elite had merged with the machines, achieving god-like power and seemingly unending life, while the rest of humanity was enervated and idle. Then came the war, the Butlerian Jihad. Over a 100 year span, the machines were defeated and the new commandment you see above was enshrined.

Just so much science fiction?

If you’re dismissive of science fiction, you shouldn’t be. Not only has this preoccupation of teenage boys predicted many of the things we enjoy today, everything from smartphones to gene therapy, it has helped to direct the aspirations of those boys.

You could say science fiction is a series of thought experiments about the role of science and technology on the development of human society.

What are people for?

I have a book, a collection of essays actually, by Wendell Berry by that title. It is one of the basic questions. A great deal depends on the answer. I’m afraid most of the people working in the fields of science and engineering proffer a really bad answer. And because the question is so terribly important to being human, the implications of those answers are dehumanizing.

The real Bible tells us that man was made in the image of God and was immediately situated in a garden in order to cultivate it. That work was performed within a household economy right from the start. The union of a man and wife was intended to be productive and they were to share both the work and the fruit. The cultivation included their bodies: Eve is the mother all the living and Adam is the husbandman, tilling the soil of her body. And they are to be fruitful and multiply and extend their dominion, their household–their domus–over all the earth.

http://www.amazon.com/What-Are-People-For-Essays/dp/1582434875

The rise of the machines

The machines began their rise when creation itself was reconceived as a machine. Once, man had been the center, a microcosm, the hermeneutic of the cosmos. Man’s life was the scale by which the universe was ordered. This made the cosmos our home.

But today we see things differently. The universe is a vast mechanism and human beings are just tiny cogs in it, perhaps even malfunctioning ones. But we are still microcosms, but now the hermeneutic works in reverse. Now the machine defines us.

Are you obsolete yet?

A few years back a fantasy purporting to be social commentary was published entitled, The End of Men. The gist of it was pretty simple, men are obsolete because many of the functions traditionally performed by men are now performed by either the welfare state or by machines. (The same thing, actually, the welfare state is a kind of machine.)

I’m not sure what would make a feminists think women are exempt from this. Many of the jobs performed by women in the corporate economy are just as vulnerable to being made redundant by machines as those performed by men. (See the video below to see this explained.) Even sex with women is subject to obsolescence; virtual reality-porn is just around the corner and we even have sex-bots to look forward to. And don’t think your uterus makes you indispensable ladies, people are working on a replacement for that too. (Click here to learn about artificial wombs.)

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Borg_(Star_Trek)

The first possibility is to merge with the machines. There are people out there advocating the way of the Cymeks of Dune. They’d like to take a hand in their evolution and upgrade humanity. (If you think this is overblown, just follow the diva of transhumanists, Ray Kurzweil and I think you’ll begin to see things differently.)

But this is odd; we are told repeatedly by materialists that evolution is a blind process, feeling its way forward, filling niches in a vast, interdependent, mechanical system. Transhumanists overestimate our ability plan and control human development. And wouldn’t radically extending human life-span, genetically modifying people, and merging humans with machines make for a new species? And how will this be implemented? Who will be the early adopters? And how will they feel about the rest of us?

The recovery of the household economy

But there is another way forward. These new technologies could portend a re-centering of the economy back in the household. Telecommunication networks, and small-scale, highly adaptive manufacturing, will allow for a decentralized economy where husbands and wives, and even children, can work together.

What we need is dreamers, people who can envision an altogether different future than the one seen by the transhumanists. We need a vision of man the microcosm again, where our creations enrich us and lend meaning to our lives, not replace us or turn us into something subhuman.

I leave you with the following video. I hope you can agree with me by the end of it; if we can’t redirect this freight train of technological innovation in a more humane direction, let the Butlerian Jihad begin.

An earlier version of this essay was published at Patheos.

If you’d like to read my book on the subject of household economics, Wipf and Stock, the publisher of, Man of the House, has given me permission to share a little sample of the book with you. The hope, of course, is you will like it enough to purchase a copy. Enjoy!.

Click here to download the book excerpt as a PDF: Man of the House_Excerpt

Read more