Category Archives: Writing

The Harlem Renaissance: A Model For Cultural Engagement From Within The Benedict Option

Rod Dreher’s much acclaimed new book, The Benedict Option is being released this week. Having been a regular reader of his blog at The American Conservative, I’m somewhat familiar with his proposal. I’ve also just finished reading Nathan Irwin Huggins’ The Harlem Renaissance. While it would appear that the Benedict Option proposal and the Harlem Renaissance have nothing in common, there is much to learn from the Harlem Renaissance from Benedict Option devotees.

For the uninitiated, Dreher’s Benedict Option proposes that what some Christians term the “culture war” has been lost. The Christian faith is no longer the predominant worldview in the West. Christians have accommodated to this development largely by allowing themselves to become absorbed by consumerism and what sociologist Christian Smith calls “moralistic therapeutic deism,” which is a counterfeit of historic Christianity that reduces God to a divine butler. Dreher’s concern is that current Christian practice has accommodated the culture to the extent that professing believers have lost their distinctiveness. In Jesus’ terms, the salt of the earth has lost its savor, and is good for nothing, but to be cast out and trodden under the foot of men (Matthew 5:13 KJV). The tradition that the fathers are to hand down to their children has become so diluted, that much of the Church has nothing substantial to pass on to the next generation. Dreher’s proposal is for Christians to “strategically withdraw” for the purpose of returning to the roots of the faith so that Christian practice regains its distinctiveness and has the “weight” to be passed down intact to future generations. Dreher is looking to the past, to the efforts of the monks in the early Middle Ages, who by strategically withdrawing from the world, preserved early Christian literature until such as time as people saw its worth and desired to read and study it and return to the faith of the Fathers.  Thomas Cahill tells this story ably in How The Irish Saved Civilization.

The Harlem Renaissance is a literary and artistic movement that fanned the flames of a robust black cultural identity beginning in the 1920s. While this movement, called the “New Negro Movement” at the time featured Harlem as its epicenter, its influence spread throughout America, the Caribbean, Europe, and Africa. Historians typically see the waning of this movement beginning with the Great Depression, but its influence continues today. The artists of this period sought to create a distinctive black culture and to foster pride in black identity through the media of literature, drama, music, and the visual arts.

I raise this comparison because the Harlem Renaissance may be a possible sort of template for Christian culture-making within the Benedict option. The Harlem Renaissance was such a diverse movement that not all who were a part of it subscribed to all of the tenets that I mention below. Rather, these are general characteristics that summarize the philosophical distinctives of many of its voices.

First, in the Harlem Renaissance, blackness was promoted as a source of pride rather than a source of shame. Even while living within the constraints of Jim Crow and second-class citizenship, many of the voices of this movement promoted pride in black identity. Faith-shaming has made many Christian wary of coming out or living openly as Christians. Even if Christians are destined to be treated as second-class citizens, we need to develop a sense of the right kind of pride in our faith and in our identity, to not be ashamed of the gospel of Christ, but to publicly live out our God-given identity in Christ.

Second, the Harlem Renaissance highlights the importance of community.The Harlem of the 1920s created an incubator of culture through a network of artists, patrons, and causes. While there were certainly artists who flourished outside of this community, living in a community that fostered a shared identity and cultural aspiration created symbiotic relationships that enriched the quality and distinctiveness of artistic expression. Not all Benedict Option-minded Christians will be able to relocate to residential communities of like-minded people. But it is necessary to encourage and be encouraged by like-minded people who believe that mining the treasures of the past and appropriating them for today is the way forward to further distinctive Christian living.

Third, while not every creator who was influenced by the Harlem Renaissance attained higher education, W. E. B. DuBois promoted the necessity of African-Americans being education classically, as free men, rather than only being apprenticed to a trade. In order to pass down the traditions of the faith, our children must be taught to think broadly, deeply, critically, as free people, hence the importance of a liberal arts education rather than an almost exclusive focus on scientific, technological, and vocational education.

Fourth, the artists of the Harlem Renaissance produced “high” culture and “folk” culture, rather than mass culture. Claude McKay, James Weldon Johnson, and Count Cullen were poets who strove to be great poets, rather than great Black poets. Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston incorporated elements of black folk culture in their works. Jazz and blues, the only genre of music indigenous to America, originated from folk culture, then spread to popular culture and high culture. Popular culture, as we know it, was just beginning to develop during this period, so it’s difficult to know to what extent practitioners would have created art for mass or consumer culture. In today’s Evangelical tradition, most literature, music, and visual arts are geared toward mass or consumer culture rather than high or folk culture. Such works are here today and gone tomorrow. Those of us who are practitioners of the arts must aim long-term and seek to create works that will stand the test of time.

Last, the Harlem Renaissance had their own “house organs” to publish and proliferate their works. The Crisis, perhaps the best-known magazine of this period, was the official magazine of the NAACP, and Opportunity, the magazine of the National Urban League, published and promoted the work of African-American writers. The Messenger and The Negro World were political publications that also published poetry and essays of interest to their audiences.

Print media runs on tight margins today. First Things, Touchstone, and World are fine publications. Alas, Books and Culture ceased operations last year. While web publishing is incredibly cheap (it cost me nothing except for my annual subscription fee to WordPress to publish this essay), putting an essay, a poem, a story, or a novel into print makes a statement. It announces to the world that this work is worth reading and taking up space on one’s shelf. Publishing on the web has enormous advantages in terms of reaching both a targeted and diverse audience. Print is not going away. Certainly, Benedict option writers should seek to publish with the publishers who will give their work its greatest reach. But if the marginalization of Christianity has come, Christians will need to publish and promote their own work, and will need to develop the institutions and organizations necessary to do so.

What I’ve Been Watching

     I’ve watched two movies in the last couple of weeks that have directed my reading and thinking.  I Am Not Your Negro, directed by Raoul Peck, is based on James Baldwin’s unfinished work, Remember This House.  Narrated by Samuel L. Jackson, this documentary narrates the history of racism in the United States through Baldwin’s accounts of his interactions with Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  This was a compelling movie and one that caused me to examine my own beliefs and prejudices about racism and the development of African-American culture in the United States.

     The other movie was Paris After Midnight, a Woody Allen romantic comedy that is set in Paris. Owen Wilson plays Gil Pender, a writer who is working on a novel.  His materialistic fiancee, Inez, ridicules this project and wants him to stick to screenwriting. This conflict becomes more pronounced during the film while Pender considers moving to Paris.   While on his way home from a night of drinking and dancing, Pender gets lost and a vehicle picks him up and takes him back to the Jazz Age.  Each night at midnight, he is able to revisit the Paris of the twenties, meeting F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Pablo Picasso, Gertrude Stein, and other luminaries  from this period.  Through traveling back in time, Pended gains the courage to finish his novel and to break off the relationship with his fiancee.

     At first glance, it appears that these films have little in common.  What stands out to me about both is the question of the “thickness” of one’s tradition.  One of the questions that I asked after watching I Am Not Your Negro was, “is the American tradition of social justice “thick” enough to bring about a better future for African Americans?  Can Americans overcome race-based slavery, Jim Crow laws, and mass incarceration to create a more just society for African Americans?  Are there people who will express the way forward for justice whom both African Americans and whites will listen to?

     Allen’s film also implies a question concerning the thickness of tradition.  Gil Pender was not able to find enough thickness in the tradition of his own day to produce serious art.  Where do we find the resources to produce serious art?  Such resources are not going to be found on Google, in popular music, or Direct TV.  There’s a sense in which we must recover resources from our past and give a fresh voice to them.

Update

I vaguely remember receiving an email telling me that my domain was about to expire.  Thinking that I had already broken numerous agreements with myself to work on writing, revision, and publishing, I agreed to renew the domain.  Of course, those unfulfilled commitments continued to haunt me.  However, a few things have changed over the last couple of months that have spurred me on to at least publish a couple of entries.

The first was that my sister passed away.  On May 16, my sister, Cathy Walker, entered her heavenly reward.  My family and I cared for her for the last year-and-a-half of her life while she suffered from end stage cancer.  Much of this time she was in our home.  She was positive, upbeat, encouraging, and faithful to her Lord right up until the end, and was an inspiration to all of us who knew her.  Even with all of these gifts that she provided, it’s still physically, mentally, and emotionally draining to care for a terminally ill patient, and this labor of love took its toll on all of us.

The second was that I was carrying an enormous teaching load, even by my standards.  Four tenth grade humanities sections, two eleventh grade composition and literature sections, two Latin I sections, two Latin II sections, one Latin III sections, and one night grade US History section.  This coming school year, I’ll have a similar number of sections, but only four preps.

The third was that my wife and I, along with my mother-in-law, were in a devastating car accident on June 26.  Seeing the photos, it would be difficult to believe that all of us came away with no permanent impairments.  However, I have some broken ribs and am generally pretty sore.

The sheer boredom of sitting around rekindled my desire to write more.  I’m faced with looking around my house and my innumerable books on writing.  Paraphrasing the words of Roxanne Gay, author of Bad Feminist, it’s like being “beyond Lane Bryant fat” and having a closet full of size 2 clothes; a monument to ambition and shame.  While I realize that such feelings don’t generally produce motivation to persevere in any long-term behavior, I must acknowledge them, even it it’s to rechannel them into both a realization that I get paid for teaching rather than writing, and that there is no shame in using my verbal capacity on my feet instead of on the page.

 

 

 

 

Reading and Surrender

I’ve fallen woefully short of my publication goal for this week.  I enjoy writing for the blog. However, much of my time has been spent in teaching, getting ready to teach, or lately, running.  So, I haven’t exactly made writing in the strictest sense a priority, although most of the above has been a function of some kind of writing.  But it’s not finished writing — just enough to get the job done to either give my students a thorough lecture or devise good open-ended questions for a discussion-based class period.
In terms of audiobooks, I’ve been listening some to Middlemarch while I drive.  However, it’s kind of difficult on the run, as you really want to participate with all your faculties.  George Eliot demands a kind of surrender that many contemporary authors don’t require, and is difficult to render if a person is trying to listen while doing other tasks, or perhaps even trying to read other books.  The surrender pays rich dividends when the option is available.  This is something that I’ve noticed with other authors such as Tolstoy, Doestoevsky, and Melville.  Perhaps the reason that these works aren’t preferred by students is the necessity to utterly surrender oneself to enjoy a satisfying experience with these texts.  There’s a degree of resistance in the soul to such a surrender that must be overcome.  But this is essential to reading a work charitably, putting oneself under the tutelage of the text, and withholding judgment until understanding of the text is achieved.  I’ve also started listening to Murakami’s Hard Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World.  However, I’m wondering if he is going to require the same kind of surrender that George Eliot does.
I finished Charles Murray’s Coming Apart.  It was a worthwhile read.  The data he presents quite clearly supports his view that America is becoming more segmented and stratified as a society.  What may be controversial is how one interprets the data, and what conclusions are to be drawn from it.  And morally, is this a good development for American society, or is this something to be lamented?  On balance, it seems that this new stratification is something to be lamented.  However, the aggregation of brain power in what Murray calls ‘the new upper class” has some beneficial effects for all of America.  The downside is that the new upper class has little contact with the rest of America.  It appears that the new lower class does not either.  The only caveat on this book  I have on this one is that some of the later chapters could have been abridged or eliminated. However, I suppose he really wanted to convince the naysayers to his thesis.  I’m pretty sold on his thesis about the distance and America being segmented into demographic “neighborhoods,” but uncertain about what that means for the future or if anything can or should be done about this.
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Blogging and Editing

editingQuestion:  How much do you edit and revise your blog posts?

I’m really conflicted over this.  I’d like to post “finished writing,” but find that in order to produce consistent content at the pace I’d like to and to keep up with my other commitments (work, family, fitness, church) that the process more often is to draft a post in my journal on Evernote and do an extremely quick edit.  Ideally, I’d work on skills like literary present tense, strong verbs, consistent point of view, and continuing to make my writing simple, clear, and direct.

What I’m noticing is that the benefits that I’m striving for in my writing process are happening already.  I’m able to church out 400-500 words at any given time on just about any topic I have some level of command of.  I’m also remembering the stylistic emphases that I’m working to incorporate as I write.  So, benefits are accruing faster than I expected, and carrying over the writing that I do in my employments, which is a real plus.

So, I’d love to hear from you how you handle editing, revision, and style!

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Schtick

Having taken over teaching two classes in the middle of the school year, I’ve been thinking a lot about schtick lately, both in writing and in teaching. What I mean by this the individuality or persona a person brings to their craft and how they practice it.  I don’t mean this in the sense of being a poseur, but it’s second nature to incorporate some aspect of our repertoire of content, body language, personality, humor, communication style, vocabulary, depth of engagement with audience, and delivery, and leave others out for any given audience,  “Schtick” may not be the exact word, but it’s in the semantic range.  I’ve known that for the classes I’ve taught this entire school year, my schtick seems to work well most of the time.   But in taking over two new classes, I m wary of assuming that past results will predict future outcomes.

My theory is the same goes for developing a writing voice.  It seems that you sort of “fake it ’till you make it.  A writer continues to expand his repertoire, hone his style, and venture out into new territory until he gets an idea of what seems to work, and then proceeds to future hone his craft.  It’s interesting that as I listen to writers speak about their craft, they don’t seem to find that their eighth or tenth book is any easier than the first book.  One still must do the research, writing, revising, and editing under a deadline, and hopefully, work to the point of diminishing returns rather than beyond it.

What thoughts do you have about “schtick”?  How have you been able to personalize your schtick to become an effective communicator?

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Morning Routines

818kGmg0fFL._SL1500_I thought I would share my weekly routines and get some input as to what works from you.   Monday-Thursday.  I get up, write for a half hour or 45 minutes. Then, I read the Bible and pray.  Usually, at some point I’ll do a quick check on my favorite internet sites and email to make sure that nothing life-altering has happened overnight that will change my plans  After that, I get ready to do in and teach.  M-W I teach straight from 9-3.  T-Th I have a 3 hour break when I can get some things done:  grading, work that doesn’t require quiet or sustained attention.  at 3, it’s time to go home, go run, see how I can help with dinner, and eat dinner with my family.  I generally put in an hour and a half to two hours reading, writing, or planning content to teach.
I don’t teach Fridays, so I try to get myself ready to go on Monday morning.  If there are things to be read, studied, lesson planned, work that needs to be done on a sermon, or the like, it usually takes place on Fridays.  I try to keep Saturdays open, but generally I will need to put in a couple of hours on Saturday.
Sundays, I usually have church responsibilities, so I’ll get up early to prepare to lead worship and go over what I’m teaching.  Sunday afternoon and evening are generally when we “veg.”  I’ll often do some planning for the next week.
That’s how I usually roll.  I’d love for you to share what works for you!
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Organic Growth and Development in Writing

I was listening to an episode of a podcast called “The Tim Ferriss Show” last week  Tim was interviewing Dan Carlin of “Hardcore History.”  The excellence of Dan’s preparation, delivery, and subject matter is fascinating.  If you haven’t already, I highly recommend that you check this podcast out.  He explores the “why’s and the “what ifs” in a way that really grabs you and provokes you to think.  He’s also terrific at making connections with different events and movements taking place at the same time, as well as events and movements that preceded and influence each story he covers.
What interests me about the segment that I heard though, was his theory of how our work and art evolves and becomes what it is over time..  An example he used was “Seinfeld.”  Mr. Carlin said, “go back and watch the first five episodes of Seinfeld.”  He goes on to talk about how the “Seinfeldness” of “Seinfeld” evolved over the course of the show.  The quirkiness and uniqueness of Seinfeld wasn’t a given at the start of the show.  There was organic development within the cast, the writers, and the audience that made “Seinfeld” distinctive.  He went on to apply this insight to any long-term artistic project.
My takeaway from this is that with any long-term creative project, we must have a key concept and a plan. But we must also expect the project to organically incorporate elements that we do not foresee, and once momentum is created, to taken on a life of its own.
This gives me a great deal of encouragement in teaching, writing, and in my pastoral role in the church.  I’m blessed to have been providentially dumped into a great organization that has allowed me to make the most of my abilities and given me the freedom to do this and enjoy it.  Once I’d been at Providence Extension Program for a while, it felt like I should have been doing this all along.  Yet, my teaching eight years down the road has organically grown as I’ve achieved greater command my subject matter to teach out of depth rather than last-minute preparation.  I’ve grown in my ability to create classes as learning communities, in such a way that even if I teach the same prep four times in a week, that each experience of that material is remarkably different.
My hope is that I will persevere in my writing, in such a way that the same kind of organic development will happen, that I will be able to develop discrete concepts within the unity of personality and interests, and express them in an inviting and compelling way.
What examples of organic growth and development have you seen in your writing?  I’d love to hear from you!
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