As I was publishing my notes on the First Things story, Rod Dreher was typing up another set of thoughts on the matter. Attempting to keep up with Rod is a perilous thing, of course, especially when one has small children around and ought to be working on one’s book manuscript.
But his latest raises an important question: Should Christian writers aspire to notoriety, toward power, toward membership in the elite social circles of a nation or city?
In one sense the quote from Eliot I included at the end of the last piece might give away what my answer to that question would be but, then, it is precisely because those words were written by T. S. Eliot that they are familiar to us. Here is the key graf:
I have heard from some friends who write for and help edit other Christian journals, including ones for which I’ve written. They are chagrined that I said that there is nothing to match First Things. I’m sorry, but it’s simply true. This is no comment on the quality of the articles they publish. It’s a comment about the immensity of Neuhaus’s achievement. Someone who used to work at FT — I think it was Damon Linker, but I can’t be sure — once marveled to me about the world of Father Neuhaus. So many important people — cardinals from Rome, but also theologians, intellectuals, and cultural figures from all over the Christian world — found their way to the magazine’s offices in Manhattan, and to Father Neuhaus’s dinner table. First Things was a stop on their itinerary; they all wanted to see Richard. Had First Things been anywhere else but Manhattan (with the possible exception of Washington, DC), it would not have had the prestige and influence that it did.
I was talking with a Christian journalist yesterday who said that it would serve First Things well to be out of Manhattan now. I think I agree, but I’m not sure. True, the Internet has made physical location much less important. However, in reflecting on how Neuhaus made First Things the most important magazine of its kind, I recognize that it’s not simply that being in New York, he could have cigars with the Greats when they passed through town. It’s that being in New York puts you at the white-hot core of American cultural change. I’ve often thought that a political magazine like National Review would be better off relocating from Manhattan to Dallas (while keeping a Washington bureau). I believe that First Things would lose something important if it left New York, even though New York is about as post-Christian as a major American metropolis can be. I lived in New York for five years, and though it is quite easy to be dazzled by the bright lights and thereby to lose sight of what the rest of the country is seeing, it is also true that to live in New York is to be in a position to see the future before everybody else. As the country moves more into its post-Christian era, this viewpoint might prove to be more important than it now seems, for the magazine First Things aspires to be.
This is a classic case of “both of these things can be true”: On the one hand, there are good reasons that ambition was traditionally regarded as a vice. It creates incentives to behave in perverse and inappropriate ways that discredit the faith that Christians profess. Moreover, it schools us in a fundamentally competitive way of looking at the world that over time seems to make pride the dominant characteristic dominating our thought. And this is all incredibly dangerous spiritually. It is not over-statement to say that vanity, pride, and ambition have sent many people millions to Hell. So it is really impossible to overstate the spiritual peril that comes with operating in elite circles, as Neuhaus plainly aspired to do (and did!) and as First Things continues to aspire to do.
Yet when one reviews the Book of Acts, one finds St Paul in Acts 17 going to Mars Hill in Athens. One finds him quoting famous Greek poets and preaching to influential Greek philosophers. In his epistles, one finds him dreaming of going to preach the Gospel in the elite cities of the world, even in the courts of Caesar himself. You could even read his decision to get arrested in Jerusalem as being a play to get himself shipped to Rome for an audience with the Roman elites.
If you follow James Davison Hunter’s analysis of culture, this all makes sense: Culture is filtered downward from social elites through mediating institutions and out to the masses. Given that, if Christians want to work toward Christianizing their culture—and they ought to want that—then there is a very obvious argument for trying to become a player in elite culture in the way that First Things was and likely still is.
Moreover, there is a form of virtue made possible by grandeur and largeness of scale that is not possible in the same way in smaller, more remote places. Tolkien understood this well. As much as his heart was in the Shire amongst the Hobbits, there would be no shire without Minas Tirith nor would there be many other things, not least the virtue of magnanimity, which by definition assumes a certain loftiness or immensity that the holder of the virtue is then able to share with their inferiors. My heart belongs to the Great Plains and to Nebraska and to Lincoln. But New York City is great, not in the sense in which we refer to greatness as a kind of elevated goodness, but in the sense of being grand and lofty and magnificent. If places like New York City ought to exist, and they ought to, then Christians ought to live in those places and aspire to shape them such that their grandeur might also be good. Christians are needed in New York so that it might become like Jerusalem rather than Babel.
The challenge, it seems to me, is in the way we pursue influence in such places. Francis Schaeffer used to talk about being ‘extruded’ into ministry—to be extruded is to be squeezed into a specific role apart from one’s conscious pursuit of the position. You might say that St. Ambrose was extruded into his role in the Milanese church. That is the right instinct, I think. You don’t go looking for power and prestige. You aspire to be faithful. If prestige finds you, then you allow yourself to be extruded into it and pray that God protect you from the spiritual dangers.
Here, again, we would do well to listen to Tolkien. Bilbo stumbles into possession of the ring. And because his first act as ring bearer was to be merciful in not killing Gollum, the ring works far less harm on him than it might have otherwise. Likewise, because Sam takes the ring with no intention to master it, he is able to wear it on the door into Mordor when Frodo, who had been more taken by the ring by that time, dared not.
Here I’m reminded of a question I had to work through several years ago. A leaked transcript of an all-hands meeting at The Atlantic was published in the Huffington Post. The meeting had been to discuss the hiring (and subsequent firing) of Kevin Williamson.
At one point in the meeting Ta-Nehisi Coates considered the question, raised by several staffers, of whether or not pro-life writers would be welcome at The Atlantic. Noting that ‘a spirit of generosity’ is a key value of the magazine, Coates said,
I mean, I don’t think it’s particularly generous to say that you or the state should have authority over a kind of labor that only 50 percent of most people — or slightly more in this country — actually do. I don’t think that’s generous. I don’t think that’s generous at all. I don’t think it’s generous to believe that some 16-year-old girl somewhere, you know, who — no, we’re not even going to do some 16-year-old girl. Let’s do this a lot more direct. My son — I love my son, I love him to death. And this is like the other part of Kevin’s story, which I heard and I understand and I get it.
But my wife had gestational diabetes, swelled up like 80 pounds while she was pregnant with my son, [and she] almost died in our apartment when I was 24 years old. And the notion that she should not have control over a process that almost killed her, I don’t think is generous. I just don’t — the belief, not how Kevin said it. Now, I wish he would state that more politely. But no, I actually don’t think the belief is generous. And you know, again, that’s my belief. I’m not saying The Atlantic got to adopt it, but, no, I don’t think it’s generous at all.
We’ll bracket the reasonable point that a society that values life should not only provide legal protection to the unborn but also social and financial support to mothers. That is true and pro-life Christians need to be loud about that point—and many of us are.
Even so, the point remains that Coates’s framing of the issue would exclude pro-lifers from being able to work at The Atlantic. (It would also likely, if fully thought through, make possessing any positive theory of political rule disqualifying for employment at The Atlantic since he seems to see imposing one’s own moral vision of the world onto another person that does not share those beliefs as being contrary to generosity. But, of course, all forms of law, save the starkest libertarianism, require some people imposing their view of morality onto other people. But we will not linger on this point either.)
When I first read that, I felt a sense of despair. The Atlantic is one of the best idea magazines going. It’s broad, bold, and, of course, has a very large and influential readership. To be excluded from the possibility of working for an outlet like that on the basis of one’s opposition to abortion is frustrating. I think it felt especially frustrating to me because I know many young Christian writers who are incredibly sharp, well-read, and write well. And I want them to be able to work at places like The Atlantic because I know they would enjoy it, they would do good work, The Atlantic‘s readers would benefit from their inclusion, and, I’ll be honest here, their inclusion at a place like that would help normalize the presence of Nicean Christians in elite media.
But the sadness and despair shifted toward resolve very quickly: Certainly, it is disappointing to realize that pro-lifers would not be welcome at a place like The Atlantic if, at the time, their most famous author had his way. But our ability to write true things in a compelling, intelligent way is not affected in any way by the feelings of Ta-Nehisi Coates, the hiring policies of The Atlantic, or by the opinions and policies of any other writer or magazine.
We can still bear witness to the truth. We can still write with excellence. We can still be bold, daring, and evangelistic. After all, Christianity has encountered skepticism before. It has faced dangers far greater than anything confronting the western church today, even during a season of unmistakable decline. And in its confrontation with all its many threats, Christianity has continuously emerged triumphant. And that is, as Tolkien would likely have said it, an encouraging thought.
Do the work. Read carefully and broadly. Think deeply. Write. Edit. Publish. This is what writers do. This is what Christians have done for centuries. It has a long and worthy record of success. Augustine wrote the City of God after Rome was sacked, after all. Luther wrote the 95 Theses while war was raging on Christendom’s eastern border and while poor people in his church were being exploited and oppressed by corrupt and decadent church officials. Christian writing always has and always will have an existential, bloody element, for we are drawn into the faith through blood.
We don’t need notoriety to do these things and to do it at a high level. But neither should we be surprised, if we consistently do those things at a high level, if notoriety of a sort does fall to us. Even then, like Ambrose, we should not gasp too quickly after the fame and prestige that comes with being known for doing good work. And if God chooses to extrude us into more influential spheres, we should not shirk that calling.