The Wisdom of Stability: Rooting Faith in a Mobile Culture

In my last post I mentioned that we were at a wedding in Pittsburgh where the bride and groom had read a quote from Wendell Berry.  As you may know—and if you don’t, get any collection of his essays, or the novel Jayber Crow right away—Berry is a literary star, a Kentucky farmer, and a deeply religious man of the land who has resisted “modern” ways for a lifetime.  One of his themes is that it is no crime to stay put.  (“Oh, she’ll go far” it is said, when we want to applaud a young adult with talent and ambition, as if leaving is somehow a mark of success.)  A month or so ago we celebrate his most recent, a collection of mostly literary studies, of writers with “a sense of place.”  (Imagination in Place it is provocatively entitled.)  I’ve mentioned social critics and splendid writers like Bill Kauffman (Look Homeward, America) or James Howard Kunstler (The Geography of Nowhere and Home from Nowhere) who have lamented the suburban angst of our time, and pointed us to principles of stewardship, charm, and a local scale. Is it right to stay put?  Are our Up in the Air values eroding relationships, meaning, a sense of our place in history?  I’m not so sure about any of that, but we find that some of our sharpest readers resonate with this school of thought.  At least we know that our place matters to God.  In fact,   Eugene Peterson puts it bluntly in the forward to Eric Jacobson’s book Sidewalks of the Kingdom) by asserting that “In the Bible, where one lives may be as important as what one believes.”

There is an increasing body of literature on the importance of place, the theology of place, Christian thinking about the way being embodied as creatures effects our spirituality and discipleship.  You know we’ve raved about the serious, provocative Beyond Homelessness: Christian Faith in a Culture of Displacement, by Brian Walsh & Steven Bouma-Prediger which is a must-read text for those wanting to go deep into this vital theme.

stability2.jpgWell, we are happy to tell you that there is another new book that opens up our hearts and thinking about this topic, a book that is kind and gracious, well written and gentle, even as it is bold and prophetic.  It is called The Wisdom of Stability: Rooting Faith in a Mobile Culture, written by Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove (Paraclete Press; $14.99.)  As you may guess, it is a great blending of several styles of writing, and showing several sorts of interests by Wilson-Hartgrove who has written wisely and passionately about much in recent years. 

He is a peace-maker (went to Iraq on a peacemaking mission, and his pal Shane Claiborne wrote about his being wounded there. He then wrote about it movingly in To Baghdad and Beyond: How I Got Born Again in Babylon.)  He has written about being missional, a book with Shane about prayer,  a very important work on racial justice within the Body of Christ (Free to Be Bound: Church Beyond the Color Line) and, recently, a fine book on a Christian view of money, God’s Economy.   He was one of the conveners of the gathering (at his intentional community called Rutba House in Durham, NC) that coined the phrase “the new monasticism” and he has edited a few books on this new radical house-church/Christian community movement. (School(s) for Conversion: The Marks of the New Monasticism.)  He is a busy guy, a young leader of an ecumenical and socially active sort of evangelicalism, and he writes well.  I think this may be his best book.

And, given how busy he is, this book is leisurely.  I feel myself slowing down, even as I read it.  His stories include lovely writing about the color of the porch boards, and the taste of the sweet tea drunk in the humid South, of how he and his young daughter notice a bird making a nest near their porch, during an early morning rest on the stoop.  I like the narrative nature of these reflections, and applaud Paraclete for the aesthetic touches—each chapter starts with a several page reflection that is set apart with some wood-cut-looking page embellishments of vines.  Even the cover has a bit of a subtle embossed feel; it is nice they did this, as this is a book to be carried and read slowly, with joy, I’d say.  It is about staying put, about being rooted.  Rooted?  Artwork of vines?  Yeah, you get it.  Very nice.

Lauren Winner writes on the back cover “Stability may be the virtue of the 21-st century Christians most ignore—and the virtue we are most called to embrace.  This fine book will inspire you to look at your own life, asking ‘Where am I restless? Where might God be calling me to be rooted, to stay put?'”

Indeed, most of us have failed in this virtue; we have not cared for our neighbors (or our own neighborhoods) as we ought.  We have not been rooted in place, or really engaged with the people and plot of creation in which we are placed.  We have been too busy to participate in the simpler rhythms of life. 

Kathleen Norris knows about this.  You most likely know her book from a decade or more ago called Dakota: A Spiritual Geography, where she came to Christian faith while exploring the historic desert fathers and mothers and the rugged landscape of her native state.  Later she wrote beautifully about being in a monastery (Cloister Walk), learning the sacred time of the monks.  Can ordinary folks live like that, somehow?  She is working on that, so it is fabulous to have her write the forward to this book.  It is a wonderful foreword, and it is no small thing to have a writer of her caliber and life experience to offer such a solid introduction to the topic, and the book.

Stability.  It is a gift, Wilson-Hartgrove rightly tells us.  And it comes as we work at it, too, in a “school for prayer” (which is a section in his chapter called “Stability as a Craft.”)  He looks at some of the stuff the desert fathers and mothers have taught—serious stuff about self-reflection and boredom and temptations, all that militate against forming mature bonds of community in place.

And, so, we are glad for these kinds of books, and certainly for The Wisdom of Stability, which is so nicely done, emerging, obviously, from his own (unfinished) journey.  Or is journey—this moving away image—the wrong metaphor, here?  Well, it is a journey, a journey home, deep into place, a journey towards wisdom and care and stability.  Our mobile culture does not want this.  The media does not encourage it.  Pop culture makes icons of those who have to be “movin’ on” or who are “on the road.” Our own families may not expect it.  But, maybe, just maybe, books like this, written out of communities like this,  about experiments like this, may hold a key to renewal in our fast-paced, too-hectic, politicized culture.  This is not a call to “drop out” or ignore our global neighbors, or the fabulous opportunities that call some of us to new vistas and new places.  But it does ask the big questions, and invites conversations around the meaning of discipleship as it comes to bear on serving, jobs, relationships, community, house-holding, stewardship, and spiritual practices of attentiveness to the near-by.  I really, really enjoyed it.  In fact, I needed it.  You might, too.  We’d love you to support your own local bookseller, if you’ve got one, or this virtual community of H&M folk w
ho care about similar sorts of things.  If you’re in this tribe, and feel “at home” with us,  send us an order.  Part of our call to stability in these postmodern times—I really think this—is staying together on line, too.  May our tribe increase, even as you remain rooted in place, with a spirituality that resists a place-less mobility.  God’s peace to you.

Here is a very cool youtube video of him talking about the book.  Filmed right on the porch. 

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