Grove City, PA. Last week I wrapped up a rich semester of reading and discussing Wendell Berry’s writings with a group of engaged and thoughtful students. Despite plenty of particular critiques and quibbles, the students were all sympathetic to Berry’s ideas. They volunteered, after all, to spend a semester immersed in his thinking. But a particular set of questions bubbled up repeatedly over the course of our conversations: how should they respond to Berry’s vision of rooted membership when they find themselves in an industrial, technocratic world? If they grew up moving from city to city, or if they hail from a soulless suburb, or if they are inevitably complicit in economic and social systems they deplore, does reading Berry put them on a path to despair? Questions like these lead Andy Crouch to comment in his new book, The Life We’re Looking For, that “few consider Berry’s arguments without wondering if we should simply roll back the whole modern project—if we could.”
We concluded the semester with Jayber Crow, and this wise novel offers a salutary answer, I think, to these fundamental questions. In brief, Jayber’s answer is that despair can have a magnanimous result and that even our deepest frustrations and losses can be severe mercies. A recent review of Andy Crouch’s new book may clarify the stakes of this issue. While my friend Brad East commends this book, he also concludes that Crouch’s solutions are inadequate to the scale and scope of our digital problems. (Subscribers to Local Culture may have read Felicia Wu Song’s review of Andy’s book in the latest issue.) Crouch argues that households and communities can resist the impersonal device paradigm we find ourselves in and cultivate more humane ways of using digital technologies, but East isn’t sure this is a live possibility.
I was surprised by the despairing tone in East’s review given that just last year he published a perceptive essay titled “When Losing is Likely” that praises Berry’s posture, concluding that “it is possible to live with integrity . . . when the causes in which one believes and for which one advocates are likely to lose.” In his review, East acknowledges that Crouch, like Berry, “insists as a matter of principle that the life he commends to us is a life worth living for its own sake, not because it will Change the World.” Yet he remains frustrated that Crouch’s “life worth living” is unlikely to change the world. When I pointed out this apparent tension, East unleashed a series of three posts in response (one, two, and three). Connecting East’s concerns to Jayber Crow’s understanding of magnanimous despair may seem like a stretch, but both hinge on a proper posture toward our inevitable failures and frustrations.
East’s concerns with Crouch’s argument boil down to two key issues: first, Crouch’s vision is too radical and hence unattainable by “normies.” Second, the scale of his solution isn’t commensurate to the scale of the problem. The tentacles of the “Digital” have reached into the heart of our lives, and individuals or households can no longer take meaningful steps toward health or wholeness or personhood.
I mostly agree with East’s diagnosis about the reach of the Digital. I recently critiqued another new book for not acknowledging the full extent to which the Digital has reshaped our imaginations and relationships. Nevertheless, such problems are not unprecedented; they are, instead, a particular manifestation of our condition as fallen creatures. I’ll come back to this in a moment, but I need to make two caveats to East’s diagnosis.
First, it’s important to temper the depths of our despair. Even in difficult times, there are always grounds for hope (not optimism!). Hence it is wrong to acquiesce to the inevitability of the Borg. In fact, East himself has called Wendell Berry the “prophet of the evitable,” and as L.M. Sacasas argues, technological inevitability is a potent and dangerous myth. Crouch’s example of the early church gathering around the table on the margins of the Roman empire gestures, too, toward the unpredictability of our world. Who would have looked at the stats and trends of first-century Christianity and prognosticated the spread and influence of this small group of Christians? History regularly swerves. The particular character of Black Swan events are, by definition, not predictable, but that they will occur is certain. Alan Jacobs points out that on Easter Sunday 1800, only six people received communion at Saint Paul’s in London. As Jacobs concludes, “Christian renewal happens in strange ways and at strange times, but it happens.” Big Tech in its current forms will not inevitably dominate human culture from here on out.
In particular, I am heartened by the many households and churches and subcultures that are pushing screens back to the margins of their common life. Over the past couple of years, I have seen more and more students recognize the dangers of their technological environment and take real steps to extricate themselves. I know a growing number of students who got rid of their smartphones and replaced them with dumb phones. I know others who have no social media. Felicia Wu Song and Christiana Bieber Lake report similar anecdotes. Such students are still the minority, but it’s a much more substantial minority than it was just a few years ago. They are taking an active role in rewriting the “social scripts,” to borrow East’s phrase, around our relation to the Digital. By so doing, they are finding ways to “make do” in an unhealthy ecosystem and push back against the myth of Digital inevitability.
Second, it’s important to distinguish between Digital technologies per se and what Crouch refers to as “Mammon.” Crouch relies on this distinction throughout his book, and his critique is focused on the latter rather than the former. Mammon is an old demon whose temptation Crouch defines as “abundance without dependence.” Mammon promises to “conjur[e] up the goods and services I require and desire without entangling myself with the personalities and needs of other people.” Or, as Crouch puts it elsewhere in his book, “what it wants, above all, is to separate power from relationship, abundance from dependence, and being from personhood.” At the heart of this temptation is the promise that our frustrations and limitations and failures have solutions and all we need to do is acquire the right technique. There is a difference between demonic technologies and redemptive ones, and it is Mammon—rather than the Digital tout court—that promises to transform the world to suit our desires. But, as Jayber comes to realize, Christ’s refusal of this false offer gives us the opportunity to shun it as well.
We can grasp the implications of Jayber’s magnanimous despair by seeing it as offering a response to East’s two critiques of Crouch’s project. I want to suggest that in both cases these aren’t bugs but are rather features. The first question is whether Crouch’s vision is for “normies” or whether it is reserved for the saintly few. Crouch does indeed paint a high view of our human calling. “To be a person,” he writes, “is to be made for love.” This is part of what it means to be made in the image of a triune God. None of us are created to be “normies”—just read the Sermon on the Mount. Yet, as we all know, barriers to love are endemic in our fallen world. The challenges we denizens of the Digital face in fulfilling our divine image may take on different dimensions, but they aren’t fundamentally new. As Paul’s letters and the opening chapters of Revelation attest, all kinds of division and sin plagued the early church. Likewise in Wendell Berry’s vision: the Port William membership is riven by murder, drunkenness, adultery, and all manner of sins despite its dearth of digital devices.
Such fallen realities, however, don’t change who we are or what our high calling is. It is telling that Paul addresses many of his epistles to “those called to be saints” or, simply, “saints.” Christianity is for saints who are complicit in systems of injustice and sin. Whether those systems are the principalities and powers that Paul names in Ephesians, the empire of Rome, or the Digital, our basic call remains the same: to glorify and enjoy the God who is love and in whose image we are created.
My students don’t always enjoy reading and pondering Berry because he exacerbates their sense of the gap between this high calling and our current reality. His poems, essays, and stories arouse longings in them that seem impossible to satisfy in our technological, industrial society. And yet if we fail to name and imagine the goods we long for—the life we are looking for—then we are wont to lower our standards and simply settle for broken forms of community. As C.S. Lewis writes,
It would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.
Hence reading Berry’s fiction or imagining convivial modes of life and community often unsettles and even pains us when these forms of life seem impossibly distant. Yet as East writes about Crouch’s book, “we must have a picture of health—what it means to flourish as a human being—in order to see our present unhealth, much less to mend it.” Even so, articulating these goods sharpens our longing and our sense of loss. Thus feelings of hiraeth or Sehnsucht have a painful edge to them. Such longings are indeed a severe mercy.
The proper response to ideals we fail to attain—or indeed do not have the capacity to attain—is neither to lower the ideal nor to throw up our hands in bitter despair because we fail to reach the ideal. Rather, it is to allow our failure to become a kind of “severe mercy.” This phrase is from a letter that C.S. Lewis wrote to Sheldon Vanauken regarding the death of Vanauken’s beloved wife Davy. Perhaps, Lewis gently suggests, the loss of Davy might become “a mercy that was as severe as death, a death that was as merciful as love.” Losses and failures can become a mercy if they sharpen our longing for the glorious love we are created to participate in and embody. We weren’t created to be normies. We were created to be saints. And we ought to be dissatisfied with anything less. We will never be able to love our family members and neighbors as their eternal glory merits. But that failure attests to the incredible, not-yet-realized glory entrusted to us.
The second question that East puts to Crouch’s book is whether the “scale of Crouch’s vision matches the scale of the problem.” East acknowledges that “to counter one top-down hegemon with another would be a difference only in degree. Crouch believes we need a difference in kind.” Crouch challenges readers not to wait for a top-down, technocratic fix but instead withdraw our worship from Mammon and begin living in the way of love now. We can all takes steps to turn from devices to instruments, from families to households, and from charm to blessing. East agrees with Crouch that we should beware of seeking “a magical elixir in the manner of the alchemist,” but he still argues (or at least implies) the solutions we need will be political and technological. To this, my first response would be simply to commend East’s own account of the relation between “public justice and private virtue.”
The deeper issue here, however, is that public, large-scale, visible transformation is the wrong standard for good work. Such transformation all too easily becomes a false idol on which to base our hope, and, in fact, it is precisely the temptation that Mammon holds out to us. It’s also the temptation that Jayber Crow struggles with his whole life.
The central tension in Jayber Crow’s life story is the gap between the ideals he longs for and the broken reality he experiences. As a young man in seminary, he stops praying because he can think of no way to prove that our prayers make any tangible difference in the world. Later, as he contemplates his strange, secret, and utterly useless—by all rational measures—marriage to Mattie, Jayber asks himself the haunting question: “What did love have to say to its own repeated failure to transform the world it might yet redeem?” He has come to distinguish between redemption and transformation, but he still longs for visible, unambiguous transformation. His love makes a difference—it leads him to pray again, it places him in the Port William community, it leads him to care for even those neighbors whom he dislikes—but it doesn’t fix or transform his frustrations.
This longing for transformation culminates when Jimmy Chatham, Mattie’s son, dies in the Vietnam War. This stark loss compounds Jayber’s struggles with his shop, Port William’s current disintegration, and the broader erosion of agrarian life. Jayber feels himself to be “involved in an old sickness of the world,” which leads him to another crisis of faith:
For a while again I couldn’t pray. I didn’t dare to. In the most secret place of my soul I wanted to beg the Lord to reveal Himself in power. I wanted to tell Him that it was time for His coming. If there was anything at all to what He had promised, why didn’t He come in glory with angels and lay His hands on the hurt children and awaken the dead soldiers and restore the burned villages and the blasted and poisoned land? Why didn’t he cow our arrogance? . . . But thinking such things was as dangerous as praying them. I knew who had thought such thoughts before: “Let Christ the King of Israel descend now from the cross, that we may see and believe.” Where in my own arrogance was I going to hide?
Where did I get my knack for being a fool? If I could advise God, why didn’t I just advise him (like our great preachers and politicians) to be on our side and give us victory and make sure that Jimmy Chatham had not died in vain? I had to turn around and wade out of the mire myself.
Christ did not descend from the cross except into the grave. . . . He must forbear to reveal His power and glory by presenting Himself as Himself, and must be present only in the ordinary miracle of the existence of His creatures. Those who wish to see Him must see Him in the poor, the hungry, the hurt, the wordless creatures, the groaning and travailing beautiful world.
In the same way that Christ had to resist the temptation to receive all the kingdoms of the world in exchange for worshiping Satan, Jayber has to resist the temptation to clutch these goods in a way that would cut them off from their source in the Creator. Yet it is precisely this gap—this frustration that our broken world is not being transformed to accord with the good vision we have—that leads to despair.
As Jayber eventually realizes, however, his story is a story about Heaven rather than Hell. What leads to this conviction? He is granted the grace to see that when the transformation we long for is withheld, this denial can become a severe mercy. Or, in the terms of the novel’s epigraph, despair for the not-realized can become magnanimous. The epigraph comes from Andrew Marvell’s poem “The Definition of Love” which describes a love “begotten by despair / Upon Impossibility.” Yet rather than being bitter about this star-crossed love, Marvell goes on to name the gift it brings:
Magnanimous Despair alone
Could show me so divine a thing,
Where feeble Hope could ne’r have flown
But vainly flapt its Tinsel Wing.
In Jayber’s case, the very fact that he can’t marry Mattie in the usual sense and enjoy her presence forces him to see his love for her as a profound testament to her eternal being and God’s love. For Jayber, love’s value lies in its presence “in [his] heart,” not its products in his life. Jayber puts it this way:
Maybe love fails here, I thought, because it cannot be fulfilled here. And then I saw something that a normal life with a normal marriage might never have allowed me to see. I saw that Mattie was not merely desirable, but desirable beyond the power of time to show. Even if she had been my wife, even if I had been in the usual way her husband, she would have remained beyond me. I could not have desired her enough. She was a living soul and could be loved forever. Like every living creature, she carried in her the presence of eternity. . . . That is why, in marrying one another, we mortals say “till death.” We must take love to the limit of time, because time cannot limit it. A life cannot limit it. Maybe to have it in your heart all your life in this world, even while it fails here, is to succeed. Maybe that is enough.
In other words, this frustrating barrier prevents him from accepting the earthly goods of marriage as ultimate and pushes him to see human love’s heavenly dimension. Similarly, if we are denied the goods of placed, embodied, fulfilling human community, that despair should point us to the heavenly goods such human communities shadow. Such despair can become a severe mercy in that it prevents us from making these real earthly goods into idols and neglecting their divine telos.
To be clear, earthly marriage is a good thing! Christ ruling all the kingdoms of the world is a good thing! So is being born into and choosing to participate in a coherent, multi-generational, rooted community. So is enjoying a healthy ecosystem. So is cultivating deep, long-lasting friendships. These are all ways in which our personhood can be developed and flourish. We are right to long for these goods, but we must wait for them patiently and accept that many, perhaps most, of these goods will not be fully realized here. And if we learn to hold it rightly, the despair this realization leads to can generously root us in divine love.
Many—by no means all, but many—of my longings for good things have been thwarted. And I am not unique in this regard; such is the normal condition of eternal beings living in time in a fallen world. I’m grateful for the goods I have been graced to enjoy, but reading Berry over the years has also cultivated a hard gratitude for the goods that have been denied me (I wrote briefly about one such experience here). Again, we’d all prefer to enjoy the earthly goods and recognize their eternal ends. But there is a real—though severe—mercy in despair. It helps us avoid the lure of Mammon’s tempting offer of power and abundance and orients us toward the eternal source of all our loves.
In Jayber’s case, despair leads him to a deeper participation in God’s abiding love. In the book’s final chapter, he tells a parable about “the Man in the Well” to explain his assertion that “I am an old man full of love. I am a man of faith.” In this parable, a hunter comes from the city and, while enjoying a stroll alone through the woods, is “not looking where he is going.” He steps on the rotten boards laid atop an old well and falls into the water. Like many in our modern world, this man pays the price for his forgetfulness and inattentiveness in loneliness. His great freedom in being alone and unknown becomes his prison. Jayber does not tell how the story ends: Does the man climb out? Does a passerby hear and rescue him? Does he drown? Instead, Jayber ends the story this way:
Listen. There is a light that includes our darkness, a day that shines down even on the clouds. A man of faith believes that the Man in the Well is not lost. He does not believe this easily or without pain, but he believes it. His belief is a kind of knowledge beyond any way of knowing. He believes that the child in the womb is not lost, nor is the man whose work has come to nothing, nor is the old woman forsaken in a nursing home in California. He believes that those who make their bed in Hell are not lost, or those who dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, or the lame man at Bethesda Pool, or Lazarus in the grave, or those who pray, “Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani.”
The reasons to despair are real. The Man in the Well is in a grave predicament—indeed he is in a grave. But he is not lost. And if we allow our own experiences of despair to sharpen our loves and longings for eternal goods—friendship, fellowship, flourishing—then we too can be redeemed even if our circumstances are not transformed. If our loves are rightly ordered, purified by despair of idolatrous temptations, then the possibility of good, redemptive work is at hand. Freed of the false god of efficacy, we can rightly tend the goods we are given to enjoy.
This, at any rate, is Jayber’s answer to my students’ pressing questions. Does reading Berry put them on a path to despair? It may, but it is a magnanimous despair. And its rewards are immense and eternal as well as practical and timely. As Jayber attests, his strange, secret marriage to Mattie opens his eyes and heart to the “presence of eternity” dwelling in each living soul. That realization sharpens his sense of loss and sorrow when his economic, political, and technological contexts fail to honor this presence, but it also frees him from the striving after Mammon that continues to corrupt our life together. This realization finally ushers him into “the way of love.” And what more could we ask for?
This is a wonderful and thoughtful essay, Jeff. “Magnanimous despair” needs to enter into our lexicon along with Tolkien’s “long defeat,” as Alan Jacobs noted in connection to the noble work of Paul Farmer (RIP), long ago.
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