Protest That Endures
The following column, by Mike Cosper, originally appeared in The Roadstead, our weekly newsletter. To have Mike's column delivered directly to your inbox, subscribe here.
Wendell Berry and God's invitation in the midst of suffering
After last week’s Roadstead, I received this email from Kevin Janes and thought it was worth sharing, just to continue the conversation from last week. Kevin is a long-time friend of mine and someone who is always thoughtful about this sort of thing.
"I love this idea of cultivating your life over time. It's one of the main themes of one of my favorite writers, Wendell Berry, as well, both in an agrarian sense, but also in the same sense I get from Dallas Willard. Intentionality, thoughtful care, patience. Repeat. I think whenever we're plotting out this life for ourselves we're just as mindful about what we don't want to be as what we do. Inevitably, therefore, protest is just as present as intentionality and cultivation. Not so much the commonly understood protest of taking to the streets against an acute injustice. There's a place for that, but I'm thinking more about personal choices that oppose things like: the temptation towards discontent, mass consumerism, the degradation of God's creation and its people and creatures, the unquenchable thirst for power and stuff...I came across this lengthy Berry quote this week that I thought you might like:
"'We are living in the most destructive and, hence, the most stupid period of the history of our species. The list of its undeniable abominations is long and hardly bearable. And these abominations are not balanced or compensated or atoned for the by the list, endlessly reiterated, of our scientific achievements. Some people are motivated, now and again, to deplore one abomination or another. Others...deplore the whole list and its causes. Much protest is naive; it expects quick, visible improvement and despairs and gives up when such improvement does not come. Protesters who hold out longer have perhaps understood that success is not the proper goal. If protest depended on success, there would be little protest of any durability or significance. History simply affords too little evidence that anyone's individual protest is of any use. Protest that endures, I think, is moved by a hope far more modest than that of public success: namely, the hope of preserving qualities in one's own heart and spirit that would be destroyed by acquiescence.'
- Wendell Berry, "A Poem of Difficult Hope" (essay collection, What Are People For?)"
This quote, in turn, reminded me of something Neil Plantiga once said. He described worship – particularly confession – as an act of protest. Confession of sin is an act of resistance in a world full of permissive temptation. When sin is normalized, confession is a radical act. Think about it: we’re constantly invited to indulge the worst parts of ourselves. Sex, greed, lust, gluttony, anger – all of these are celebrated in one way or another. To say, “Lord in your mercy, forgive my sins” is a countercultural act as radical as carrying a sign and marching in the streets. Or as Berry suggests, an even more radical one.
Berry’s quote also reminds me of something I talked about a few weeks ago – the idea that there are some things in our culture that are worth conserving, and that it takes work (cultivation) to do so. Berry reminds us that our own hearts require that kind of cultivating work so that we can preserve “qualities… that would be destroyed” by the forces and pressures of the world around us.
I sat with a mentor of mine a few weeks ago and lamented a variety of things that have gone wrong in recent years. My list is probably similar to anyone’s: broken relationships, deep wounds, battles with sickness and injuries to myself and loved ones… the usual stuff that happens as we get kicked around this old world. He responded by simply asking where those things had taken me, spiritually. Where was I being led? What was my invitation from God in the aftermath of a great deal of pain?
It dawned on me that this is always the question. Life is developmental; we accumulate experiences and we make something of them, or they make something of us. How we respond to our circumstances determines who we’re becoming. If we’re idle or passive, the most natural thing to grow up is apathy (at best) or bitterness (at worst). If we’re intentional, we can understand our story as an always-unfolding work of God, leading us from one stage in our spiritual development to the next. The invitation is always to deeper communion and deeper maturity, but it also demands that we do the work of cultivating our hearts – refusing bitterness, learning to forgive, and learning to let go of our dreams about the way things were supposed to be. We learn, with time and patience, that this place, these circumstances, this community I’m immersed in is the very place where God wants to work on my heart.
What, then, is your invitation? Where is God inviting you to live a life of protest? What is he inviting you to cultivate in your heart? As I wrote regarding the overarching story in Twin Peaks: The Return, our wounds and our traumas can’t be undone. The only way out of them is through them, and the hope of the gospel is the knowledge that Jesus walks through them with us. He is our co-protestor and our co-cultivator.
There’s no new episode of Cultivated this week (kind of); we’re catching up and recording interviews. I’m very excited about the next batch. If you’re new to the show, go back and listen to some of the interviews from the first two seasons. In fact, listen to them all. And tell all your friends about them.
There was a controversial conference called Revoice this weekend in St. Louis. The conference was for Christians who are same-sex attracted and desirous of living a faithful biblical sexual ethic, either as celibates or by marrying someone of the opposite sex. The founder of the conference gave a helpful interview with Christianity Today, where he answers many critics on whether or not the idea of identifying oneself as a celibate gay Christian is a slippery slope into a gay affirming stance. I found the article helpful, and I agree with Matthew Lee Anderson, who argues that if conservative Christians don’t make room for celibate Gay Christians who are seeking to live out a faithful biblical ethic, they will find their ways into communities that do make room, where the urgency of biblical faithfulness is lost. Anderson has written extensively on this subject. You can look here for an article with links to several others that unpacks his carefully developed view.
Apropos of nothing, here’s a fascinating story about why you never won the McDonald’s Monopoly prize money.
Lastly, another podcast recommendation. This week’s Reply All was stellar. It’s ostensibly about the world of “PetTube”, a wing of YouTubers who are constantly acquiring and sharing their exotic pets. In the end, though, it’s about the crushing weight of celebrity in the life of one young woman. I thought the episode also revealed what compassion looks like in the behavior of the episode’s producer, Sruthi Pinnamaneni.
See you next week!