book reviews


I recently read As a City on a Hill: The Story of America’s Most Famous Lay Sermon by historian Daniel T. Rodgers. The book is a history of John Winthrop’s address (it doesn’t actually fit the conventions of a sermon) to the Puritans who immigrated to New England in 1630, founding the Massachusetts Bay Colony.

Winthrop’s manuscript is titled “A Model of Christian Charity,” and he worked on it not just on the boat to America but for some time before that. It is often cited as one of the founding texts of the American national enterprise. However, as Rodgers explains in some detail, Winthrop’s document was not consulted by the nation’s founders or anyone else, since it quickly sank into obscurity. It only gained some recognition in 1930, with the 300th anniversary of the Winthrop expedition’s arrival in Boston, and subsequently in the work of historian Perry Miller. Even then, it would have remained unfamiliar to the vast majority of Americans had not a politician who was later to become president found a passage from the “Model” and incorporated it in many of his speeches.

The politician, of course, was Ronald Reagan, and the two sentences he fixed on read as follows:

“For we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill; the eyes of all people are upon us. So that if we shall deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken and so cause him to withdraw his present help from us, we shall be made a story and a byword throughout the world.”

It’s interesting that Reagan used this passage in two distinctly different ways. From the late 1960s through the 70s, governor and then presidential candidate Reagan used the second sentence to warn that the country could fall into barbarism and anarchy if current cultural trends weren’t reversed. As president in the 1980s, he emphasized instead the first sentence, talking reassuringly of the city on the hill as something already accomplished, a reality that offers hope to the world. I was struck by his vision of the city on a hill, offered in his farewell address to the nation:

“In my mind it was a tall, proud city built on rocks stronger than oceans, windswept, God-blessed, and teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace; a city with free ports that hummed with commerce and creativity. And if there had to be city walls, the walls had doors and the doors were open to anyone with the will and the heart to get there.” Quoted in AACOAH, p. 245

The contrast with more recent political discourse about walls is notable.

Neither of Reagan’s readings of the city on the hill was all that close to Winthrop’s original meaning. Winthrop was writing not of America but of a specifically Christian settlement, the Massachusetts Bay Colony. It wasn’t the eyes of the whole world that the Puritans were concerned with; the eyes that mattered were those of England, and the hope was that the colony would provide their home country an example of how a Christian society should operate. Being on a hill was not an occasion for pride but for anxiety, since visibility would expose the colonists’ failures to their critics and to God, whom they feared they would disappoint.

Similarly, the other modern political appropriations of Winthrop’s city on a hill haven’t used that image in a way similar to what it would have meant to the Puritans. Rodgers suggests that the closest usage has been that of American evangelicals, who like the Puritans believe that they have a special place in God’s providence and who, also like the Puritans, see themselves as misfits in a culture that is going astray. Though I don’t identify as an evangelical, their take on Winthrop’s message resonates more with me than do either of Reagan’s uses or subsequent appropriations of the image to support American Exceptionalism.

Rodgers points out that the city on the hill comes only in the last section of Winthrop’s manuscript. The previous three sections have been neglected by modern audiences, but they were Winthrop’s main concern. Those sections detail what he hoped the colony would be an exemplar of, namely charity as it ought to be practiced by Christians. He began by noting that there would always be inequality between rich and poor. Rather than lamenting such imbalances, he pointed out several advantages, especially that through charity both rich and poor “might be all knit more nearly together in the bonds of brotherly affection.” He distinguished between two divinely established laws–laws of justice and of mercy. Mercy–and, with it, charity–is not optional, but is an obligation that Winthrop traced through both the Old and the New Testament. It is founded in love, which is the primary obligation of all followers of Christ. And Winthrop carried this emphasis on love and charity over to his conception of how business should be done and markets operate. Rodgers notes:

“To the extent that the Model stands at one of the foundation points of the American story, Winthrop’s concern to establish the proper place of markets within the moral imperatives of charity must be recognized to stand there, just as prominently, too.” AACOAH p. 97-8

Would that America embrace Winthrop’s concern for mercy as integral not just to religious settings but to the world of commerce as well! Then, in the place of capitalism little influenced by moral constraints, we would have markets in which the flourishing of all members of society are as much a goal as is earning a profit. Modern-day Americans can most profitably look to “A Model of Christian Charity” not as a foundational text for the nation but as encouragement to display love and charity in every realm of life.

A Milwaukee Eviction. Image from Sally Ryan/ZUMA

I recently posted some thoughts about Matthew Desmond’s book Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City (Broadway Books, 2016). Desmond writes about a dozen or so individuals or families in Milwaukee who are struggling to keep roofs over their heads (or in some cases to find another roof after losing the one they had). Many of them spend 70 or 80 percent of their income on rent, so coming up with the monthly payment is often quite a challenge. Even small unexpected expenses can put them behind on rent and push them to the edge of eviction. One question that kept coming to mind as I read the book was “Who is there to help poor renters?” Some benefit from government programs, but these programs meet only a small fraction of the need. Who else is there to help?

Often the first person who provides help–limited and self-serving though it often is–is the landlord. One of the two landlords featured in the book, Sherrena, doesn’t immediately address the delinquency of one of her tenants, Lamar, because Lamar is legless and has young sons in his care. Her reluctance doesn’t last long, though. Desmond quotes her as saying “I guess I got to stop feeling sorry for these people because no one is feeling sorry for me.” Lamar tries to work off the amount in arrears, but Sherrena won’t give him credit for what he has done. The other landlord in the book, Tobin, quickly evicted some tenants who fell behind, but let others remain for months. Desmond notes one factor that affected whether a landlord would proceed with an eviction:

“How a tenant responded to an eviction notice could make a difference. Women tended not to negotiate their eviction like men did, and they were more likely to avoid landlords when they fell behind. These responses did not serve them well.”

Jerry, a biker who lived in Tobin’s park, responded to his eviction notice by angrily threatening to hit Lenny, the property manager. Surprisingly, that didn’t make the situation worse. Desmond attributes tolerance for such aggressiveness to landlords’ “gruff masculine way of doing business. That put men like Jerry at an advantage.” Jerry subsequently offered to work off the debt and was allowed to do so.

Renters facing eviction sometimes turned to family for help. Desmond describes the efforts that Larraine, one of Tobin’s tenants, made to get family help when faced with eviction. Two of her siblings had less income than her and couldn’t provide assistance. Relationships with impoverished family members may provide some benefits, but financial assistance isn’t one of them. Her sister Susan was a little better off but wouldn’t help because Larraine had mismanaged money in the past. Larraine hesitated to ask Rubin, her youngest brother, because they weren’t close and she didn’t want to imperil his future willingness to help by making frequent requests. The fear that a relative in position to help will decide that the person in trouble doesn’t deserve additional help is apparently a major reason why some relatives aren’t contacted.

Larraine can’t ask her oldest daughter Megan for help, since she hadn’t paid back an earlier loan, and Megan held that against her. She asks her daughter Jayne, who has a fast food job; Jayne promises to help but has no money until payday. Larraine goes next to her church, from whom she has gotten help previously, though she was only partly truthful when making that request, a deception that her sister Susan, who attends the same church, brought to the pastor’s attention. Pastor Daryl is torn. He believes that the church should help the poor, In Larraine’s case, though, he thinks that much of her hardship is because of her bad choices. Eventually he tells Larraine that the church won’t be helping this time. Finally, Larraine goes to Ruben, who agrees to help. In the end, though, Tobin refuses the money, having by this time decided he wants Larraine out of his park. Having family to ask, even family willing to help, by no means makes it certain that eviction can be prevented.

Since my church is currently discussing ways to help with the affordable housing crisis, I was particularly interested in what role churches played in the lives of those facing eviction. Though Larraine didn’t get financial help from Pastor Daryl on this occasion, her church is an important part of her life. She attends every Sunday and has loved going to church ever since she was a child. Regardless of whether the church provides emergency funds to poor congregants like Larraine, I couldn’t help but wonder if there was anything else that churches can do to better equip them for the hardships they faced, perhaps helping with budgeting or decision-making so that a housing crisis was less likely to occur in the first place.

Crystal was another struggling renter who was heavily involved in church. She was evicted by Sherrena and wound up in a homeless shelter. Even while homeless, she put a substantial portion of her monthly check in the offering plate. Her reasoning is as follows:

“I need something from God. So I sow a seed…. I need a house. I need financial breakthrough. I need healing from stuff. I need to be made whole.

She got some assistance from the church–an occasional bag of groceries, a place to stay once in a while. But she kept from everyone but the pastor that she was homeless. Desmond described her motives as follows:

“Crystal didn’t want members of her church to reduce her, to see her as an object of pity, a member of ‘the poor and the orphaned.’ She wanted to be seen as Sister Crystal, part of the Body, the Beloved.”

So Crystal got what she most wanted from her church–affirmation of her identity. I wonder whether the church has encouraged her transactional view of giving, though. If so, it seems her church is letting her down.

Lamar, Sherrena’s legless tenant, doesn’t attend church. One day, though, as he is sitting around with his sons and some neighborhood boys smoking a joint, Colin, a young pastor from a nearby church, comes to the door with his Bible and some cookies. Ignoring the smell of marijuana and sounds of a sexual encounter taking place in the bedroom, Colin opens his Bible and goes over some scripture passages. Lamar knows many of the passages by heart. When one the topic of the devil comes up, Lamar adds “And earth is hell.” Colin corrects him: Well, not quite hell.” Colin leads them in prayer and hands out a list of items Lamar can pick up at the church. Colin tried his best, and he’s certainly doing more than most churches do. Nevertheless, it seems that he misses what’s being said about how Lamar’s life is truly hellish. No matte what tangible help we offer, it’s important for those who seek to minister in Christ’s name to listen to those in need as carefully as he did.

So once one falls through the frayed safety net the government provides, it’s very much hit and miss as to whether those about to be evicted can find anyone else willing and able to help. I pray that God will help our church reach out to the Lamars in our city–and the Larraines and Crystals as well. May we be able to understand their struggles–including the hell on earth that some experience–and have wisdom regarding how we can help.

 

We all know, or at least know of, some poor soul who encounters one misfortune after another. They give us pause, the unfortunate; we feel sorry for them, we wish we could help, and sometimes we can do a little something that makes things marginally better. Usually they don’t occupy our thoughts for long, though: we quickly shift our focus to something more pleasant. Before doing so, we may try to come to terms with what’s happened by blaming (“If only he hadn’t done that“) or glib truisms (“Life isn’t fair.”) It takes quite a bit to disturb us in a way that sticks with us for days. For me, Matthew Desmond accomplished that feat with his book Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City (Broadway Books, 2016).

Desmond, a Princeton sociologist, moved into a dilapidated trailer park in southern Milwaukee and later into a rooming house in the city’s North Side. In both areas, he encountered plenty of people on the edge–people who were having to spend 70 or 80 percent of their income on rent. That left them vulnerable, like riding in an overloaded boat that can be swamped even by small waves. Once that happens, choices become extremely difficult–whether to buy food, pay rent, or pay a utility bill when there isn’t money for all three, for example. It’s become more and more likely that poor renters will find themselves in this situation:

“Since 2000, the cost of fuels and utilities had risen by more than 50 percent, thanks to increasing global demand and the expiration of price caps. In a typical year, almost 1 in 5 poor renting families nationwide missed payments and received a disconnection notice from their utility company.” p. 15

“In 2013, 1 percent of poor renters lived in rent-controlled units; 15 percent lived in public housing; and 17 percent received a government subsidy, mainly in the form of a rent-reducing voucher. The remaining 67 percent–2 of every three poor renting families–received no federal assistance. This drastic shortfall in government support, coupled with rising rent and utility costs alongside stagnant incomes, is the reason why most poor renting families today spend most of their income on housing.” p. 303

Once tenants fall behind, they lose many of their legal protections. They can’t withhold rent if the property is dangerous or in disrepair, and court eviction if they make a report to a building inspector. As a result, renters in arrears often have to endure miserable living conditions. For example, Doreen and her children, one of the families Desmond introduces us to, have holes in the walls, a door off its hinges and clogged drains in the toilet, bathtub, and sink. Desmond describes the eventual effect on the family:

“Doreen stopped cooking, and the children ate cereal for dinner. Patrice [an adult daughter] slept more. The children’s grades dropped, and Mikey’s teacher called saying he might have to repeat, mainly because of so many missed homework assignments. Everyone had stopped cleaning up, and trash spread over the kitchen floor.” p. 257

The family had previously lived for seven years in much better quarters, but had been evicted because police investigating a neighborhood shooting had come to the door, saw the house was a mess, contacted Child Protective Services, who in turn called the building inspector, who cited the landlord. Doreen was behind in rent because volunteering in New Orleans after Katrina had cost her too much. Thus the landlord could retaliate for being cited by evicting Doreen, so he did. In another incident, a young woman named Crystal called 911 to report domestic violence occurring in the apartment above hers. The police responded, but later contacted Sherrena, the landlord, notifying her that they were called because of nuisance activity on her property and would charge her for future enforcement costs. Sherrena responded by taking out eviction papers on Crystal.

Desmond describes the details of the eviction process, from eviction court to the moving crews and sheriff’s deputies that spend all day every day evicting one tenant after another. Those being evicted were given a choice; have all their belongings stacked on the curb or have them taken to storage and pay a monthly storage fee until they could get them out. Some choice! Some homes were neat and tidy, others not so much:

“Sometimes renters had already abandoned the place, leaving behind dead animals and rotting food. Sometimes the movers puked. ‘The first rule of evictions,’ Sheriff John liked to say, ‘is never open the fridge.'” p. 114

Some evictions seem vindictive, as when Ned and Sue were evicted from their trailer and moved in with friends in another trailer; the landlord decided to evict the friends as well. Sometimes a child’s problems are the cause: Arleen’s teenage son kicked a teacher in the shin; when the landlord found out she told Arleen she had to leave or would be evicted. Whatever the cause of the eviction, it’s often tremendously hard for the evicted family to find new quarters. Arleen had been evicted before, and called 90 landlords before finding someone willing to rent to her.

Evictions disproportionately affect blacks and women. In the poorest black neighborhoods, “1 female renter in 17 was evicted through the court system each year, which was twice as often as men from those neighborhoods and nine times as often as women from the city’s poorest white areas.” (p. 98)

Those who are evicted are more likely to subsequently lose their jobs, experience other material hardships such as hunger, and be depressed. Not only those who are evicted suffer, but the neighborhood suffers as well: Desmond found that neighborhoods with high eviction rates have higher violent crime rates the next year. Some of Desmond’s subjects found themselves on the verge of eviction because of poor choices they made. Yet most poor Milwaukee residents had an incredibly small margin for error, and some ended up on the street when the choice they made was reasonable given the circumstances. For example, Arleen’s previous eviction resulted in part from having helped pay her sister’s funeral expenses. What sort of society is set up so that providing a little assistance for a funeral puts someone at risk for homelessness?

Besides those who actually experience eviction, there are many who manage to keep a roof over their heads but struggle to do so. Desmond indicates that 1 in 5 renting families in the US spends half or more of their income on housing. They struggle not just because of low and stagnant wages, but also because landlords can profit by exploiting the poor. In the poorest neighborhoods, housing is dilapidated or in disrepair but only costs marginally less than in other parts of the city. Our housing problem can only be addressed by major societal changes. Desmond mentions especially legal aid to the poor and a universal voucher program.

In the meantime I’m troubled. I’m troubled for Doreen, for Crystal, for Ned and Sue, for Arleen, and for everyone who has been evicted. I’m troubled that I live in a society that does so little to help those without access to adequate housing. And I’m troubled by my inability to help. Thanks to Desmond, I imagine that I’ll stay troubled. I hope his message troubles enough of us that together we can make a difference.

I have been writing about themes that stood out to me when I read David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest. Most recently, I discussed the importance and challenge of being genuine with oneself and others. Why do the characters in the book find it so difficult to be genuine? As I read IJ, it seemed to me that one reason for this difficulty was that characters were uncomfortable with being a self, at least a reflective, internally aware self. I wrote in the last post about Hal Incandenza’s lack of genuine inner experience. What causes him to shut himself off from his inner life to such an extent? Possibly because he recoils at what he sees within:

“One of the really American things about Hal, probably, is the way he despises what it is he’s really lonely for: this hideous internal self, incontinent of sentiment and need, that pules and writhes just under the hip empty mask, anhedonia.” p. 695

It’s tempting to skate on the surface, pretending we are just the image we project, with none of the struggles or shadows of the inner self. As Kierkegaard explained in The Sickness Unto Death, we want to be a self, but don’t want to be the self we are. As with Hal, to many of us that inner self seems hideous.

What makes Hal’s reaction “really American,” though? Kierkegaard was of course talking about a universal discomfort with the self, not an American one. DFW might agree that such discomfort crosses cultural lines, but he seems to think that aspects of American society make it particularly difficult to be a genuine self. Sometimes that connection to the American context is made explicit, as in the following discussion of American involvement with “recreational substances:”

“Like who isn’t, at some life-stage, in the U.S.A. and Interdependent regions, in these troubled times, for the most part. Though a decent percentage of E.T.A. students aren’t at all. I.e. involved. Some persons can give themselves away to an ambitious pursuit and have that be all the giving-themselves-away-to-something they need to do. Though sometimes this changes as the players get older and the pursuit more stress-fraught. American experience seems to suggest that people are virtually unlimited in their need to give themselves away, on various levels.” (p. 53)

Giving oneself away is probably not quite the same thing as trying to escape oneself, but there’s certainly overlap between the two. The “virtually unlimited” need to give oneself away is apparently a particularly American experience, associated with “troubled times” as well as with “stress-fraught” endeavors.

There are two types of giving oneself away alluded to here: via the pursuit of excellence and via substance abuse. DFW seems to see both of these avenues as endemic in the U.S. Regarding the first, an entertainment cartridge by Mario Incandenza (like his father, Mario was interested in making films) about the daily routines of E.T.A. students includes the following narration:

“Here is how to avoid thinking about any of this by practicing and playing until everything runs on autopilot and talent’s unconscious exercise becomes a way to escape yourself, a long waking dream of pure play.” (p. 173)

Turning oneself into a tennis playing robot is one way to get away from oneself. Viewing films or videos, often referred to as “entertainments,” is another. This viewing is done mostly at home, in private, via “pulses, storage cartridges, digital displays, domestic decor–an entertainment market of sofas and eyes.” (p. 620)  It is “A floating no-space world of personal spectation.” Immersion in this world is a way both of avoiding others and avoiding oneself. One of the book’s plots has to do with an entertainment cartridge so enticing that those who have viewed it will do nothing (even eat) except view it again and again. It is the next-to-the most-radical way of  escaping from oneself.

The ultimate escape from the self, both extreme and permanent, is suicide, referred to paradoxically as “that most self-involved of acts, self-cancelling.” James Incandenza killed himself, as did Eric Clipperton, a junior tennis player. As mentioned in an earlier post, Joelle Van Dyne attempted suicide to escape from her addiction to cocaine. Kate Gompart, another Ennis House resident who, like James I, is clinically depressed, has had three suicide attempts and continues to have suicidal thoughts.

Unless the person actually dies, it’s impossible to completely escape the self. For example, immersing oneself in competitive tennis may be a way of giving oneself away, but, from the perspective of Schtitt, the head coach, this exit will lead right back to what the player is running from:

“The true opponent, the enfolding boundary, is the player himself. Always and only the self out there, on court, to be met, fought, brought to the table to hammer out terms. The competing boy on the net’s other side: he is not the foe; he is more the partner in the dance. He is the what is the word excuse or occasion for meeting the self.” (p. 84)

Similarly, substance abuse only allows temporary escape. Eventually the user has to quit in order to stay alive, at which point the self intrudes more intensely than ever. One thing learned in recovery is that the addict will “find yourself beginning to pray to lose your mind, to be able to wrap your mind in an old newspaper or something and leave it in an alley to shift for itself, without you.” (p. 201) I think the mind here is pretty much the same thing as the self that the user has been trying to evade all along.

To sum up, then, there is a general tendency among Americans–represented in IJ by the residents of E.T.A. and Ennet House–to try to escape the self. DFW seems to be suggesting that this desire to escape is exacerbated in American culture, and that that culture provides a variety of strategies that seem to promise relief from one’s inner self. Ultimately, though none of these strategies deliver on that promise. I think Wallace’s cultural critique is as valid now as when he penned it. Does Wallace offer any hope for accepting oneself rather than being driven to escape from it? As I’ll discuss in a later post, I think he does.

Competitive tennis, a way of escaping oneself. Image from http://www.brickjest.com.

I recently read Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and a Culture in Crisis by J.D. Vance. The hillbillies referenced in the title are white, working class Americans of Scots-Irish descent whose ancestors settled in Appalachia. Though raised in Appalachian culture, Vance didn’t grow up in Appalachia proper; a few decades before he was born his grandparents had migrated from Jackson, Kentucky to Middletown, Ohio, attracted by the good-paying jobs at the steel plant there.

As with many other rust belt cities, the Middletown factory has been in decline for decades. The conventional explanation for the crisis among poor working class whites is economic: there aren’t enough good-paying jobs available. Vance, however, thinks that “this story of economic insecurity is, at best, incomplete.” (p. 13; all page numbers are from the large-print edition) He draws on the example of a summer job he had at a tile distribution center in Middleville. Though the work was stable and the pay was decent, the managers couldn’t find minimally reliable workers to fill open positions. Why the lack of decent workers in an economically depressed community? Vance wrote his book in order to explore “what goes on in the lives of real people when the industrial economy goes south. It’s about reacting to bad circumstances in the worst way possible. It’s about a culture that encourages social decay instead of counteracting it.” (p. 16)

In what follows, I’m not going to summarize Vance’s memoir; for those looking for such a summary, consider reading the review in the Washington Post. I’m more interested in exploring one aspect of the crisis, namely the difficulty those from working class Appalachia seem to have in finding a suitable master narrative.

The term ‘master narrative’ comes from narrative psychology (which is described well in this article), a branch of psychology which holds that our identities consist largely of the life stories we construct. Master narratives are like blueprints or templates we follow in constructing our life stories (and thus, in constructing our lives). Cultures typically provide one or more master narratives that a young member of that culture can use to structure her self-concept and guide her choices. In my case, I followed the master narrative that I had seen demonstrated by my father and grandfather: diligent at school, then a hard worker; family oriented; my meaning and purpose found in the Christian faith. Though the broad strokes of our enacted narratives were similar, there were differences in the details: unlike them, my story didn’t include service to my country as a citizen-soldier but did include a commitment to the intellect and life of the mind that wasn’t important to them. Neither they nor I authored the template we used for thinking about ourselves or living our lives; all the elements were drawn from our cultural setting.

So how have the working class poor lost a master narrative? Vance’s story includes numerous ways in which the master narrative that once held sway lost its relevance. For example, he tells of his grandmother (“Memaw”) and her brothers reacting violently towards anyone who threatened family possessions or honor–Memaw at twelve shooting a man who stole the family’s cow, for example, or Uncle Teabury making a man who insulted his sister eat her underpants. Vance reflects, “…these were classic good and evil stories, and my people were on the right side. My people were extreme, but extreme in the service of something–defending a sister’s honor or ensuring that a criminal paid for his crimes.” (p. 30) Defending personal and family honor was a component of their master narrative.

But what happens when you work in a factory and are expected to let minor slights to your honor go by rather than disrupt the workplace? Even worse, what happens if what threatens your honor is not some jerk talking about your sister but elites who look at you with contempt or corporations that cut your pay to the point that your family needs to rely on food stamps? You lose the ability to defend your honor and that aspect of the master narrative is no longer available to you.

Here’s another example. Vance’s grandparents both believed fervently in hard work and personal responsibility. Papaw labored at the steel plant every day, proud that he earned much more than did the relatives back in Kentucky. Mamaw told J.D. “Never be like those f*cking losers who think the deck is stacked against them. You can be anything you want to.” (p. 56,7)

But what happens if you grow up and the steel mill has stopped hiring? And you’re told that you should go to college, but no one in your family ever has and you have no idea of how to get there? Then, you’re likely to lose hard work and personal responsibility as part of the master narrative; you may give lip service to them, but you no longer live according to them.

Besides losing elements of their master narrative pertaining to honor, responsibility, and the value of hard work, the working class whites described by Vance have lost their master narrative regarding who or what they adulate or worship. Vance notes that “As a culture, we had no heroes.” p. 273) This is significant, for heroes are exemplars–people whose lives are worth imitating. Those without heroes are likely to drift through life with little sense of direction.

Regarding worship, Vance makes this striking assertion:

“Mamaw always had two gods: Jesus Christ and the United States of America. I was no different, and neither was anyone else I knew.” p. 275

I suspect this is an overstatement. A good portion of Appalachia is in the Bible Belt, and even casual Bible readers learn that the God of the Bible forbids his followers from worshiping anything besides him. Thus, at least the more devout in the culture would be motivated to avoid the idolatry of in elevating the nation to the point where it is a source of ultimate meaning. Even so, Vance has identified a real problem here: the master narrative of national pride has been lost. He notes that ” much of my family’s, my neighborhood’s, and my community’s identity derives from our love of country.” (p. 234) The country that they so loved let them down:

“Nothing united us with the core fabric of American society. We felt trapped in two seemingly unwinnable wars, in which a disproportionate share of the fighters came from our neighborhood, and in an economy that failed to deliver the most basic promise of the American Dream–a steady wage.” (p.. 273,4)

The master narrative associated with love of nation and with the American Dream no longer seems viable, and no other story has come along to take its place. Vance’s book has been seen by many as providing insight into the Trump voter. If this is so, perhaps it would be fair to see the Trump voter as someone desperate to reclaim a master narrative by which to live his or her life. Success at this project won’t be accomplished by deporting immigrants, repealing Obamacare, or enacting protectionist legislation. Ultimately it’s about restoring honor and making it possible for those who were disillusioned to have heroes again. It’s about lower class working whites being able to stitch together lives they are proud of.

Persuading secular moderns that they should be holy is quite a challenge. Aiming this message primarily at young adults, who are bombarded by ceaseless messages to be successful, in the know, popular, or any number of other things besides holy makes the task all the more difficult. Brian Christopher Coulter, pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Aiken, South Carolina and author of Be Holy: Find Identity/Find Belonging/Find Purpose, takes on the challenge. Coulter believes that seeking holiness is not a dreary religious obligation but something that will enrich life. He claims, “We are not invited to be holy because God needs working drones; God invites us to be holy because it is a better way for us to experience and live life (p. ix).”

Be HolyCoulter begins by alluding to the emptiness, thoughtlessness, and insecurity that characterize much of modern life. He isn’t interested in exploring these in any depth, though; he’s mainly interested in offering solutions. His answers come from orthodox Christianity, which is to say that faith in Christ is essential to him. This means more than accepting Christ’s invitation to “a relationship of forgiveness and mercy;” it also includes the life that subsequently becomes possible.

Coulter considers what the Bible says about being holy. To be holy is to be set apart. God is holy in that he is distinct from other gods and from creation. This holy God also sets his people apart; he instructs them to be holy. Holiness is more than ritual purity; it is a way of living in the world. Coulter suggests this way of living has three elements: “We reflect our Holy God by being set apart from all that is not holy, for all that is holy, and with all who are holy (p. 31).” These three elements then become the structure for the rest of the book: “set apart from” entails finding our identity, “set apart for” implies having a purpose, and “set apart with” involves belonging to a community.

In my initial reading, I thought Coulter was being too simplistic about what it means to have identity, belonging, and purpose. I had the most difficulty with identity. Coulter is certainly right in saying “Who we are is known, revealed, and loved by God (p. 59).” I love the quote he uses from Brennan Manning: “Define yourself radically as one beloved by God. This is the true self. Every other identity is illusion (p. 55,6).” But isn’t it more complex than this? How do we understand the political, racial, gendered, and socioeconomic aspects of who we are? How do we sort out our views of what we can know, what is, and what is good? How do we learn what our gifts and abilities are?

Eventually I realized that I was trying to read the book as a psychological do-it-yourself guide to the issues of adolescence and early adulthood. That isn’t what Coulter has written. An early clue to his intent is his allusion to Clark Kent (i.e. Superman) in CW network’s show Smallville. Clark already has all his superpowers, but he doesn’t know what to do with them. The issue he faces is not to acquire superpowers:

“It is about embracing the gifts he has been given. It is about embracing his destiny to be Superman.
“This is us with holiness. Our choice seems to be less about becoming holy and more about embracing holiness (p. 20).”

Thus, identity, belonging, and purpose are not something we have to work to acquire. They are gifts from God that we need to accept. Accepting these gifts entails living out certain practices in our day-to-day life. Coulter does a nice job of showing how practices such as baptism, Sabbath observance, prayer, and the Eucharist fit into this holy, set-apart life.

Though I’m much older than Coulter’s target audience, I read this book because I am a Christian who is interested in being holy. The book is mostly about the early stages in the journey towards holiness, but it also contains much that is of interest to those further along the path towards maturity. As might be expected given his target audience, Coulter uses many examples from popular culture–celebrity quotes, music, movies, TV, and the like. Less expected are his references to writers with some intellectual heft, including Kierkegaard, Schleiermacher, Walter Brueggemann, and Thomas Merton. Sometimes, I wished Coulter had developed further the points made by these thinkers–Kierkegaard on the longing for meaning, for example, or Brueggemann on the Sabbath. Still, the references are available for those who wish to explore them more fully, and it is nice to know that Coulter’s ideas were informed by such thinkers.

Coulter writes clearly. He pauses every page or so to emphasize his main points in a few short sentences, each standing as a separate paragraph, as in this from the section on belonging:

“Prayer builds community.
“Prayer builds relationships.
“Be holy.
“Pray (p. 102).”

These staccato-like sentences serve as useful summaries. I never did get acclimated to his use of hashtags to make wry comments, but this was easy enough to ignore. I recommend Coulter’s book not only for young adults interested in the spiritual life, but also for older adults, be they newly interested in holiness or further along the faith journey but wishing to reflect on the nature of that journey.

Note: Thanks to Chalice Press for a review copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.