How did the New Pantagruel get started?
The founders of , myself and my chief co-conspirator Dan Knauss, had been very loosely affiliated with an earlier print journal called Re:generation Quarterly, which folded in the spring of 2003. Dan and I had corresponded extensively in the year or so preceding RQ's demise, and had hashed out much of what later became the peculiar religious, political-philosophical, and aesthetic heart of The New Pantagruel. We had been corresponding with the editors of RQ pushing in this direction when the funding was pulled. It proved to be a blessing as we were able to take the ideas we had been working on and strike out with something entirely new and different.
Why The New Pantagruel? Why now?
Whether consciously or not, we are, I think, trying to articulate a means of coping with and resisting the pressures of the day, as what Dan has called "god-haunted heirs of a dying or at least deeply threatened and attenuated transcendental faith."
Where did the name come from?
I had been reading at the time and was toying with some kind of resurrection of the Carnivalesque as a possible mediating force between religion and modernity.
The image of "Carnivalesque" seems Catholic...
A number of commentators have mentioned that tNP has something vaguely "Catholic" about it. I find that fascinating.
I don't think this evocation of the Carnivalesque is necessarily "Catholic," but I think I understand the transposition of the two because Protestants have never excelled at evoking the Carnivalesque. In one of the ironic twists of the Reformation, the Protestant desire to arrive at a "critical" understanding and implementation of tradition ended up closing off the Carnivalesque spaces in society.
It’s no good to vote an anti-abortion ticket if in one’s life there is no drive and discipline towards holiness.
Catholic culture on the other hand, with its ordering of life around the ritual of the Mass, is better situated to foster such spaces.
Why do you think the Carnivalesque can be a mediating force between religion and modernity?
The carnival represented by Rabelais' work, and others—Pushkin, and Bruegel in his painting for example—is a space where, for a time at least, the disparate elements of culture and society are brought together and shorn of pretense. The Prince and the Peasant, the Priest and the Penitent share the stage; they may trade places; for a while it may even be difficult to distinguish one from the other. It functions as a way to subvert "official" culture and hold at arm's length the worst abuses of society by fostering communal exposure to a shared and received tradition through which the commonwealth can recognize and reorient itself towards the spiritual order and transcendent ground which lies behind and above the mundane everyday orders of politics, power, religion, and money.
In a religious sense, the carnival symbolizes existence as a cosmic drama in which we are mere players, unsure of the script, and ignorant of the ending. The rituals of Christian worship and the pageantry of communion and baptism and other rites and passages foster such spaces when the religious sense is not closed by a desire to arrive at a closely held critical understanding of faith and doctrine.
Interestingly, when the ritualistic spaces shrink and are closed off, the effect is a rise in the importance of the official culture of the "public" square.
How does that happen?
The intramundane orders of life end up being embodied in the state and usurp the primacy of the spirit in the ordering of human life. This process is really the process of secularization in the West; a process now complete and total in all meaningful ways.
Exactly how has The New Pantagruel tried to capture this "carnivalesque" spirit?
In designing the soul and look and sensibility of tNP, we tried to recreate a carnivalesque feel. A free-wheeling vaudeville act, with various characters popping in and acting and reacting in unpredictable ways—no shibboleth is off limits. And in the midst of this, we hope, there is serious criticism, commentary, and discussion that is not happening in many places. I would describe the tenor of our effort as taking things seriously enough not to treat our subjects with an unbreakable earnestness. There are few things as serious as Folly, and in that, we consciously try to stand in the tradition of Erasmus, More, and Rabelais.
The carnival symbolizes existence as a cosmic drama in which we are mere players, unsure of the script, and ignorant of the ending.
Where does The New Pantagruel fit politically? Is it left or right?
I would say that the driving political-philosophical force behind tNP has been a recognition of liberalism on both the modern right and left as the engine of religious and particularly Christian destruction. Which is, of course, tantamount to the destruction of western civilization.
We concur with Alexander Solzhenitsyn's remark referring to Soviet Communism and Western Liberalism that "the split in the world is less terrible than the similarity of the disease plaguing its main sections." The disease being a corrosive world-immanent materialism that denies the life of the spirit, and ultimately, denies God.
This is the age of the blog—short, quick opinions. tNP is the antithesis of that—your articles are long and complex. What's been the reaction to that?
It's a mixed bag. Many people love what we're doing, but others think we're stuffy arrogant prats.
How do you understand your role at The New Pantagruel in this drama?
Our goal has simply been to change the conversation. To reorient people to the life of the spirit through a celebration of the carnival and through a proper understanding of the dangers of liberal modernity, to perhaps inspire pockets of resistance wherever they might spring up.
You once wrote that Christians who establish "ghettos" and fight rearguard actions are doomed to fail, but that instead they should create, as you say, "pockets of resistance" or "enclaves" where a new Christian humanism can flourish. What's the difference between a "ghetto" and an "enclave"?
When I've used the term Christian ghetto it's been in the context of Christians trying to find a satisfactory response to political and cultural liberalism. The responses have been either Christians assimilating with the dominant order or Christians acquiescing to being shunted aside into a kind of nature preserve for rubes and hold-outs—a ghetto; a facsimile habitat mimicking liberal society but with a Christian spin.
Often these responses happen at the same time in a Christian community caught in this dilemma; it's happened most obviously to evangelicals. Its leaders seek access to and are granted nominal positions of "influence" in secular society in exchange for keeping the rowdies on the reservation. The problem with this is that it cuts out the church's heart and replaces it with what sociologist Christian Smith has dubbed "therapeutic deism". Christianity becomes just another lifestyle choice complete with its own marketing departments, commercial backers, support "systems," and political interest groups. In this sense, late modern liberalism ghettoizes all identity—you really are what you eat, what you wear, what you consume.
I have been charged with wanting to ‘turn back the clock…
When I talk about new enclaves of civility and culture, borrowing from thinkers like Alasdair McIntyre and T. S. Eliot, I think the point is that communities of tradition and practice need to be rebuilt along different non-liberal lines in a way that allows a real culture to flourish again. The church can never accept life on a reservation, but neither should it position itself to run what is already a decultured and post-Christian deformity—which is largely what late liberalism has become.
What signs have you seen that your approach is working? What sort of response have you received so far?
I doubt anything we're doing is "working" in the grand sense. I like what the Hungarian playwright Andras Visky says about this: "The situation is very good, it is hopeless." Real recovery of any kind will take generations of work and commitment from a cohesive community grounded in history and tradition and place. The important work isn't generally writing and publishing essays. But to the extent we can move people in the right direction, it's a worthwhile contribution. And we know we are read pretty widely within the circles we want to reach. We have been profiled on the front page of the New York Times, discussed in various Christian media and argued over at academic cocktail parties. Unfortunately, we aren't in print, so you won't see tNP wrapping the day's catch at your local fish-monger's cart—such cultural penetration we can only dream of.
More seriously, the likely impact of tNP will be minimal. We are run with a lot of volunteer time from a few dedicated souls, and that really isn't a sustainable model. We have plans to shop tNP for substantial third party or institutional funding, but a prudential skepticism counsels that tNP will likely take its place in the annals alongside many other small short lived publications.
Can you tell us something of your own religious background?
I'm from Scotch Calvinist stock. My ancestors were lowland Scotts who were part of the Covenanter movement against the Stuart kings. They were the original Whigs, derided by highlanders and Cavaliers alike as "whigamores"—drinkers of sour milk—indicating that they were poor rabble and not to be trusted in matters of either religion or statecraft.
During the religious wars of the 17th Century, the Covenanters continually got the worst of it, whether from Cromwell or Charles II after the Restoration. Many fled to Ireland, and later to the New World.
I was raised in the Covenanter church, probably the oldest continuously existing Protestant denomination in the western hemisphere. It is very small now, but still guards its history and traditions fiercely.
In the 1830s and 40s, the Covenanter church played a significant role in the abolition movement in America, and sent many eastern families west to "Bleeding Kansas" in order to bring Kansas into the Union as a free state. Our family was one of many who immigrated. My grandmother was born in a sod hut on the western prairie. It makes for a fascinating history—agrarian low class Scotts throwing off the weight of religious tradition; turned prosperous industrial Yankees in the new world; turned agrarian sod busters on the American frontier in service of Christian progressivism; turned tiny suburban enclaves in nearly placeless America holding onto tradition as a life raft against wave after wave of anti-Christian progressive reform. It's the American religious story in a nutshell.
To suffer one’s place and one’s people in service of the Good, the True, and the Beautiful is the basis for finding love, friendship, and an authentic, meaningful life.
Who are some of your favorite authors and books? Why?
My reading is pretty eclectic. All of the larger-than-life personalities from the 16th Century—Luther, Erasmus, More, Rabelais, Shakespeare—for the way they straddle and bind together two great ages of western history. The English conservatives from Samuel Johnson to John Ruskin, and American founders like Franklin and Adams for the way they kept this synthesis alive against increasing progressive pressures. In the 20th Century: Eliot, Chesterton, Evelyn Waugh, Eric Voegelin in political philosophy, Wendell Berry and other American agrarians in the Jeffersonian tradition, Theodore Roosevelt, all for their veneration of the Christian tradition as the antidote to modern liberalism touched by their zest and zeal for living-for a "thick steak, a frosted stout, and a good cigar" to borrow from Chesterton, or "laughter in the garden" as Eliot had it. I can even appreciate Ayn Rand for sheer American chutzpah. That is what I think the best of the English/American tradition has to offer: the can-do spirit of the American frontier, drunk on a child-like wonderment of the world and its mysteries, all bounded by and put in service of the deep wells of the Christian tradition and of the Church. That's the short list.
Let's get this straight—you're not a fan of the modern world, right?
I suppose I am a critic of modernity, a friendly critic I hope. I have been charged with wanting to "turn back the clock," but I don't think there is much intelligence in that accusation.
I'm sure many people reading this are wondering—why? What's so bad about the modern world?
The overwhelming moral sense I have when surveying the modern world is one of loss. A sense that what we have left behind in our affluence and mobility is a certain kind of Good that flourishes in rootedness and struggle—a way of being human that was always understood as the good life; a kind of self-provisioning that took place within a small network of interconnected social obligations, each to the other and all to a particular place, and to the customs and rites that naturally complimented that place. The spiritual order—both personal and social—of this good life is nourished on a veneration of children, work, craft, a sense of honor in commitments, and a common responsibility.
In place of this, modernity has given us the atomized individual, armed with a plethora of rights, making his way in a system of "opportunity" that requires the spiritual symbolization of society as a ladder to be climbed, which leaves a wake of personal disorder, the destruction of exploited people, places, and traditional communities, and loss of meaning on a massive scale.
Where do we go from here?
That is really the question, isn't it? And of course we can't know for sure, and anyone who says otherwise is lying. I'm thinking particularly of prophets of the inevitability of modern liberalism's triumph; those radical progressives found on both the left and right who see an "end to history." There is no end to history.
It is true that liberalism—which is really the engine of modernism—as an ordering principle is tremendously powerful, and now has the inertia of centuries driving it forward still, but it has some significant weaknesses, chief among them that it lies. It lies about the human condition and it lies about the reality of natural limits embedded in reality. Human freedom and consumption simply cannot expand infinitely. Eventually, the structures supporting such expansion will give way, and it remains to be seen what, if any, civilizing forces will be left to bring order out of that chaos.
Can you give an example of what exactly is going to "give way"?
Liberalism has thrived, to give two different examples, on sexual emancipation and on cheap energy. Both of these trajectories are nearing exhaustion. And when they end, when they are no longer capable of supporting modernity's notion of a good life, the question will be whether people remember how to marry and have children, or how to maintain an economy that is self-sufficient for the most part within a 50-mile radius.
Faced with this questionable future, what do you think we should do in the here and now?
In the mean time, I think we look to the wisdom of people like McIntyre and Eliot, as I said, who urged that we turn aside from the project of shoring up modern liberalism, and begin to construct new enclaves of civility and order within which a true intellectual and moral life—the Good life—can be sustained. In time, this fertile soil will likely be the only source of order to "save the world from suicide," to borrow Eliot's phrase. Of course the Church is and should be the ideal and supernatural guardian of these enclaves.
You talk a lot about the sense of "place." What do you mean?
One of the phrases I like to trot out is the "discipline of place." It is a discipline we moderns have almost completely abandoned. The idea is to learn—and it is a learning process—to live in love within the limits of one's existence. To suffer one's place and one's people—their joys and sorrows and history which weave a network of memory to which we belong—in service of the Good, the True, and the Beautiful. This is the true basis for finding love, friendship, and an authentic, meaningful life. And really this is the heart of what Christ and the Church Fathers teach us about Christian holiness: master one's passions, deny oneself, and love others. This is the Christian answer to the spirit of death which dwells in the old man, and which, in the increasing absence of Christian holiness, becomes writ large as a Culture of Death. I talk to a lot of Christians who are flummoxed by their relative lack of political success in beating back the culture of death, even at a time of supposed conservative ascendancy and the power of the "values" vote. Of course there are multiple reasons for this, but foremost in my mind is that it does no good to vote an anti-abortion ticket if in one's life and community there is no drive and discipline towards holiness.
Inevitably either we fail the place or person or idea we are committed to or it will fail us. That’s real life though.
Tell us more about how you understand our current situation and why the drive and discipline towards holiness is so essential.
When one lives as a modern—and we almost all do to one degree or another—he is implicated by nearly all the habits of his heart in the same culture of choice he believes he is voting against. When we fail to resist the symbolization of the modern world as a giant machine in which each part relates to all the others in a purely mechanical way, we give in to thinking in the most utilitarian way possible: how can I fulfill my needs and desires most efficiently? And the political question becomes: how can we configure the machine so that each part has the maximum freedom to pursue its own end as efficiently as possible, without interfering with the ends pursued by the other parts.
Society and work and even family and church become ladders to be climbed, and the central spiritual motifs of our time become mobility and choice, and the fruits of this are pretty apparent—massive dislocation, family breakup, the end of meaningful small town and rural life, center-city rot, the end of functional education, economic ruin of small producers and landholders, the devolution of political life into identity and victimization games, and on and on. The end result of which is a profound existential alienation in the soul of modern man; he is without a home.
And the pernicious logic of choice (which has a kind of weedy genius) in turn capitalizes on its own discontented and confused search for home and meaning by churning out a-hundred-and-one cheap and easy anecdotes. So we are awash in this expansive sea of popular mass culture which offers everything from Martha Stewart to easy birth control to empty entertainment to mega-lo-mart churches and discount-store religion. All of which functions to shield people from ever even approaching anything real: real faith, real truth, real meaning and contentment.
In light of what you've just described, what's been your own response?
Certainly in the life of our family we have tried to figure out what to do, but there is no doubt that it is tremendously difficult to resist the disorders of the age. I think for starters, we need to clear our lives of all the mass culture weeds that choke out authentic growth. Not just the Hollywood weed, but the Wal*Mart weed as well. Read the classics and the Church Fathers instead of junk fiction and self-help crap. And then go about the hard work of learning the discipline of place. Get married. Have kids, lots of them. Don't turn them over to others to raise. When I finished law school I had offers to work at several large east coast law firms for twice the money I could make at home. But home was more important, so we stayed. Shortly after law school, my wife Ann and I, with our four boys, moved to 18 acres outside of town. We try to grow some of our own food, Ann homeschools the boys, we have a commitment to this place and these people that trumps most of the other things we could spend our life pursuing. It isn't perfect or anywhere near that, but it is, we hope, a decent resistance.
Recently I made a move from working at the largest law firm in the state, a job to which I commuted for years, to setting up a solo country practice. There is risk in all of this, I suppose—commitment by its nature portends disaster. Inevitably either we fail the place or person or idea we are committed to or it will fail us. That's real life though. And in that crucible I think the terrible beauty and transcendent hope of the uncertain journey of faith in Jesus becomes real, and our souls become attuned to that reality.