I've changed jobs recently, so I'm free to write again. Over this period, I've been thinking small, about culture and community and how to weather the coming storm.
On Twitter the other day (we're not calling it X in real life, are we?), I saw someone’s profile that said, “Culture warrior, retired."
If this was intended to be provocative, it worked. I've been contemplating it for several days.
It made me think about the culture war. As a child of the '80s, I remember the dying days of the last culture war. Boycotting AT&T and Levi's. Tipper Gore calling for explicit labels on music and video games.
Not much has changed in the intervening decades. Except perhaps we're losing more. We, the people of tradition -- of the liturgy, of the old ways, who believe in beauty and truth -- have stumbled and lost our way in this fight.
Our self-appointed "culture leaders” strut and fret their hour upon the stage, but it is little more than "sound and fury, signifying nothing."
The war continues unabated, and we continue losing, and “we” spend more time fighting amongst ourselves than preparing for the next offensive.
We are losing the culture war because we don’t know how to fight it. Maybe more fundamentally, we are losing because we don’t know how to win it.
We are not going to win the culture war by dunking on our opponents on Twitter. "Owning the libs" might feel good in the moment, but preaching to the choir isn't going to add souls to our community or change the minds of those on the margins.
So how do we win?
Eschatologically, we’re not going to win the culture war - that is what Christ’s glorious reappearing is all about, but that is a discussion for another day.
I often think of the quote from Letter 255 of my favorite author, J.R.R. Tolkien:
“Actually I am a Christian, and indeed a Roman Catholic, so that I do not expect ‘history’ to be anything but a ‘long defeat’— though it contains (and in legend may contain more clearly and movingly) some samples or glimpses of final victory.”
While I’m not a Roman, I am of the original apostolic church, the Catholic Church in its original meaning, so I’ll take it.
Fr. Stephen Freeman has written beautifully about the Orthodox conception of a long defeat. You can read it here.
This is not a pessimistic streak within Orthodox Christianity. If history tells us anything, it is that this is a very honest, even prescient reading. The evils of the 20th century, particularly those unleashed during and after World War I, are clearly among the worst ever known on the planet, and continue to be the major culprits behind all of our current struggles. That war was not “the war to end all wars.” It has rather been the foundation of all subsequent wars. May God forgive our arrogance (“boasters, proud”…). But the Classical Christian read on human life contains the deepest hope – set precisely in the heart of the long defeat.
A long defeat sounds defeatist.
But I’m not pessimistic, I promise you. I am optimistic because I have faith in His ultimate victory.
We won’t win it by fighting each other. I don’t believe “we” will win the culture war at all, but we must do the small work. The important work.
One of my favorite quotes, which I often use during grassroots trainings, hits at the core of this:
“The duty is ours, the results are God’s.”
There are dragons to slay while we squabble with each other.
If we want to “win,” we need to be an example. We need to build community.
But if we think too broadly, too vaguely, too grandly, we fall into a trap of our own making. We – more rightly, I should say “I” – I lack the humility needed for real connection.
“Saving the world” is a path to losing oneself to delusion, self-grandeur, and egotism.
When you’re saving the world, it’s easy to let the ends justify the means – and that’s precisely what I want to avoid.
That's how I've come to think small, recently.
For the past few years, I have served as a member of my parish council, the elected body that manages the “business” side of the church.
I have learned more about "community" in the past three years from that service than the twenty years I spent as a political grassroots organizer.
It is a fundamentally different experience than any board or group I’ve been a part of, and it took nearly a year and a half to reorient myself toward the right way to approach the position and the work.
There are disagreements. There are strong personalities. There can be small-scale conflicts that, in the wrong light, could feel big, even massive.
Over time, I've learned they’re not. Opinions are strongly held, with the intensity of those trying to do Christ’s work. But the Lord’s work must go on, regardless of my pride and vanity.
If we want to make a change in the culture, if we want to realize the return of Christendom, it means building.
One brick on top of the next. It took over 200 years to build Notre Dame Cathedral. Beautiful things take time
Community starts small.
In some cases, it starts with a smile and a friendly word. Greet someone you don’t know after liturgy.
In other cases, it starts with a meal, bread broken in fellowship around the table. Community starts with humility and occasionally the wisdom to know that “winning” might really be about not winning at all.
This coming week, I’m going to pray for the wisdom to see the opportunities to build small. I hope you’ll join me.
We may not see the fruit of our work, but the labor of sowing must be done. It is our duty. It is our service to our children, our friends, to our community.
We have lost our way. To borrow (again) from the great man of Tradition, Tolkien, things that should not have been forgotten have been lost, history because legend, legend became myth, and truth passed out of knowledge.
I pray we think small, and remember to build.