The upcoming series of posts, which I will gather under the title “The Lost Tools of Living,” has been cannibalized from a shorter (and tighter) article I wrote for a newsletter project that I had to abandon. The title is a reference to an essay by Dorothy Sayers, “The Lost Tools of Learning,” in which she argues for a return to a traditional model of education. Since I am suggesting a return to a traditional model of living, the reference is apt.
For many years I’ve been a close observer of cultural trends. At first I was just an amused and curious bystander, but soon enough I was an alarmed husband and father who was scrambling to make a family life which would be a safe place for my wife and children, to be for us what Christopher Lasch described as a “haven in a heartless world.”
As we identified cultural trends that were threats to us, we looked for ways to counter them. The steps we took were not part of any grand plan, only a series of specific responses to particular perceived dangers. We turned off the television not because we understood the central role mass media has come to play in enslaving people to a modern industrial mindset, but just because we were nervous about our growing devotion to TV programs. And we decided to homeschool our children not because we knew that institutional schools, whether public or private, were vehicles for indoctrinating children into the modern way of life, but just because we couldn’t stand the thought of being parted from our kids for seven hours every day. Other such decisions followed, each of them a direct and specific response to pressures we were experiencing.
After ten years or so we stood back and looked at the path we had followed, and we were surprised to discover that we had been steadily headed in a certain direction, one that was very much out of step with modern culture. In fact, as we would uncover and face up to yet another dangerous modern trend, we often found that the response that occurred to us was not to adopt some new and innovative approach but to search out old and time-tested approaches, ones that had seemed good and necessary to our forefathers but had been jettisoned in the name of progress.
A Lost Way of Life
As I continued to study modernity and the ills which it has inflicted on society, I encountered a group of writers who promoted a way of life that very closely described the path we were pursuing. They called it agrarianism, a way of life where each family works within the context of a small agriculturally-centered community to directly supply their own needs.
These writers pointed out that agrarianism did not propose a new way of living, but in fact described life as it had been lived by most people through most of history. And they claimed that this way of life was not some obsolete precursor to modern industrial society, but a viable and healthy alternative to it which could still be reclaimed.
This makes for a fine and attractive theory, but can we know with any certainty that the agrarian life is a better alternative to modern industrial living—and, more important, that it is possible to live an agrarian life in the midst of a modern industrial society? After all, much of what has been written over the years in favor of agrarianism has been written by folks who did not live the life they were extolling. And in Allan Carlson’s The New Agrarian Mind, his excellent short history of the twentieth century American agrarian movement, he tells the stories of intentional agrarian communities which faltered and ultimately failed as ideals gave way to realities.
Although my studies were slow to yield answers to these questions, our family continued to walk the agrarian path because we knew of no alternative nearly as promising. We couldn’t know for sure that agrarian was the best way or even a good way. But we had learned that as we took step after step along this path, God would continue to bless us in and through our efforts.
A Peculiar People
And then suddenly the answers came, but from an unexpected quarter—the internet, in the form of weblogs. Beginning in early 2005 an online community of Christians began to gather, folks who were not only pursuing an agrarian way of life but were eager to share in writing with others what they were learning on the journey, both the successes and the setbacks.
Some of these folks have chosen to describe themselves as Christian agrarians, and it was clear from the stories they told that the name was accurate—they were all pursuing the agrarian way of life not because they had some romantic notion of returning to the Good Old Days, but because they thought God was calling them to live this way.
Which gave us the answers to our two questions. Is the agrarian life a better alternative to modern industrial living? The growing community of Christian agrarians would argue that it is, based not only on their practical experience with both ways of life, but also on their understanding of God’s Word. Is it possible to live an agrarian life in the midst of a modern industrial society? The Christian agrarians answer with a resounding “Yes!”, one which they back up with their commitment to move deliberately in that direction.
As these folks continue to write about the development of their thinking and the practical outworking of that thinking in their everyday lives, they have begun to examine and discuss some very important topics, and to raise important questions about the conventional wisdom about them. Much of this work is being done on their weblogs, and I encourage you to follow their ongoing accounts of their struggles to turn agrarian thought into agrarian practice.
I should mention at this point that I think the agrarian writer Wendell Berry is wise when he exhorts us to distrust movements. I don’t see Christian agrarianism as a movement, i.e. an effort to create a kind of agrarianism that is distinctly Christian, but rather a sharing of information and experiences among Christians who are exploring agrarian thinking as they strive to find ways to better live out their Christian faith. To avoid any confusion about this, from here on I will not refer to Christian agrarianism but only agrarianism.
Look to the Past
Most of my thinking about modern life is guided by two simple questions: How did we get into the current mess? and, What can we do to get out of it? One central quality of modern life that almost no one, critic or advocate, will dispute is that it is complicated. Life used to be simple, and now it is not. I will take for granted that this was a change for the worse, and look to agrarianism for answers to my two simple questions, formulated as follows: How did our lives get so complicated? and, What can we do to make our lives simple again?
I’ve learned that there is no definition of agrarianism that all agrarians will agree to, but most agrarians do exhibit preferences that seem to flow from a common understanding of how life should be. For example, agrarians tend to prefer rural over urban settings, production over consumption, doing a job oneself over paying to have it done, being generally capable over specializing, a home-based family economy over careerism, craftsmanship over mass manufacturing, small-scale activity over large-scale, subsisting over accumulating wealth, tradition over innovation, staying home over going out, following in their parents’ footsteps over striking out on their own.
It is fair to say that agrarians tend to prefer things the way they used to be, and live so as to keep them that way. The plain people (Amish and Mennonite) are a prime example of this sort of thinking. Deeply skeptical of the benefits that modernity claims to offer, they scrutinize every last innovation for the damage it might do to their social fabric. And if an innovation threatens that fabric, they reject it. And as odd as their ultra-traditionalism seems to us
, we can see the blessings that such a life has bestowed on them—contentment, health, community, security, faithful children.
These days many Christians are turning to traditional practices as a way of fending off the dangers of modern society, but for pragmatic rather than principled reasons. And tradition rewards their pragmatism, because tradition works. Tradition can keep men and women on a godly path, strengthen families, and instill godliness in children. We need only compare the results of modern and traditional practices, and we see that adhering to tradition yields much better fruit. We can then decide to walk a traditional path as a practical matter, without taking the time to understand why these practices work as well as they do.
Sadly, this approach is sure to fail us in difficult times. If we have no reason for walking this path other besides the fact that it seems to work, we will be easily tempted to abandon it once it seems to stop working. And those times will come. For strength in the crisis, we need to not only pursue these practices but understand what makes them good, to seek out the wisdom that led our forefathers to proceed in this direction and not another.
George Santayana’s famous aphorism, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” is true but doesn’t go far enough. It implies that we should study history so as to identify the mistakes of our forebears and avoid them. Fair enough. But it misses the fact that often our forebears were not mistaken at all—in fact, we were the ones who were mistaken when we abandoned their practices. In these cases it would be a blessing rather than a curse for us to repeat the past. And so we should also study history with an eye to identifying departures from tradition which seemed wise at the time, but have turned out to be foolish and destructive.
As I continue to read about the development of modern industrial culture, there are fewer things I am certain about, but of those few things I am more certain than ever. In particular, I think that our rapid downward slide since the early 1800s is the result of a series of bad choices. At that time, starry-eyed with the idea of progress, we began to abandon long-established practices in favor of innovations that were quick to promise short-term gains but slow to reveal their true cost.
In the series of posts that follows I will offer brief descriptions of some of these wrong turns away from tradition, and make some suggestions about what families can do to counter those wrong turns.