Taking Inventory of the Writing Life

vintage letters typo vintage typewriter

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I just had a birthday.  As with many milestones, I find myself taking stock.  Because I know many people hope to write and leave something behind of their thoughts, analysis, beliefs, and feelings, I’m posting a personal inventory.  Maybe it will give you a sense of the possibilities.

When I was just about thirty years old, almost two decades ago, I yearned to publish something and thought that if I were to die without writing a book, I would consider my life a failure.  While I don’t encourage anyone to think of their lives in quite that way, such was my mind at the time.  I still remember the day when I sent an email to the editor of American Spectator offering a correction on an article.  He responded in such a friendly way, I suggested that I might write something for him.  He agreed.  I could almost see the new pathways opening in front of me.  Here is a rough inventory of what I’ve had the privilege to do since that time:

The Online Work (some estimation involved)

American Spectator: 30 pieces plus maybe 100 or more blog items.

National Review Online:  25 pieces inclusive of articles and symposia

The Federalist:  17 pieces

First Things:  One essay plus many blog items for First Thoughts

Public Discourse:  One essay

Quillette:  One essay

The American Interest:  One essay

The Acton Institute:  12 pieces plus blog items

Christianity Today:  8 pieces online

American Greatness:  One piece

Atlanta Journal-Constitution:  One piece

Chattanooga Times-Free Press:  Two pieces

Jackson Sun:  Around 10-20 pieces (full archive unavailable online)

The Gospel Coalition:  5 pieces

Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission:  4 pieces

Mere Comments (Touchstone): many blog items

RedState.com: various blog items

The Reform Club/hunterbaker.wordpress.com: hundreds of blog items

There are others that I can’t recall at this time.

Print Articles in Academic Journals:  6 articles for a variety of journals (Example: Journal of Law and Religion)

Print Articles in Intellectual Journals:  20 articles for a variety of journals (Example: Modern Age)

Book Chapters/Features/Forwards:  14

Books:  3 (The End of Secularism, Political Thought: A Student’s Guide, The System Has a Soul)

Book Reviews of which I’m most proud:  Mike Potemra’s review of The End of Secularism for National Review, S.T. Karnick’s review of The End of Secularism for Books & Culture, and Andrew Klavan’s review of The End of Secularism for Pajamas Media.

Invited Lectures:  43 (So much of the real labor is here.  When people invite you to speak, you tend to write something new for them, which you can find a way to work into an article, a book chapter, a book, etc.)

Now, why would this inspire you?  It seems like an awful lot of work.  Yes, it is a lot of work, but it was done over the course of about 15 years with regular effort.  Nothing superhuman.  Writing begets writing.  If I recall, I may actually have had something ready to go the first time I corresponded with Wlady Pleszczynski at American Spectator.  He published me.  I’ve been going strong ever since.  It seems to me that a big part of the reason some people write a lot is simply because they feel they have the opportunity to publish and have an audience.

I’m deeply thankful for that first opportunity and for everything that came after.  But it is important to note that I’d been preparing for that opportunity with years of education, reading, thinking, analyzing,  (and frankly praying for it), etc.  If you have something good to offer, chances are you’ll be able to seize a moment.

Finding friends who write helps, too.  We tend to engage in the activities our friends undertake.  Writing is like that.  Find a fellowship of writers.  My fellowship started online, but I’ve met many of them over the years in real life and count some of them among my best friends today.

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On Suicide: Reflections on Anthony Bourdain’s Death

food chef kitchen soup

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The chef Anthony Bourdain’s death is hard for me to understand and accept.  Perhaps it is so because of my reading of Walker Percy.  Percy invented the concept of the ex-suicide.  The idea is that you can get all the way to the point of committing suicide and then turn back.  You are now a suicide survivor.  You can walk out into the light and air and realize, “I could be dead right now.  Instead, I’m alive.  Whatever happens next, I can compare it favorably with death.”

Of course, one might say that Anthony Bourdain knew as much.  It would be hard to believe he had problems he couldn’t solve with money or perhaps use money to escape.  The more likely problem is Weltschmertz (world-weariness).  When one is tired of the way the world is, that is a difficult problem to overcome.  He had already been down the road of severe drug addiction in the past, so he knew that didn’t offer a constructive solution.

World-weariness presents a powerful challenge, especially to an atheist like Bourdain.  When the atheist concludes that the world is infinitely sorrowful or is doomed to repeat the same mistakes again and again or is disappointed by himself or others, then he asks himself, “Why should there be more?  Why not simply be done with it?”  He is convinced there is nothing on the other side than a fade to black.

I sometimes share the sense of Weltschmertz.  It is especially a problem for those of us who think too much about politics.  There are few arenas of life where one is exposed to as much dishonesty, cynicism, and confirmation of human frailty as politics.  And the same, regrettably, can be true of religion, which has been the other great pre-occupation of my own life.  We find that people we hoped would serve as exemplars and pillars are often all too weak or perhaps all too strong in their own cause.  And thus we hear about the esteemed Christian academic leader (not the spangled televangelist) who earns a very high salary and whose wife has a “fur safe” or some other silly worldly contrivance.  It is enough to utter the words, “Vanity, vanity, all is vanity.”

Facebook, which I love and hate, is its own great source of world-weariness.

But there are things that rescue me from the Weltschmertz, from the pain of continuing to live and think.  One is the many, many people who move in a different direction from the world’s prerogatives.

I think of the commitment of some amazing people in the pro-life movement.  They are the ones who advocate for those who will never be able to do a thing for them.  I am humbled by the thought of them working as sidewalk counselors outside of abortion clinics, giving free ultra-sounds at crisis pregnancy clinics, and actually adopting children thus allowing mothers in distress to walk away and yet know that someone is caring for their child.  What a gift it is to be able to hand off a child rather than incurring the weight of death in order to get back on top of one’s own life.  I think about how these people have suffered cynical, Machiavellian treatment at the hands of some parts of America’s elite political establishment, while being reviled by others.

I think about the people who do the hard work of attempting to help people receive an education and get ready for employment rather than just writing off some populations as marginal and consigning them to a lifetime of subsidies.  Such persons are among the most compassionate of all people involved in a political movement and yet are also among the most likely to be charged with heartlessness.

I think about the preachers who never make more than $50,000 to $60,000 a year (and maybe much less) who labor over their sermons with care, who visit the hospitals, who perform the funeral services, who officiate over the weddings, who try to put back together families in danger of falling apart, and who will never, never know an ounce of fame in this world.  How I love such people, the people who do ministry for all the right reasons and who are not captured by the seductive call of materialism.  They probably will never go on a big destination vacation, but have their eyes on the greatest of all journeys to be taken by any people at any time.

It helps me to think about those people.  It helps me to think about God.  Anthony Bourdain lacked the fear of God.  His parents raised him that way.  No matter how desperate a person is, he might come to a halt before going so far as to take everything that he is and throwing it back into the face of the one who made him.  The brilliant Anthony Bourdain didn’t have that fear.  I wish he had.  Fear can be one of our best friends in this life.

But fear is not the only reason to refuse to give in to a pervasive sense of world-weariness.  It is certainly not the best reason.  The best reason not to give in is trust in God.  No matter how dark my feelings are about the world or leaders who disappoint me, I have faith that we will see real justice in the end from the Lord.  The wrong things will be put right.  The proud will be humbled.  The true saints will be exhalted.  We will all look upon God’s work and will say that the creator of justice has done right by his people.  Indeed, we will look upon it and say that he gave us grace in generous, overflowing measure.  Spend this life preparing for the next.

23 Years with a Girl

Like so many great happenings in my life, I met Ruth Elaine Martin around the same time I met Jesus through InterVarsity Christian Fellowship at Florida State University.  I recall attending a Bible and Life conference somewhere in Florida.  There was a Christian commune where we stayed for the weekend.  I met Ruth at a nearby fast food place where some of us had gone.  I had one of those M.C. Escher shirts on, the one with the image of the stairs that inexplicably go nowhere.  What I remember about her was her smile.  Even as I write this, I can feel the warmth in that smile.

We became friends after that.  She noticed I was driving around on a temporary spare and convinced me to let her help me change it (I’d been immune to my father’s efforts to teach me).  We became prayer partners (against the rules as a guy/girl combo), but we prayed earnestly and well together.  One day we had dinner with a friend.  Ruth mentioned she was thinking of never getting married and giving her life to medicine.  It was as if she had picked up a steak knife and stabbed me in the heart.  But I didn’t say anything.

About a year later, I found myself hiking on a mountain in California and had a thunderbolt realization that she was the one and had to be the one.  But knowing it and convincing her of it were two different things.

Through God’s providence I finished graduate school in Athens, Georgia and got a job in Jacksonville, Florida only two hours away from Ruth in Gainesville.  By that time, she was a driven and determined medical student.  I visited her at a dorm she stayed in while spending a month rotation in Jacksonville.  The intensity of the students in the building was palpable.  I mentioned it to Ruth.  “These are such serious people.”  She responded, “I’m a serious person.”  She was right.  And she’s still that way.  I love the fact that she cares and is all business when it counts, especially for her patients.

I eventually got that serious girl to include me in her plans.  We’re 23 years into this marriage with as many years as God will give us ahead.  As much as I liked her back then, I like her so much more today.  The serious girl is just as focused and determined as she ever was, but it is a beautiful thing to be married to someone of her character and spiritual commitment.  If you could win the lottery or marry well, I think I’d advise you to marry well, because I wouldn’t trade Ruth for as many millions as you could muster.

Happy 23 years, sweetheart.  Let’s put together 23 more and then maybe another 23 after that.  — HB

Is Chick-fil-A a Worm in the Big Apple?

You can get my take here at the Acton Institute.

But here’s a clip:

To be fair to the author, he’s not crazy about McDonald’s and Starbucks, either. He throws shade at both companies for their “deadening uniformity”. Consumers are also a problem, because of their preference for established goods over things that are “new and untested.” He seems to be saying that if Chick-fil-A has the gall to bring another chain to New York, it should at least have the good taste to adopt the progressive politics he can count on with Starbucks.

Though Our Ears Be Deafened . . .

In Cicero’s On the Commonwealth, Scipio has a dream of heaven where he goes to visit his grandfather.  While there, he is entranced by the music of the spheres.  Sadly, he learns that men have lost the ability to hear it, though it is everywhere:

Men’s ears have been filled with this sound and consequently grown deaf to it.  You have no duller sense than hearing, just as at the point where the Nile plunges from high mountains at the place called Cataract, the race of men that lives there is completely deaf because of the magnitude of the sound.  The sound made by the rapid revolution of the universe is so great that human ears cannot grasp it, just as you are unable to look directly into the Sun, because your sight and sense are overcome by its rays.

 

 

 

To Be Wise, Strong, and Loving: A Prayer for All of Us

I’ve been thinking about a prayer I used to offer each night while putting the kids to bed. You really have to think about what you want to pray for your young children. One of the things I settled on was to ask God that he would help them to become wise, strong, and loving.  I still pray it, but no longer while sitting on the edge of a child’s bed.
If I could pray anything for the people of my country and for myself, it would be this same thing. It seems to me that we are currently far from the goal.
What is it to be wise? To be wise is not to be caught in the grip of one’s passions and to lose discernment in the process. The wise person doesn’t have to know everything, but they do need to be sure that they DON’T know it all. The wise person must be measured and judicious. Wisdom means not jumping to conclusions, prejudging motives, and making too easy denominations of people into friends and enemies. Being wise means seeking understanding rather than casting aspersions and assuming ill will.  To be wise is to give others the benefit of the doubt and to assume they mean well until evil intent becomes obvious (which is quite rare).
 Being strong doesn’t have to do with physical strength, at least not the way I was praying for it.  When I ask for my kids to be strong, I mean that I hope they will learn to be resilient.  Strong people don’t give up easily.  They take their licks from the world and don’t go into permanent retreat.  To be strong is to continue to try to learn and grow.  It is to encounter difficulty and to realize that while the challenge is too big right now, it won’t always be that way.  Strong people intuitively understand that they have inherent value (given by God, in my mind) and that the world is not enough to dissolve them down to nothing.  Strength comes in part from finding joy in overcoming failure.  We also display strength when we make correct use of our will.  Instead of dominating us, it exists to give energy and emotional substance to our reason.
When I ask for my children to be loving, I am looking for them to gain the ability to extend their heart out beyond themselves.  Love is fierce and real for spouse, for family, and for children.  That is true.  But love should not be in partnership with the preference and hatred that can emerge for those we see as being outside of our circles.  Love has to do with seeing every person as a special creation of God.  It means situating yourself within God’s will as a person who reaches out to others and who tries to bring them in to the fellowship of all mankind.  Love doesn’t mean abandoning your beliefs, though, because without conviction love can degenerate into nothing more than sentiment without foundation.
My prayer is that we would gain the wisdom, strength, and love to bear with each other.  We need to utterly deny the sick, emotional satisfaction of seeing others as villains in the Lex Luthor mold.  We need to be resilient enough not to make enemies too easily and to bounce back quickly when our pride is hurt.  We need to love well enough to give up the self-centeredness and tribalism that so easily possess us.  We need to gain the capacity for real friendship even with those with whom we disagree.
I pray these things for my children.  I pray them for you.  I pray them for myself.

 

Explaining Why Trump’s Charlottesville Comments Were a Mega-Fail

Because I write so often on politics and culture, people who know me often bring questions or something they’d like to discuss.  The thing I keep hearing lately, especially from folks who aren’t big political partisans, is a question about why Trump’s comments regarding Charlottesville are such a big deal.  I want to try and address that.

Let’s begin with an admission.  Much of what the president said about events in Charlottesville was factually accurate.  There were people in the counter-demonstration who were ready to use violence and who were provocative.  If the question has to do with simple law and order, it is entirely possible that the counter-demonstrators were the spark that lit the fuse.  The problem is that to see events in this light lacks substantial context.  And in this case, context is everything.

It would be one thing if the Charlottesville protesters were your standard Southern men who collect Civil War (or the War between the States as many would have it) memorabilia and who cherish the gentlemanly reputation of Robert E. Lee.  Whether you agree with them or not, that’s a debate that can be had without necessarily entailing a strongly racist view.  After all, the defenders of Lee typically see him as something of a tragic figure.  He was arguably the best military man in the nation, but his sympathies were with his native Virginia.  Had Virginia been a Union state, Lee might well have ended up as president of the United States.  I’ve never heard these folks promote Lee as some kind of champion of the slavery cause.

But the reality seems different.  It appears that the Charlottesville protesters did, indeed, embrace something like white nationalism.  If we put the best possible face on it (which takes some work), then we can see them as people who believe that the European culture promoted the highest level of civilization.  Unfortunately, they believe that to continue enjoying western civilization artificial or political means must be employed to keep minorities out or limited to marginal numbers.  That’s where we get away from the best possible face (which still has problems) and move toward the marred side of the Janus profile where white supremacy lurks.  They are not really defending Lee so much as they are cynically using Lee to promote an ugly form of racial superiority.

When President Trump entered the picture, which was made necessary by the ultimately fatal consequence of the clash of protesters, he spoke almost as if addressing two gangs of kids who had mixed it up and needed to be dressed down and sent home.  To paraphrase, “Hey, now, you kids are better than this.  There’s plenty of blame to go around.  Clean yourselves up and go home.”

The problem is that this is the wrong frame.  Even if both sets of protesters were bad in certain ways, the simple fact is still that one set is setting forth a form of white supremacy (white nationalism can’t get away from that charge) and the other is opposing (unfortunately, violently) the first group’s speech.  Yes, it’s bad to start swinging clubs at white nationalists holding a demonstration.  But there is nothing good about the particular demonstration in the first place.  Like I said, they aren’t the good-hearted apologists for Lee.  They are promoting the idea that western civilization has to be protected from many non-European races.

In addition, the President didn’t speak to the situation with American history adequately in mind.  In all my 47 years I have hated carrying around the legacy of slavery, segregation, and racism.  It seemed like some unjust tax I have always had to pay.  But the simple fact is that I do live in this particular world with the history that we have and it can’t be escaped.  I would never dream of speaking about a protest like the one in Charlottesville without fully recognizing that this is not a conflict conducted in a vacuum.  The history is fresh enough that white supremacy connects to a time when it had a lot more power behind it.  To fail to adequately describe that reality as a president is to fail in the spiritual and emotional sense of leading.

These are the reasons why President Trump’s comments caused so much distress.  He isn’t living in the cutthroat world of New York real estate any more.  Neither is he any longer the type of celebrity who benefits from any story so long as his name is correctly spelled.  He’s the leader of a country with both a tragic and a great history that still wields more power than almost all the others combined.  Shooting from the hip is just not an option.