OUT OF THE ASHES: Rebuilding American Culture
OUT OF THE ASHES: Rebuilding American Culture. By Anthony Esolen. Washington DC: Regnery Publishing, 2017. 203 pages. $27.99.
I was privileged to hear Dr. Anthony Esolen speak in late April of this year (2017) in Okoboji, Iowa. During his presentation, he referenced three books that have all been published recently that all address, more or less, the same issue. Those three books include his Out of the Ashes, as well as Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option, and Archbishop Charles Chaput’s Strangers in a Strange Land.
Of those three books, I have only read Out of the Ashes, and I heartily recommend that you do so as well.
Esolen promises from the outset, “I shall decry the decay of civilization” (1). He does it well. Esolen is exceptionally articulate and he diagnoses many problems—and with quick wit I might add. He also proposes solutions. “When your only choices are repentance and oblivion, you repent” (11). The book is filled with quotable material and mental images that spark the imagination and prompt a great amount of pondering. It’s also very dense. Each chapter could warrant a substantial “review” all on its own. This makes the $27.99 price tag worth every penny, though if you buy the book on Amazon, it’s currently on sale for less than $19.00.
If you’re unfamiliar with Anthony Esolen, here’s a bit of background. He’s unapologetically Roman Catholic. That means he knows what the Roman Catholics teach and he believes it. He writes accordingly. Thus, if you’re Lutheran, you’ll object to his repeated references and adulations of Corpus Christi parades. If you’re a secularist, you’ll probably object to his affirmation of heterosexual monogamous marriage. If you’re an atheist or agnostic, you’ll object to his clear confession of God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. If you’re Roman Catholic, you might object to him holding you accountable to what your church already teaches—as the faculty, staff, and students of Providence College recently did. However, those same groups of readers will also find plenty that they agree with. That is, if they have the fortitude to soldier through the parts that offend their tender sensibilities.
Esolen critiques American culture on ten points: truth-telling, beauty, schooling, colleges, manhood, womanhood, craftsmanship, play, cooperation, and pilgrimage. Each chapter concludes with a call to the reader to make the necessary changes to correct the problem.
In my observation of the reviews of Rod Dreher’s book, a common critique (especially among Lutherans) is that Dreher has called the church to a certain action that readers find objectionable for the “church” to be doing. Esolen doesn’t make that mistake. Congregations, Esolen will admit, are uniquely suited to lead the way, but he doesn’t put the onus of rebuilding American culture on the church. He puts the onus on the reader, whether they attend a church or not.
The decay of American culture didn’t happen in a day. It won’t be restored in a day. It also won’t be rebuilt through new legislation handed down to us from some nameless and anonymous bureaucrat or politician. It starts locally. It starts with the family, and Esolen insists it has always been built on the family. Of course, this requires men acting like men, women acting like women, and children being allowed to be children. Objections will immediately arise because the push for any number of burgeoning sexual identities has flattened the diversity of men being men and women being women into a morass by shattering boundaries and destroying the beauty of the interplay between distinct things.
One of my favorite chapters in this book was the chapter on craftsmanship. Here’s a sample of Esolen’s writing.
The last time I was in Grand Central Station, I gazed at the long barrel vault above, a vast and noble conception, and wondered why we cannot have public works of this sort now. There are a few plausible answers, as I see them. The first, the one I hear most often, is that we do not have the money for it. Let us follow this answer down the rabbit hole. We cannot afford beauty. That is a strange answer, because by any objective standard we are the wealthiest people in the history of the world. . . . We are wealthy enough to afford junk, and a lot of it, and too wealthy to afford what is beautiful and enduring.” (134–35).
A few years ago, one of the congregations I serve purchased a “paschal candle” at my urging. The candle itself was rather inexpensive—about $70. The stand it would be placed upon, however, was where the real expense lie. I had in mind the idea of commissioning an artist to make a beautiful paschal candle stand. When the voters were gathered and we were discussing the costs of such a commission, it was pointed out—by more than one person—that a paschal candle stand could be purchased from any number of ecclesiastical supply catalogues for a fraction of the cost of what we were looking to pay a craftsman. With all due respect to such ecclesiastical supply companies, the stands were mass-produced, unimaginative, boring, and looked like junk. Thankfully, the congregation decided on what was beautiful, paid the extra expense, and now we have a gorgeous and lasting paschal candle stand and we haven’t missed the money we spent on it yet.
Esolen’s corrective to invest in beauty is not, as I said above, by way of legislation, but to inculcate the love of beauty and in our private lives “reject bad work and repudiate the stupidities that keep us from raising craftsmen” (151).
This is just one of countless examples from this wonderful book.
In calling the reader to rebuild American culture, Esolen reminds the reader that “You cannot save a culture by raising culture to be the ultimate good . . . He who would save a culture or a civilization must not seek first the culture or the civilization, but the Kingdom of God, and then all these other things, says Jesus, shall be given unto him as well” (189).
Because Esolen places the genesis of culture rebuilding with the family rather than among the cogs of some giant bureaucratic machine, this book is eminently practical. There were times that I was sad at what the culture has lost in the past fifty years. There were many times I was convicted of my own poor parenting, poor priorities, and poor time management, but these things can be changed, and they can be changed by me without the permission, approval, or authority from anyone else. I think everyone should read this book for that reason. And if you’re a pastor, you’ll not only enjoy this book but find that it also provides much grist for the homiletical and catechetical mills.
Rev. Timothy A. Koch, Pastor of Concordia and Immanuel Lutheran Churches in Cresbard and Wecota, South Dakota.