By Jonathon Van Maren
In his review of my book The Culture War, which traces our culture’s descent from the Greatest Generation to the Millennial Snowflake Blizzard, lawyer Andre Schutten noted that he hoped I’d turn my last chapter on the way forward into an entirely separate book that looked more closely at how Christians can rebuild in a culture so thoroughly rotten. There have been a number of book-length answers to that question lately, from Douglas Wilson’s attempt to chart a way to squirm out from between the pincers we find ourselves in with his book Empires of Dirt: Secularism, Radical Islam, and the Mere Christian Alternative, and Rod Dreher’s constantly discussed The Benedict Option, which urges a tactical retreat. But there has been no book quite like Anthony Esolen’s Out of the Ashes: Rebuilding American Culture.
Anthony Esolen, a regular contributor to publications such as First Things, Crisis Magazine, and the Imaginative Conservative, writes like an Old Testament prophet with a PhD in literature. He is controversial precisely because he holds fast to his traditionalist Catholic orthodoxy and refuses to temper his language even slightly, wielding a razor-sharp and multi-syllabled vocabulary that leaves the stunted ideologues of the Women’s Department dizzy and sputtering with outrage. It was his social commentary that saw Esolen driven from his last position, at the once-Catholic Providence College—protestors accused his critique of the cult of diversity of being “racist,” once again proving Douglas Wilson’s maxim that a “racist” today is someone winning an argument with a liberal.
Esolen’s Out of the Ashes is, in short, a magnificent and poetic book. I couldn’t put it down. His diagnoses are harsh and his descriptions of them are almost putrid and foul-tasting, but his demand for a cultural chemotherapy that will return us to health follows them up like a glass of clear, ice-cold water. For example, this bit:
Liberal Christians in 1966 could proffer the poor excuse that the experiment was untried, that they did not know any better, that Jesus did not really condemn sins of the flesh, and that the times they were a-changing. Christians fifty years later do not have event that excuse. The experiment has been an unmitigated disaster. Those fences? They levees, not fences. The churches took down those levees and erected signs in their place, reading, ‘Now, above all, be nice.’ The rain has come, the river has risen, it has broken down the few untended levees remaining and buried the pretty little signs under hundreds of feet of mud, and water that once did productive work for mankind now spreads like a vast malarial marsh over what used to be fields and farms and villages, simmering and breeding vermin in the sun. Christians must repudiate the whole sexual revolution. All of it. No keepsakes, no exceptions. Remember Lot’s wife.
Esolen weaves poetry and literature and Bible quotations through his work as naturally as breathing and for an effect that is sometimes breathtaking in its power. Esolen condemns modern worship music but then spends so much time laying out the beauty of old hymns, psalms, and spiritual songs that his condemnation is nearly forgotten. He refuses to nod, even perfunctorily, at much of modern art and culture—it is trash, and it is obvious that he would very much like to see it all burn. Out of those ashes, we can return to a time when people knew the most obvious of things: That men and women are different and cannot swap places on a whim, that literature and art and music are essential and tell us essential stories, and that the family—Mom, Dad, children—perhaps the grandparents living with them, too—is foundational to a healthy culture. When it comes to those who wish to teach children the finer details of masturbation and oral sex, Esolen is furiously contemptuous: It is not that such people should be restrained from teaching such things, he writes, it is that they should not be teaching children at all—they are what C.S. Lewis called “the bent people.”
In some ways, the world Esolen describes—especially in his nearly flawless conclusion—is the world that I grew up in. As I described in my review of Dreher’s Benedict Option, I grew up in a community that valued its history and its culture, and my childhood was relatively unpoisoned by modernity. I spent countless hours blazing new trails through high grass with my dog, my siblings and I used up whole summers with our chickens, geese, pigeons, and even quail, we raised calves, and got up early to feed the animals. There is a reason I love Norman Rockwell paintings so much—it is because much of what Rockwell preserves of an American past is precisely what my parents managed to give my family.
Esolen’s call to reject the fashionable poisons of the present is powerful and potent. I look at how my grandparents lived, the childhood they gave to my parents, and then the upbringing my parents gave to me, and it makes me as determined as ever to ensure that these traditions are passed on to my children, too. A childhood full of the outdoors, of animals, of great books and family barbeques—not a childhood of nonstop daycare, incessant screens, and post-modern idiocy. Esolen does not call for retreat, he calls for reloading and rebuilding, and although he is Catholic and I am not, his call rings clear and to all Christians who yet cling to orthodoxy in a culture that hates them. In short: I cannot recommend this book highly enough. Buy it, read it, and be changed.
For anyone interested, my book on The Culture War, which analyzes the journey our culture has taken from the way it was to the way it is and examines the Sexual Revolution, hook-up culture, the rise of the porn plague, abortion, commodity culture, euthanasia, and the gay rights movement, is available for sale here.