Review: Plough Quarterly

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Cover of Autumn 2018 issue of Plough Quarterly

It is not my usual custom to review periodicals on this blog, but I decided to make an exception because of an extraordinary publication that has come across my path in recent months. Plough Quarterly is part of the publishing efforts of the Bruderhof who describe themselves as “an international movement of Christian communities whose members are called to follow Jesus together in the spirit of the Sermon on the Mount and of the first church in Jerusalem, sharing all our talents, income, and possessions (Acts 2 and 4).” The Bruderhof began as an Anabaptist community formed by Eberhard Arnold in Germany in the chaos of post World War I Germany. The rise of Nazism drove the community abroad and led to the formation of communities in the United States, England, Germany, Australia, and Paraguay. These voluntary communities seek to live out the life of the Sermon on the Mount, and the book of Acts. Arnold wrote the following about the mission of these communities and their publishing efforts:

The mission of our publishing house is to proclaim living renewal, to summon people to deeds in the spirit of Jesus, to spread the “mind of Christ” (1 Cor. 2:16) in the social distress of the present day, to apply Christianity publicly, and to testify to God’s action in current events. We must get down to the deepest roots of Christianity and demonstrate that they are crucial to solving the urgent problems in contemporary culture. With breadth of vision and energetic daring, our publishing house must steer its course right into the torrent of contemporary thought. Its work in fields that are apparently religiously neutral will lead to new relationships and open new doors. (1920)

Only where the plough of God has tilled our lives can sowing bear fruit. An enduring deepening of the interior life can be brought about only through the ploughing of repentance. Therefore our main task is to work for that spiritual revolution and re-evaluation which leads to metanoia – the fundamental transformation of mind and heart…

This task can only be fulfilled in one way: in allowing the gospel to work in creation, producing literary and artistic work in which the witness of the gospel retains the highest place while at the same time representing all that is true, worthy, pure, beautiful and noble (Phil.4:8). This means breaking the cloistered isolation of Christian publishing, in which only explicitly Christian books are promoted exclusively to Christian circles. (1917)

I have reviewed several books from Plough Publishing, including works on Gerard Manley Hopkins, Archbishop Romero, Dorothy Day, a wonderful collection of the writings of Philip Britts, a Bruderhof leader in Paraguay, and a graphic novel of the life of Martin Luther. I’ve been struck with how these fulfill the standards of literary and artistic excellence while focusing on a clear gospel witness.

Plough Quarterly reflects these same qualities. What first catches my eye is the aesthetic appeal of the magazine, from eye catching covers, to original artwork and reproductions. The current issue includes an excerpt of a new graphic novel on the life of Nelson Mandela. There is artwork from Kandinsky, Raphael, Van Gogh, Winslow Homer, and Caravaggio.

Each issue focuses around a theme and brings together quality writing not only of those in Bruderhof circles but other thinkers and writers. The current issue, focused on “the art of community” includes contributions from the likes of Roger Scruton, Jacques Maritain, Dorothy Day, Annie Dillard, Dorothy L. Sayers, and James Baldwin, among others. There is a fine essay from Quaker writer Sarah Ruden on sound and silence, shaped by her Quaker tradition, and one by Scott Beauchamp on the use of the arts in the healing of the traumas of war among military veterans. The issue features a “manifesto” by the founder of the Bruderhof, Eberhard Arnold on “Why We Live in Community.”

I appreciate the focus on the gospel in all of life, from farming to art, from non-violence to the building of a summer tree house described in this issue. While the Quarterly certainly is a winsome portrayal of Bruderhof community, I think its most significant function is to nourish all those who aspire to a deeper engagement in following Christ, in the world, in the company of others.

A subscription to Plough Quarterly is currently $18 for U.S. residents, and includes both print editions and digital access to back issues. You may subscribe at their website. If you are not sure, you can access the current issue online. In its commitment to “all that is true, worthy, pure, beautiful and noble” it is a publication consistent with all that this blog stands for and I would highly commend it!

Review: Water at the Roots

Water at the Roots

Water at the Roots, Philip Britts (edited by Jennifer Harries, foreword by David Kline). Walden, NY: Plough Publishing, 2018.

Summary: The collected poems and essays of Philip Britts, a farmer and pastoral leader of a Bruderhof community in Paraguay, where he died in 1949 at the age of 31.

Philip Britts lived a short and obscure life, dying in Paraguay in 1949 of a deadly tropical fungal disease. He was born in Devon, England in 1917. The first poem in this collection was written in 1934, and expresses both his search for and awareness of God and a theme that would run through all his poetry of observing carefully the book of creation, and discerning in this the character and presence of the creator. He graduated from the University of Bristol with a degree in horticulture in 1939 and married Joan that June. In 1936, he had joined the Peace Pledge Union, and as England rushed toward war, Britts more deeply embraced pacifist convictions. Eventually, he learned of a Christian pacifist agricultural community in the Cotswolds known as the Bruderhof.

He gave himself to the work, told stories to the children, and his poetry began to reflect his life in the agricultural community. A sung version of one of these. “The Song of the Hedgers and the Diggers” may be heard on the trailer for this book. Eventually, the community either needed to give up its German members or emigrate. When the opportunity came to go to Paraguay, they took it, establishing a community they called Primavera. Quickly he became one of the most astute agriculturalists in the area, and was called upon increasingly in consultations. During one trip to Brasil, he apparently contracted a deadly tropical fungus, that first manifested a couple years later with painful mouth sores, and would eventually claim his life. In his last year, he became a pastor to the community and even as his energies waned, he reflected and wrote and taught on everything from care of the land, to the fundamental choice he believed faced every human between the spirit of the beast and the Spirit of Love. He wrote:

“This spirit alone can bring that peace which is in absolute opposition to war and death and destruction. Peace which is born of love and filled with love is the only true peace. It is not just a cessation of war, a shaking of the ripe fruit while the tree goes on growing to bear again in due season. Peace can only arise when the tree is cut down and rooted out. In this mighty work, love uses weapons which are in absolute opposition to the weapons of the beast. Instead of the Good Man, the poor in spirit; instead of the confidence in the progress of man, the sorrowful recognition of the helpfulness of man; instead of self-satisfaction, the hungering and thirsting for righteousness; instead of judgement, mercy; instead of the doctrine of many paths, singleness and pureness of heart; instead of coercion, reconciliation; instead of success, persecution for righteousness sake.”

So much of his work is characterized by a seamless connection between the practice of farming and the practice of faith. The title of this work comes from one of his last essays where he writes of faith as being like “water at the roots” that sustains us in the heat of life. He draws the connection between our dependence upon the grace of God for faith, even as we depend upon the grace of God for rain.

A poem, “Quicken the Seed” reflects a similar connection between farming and faith:

Quicken the seed
In the dark, damp earth.
Nourish our need,
God of all birth.
Thou art the seed
That we bury now.
Thou art our need,
God of the plough.
Bury the spark
Of our own desire
Deep in the dark,
God of the fire.
After the night
When the fight is won,
Thou art the light,
God of the sun.

EASTER 1948

I am not much of a critic of poetry. My hunch is that most of the poetry here is good but not great. What makes this work great is the seamless integrity between poetry, essays and the life of the man. He has been called a “British Wendell Berry.” In many ways, he embraced a far more difficult life than Berry–a costly affirmation of pacifism in wartime Britain, a communal existence, emigration, and establishing a viable community under primitive conditions, an integrity of living with the land, and suffering that came from his embrace of that land. What comes through is the wonder of living in this creation with all its challenges, a sense of the tragedy of a world at war with itself when the Prince of Peace beckons, and a life permeated by the grace of God. Like Berry, he awakens us to what it is to live in harmony with the land one farms. Like Berry, he recognizes the treasure of life in a place, and in a community. Like Berry, he reminds us of the deep, pervasive presence of the grace of God in all of creation. The God whose grace waters us at the roots, sustaining our lives.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher via LibraryThing in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Called to Community

Called to community

Called to CommunityCharles E. Moore (ed.). Walden, NY: Plough Publishing House, 2016.

Summary: A collection of readings on Christian community centered around the Bruderhof Community but also including theologians and writers from throughout church history.

The Bruderhof communities, beginning with the initial ones formed by Eberhard Arnold, are in the vanguard of a movement among Christians longing for a greater depth of community than ordinarily experienced in congregational life, including intentional communities of Christians sharing accommodations and life together. This book represents a collection of writings published by Plough, the Bruderhof publishing arm, including Arnold and other Bruderhof authors, but also a diverse collection of writers on community including Benedict of Nursia, Eugene Peterson, George MacDonald, C. S. Lewis, Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Jean Vanier of the L’Arche communities. This volume, organized into 52 chapters that may be used by groups over a year, brings together some of the best writing by these and a number of other writers on community.

The book is organized into four parts. The first is “A Call to Community”. Gerhard Lohfink’s statement in the chapter on Embodiment was a stunner:

“For many Christians it would not be a turning point in their lives if they decided, one day, to stop praying tomorrow, to leave off going to church next Sunday….”

This section challenges us to consider the call to something that is central rather than peripheral to our lives.

The next part is on “Forming Community.” It includes Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s telling observations on “Idealism” from his Life Together, and a wonderful contribution from fellow Ohio Art Gish on “Surrender.”

Part Three discusses “Life in Community.” The chapter on “Deeds” includes Mother Teresa talking about not despising small things, and John F. Alexander’s challenge to focus not on using gifts but cleaning toilets. Working through issues of “Irritations”, “Differences”, and “Conflict” the section concludes with essays by Richard Foster and Jean Vanier about “Celebration.”

The last section is titled “Beyond the Community”. One of the most moving essays is that by Emmanuel Katongole and Chris Rice describing how they “interrupted” a series of five minute reports at a World Congress to wash one another’s feet before the assembly. Several chapters in this section talk about boundaries and the real tension between compassion and self-care that allows one to continue to minister and recognizes personal limits. The collection ends with Dorothy Day’s incisive comments on “Mercy.”

The book includes a study guide with questions and scripture readings for each chapter as well as sources for further study. It seems the perfect resource for a group who wants to go deeper in community, whether they have formed a more intentional community or not.

One of the things that commends this collection is its catholicity, and the stature of those whose writings are included. To listen to those who have lived community across the centuries is to drink at a deep well of wisdom. This is not just the latest “new monastics” thinking or the latest offerings from the Emergent Church. The call to community is challenging, and yet the recognition of the real challenges of community both tempers naive enthusiasm and offers wise counsel to those who pursue intentional communities out of faithfulness to Christ.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher via LibraryThing’s Early Reviewer program. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.