Wayfaring: Essays Pleasant and Unpleasant
by Alan Jacobs
Eerdmans, 154 Pages, $18
Wayfaring, Jacobs’ new collection of essays, puts on display both his wide reading and the Christian worldview that animates his intellectual life. The best way to taste Wayfaring’s varied collection of seventeen essays is simply to dive into them—not necessarily in order.
One of the book’s many essays that first appeared in our pages, “A Religion for Atheists,” takes up an atheist philosopher’s proposal to revive something like the French Revolution’s temples to reason: secular cathedrals that instill a feeling of smallness and inculcate virtue. With a few Socratic questions Jacobs shows that this proposal misses the point of “secular” religion. There’s an essay on the livelihood of poets, one on personal journals and the hazards of weblogs, and others on such topics as friendship, Harry Potter, and the theologically suspect messages found on church billboards. A true student of Tolkien, Jacobs gives an account of the mesmerizing and anthropomorphic qualities of trees and their “dialogue with the wind,” a notion that first occurred to him during childhood.
In another essay he ponders The Green Bible, a rendering of the Bible driven by eco-myopia that, as Jacobs observes, seeks out God not because he’s God but because he’s green. In one essay (destined to be a classic) Jacobs pens a smile-inducing set of satirical verses, “On the Recent Publication of Kahlil Gibran’s Collected Works.” With quintessential Jacobs humor he solemnly intones:
O Book, O Collected Works of Kahlil Gibran,
Published by Everyman’s Library on a dark day,
I lift you from the Earth to which I recently flung you
When my wrath grew too mighty for me,
I lift you from the Earth,
Noticing once more your annoying heft,
And thanking God—though such thanks are sinful—
That Kahlil Gibran died in New York in 1931
At the age of forty-eight,
So that he could write no more words,
So that this Book would not be yet larger than it is.
Amidst all the variety, a reader senses an underlying unity. A not entirely self-conscious Jacobs gives a hint in Wayfaring’s first essay, “Sentences.” The intellectual life, he lets on, sends its roots into even the most quotidian of tasks. Jacobs sees the task of writing as an everyday enterprise—“verbal carpentry.” With well-crafted prose he serves his readers well, mending and repairing the broken world of meaning and language he finds during his days.