You could easily spend an entire workweek, forty hours plus, doing nothing but reading recent pieces about the increasing polarization of “American society,” the growing difficulty of any communication between rival factions (generally but not always with the onus on “the Right”), and so on, ad nauseam. These endless reports—most of them indistinguishable from one another—are not entirely the product of fantasy or ideological blindness; they often do describe, albeit in a highly exaggerated fashion, some aspects of our current moment. But even setting aside their mind-numbing repetitiveness and self-importance, as well as their air of imparting to us at last the Truth About Our Time, they leave out so much that contradicts the script they are following. Above all, they leave out the blessedly routine experience of learning from and appreciating people whose angle of vision on our common world is in some respects quite different from our own.
A case in point, for me, is environmentalist Bill McKibben’s splendidly titled new book, The Flag, the Cross, and the Station Wagon: A Graying American Looks Back at His Suburban Boyhood and Wonders What the Hell Happened. As a child, McKibben was taught to value the patriotism, faith, and culture of the American suburbs. He believed America was heading toward greater equality and progress. But today, he is dismayed by what he sees: failure to reckon honestly with racism past and present; the rise of right-wing demagoguery; climate-change denialism; and more. He wonders whether the flag, cross, and station wagon of his youth were really so good for America.
I’ve been reading McKibben with profit for more than 30 years; I had the pleasure of working with him when he wrote occasional reviews for Books & Culture. I had mentioned to him, sometime along the way, that my maternal grandparents had been missionaries in China (where my mother lived until she was 11 years old). He said he also had a grandfather who served as a missionary in China. Only later did it occur to me how McKibben himself has been a missionary for climate change and environmental issues—not of the kind so often depicted in novels and movies as grotesquely arrogant or hypocritical or simply clownish, but rather one resembling the best of the real-life missionaries I’ve known over a lifetime: unpretentious yet relentless, with a strong sense of humor, a fierce work ethic, and an unapologetic commitment to spreading the word.
You might just stop here, acquire and read a copy of McKibben’s new book, and then (if you are so inclined) check back. I think you will find it worth engaging, even if (as I did) you often put down the book in momentary exasperation and walk around a bit to work off the aggro. Very early on, for instance, you’ll encounter a reference to Joe Biden and the hope represented by his presidency, a hope seemingly disconnected from the real Joe Biden, whose mild dementia is worsening before our very eyes under the relentless pressure of his office (not to mention his handlers). Earlier still—on the second page—there’s this, apropos the suburban America that is the focus of McKibben’s book:
As Ta-Nehisi Coates once wrote, his fears as a young Black man were somehow “connected to the Dream out there, to the unworried boys, to pie and pot roast, to the white fences and green lawns nightly beamed into our television sets.”
If you are unable simply to roll your eyes at this and read on, so be it. You’ll lose an opportunity to see the last fifty years from the perspective of a witness worth attending to, a man raised in what he calls “mainstream Christianity” and still anchored in his faith, despite his deep disappointment, incredulity, and anger over “what happened in American Christianity in my lifetime.”
I was born in 1948; McKibben was born in 1960. All three of the main parts of his book (adumbrated in the title) compelled my attention, but I was particularly interested in the section titled “The Cross.” He was raised in mainline churches; I grew up attending (mostly) Baptist churches that would in retrospect be called “evangelical.” Needless to say, there were sharp differences between his church experience and mine, just as there were in other respects. He was raised in an intact family, financially sound; my parents were divorced when I was five, and my younger brother and I were raised by our mother and grandmother.
His experience of “the suburbs” differed a good deal from mine as well, and I didn’t share the overall sense of security he describes, attributing it to (“suburban”) America of this period more generally (a comforting illusion, he explains, based on exploiting people and places in the world less fortunate and less powerful than we were); hence I haven’t felt such a piercing sense of “What the Hell Happened.” But it’s precisely these differences in experience and perception that make his book so valuable to me, as testimony to chew on and ponder. We do inhabit the same world, after all, and to see it for a while through Bill McKibben’s eyes is good medicine.
John Wilson is a contributing editor for The Englewood Review of Books and senior editor at The Marginalia Review of Books.
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