I love the written word and I spend a majority of my leisure time (and also time on my phone while at work if I can sneak it) reading. I am constantly in search of the “best of the best.” Sometimes the consensus opinion about Must Reads are quite spot on (Mr. Coates, for example.) but there are many writers that go fairly unmentioned, especially to the general reader.
On my blog, I wanted to highlight some of the more under – though not entirely – the radar writers; concurrently I want to highlight writers that do not share some parts of my worldview but who write splendidly, honestly, and with an impact. Elizabeth Bruenig who can be read all over in such publications like, The Baffler, the Boston Review, The Hedgehog Review, the New Republic, and the Nation, is an exceptional thinker/writer, in my opinion, that fits both of these categories.
Elizabath Bruenig is a self-proclaimed Christian leftist who, upon reading her work, gives me a feeling of satisfaction. I invariably think “now that was worth reading.” More importantly: she challenges me, as a anti-theist and huge admirer of Christopher Hitchens who has written vitriolically about religion, to be more open to Christian writers. Bruenig is an answer; an antidote to the notion that people of faith can’t bring anything new or relevant to the table. Far from metaphysical thought-pieces (though she can craft those as well), Bruenig cares about material justice as much as….well…materialist thinkers. Take this quote from one of her New Republic pieces titled “Welfare Is The Best Weapon Against Nepotism“:
Universal healthcare, child benefits, heavily subsidized or free college education, and basic incomes are all sturdy and sensible programs that can ensure that all citizens, regardless of their parentage, will have a fair shot at enjoying their lives and their potential. We would all likely care a lot less about the special avenues to wealth available strictly to the parentally privileged if missing out on those juicy jobs didn’t mean losing health insurance, slipping into poverty, and finding oneself unable to afford a family of one’s own.
Nothing revolutionary here but definitely – if you are aware of some of the most prominent religious voices right now – a welcome opinion that if more Christians wrote, thought, and focused on, sure would help stem the ubiquitous view among non-religious folks that religious writers have their head in the sky. Bruenig has her feet on the ground. She does, however, also write – with no apologies – from a Christian perspective and she challenges all of us – Christians and non-Christians – alike: Should we forgive apartheid-supporter and Charleston, South Carolina mass killing terrorist (my opinion here) Dylann Roof? This kind of question is one that most people don’t want to think about regardless of politics, religion, class, or color. Her ultimate conclusion: Yes, of course we should, but… It’s the BUT here that is important…forgiveness is a radical move; it gives agency to those who are victims. In this case victims of deplorable horrible racist violence and it projects: you will not bring me down to your level; you won’t terrorize us. As a Christian, Bruenig argues that “the Christian compulsion to forgive is absolute.” However, she couches that easier-said-than-done bromide with an argument that is, once again, about making people’s lives better NOW and not in the afterlife.
In another piece, she writes that “to encounter the divine is not necessarily as deleterious to engagement with material reality as some critics, self-assured in a mildly derisive atheism, suggest.” I am someone interested in psychedelic experiences and mindfulness so I would be lying if I wasn’t interested in exploring the breadth and depth and variety of mental states; I like to play with consciousness so even though I don’t value or use the term “divine” I still find myself more interested in transcending the ego than many people. Sentences similar to that pervade her pieces as if they are a challenge to her readers: Christians can and do care about material life. She fits nowhere as a pro-life liberal (again, her self-descriptor there) but fits right at home on Salon.com when she rallies against the many hypocrisies of the right and of her fellow faithizens. In one of her best pieces, published for the Boston Review, she poses a quite remarkable challenge to affirmative consent laws; yet she does this in a way that is measured and couched in all sorts of grey. She is not pompous or over-confident in her perspective. But she has a perspective and is proud of it. I like this in writers and thinkers. This piece alone exhibits why she can pen pieces for Jacobin but also The American Conservative. If you are interested in intellectual and cognitive diversity, read her stuff.
Elizabeth Bruenig was generous and answered a couple of questions for me:
Me: So, I kind of see you as a Christian socialist; if you were to describe yourself in two words what two words would you choose?
Bruenig: I tend to say ‘Christian leftist’ because I’m going for a big tent kind of policy-oriented Christian leftism — so, not strictly worker-owned means of production, but also democratic socialism, etc.
Me: I am an atheist but am drawn to your writing. Why should atheists read your work?
Bruenig: I would hope atheists, agnostics, and other non-religious people might find my writing valuable for a couple of reasons. First because I think it’s helpful in plural democracies to have a solid understanding of the different motivations and beliefs of members in coalitions. I think it can help maximize cooperation and limit periods of friction when contentious issues arise. And secondly, I think having a good sense of what the orthodox, time-tested Christian arguments for left politics are helps protect against the oft-popularized idea that Christianity inherently bends toward free market capitalism. The people who make that claim are usually pretty well versed in the Bible, whether they represent it honestly or not, and can be easy to believe if you’re not aware of the counter-arguments.
Me: Can you tell me one writer that you read who you disagree with in a big way that you still find valuable?
Bruenig: As for a writer I disagree with but still read quite a lot, there are a couple. I read a lot of right-wing Catholics basically to make sure my frame of reference politically isn’t preventing me from understanding how certain events are interpreted by people with different frames. So I read Ross Douthat, and I read Michael Brendan Dougherty. Our differences politically are pretty pronounced, but I rarely find their conclusions inexplicable — and I think it’s good to have a solid, mature idea of how the other side views things.
These answers alone prove the value in reading Elizabeth Bruenig.