I have been reading and re-reading an article by Alana Newhouse in “Tablet”: https://www.tabletmag.com/sections/news/articles/everything-is-broken. Her words are haunting.

The more I ponder what she has written, the more it seems to me she is saying something important, that I need to heed. But, at the same time, what she has written causes me to feel a tiny bit nervous.

Newhouse is navigating tricky waters. I sense a controversial undercurrent that I feel ill-equipped to traverse without risk of running up against dangerous submerged rocks which I don’t even see coming. Newhouse is operating at a level of intellectual sophistication and subtly that lies beyond my limited abilities. She grasps nuances and implications that I fail to catch.

I understand that, by trying to engage with Newhouse’s writing, I am launching onto waters that are treacherous. I am certain to get struck by a wave I cannot see coming or a storm I am unable to predict.

So, feel free to rage away against Newhouse’s ideas, or my response. But be aware, my intentions are noble. I am not trying to lob a hand grenade into anyone’s little life boat. I am trying to understand what Newhouse is saying and to be sensitive to the challenge I perceive in her argument. I hope to uncover the wisdom for navigating my own little broken world that it feels to me is lurking in the shadow of her words.

Her basic premise is simple:

Everything is broken.”

A decade ago my theme song was Bob Dylan’s growling anthem “Everything is broken”:

Broken hands on broken ploughs,
Broken treaties, broken vows,
Broken pipes, broken tools,
People bending broken rules
Hound dog howling, bull frog croaking,
Everything is broken

(https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U60dR6LwpJs)

You do not have to look far to see evidence that things do not work all that well. Even before COVID drove a massive truck through the institutional structures of our society, it was clear that most human organizational constructs were limping badly. In the Christian Church, the institution with which I am most familiar, our brokenness is tragically and abundantly obvious at almost every turn.

So I am sympathetic to Newhouse’s argument that everything is broken. And I love the general outline of her prescription. Confronted by pervasive brokenness, she wants us to resist the temptation to rush to fix it, or to launch a campaign to build a better widget to solve the problem. She does not want us to try to tidy up all the mess. Instead she wants us just to “sit with” the mess. She suggests we “seek out friction and thorniness, hunt for complexity and delight in unpredictability.”

What this might look like in practical terms Newhouse leaves to the end of her essay – I will return to this. But, in principle, I am sympathetic with the direction she is pointing.

I know we do less harm when we accept “friction and thorniness.” And, if ever an institution should be comfortable with “complexity” and “unpredictability”, surely it should be institutions that are committed to the vast, confounding mystery we call “God.” And, as a Christian “unpredictability” is my stock in trade. My faith is based upon the person of Jesus who majored in the unpredictable. He was forever upsetting the expectations of the people of his day. I seek to submit to the unpredictable wind of the Spirit which “blows where it chooses” (John 3:8).

So, I am happy, in broad terms with the Newhouse prescription for dealing with the reality of brokenness.

It is between description and prescription that I get a little bit nervous. Newhouse answers the question, “Why is everything broken?” with a simple, but complex response,

Flatness broke everything” (emphasis added).

With some trepidation, I will venture into this tricky territory tomorrow.