Imaginative conservatives flee from the mass mind, so you should expect their Christmas gifts to come from parts unknown. They haven’t run just to be different—heaven forbid. Being obsessed with being unprecedented is itself a symptom of the mass mind. Instead imaginative conservatives are always on the lookout for things that are true, good, and truly beautiful. In my peregrinations I’ve come across a few things I can gladly recommend.
Keeping it short has been a challenge. But the precedent established by my fellow imaginative conservatives, Alan Cornett and Lee Cheek limits me to four or five recommendations. I’ve cheated, I have six.
If you have ever snapped off the radio in disgust and said to yourself, “Now, why can’t we have something like National Public Radio for people who love truth, goodness, and beauty?” The good news is we do. It is called The Mars Hill Audio Journal.
The Mars Hill Audio Journal is the brainchild of Ken Myers. It has the feel of National Public Radio because Ken is a former arts editor for NPR. When it first came out in the early 1990s you could only get it on cassette tape, by the turn of the century it was on CD, today it is available over the internet. (Issue 119 just came out.)
It is published 6 times a year and each issue contains 7 to 8 interviews on subjects ranging from technology to the arts. I suppose you could listen to one a week and in that way it could work almost like a weekly radio show. I usually gobble mine up in one or two sittings then listen again and again between issues. Ken was my friend before I became his—we met about three years ago. It is hard not to consider him a friend after hearing him.
Oh, and did I mention several contributors to The Imaginative Conservative have been on the Journal? Here’s a partial list: Peter Augustine Lawler, Patrick Deneen, Allan Carlson, Joseph Pearce, Gregory Wolfe, and yes—Brad Birzer.
Local Food—Maple Syrup
Alan suggested Alabama biscuits. I’m a biscuit guy, so that sounded great. I live in New England though, so I had a tough time deciding what to suggest here. Food is always a fine gift, but Maine lobster just won’t keep, and cranberries don’t have universal appeal. Maple syrup on the other hand makes a great gift. My guess is you’ve never had the real deal. I have a few friends who tap their own, and up here everyone knows the maple flavored goop you get in the grocery store should be outlawed.
Imaginative conservatives ought to appreciate the work that goes into making maple syrup—tapping the trees, waiting for the buckets to fill, boiling the sap down to an intense, flavorful treat. The real stuff is expensive, and not to be wasted on kids—they won’t like it anyway—not thick enough. True maple syrup soaks into the waffles and turns them into maple sugar treats. Man, I gotta make some pancakes.
Local clothing—Johnson Woolen Mills
Imaginative conservatives believe in small, closely held, family businesses deeply rooted in a local culture. If you’re looking for something from old New England to wear you won’t find a better place to shop than Johnson Woolen Mills. The wool is from Vermont, the mill is in Vermont, and the business has been there since 1842. You like checkered hats? They got em’. Checkered coats? Those too. They make workwear for farmers and outdoorsmen. Forget what you’ve heard about New England liberals—swamp Yankees are as conservative as they come. This is the stuff they’ve worn for over a century. And this ain’t L.L. Bean neither—nothing you find there will be worn on the Weather Channel. This is the stuff the true Yankees wear—stuff they fish and hunt in. (Yes, we still hunt up here. In fact, most American gun makers are still headquartered up here.)
Woodworking—an antique sliding T bevel
I’ve worked on many old New England houses. The PBS program This Old House started in Boston. When you tear into those old structures you cannot but help being impressed by the old craftsmen and what they accomplished with nothing but hand tools.
If you know someone who likes to work with wood, and you want to pay tribute to the craftsmen of days gone by, nothing would do that better than an antique slide T-bevel. The slide T-bevel is a tool that distinguishes the weekend warrior from the craftsman. It is used to find angles, and to create perfect cuts. You can pick up a serviceable plastic job at the big box store for ten bucks. But you can also find beautifully crafted ones made of brass and hardwood at antique shops or even on ebay. Give one to a true woodworker and you will make quite an impression.
Art—something folksy, Shaker perhaps?
The Shakers did establish villages in places like Indiana and Kentucky, but they were mostly at home here in the Northeast, particularly here in New England. I’ve written on the Shakers and my feelings about them are mixed. But when it comes to their craftsmanship, what can you say? Shaker oval boxes are both beautiful and useful. The Pittsfield Village located in the Berkshires is beautiful and you can order something from their gift shop.
America’s theologian, Jonathan Edwards
You really cannot understand American religion without some appreciation for Jonathan Edwards. I live right down the road from where he ministered, and I belong to the same theological tradition. I’ve even founded an institute named for him. But it is more than partisanship that leads me to commend him to you. Believe it or not, even in these days of secular obscurantism, he is a favored son of Connecticut. Yale has published his collected works, and scholars from throughout the world come here to study him. (Just a this summer I spoke with two scholars from Korea about him.) Many consider him to be the greatest mind our nation has produced.
Edwards’ life is a marvelous picture of an intellectual living among the rustics. And who can forget “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God”? Then there was that little thing called The Great Awakening. But if you want to know why Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic scholars read Edwards with as much appreciation as Reformed or Pentecostal scholars, you need to pick up a copy of a 700 page doorstop entitled, The Theology of Jonathan Edwards. It just may be that everything that is right in American religion and everything that is wrong can be traced back to the same man. And if the authors of The Theology of Jonathan Edwards are correct, we’ve still missed what’s best about him. (Here’s a hint—Edwards has more in common with Hans Urs von Balthasar than he does with Billy Graham.)
Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.