The Theological Legacy of Art Gish (old books need love too!)

November 4th, 2010 – by Brian Gumm, Issues, November 2010

On that day this past July when Art Gish was tragically killed on his farm in Ohio, I was on another farm a few states away in Iowa, reclining on a porch swing at my in-law’s, reading his 1972 book, Beyond the Rat Race (Herald Press; sub. page numbers are from this ed.).  It was my first substantive engagement with Gish’s writing, and that it was being done on the day he died was both humbling and sad.

The lives of Art and his wife, Peggy, are a contextual recapitulation of traditional Brethren nonconformity, and Beyond the Rat Race offers us practical and striking insights into living out our faith in Christ amidst a coercive and fallen world. For being published nearly 40 years ago in the late days of the Vietnam war and following in the wake of hippie culture and broader social upheaval, the book remains startlingly relevant. Indeed, the corrupting cultural currents that Gish identifies and critiques have in some ways become more deeply entrenched in American life and are therefore harder to discern and resist in rigorously Christian ways.

Especially eerie this side of the Internet is Gish’s passing remark about then-contemporary media theorist, Marshall McLuhan, who Gish saw as “(advocating) deeper devotion to electronic fragmentation for those disorganized by society,” then adding, “But we will not find reality by turning ourselves into an electronic package” (p. 117). What is Facebook and other social media on the Internet but a contemporary venture into just that? To say nothing about the foundational role of advertising on these networks!

If there is a place today for the social-theological critique of Art Gish, this is it. The degree to which we uncritically engage in digital “global villages” opens us to a depth of acculturation that would, pardon the anachronistic analogy, make early Anabaptists keel over on the spot. At some level, we as a society seem to be aware that we need each other (that’s a good thing), and the current raft of online social media have facilitated a virtual form of this better than any preceding technological innovation. But to what end are these media pulling our desires for connection?

Beyond the Rat Race exhibits characteristics that may be described as “Brethren” or “Anabaptist+Pietist.” These approaches display a clear practical and ethical concern, and are expressions of an incarnational faith in Jesus Christ. The book ranges from fine-grain practical advice for simple, nonviolent living (and a defense against common criticisms, a la Yoder’s What Would You Do?) to a critique against the technological society. Finally, he closes the book with a theological treatise that makes clear the foundation for all that came before. While theology is scattered throughout the book, his final chapter is the most explicitly doctrinal in its defense of simple living, a traditionally Brethren concern. Ω

(This post appeared in an earlier, extended format as “A pastiche tribute to Art Gish” on the author’s Restorative Theology blog.)

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