Published October 24, 2023
Paul Kingsnorth is the author of Real England and Savage Gods, the novels The Wake, Beast, and Alexandria, and the collection of essays Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist. He’s also the founder of the Dark Mountain Project and the Substack The Abbey of Misrule. British born and a recent convert to Orthodox Christianity, he now lives with his family in western Ireland. He was interviewed by Francis X. Maier via email.
WWNN: Let’s start with questions you’ve heard a hundred times, but new audiences always want to know: What led you from atheism, Buddhism, and environmentalism to Christianity? And why did you name your Substack The Abbey of Misrule?
Kingsnorth: It’s a very hard question to answer in a paragraph. Perhaps the best thing to do is to point your readers towards the essay I wrote a few years back in which I tried to lay out the journey. The short version is that I’ve been on something of a spiritual search all of my life. Perhaps this is the same thing as a search for home. I have always had some sense that the world wasn’t right; and especially that the values of our culture, in Western modernity, were upside down. That the things which were genuinely valuable were dismissed, and the ephemeral and stupid were foregrounded. That led me in my young life into politics and activism, trying to change the world; and as a hopefully more mature man into a spiritual search, trying to understand it. Much to my surprise, the endpoint of my search turned out to be Christ. And then it all made sense. But it was a long road.
I was searching for a catchy name for my Substack; one that reflected the strange chaos of the anti-culture we’re currently living in, and I came across a reference to Abbeys of Misrule. They arose in late medieval France, set up by irreverent locals to mock the powers of the day. They were places of chaos, in which the world was turned upside down. Black was white and wrong was right. Perhaps this sounds familiar. I thought that maybe my Abbey could aspire to be the opposite: a place where some form of sanity is sought in an insane world.
One of the most compelling reflections you’ve written to date is “A Wild Christianity.” It’s a curious title. Christianity is joyful, redemptive, demanding, consoling—but wild? How so? And why would that quality be important?
It depends on what you mean by “wild,” I suppose. If you take that word to mean “uncontrolled,” for example—undisciplined, chaotic, even dangerous—then I agree that it’s the wrong word to use to describe the Christian way, which may well be dangerous, but it’s very disciplined. Asceticism has always been at its heart. But I take wild to mean original, true, uncorrupted by society—and also, in touch with creation, and the world that lies outside the pale of human civilization. In that sense, I think that Christianity has always been wild. John the Baptist came from the desert, where he’d been eating locusts and wild honey, and Christ Himself retreated regularly to the deserts and mountains for solace and communion. Throughout the history of Christianity, beginning perhaps with the Desert Fathers, huge numbers of people have retreated from civilization into the wilds to seek God and battle the Devil. In my country, Ireland, the remnants of this early Christian tradition can be found in caves and woods all over the land. This speaks to my own interests, so that strand of Christianity has drawn me in. And I happen to think it is a strand that can help us now to renew the faith when the center is rotten and/or exhausted. Change always comes from the margins.
Eastern Orthodoxy has many beautiful strengths, but “wildness” isn’t typically at the top of everyone’s list in describing it. Why did you choose that particular gate to enter the Christian life? For Westerners like yourself, it’s not the usual path.
In fact I think that this desert tradition, or wild tradition, is stronger in the East than in the West, by quite some way. Mount Athos in Greece, the monastic republic which is at the heart of Orthodox spirituality to this day, still harbors countless monks living in caves and on the wilds of the mountain. Eastern Christianity has preserved the hermitic tradition, and the mystical tradition, of the faith as the West has retreated into legalism and fiddly theological argument. The sense that the wildness of the Holy Spirit still lives in the Eastern Church is what drew me there. I have never experienced anything as powerful as a divine liturgy, whereas a Church of England sermon or a novus ordo Mass always felt to me like a lecture with a few songs attached. Something has been lost in the Western Church, and we need to get it back.
That leads to one of the key recent themes of your work: The nature of the modern West. What’s wrong with it? After all, the West has produced a vast number of marvels and materially good things. So why and how have things gone off the rails?
Perhaps you say it yourself: “the West has produced a vast number of marvels and materially good things.” What does Christ tell us about “materially good things”? That they are a distraction from God. That we should cast them all aside. “Woe unto ye who are rich” is His clear answer to that. My view—and this is that sense I’ve had all my life, long before I could give it words—is that our culture has turned away from God as it has turned away from its obligation to live well with nature and to construct living communities, and dived entirely into the material realm. What is the purpose of the modern West? What do our leaders say our values are? “Growth.” “Progress.” What do those words mean? Money and stuff. Every monk on Mount Athos—every early Christian, come to that—will tell you exactly what to do with those things. We’re killing the world through our greed and self-love. We’ve become the Rome that Christ spoke against.
Your concerns about the trends of contemporary life began well before your religious conversion. Why did you help found the Dark Mountain Project, what’s its purpose, and where does that effort fit into your story?
I started that Dark Mountain Project back in 2009 as part of this long search for truth, I suppose. Back then I was coming out of my time as an activist, and coming to terms with the fact that “activism” wasn’t working. We weren’t going to save the world or stop the climate changing, and our civilization seemed to be heading for the buffers. I thought that artists in particular and writers ought to be producing art and writing that reflected this, instead of pretending that either it wasn’t happening or that it was fixable. It was, in that sense, a product of its time. These days all of our art and writing seems to be about climate change or politics, and all of it, with few exceptions, is from a predictable progressive perspective. But it still mostly suffers from that world-changing delusion we were kicking against. To my mind it is still a form of denial. There are very few novelists around who are prepared to look coolly and honestly at our situation. I’m hoping for a new generation that will get real.
On the epigraph page of one of your books [“Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist”] you quote Wendell Berry saying, “You can best serve civilization by being against what usually passes for it.” That seems counter-intuitive, if not downright reactionary. Isn’t civilization a good thing? Why start a collection of essays with a challenge like that?
Berry is critiquing what “passes for” civilization. Our modern anti-culture is in one sense civilized—it’s a city-based industrial civilization—but in another sense it’s barbaric. This civilization has managed to shift the climate of an entire planet, fill the seas with micro-plastics, create a vast gap between the rich and the poor and instrumentalize modern slavery all over the third world as it angsts about slavery that happened three hundred years ago at home. Our “civilization” is a thin veneer. Is civilization as a whole a good thing? I’m not sure. What did Christ have to say about it? The son of man had nowhere to lay His head and told His followers to give everything away to the poor. The early Christians owned no property. How are we modern Christians doing, following these teachings?
The first essay and one of the best in that same book is “A Crisis of Bigness.” Is big always bad? Christianity makes big—actually, universal—claims. Brazil is big; China is big; the EU is big. So is the USA. I gather you’re not a globalist; but if so, why?
Well, the essay explains why, and I suppose I’ve touched upon it above. “Big is Best” is very much the central story of modernity and progress. By contrast, I think culture is best when it’s small and local. I’ve watched the monster of globalized consumer capitalism razing local cultures all over the world. I’ve written two books about it. I disagree that Christianity makes big claims in that sense. Universal claims, yes, but what’s the central teaching? For humility and against pride. The EU and the USA have both created plenty of problems with their own bigness. I’m against it. Small is beautiful, and far more human.
In April 2021 you started writing “The Tale of the Machine,” a two-year, multipart series of essays on the character of today’s emerging society and its implications for the human future. You began it with an essay, “The Great Unsettling,” anchored in the life of Simone Weil. Why Weil? She died young, exactly 80 years ago. What did she see that so many others didn’t, and still can’t?
I read Weil’s book The Need for Roots and was very taken by it. She was something of a modern mystic, as well as being a stubborn outsider. She lived her principles, and despite rejecting the Church she behaved more like a Christian than many of us do who are in it. I thought that what she had to say about the need for roots, and our modern unsettling, was precisely correct. That is the story of the Machine: this technological world we’ve built. It unsettles everything, including our souls. We chase wealth and power and forget God. His wisdom is foolishness to the world and vice versa. I think Weil, who chose to live a poor and simple life, saw that through her actions.
If you were to sum up the message of “The Tale of the Machine” in a few sentences, what would it be? And in light of what you learned, what gives you hope—and what will you do with it, where is it leading you, now?
We’ve built a giant technological superstructure based on the pursuit of wealth and power, and it’s ruining us. I’d say this is a very old story. The Bible traces it right from the beginning. We choose knowledge and power over communion with God, and we pay the price. The Machine we’ve built now is the modern equivalent of the tower of Babel. The next stage of its advance will be to try and replace God by building our own technological version. We have to see that for what it is, and reject it.
A final question. You published “The Wake: A Novel” in 2015, years before your conversion. It’s a terrific piece of fiction, but not exactly friendly toward Christianity through the eyes of its main character, Buckmaster. Looking back on it today, what made you write it, and how—if at all—does it fit into your thinking today?
I think God must have a sense of humor. The Wake is narrated by one of the last pagans of Anglo-Saxon England, a man at war with both the invading Normans and what he sees as a colonizing Church. Interestingly, when I began the novel this wasn’t what I had planned for it. The religious element seemed to emerge unbidden. Looking back on it now, I note that Buckmaster is destroyed by his allegiance to the old gods.
Perhaps I was being told something, and it took me a while to hear it.
Francis X. Maier is a Senior Fellow in the Catholic Studies Program at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. Mr. Maier’s work focuses on the intersection of Christian faith, culture, and public life, with special attention to lay formation and action.